WHAT WE ARE THINKING: Memories evoked by books

Article published on October 25, 2015.

Books have an undeniable power to infiltrate and stimulate other parts of our lives and I found this in a journal of mine recently. Margaret Powell’s memoir, Below Stairs was the discussion book for our reading group some time back. Born in 1907 Margaret went into domestic service in the 1920s as a skivvy. In a lucid and conversational style she revisits the years of her youth and things long forgotten, all very evocative but a little before my time. I’m a baby boomer, but reading Margaret’s life brought back memories of a small town in County Durham where my Mum still lives. And I wondered whether any of the following experiences rang true for you.

There were three cinemas, ample provision for what was a very small town and I still remember the magnetic attraction of the Saturday morning ‘film club’ where a mix of cartoons and shorts finished with a serial that always ended on a cliffhanger. The décor I recall as neing remarkably plush although I suspect the modern multiplexes would make them look dowdy by comparison. The Top House was at the top (natch!) of the High Street just next to the level crossing and close enough for trains to provide background sound effects that might not have matched what was on screen.

My best mate’s Dad took us to see Ben Hur but had to bring us home part way through when I became all emotional because Ben became a leper and was obviously going to die. Except Ben was played by Charlton Heston who was, of course, invincible. It was only the next day at school that I discovered the leprosy was cured and all ended well.

That level crossing became significant in that the service on up Weardale was discontinued from Crook station when I was around eight. I think that must have pre-dated Dr Beeching – but he had his moment because the line from Crook to Bishop Auckland was subsequently closed. I can just about remember traveling – in what seemed to be some style – perhaps on one of the last days as people suddenly realized what was being taken away from them. More certainly, I can remember standing on the bridge as the steam train went underneath and being enveloped in a hot cloud.

Hot summers seem to be the abiding memory of our collective childhoods but I’m not sure the north east was quite so tropical. The best I can do is, after school, sitting on the kerb at the bus station where the tyre wear and the heat of the buses were probably more responsible for making the tar soft and pliable. Only when I arrived home was it pointed out to me that it also meant I’d acquired a patina of stickiness.

Winters ‘up there’ were definitely colder, the memory of chilblains and ice on the inside of windows being something for which friends in the south have no parallel. And sledging in that long, cold winter of ’63 where Cemetery Hill, overshadowed by trees to keep away what little sunlight there was, became our Cresta Run and a challenge to the poor souls who needed to get up it to get home. Red raw chaps from the tops of your wellies and woollen mittens that had been wet, frozen, wet again and finally icy only became apparent when you went back indoors.

And all this came flooding back because of a book.

Guy Pringle, October 2015


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