Popular Politics Project
Interview transcript: John Creaby
Date and place of birth: not given
Interviewer: Kath Connolly
Date of interview: 16 April 2012
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
KC – Good morning John
JC – Morning
KC – I’m here in John Creaby’s house interviewing him for the Popular Politics Project and this is in Chester Moor near Chester-le-Street and I’m going to talk to John this morning about or he is going to talk to me about his involvement in politics
JC – Thanks Kath. Em, well I’ve had more than 50 years of political activism you might say which with the co-op, trade union, the labour party and also in the community and by the community which was through race relations which was a very heavy involvement in my life after I became a teenager, what have you, but really what I’d like to start with if that’s all right with you is to start with what was the foundation of my whole activism.
I was more the… I was born into a working class family
In an area called Teams of Gateshead. It was back to back, terraced houses, toilet outside, cold water, gas lights, nothing much had changed in these streets probably since Victorian times. I’m talking about 1943 when I was born which shows you how much progress had been made for working people. It was an interesting time in as much as I had… em … Me dad was a merchant seaman and therefore was away at sea for most of the time and therefore I was brought up mainly by me mam because me dad was a longboat seaman, a bosun a foreman if you like, so was away for weeks, for months on end so that’s how I was brought up.
I was brought up a catholic a roman catholic because my mam changed her religion so that she could marry me dad. He came from a strict catholic family. I was later to find out in life that he was anti-Catholic that my mam was the one being a convert who suddenly became the more catholic. They were both labour people, both labour part people, both involved with the labour party people. In the same street that I lived in, Lemming Street, me granddad my grandfather me paternal grandparents lived directly opposite, down the street me Aunty Evelyn so the whole family was virtually living in this street. Hundred families lived in this street by the way and then you had parallel streets, streets running parallel to that one, each one from the main road at the top were like long fingers pointing down to the river Tyne in fact pointing to work because that’s where the work was along the Tyne. The railways were along there, and at the far end there was the staithes, the old staithes of centuries ago the Dunston Staithes, the <> staithes which my dad used to go into with his ship. Across that river of course was the big huge Armstrong factory, Vickers Armstrong factory, which stretched along the river. So these were like fingers pointing down to where the work was these streets and the life I had was excellent I mean a full family life. The other uncle was a miner as was my grandfather, he lived not far away and my uncle down the street that I mentioned he was a miner so I had a lot of miners in my family. Every fortnight, when I was an infant, when I was a little lad, we used to meet the whole family every fortnight used to meet at my grandmother’s <> <> There would be two sittings for dinner the first lot would sit would be the adults and the second lot who would sit would be us. To placate us, me and my cousins, John Walker who lives down the street and is only a year or two younger than me, we used to sit on the step waiting to go in for our tea. The grandma crowd used to come out with a boiled potato for us to keep us going until we could sit for our dinner. It was a glorious life I mean a really comfortable family. Politics, although they weren’t political in a sense of involved directly in the party, politics as it was for everybody in the street, was common parlance everybody talked about it. I remember them talking about somebody called <Simmy> and how it was terrible that he was no longer going to be our member of parliament and I was later to find out that this was Billy Atkins and what had happened was that they had different constituencies and Billy Atkins went to one part of Gateshead and we were left with somebody else a man called Smith I’ll tell you how I can remember in a minute. But the discussion really was very much bout the locality and very much about employers. I think one of the problems they had was the attitude about employers being the bad guys, the rest of it didn’t leave them much opportunity to really say that the labour party should have done more for the community which looking back it should have done. Because these people voted labour by the shovel full. I mean I can’t remember when a kid a Tory came anyway near the place in fact you know Tories to me where some sort of evil devils who lived somewhere on a different planet because they were mentioned in conversations but I’d never seen one.
How I knew Mr Smith’s name by the way was this. When the general election comes 1951 is the first one in memory and of course I was only 8 year old the car would come down the street with the loud speakers on all crackly, talking about huge loud speakers on the top of this car <> this is the labour party, etc., etc., don’t know why the hell they did it but anyway but probably felt they had to and the kids used to walk behind and we made a thing called basters. Now a baster, if you baste somebody – in the Geordie terminology is you give them a bash. These basters were a pile of paper which you rolled up into a tight bundle and then you tied a bit of string on and you swing it swung around your head and they were supposed to be to clout any Tories (laughter) never in the world did we meet one and we used to sing this song which went (he sings) “Vote, Vote, for Mr Smith he’s the one to win the war for we’ll buy a penny gun and we’ll make the Tories run and they’ll never come to Gateshead any more”. And as I said we kids didn’t know what a Tory was never mind <> in Gateshead and we used to swing these bases around and it was like George and the dragon I think and at any corner if one of these Tories we would beat the living daylight out of them. Anyway that was my first introduction to real politics. <> <> <> on that main road which was just up here and that’s where the committee rooms where. Used to knock on the door. Johnson called, I remember, knock on the door and say “Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, can we have a photograph, can we have a photograph” and he’d then give you a poster of a photograph and you could stick it on your coat or whatever. You didn’t get stickers you used to get a whole great big photo of the guy and walk around like an idiot. But anyway, it was a great thrill, big carnival.
