Cough Drop & The Boys

I’ve just dropped my car off in Whitkirk for its annual Ministry of Transport test (MOT). Following a meander down the road to Crossgates shopping centre I’m cafe in situ, as I commence this prose; my trusty a laptop and Americano coffee,

Yesterday’s narrative Anniversary Stoicism told of how the day would’ve been my parents 59th wedding anniversary. During that essay I also briefly alluded to the fact 1st October was the date I’d commenced full-time work.

Forty years ago yesterday GJ Strachan first joined the post room staff inside the National Coal Board (NCB) area head offices at Gateshead. Yours truly, only 16 summers old when taking my place under the NCB’s employ; entering  the 1950’s built offices donning an oversized jacket, undersized tight trousers and the immaturity of a boy entering a man’s world.


To say I was wet behind the ears at that juncture would be a gross understatement. Although, choosing not to take a brolly that morning to walk in driving rain from my Chowdene estate home to the southern most point of the Team Valley Trading Estate (where the NCB offices stood) it was self-inflicted.

The boss of the post room in October 1979 was a guy called John Newton. A tall, slim, undemonstrative man from Rowlands Gill who would’ve been in his late 50’s at the time. Arid of whimsy he could be oft relied upon for a cutting quip or adage. Sayings he’d pick up from his decades living and working within the Durham mining community.

One of his favourite enquiries, which he loved to subject post room visitors with was “If it takes a man a week to work a fortnight, how many apples are in a barrel of grapes, hinny?” A self-indulgent question which, although nonsensical, never failed to bring a smile to my face. My amusement borne from the looks of confusion on the recipient’s face.

These days, I’ve a similar non-sensical question I often ask kids around 5-8 years old which results in similar confused looking visages. That question being “How old are you then, X ***?“…….. If, for instance, they respond “I’m 6!” I’ll respond “When I was your age I was 8!“……. To clarify, the letter X was added for name anonymity, I’ve never asked that question to, or indeed ever known, a member of SMERSH.

Utter nonsense which completely baffles the child, but their parents normally laugh. I’d guess partly at the silliness of the retort, in addition to the disorientated look on their offspring’s face while attempting to make sense of this silly man’s self-indulgence.

Anyhow, I digress. The younger lads I joined in the post room team in October 1979 were Kevin Joyce, Dave Grant and Arthur Ferguson; and a couple weeks later Ian Watson.

Kev a timid, bespectacled lad was the eldest of the post lads. He lived with his parents in the older Georgian residences to the north of Saltwell Park. Affectionally nicknamed Cough Drop by Tony Cowley (a fifty-something understudy of John Newton) he displayed a great deal more maturity and less belligerence than the younger lads, in particular Ian Watson and me. I’ve no idea what inspired Kev’s nickname, and to be honest I don’t think   Tony Cowley (who coined it) did either.

It was Kev who taught me how to use a franking machine and how to log recorded delivery post ready for despatch. He taught me some interesting stuff as well, However, I’m momentarily unable to recall that detail.

A few years later, I later worked at the NCB with someone called Frank in the computer department, but he didn’t teach me how to use the Kevining machine. If there’d have been such a thing, though, I’m sure he’d have been accommodating.

At the time, there was post room talk Kevin’s glasses allowed him to see into the future. However our pools syndicate (of which he was a member) never came up with eight score draws so I suspect that wasn’t correct.

Dave Grant was next oldest of the post lads when I commenced working at the NCB. A perma-tanned chap from Shiney Row, or Shiney Raaa as people in the former Durham mining hotbed call it, he had a look of Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s singer Kevin Rowland. From memory, Dave had a quicker wit and less tolerance than Kev Joyce.

If memory serves me correct, rightly or wrongly he didn’t always appreciate some of my more immature verbal offerings and football related jibes. On occasion, him being a Sunderland fan and me supporting Leeds United manifesting tribalistic disagreements and jibes which are common place in workplaces on Monday mornings.

That being said, he was a funny guy and I experienced many a workplace laugh with Dave. I think some of the occasional fiction was possibly the result of my jealous the 17 year old could grow a proper moustache at that juncture, not my 16 year old’s ‘bum fluff’ effort.

Arthur Ferguson, who was a few months older than me is, to my knowledge, the only person I’ve ever worked with interviewed by the police in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper hoax tapes.

This a routine meeting suffered by all adult males from the Hylton area of Sunderland (where Arthur was born and bred). He of course had nothing to do with it, but the very fact he was subject to this enquiry gave his prurient workmates something to natter about for a few days.

A good footballer he played for the local amateur team who played on the field behind were he lived with his parents to the east of Sunderland. Sadly left the post room for an electrical engineering apprenticeship before the 1980 Staff Welfare 5-a-side football competition. Consequently, we’d to play Kevin Joyce, whose lack of prowess at the game meant he was shoved in goal…… An occasion when Cough Drop got the new nickname of Football Drop!


  1. Well, Gary, You are entertaining to read about as usual, my friend and family! I can appreciate you usage of adjectives in describing certain things, and it appears to me that you are well on your way to becoming a genuine wordsmith! It is 6:23 AM here where I reside, and since I need to put on a pot of Coffee for the missus when she awakes I should finish this, get off my arse, and get about me aboot me duties! What say you? Cousin ( distant, but still cousin) Phillip! Have a safe and satisfying day, Gary!

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