HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS ? in conversation with award winning journalist Janis Blower

A journalist for 44 years Janis’ first and only job was at The Shields Gazette… I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to do but the only subject I was any good at in school was English and History, so it was always going to have to be something to do with writing of some sort. My brother in law John had been a reporter at the Gazette and my sister Pam worked on the front counter reception, that’s how they met. When I left school I wrote to the editor at the Shields Gazette, Jim Sinton, asking for a job, nowadays you would need a Media degree from University but I just sent the letter in.

I fell very lucky and got taken on as trainee reporter and signed my indentures for three years. I literally learnt on the job then periodically being sent to college learning the law and shorthand, then at the end of the three years got my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency certificate.

What was the job of a journalist then ? I spent a lot of time covering court cases, council meetings, area health meetings that sort of thing. Then if you were covering a story where somebody had done something or something awful had happened to them you would go out with a photographer, interview them, take some photographs, get back to the office and write your story up. Sometimes you would get the story over a telephone interview but I liked going out and seeing people because it was the only way of getting the feel of the story plus you picked up other things as well.

In interviews I’ve found most people are open to talking not only about good times but also bad, did you find that ? The dreaded part of the job is what is called these days, the death knock, and a lot of times you ended up getting the bums rush. It was having to go and see somebody where someone had died possibly in tragic circumstances. You would start by saying I understand if you don’t want to talk to me but…..  You always had to brace yourself for being told to f off which did happen sometimes and I totally respect that. A lot of time people would speak to you because they wanted the story to be right, to make sure you understand what the person who had died was like. So yeah it can be a surprise to find how willing people are to talk.

Were there any deadlines that you had to work to ? There was nothing written in stone you just knew to get your story in as soon as possible, it was more instinctive than anything else. You’d been to the event, got your notes down then find a telephone box and hope you’ve got the right money. If you didn’t you’d reverse the charges (laughs).

You are writing it in your head as you are dictating it down the phone line. Hoping to hell you are getting it right. Terrifying at times but brilliant training. We used to go to court in the morning and write the stories up, taking down a note from one case and writing the previous one by hand (laughs).

The messenger would come across from the office pick your story up, take it back and that would get in that nights paper. That’s how current it was. Even covering trials in Newcastle Crown Court you would phone your copy over after an hour or two of the trial for that night’s paper. There was 4 or 5 copy girls who would take dictation. The early edition used to come out around 1pm and that was basically yesterday’s final edition with a bit of updating in it. But the final would come out at 4pm.

Years ago The Shields Gazette on a Monday would have a celebratory page of wedding pictures …Yes there was always certain jobs that you did before the end of the week, one was the Agoes which was snippets of what happened 25 or 50 years ago that went in to the paper and the other was the wedding reports. People would come into the office and pick up a form that had to be filled in with the details of the bride and groom, their parents, what they did for a living, what the bride and bridesmaids would be wearing, anything special about it and name of the church. You wrote the report from that, then the photographer would go take the picture on the Saturday. You would see them married up together on the Monday. There was a kudos of having it in the Gazette. Do people realize now just how valued the Gazette was, you had achieved something if you were in the paper.

Janis wrote a daily column called Cookson Country featuring people and places around the town it’s popularity led to the books ‘Aall Tgithor Like the Folk O’Shields’. How did that come about ? Cookson Country in the paper started in the late 1980’s and it had been such a success with the use of the old photographs. I can’t remember who brought up the idea, it was maybe the editor or management but they said ‘Why don’t we do a book, a spin off from Cookson’. That’s when the paper was still owned by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers who had their own publishing arm, they were doing books and magazines commercially. So it was ‘Yeah I’ll give it a go by all means’.

The first one was very popular, we done that about 1993 or 4 because my son Alexander was only a baby. I look back now and wonder how I accomplished it really, working, having a small child and doing them. There’s five of them in all with the last one in 1999.

Did you find it hard work to put them together or did they fall into place ? No it wasn’t hard work I think for the first one, the blue one, I settled on the things around the town that were most well-known, like the Market, Old Town Hall, Comical Corner, Marsden Grotto and Marine Parks so it was easy to come up with a selection of things to do, and the Gazette did have this wonderful collection of old pictures. For the text the Gazette had this detailed cuttings archive dating back to just before the Second World War. So no it wasn’t a chore to put it together.

Can you remember any stories or photographs that caught your attention, that stood out ?  I think what I was struck by most and this had come out of Cookson in a way was how hard people’s lives had been. I did a bit about guys gathering sea coal, you had all this coal that was washed from out of the ground seams and spilled off ships, and men would go and gather it. I can still remember the tidal edge along the beach down there was black with all the coal washed up on the beach. I wasn’t aware how poor parts of Shields had been, the riverside area especially, that was a learning curve. Also to see how much the place had changed, then how in some instances it had stayed the same. There are still huge parts of Shields that are still recognizable from 100 years ago.