KC – So it was kind of exciting politics. It was excitement
JC – Exciting politics yes Kath. At the same time I’d gone to school by now and I went to a Roman Catholic school because my mam was a catholic and that was a great school. No qualms about that school, great people great teachers, taught me well, taught me well because they sectioned out those they though would pass the 11+ I think at a very early age. I recall we were taught in a little clump once I got past about 9 years old; there was only 4 of us sectioned out two girls and two lads that I recall. Miss Shields was the headmistress and she and Mrs Ellis used to take us the bright ones as they called us. But it wasn’t horrible. there wasn’t, there didn’t appear to be any horrible sense about it recalling back. Wasn’t any idea that you were sectioned you were from the rest of the herd
KC – You were better than somebody else
JC – Yes and they were good at that. Mind it was different once I got to grammar school, I can assure you. Anyway, we discovered <>
Coming to how the lifestyle was. Well the lifestyle was in the street was peculiar. You had the top of the street crowd, the middle of the street crowd and the bottom of the street crowd, so we lived in the middle of the street we had a lamp post, we had a gas light directly outside our house, so people I knew community wise were the people in the middle of that street. Hardly knew the people at the top and people at the bottom, I mean we did know them in <> but the kids I played with, the families I knew you got to remember that doors would be left open, I could go in into the scullery and walk in and walk out except when they said “don’t come in, he’s in the bath
KC – Laughs
JC – Which meant that the bloke had come in from work and was sitting in front of the fire in the bath. Or they used to shout, I remember my mam shouting “Hello Mrs ,Conlin is he alright” “Yes, he’s got his trousers on” “Alright, I’ll come in then” and this sort of thing was commonplace, people just walked about and it was a great community, you know there was a community spirit. When Mrs Bone’s husband took very ill just down the street, that was it no money of course once you took ill you were off work you got nothing. He worked at Clark Chapmans another big engineering company but she made pie and peas on a Thursday, every Thursday everybody in the street had pies and peas. [ She] must have been working all night, and you paid her for these pies and peas. It was a sort of community thing. So apart from that the purchasing
KC – Her house <>
JC – She wasn’t getting charity. To her mind she was working for it. I mean it was charity people could go elsewhere but if to her it wasn’t charity and the people didn’t think it was charity.
Retail wise, the co-op immediately played into this lifestyle. The Gateshead Co-op Society which was to reckon highly in my life it both as a teenager and <> because I worked at the Co-op, I’ll come to that later but when I was little the Co-op was on the next street up of the parallel streets Milling Street and obviously this was a corner shop that sold everything “for your daily needs”. It wasn’t a big shop but I must have gone there every day, if not every other day, and of course you knew your mam’s dividend number 22698 I knew that – embedded on my brain – and she’d say “John, pop up to the store – not the co-op mind you to the store, there was other shops to the store – I knew what the store was, so you went to the store and you’d buy – “I’ve run out of tea, pop up to the store and get some tea” or “pop up to the store and get ..” whatever she’d run out of or sometimes I think her weekly shopping was done there as well. And of course everybody knew you.
KC – Right. Did somebody come along and take the store order or did you have to go to the store
JC – You had to go to the store. You went to the store. And I mean there was queues in the store. The only other shop by the way we ever used other than the store was Florrie Robson’s. This was a little house in the street which had been turned into a shop the front room was a shop, had a counter which she didn’t sell anything that competed or anything. She sold Fentimans ginger beers and that and she sold sweets and she sold, if she made some toffee cake she’d sell them, toffee cakes were before <> so it was I suppose in a sense luxury items you got from there, like sticks for the fires to save chopping them, really that was a level of luxury.
