Writer Michael Chaplin went for a walk by the River Tyne, wrote a book about it, and then a play. As Tyne returns to the stage this week, Michael describes it ‘one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life’.
It all began with a birthday celebration, but the atmosphere on the pleasure boat taking family and friends from Newcastle’s Quayside down to the crab-legged piers at the mouth of the Tyne soon turned distinctly funereal, for me anyway.
It was my first journey down the lower Tyne in many years and I was quietly shocked by what I saw. Of course I knew well what had happened in the 30 years since I left the employ of this newspaper and took the train to London in search of a future: the collapse of the river’s great enterprises in shipbuilding, ship-repair and heavy engineering, and the deliberate throttling of the coal industry that powered the region’s growth for almost 500 years. But it is one thing to understand such a withering, but another to see it and feel it, and grasp its human implications, in the rusting metal, banksides returning to nature and a solitary figure gazing mournfully at this quiet, melancholy scene. Maybe he was thinking what I was: what a falling off was there…
When after 29 years away I moved back to Newcastle in 2006, I sensed another change, this time in the attitudes of Tynesiders to their river. For one thing, I rarely met anyone who worked on or beside the river, but there was a mental as well as physical turning away: people felt the Tyne had somehow become irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps this wasn’t new. I remembered something intriguing written 50 years ago by my father, the novelist Sid Chaplin: ‘We take the river for granted. Stuck in a traffic jam on the Tyne Bridge, we never stop to think she’s at the bottom of it all. Without her we’d be lost. In fact we wouldn’t be here at all’.
I sensed he might be right, but didn’t quite know why.
Then I met an old Tyne shipbuilder, who delivered a gloomy prognosis of the river’s future: ‘Tyne’s dead, man. Tide’s gone out. Ferry trips, that’s basically it’.
I instinctively felt he was wrong, but couldn’t be sure, nor about what my dad was driving at in those enigmatic five words: Without her we’d be lost.
So I decided to find out, applying for a non-existent job as writer-in-residence for the Port of Tyne, the river’s docks and navigation authority. Truth be told, I’d no idea what I’d actually write – and thanks to the Port’s chief executive Andrew Moffatt for signing me on despite the hopeless pitch – but I just knew there was a great story here and that I wanted to tell it. I also had a private agenda, sensing that such a quest might renew a sense of identity confused by half a lifetime spent away from this place. It worked, and in the end my Tyne project became one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life.
Eventually I stumbled on a way to proceed: to go on a walk, remembering the lesson drummed into me by my first news Journal editor that if you want to know what’s going on, don’t ring someone up, go and talk to people face to face. To map the territory, I’d walk from South Shields pier along the south bank of the river to Wylam, cross over its bridge, then head east again to Tynemouth pier – a journey of some 50 miles, which actually took 10 days at a modest five miles a day, largely because there was so much to see and that many people to talk to. Since the landscape is so richly picturesque, sometimes in a gritty and grimy way, it demanded illustration. Hence my solitary stroll became a march by a gang of four, with my companions artist Birtley Aris, photographer Charles Bell and poet Christy Ducker. However, when we set out that July morning in 2011, I was distinctly nervous. Would we find enough material to make a little book? Would people talk to us – and have interesting things to say?
I needn’t have worried. By lunchtime that first day, reaching The Customs House in South Shields, we’d met a man who’d worked foy-boats all his life and a river pilot who’d taken out the very last shipment of Tyne coal from the river and then piloted the very first shipful of foreign coal into it six years later; spent a fascinating hour in the packed workshop of the only remaining boat builder between Amble and Whitby, the incoming tide buffing against the metal gates of the slipway where the Seaham lifeboat George Elmy was being restored; heard some fantastic tales of the river’s whaling men. So it went on, and I filled notebook and after notebook, Birtley found many scenes to sketch, Christy worked up a suite of poems and Charlie’s camera never stopped clicking. And the ‘little book’ slowly became quite a big one – and a labour of love for us all.
So what did we learn?
The first was that a riverside walk is now actually possible, with long stretches of waterside paths, especially above Walker on the north shore and Hebburn opposite, used by countless joggers, cyclists, skate-boarders, dog-walkers and strollers – happily for us, because we talked to many of them. The river’s more accessible now than it’s been for 150 years – and an awful lot cleaner than when a visit to the old coroner’s court on the Swing Bridge was an unwelcome assignment for a cub reporter for the simple reason that the then poisonous Tyne stank to high heaven. The clean-up’s been a great boon to wildlife too: we saw many species of birds and flowers, and in the water, otters, seals and their prey, the salmon, returning to the river in such numbers that the Tyne’s now the best river for the great leaping fish in England.
