Monday, June 17, 2013

Mrs Henderson is dead

I took a pleasantly nostalgic trip to the town I grew up in, Peterlee on Friday. Peterlee is a small new town in east Durham - an overlooked part of the country, although when it was first built, my parents felt they had won the lottery with their brand new council house which had upstairs and downstairs toilets and looked on to abundant areas of green space. I left home 23 years ago and since my parents moved to Durham City, haven't really had any reason to go back. But I was in the area and had an afternoon to spare.

This is the site of one of my earliest memories. I can just about recall being in a pram or pushchair and being wheeled down here by my grandparents (must have been around 1973-4). My grandmother was berating my grandfather for going too fast or not holding onto the pram properly. I guess my lifelong acquaintance with anxiety and caution began here.

This was a short cut through town which led to the swimming baths. Although it was a couple of miles from my home and I must have been only 7 or 8, my parents let me accompany other kids to the baths during the school holidays. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and I always feel grateful I got a proper childhood that allowed me to run around outside unsupervised.

And here's what's just over that brow - Peterlee Leisure Centre where I had swimming lessons for 2 years from Mrs Henderson. I actually went in for a swim there and the incredibly friendly manager, who could tell from my accent that I wasn't local, asked me lots of questions. I pointed out where the Space Invader machine used to be in the late 1970s, and he told me that Mrs Henderson died a few months ago. The whole place was exactly as I had remembered, even down to the internal brickwork that was such a common feature of municipal buildings of the late 60s/early 70s. Even some of the actual fonts were intact. It was like time travel.

The Apollo Pavilion, designed by Victor Pasmore. I used to play on this "brutalist" structure as a child, and sometimes catch tadpoles in the pond and watch them grow into frogs. The Pavilion fell into disrepair and got covered in graffiti in the 80s and 90s, acting as a social weather-vane for the whole town as unemployment and social inequality turned the 60s New Town dream into what sometimes felt like a dystopian nightmare. Pasmore was characteristically blazé about it in only that way that people who don't have to live there can be. I'm glad to see it's been cleaned up anyway.

A view of Old Shotton, a tiny village attached onto the southwest part of town. I used to pass it on my way home from school, and was always envious of the neatly kept lawns and proper "old" houses. There was also a "minimart" where I used to buy abridged copies of classic novels for 50p a go. It's not there any more, which makes me sad.

After my piano-playing grandfather was knocked down by a car and killed instantly in 1980 when on the way to perform at one of the local clubs, my grandmother moved out of her prefab home in Shotton and was rehoused on the first floor of these flats. I used to stay over on weekends to keep her company. She was a lot more lenient than my parents - I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted and got to watch Diana Dors in the Hammer House of Horror series "Children of the Full Moon", which gave me nightmares.

An area of woodland adjoining the A19 which acted as a barrier to the local housing estate that I grew up on. I used to climb these two trees in particular, aged between 8 and 12. And weirdly, coming back to see that they were still there, a bit thicker in places, some branches missing, was like meeting old friends.

My old street. My house was the brown one to the left of the one with the flat roof. In the 70s all the houses were council-owned. Then people were allowed to buy them. Some people did. Some didn't. Then in the 1980s, it was discovered that the houses were clad in dangerous asbestos so the council renovated those it still owned and put proper pitched roofs to replace the inefficient and leaky flat ones. For people who'd bought the homes in good faith - well they were screwed. Welcome to Thatcher's Britain. Some of them took out extra mortgages (like my parents) and did the renovations themselves - using different builders and materials from the council. Some people could only afford to do half measures - hence the one which has the original flat roof. As a result, the whole estate is a mismatched mess of different house styles. And there isn't really anything I can say to put a nice spin on it. Every flat roof is a reminder to me - NEVER VOTE CONSERVATIVE.

My old junior school - now surrounded by thick foliage and large metal fence with spikes on top. There was a tiny wooden fence when I used to go there, which we'd sit on and play "piranhas" (a game we made up). (This was the only photo that I felt uncomfortable taking, and I was relieved it was well out of school hours by now).

The Catholic Club - somehow still standing, and another remnant of an early memory - I attended a Christmas party there aged 2 and was given a packet of coloured chalk as a present. My parents used to slightly disapproving of the people who "drank" in there, and I always associated Catholicism with alcoholism as a result.

An iconic image of Peterlee town centre - a split level shopping paradise - aged 3, in December I somehow got detached from my grandmother who was looking after me - just by that PoundWorld sign (it used to be a Fine Fayre), and a kind old man took my hand and led me to a police station where I sat on an old copper's knee in a very well lit room with all the other policemen, until my grandmother showed up, her face completely white and horrified. We never told my mother, who was in hospital at the time, giving birth to my sister.

Further Reading - this BBC article details the possible effects of spending cuts on Peterlee, used as an exemplar of one of the poorest towns in the UK.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


My cat was put to sleep yesterday. My fella and I were with him to the end. He was 17, had been on tablets for four years and they'd stopped working. During the last few days he'd stopped eating and was constantly gasping for breath. He couldn't lie down properly and had started hiding away from us. We'd been expecting it for a long time, but nothing can really prepare you when you watch something that you love die in front of you, even if it's a release from pain. After it had happened, he lay stretched out, as if he was sleeping happily in the sun. I realised he hadn't been in that position for a long time.

He was never "just a cat" to us. From the moment he chose us, running up my fella's leg when he was a few days old and in a litter, he has been a constant source of discussion, delight, exasperation, concern and humour. He had a lovely personality, incredibly sociable and friendly, never scratched anyone or hissed, loved to be around people, always made himself the centre of attention when we had visitors, always kept his fur perfectly clean, and was always pleased to see us. He loved to be stroked and brushed, and sometimes felt more like a dog than a cat. Sometimes more like a little person. He certainly had more personality than most people and as I get older and more cranky and less tolerable I sometimes feel that I am more suited to being around "dumb" animals.

He's been such a constant part of my life for so long, that I can't imagine life without him. A light in my life has gone out for good, and with that a great source of joy and love, that I don't think can ever be replaced.