Page 1. " We Never Had It So Good "
The title phrase recalls a famous speech made in Bedford by the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his fellow conservatives.

What Macmillan actually said was: "Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good". This has been commonly paraphrased as 'You never had it so good.' The echo of the phrase in the title of the book is partly ironic - the boy and his family are not well off - and partly literal, for the author remembers the period as largely a happy time, one in which people were wont to say, 'We made our own enjoyment.'

Page 3. " dedicated with affection to my real-life brothers and sisters whose names are Shirley, Olwen, Eric, Joyce, Kevin and Susan. "

The characters in the family are fictional, but the author admits to drawing on some of the history and characteristics of his real-life family.

The father, Frank, is loosely based on the author's father Ellis (1914-79) who was a miner all his working life, and enjoyed his pint at the weekend.

The mother, Bella, is loosely based on the author's mother Alice (1914-88) who, like most of the pitmen's wives in those days, was a full-time housewife.

The eldest sister Sally is an amalgam of the author's two oldest sisters Shirley and Olwen.

The middle sister Rose is loosely based on the author's sister Joyce, though she was actually a nurse rather than a factory worker (Shirley and Olwen both had spells working in a local factory). Rose's boyfriend Vince is based on Joyce's boyfriend Gordon, a miner and occasional horse-keeper, whom she subsequently married (and they are married still).

The youngest sister Jeannie, hardly more than a baby in the stories, would be about the same age as the author's youngest sister Susan.

The oldest brother Eddie is loosely based on the author's oldest brother Eric. Like Eddie, Eric left home to join the Royal Navy.

The middle brother Malcolm, a couple of years older than David in the stories, is loosely based on the author's brother Kevin. In real life Kevin went to the Grammar School, unlike Malcolm in the book. Like Eric, he also later joined the Royal Navy.

 

Here are some family pictures. You may be able to spot some of the models for the characters in We Never Had It So Good.

At Newbiggin beach, early 1950s (500 * 343)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumSome of the extended family, Newbiggin beach, early 1950s - Credit: The Williams family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olwen's wedding, late 1950s (500 * 316)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumThe nuclear family, Olwen's wedding, late 1950s - Credit: The Williams family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joyce's wedding (500 * 314)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumThe family with spouses, Joyce's wedding, early 1960s - Credit: The Williams family

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Page 7. " As they used to say in the TV programme Dragnet, 'Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.' "
Jack Webb
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumJack Webb - Credit: Terry Guntrip

Dragnet, created by and starring Jack Webb, ran from 1951 to 1959 after earlier popularity on American radio. Over succeeding decades the series was remade three times - the 1960s, the 1980s and the 2000s. It was a very realistic series for its time, with many of the stories being pulled from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department. Often, some of the people involved in the original cases were given walk-on parts in their story.

 

Here's the intro to the original TV series.

Page 13. " There used to be 19 working men's social clubs and 26 fish and chip shops in Ashington, Northumberland. "

All of the stories in this collection are set in and around the author's real childhood home of Ashington.

Ashington owed its existence to the coal mines, and was once said to be "the world's largest mining village". Sadly, not one deep mine now operates anywhere in the North East.

The father in these stories, like the majority of men in the community, works as a miner in one of the local pits, as does Rose's boyfriend, Vince. The reason for the large number of working men's clubs is that after a week's work down the mine most would slake their thirst heavily in the clubs that sold their members cheap beer. (See also bookmark p.149 on the drinking culture.)

The pictures below illustrate the conditions for men working underground at about this time.

Miners1
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMiners1 - Credit: Pete C

 

Miners2
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMiners2 - Credit: Pete C

 

Miners
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMiners - Credit: Pete C

 

Mining coal
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMining coal - Credit: Pete C
Miner 1
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMiner 1 - Credit: Pete C

 

Miner2
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumMiner2 - Credit: Pete C
Page 13. " Penny for the guy? "
Penny for the guy
Creative Commons AttributionPenny for the guy - Credit: Paddy Patterson
There used to be a time when every high street corner in working class areas of Britain (especially in the North) would have a couple of kids standing with an old pram, pushchair or wheelbarrow that held a dummy (the 'guy') made of old clothes and stuffed with old newspapers or straw, usually with an old football for a head. The dummy represented Guy Fawkes, one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot, and the tradition was to give the kids a penny or two for their work on the guy, which they would generally spend on fireworks. 
Page 13. " It's only the Teddy Boy quiff... "

Teddy boys
Creative Commons AttributionTeddy boys - Credit: Paul Townsend

Teddy boys were a common sight in Britain in the late 1950s. They wore distinctive Edwardian-style clothes, bootlace ties, drainpipe trousers and 'beetle-crusher' shoes. They danced to the music of both British and American rock 'n' roll. Heroes included Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

 

 

 

 

 

Here's a montage of 1950s teddy boys  and girls, accompanied by some rockabilly music.

