It often seems to happen to me – as it did last week – that, when I meet a new group of people, once the preliminaries are over, they turn out to have come from Sunderland, to have lived in Sunderland, to have worked in Sunderland, to have visited Sunderland recently, or to have an aged aunt whose best friend is under the illusion that Sunderland is the centre of the known universe. And she may be right.
There are a lot of stories that Wearsiders tell against themselves, although not as many as they tell against people from Newcastle – or South Shields, which is a lesser enemy in the North-East pantheon of villains, but an enemy nonetheless. My father used the phrase ‘All together like the folks of Shields’ in response to any reference, direct or sidelong, to the word ‘together’. I didn’t clock until I was about forty – my problem is having been exiled to boarding schools at an early age, so my consciousness of Sunderland is not all that it should be – that ‘All together like the folks of Shields’ is not intended as a testament to the stout community spirit of North and South Shields, but rather, a calculated suggestion that people from Shields are mean, conniving, and inward-looking.
One of my favourite Sunderland stories concerns an elderly solicitor, who had long since passed the age of retirement, but who was given the privilege of retaining his office (this is the kind of thing that never happens to teachers and doctors, thank goodness, actually), to which he would return on selected afternoons, the better to shuffle some papers around, and to relax in the way that only solicitors can. Perhaps he had the odd estate or trust with which to deal, but continuity was the reason for his visits. Let’s call him Mr. Armstrong (a very common North-East name).
The legal firm for which he worked employed the occasional YOP (person on Youth Opportunities Scheme, or YOPS, hence the singular) in the office, and on this occasion, the YOP was called Denise. Denise was put under the wing of Gladys, who was the secretary who dealt with Mr. Armstrong on the few occasions he needed dealing with. Her duties in respect of Mr. Armstrong were few; in fact, there was only one – to take him a cup of tea. Denise was deputed to take Mr. Armstrong his cup of tea, at the appointed time.
Not long after taking a rickety cup and saucer of the brown stuff in to old Armstrong, Denise re-emerged from his sanctum stealthily and looking a little fraught.
‘Eee, Gladys,’ she said, ‘when I went in to take Mr. Armstrong his cup of tea, he was stretched across his desk. I didn’t know whether he was asleep or dead.’
Gladys looked at Denise carefully. ‘All I can say, pet,’ she said, ‘is that usually he’s just asleep.’