Now the Gateshead Co-operative Society. Let’s tell you about the Co-op because it had a big big link in my life. You had this Milling Street co-op a little corner shop. Now if you wanted to buy anything other than the daily stuff we had to go down the road to Gateshead Co-operative in a place called Victoria Road. This was a road that came off the top road, Askew Road, and went to Team Valley Trading Estate, the big, the first trading estate in the country by the way, it was built in the 1930s. So that was another mainish road. On there was this big Co-op and you know it looked like a church. The co-op architecture all were identical this was a big Co-op, right next to Victoria Road school so you had the school and the co-op and both of them were Victorian. Now in there you could buy not only your daily goods, but it had an upstairs where I mean groceries they had more in there you know although my mam bought her butter from Milling Street, by butter I mean you went in and said a pound of butter and they cut a straight slab off and said that’s a little bit over but I’ll just charge you for the pound (laughs) or the bacon, used to cut the bacon at the Milling Street store. They did the same down at Victoria Road of course but you could buy upstairs, upstairs you could buy haberdashery, you could buy your knitting needles and your sewing needles, a bit of cloth, not a lot, so on and so forth. You could buy or order boiler suits for the workers or bib and braces for the workers but it wasn’t a department store by any stretch of the imagination, but you could buy what you would need monthly or occasionally. So it was important. That shop was called Victoria Road. Just the road. So she’d say eeh, Uncle Tommy wants me to pop in and get him a boiler suit so I’m going down to Victoria Road. That meant she was going to the store, not the road. I mean everybody knew. Everybody said that by the way, not just my mam, the whole street. This is the co-op – I never ever heard the word co-op for instance. Store, Victoria Road or and this is where I began to understand the divvy or we’d go to the High Street.. By saying you were going to the High Street, it meant that you were going up to Gateshead town centre. And in Gateshead town centre you had Jackson Street which was Gateshead Co-operative Society head office. Now this was a department store by the way and I know it well because at the age of 16 I began to work there, but this is early days. We only went there quarterly; just about sometimes more and me mam would say we’ve got to go to Jackson Street. By Jackson Street that meant the Co-op at Jackson Street .We went quarterly because that’s when she got the divvy. Now the dividend I told you before was the cheque number. The dividend was the title, this was the money you got back from the money you spent and every time you spent some money, they tore off a little slip which had copied the amount and handed it across to you. A little cheque and you called it your cheque number and you had cheques and my mam kept all the cheques in on <> <> and she had them all on there and in stood next to the tin that had the money in that’s money she was taking <> We were a bit different to most working class people because my mam had a savings account. Most of the street didn’t. The reason she had a savings account was my dad being away at sea she then had to get paid through the post office because obviously he didn’t get a wage packet while he was away at sea. She got a wage every week but it was paid through the post office that was on that same road. I’m sorry to digress from – I’ll come back to Jackson Street. So she had a bit of – so they would say do you want to leave anything in Mrs Creaby and she’d say yes I’ll leave half a crown in or obviously not as much as that, but whatever. So she was a good saver me mam, and probably due to that we always had a bit of money in there. Our only other savings was in the co-op and the reason for this is that the dividend was very carefully planned to actually fall – the dividend from what you’d paid you know in cheque numbers, very carefully so that it would fall in the spring, Easter because the kids had new clothes at Easter, or what have you. And then it would come in the summer , it would get , summer holidays, summer clothes not that we went very far Cullercoats <> <> but any way always used to get clothes for the summer then the autumn going back to school or going back to work. A lot of people had had their holiday, one week or whatever it was, then they’d be going back to work <> so great a bit of money and then come the December which was always just for Christmas. Now me mam used to say we’ll go for the divi at Jackson Street on Wednesday there’s less of a queue. We’d go there – the Mongolian hoards were waiting to get (laughter) God knows what it was like on the day when the big crowds went and we always went on a Wednesday, hand her book in and she’d have worked to a farthing how much she was due the divi. She was never ever wrong about how much she was due on the divi and so she would, they would give her her money and leave half a crown in or whatever now that was never touched. She touched the money in post office of what was kept in the tin on the mantelpiece or the dresser. She never used to touch the money in the co-op. I can’t remember her taking that money out. I think that was there to bury her or something, I think that it was there for that specific reason
KC – Or for a hard time
JC – A hard time. We never had a hard time because my Dad had secure work and so did the miners at that time. So that was the co-op. Now the co-op was a proper department store. In there you’d go menswear, had a grocery place as well, you bought your boot and shoes, and you bought your white products. If you wanted a radio eventually we got electricity in the1950s early 1950s in time for us, for my granddad anyway to get a postage stamp television for to watch the coronation. Anyway, you could buy, all , you could –
KC – <>
JC – that was a defiant if I recall, anyway, a defiant television, a co-op television mean and you could buy your washing machine, I remember my mam getting her first twin tub washing machine after we got electricity and this was like a this was a miracle one (35 minutes) because you put stuff in there to wash and then you had to hump it into here and it spun. When it first came into the house we all stood in the kitchen to watch this thing work, you know it was like (laugh) like someone had bought some miracle product that you never , a great invention. Anyway
KC – It was a great convention
