I was born and brought up in Redcar, a small seaside town in the north east of England. With ambitions to travel, I spent large amounts of my late teenage years in the nearest "big town" - Middlesbrough where I went to school, socialised and eventually lived and worked for a short time before leaving the area completely. After many years, I have recently been spending a little more time back in the north east including passing through a now very different Middlesbrough, but of which I still have many fond memories.
A lot - possibly most - of my old favourite places have now gone. Fearnley's record shop on Linthorpe Road disappeared a few years ago after serving local soul music fans for many years. It was there that I made a weekly Saturday morning pilgrimage to browse through rack after rack of 12"singles, including US imports that sold for the princely price of three pounds fifty in the late 1970's and early 1980's but which gave me hours of delight listening to them on my mono record player. I can still remember the excitement of getting US copies of Sylvester's "Dance", the Bombers "Let's Dance" and the Force's "Rock Your Baby" as well as amassing a few hundred other 12" single dance classics from this shrine to black music. Mr Fearnley himself would be behind the counter most days, stroking his goatee beard and obligingly handing over a box of 7" imports to browse through, recommending items I might like because he knew my taste so well. Jackie Moore "This Time Baby", Rahni Harris "Six Million Steps" and Bonnie Pointer's "Free Me From My Freedom" (red vinyl if you please) all came into my hands through this tiny but packed shop.
Music was very important to me as a teenager and Middlesbrough was where I went to find it, not only at Fearnley's but also at the old Hamilton's music store next to the bus station and Dean Wycherley's little shop in the Cleveland Centre but also at Mandy's, a basement dance club. Mandy's, which is also long gone, was down a couple of flights of stairs in the Cleveland Centre opposite the Town Hall. It was here I would come on a Friday or Saturday night to meet mates, down drinks and dance to classics such as Trussel's "Love Injection", Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard" and the spectacular George Duke track "I Want You For Myself". Ah, those were the days, quality dance music with real instruments and real singing. And they still sound good.
We didn't get much in the way of live music for fans of soul and jazz-funk back then but I did see Sister Sledge perform at the Town Hall. It was a slightly odd performance which included them doing their then recent string of hits produced by the Chic organisation and some very odd vocal impressions of Cher, Dolly Parton and others!
Before joining the queue for entry to Mandy's I would join friends in any one of a number of pubs in the town centre. I have very fond memories of the Masham, the Lord Raglan and the Shakespeare, all "proper" pubs and unfortunately, astonishingly, all gone now. I assume this is due to the recession which has hit Middlesbrough as hard as anywhere else - witness the abundance of pay day loan and pound shops - but am told that a few years ago there was a major clamp down on licensing violations, especially under age drinking. I must admit I drank in each of these pubs before reaching the age of 18. Sometimes rough, always friendly we would be served pints of "scotch" which was not a lethal dose of whisky, but the term used for bitter beer in the north-east.
One of my favourite stories of those days is from the Lord Raglan where to my horror I found a piece of broken glass in my beer one night. Returning to the bar and telling the barmaid "Er love, there's a bit of broken glass in me drink" I receive the reply "there is not", showed it to her, she apologised…and dipped her hand in to take the offending article out before handing me the beer back. I must have looked surprised because she apologised again, took the drink back and poured the beer into another glass with an "ee, what am I thinking of" before handing it back again with a big smile and a "there you go love". I decided discretion was the better part of valour, retreated and left the drink on a table.
There were also slightly more sophisticated venues. Billy Paul, named after the American singer, was a more stylish basement bar on Newport Road and had a sister venue Mrs. Jones (get it - Billy Paul had a hit with the song Me and Mrs Jones?) - a restaurant which described itself as a buttery. Both bar and buttery are also gone now. Those of us who had spent all of our money on records and beer couldn't afford Mrs. Jones so we would go to the Wimpy or if in totally dire straits, buy something from one of the burger carts that sold in the street. Now I need to note, I never gave in to the temptation to do this, but as they say, I have a friend who did. One particularly cold and wet Saturday afternoon he purchased a burger from a cart operated by a woman in a once white woodwork apron, fingerless gloves and with an advanced head cold complete with a sniff and runny nose. It was a good thing she had those gloves to wipe her nose on. She shovelled blackened onions and a grey looking burger into a bun before seeming to remember something and asking "er, do you want cheese in that then, a cheeseburger like?" Amazingly he said he did so she opened the wide pocket in her once white woodwork apron and pulled out - with the fingerless gloved nose wiping hand - one of a number of loose craft cheese slices that were safely stored in there. He paid, took the burger, walked around the corner and threw it in the bin.
I also took part in healthier pursuits. I was a member of Middlesbrough and Cleveland Harriers, an athletics club based at the former Clairville Stadium near Albert Park. The stadium has now been demolished (bit of a theme emerging here) and a new facility is to be provided in its place. I spent several Tuesday and Thursday nights there training for sprints and hurdles as well as competing in the local North Yorkshire South Durham (NYSD) athletics league with teams from Stockton, Billingham and Hartlepool. Clairville was also the location of an annual international pentathlon and decathlon match between the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Spain. I felt very sophisticated going to these as a teenager, the highlight of which was the year former Olympic champion Mary Peters attended and signed her autograph for me. I also recall a very exotic seeming match between the Harriers and a club from Iceland!
Our other stadium was Ayresome Park, home to Middlesbrough Football Club, also now demolished and replaced with a modern stadium close to the River Tees. As well as hosting some World Cup matches in 1966, it was the site of a jazz festival in 1978 at which Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie performed. Imagine, Ella Fitzgerald in Middlesbrough. I was too young to appreciate the world's best ever jazz vocalist and didn't go. Good thing I saw her several years later - in Wolverhampton which is probably even less likely than Middlesbrough.
Many things have changed about the town since I lived, worked and went to school there. Many of my old favourites have gone, but there is a wonderful new gallery of modern art - MIMA, and the former Uptons department store has been reinvented as Psyche, a high end fashion store in a beautifully refurbished building. I will be spending more time in the north east over the coming months and am looking forward to rediscovering the town I still have a very soft spot for.Middlesbrough Empire, Palace of Varieties