About 6 years ago, when the North East Branch of the Socialist Party was quite an active branch, the toast of their southern comrades and the envy of less formidable lefty groups in the region, we boldly decided to commence holding meetings around the borough - taking the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak (in those days we met regularly at The Swan, just off the Heworth by-pass, a pub that backs onto the cemetery that contains the grave of legendary 1832 miners’ strike leader, Thomas Hepburn). The branch contained a mixture of Geordies*, Makems**, monkey hangers*** and exiled Scots; the Makems forming perhaps the largest contingent.
We decided at one branch meeting, on a member’s advice, to hold a meeting in Sunderland, in a public house in Roker and not far from the famous black cat football ground (long since replaced with the Stadium of Shite****). The comrade who suggested the pub – buggered if I can remember the name of it – used it as his local and was a friend of the landlord and offered that there would be a decent turn-out there.
The night of the meeting came and I set off early for the venue – unsure just where it was and a slight apprehensive, as the last time I had ventured through the area a gang of nutters were ripping the scaffolding from a building that was being renovated, and hurling it each other for a laugh, and some little gobshite, no more than seven-years-old, asked if I could light his fag. Anyway – I digress – I eventually found the pub, or should I say ‘pothole’?
There are messy pubs and there are right bloody dives and then there are pubs like this one. This one was unique in so far as not two tables or chairs in the entire place matched. The tables clearly hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, there were fag ends on the floor and fish supper wrappers and empty crisp packets stuffed down between and at the back of the seating where it met the wall, and the wallpaper was in the kind of condition you would expect if you had been scraping it off for an hour. And sitting amidst this detritus was the oddest looking bunch of people I have ever seen assembled in one spot.
When I walked into the bar at about 7 pm the place went deadly silent, just like in that scene in the film An American Werewolf in London when the two young Yanks venture into the Slaughtered Lamb pub on the Moors to escape the encroaching evening. Even the juke box paused and looked at me. And then everything returned to normal and the locals carried on their conversations.
I knew I looked strange to them – I do to everyone and am always guaranteed a second, third and even fourth glance – but as I looked around me I knew I just had to be at a convention of Last of the Summer Wine***** fanatics, and at which some members had decided to come as Eli Duckett (pictured above - the short-sighted old guy with the jam jar glasses, who wears the long white mac and shuffles along, and who’ll stand for half an hour talking to a post box, thinking it’s a woman in a red coat and saying something like: “Eee, missus, you’re on wrong side of road for bus stop.”) There were ‘Compos’ there as well as a few dodgy looking characters who could successfully have auditioned for walk-on parts in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The landlord came out of a back room to serve me, looking like he’d just got out of bed – hair ruffled, unshaven and clad in a blue dressing gown, open and untied at the front and revealing boxer shorts and a pot belly.
“Is this where the socialist meeting is being held?” I asked, half hoping he’d tell me I was in the wrong pub and that someone had stuck the meeting’s advert to the entrance for a laugh.
“Aye, mate, upstairs,” he replied, as he looked me up and down.
I chatted to him as he poured me a half glass of lager and mixed it with a half pint glass of lemonade, and the Eli Ducket Appreciation Society occasionally looked over and wondered why a man was drinking a girl’s drink.
My host eventually directed me to the stairs for the “function room” above and off I headed in that direction, with a glass of shandy (I’m teetotal) and my heavy hold-all of party literature which I was now regretting having brought – I was thinking a flare gun, commando knife and 24 hour survival pack would have been more appropriate for this night exercise.
The upstairs room was no different – resembling someone’s attempt at furnishing a room from stuff found in skips. It was a lot brighter than downstairs, however, being painted sky blue, but more cluttered with assorted junk piled up and filling one half of the room.
The meeting was not due to commence until about 8pm, but there was already a few comrades there, chatting with a couple of locals who had spied the home-made A4 poster advertising the meeting - ‘All Wellcome’ - and wishing to investigate. The former were pleased to see me – it being evident that their company were giving them a hard time – and thought maybe I, with experience of speaking in daunting settings, could explain the party case to them in a way they could understand.
