Jack Common was born at 44 Third Avenue on 15 August 1903. In his autobiographical novels, ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and ‘The Ampersand’, he wrote about growing up in Heaton. Although ostensibly fiction, Jack’s writing is clearly based on his own experience and his vivid memories. It tells us about aspects of life in the avenues, before and during World War One, that often we’d have no other way of knowing. Jack describes his milieu, life as a ‘corner boy,’ and gives us a rare (pupil’s) insight into life at Chillingham Road School. He writes with feeling, humour and from the perspective of the socialist he became. While we have to remember the fictional element and the personal viewpoint, Jack Common’s work is an important source for our Heaton Avenues in Wartime research.
Some of the places Jack describes have changed, of course, but to anyone familiar with Heaton, the streets (or avenues) of terraced houses and Tyneside flats are instantly recognisable over a hundred years later:
…’ the south side started with a grocer’s shop on the corner, ran straight past some eighty front doors arranged in twos, one for the upstairs flat, one for the down, and each pair separated from the next by the downstairs garden.’
…’when you could crawl and totter, you always made for the street whenever the door was open. Over the rough cement path, down the step onto the wonderfully smooth pavement, perhaps on again to the cobblestones in the middle of the road.’
So far, we’ve traced only one photograph of the Avenues taken during this period. it shows Heaton History Group member, Arthur Andrews’ great aunt, Ruth Castle, outside her home at 47 Tenth Avenue and it chimes with Jack Common’s description of his ‘territory’.
‘These gardens were just narrow fenders of soil laid around the buttress of the bay window but they were magnificently defended from depredation by low brick walls, coped with granite slabs, each sprouting a complicated fence of spiked railings… Between them lay cement aprons in front of the doors.’
Some of the most evocative descriptions of the avenues are the lively street scenes; the traders and entertainers who passed through: the rag and bone man with his bugle, barrow and paper windmills, ‘made of rough sticks and coloured wallpaper or an umbrella of the same or a fan or a piece of pineapple rock’ which he’d exchange for the jam jars or rags the children brought him.
‘… such a procession of horse-drawn vans, man-pushed barrows, milk chariots, coal-carts and steam wagons… Practically any moment of the day, one or other of these strange craft, ark or pinnacle, was bound to come upon our horizon. The hooves of the faster traffic, doctor’s trap or post office van, shot sparks from our cobbles…’
‘… the slower moving door-to-door tradesmen announced their presence: the milkman with a hand-bell and a high-pitched cry, the firewood seller with a long wail ‘d’ye wa-a-nt any sticks’, the coal-man bluff, solid and low, ‘coal ter wagon, coal ter wagon’, and the hardware merchant, standing on his high cart, with a rapid ringing of plate against plate, produced an insistent tintinabulation which rang across several streets. Very often several of these were around at the same time, plus one or other of varieties of street musician, the tin whistler, the barrel organist or German band….’
‘And that was only the front street…. Though milk and bread were front door deliveries, greengrocery and fish and coal came to the back door…..
Down here came the Cullercoats fishwives crying ‘Caller herrin’ in that season and otherwise ‘Fresh fish, hinny, straight from the sea’. They wore their traditional dress of dark blue which so well set off their biscuit tan of arm and face, the salt-white hair and they were like caryatids walking under the great baskets they carried on their heads.’
‘Everbody’s washing hung across the lane so that the appearance of a tradesman’s cart meant a rush to tuck sheets and things round the rope and to raise the diminished bunting high over the horse’s head with a prop.’
Common’s descriptions of childhood are equally wonderful and will resonate with many older readers, in particular:
‘… the many games that made their immutable processions across our year. Marbles, tops, hoops and girds, bays, monty-kitty, kick-the-block, up-for-Monday, they came and went in their due seasons.’
‘The marble millionaire gambled untold wealth at the Big Ring, increasing the stakes as the evening wore on until there was a fortune out there on the cement; whole constellations of fat Millies and coloured glass alleys with twinkling spirals down their centres and clear sea-green or whipwater-white pop-alleys winked in the shaky gaslight, nothing less than these high counters allowed in the big game, stonies and chalkies definitely barred. Then in came the bullocker shot from the ringside. The constellation shook and was scrambled; single stars fled or rolled towards the chalk ring. All that went over belonged to the lad that made the shot. Sometimes none did. Right, next player. The winners dropped their captured beauties with a happy plonk into the poke they nearly all carried; losers might fish for a last treasure, a broken pen knife or a watch-compass, to barter for another stake.’
And bonfire night:
‘At the bottom end, on Ninth back lane a mattress in the bonfire had just caught alight, the dervishes around it jumped and yelled from fiery-smudged faces; Eighth were entrenched within their narrow gardens, hurling Chinese crackers and jumping-jacks at all who passed by; Seventh were engaged in a slanging match because the great pyramid of their fire, crowned with a guy sitting in an armchair, had toppled over and was burning against somebody’s back door…. You could even see the near-toddlers solemnly lighting each other’s sparklers from the hot end of the last one to burn out, and there were little girls running wild as they tried to throw London Lights into the air.’
He also describes life in what he refers to as the ‘corner-gangs’. That the camaraderie and solidarity of his gang ‘Sons of the Battle-axe’ meant a lot to Jack can be deduced from his writing and the politics he espoused but also in the fact that, all through his life, he held onto treasured mementos of his Heaton childhood.
