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Gateshead before the Baltic - a memoir

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It's a long time since I lived in Gateshead. At the time of my childhood, men went to work in pits and in shipyards, the river was full of boats, the riverbank teemed on Sunday mornings with traders, and a man tied himself up in chains and then escaped.

The Keep was a place of mystery and awe, Shepherds was a fairyland consumer contrast to the Co-op on Saltwell Road, and the pubs on the quayside were daring venues for underage sweet martinis and a cherry.

Bridges were escape routes into Newcastle and the exciting possibilities of Fenwick's and the Jazz Club. Life was essentially dominated by the adult world of grimy but life-sustaining industry and the Tyne rolled through us in a slimy roily flow. The glorious bridges linked the banks of the river, the north and south, with beautiful structures that echoed the industry and ruggedness of those who lived and worked there. The King Edward was my favourite, protecting the walker from the full blast of the cutting wind with girders the size of tree trunks and rivets like tea cups.

My visit to the Baltic opening the other week finally marked the cut in links with such a history, a final shift from past to present, from what things do to what they look like, from function to form, from roiling poison to otters, from shipyards to Angel wings, from massive hulk to blinking delicacy, from fairyland shepherds to cinematic icon.

The Baltic is indeed beautiful and I loved the chance to look up and down the river through elegant glass walls, felt privileged to walk around on a special day, wearing the mantel of ownership that I always feel in public buildings. But I felt personally severed from a past to which there is no reference except a hollow shell. The Angel stands aloof and aloft glancing perhaps at her transformed sister and wondering if anyone will remember, because if they don't, they'll get little help from the changing skyline, habitat, landscape that was my birthplace.

I was consoled by an incident in the ladies WCs. As they stood before the mirrors, the two girls plumped up their hair, smoothed their stretch brief skirts and one said to the other:

'Eh, these are lovely lavatories but there's nee where t'put yer handbag.' Perhaps the spirit of the place will last a bit longer in the mind and memory, even if the landscape is nipped and tucked out of history.

Heather Geddes, London

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