26 December 2023

Life in a Northern town … for a Southerner : 1982-1984 : Peterlee, County Durham

 My car would be going nowhere. All four of its tyres had been slashed during the night. It had been parked on the street below the block of flats where I lived. This was not the first occasion. The same act of vandalism had occurred a few months earlier. Why did someone hate me so? I had done nothing to antagonise anyone. My only crime was to be me. But it was enough merely to be a Southerner living in Northeast England. As soon as I opened my mouth, my accent gave me away. I was caught in the crossfire of a worsening class war between the London-based Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher and Northern working-class populations she and her cronies seemed determined to destroy.

I had already encountered similar antagonisms elsewhere in County Durham. A few years previously, sharing a student house in Sherburn Village, four of us ventured into the nearby ‘Cross Keys’ pub, ordered drinks and were told we would have to be served in the adjacent ‘saloon bar’. While the ‘public bar’ was filled with local men’s chatter and a jukebox, we were ushered into a bleak tiny side room where we had to sit in a line on a wooden bench affixed to a wall as there were no furniture or amenities … and no other customers. Although it was our ‘local’, I never returned.

Our miner’s cottage in Sherburn was within a long terrace backing onto an alleyway where coal would be delivered weekly into backyard bunkers. Coal supplies were essential to heat ‘back boilers’ behind living room fireplaces that warmed radiators and water. We soon found that residents would steal it from their neighbours’ yards during the night, despite the fuel’s cheapness. One night a thief even broke in and stole some small items from downstairs while we slept. After I described to the police the designs of several T-shirts I had lost, a constable knocked on the door of an adjacent house visible from our living room window, only for it to be answered by a teenager wearing a top matching my description. Rather than rob from the rich, the poor tended to rob other poor people … or incomers such as us.

Now I was living eight miles further east in Peterlee, a post-war ‘new town’ whose ‘masterplan’ had never been finished, so lacked basic amenities such as a national supermarket outlet. On my initial visits to pubs there, I had been ‘welcomed’ in one of two embarrassing ways: either a never-ending wait to place my order at the bar where I was apparently invisible to staff; or, after placing an order, my drinks were never served. The only place in Peterlee where I could complete a simple beverage transaction was the deserted bar in the town centre plaza that had to tolerate ‘outsiders’ like me because it was attached to the one hotel.

Why was I living in Peterlee? Having unsuccessfully applied for dozens of vacancies, it was the one job I had been offered, working for a mediocre salary at a mediocre community arts project funded by the Arts Council. In retrospect, I suspect I may have been the sole applicant. The post was accompanied by a council flat in Peterlee, not a particularly valuable perk as there was no waiting list for council accommodation in such a miserable town where few would choose to live. My top-floor two-bedroom flat appeared unoccupied since it had been built decades earlier … and I soon found out why. Winds blew so strongly off the North Sea, visible on the horizon, that the pilot light for the water heater was almost impossible to keep alight.

This was the first unfurnished property I had rented so, for the next two years, I lived in that cavernous flat without a chair, sofa, table or bed to my name. Initially I would sleep on the bedroom floor, but it proved so cold and uncomfortable that I had to order a mattress to be delivered. I still had to sleep in my clothes, a winter coat, hat and gloves because there was no central heating. I had hung my clothes in the tiny walk-in bedroom closet but belatedly found that mold spreading from the icy cold walls had ruined most of them, necessitating their disposal. I owned no kitchenware so I drove to the nearest A1(M) motorway service station and purloined some metal cutlery, some of which I still have with its engraved ‘Grenada’ logo.

The previous decade, my mother had given me a cube-shaped black & white portable television to use at university. This and a basic hi-fi system, my first (and last) acquisition on hire purchase, were my only forms of entertainment on that bleak housing estate. When I played music, the elderly woman living downstairs would bang on her ceiling for me to cease because the building’s construction was wafer-thin. I recall being sat alone cross-legged on the floor of my bitterly cold flat, watching the harrowing television drama ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ and crying my eyes out during all five episodes. Was I feeling sorry for myself, forced to live in such austere conditions and working at a dismal job that barely kept my head above water? Was I upset by what the British Film Institute describes as the programme’s “tragic look at the way economics affect ordinary people”? A bit of both.

