Tag Archives: Wallsend

Memories of Segedunum

The soil is scorched a khaki brown. A transistor, permanently tuned into radio one, plays Afternoon Delight. Diggers, spread thinly across the site, crouch in their own private holes. Their colour matches the ground under foot. Sandals, vests and soft floppy hats, are coated by a thin layer of dust. The landscape, the place, and the heat – suggest Mesopotamia or the Sinai Desert.

But road-signs indicate this is Wallsend, a small industrial town, sandwiched between Newcastle and the North East Coast. Its connection to the Roman Fort of Segedunum, is buried beneath tons of earth and brick foundations. Only the nearby Fossway and Forum Shopping Centre hint at a more ancient past.

Activity is methodical rather than intense. Pottery, coins and long-forgotten keepsakes emerge from the ground: some of these “finds” are seventy or eighty years old, yet they are as strange and unusual as those from a layer below – the layer between soil and scorched-earth. The layer where former inhabitants walked with open-toes, and leather breastplates, and lived a life so far removed from ours – we are forced to root around their garbage for clues.

Across the road, men in various states of dishevelment, go about their business. They live above the south-east corner of Segedunum, in a warren of small rooms. Simpson’s Hotel is a doss-house, a home for homeless men. And the Hotel in its name can only be said with heavy irony. Simpson’s has a past: the former hostel for single shipyard workers; the place where bed, breakfast and an evening meal, could be had for a decent price. By the seventies it’s a wonderfully exotic relic; part of Wallsend folklore; a place you’re not supposed to go.

Down by the waterline ships are constructed, fitted-out and repaired. There’s a railway line supplying the Yards and (in this pre-Tyneside Metro time) a passenger service along the scenic bottom-way. And the famous Ferry Landing rocking quietly with the rivers tide, is where junior diggers eat their bait, and dangle legs over the sides, and watch the splurge of white foaming effluent into the Tyne. But mostly it’s the vast hulls of ships, the shock and awe of metal against metal, and welder’s oxyacetylene arch’s – that throttle the senses.

By contrast, “The Dig” is a haven of peace, where the pace is slow, and the bearded archaeologists have a vaguely monastic air. Some worked as far a field as the Middle East; some are postgraduate students and undergraduates – getting their first taste of excavation. One, a tall, blond haired future archaeologist, is eye-candy for the volunteer girls. Then there is Charles Manser Daniels: the site director, the chief archaeologist or simply The Professor. He’s an academic of the old-school; a Rex Harrison look-alike; a man so embedded in Roman History – he’s named his son after every Emperor.

And there are the local volunteers; kids mostly, who’ve been lured down to the site by rumours of easy money. Who are clueless when it comes to the real business of archaeology: the use of a pick and shovel; the manoeuvring of a wheelbarrow laden with bricks, stones and earth. Yet despite the blisters, exhaustion and pound or so a day – most stay. They work through the hot summer, until it’s time for school again.

Imagine an oblong swatch of earth, about the width of three or four housing blocks; a site office – where plans are drawn and finds cataloged; primitive facilities: Elsan chemical toilets and a cold tap for washing; a rough perimeter fence, and in one corner a giant mound of rubble, the spoil heap; and you have the dig’s basic layout.

This is the summer of 1976. The long hot, sweltering summer. An idyllic interlude, like the one before World War One. Shipyards and engineering firms are busy; the river is awash with boats of every description. People are optimistic, suntanned and eating ice-cream.

Somewhere below ground level, I’m scraping the soil away gently with a trowel. When I elevate my body, I can see across the dig. See the whole thing shimmer, like a grand illusion. The radio is playing Demis Roussos; he’s big in ’76, big in every way. My trowel hits a solid object, so I scrape around it’s perimeter. Eventually a thin white stalk reveals itself, it’s a clay pipe, and apart from glass and broken crockery – this is the most common late 19th, early 20th Century object.

Fast forward a week. Demis has been knocked off the top slot by Elton John and Kiki Dee. I’m down the same hole; down through scorched soil to the Roman layer. My trowel hits another object, its coarse and red – Roman pottery. I call in a professional, and she catalogues the find. A photograph may be taken, if it’s important enough; but this time it’s bog-standard stuff – the classical equivalent of chipped Willow Pattern.

By the end of August, the volunteer numbers have dwindled. Thunderstorms signal a break in the weather; riots happen in Notting Hill. The spoil heap has grown. I’ve found a lot of Roman pottery, and a couple of coins. I’ve bought a t-shirt embossed with the logo “I Dig Rescue” , and pieces of earthenware, inscribed Segedunum 1976. School beckons. I say goodbye to the students from Newcastle University and to The Professor. I promise to return the following year.