JC – It was a great invention, you’re absolutely right Kath. But this was a major store, department store, major, major store department store and well you bought everything in there. And because the divi fell the way it did, it meant that when you went for the divi that you obviously spent your money there because you got the divi and you went straight down to the menswear and you know, trailing behind your mam, she’d say pair of grey trousers and the fellow would say do you want to just <> these so you can grow into them and sometimes you know they’d be down to your ankles you’d had to grow at the rate of knots, anyway, to be fair to me mam she’d always have them below the knee but I mean some of the kids when they went out had long short ones on when they went out would last them a Dutch month, anyway so we didn’t have any of that I mean we were lucky. Probably because I say we were well off. I mean the area I lived in was a poor area but poverty in those terms was determined a lot by if you were working if you were working you were like the working poor, and if you weren’t working you were bloody hard up and the pawn shop on Askew Road did a roaring trade of people taking things in and out. To tell you the political significance of it though, it was before I went to grammar school, so it was when I was 9 or 10 year old. Me mam had said “nip up to the store and get such and such” can’t remember what it was <> so I went up to the store. I get up there and there’s a little white piece of paper stuck on the door saying stock taking opening again in an hour. So I thought, Oh, an hour, I’m not hanging about for an hour, so I nips down the street and there was another one a shop called Thompsons Red Stamps Stores – its stamped on my brain for a number of reasons. Thompsons Red Stamp Stores. I’d never ever been in this place, it sold like broken biscuits – in essence people who were poor really poor I’m talking about, unemployed, that’s where they went. They’d pawn their clothes and then go across and get their goods and when they got a little bit of money they’d get their clothes back etc., etc., you know how the pawn shops worked. I’d never been in. Anyway, I thought, I’d go in here, this shops open. So I toddled in and gets what I want and I comes out and me Mam says “where’ve you’ve been, where’ve you got them” I says you know the shop, you know the shop next to the blue light, the blue light by the way was the office licence, next to the blue light, everything never had the name of trade, you just went like – Oxley’s is the chip shop nobody says go to the chip shop, she’d say nip up to Oxleys to get the fish and chips. How we ever got a language out of it I, god alone knows, everything was done by some sort of weird semaphore, anyway we I said it was open and the other one was shut, god, did I get a <h?> about this, God did I get into trouble
.You never got into there, sort of thing, foods not good, and all the rest of it me mam really really tore us a strip, and said you know you always go to the store she says and I hope your granddad didn’t get to know, so you see I thought I’d really got myself into real trouble here and really got myself into real trouble, anyway I think it might have been my younger sister Ada, who’s 4 years younger than me, because she was always getting me into trouble, I think she told me granddad that our John went to Thompsons the Red Stamp stores, I’m sure that where it came from, I never ever found out. Should ask her one day. I never ever found out how my Granddad did, he said I here you went to Thompsons I says, well it was open, etc. etc., he said “you know what lad, if it hadn’t been for the co-op in the ’26 strike we would have had bugger all in this house “ for my Granddad was a big Methodist, didn’t drink didn’t go for anything, and later in life when I became highly political he said to me this Marxism you know, he was you know Jomans
KC – Jarmans?
JC – (chuckles) Anyhow, coming back so he told me all this tale and how if it hadn’t been for the co-op, etc., how the soup kitchen was funded by the co-op so got a quick lesson in why the co-op – which was good really, because I just thought we went to the co-op because we got the divi which is probably true mind Kath it’s probably a fact that if we hadn’t got the divi we might not
KC – <>
JC – That’s right, because it was also – and it stays with you all the way through
KC – I remember working <> <> <> <>[background noise] got load and loads of help- in the 80s
JC – I think basically, it was three things. First of all the co-operative represented , I mean the membership business and the rest of it I think was lost on them, I think, but what it represented to them was again not charity. What they were buying, there were getting something back you know, if, poor people don’t like charity really. Nobody likes somebody to say that’s for you poor soul, nobody likes that. And I think that’s what it was because – also was the fact which you’ve just said about this loyalty, these memories were pretty raw, it was raw for me mam, I mean me mam, lived through the 26 strike and me granddad of course being a miner was involved in the 26 strike, so it was a raw memory so it wasn’t, same as 84 (40 minutes)
KC – Was your mam or your grandma in a women’s guild.
JC – No they weren’t. Now whether this was because there was no guild cos could have imagined me mam would have joined the guild, but no they weren’t in a guild at all. I mean, but, the community was very strong and certainly the co-operative as such was part of that community. I mean it wasn’t – I mean when I went into the shop in Milling Street, they’d say “Hello young g John, what do you want, what’s your mam wanting today”. They knew you If you went down to Victoria Road it was a bit more establishment where they’d say “Hello Mrs Creaby, how are you today” that sort of thing because we weren’t the regulars Probably down in their grocery end it was exactly the same. Jackson Street was a world away. On top of that mind, if they couldn’t get it for you they’d say “Right Mrs Creaby we can either get it for you or do you want to go across to Blandford Street” (chuckles). Now that really was a big one. Now that was a big journey as a kid. You had to get the bus at the top of the street and then go to the toon Newcastle. Gateshead was never called the town, Newcastle was the town. You went to town in Newcastle – the toon. We’d go to the toon and go to Blandford Street. Again no mention of co-ops. The co-op word was never mentioned. These places, all because that’s where you shopped you didn’t have to call them the co-op you know that’s the place you went to. But, er, by this time, by the time I was 9 or 10 or 11 my younger sister started to take over things and being a boy of course I did nothing in the house even though I had very liberated and political parents as I soon found out when I was older. It was the culture of the time. I had me mam who ran round me like rings, my elder sister who ran round me like rings and me younger sister. My job was to make the fire in the morning every morning until I went to grammar school. Make the fire in the morning. Brush the backyard, wash it out, swill it out or whatever clear the snow do all that sort of work. Any hard cleaning work anything like that.