 

Page 13. " There's just the two of us, sharing a tanner's worth of chips from Davison's. "

The 'tanner' was a slang term for sixpence in pre-decimal currency. See bookmark p.27 for an extensive note on the currency used in Britain in the late 1950s.

Page 15. " the brother who couldn't hit a garage door had suddenly turned into Bobby Charlton "

Bobby Charlton in the back street near his old home
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBobby Charlton in the back street near his old home - Credit: Newcastle Chronicle & Journal Ltd
One of the most famous footballers of all time, Bobby Charlton was born (1937) and brought up in Ashington. He was signed up as a schoolboy by Manchester United manager Matt Busby, and played with the team throughout his career. He also played many times for England, and still holds the record as his country's most prolific scorer. He helped England win the World Cup for the only time in their history in 1966. Bobby's elder brother Jack played for Leeds and was in the same World Cup winning team. A brother and sister of the author were at school with Bobby, and the junior school featured in these stories was attended by both the author and the future footballer. Babes, one of the stories in this collection, centres on the reaction in the town when Bobby Charlton was involved with the rest of his Manchester United team mates in the Munich air disaster as they travelled back from a European cup tie on 6 February 1958.  The background to this story is dealt with extensively in bookmarks pp103-114.    

Page 17. " I end up feeling like the Michelin Man. "

 

The Michelin Man
Creative Commons AttributionThe Michelin Man - Credit: Caffeina

The Michelin Man also known as Bibendum, is the distinctive symbol of the Michelin tyre company. It is one of the oldest trademarks in the world, having been introduced in 1894. The name of the plump tyre-man has entered the language to describe someone obese or wearing comically bulky clothing.

Page 17. " he comes out riving at the remains of a Frido ball "

Penny floater
Public DomainPenny floater - Credit: Andrew Lawson
The old leather 'caser'
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe old leather 'caser' - Credit: Mateer
The Frido ball, made of pimpled plastic, was the first cheap alternative to a leather ball, ideal for a kick about in the park or the back street. Unlike the heavy leather 'caser' (heavy as a cannon ball when wet) the Frido was light and could be moved around in the air, rather like the new, lighter balls of today. If punctured, it could also be repaired using the same repair kit that was used for fixing the inner tubes of bicycles. Such balls are commonly known as 'penny floaters'.

Page 19. " we'll go back the long way round, past the Arcade. "
Ashington Co-op
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumAshington Co-op - Credit: ian56
The boys go past the Arcade because they know that it is about time for the people attending the dance there to be going home. The Arcade was the name given to the buildings occupied by Ashington Co-operative Society. There was a large hall at the top of the building which was regularly used for dances, bingo and other social functions. (See also bookmarks pp77 & 90 for more on the Arcade bingo, and more on dancing at another popular venue of the time, the Mayfair at Newcastle.)
Page 23. " On Wagon Train, a telly programme I used to watch... "

Ward Bond and Bob Horton on Wagon Train
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumWard Bond and Bob Horton on Wagon Train - Credit: Terry Guntrip
 Wagon Train was an American TV series that ran from 1957 in the USA and in Britain from 1958 to 1964. (See the British TV nostalgia site Whirligig.) The series was so popular in the UK that Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell wanted the General Election of 1959 held on a day when Wagon Train wasn't screened, in case it kept voters at home.

 Wagon Train theme on Spotify: Lawrence Welk – Wagon Train

 

Here's the orginal TV intro (contemporaneous with the story):

And here are the intro and closing credits of the early 60s colour version (look out for a famous name in the credits):

Page 23. " Our Malcolm and Derek Nesbitt from along the doors would copy him, making on they had a stick and a stiff leg going sideways, more like Charlie Chaplin really. "

Charlie Chaplin's heyday as a screen star was long past, but he could still be seen in the old movies, and his trademark walk was much copied. There's a reminder of it in the clip below.

Page 24. " Rodways, the shop that never closed. "

A real shop in Ashington. In those days, long before 24 hour stores, it could be a blessing to find a shop open after 5pm, and on Sunday. If you ever wanted an emergency purchase in the evening, Rodways general dealers was the place to go. It was a small corner shop, but seemed to contain everything. The kind of northern corner shop Rodways represents was affectionately lampooned several years later by Ronnie Barker as Arkwright and David Jason as Granville in the BBC TV comedy Open All Hours.

Here's a clip from that programme.

Page 24. " Bangers were a penny each. "
Box of Brocks Bangers (224 * 500)
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBox of Brocks Bangers - Credit: Martin Weselby

In the 1950s, British kids could buy loose fireworks, including bangers, from the corner shop. Bangers would be used as weapons in street play long before Bonfire Night.

 

 

Benwell penny banger
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBenwell penny banger - Credit: Martin Weselby

 

Rainbow Mighty Midget Banger
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumRainbow Mighty Midget Banger - Credit: Martin Weselby

 

Bigger Dam Buster Banger
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumBigger Dam Buster Banger - Credit: Martin Weselby