Pit Village Life

Catherine Cookson was still alive when I first moved all of my worldly possessions out of my parents house into the back of my van and up the A1 to a small pit village slightly to the north and east of Newcastle-U-Tyne.

Is Catherine Cookson still alive ?

I’m not sure, probably not, or there would be another five hundred of her frikkin TV dramas on Living or History channel all based on the theme of “Working class girl gets pregnant to wealthy mill owner in 1920s and is flung to her untimely death in carpet warping machine by ‘forementioned mill owner who goes bankrupt with grief and becomes a hermit” … or similar.

Anyway, Catherine Cookson may have still been alive when I took to the A1 in that knackered up old van and moved my worldly possessions into that one bedroomed first floor flat in Seaton Delaval, my worldly possessions consisting of a pillow, a quilt, a stereo system and a toothbrush – a credit card bought me a bed and a settee and one electric fire and that was my home in total.

My mother-in-law lent me some curtains and my wifes uncle gave me a canary, the shower didn’t work until you thumped it hard enough and the water cistern filler valve would stick occasionally so that the tank kept filling until it overflowed, if you filled a sink or heaven forbid a bath then you had to listen very carefully for the water cistern in the kitchen cupboard to stop filling and at those times when you thought “its been ten minutes and it still filling” you had to stand on a chair and get your hand inside it to hit the valve with a hammer until it stopped.

£500 is what the flat cost me in terms of a deposit, £500 and a mortgage for £8900 and no, I haven’t missed any zeroes off those numbers, it was cheap even for 1981 what with it only having two rooms but it was mine, or at least £500 worth of it was mine and strictly speaking even that bit wasn’t mine because I’d borrowed the £500 off my dad, a fact that he reminded me of just one month later when he rang to ask when I was going to pay it back.

I knew hardly anyone in the village, of course I knew the female who just two years later would inextricably and legally water-tight would obtain full access to all of my financial assets and worldly possessions, and I knew her family, but I knew no-one else in that tight-knit community, a vestige of what had been a real coal mining village with its own pit and everything, it didn’t have the pit any longer but it had the old pit head buildings and a huge slag heap too, and lots of retired miners.

But everyone knew me.

It helped that my father-in-law was a “committeeman” at the local working mens club, for when you were a “committeeman” then everyone knew you and everyone knew your business and so of course when I moved into the village I became known as “Harry’s dowta’s ma-an” and within days I was being stopped in the street by very friendly, well meaning, but inevitably, spooky people who seemed to know who exactly I was, what I was doing, where I’d come from, what size shoes I took and which side I dressed to – and I hadn’t a clue who they were.

It all seems very strange and a bit quaint in a Dickens sort of way now to try and comprehend just how long it could take you on a Sunday morning to stroll to the paper shop to pick up a Sunday newspaper, I could see the paper shop from the balcony of my flat, it was just across the car park from the block I lived in, I could actually have shouted for Ray, the paper shop man to come from behind the counter and throw me a newspaper, thats how close I was, in terms of actually having to walk, if I walked unfettered it would have taken me less than 30 seconds.

I never got to the paper shop and back in anything less than half an hour.

And that is something that bloody Catherine Cookson and her ever so cute historical TV drama’s never tell you, its fine living in a village where everybody knows everybody else and it all seems so nice to think that you could stroll down the street without having to lock your front door because your neighbours would all be looking out for you, to stop and chat to anyone that you bumped into for none of them would be strangers, but in reality its blood wierd and more than a bit annoying when all you want to do is pick up the papers of a Sunday morning and go home and slob out for the rest of the day but complete strangers block your way and talk to you about complete bollacks for the next half hour.

I never had anything in common with these people, I had no history with them, I’d come from a place 100 miles away, i didn’t know them, I’d never met them before, and yet they knew everything about me, they knew that my girlfriends mother had just given me those red curtains for instance, “Whey did yeas find sum cortin hooooks then bonny lad” they’d ask and I’d stare at them and wonder how the hell they knew that I’d brought the curtains back to the flat and then stood staring at them for two days wondering how the hell you were supposed to hang them, finally stapling them to the wall with a staple gun I borrowed from work.

“Whey when are yeas gan marry Harrys daw’ta then bonny lad” some of the more adventurous old bags would ask, and I’d stand there on the pavement, mouth opening and closing but nothing coming out, “Whey its ‘boot time we had a wedd’n” they’d add, “divvent fowget my invite mind” and they’d walk off cackling as I stared after them wondering if I was now forever condemned to live in this village where old bags decided what and when and how you led your life – Catherine Cookson never wrote about this aspect of pit village life thats for sure.

On our actual wedding day two years later the whole of the village invited themselves to our wedding, we didn’t ask them to come, they just did and I thanked whatever god they worshipped that we’d decided to hold the reception at a relatively posh hotel in Whitley Bay rather than in the Terrace Clerb or they’d all have invited themselves to “the do” as well, as it was, when the wedding was over they all ran down the road to the Terrace Clerb to get a good seat, simply expecting that thats where “the do” would be – oh how we laughed as we cruised past in the gold Rolls Royce that I’d hired for one hour for a small fortune – oh our wedding photos looked so cheesy, a gold Rolls Royce, wide lapels and a 1980s Midge Ure moustache – and that was just the wife.

There’s a scene in our wedding video – we were the first people I knew other than royalty and some A list celebs to have our wedding video’d, this was 1983 remember, the amateur photographer who took the photos had just bought himself a not very portable Ferguson Videostar video camera and he wanted to get some practice in – anyway, theres a scene in the video where Ned and I, me and my best man, are walking down the footpath to the church in our groom and best mans outfits, when we pass one of the soon to be wife’s uncles who has on his arm one of his old aunts, a woman who knew everything about everyone, a woman who’d lived in the village for about 200 years already and knew everyone who had ever lived there, and she looks me up and down as I walk past them and she says just loud enough so that the camera picks it up “Whey who he then wor Malcolm” to which Malcolm has to inform her that I’m the groom, its me what’s getting married to wor Suzanne this afternoon and she stares at him as though she doesn’t realise that they’re going to a wedding.

This is the standard of wedding guest we had, we didn’t invite any of them you know.

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