No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones

            In 1977 the dig has moved; the old location is now a building-site. It feels larger, more organized, and the number of volunteers has expanded. Sixth-formers from posh Newcastle schools, rub shoulders with kids from Wallsend comprehensives. Money is more plentiful. The weather is temperate, rather than hot. The languid atmosphere of 1976 is gone. But there’s one constant – Charles Daniels.

There’s a buzz about BBC Serialisation of I Claudius: it’s probably the reason why so many are suddenly interested in Roman archaeology. The Professor is more approachable this year and even offers to assistance to those who fancy studying archaeology.

Somewhere below ground level, I’m working the earth with my trowel. I can see a panorama of the site when I look from side to side. There’s a dullness about the sky , and a darker, sombre tone to the soil. Mahogany-brown has replaced khaki. The radio is miles from my trench, too far for sound to travel. But that doesn’t matter, I have company: “The Chess Professional”, a serious type, who carries a briefcase and is a self-confessed Grand Master. Others come and go, but mostly it’s me, working alone.

My trowel hits a solid object, but this time it’s structural – a grey slab of stone. I don’t actually know what I have, until a passing archaeologist takes notice. He stands, stroking his luxuriant beard, grunting encouragingly. As the afternoon progresses, others, including The Professor, stop-by and take a look.

Without design or skill I’ve hit the archaeological mother-load. Uncovered, the grey slab of stone is a seat, or rather a Roman toilet seat.Somewhere along the line my pay was raised to a Department of the Environment rate, I was on a roll. And so ended Punk Rocks year zero.


From Past Archives

Back in February 2012 I was locked in a deadly embrace. The embrace was not with the Cancer – trying to kill me; nor was it with the chemo – which had come the closest.

My brush with death had happened as 2011 drew to a close. Christmas was days away, but I was too far gone to be thinking about watching Scrooged for the fifteenth time.

I talked with the ambulance man like there was a whole life stretching ahead of me. I talked marathon running. Maybe he’d had hundreds of conversations with dying people. Maybe he was keeping me calm, as we sped through the streets of North London.

There are things that I came to know later, that I did not know at the time. My body was shutting down. An infection, let-in by my shot immune system, had done its work. I was breaking down my own proteins and deficient in all the basic elements of life. I was an hour or so away from death.

By the time I wrote the following piece, a fair proportion of my everyday existence was concerned with avoiding infection. It talks of neutrophil counts the way dieters talk of calories. But I had other things on my mind too.

While I had survived my dance with death, my dad was not even keeping time. He had lost the ability to walk, read, or perform the most basic of human functions.

This again, I only came to know later. Back in February 2012, I was too sick to travel, and he was seeing out his life in the North East of England – in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend – three hundred or so miles from me.

I did get to see him before he died, later that year. Its a memory  I can’t begin to describe.

I am now a fatherless son.

Back in early 2012, I still had a father; and I was thinking of fathers and sons. We were sharing something quite unusual: we were at the same dance. Think of those marathon contests held in Depression Era America. The last couple standing, would win a paltry sum of money.

Yet our dance was different. The one who embraced death the longest would not win. They would be extinguished forever.

The Prisoner of Tufnell  Park, February 2012

I often trip myself up trying to be eloquent. It’s probably the reason why I take so long writing fiction. But hey ho …..we all have our own methods. Here’s something that tripped off my pen this morning. No attempts at editing or eloquence have been made.

Since November last year my universe has shrunk down to my home and University College Hospital, London. On a few occasions I’ve ventured out to a local café, but these were special occasions (my sister visiting from Newcastle and a lunch with my daughter). At two family meals I felt incredibly sick and self conscious. Chemo baldness does not look like a fashion statement – it’s what it is, Cancer. But after three months with no hair , I’ve become used to the stares, and honestly don’t care.

But I do care about the restrictions this disease has imposed on my life. Simple activities such as going for a drink (I can’t) and watching a film at the cinema (a reservoir of infection) are out of the question.

But I can watch a film at home, read a book or do some writing. The latter two were virtually impossible while actually receiving chemo – the chemicals scrambled my brain. But it’s been a few week since my last Bleomycin injection – so some faculties have returned.