This photograph (above left) is at the top of Mile End Road of the old corporation staithes where all the midnight mechanics would go round and empty the ash closets, then it was all taken to the staithes put in hoppers, taken out to sea and dumped. You could never imagine that there was something on the riverside that looked like that. God knows how old some of these buildings were. That was the biggest revelation, coming to realise that there had been this whole riverside town parts of which probably dated back a very long time, and it’s just gone. It used to be one street with pubs and shop’s along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with it’s little streets, we had that. But because it was so dilapidated and insanitary it was all cleared.

How important do you think local history is ? It’s important, you’ve got to know and understand where we have come from and how the town has been shaped. But I have a profound dislike of the word nostalgia. I hated it when Cookson page was referred to as nostalgia. There is a saying that nostalgia is a seductive liar. Nostalgia now for people can be the 1980s, when I started doing Cookson a lot of the readers memories were going back to war time.

I never tried to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, you look at those old photographs in the books we’ve talked about, families in those houses on the riverside were living in appalling conditions, the sewage, the water supply was poor, walls of the houses full of bugs, people were hungry, they were dirty – there’s no nostalgia for that. It is important that we know about these things so you can see what improvements we have made, how much we’ve come on in that time.

Now that you are retired do you still keep your hand in ? Since I’ve retired I have done some work with school children and they are absolutely fascinated by things you tell them. I’ve taken some on walks along the riverside, to The Customs House and where Brighams dock was and tell them they would have been covered in coal dust sitting near The Customs House, where the old coal staithes where. Then behind you is the top of St Hilda Colliery pit head, can you imagine 150 year ago little children your age working down that pit ?

They are fascinated about it, I tell them to go home and talk to their parents, talk to Granda and Grandma what life was like when they where children. Don’t get seduced by nostalgia for the olden days, cos they were hard…really hard.

Gary Alikivi  Interview January 2020

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS ON TYNESIDE Dan Green investigates Mysterious Tyneside

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.

Sang Bowie in ’72. Over the years there’s been many songs written about UFO’s and aliens. Back in the ‘50s Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman wrote ‘The Flying Saucer’ which landed at no.3 in the American charts. In the ‘60s The Byrds sung of a ‘Mr Spaceman’ and in the ‘80s the Ramones ripped through ‘Zero Zero UFO’ about aliens visiting earth.

Some Native American tribes believe they have gained knowledge through extra-terrestrial contact with their star ancestors. Stories like these add to the mysteries of the world, and we rely on scientists, archaeologists and storytellers to bring them out of the dark.

But when you find a mystery closer to home, it can add more interest. This was the case for former South Shields resident Dan Green. Dan is a British author, broadcaster, researcher and writer, he recently got in touch and told me some interesting stories that he researched when living in the town. One of them reminded me of an experience I had back in Summer 2013.

It was around 6pm I was walking on South Shields beach, above was bright blue sky with a few clouds. Nearby there is a huge grass hill, at the top is a Roman fort. I was wondering what could be placed on the hill – maybe a sculpture, something like a massive roman soldier – my mind just wandering. I was enjoying the sun and listening to the gentle waves.

Out of the corner of my eye and way up high, I saw a small silver disc moving slowly. I thought it might have been a plane because there is a flight path nearby. I watched the disc move slowly for a minute or two, looking around for maybe a reflection off something else in the sky ? There was no noise or trail from it. It was moving very slowly then suddenly it shot off very fast and didn’t leave a trail. 

Books, TV programmes and films have all featured stories about unidentified flying objects, not all of them are operated by the Greys.

In 1988 Dan Green wrote an article for The Shields Gazette chronicling close encounters in the town including incidents now referred to as ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’. He found that in 1967 the UK was besieged with a flurry of strange lights appearing in the skies. The newspaper reported ‘A bus driver said he saw a cigar shaped object surrounded by a bright green glow over the coast near Brighton. Sparks were coming from it’s tail and for a short time it travelled parallel with the bus’.

Not to be outdone was our own South Shields, with the Gazette reporting some boys claimed to have seen a bullet shaped object hovering over Horsley Hill electricity sub-station. One boy glanced up and saw the glowing green outline of an 8ft long cigar shaped object hovering 100 yards away. ‘It must have spotted us, cos it just shot back up into the sky’.

Here is Dan’s article from 1988….

I was an impressionable 10 year old when the Shields Gazette popped through my letterbox with a page reading ‘UFO over Tyne Dock’.

On the night of October 21st 1967 residents living near the river had been invited to the spectacle of three dazzling white triangular lights stationary in the sky. They had been hanging for a full half hour before vanishing.

People craned their necks out of their windows to witness it, and one in particular had called the police. This enterprising fellow was demanding answers and took his enquiry as far as the Ministry of Defence who eventually sent him a reply that ‘Everybody had seen a weather balloon that had blown over from Liverpool!’ This earned him the nickname – Ronnie Rocket.

In the newspaper report Ronnie said ‘They were very bright just like electric lights. They were triangular shaped and too big for stars’.

That week the Gazette ran a number of stories reporting strange sightings in the sky. By 27th October they screamed ‘Flying Objects Reports Come Thick and Fast’ with one headline ‘Flying cross seen by five more police patrols’. Another claimed ‘Down in Devon they are seeing things again’. Even the Minister of Defence Dennis Healey MP was pressed in parliament to make a statement about the activity.

