What makes me tick?

March 17, 2024

I shared a bedroom with two brothers. My sister, older than us, got her own room. One afternoon when I was about six years old I was lying on my bottom bunk drawing a picture. A searing wave of pain shot through me. I started screaming. My older brother had shot me on the backside with a .177 air pistol from six feet. “Accidentally,” he claimed.

Not long after that I was watching him pass out from his naval basic training at HMS Rayleigh in Plymouth. A couple of years later was the Falklands War. Thankfully he was safe. That’s families. Arguing one minute, proud of each other the next.

Wherever we grew up, our perspective is normal for us. We can’t see our blindspots. I’ve been asked a few times recently about my background, and what make me tick.

Before working at ICI, my Dad was a tank driver in the army. He believed in keeping your word, fulfilling your obligations, and not drawing attention to yourself.

My Mam was, and still is, a molten ball of moral courage. I’ve always prized bravery as one of the highest virtues. She set up the Refuge from domestic violence in Middlesbrough. Despite having four kids at home, she commuted an hour and a half each way to Sunderland to get a diploma in Youth & Community work. She became the union branch chair. She always aimed to take people with her. Fight if you have to, but try diplomacy first.

I remember her taking me to the Durham Miners’ Gala, pointing up at balcony on the County Hotel. I had no idea who those politicians and union leaders were. She took me on the first Reclaim the Night march in Leeds in 1977 as a young boy. It was an all women march. I grew up assuming it was normal to stand up to injustice.

At age 11, my Dad was one of many laid off by ICI. With his redundancy, we moved across Middlesbrough. Teesville where we’d come from was pretty rough. Hemlington was rougher. One day after school six lads from a different school attacked me in an alley. I’ll never know why. Younger, smaller, and hopelessly outnumbered, I was quickly on the floor, getting kicked and stamped on. I arrived home covered in blood, and needed stitches. After that, I took up martial arts.

The new school had a good number of kids from the Pakistani community, including soon, my new best mate, Zahed. I had not realised until then that everyone in my previous school was white. There were certainly lots of things that were insensitive and ignorant, including from teachers. But I never witnessed anything akin to racial hatred, or even intolerance. I don’t believe racism is natural or inevitable. It comes from incitement.

I left school at 16 and started working at a plumbing factory on Skippers Lane. The blokes got one of the apprentices to go to Jewson’s next door with an order for “Qty: 1, long stand”. It’s an old classic, but the poor lad fell for it.

It’s funny what sticks with you. Not long after I started, there were redundancies. Sid worked in the warehouse, manual handling. In his mid to late 50s. “I’ve got irons in the fire, Jamie, don’t worry!” he told me one night walking home from work. There was a shaky defiance in his voice, born of pride.

I saw him again a few weeks later. “Those irons never came to anything,” he told me, his eyes downbeat. Pride replaced with fear of the future.

Fast forward a few years, and I started an engineering degree at Northumbria University. Despite never having A-levels, I got on a foundation course on the strength of my O-levels.

I loved engineering, and university. This was before tuition fees. I was in my 20s, and if I’d had to take on debt, I wouldn’t have gone. Educating people is a public good – we should not be saddling young people with debt for being educated. I worked as a night club bouncer to pay my way through. I worked out that Netto on Shields Road sold the cheapest pasta and battery eggs anywhere. It was the only way to make £5 stretch a fortnight.

During these years, Stephen Lawrence was murdered in London. The subsequent inquiry showed institutional failings. On Tyneside, I was involved in the anti-racist movement. Some public campaigning. But mostly behind the scenes. One family in Washington were being harassed by local thugs. Things posted through their letterbox. We’d take turns to sleep on their sofa so they had some peace of mind.

One night at a jiu jitsu class in Eldon Square, I looked up and there was a new starter. Athletic, confident, and radiating energy. Turns out she’d done martial arts since she was 11, and she was awesome. It was love at first fight!

Caroline graduated medicine the same time I got my engineering degree, and we bought a house together. That was possible in the 90s. Today, young people are priced out. After a few years working as an engineer, I switched to developing the software that runs factories and plans production, and ran my own business.

When we had kids, Caroline wanted to develop her career. She was an NHS GP by now, working in Gateshead. Our finances made it possible for me to stay at home with the kids. In a better world, more families would have the money to do this. I kept on teaching jiu jitsu, and also ran an economics reading group. Looking after my boys is the best job I’ve ever had.

I never intended to be Mayor. When the North of Tyne was created, I encouraged a lot of people to run. They all said no, it wasn’t for them. One Sunday morning the phone went: “We’ve got together last night and decided you have to stop telling other people and do it yourself.”

One thing I see a lot in politicians is imposter syndrome. That feeling of being out of your depth. You can tell when a politician is flim-flamming. They talk in clichés and platitudes instead of plans and evidence. Maybe it’s my engineering background, maybe it’s because I do my homework, but I like being asked to explain the detail. The questions I struggle with are, “who would you want to be trapped on a desert island with?” I don’t want to be trapped on a desert island! I have no strong opinions on Strictly!

I guess my point is people are complex. We’re each a mixture of our circumstances and our choices. We can shape our futures – a bit. John Lennon put it best, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

We all have blind spots. Listening to other people helps fill the gaps in our understanding. Especially listening to those with the quietest voices.

Some years back we were waiting to cross the road. The lights were on red, and a young lad was revving his motorbike. And revving it. And revving it. I was cursing under my breath. Leon, our older son, about 10 years old, was in front of me, holding my Mam’s hand. “Grandma,” he said, “all his life nobody has listened to that young man. That’s why he’s making so much noise now.”