Like any battle-hardened socialist worth his or her salt, I was again and, for the thousandth time, defending ‘the case’ against charges that “socialism had already been tried and had failed,” that “socialism was dead” and that nobody would want to “live in the Soviet Union” and how “human nature” would always be a barrier to a system of society based on cooperation. But, like making an omelette with one arm tied behind your back and without breaking the eggs, there are something you just can’t do – like converting people with a reformist, Labour Party mentality, their only source of information being The Sun and Sky TV, to ‘the case’. These guys were not having it and proved just as confrontational as the trio of BNP****** members who once came over to the Party stall one afternoon in Jarrow to show off their neo-Nazi tattoos. So I told them just to wait until the evening’s talk was over and there would be a discussion on the same and that maybe they would have a different slant on what I was saying by then.
I set out the stall – we do this at every meeting, and I tend to go over the top and bring more literature than it is possible to sell – handed out some free literature and sat back and waited for the speaker to show up and generally chatted with whoever came into the room. When our speaker did turn up he was an hour and a half late, which really pissed off everyone there, myself included. I had previously said I could not stay late and we were now 90 minutes behind schedule.
I can’t recall the topic of the talk or what was said; I have heard so many that I focus more on the debate and question and answer session afterwards, anticipating, from what the speaker has said, just which direction the questioning will take. In the event, I had to make my farewells, just after the speaker finished. I packed the stall away – literature sales zilch - and left the comrades to the questioning and ventured out into the cold Wearside evening looking for a bus stop. It had been a disappointing evening, with our speaker turning up late and only half a dozen members turning up in addition to our four visitors, who were really only there out of amusement.
There was only one bus going my way and after almost an hour waiting anxiously for it, standing at a semi-derelict bus stop in the cold of night, the echo of distant drunken screams occasionally sounding as if they were getting closer (it was a half hourly service), I assumed it must have been ambushed somewhere and jumped on the first one heading in a northerly direction. This just happened to be a South Shields bus, which on its way to South Shields market place took us on a tour of Seaburn and Whitburn first. Along the route I kept looking out of the window into the darkness for a familiar landmark, convinced I was miles off target and swearing we’d never venture far from The Swan for meetings again, without having well advertised that meeting and checked out the location properly beforehand and secured some decent transport. But eventually we stopped in South Shields. I’d missed any bus going my way and headed for the Metro to Hebburn and once there I had a half an hour walk home, arriving there just after midnight.In the warmth of my home, relaxing with a coffee, I checked an A-Z of the area and discovered I could have walked it home from Roker quicker and contemplated the evening and the lessons we could learn from it - there is no grand plan for the perfect branch meeting; mostly it’s all part of one long learning curve - and hoped the Eli Ducket Appreciation Society got home safely.
*Geordie – someone born on Tyneside.
**Makem – affectionate Geordie term for someone born on Wearside and who speaks the local dialect ( i.e.’You make them and I’ll take them, coming out as “Yee makem ‘n’ aall takem.”) and originating in love the two local football teams - Newcastle United and Sunderland – have for one another.
*** Monkey hangers – affectionate term the above groups of people use to greet people from Hartlepool (it’s a long story, but do a Google search for ‘Hartlepool Monkey’).
**** Stadium of Shite – affectionate Geordie term for Sunderland’s football ground, the Stadium of Light.
*****Last of the Summer Wine – a long running BBC TV comedy series based on the trials and tribulations of three elderly gentlemen in a sleepy Yorkshire village.
****** BNP – British National Party – group of semi illiterates and Neanderthals whose lifetime obsession is the colour of people’s skin, who admire Hitler and speak a strange monosyllabic language. The only claim to fame this group has is that the Conservative Party keep stealing their ideas. Not to be confused with human beings.