Saturday, February 3, 2018



I have always been inordinately proud of being a Geordie. A Geordie, for those understandably unfamiliar with the term, is one born in the vicinity of the River Tyne, which flows through the city of Newcastle in northern England. A Geordie’s a Geordie just like a Cockney is a Cockney—the latter born within the sound of Bow Bells, at the church of St. Mary-le-Bow in London. A propos, it’s curious to note that true Geordies have certain qualities in common with Cockneys: typically they are working-class, skeptical, disrespectful of authority and the hoity-toity, cheerfully tolerant of life’s vicissitudes, and always willing to poke fun at themselves as well as others. Both have distinctive, colorful dialects, which in full bloom are virtually impossible for outsiders to understand.
I say that I’m “inordinately” proud because, other than the fortuitous location of my birth, I have honestly no claim to a moniker that I consider to be an honorific. In truth, I spent only my first year and a half of my life in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Being now an octogenarian, I confess this represents an extremely small portion of my existence on this planet. Well, infinitesimal. Most of what I know about the contemporary city comes from a marvelous film called “Stormy Monday,” by Mike Figgis; watch it, if you can! Even so, the sad fact that I returned to Newcastle only once, many years ago, and then on nothing more than a drive-though on the way to Edinburgh, does nothing to prevent me from being inordinately proud of being a Geordie.
In my father’s time, and at the time of my birth three years before the start of World War II, Newcastle was a gritty coal-mining town, gripped by the aftermath of the Great Depression: poverty, squalor, disease and the worst of working conditions. The very air, as I imagine it at least, was black with soot. Just south of the great wall erected by the Roman emperor Hadrian to protect England from the marauding Scots, the city shared none of the surrounding verdant beauty of the Northumbrian hills and dales.
And yet… this was where my father’s family lived. My grandfather was a noted electrical engineer, widely known for his improvements to the high-voltage switchgear that made it possible, in those early days, to safely use electrical power in the industrial world. He worked for a company called Reyrolle. Aside from the mines, the company was the largest employer in the Newcastle area, and later in life he became a board member and was credited with steering the company through the turbulent years between the European wars. He died, unhappily, when I was still an infant, so I never knew him—though there are pictures of little Peter somewhere, balanced on his knee. He looks to be an elegant and gentle man, proud of his little grandson, so the loss is mine, and a grievous one at that.
His son, my father, after a brief flirtation with the dream of a career on the stage, chose the altar instead as the milieu for his thespian skills. At the time of my birth he was vicar of what was then the “slum” parish of St. Cuthbert’s, Newcastle. A newspaper picture of him, yellowing now but preserved for posterity by my mother in the family album that she treasured, is memorably captioned, “Poor, Desperate, for Want of 2 Shillings and 6 Pence a Week.” The accompanying article was a report on the fate of my father’s impoverished parishioners, but my mother liked to joke that it was her husband who looked poor and desperate. And indeed, the picture shows him gaunt, almost emaciated, bent over the saw bench that he used in his life-long hobby, carpentry.

He was, indeed, a sick man at the time that photograph was taken, and it was only shortly afterward that his doctor insisted that he move, with his family, to a more healthful place to live. As a consequence he secured a living from the bishop of St.Albans in a village called Aspley Guise, in the Bedfordshire countryside, some sixty miles north of London.

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