The Jack Common Archive is now in the Robinson Library at Newcastle University. Amongst the novel manuscripts, correspondence with publishers and friends, family photographs and cuttings of reviews are the rules, oaths and codes relating to the Sons of the Battle-axe. Examples are displayed here with the permission of the Common family and the university.
Many of Jack Common’s boyhood friends, such as the Ord brothers, appear in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, with their names unchanged, even if, writing thirty or forty years later, Common appears to have fictionalised some of their back stories.
The Chillingham Road School Jack Common attended still stands proudly today, of course. Jack didn’t look back on his schooldays with much affection, believing that working class children like him were being ‘trained for boredom’ as he put it. He conveys his negative feelings in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’:
‘There was a school bell which tolled for some five minutes in the mornings, a peculiarly flat despondent sound, not urgent, not very loud, though it carried over all the Avenues, and it always seemed as if it meant to go on forever.’
although he did have some fond memories:
‘… a class of some fifty children, more than half of them girls, I was disgusted to note. It was a very pleasant classroom though. The morning sun shone in through the wide windows over blue glass vases and painted pottery jugs holding flowers on to the yellow desks.’
But Jack’s daughter, Sally, wrote in a letter to Heaton History Group:
‘I have just looked at their website, and it comes across as such an amazing, vibrant establishment. It makes me want to be a child again and go there! So different from the place my father described that trained children in boredom – in preparation for the boring jobs they would have later’
and Jack would surely have been amazed that today’s pupils learn about and are rightly proud of their somewhat reluctant predecessor.
For all his later cynicism, Jack (or John as he was known there) Common had some notable successes while at school. He won prizes for at least two of his essays – one a citywide competition on the war-inspired theme of ‘Thrift‘. The essay itself doesn’t survive but he was proud enough of the letter inviting him to collect his prize of Government War Bonds and the newspaper coverage to keep them. They survive in the Jack Common Archive and copies will be displayed at the Chillingham pub from mid-February to mid-April 2015.
The same goes for two compositions about Jesmond Dene for which he also won prizes. Jack later referred to the florid writing style he had adopted in his teenage years and you can judge for yourself from the extracts to be displayed at the Chilli or by visiting the Jack Common Archive.
Jack Common is known for his working class Newcastle upbringing, his strong socialist beliefs and his friendship with George Orwell rather than his love of nature but a lot of his writing and especially the personal diaries in the archive show how much he cared about and knew about the natural world. He may not have acknowledged the influence of his Heaton boyhood or his education at Chillingham Road School but it’s a deep love which began in childhood and which the school log books show was shared by his head teacher, even if neither teacher nor pupil recognised it at the time.
Jack was ten years old at the start of the first world war. He refers to it only briefly in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, writing through a child’s eyes:
‘One Saturday morning a rumour came round that the schools were to be commandeered as temporary barracks; a second report said that the soldiers were already in. Some of us tore round to have a look. Chillingham Road School stood bare and empty, a maw gaping for Monday. We back-pedalled round a corner so as to put it out of sight again, wishing we hadn’t come. But somebody passing on a bike said that North Heaton was taken. We moved off into the territory presided over by that semi-cissy academy, hunching together in case we got raided on the way.
It was true. North Heaton School echoed to the bawls of a couple of sergeants drilling their awkward squads in the boys’ yard….’
But the descriptions of the attitudes of the adults around him are enlightening as well as entertaining. Jack Common is typically unafraid to go against the grain or to offend. He refuses to romanticise and so adds to our understanding of a particular place and an important time:
‘But I had a feeling deep down that war wouldn’t apply to my father. I couldn’t see him waving a flag and leaping over a parapet, as the wild bugles blew, straight into the enemies’ fire; I could see him sitting firmly as ever in his own chair, pointing out that the war was a lot of fat-headedness started by old grannies and bosses-on-the-make and carried on by young fools who believed what they said in the newspapers.’
‘After the customary visit to the boozer, argument waged hot and strong. Uncle George, Boer War veteran, would join up at once – only there was no one to run his greengrocery business if he did. True-blue Uncle Will was hot against the Germans; he would throw in a couple of sons against them right away – the sons, though, did not endorse this generous patriotism. Red Uncle Robin, bachelor, vegetarian and crank, saw the conflict as a power-struggle between rival groups of bosses to be boycotted by all intelligent working men. Sad Uncle Andrew thought it was one of those madnesses good men have to go into because they couldn’t stand being with the crooks and sharpers who’d stayed out. Burly, gentle Uncle Bill knew no rights or wrongs in it, he had the countryman’s view, that it was a super-thunderstorm or tremendously bad weather – ‘Thor’s ne help for it, we’ll hae t’last it oot’. ‘
His presentation of dissident voices is another reason, if we need one, to read, reread, remember and appreciate Heaton’s Jack Common.
‘Kiddars Luck’ is currently out of print but can be obtained in a Kindle version and from second-hand bookshops, online and in libraries.
This article was written by Chris Jackson, as part of Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We would like to hear your views on anything relating to the article. You can leave them on the website by clicking on the link immediately below the title or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A related exhibition will be in the lounge bar of the Chillingham pub from 16 February to mid April 2015. It contains digital copies of documents from the Jack Common Archive at Newcastle University and Tyne & Wear Archives as well as illustrations by local artists.