KC – Dirty work
JC – That was my work. Shirts appeared cleaned, washed. Appeared ready to wear. I took it for granted these things happened. Food was put on the table, etc. etc. It was hard for them to break the tradition of feeding the men. You know, the men, unlike the classical way of live where you give the woman things as I would do now because that’s the culture of life now. You give guests, you give guests. In those days, the men, the food went down for the men first and then food went down for the women
KC – They were the workers
JC – Absolutely right. I mean on top of that, that’s right, they were worn out and I said earlier on, the kids had second sittings if there were two sittings. So by the time I got to 11, sat the 11+, I passed the 11+ at 10 and three quarters years old, so I was even wasn’t, the 11+ for me, My birthday’s ion December, so I sat it early. So I was tiny by the way, as I am now, but I was tinier then, I must have looked about 6, em, and being Catholics I went to a catholic grammar school. Now there are two catholic grammar schools. One in Jarrow and one in Newcastle. The one in Newcastle was the “ better” one
KC – What was that one
JC – St Cuthbert’s. St Cuthbert’s Grammar School. And its interesting reading Sting, you know the rock singer, the music singer, he went to St Cuthbert’s and reading his book is interesting, his experience of St Cuthbert’s seemed to very much comply with mine. It was a very disciplinarian school, something very strange to me. But me mam of course uniform, leather thing for me back
KC – Satchel
JC – Satchel for me back, and so on. She was proud as punch of course. But we had to buy everything from Raymond Barnes which was the shop in Newcastle in Grey Street, it was the only place that stocked the uniform it was a right snob school by the way, St Cuthbert’s, run by priests and brothers with a few, a handful of non-clerical people, non church, non-religious people. At the time by the way I was very religious. I was really taken to religion
KC – Altar boy?
JC – Altar boy. Loved I loved the liturgy, loved the Latin and I loved the whole atmosphere of the whole glamour of religion, the glamour of the church. And to be fair, it did set me on the ideas of right and wrong. I’ve got to admit to that. Of course it was right and wrong on the basis that the wrath of going to hell was a bit more pronounced than doing well for do good’s sake it was do good or you’re going to end up in the heat of hell. My granddad believed that intensely too, but from a different religious perspective but they were pretty good people very liberal in the sense that me mam sent us. She was never very big churchy church, but she was very catholic but not to the extent of going every day or every night, but I did. I went every morning to church as an altar boy and so on and what have you. So when I went to Grammar school in the back of my mind I thought I should become a priest but I was quite taken by this time by poverty, poor people, and em and felt that through the priesthood you could do something for poor people and what have you. I was soon to find out differently, particularly at St Cuthbert’s grammar school where the priests were bullies and brutes apart from one of them, but the rest of them were. So I went to grammar school and I signed up to the idea that I might go to a seminary and I might become a priest but by the time I got to 12 or 13, my voice broke and other things happened and realised there was the opposite sex had another reason other than being different to us in having long hair, ideas of a celibate priesthood was rapidly evaporating like snow on the dyke. Anyway, so I didn’t, I began to move away from that but still logically believing and could pass off the idea of such a strict regime at the school on the basis that these were people not the church. The big problem at the school wasn’t so much
KC – What do you mean by that? The people not the church?
JC – Well these are ordinary people, not the religious, not the, by this time I’d bought into the ideology of faith so it was quite clear that
KC – So you separated the personal from the religion
JC – Absolutely. Absolutely. So I, but the big thing at that period and I don’t want to dwell too much into the school to be honest except it certainly it did three things. It introduced me to culture that I would never ever have been introduced to: ballet, music, so on, classics. Introduced me to literature that probably I’d never have been linked to. And did give me a great bearing on mathematics and so forth, that I’d never have got. Certainly not at the secondary school where the 90% who hadn’t passed the 11+, there was only 10% each year got in, as we were continually told by the head teacher, at every morning when we went in for assembly.
KC – Grateful?
JC – Yes. The head teacher would say you are the 10% Well to some degree you would be grateful for us lot, but for the others it was the 10% as you very well know. That was the brig t thing about the school you know, it suddenly opened my eyes to alienation and class. Alienation on the basis that suddenly I was completely alienated from the area that I lived in. I had to leave every morning very early, and I didn’t make the fire for that reason, every morning to get two buses. One bus to take me to Marlborough Crescent and then a trolley bus up the West Road to where the school was. So completely cut off from anything to do with my community. Secondly, it at the school itself it meant everything revolved around the school. It er, the school choir, I was a member of the school choice because I always have had a good voice and still am a second tenor singing with the Chester- le-Street civic choir. So at that time I had a boy’s tenor voice so I was held in great esteem by them, for a boy tenor is held in massive esteem because we didn’t have any girls and boy tenors can get girl’s pitches, and so on. So the choirmaster used to like me on that basis. But the rest of the students, apart from a clump of us working class kids used to <> together. The rest of the kids at the school were middle class and some of them were upper middle class. Some of them came for instance, one of them a lad called Paul Sherman-Urp used to come in a car, driven in by somebody in a car, a chauffeur type. So you, you had people coming from as far as Morpeth coming to this school and outer limits. So you were completely alienated from where I’d come from, the class, the community that I came from. I found I was beginning to not being able to relate to them in fact because the kids I used knock around with didn’t want to talk about Chaucer or Shakespeare, or go to see this or do that or the other or talk about things I knew about. I found I was becoming less and less part of them and more and more having to depend on this new community, the school community, that I’d become involved with. So, that was the first alienation. But class was pretty obvious. My mam had to struggle like hell to keep me at the school, I knew that, because my Dad had left the sea when I was 10 and he had gone to work at Vickers. From Vickers he then went to work in the shipyards and he fell when I was about 12 year old. He fell tens of feet, 60 feet I think it was. He was a head foreman there and man froze on a crane and my dad went up to bring him down and they both fell. The other fellow I think didn’t make it, by my dad did and was told he would never, ever work again by the dole and so forth. So they must have been – they must have been, must have been living on their savings and certainly it must have cost an arm and a leg because everything at grammar school you had to pay for everything, you know apart from the schooling so you were quite alienated cos I knew exactly not consciously but subconsciously that we were hard up compared to these people, bloody hard up. But and because I played in the first 11 at cricket you had to have whites so my mam had to buy cloth and make me ones because she couldn’t buy whites at the co-op. So she had to buy them and then she’d steep them and steep them into whatever she did with them to make them like a creamy cloth that she made them from. She was a great seamstress by the way and she had to steep them to make them white and she knit me, I didn’t have a bought V necked jumper and it had to have because I was in the McGills house, it had to have the McGills house house colour and all the rest of it, but she was a good knitter so it looked good. White shirt, all this sort of thing. One of my uncles’s bought me first box for protective reasons (laughs). My first box, because, although you could borrow a box at the school, but me mam said you’re not borrowing anyone else’s box sort of thing.
