In the Beginning

John was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1958.

His father, John snr, worked in the mining industry for half a century though he never actually went down a mine!

John explains, “My Mother had made Dad promise her before they married that he would never go down a mine, though he would have probably earned more money that way. Her family can be traced back as miners in the Durham coalfield as far as the 1670s. Her grandfather had died as a result of a mine collapse – though he had managed somehow to walk home when they dug him out. Dad kept his promise. He started off as a fireman – shovelling coal into steam engines, and because he could add up ended up as a traffic-foreman on the NCB railway.”

My Granddad, Joe in 1916, my Dad with flat cap and locomotive, my parents on their wedding day, 7 October 1944.


John’s mother, Freda, married John toward the end of World War 2, during which she had served as a conscripted welder in the munitions factories. They were together for 55 years and 71 days, till John died in 1999 aged 84. Freda died peacefully toward the end of 2013 at the age of 91 having suffered from dementia in her final years. 

“From the earliest time I can remember my parents encouraged me to get an education and go to university. Both my father and grandfather were clever men who were denied the opportunity to learn because they didn’t have the financial means. My father, whose family hailed from Scotland and north Northumberland had lived in dire poverty. He had no option but to work to support his younger brother and sister. He wanted something better for me and education was the way.”

“My favourite picture of my family taken at Blackhall, Durham in 1946. The War is over, they all happy and full of hope for the future – all smartly turned out, even though they are on holiday. On the left, at home in our garden – Dad grew most of our own food, and right with Granddad in 1961 – he’s probably telling me to work hard at school, go to university but never to forget where I came from!”


Brought up on a council estate, John was in one of the first year groups to attend a comprehensive school following the ending of selection at 11.

“Secondary school is a tough time for most children and I can’t pretend I loved it. The school leaving age had just been raised from 15+ to 16+ when I started so there were a lot of discontented young men around the place who didn’t want to be there. Few stayed on after 16 back then, but although that has changed massively we’ve still not yet cracked how the system can best serve the other 50% who will not get to a university. That’s why I’m very interested in skills and vocational courses.”

In February 1974 during the second national miner’s strike in two years Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, called a General Election on the question; ‘Who Governs the Country’, to which the electorate answered; ‘Not you’.

“My Dad never wanted to be on strike, but he supported his Union, the NUM and its tradition of secret ballots. Getting rid of Ted Health’s incompetent Tory Government was essential to getting the lights back on and my Dad back to work. At the second election in October I wangled time off school to work in the election on the dubious premise it would help my Social Studies ‘O’ Level. Mr Gove would not have approved.

“Somehow I ended up at University which I enjoyed immensely. When I went to University I thought I was quite left wing but on the NUS spectrum I clearly wasn’t. For one thing I was already a member of the Labour Party and rather unfashionably I believed that winning elections mattered rather a lot. It was all quite mad, but I met brilliant, inspiring people and made friends for life.”

John gained degrees in Economics (BA Hons) and Art History & Theory (Film) (MA). He acknowledges it is an odd combination but contends it is perfect for running a creative business.