Yes it was, once upon a time.
And suddenly I am sixty years old…
This is a shocking revelation for someone who still sees themselves as thirty-four and yet there is no way to sugarcoat it.
I have pulled together my thoughts over this past month – since leaving the North East again – in an attempt to close the cycle and complete the healing of an emotionally charged childhood.
I had delayed my return over and over again since my last time way back during my teacher training in Scotland. Then it was a visit to my last known surviving relative, my Aunty Dolly, but she didn’t recognise me. How can your roots be so thin, like a desert shrub, gripping to the sands of time? What a lesson in how transient we are, no matter what we believe; not that this was a required reminder for me for I suppose I have always felt it… Here is the root of my wandering life, slowly becoming an ancient mariner; never able to cut the cord of the eternal voyage.
So when I arrived at South Shields Metro Station, a feeling of nostalgia flooded through me, quite expecting to see my Grandma, waiting in her old maroon coat like she used to do after school. The ghosts were whispering all the way down to street level but there was nothing but the brisk, chilly easterly wind blowing up King Street from the Ocean Road.
What happened to my river, the mighty, coaly Tyne? I sought the answer over the next few days, retreading my footsteps, past my old school St Gregory’s RC, through Harton Cemetery where I used to talk to the graves, imagining an underground city where all the dead were in fact still alive.
The sun graced me with her presence nearly everyday during my nostalgic ramblings, and the indulgent ghosts walked side by side with me around the town and out onto the Coast road that runs down through Whitburn to Sunderland. Was that rambling old Restaurant the ‘Marsden Grotto’ still open, where my father used to take me for ice cream on Sundays when he returned?
However, like everything else, it seemed to have become jaded, a memory of something that once was… and now isn’t.
Perhaps the only real solace came in the form of something that will never really change here, and that is the magnificent North Sea Coast, a survivor of the endless battering from the freezing, violent seas that have sustained South Shields and yet taken so many lives on her fishing boats and Merchant ships.
How many masses were said for the fathers’ of my childhood schoolmates after they were lost to its brutal cruelty? We children were brothers and sisters in tragedy.
The beauty and power of this coast fashioned me into the person I have become. The rawness and self-belief, which often pushes folk away from me; the tenderness from witnessing the suffering of Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies, and the sheer bloody-mindedness from being told I was never good enough.
Standing on the beach that afternoon, I spat into the wind with the belligerence of a viking that would rather die than be a slave, and then walked back towards the Metro to catch the train back to my hostel in Newcastle. The following morning, crossing back over the Tyne bridge and heading south towards Liverpool, I said my final farewell to the past, leaving the ghosts waving goodbye on the platform.
I could almost here them say: “Farewell hinnie… do wor family proud.”
I hope I have… truly, I do.