I’ll tell you what a box is like, you’ll probably gather what portion of your body these boxes cover and I’m sure you do because David plays cricket (laughs). Anyway
KC – And I did take objection to him sharing his box with somebody else. We all do it. I know where your mam’s coming from.
JC – Laughs. No way. I think she would have pawned the bedstead to get me a box. Anyway. So we struggled and you are aware absolutely and the worst about it was that the school made you aware. First of all I had to have elocution lessons because the school were not happy with the way that Tommy Grey and other lads and I talked. Tommy Grey became my good friend. And therefore they said we can’t have you talking like that because you know this is St Cuthbert’s, so we went to elocution lessons which was based on the basis of every time you
KC – Did they give you them John or did you
JC – The school gave them to be fair and them wacked your hand if you got them wrong. Things like is and me. As you know in the Geordie vernacular we say “help is” if you said is they’d say “is the third part of the verb to be” and then they’d clutch your fingers and you’d quite soon, like <A> himself, you were quite soon able to realise that you had to drop that word or help me or me mam. You got clouted for that. So eventually, not only therefore was I being alienated by the fact that I was separated from the community I then began even to speak differently to my community. Because if for 5 days you were speaking in the language you were being told to do and you might have noticed that I’m drifting into that now, <> you began to even speak differently to the people that you lived with. So the grammar school was not a good time.
When I came to be 16, 15 or 16 I realised I couldn’t stay on at school for six months because my family were hard up. By this time my dad had got a job, my uncle Joe my dad’s’ brother, who didn’t get on until he actually went to work for him, he had a shop and my dad worked for him. Then eventually he worked at the co-op in Blandford Street. Amazing circle as the man who did all the odd jobs around the place because he was handy with his hands, he could do wood work
KC – Your dad?
JC – My dad. So eventually he was working but I realised by the time I got, was 15 or 16 I was obviously aware of how poor we were. Up to 15/16 I knew we were not as well off as this lot but I didn’t realise my mam and dad had had to really struggle to keep me there. Certainly there was no way I could have stayed on anyway after 15/16. So I em. I was in the debating society by this time, very political, aware about politics, stuff from a non radical standpoint
KC – <>Were you developing over that time you spent at grammar school
JC – Absolutely. And I think it was I began to realise that these people these were well off, they could float in and float out, for instance when we had a refugee fund, we had a thing on wall for how much went in, they’d be putting in pound notes you know, a pound note say for instance. A pound note to me would have been a colossal sum of money and I’d be bringing in say a shilling, or two shilling, and so would the rest of them, and you were made aware by the school that you were lucky to be there. These people, they were they by their right if you like. You were just, you were lucky to be there. Now whether this was right or wrong Kath, whether this was me picking this whether this was in
KC – That was certainly the impression you got.
JC – Absolutely and I felt it. But I could talk. As you can gather now. It’s been a trait that has followed me through life. Anyway, em, I joined the Debating Society and of course there were one or two wheeler dealers in the debating society. And they used to get speakers. I remember they brought over a worker priest from France and I was quite interested in what he had to say about the <> and the popes <> <> and capital and things and juxtaposition of religion and social affairs. And then the other thing was that we had someone came from PAX and I’m talking about 1958 now, so I’m about 15. Someone came from PAX (Latin for Peace) and this was the catholic CND Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And I went to it. This was my introduction to the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Which I joined in 1958 as a school student and I got very much involved with that. And it was through that I met some people who were in a thing called the Young Christian Workers which was a catholic workers organisation. Very, very heavily connected to the labour party. So this time by the way I was beginning to be agnostic rather than having shelved off the life of religion, I was beginning to become agnostic on the basis of probably not believing in religion as an organisation as a structure but still believing in some sort of deity or some sort of god, or powerful being. So I went to PAX then I went to the Young Christian Workers and met various people, the Murrays, Jim Murray, the family at Gateshead, who were a big labour family, a catholic labour family they were all deeply involved. And it was Jimmy Murray well, who I was later to know very well as convenor at Vickers Elswick and quite a legend by the way on Tyneside Jimmy Murray dead now, but quite a legend left wing Marxist thinker em, and then his brother who was too old on the cusp of going out of the Young Christian Workers, he said to me “you ought to join the youth section of the labour party”. So I said oh well, I’ll do that. So I joined the youth section of the labour party because they’d disbanded the young socialists because the Trotsky’s in the late 1950s had taken over the young socialist, <> <> disbanded <> typical trait of the labour party. Anyway in Gateshead because of the power of the because of the of the ILP and the Quaker influence and the Peat influence, a massive history in Gateshead about the socialist society like the Little Theatre that was set up, lots of up and when I went to the youth section of the labour party which was kept up by it was my introduction to the labour party and politics as an organisation. Two people that were influential.