I can’t go for very long without a nap, and need to take a zillion pills just to keep the sickness at bay , and stop my two clots moving to some major organ. The clots are managed by two self-administered injections  per-day (it’s a wonderful life !) . So in-between the pills, potions and injections; the tiredness and the memory lapses ( yes that’s another thing – my short term memory has been fried) ;I manage some semblance of life.

The injection as I mentioned before is a worry; but I also have to be careful about infection. My last neutrophil count was 0.44 , putting me at huge risk (and I know exactly what happens when someone like me gets infected) . So I have to be careful about visitors – no colds or people with sick children. Contact with animals is also out of the question – although as I have no pets this is less of a problem. I do visit supermarkets (I need to eat), but keep these trips to a minimum. I rely on the kindness of friends when it comes to food.

To summarise: I’m tired, nauseous (occasionally), open to infection and bald as a coot. I’m a social butterfly – with broken wings, who can’t go to the cinema, see a band or go shopping (lets say when I need clothing) . I inject myself twice a day to prevent an embolism and potentially instant death.

Oh and I can’t travel (I have no car or driver). I’ve been unable to see my father since last summer.  Coincidentally he’s been very sick – had two strokes about the same time as my Cancer diagnosis. He’s also unaware of my condition and his condition is extremely poor (I would classify it as waiting to die). I’m not saying the relationship between my dad and I has been great. But I’d like to see him before he dies. I have to accept this visit may not be possible.

And I can’t seem to escape the subject of fathers and sons – it seeps into my reading, writing and viewing. I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s Dickens Biography, that pretty much laid bare his awful relationship with his (impecunious) father and his many sons. Dickens for all his concern for the poor , was a terrible father; cruel some would say.

Famous sons and not so famous fathers was the subject of a Guardian article I read over the weekend (by the Irish author Colm Toibin). I’m shoehorning this a little as he also included the relationship between his mother and himself. But the main piece centred on  WB Yeats and his literary ambitious father. I saw no parallels in my life, but the theme of fathers and sons just keeps cropping-up.

Take for example Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I watched this film cold (and on the internet) . Now maybe the chemotherapy has warped my brain, but I enjoyed this fathers and sons themed film. But what I don’t get is the critical reaction, the words rabid  and feeding frenzy come to mind. There’s a unanimous condemnation from bloggers, TV pundits and film critics alike.

Maybe I felt a connection with the second theme of the film , the fact that the boy and grandfather are locked-in , a sort of prisoner of their respective conditions (aspergers and elective-mute) . So when I happened across a Guardian Film Blog this morning the prisoner of Tufnell Park, could not resist contributing:

I saw the film before reading the reviews or a synopsis of the plot – so had no idea what to expect .  The aspergers/ autistic spectrum part of the film worked because they have created a fantasy  end of the spectrum–the type of social behavior exhibited by the boy (meeting complete strangers and having a heart-warming time with them) would just not happen (if you were actually on the spectrum )  . Its like pain-free Hollywood Cancer popular in some of the tearjerker films of the past.  But as I said I treated it as fantasy.

Although the central device of the film – a quest like search – is of course a direct reference to the  computer games much loved by autistic/aspergers kids.  I can also see why 9-11 was used, because if the father had died say in a road accident it would not have elicited the same response from all those New York strangers –so something big and memorable had to be used. Hanging together the quest , with someone else’s father – and his fathers father (the old reverse Oedipus problem) probably worked better in the book .

But I enjoyed Geoffrey Wright and Max Von Sydow all the same. I was not annoyed by the kid, nor was I annoyed by Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock. So all in all , as a piece of escapist entertainment  (not a serious examination of 9-11)- I thought it worked. But what I can’t understand is rabid response to the film – it’s just so out of proportion – and self righteous.  

Not everything I watch or read can be neatly tied into a fathers and sons theme. Take for example a programme I watched last night on Sky Arts1 about the Architect Norman Foster. I was expecting some great buildings and a profile of a really interesting man , but I was not expecting Cancer finding its way into the mix.

They showed Foster who’s in his seventies competing in a ski marathon, and then went on to describe his cancer treatment. And just when he thought he’d licked the Cancer, they told him it was terminal. But somehow Foster  managed to survive. He allowed himself six months to recover before completing in the ski marathon again . He also happens to have recovered from a heart attack – a man of steel.

Hope is a word I’ve not used for a while, but watching that seventy year old man compete in a marathon gave me just that. I know how tough it is to run a marathon when you’re young and fit , I just can’t imagine what it’s like as a Cancer survivor. But when I stop  being the prisoner of Tufnell Park, that’s just what I’m going to do.