I’d rather be a striker than a scab
by Michael Jarvie
It’s Wednesday, the 4th of January, and yet another day of the protracted RMT strike. When I worked as a revenue protection officer at Darlington station, I was in the same union, so I fully support the strike. Besides, as a member of the PCS in my current Civil Service job, we recently voted for strike action by an overwhelming majority of 80 per cent. One in twelve Civil Servants uses food banks, yet we’ve been offered a derisory two per cent pay increase with inflation running at eleven per cent.
So, instead of catching the train to Durham, I have no alternative but to get a bus. It’s a massive chew – the journey takes an hour compared with only fifteen minutes by train. That’s why I’m waiting outside The Quays pub for the number 7 service, which is due to leave at 13.25 according to the timetable. When the bus arrives, Darlington is still showing as its final destination, not Durham, and the new driver hasn’t bothered to change it. That doesn’t deter the punters from climbing on board once the engine starts up. Thankfully, they’ve temporarily reduced the fare to only £2 for a single journey.
The logo of the bus company – Arriva – includes the phrase “a DB company”. Perhaps you are unaware of the fact that DB stands for Deutsche Bahn. Arriva is therefore part of a parent company that operates the German state-owned railways. Just out of interest, can you imagine such a situation happening in Germany? A British company owning one of Germany’s major bus or train operators? Your average man in the street in that country would guffaw at such a ridiculous idea.
The bus approaches historic Northgate, and there’s a new takeaway called Thai Lemon to join the ranks of Pizza Box, Kebab Express, Best Shawarma, and China Express. North Road is an artery into my past. Elmfield Terrace, overlooking North Lodge Park, is where I bought my first ever property in 2001, at a cost of only £37,600. The monthly mortgage payments in those days were £200. Further on, Lowson Street is where my dad’s family lived; Maple Road is where I was born. These days, the mile or so up to the roundabout has changed in so many ways, not least the congregation of takeaways that line the route. A new one pops up regularly. I also count twelve barbers and hairdressers between Northgate and Longfield Road. It seems we have become a nation of hairdressers, takeaways, and vape shops.
To my left, on Beaumont Hill, where I spent much of my teenage and adult life, instead of open fields, there’s a new housing development from Persimmon Homes called Coatham Vale. I wonder how anyone doing a working-class job could afford to buy a property costing a minimum of £170,000. To satisfy my curiosity, I check the website on my phone and am unimpressed by the dimensions of these poky little rooms. I also do the maths. These days, a 25-year mortgage would cost £900 a month. That’s only £100 less than my monthly take-home pay! Even worse, the fields at Skerningham on the other side of the road are earmarked for yet another massive housing development that will destroy established woodland and native wildlife, making this area just another cancerous outgrowth from the town.
The bus trundles on through Aycliffe Village, whereupon I discover that the pub, the North Briton, is no longer in business. Instead, it’s been converted into apartments. Once more, this arterial road revisits familiar places from my past. St Cuthbert’s Way, on the Aycliffe Business Park, reminds me of my time spent answering the phone at HB Technologies. Then there’s the familiar Blue Bridge, so-named because it’s painted blue, not because of any connection with Picasso and his Blue Period.
At one of the stops in Newton Aycliffe – Churchill House – there’s a verbal altercation between a passenger and the driver. “Do you want to get on this bus?” he asks her, to which she responds, “You don’t know what’s going on in my head.” She takes a seat and I notice that she’s wearing a beige fur coat and has a pink Alice band in her hair. Further on, two men are carrying a sofa along the side of the road.
There’s the sound of a ring pull behind me, followed by the sickly-sweet smell of a fruit-flavoured energy drink wafting down the aisle. Twenty years ago I viewed some properties in Newton Aycliffe. I’m glad I never took the plunge. It’s an awful place, and the houses I visited were in dreadful areas. Even though they were cheap as chips, that didn’t sway me in the slightest. I recall some of the names: Kirkstone Place, Honister Place, Hawkshead Place. Shitholes, the lot of them.
Newton Aycliffe seems to go on forever, like Dante’s concentric circles of hell. Eventually it segues into Woodham. This is Newton Aycliffe’s middle-class sibling. Even the street names reflect this: Stag Lane, The Spinney, The Bridle. It even boasts a golf course, and there are flags fluttering on the greens. Does one play golf in January I idly wonder? Or do they allow the greens to recover like they do with football pitches over the summer months? My unspoken question is immediately answered. There are some men ahead, and they certainly appear to be playing golf. My opinion of that recreation tends towards the view that it is “a good walk spoiled” and I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s description:
Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.
Although that’s admittedly a fine piece of writing, let’s not forget that Churchill was classist, racist and sexist, a man who wrote in a memorandum that he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” who employed the British Army against strikers during the miners’ strike of 1910-11, and who provocatively ordered the cruiser HMS Antrim to sail up the Mersey to break the Liverpool general transport strike of 1911. According to the Wikipedia entry, in the unrest that followed, soldiers of the 18th Hussars opened fire on a crowd on Vauxhall Road, injuring fifteen, two of them fatally. John Sutcliffe, a 19-year-old Catholic carter, was shot twice in the head, and Michael Prendergast, a 30-year-old Catholic docker, was shot twice in the chest. An inquest into their deaths later brought in a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” Churchill’s Conservative progeny are no different in terms of their core beliefs and would love to see history repeat itself. They are still the sworn enemies of the working class. Never forget that.
The bus stops at Rushyford and the man asks the driver, “Are you going to Ferryhill? It says Darlington on the front.” It appears the driver forgot to change the destination since he left Darlington. Next up is Eden Terrace in Chilton, which boasts, in the following order, the A1 Chop Suey House, Chilton Chippy, and Chilton Aquatics. Eventually we reach Darlington Road in Ferryhill. On Main Street, in the marketplace, there’s a pub called the Dean and Chapter bearing the following sign:
This pub is dedicated to the 73 miners who lost their lives at the colliery from 1904 when production began until 1929. The colliery closed in 1966.
I think it would be fair to say that trade union activity and health and safety at work legislation brought that death rate down to zero from 1930 onwards.
There’s a war memorial in the town centre and the bus skirts this before plunging down a steep bank on the way to yet another out-of-town development called Durhamgate. It’s a soulless, sprawling mix of housing estates and industrial units, much like a sort of updated Newton Aycliffe. The only signs of life on Greenhills Business Park are the molehills sprouting from the grass at the rear of John Hart Commercials Ltd.
When the bus reaches Croxdale, Durham is within touching distance. First, we cross the bridge over the turbulent River Wear, then it’s the turn of the River Browney. Up next is Neville’s Cross, the site of the famous battle against the Scots in 1346. In no time at all, the bus is gingerly negotiating the winding narrowness of Alexandria Crescent. Then I’m presented with the majestic dimensions of Durham viaduct, that rugged Victorian structure dating back to the 1850s that effortlessly carries the weight of the East Coast mainline.
I’ll be making the same journey in reverse later this evening and I’m not relishing it. In any case, it’s time to head to the Clayport library before I go to work. There’s more writing to be done.
Michael Jarvie is a working-class writer from Darlington in County Durham. He is the author of The Prison, a collection of short stories, and Black Art, a novel.