By this time I was leaving school with a clutch of GCE O levels and the idea by this time by the way I had long hair and was adept at wearing dark glasses and by this time I had my own place to live. My granddad had died so my cousin and I moved into his place so I had the luxury of virtually being free and independent with me mam just across the road to make my breakfast and wash my clothes and bring them to me . Ideal life for a teenager. The bedroom was probably a political emporium with pictures of left wing people and what have you on the walls.
So I left school with a clutch of GCE O levels and decided I would go to art college because that’s where all us lefty types emanated towards because you could then <> So I went to the art college which was along, along
KC – Were you working there as well or just
JC – No, no this was school. Just came out of school and went to the art college to get a position and they said we can’t take you in at the moment until the next semester because you’ve come too late.
KC – <>
JC – Put your name down. You’ve got to get a local education authority grant. So me and my mam, my Mam and I, went to Gateshead local authority. A doddle really. You walked in and said where Oh, up here, get a grant from up here, is it in Newcastle? Oh, aye, and it was virtually stamp, stamp you’ve got a grant. It really was I mean I’m not exaggerating, that’s how easy it was. I had to fill a form in and everything, but there was no sweat and tears to be honest. Anyway I went across again on the trolley bus across to Heaton where it was told them about the grant, oh well yes. But I had to get a job between this would be… I left school in September, this would be like the November, and I thought well I cannot not have a job until next June so I’m chatting away to somebody in the labour hall and Rosa Pearson, who, Rosa Pearson was the chair I think of Gateshead Co-op. Big ILP. Tremendous woman. These women were phenomenal people you know. Her and Mary Bell, Alderman Mary Bell, they had, but one thing was they were innocent in other ways.
Just slightly digressing, Mary Bell went to Gateshead football ground when they opened it up and asked to kick the first ball over the turf. And over the microphone she said “Thank you very much and I hope you invite me back to kick all your balls off” (laughter) and of course everybody – and she couldn’t understand why there was this roar of laughter.
Anyway, that aside, back to story. Rosa Pearson of course said there are positions going in Jackson Street, again you know the co-op, in Jackson Street, So said, oh well; get a job pro tem in Jackson Street co-op. So I went to Jackson Street co-op and they said, by this time I’d become highly politicised, particularly with the Aldermaston march, CND, suddenly being involved in and this would be
KC – You would be mixing in political circles
JC – Very much so. Particularly the new left. People like Ralph Milliband and people like that and I’d been influenced by reading lots of books. I was becoming very political. By this time I probably would say I’d become an atheist really. So I went anyway to the co-op, getting back to that and went upstairs and saw the secretary who lived in Low Fell and later knew pretty well. And he said there are three jobs going there’s one in the offices, like the offices upstairs; he says there’s one going in the boot and shoe and one going in the menswear. And I thought Oh I’ll go in the menswear because if I go in the menswear I’ll get all the cheap
KC – <>
JC – Em, so I sort of said , said I’ll go the menswear because I thought cheap clothes, and all the new stuff coming I’ll get them you know, etc etc so it was, it was a good idea you know in my mind I thought. I;’ll get all things going here and on top of that it would be great. And at the co-op it fitted exactly my labour party role. Anyway, I go for a job in the menswear and er join the union of course at the store, became involved with the branch, became the shop collector which meant I went around the little shops to collect from the women who worked in the sweet shops and little shops
KC – To collect the union dues
JC – Yes, the union dues and it was then that I got to know that you had to stand inside because they’d get the sack if they joined the union and I’d wait until the shop was empty of customers and you’d go in with a strip for the money and you’d mark them down and that’s how – I’m talking now of this is 19
KC – Are you talking about the co-op shops?
No, No, the little shops.