It was reported that some people in the South believe the unidentified flying objects are British secret weapons being tested out, while some experts put the blame on Venus. Back to Dan’s article…..

That October week saw more puzzling sights in the skies of Shields, as early morning workers catching the ferry viewed a host of fiery ‘Flying crosses’, and a sighting of a cigar shaped object was reported by a couple walking their dog in the Bents Park during the day. Residents in Whiteleas saw an object streaking across the sky ‘like a bullet’.

The 1967 UFO flap was never given any plausible explanation, but I’m sure as hell it wasn’t a scousers balloon.

For further information about the work of Dan Green contact www.dangreencodex.co.uk/

Gary Alikivi October 2019.

 

HIDDEN TREASURE on Tyneside with investigator Dan Green

Mysteries of the world are fascinating subjects and we rely on scientists, archaeologists and storytellers to bring them out of the dark. Finding a mystery closer to home can add more interest.

This was the case for former South Shields resident Dan Green. Dan is a British author, broadcaster, researcher and writer, he recently got in touch and told me some interesting stories that he researched when living in the town.

I lived in South Shields for over forty years and this is one of my better investigations, originally introduced to the public as a centre page article in the Shields Gazette in 1989.

 

I’d come across ‘The Cuthbert Code’ first told to me by a retired Benedictine monk who was living in the town. He told me how St Cuthbert was originally buried at Lindisfarne and eventually found a resting place in Durham Cathedral, only to be disturbed by Henry VIII’s marauding commissioners looting for treasure during the Reformation.

While orthodoxy tells us that he was reburied at this shrine in 1542, the Cuthbert Code records that his loyal monks looked to safeguard his body against any further attempts at sacrilege, so reburied him in a secret location. A substitute skeleton was placed in the tomb. The secret of his reburial location is closely guarded by no more than 3 monks at any one time.

I discovered an 1895 manuscript tucked away in the safe of St Hilda’s Church in South Shields, called ‘The legend of the Fairies Kettle’. It mentioned Cuthbert and how a gold cup had been stolen from its fairy guardians at Trow Rocks on the coast at Marsden. Then it was whisked away to Westoe,  then taken to Durham Cathedral to be buried alongside Cuthbert.

Knowing a bit about Freemasonry I deduced that there was a broader message here and that a treasure linked to St Cuthbert was telling us that something thought to be in Durham Cathedral was in fact at Westoe. This ‘treasure’ being Cuthbert himself – bear in mind that during medieval times the monks of Durham owned Westoe Village.

 

I set off on the scent of the saint and a hunch led me to Westoe Village. In 1989 there stood a derelict Nunnery once owned by The Order of The Poor Sisters of Mercy. At the time of my interest the Nunnery had just started to be re-developed and the ground was disturbed. The builders allowed me access and on the stone floor under inches of dust and grime I found a five pointed star mosaic.

By now I had my centre page in the Gazette and they promised they would carry a follow up. I’d accumulated a lot of evidence including a curious plaque high up on a wall in the village stating, ‘Follow the Paths of the Lord and you will find him’. Was this telling us to follow some subterranean path or tunnel under the Nunnery leading to Cuthbert?

The new owner of the land was intrigued by my Gazette article and allowed us three days to nosey below the site before it would be filled in. Hurriedly I took two burly ex-Westoe miners, plus a stonemason friend of theirs and entered an accessible dark mazy passageway that led to another sealed off passage. I hadn’t told the owner that my crew were armed with lump hammers, they smashed a hole through the passage wall.

Using plastercine we took an imprint of a Freemasonry mark on a brick in the wall. We were now under a stairwell and a hollow cavity. Our stonemason accomplice told us that there should be something below – the perfect place to hide something of value. Cuthbert?

Frustratingly, our time was up, with no chance of being able to return or continue. At least, with photos we had taken each step of the way, we had the follow up Gazette article. But then the Editor took fright at the implications and refused to print it. I also did a short phone interview for The Sunday Times.

What happened next is a mix of comedy and tragedy. My Cuthbert Code resurfaced in 1997, just before I left South Shields when new evidence again cast doubt on the final resting place of another Catholic saint, Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. A similar situation to mine then.

I arranged to meet up with the latest Gazette editor and try again to see if what had been my intended second article could at last be presented to the awaiting Shields’ population. I took a dossier in and after studying the work he broke his silence with, ‘Is this a wind up?‘ I found the question disappointing and assured him it wasn’t and we continued talking for some time. He concluded he’d think about running a feature and be in contact in a few days.

He did and said that he couldn’t possibly run it. I pressed him why and here’s his reply which I still remember clearly, ‘Because I live in the flat above your location!’

What was the odds of that? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but it was true, his flat was right above the location. Perhaps, if he’s still there, with lesser odds, St Cuthbert and his treasure is also there below him.

More mysterious stories from Dan will be posted soon, for further info contact www.dangreencodex.co.uk/

Gary Alikivi  October 2019