This month on Yesterday Uncovered we slip back to the 1940s
Sitting, in the shade, on a recliner at the side of my pool is John Orton, the author of, Blitz PAMS so please help yourself to a glass of chilled bubbly, a plate of tapas, then make yourself comfortable and enjoy slipping back to the 1940s.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in South Shields in 1949 – a baby boomer. My parents had met during the war and had lived with my dad’s parents in an upstairs flat until they were given a council house – one of the homes for heroes the council was building. I went to the local Grammar School and won a place at Oxford where I read law. A successful career as a local government lawyer was cut short by ill health and I now live quietly with my wife and two sons, (who have still not flown the nest!) in Portishead.
What inspired you to write about the 1940s?
I was toying with the idea of writing a police whodunit set in South Shields in the 1900s when a friend of mine handed to me a dog-eared and dust covered copy of his father’s memoirs. Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon had been a Station Sergeant in the Shields Police. When he was old and frail he had gone to live with his son. He was a little depressed and at a loose end so his son suggested he write his memoirs – he was always telling the old stories so he should write them down. When I read them I realised that I had unearthed a treasure trove of tales of old South Shields. After I had transcribed and edited them I started re-writing them as a series of semi fictional stories. They were published as the Five Stone Steps: tales of a Policeman’s life in 1920s South Shields. I was writing a sequel and wanted a last story about the War years. The memoirs said little and I started researching – I had no idea how bad things became for everyone during the War, and in particular how much the town of Shields had suffered during the Blitz. There was enough material for a book.
Tell us little about the story and its plot without giving too much away
When people think of the War their first thoughts are of the heroes of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Monty’s desert rats and the Normandy landings – but the battle on the home front against the German blitzkrieg was in its own way just as memorable. There was a whole army of young and old, men and women, who became ARP Wardens, street firewatchers, auxiliary fire-fighters, and ambulance crew, war reserve police, rescue squads and the WVS (not yet royal) who took out the mobile canteens for the rescue workers. Then I discovered the PAMs – police auxiliary messengers – lads between 16 and 18 with their own bikes who would go out during and after raids to deliver messages – when the phone lines were down they were the only way of getting messages through. The thought of young lads riding their bikes in the blackout, with bombs flying round their ears, was the inspiration behind Blitz PAMs. The story of the book is how six young lads, including one who turns out to be a lass - (Jackie, who was turned away and told to go and knit socks for the lads at sea, but went back dressed as a lad), live through the blitz on South Shields and cope with life knowing that their name might be on the next bomb. Their adventures and scrapes and their pubescent fumblings paint a vivid picture of what life was like for teenagers in the war. The story is told by a 16 year old grocery delivery lad, Mossie Hamed, of mixed English and Arab stock who tells the story in a broad South Shields accent.
Is any part of the story based on facts / real events?
Mossie, Matty, Freddie, Davey, Jimmy and Jackie – the PAMS - are all fictional characters – but their exploits – uncovering a black market racket, exposing a Policeman who is looting bomb sites, and rescuing a budgie from the ruins, are all things that happened during the war. The descriptions of the air raids themselves, the death and damage they caused are all based on fact. A German Henkel did crash land on the seafront and the German pilot who baled out was killed when he landed on the live trolley bus wires: a 1000kg bomb did crash through the roof of the power station landing on the top of one of the boilers without exploding; a direct hit on the underground shelter in the market place killed at least 12 people who were sheltering inside; the foreman of a rescue squad was awarded the George Medal when he was lowered head first into a cellar filled with dust and coal gas, and rescued those inside, supporting the ceiling with his shoulders while an injured woman who was buried in the rubble was dug out.
Are any of the characters based on someone real or are they pure fiction?
Station Sergeant ‘Jock’ Duncan is the fictional Tom ‘Jock’ Gordon. Other real life figures such as Major Todd, the Chief Air Raid Warden, James Thomas Annis Scott GM, rescue squad foreman, and Lieutenant Brookes of the no 27 Bomb Disposal Section of the Royal Engineers all make their appearances along with other ‘fictional’ characters who also play their part.
If research was necessary what did this involve?
I only realised how little I knew about the blitz on Shields until I started my research. I live in Portishead and don’t travel much now so it was books and computers. My first port of call was the South Tyneside Local History Library’s on site photographic archive – you can find it on www.southtynesidehistory.co.uk – during the War Miss Amy Flagg, the local history librarian and a keen amateur photographer, went out after each raid and took photographs of all the bomb damage. She also wrote a note about each raid. This is a unique and exhaustive archive of the war in Shields. It enabled me to see what had happened and to use these photos to describe the raids through the eyes of the PAMs. I then found the Pears and Ripley North East Diary !939-1945 which gives a detailed account of all the air raids on the North East during the War. (At the time of writing the web site seems to have been taken over by someone else.) Unexploded bombs were a deadly hazard as well as being a tactical weapon used by the Germans to cause disruption – the author of Disarming Hitler’s Weapons – Chris Ransted supplied me with copies of the actual war time diaries of the no 27 Bomb Disposal Squad. A little known specialist book by G. Burrows – The Trolley Buses of South Shields gave me the information needed to allow a young PAM and his Auxiliary Ambulance Driver girlfriend to have their first sexual experience on the back seat of the upstairs deck of a trolley bus during the blackout – you’ll need to read the book to find out more!
Blitz PAMS is the second in your series Tales of Old South Shields – is there a third volume?
Yes – A Chill Wind off the Tyne has just come out. The sequel to the Five Stone Steps was put on hold while I wrote Blitz PAMs. I went back to it but it was one of those works that you’re never really satisfied with and I rewrote it several times. It is a bit of a prequel and a sequel to the other books and tells of the lives of the working class in South Shields in the first half of the twentieth century: the harsh working conditions, the pit lock-outs of 1921 and 1926, the riots in Shields when Arab and white seamen fought over jobs in the streets. Life on Tyneside during the depression of the 20s and 30s was hard but folk got on with it, laughed and loved, liked a pint and a bet; bought their shopping on tick; and ate bread and dripping, tripe, brawn and cow heel pie.
Thank you for stopping by and meeting John.
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Thank you for stopping by and me please call back again very soon for more posts and news, and to revisit the 1940's.