I may have been a Southerner but I was hardly the ‘enemy’. I had attended university only thanks to a ‘full grant’ received from Surrey County Council. I owned a tiny Datsun Cherry car, purchased with my grandfather’s help, only because it was the sole means of commuting to a summer job in 1977, taken to support my struggling one-parent family. Before I took this job in Peterlee, this car had been parked unused on a quiet side road as I could not afford its road tax and insurance. I had experienced austerity first hand. But working-class attitudes in Peterlee baffled me. Families would replace their three-piece suites with newer models every two or three years and dump their perfectly usable old ones on the grass verge outside their council house as a symbol to their neighbours of their supposed prosperity. Ostentatiousness was deemed positive, demonstrated by families’ living rooms I visited filled with gaudy tat but with sofas still wrapped in plastic. Compared to them, I had almost no material possessions. It was my accent alone that made me the enemy.

I was by no means the only target of local anger. Days before the start of the academic year, a school near my flat was burned to the ground by children. Graffiti and arson were commonplace. Coalmining was the dominant industry, even after nearby Blackhall Colliery had closed in 1981, having employed 2,000 at its peak. The adjacent Easington Colliery remained open for now but its 1,500 miners were under threat. At the industry’s peak in 1975, coalmining had employed 37,000 in Northeast England alone. However, in February 1981, the Thatcher government had announced the closure of 23 pits nationally. Over the following three years, the industry’s workforce was reduced by 41,000 across Britain. The National Union of Mineworkers balloted its members twice in 1982 and once in 1983 to consider a national strike. In Peterlee, the prospect of a confrontation between miners and the government elevated local tensions.

My eight slashed tyres were a tragic and costly consequence of these developments, having only afforded to insure my car for ‘third party, fire & theft’ incidents. To ameliorate my financial problems, I advertised rental of the vacant second bedroom in my council flat. A young woman agreed to take it but then used the room merely to occasionally sleep with a married man twice her age. After several months, she disappeared with rent arrears and without removing her few possessions. I was back to square one.

Watching the nightly news, it was evident that the moribund local economy would turn even more disastrous as the conflict between government and miners escalated further. It felt as if I might then be in even greater personal danger. After two years working for the town’s community arts project, I realised that this type of work was not my life’s ambition. I had recently enjoyed helping a tutor at Sunderland Polytechnic establish a pirate radio station transmitter on the building’s roof, a reminder how much I missed working in radio, the career I had desired since childhood. It had been three years since my last paying job in the radio industry and I began to appreciate that, if I did not persist in seeking such work, I might be considered too long away to re-enter the workforce. It was the hardest decision I faced to give up the Peterlee job, after having already been rejected for so many other jobs since 1980.

I decided to temporarily move back to my mother’s house 286 miles to the south. I was sad to leave the amazing young people with whom I had worked in Peterlee to establish the town’s first music venue, promote local bands and release music. I had also initiated and secured government funding for a community project that employed a dozen people at the town’s Community Centre. However, my two years’ work seemed unacknowledged by the project’s management committee, the local council or Peterlee Development Corporation. One morning, I crammed all my possessions into my car, but sadly had to dump my complete 1969-1976 collection of ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine outside the front door of my flat as there was insufficient room. To this day, I miss perusing their fascinating pages.

As I drove the long journey south, I reflected on my two largely wasted years in the badlands of Peterlee and recalled the lyrics to the 1978 recording by reggae band Aswad, expressing their experience living in the land of their birth: “I’m a foreigner … and a stranger”. Having spent a total of seven years living there, I harboured no desire to return to County Durham.

Postscript. Following the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, Easington Colliery finally closed in 1993 with the loss of 1,400 jobs. Presently Peterlee reportedly suffers the highest crime rate in County Durham.

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