Thursday, September 30, 2010

Common Ground

Originally posted on 1st August 2009. Edited.

On my recent walk around the Lower Ouseburn Valley I came across what was to me a surprising, if welcome, endorsement of a major theme that lies behind this blog's 'reason to exist'. It comes from a good source – Jack Common. (See top right in photograph above.)

Jack Common (1903–1968) was born and spent his early life in Heaton, a district of Newcastle’s east end which neighbours the Lower Ouseburn. Common’s father worked at the large railway workshops at Chillingham Road. Common only slowly became a writer and found his subject in his own life and working class community, a more unusual creative approach at that time – 1930s – than perhaps would be thought today. He is nearly always described as ‘a working class writer’. There were few outlets for this kind of material then; but one magazine, The Adelphi run by John Middleton Murray (1889–1957) gave Common a start on the literary road. Through his work on The Adelphi, Common met and befriended a tall ex-colonial policeman and Old Etonian, Eric Blair, afterwards to become better known as ‘George Orwell’.

At first they did not hit it off. Common recalled their first meeting, having read Orwell’s essays about living as a tramp and so on and was evidently disappointed.

"Manners showed through. A sheep in wolf's clothing, I thought, taking in his height and stance, accent and cool built-in superiority, the public school presence".

Orwell, however, was genuinely taken with Common’s writing and said so. Jack Common was never a celebrated writer but is a 'name' to a certain generation and those familiar with Orwell. Perhaps his best remembered book is Kiddar's Luck. Kiddar is a Tyneside word for a young lad.

What caught my eye was a quote taken from a later book Common wrote about his own city, placed on one of the information panels put up around the Valley. This one stands right beside the Ouseburn as it emerges from the culvert on its way to the River Tyne. For me what Common wrote still resonates today –

"Deep in the fattest part of the united heads (of the City Fathers), they had a vision of a flat Newcastle, street after street and house after house in the continuous level adjacency which is the hallmark of the industrial metropolis.

They planned to start a rubbish-dump on the valley floor which in two or three centuries would grow to be a broad platform uniting East and Central Newcastle in one unbroken slum, Newcastle upon Dump".

Jack Common, from The Ampersand (1954).

Harsh words, but justified. I congratulate the brave soul who had them placed there. What would have Common made of the wave of ‘improvements’ about to be unleashed upon the city in the years closely following his death? Few British cities avoided the actions of ‘city fathers’ in those days and almost all have lived to regret them. Yet, as one thinks all too frequently, have any lessons been learned?

Jack Common

Links for Jack Common:

Leaves on an overgrown path

Autumn is a time for nostalgia. I needed to walk home via the 'denes' – Jesmond Dene, under going a renovation costing 6 million GBP (I doubt we will see spending like that on public spaces for a while) and Armstrong Park, Heaton Park and Ouseburn Dene Road. Just any old excuse to see the signs of the year winding down.

Roads and pathways strewn with conkers, bright and shiny, once capable of inducing a near paroxysm of joy in this old man's youth. Do children collect them now? Cars run them over and produce the mash of creamy paste which recall why they are here at all; introduced by the Romans to provide a feed for animals and perhaps humans? I like to think that the Romans also played Conkers.

In the woodlands the 'pinking' calls of Nuthatches high in the tree tops and by the river a song from one of the resident Dippers. A man spoke to me about the Kingfishers and Dippers with a pride which made him visably taller. The sky clouded over and rain fell.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Short Cuts

Ouseburn Farm, focus of a recent royal visit.

Some brief notes on recent news and some links to worthwhile material to those interested in Battlefield, Ouseburn and the city.

First, a recent visit from H.R.H. The Prince Charles.

I am not always in step with Prince Charles but I respect him rather more than some. The Ouseburn and nearby Newcastle Quayside are both testaments to important ideas in urban life and re-generation which the Prince has supported with constancy.

In the 70s the Newcastle Quayside was being lined up for demolition. One scheme envisaged the area re-built as a series of giant 'cornflake' packet office blocks.

It was Amber Associates, founded in the 60s by a far sighted group of film makers and photo journalists' who based themselves in old premises under the massive Tyne Bridge, in what was then the very unfashionable Quayside, that stepped in and by elegant and timely intervention made a telling point. I believe Amber are chiefly to thank that this fine architectural heritage and community avoided the wrecking ball.

This survival enabled Live Theatre to open in old premises off the Quayside. Today it has grown into a major venue. 'Live' has been responsible for bringing on some now well known talent and productions, including 'transfers' to the London West End and now New York's Broadway. Following on from a recent expansion of its building, 'Live' has now found life rather less rosy.

Just how a cafĂ©, however good – and the '21' management are good, – will help the 'Live' and the area I do not know. I do however, see others who have shouldered a lot of creative effort in Newcastle  left now out in the cold.