As for the human population, we made other discoveries. I’d always regarded Tyneside as one great conurbation in which everywhere was more or less like everywhere else, but as we walked through a series of quite distinct villages that have fused together over time, we discovered that these places have separate atmospheres and characters: South Shields is very different from the other Shields over the water, little Clara Vale quite distinct from its neighbor Wylam, Jarrow and Hebburn are chalk and cheese. This discovery led to another revision in my thinking, the rather slack assumption that Tynesiders are somehow as homogenous as the places where they live.
Example. Modern Hebburn is largely the creation of an Aberdonian named Andrew Leslie, who came south in the mid-19th century to build a great shipyard, manning it with workers he could trust, so the place became known as Little Aberdeen. Meanwhile Jarrow’s great enterprise was a yard created by the legendary Charles Mark Palmer, also the town’s Liberal MP and supporter of Irish Home Rule, which attracted so many like-minded folk that his town became known as Little Ireland. Thus I had an epiphany: hey, we all came from somewhere else! – especially in the 19th century, when the digging of vast quantities of Tyne coal created what the historian Bill Lancaster calls ‘carboniferous capitalism’, new labour-hungry industries embracing the building of railways, ships, engines and many other things. So the labourers came, from all over Britain and then Europe, including my own great, great-grandfather who walked from Suffolk as a 14 year old to become a Durham pitman. This process continues: in Clara Vale we talked to a remarkable man in his 80’s called Drag Milton, who escaped a dirty war in his native Serbia to become a miner in Clara Vale, where he found a rich new life. Passing the Byker Wall, we heard of the extraordinary range of its new settlers, including Tyneside’s first Mongolian family, all looking for futures of their own.
Many people we met on our walk told us stories about their forebears who lived or worked by the river, and it became clear that everyone had a tale about the Tyne. Many of them went into Tyne View – which thus became a kind of people’s history – and then some of my favourites into the play Tyne, one of which – written on a card by a man called Ralph (or possibly Paul!) – says a great deal about the character, spirit and humour of the people of the Tyne. He wrote: ‘Me dad was a North Shields trawlerman. We had no shoes. I got sick of eating lobster.’
But the biggest question hovering over the walk was whether this great human history was over. Was that man right? Is the Tyne really dead, in an economic sense?
I’m happy to report that actually, it isn’t. For one thing, the Port of Tyne, in its base at Tyne Dock, is booming, not solely because of the somewhat ironic import of foreign coal (and biomass fuels) to fire up the Drax power stations, and enough tea to flavour a third of the 165 million cups drunk in Britain every day, but also because of the ever-growing export of Nissan cars and parts. At Walker we found a two-mile cluster of dynamic new enterprises based around the new energy fields of the North Sea and met an inspiring man called Alan Reece, just before he died. Reece came to Tyneside during the war, partly, he told me, to get away from his mother, but really to study engineering at King’s College. Years later he set up two companies, SMD and Pearson’s, to make two different kinds of plough, for use on the sea-bed, and to clear mines in war-zones. The companies now employ 700 highly-skilled workers and have a combined turnover of £300 million, but when I asked for the secret of this success, he rhapsodised about the aptitude for engineering he first saw in the men and women of Tyneside 60 years ago. I left his company with a smile. Reports of the Tyne’s demise are exaggerated.
There was one final puzzle to work out. What did my dad mean when he wrote that without the Tyne, ‘we’d be lost’? In the end it seemed to me he wasn’t talking about jobs, and money, but something much more personal. The clue lay in the many people we saw simply staring into the water of Tyne. I always wondered what they were thinking about, sometimes disturbing their reverie to catch a clue, and came to the conclusion they were going back in time, to remember, not just their own lives, but those of their parents, grandparents and forebears, many of whom came to Tyneside from far away. I think what really draws us to the Tyne is that it’s a powerful focus for our sense of place, belonging and identity. Perhaps the most striking illustration of this is the growing number of people who choose to scatter the ashes of their loved ones in the river. Not long ago the estimable Gail, who sells me my morning paper, did just this with her father’s remains, and when I asked why, she said: ‘It just seemed right,’ then paused. ‘Well, the Tyne, it’s home, isn’t it?’
And always will be.
As Wallsend-boy Sting sang: ‘And all this time, the river flowed, endlessly, to the sea…’
Tyne, by Michael Chaplin produced by Live Theatre in association with Theatre Royal, Newcastle and in partnership with Port of Tyne plays at The Customs House, South Shields this week, Wednesday 26 February to Saturday 1 March and at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle next week .
This article first appearing in The Journal, Tuesday 25 February 2014.