In yesterday’s narrative Happy Valley I touched upon some of the characters I worked with when starting my first job as a wet behind the ears sixteen year old boy***. Tales from the National Coal Board (NCB) north east area offices in Gateshead.
*** – It was my fault as I’d not taken a brolly to counter the precipitation on 1st October 1979 – The day of my inaugural on-foot commute into work.
I wasn’t so immature as to take into work, say, swaps of Panini football stickers, a catapult or a Rubix Cube. However, even though I was taking my first steps into the big wide employment world, in hindsight I was by no means at the maturity level required for this existential leap.
Thinking about it, taking a Rubix Cube into work would’ve been a complete waste of time. A conclusion made from doubting anyone working in the Post Room at that time would’ve been able to complete the puzzle. In particular one of the older blokes who, even if he’d the mental capability to solve the cubic conundrum, only had one arm (he’d lost the other in a pit accident in his youth). An impairment I’d venture that’d have severely hampered his task.
Despite retrospectively realising I wasn’t ready at sixteen years old to enter an adult environment, I’ve no regrets about curtailing my ‘A’ level studies early. After all, many valuable lessons were gleaned during my eight years employ at the National Coal Board head offices on the Team Valley, Gateshead. Life teachings I doubt would’ve have been learned by staying another two years at Heathfield Senior High School.
That being said, though, I was still pretty wet behind the ears when as a 24 year old I walked out of the building for the last time to commence a new role in London….. It was p***ing it down that day as well!
Thirty two years after leaving the north east, on my return I still occasionally visit the site of my first employer at the southern end of the Team Valley Trading Estate. Offices which a couple of decades ago were raised to the ground and rebuilt as a Sainsburys supermarket.
A customer services desk now standing where nearly forty years ago I’d frank outgoing letters. Self-serve checkouts now sitting where my colleagues and I distributed internal mail in pigeon holes bearing exotic monikers such as Bates Colliery, Philadelphia SFA, Wearmouth Cokeworks, Hobart House and Allerton Bywater.
As I walk down the the Sainsburys aisles, along with shelf stored comestibles, I’m confronted by the ghosts of 1979-1987. Vague shadows enquiring how much recorded delivery costs, if Gerry Ash’s mace delivery had arrived and the location of Ken Young’s engineering plans.
Installation of Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and her subsequent appointment of American ‘Efficiency Analyst’ Ian McGregor, the catalyst for the beginning of the end for this vast office block.
Despite the Iron Lady possessing the power and malice aforethought to effectively decimate the UK’s heavy industrial underbelly, though, she couldn’t/can’t erase the evocation of memories of Coal House, ingrained prior to her ruthlessly swift destruction.
Anyhow, as I’m ordinarily loathed to raise political matters within my prose, I’ll return to the task of relaying further parody memoirs of the individuals who touched upon my life journey during that time-
John Newton – Head of the Post Room when I first started at the NCB offices. Injured his back down the pit which’d led to him undertaking an office job. Ordinarily a fairly calm and collected man, he lost it big style when hit by an Ian Watson on-drive during an improvised game of cricket in the Post Room, circa 1981.
The ball (screwed up paper wrapped in rubber bands and sellotape) left a red mark smack in the centre of his forehead, which stayed with him for the rest of the day. Leading to looks of bemusement from some of the room’s visitors that afternoon.
For a bat we purloined hard cardboard tubes used for planning documents by the surveyors department.
Banned by John from playing cricket in the Post Room, instead we (Ian Watson, David Jackson**** and me) relocated to the basement to once again hear the poetic sound of screwed up paper wrapped in rubber bands and sellotape against the cardboard casing of surveyors pit plans.
**** – Two of my fellow post lads.
The basement was the domain of a 40ish year old guy named Alan Dodds. A man who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Or should I say didn’t suffer three 17 year old post boys smashing one of his office lights while playing cricket gladly.
After been labelled as a brisk word beginning with ‘C’, Ian, Dave and I were promptly banished from his office opposite the fireproof vaults storing north east minings confidential documentation….. Well, banned from playing cricket there anyway. He did included a clause within his edict allowing entry to his catacomb when delivering deeds and mining survey plans.
Steve Purdy – Tall, copper-topped guy who I believe went on to reach a lofty management perch within the NCB (latterly British Coal) superannuation department. Claimed to have invented crisps, which if true makes him an accessory, along with the bloke who invented beer, to my recent cardiac arrest.
Alan Sylvester – Started in the Post Room at the same time as Steve Purdy. A quiet, unassuming guy who could only be stirred into anything like a temper if the tea-trolley lady had run out of Toffee Crisps.
At one time Alan had career aspirations of being the voice behind the London Underground announcement ‘Mind The Gap’. However this was cruelly taken from him after a freak accident (neurological trauma while quoting Proust) rendered him with a speech impediment where he became incapable of saying the letters T & G*****…….. Last I heard Alan’d checking into the Betty Ford Clinic to address a chronic Toffee Crisp addiction. Or Offee Crisp Addicion as he called it.
***** – An affliction that made his ordering of Gin & Tonics deeply troublesome.
Arthur Ferguson – A lad from Hylton near Sunderland. This a community in the national news at that time as the accent of the hoax Yorkshire Ripper tapes was identified to originate locally. A good footballer, he left the Post Room at around the age of 17/18 to start an engineering apprenticeship at a Wearside pit. Liked to antagonise Alan Sylvester by regularly chirping that Toffee Crisps were overrated. The unassuming Hylton lad pronounced the word sure as shower…… Chuffing Mackem!!