KC – Right
JC – The co-op, the money was taken off your wage. You didn’t, you just signed the form. I mean as soon as I went into the Co-op I said how do I join the union, and they said oh, here you fill that in. I mean the co-op was great. So I was very active in the union and also then affiliated to Newcastle Trades Council and was becoming more and more active in CND particularly as it was now, this would be 1969 coming up, 1968 sorry, yes 1968. End of 1968. So I was going to the Aldermaston March and then after being on the Aldermaston March in 1958, sorry 1958 not 1968, and the Aldermaston March completely turned me into politics. Politics went on all the time in there, all the time you were, you could move around and I was introduced to loads of books and so forth and funnily enough this must have been 1958 I would say 1959, didn’t go to the 58 demonstration, sorry 1959 it was. I’d also joined a thing called the 59 society if you went down that avenue that’s a book and half of volumes of the 59 society and the people who were involved in that are still around. But the Aldermaston March fundamentally changed me politically, religion, everything, phenomenal experience to have been on a demonstration which there was thousands there remember, thousands and thousands in 1959 the first biggest demonstration ever
KC – And the nuclear war as very much on the cards
JC – Arh, everybody thought it could happen and happen early. And also although as a teenager you thought you were immortal because all teenagers think they’re immortal that they’ll never die, but on the other hand this, this presence of death was pretty close. So Aldermaston probably fundamentally changed me. So that was reality. And funnily enough then, my Dad who said “Oh, I’m glad I can now talk to you”, my dad had been a member of the communist party all of his life. He had not said anything to me because of religion and so forth; he was so free thinking that if I wanted to go down that avenue it was up to me. He’d left religion as a boy, went to sea at 14. His story should probably be told sometime because it’s a book. He goes to Spain, and so forth and so forth, and anyway sitting talking to him and finding out he had stayed off ship in America and met up with the <A> <> of the institute of workers in the world in America, I didn’t realise he was so highly politicised. Very, very much astounded me by the way, and very much pro soviet, to the extent that the soviet was, you couldn’t question the soviet. But apart from that, a brilliant guy so that discussion, and discussions that continued with him and the Aldermaston March was if you like when the foundations that were set what I talked to you about before, those foundations suddenly the building block of those foundations began to build and my political activism began to really take off.
Then there was the co-op and Easter and remember that all the Aldermaston marches were on, and Easter was big time for co-ops, particularly menswear. I was never once was disallowed to go on an Aldermaston March. I was given time off to do trades union duties, I went to co-op college at Loughborough for education purposes, I had a correspondence course from the co-op, I was involved with the national council for labour colleges and in fact was secretary for the council – that’s another story the NCLC, when I think of people like the lecturer Fabian <C>, George <>, but that was an interesting group. Marxist, it was a Marxist college, workers college which had cells in factories and what have you which was in opposition to the WEA which of course took government money and that was an anathema to the people who had gone through labour colleges. Also, it was, we were also involved with the WEA, both the NCLC (National Council of Labour Colleges) and the WEA were funded by the trades unions, therefore you went to the WEA if you wanted something like academically good and you went to the NCLC if you wanted some real politics, so you had these two bodies that used to function as a process of educating people like me. It was from that if you like in 1959 that the whole politics took off.
I was working at the co-op by the way all this time, worked at the co-op from, worked at the co-op for six years
KC – What happened to art college?
JC – Politics took over. Art or anything that disappeared and as I had money, wages, didn’t really mean much to me because I literally was looked after very well. I gave me mam what was my board and what was left was mine and some of that was put away and some, etc. etc., <> but I couldn’t leave the co-op. The co-op was fantastic. I could be as political as I wanted. In 1961 for instance, in 1960 sorry, 1960ish, when the apprentices strike took place, Guy Falconer a good friend of mine and has been a friend of mine since 1959 and was my best man as well. 1959 him and I met in the young socialists as the youth section had become when it was actually constitutionally set up and you could participate in the labour party in the 60s er, Guy and I know each other, have been friends, he’s like a brother really, have been friends since then. Guy who was still at school doing his GCEs and I was at the co-op, we went to speak as the speakers to the apprentices strikers who had come down from Glasgow. That’s another story. But the thing was that I could go into and see the co-op and say I want to go to a trade union meeting and I need the time off and he’d say, yes. Go to a political meeting – yes. I could go to Aldermaston at Easter I mean you can’t believe that, but Gateshead co-op at that time was very politically connected. The people who were on the Board – I knew Les and people like that – not only were they on the Board, they were on the Trades Council and they were in the labour party. So everyone was in the same thing. So Mr Black you notice all the names were Mr certainly all the people I worked with Mr Gillander was the boss of my section, Mr Henry and Mr Gillander, I knew their other names, but you know what it was like. You know the shop programme – Are you Being Served?
KC – Yes
JC – That’s exactly. Mr Gillander would say “Mr Creaby, are you free?” And I’d say yes, and we’d serve so you see but on top of all of that was the fact that there was no way I could leave there. I mean the wages were poor and probably intellectually it wasn’t really , but I got that outside you see
KC – You didn’t need that because
JC – So the interesting thing was the other workers. All the kids would wear the CND badge after I’d gone there because this was a passage to being a teenager to wear a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge and it always – and they’d say when we’d go for tea, “What did you do last night” because they knew I would – because they had mundane lives like they’d go to the Majestic for dancing, or they’d go here and I lived in a totally different world to them. You know, the downbeat club with the rhythm and blues crowd and jazz clubs and the arty crowd, so it was my time at the co-op was fabulous I enjoyed every minute of it. Every minute and if you like as I would say anyway that was the cusp of it, that was when the foundation that had been built from the childhood that I’ve just said, the foundations were now absolutely totally set for the political activism of the 50 years if you like thereafter. 50+ years, from 1959 to now the political activism of that period. I became a trades unionist official as you know, regional secretary of trades union, was chair of the community relations council, member of the campaign against racial discrimination, there’s a whole story in those 50 years as you can image particularly out –
KC – I know, the doors
JC – The doors were out with because of that foundation.
KC – Thanks very much John that’s fascinating, great stuff.