"I remember that shop," said Betty Bond. "It was a dairy."
"I remember that step," said Joyce Robinson. "It was marble."
They began to argue over the details. It was Edgeware Road. No, it wasn't. There was no tone of disagreement. Only a thrust and parry after the truth. For it is not just the past which is a foreign country. The person who remembers is a stranger, too, to their younger self.
They were looking at a set of photographs by Colin Jones which were taken throughout the North-east in the Sixties. Side by side was another set, taken - as far as was possible - from the exact same spot some 36 years later. But what can such comparisons measure?
Colin Jones first went to the North-east as a dancer with the Royal Ballet and used to miss classes to go out and take photographs. "I saw a different world, where people did proper jobs, in the shipyards or making tanks at Vickers," he recalls. "It fascinated me. The huge number of pubs full of men who worked with hot metal. The women out on the streets talking. The amazing sense of community. There was a terrible sort of innocence to it all."
But if there is the danger of romancing the past there could be no uncertainty about the degree of change. I hired a car and toured the region for myself. From the start, all along the Scotswood Road - route of the charabanc on the celebrated Geordie outing to the Blaydon Races - the thoroughgoing nature of the transformation was evident.
The massive power station from the Sixties photographs was gone. So were the gas works, the dye factories, the lead works, the cigarette factory and the 45 pubs in which the sons of toil once slaked their heavy thirst. In their place was a business park - all clipped cypress box-hedges and tasteful modern brick - and an endless succession of posh car showrooms with great swathes of landscaped lawns and neat- rowed daffodils.
Through the city centre - with its smart restaurants, upmarket bookshops and even a casino - and out to the industrial reaches to the east the story was the same. I still passed the occasional pigeon loft but far more frequent were the spanking new industrial units with their "For Sale" and "To Let" signs. Such was the imbalance that when I came across a solitary man-with-whippet I began to suspect he had been hired by the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation to add local colour.
Down river, in the old shipbuilding yards of Wallsend and Hebburn, the cranes stand yet, like fastidious giant birds, roosting, with their yellow and blue necks held at odd pert angles, all along the edge of the river. Some are still at work. In the Swan Hunter oil rig-dismantling site stands the gigantic red Titan III, a god of some previous primordial era. But all around are yards with rusting gantries and smashed windows. And, in between, great sweeps of grass now cloak the wreckage of a once- proud past.
They are at work creating a similar shroud to smother memories at Easington Colliery a dozen or so miles to the south. There are no serious coal mines left in the North-east. In Easington the neat rows of red-brick mining cottages stand like relics. Some are boarded-up or daubed with graffiti. Yet others have neat gingham curtains and vases of daffs in their little front rooms. All once looked out over a vast coalscape of spoil-heaps, belching chimneys and turning pit-wheels. Now they stand, bewildered, before a wide expanse of reddish-brown nothingness.
Change is all around.
Back on the arterial A19, the official road-signs bear words like Samsung and Nissan as if in evidence of the established status of the foreign investor in the region's economy. In Jarrow, the Co-op shop photographed by Jones has become an old people's home. In Wallsend, by contrast with the area's industrial atrophy, a new building has been erected, a viewing platform for an archaeological dig at one of Hadrian's forts. ("Even a god cannot change the past," said Aristotle, but he reckoned without a pounds 7.5m grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund.) The heritage industry has left its mark on Hartlepool too, where derelict docks have been transformed into Historic Quays.
The spot at which Colin Jones once photographed steam trains in front of a billowing black steelworks has now become a bleak windswept motorscape. Around one third of the town has been completely rebuilt to accommodate the great shift from manufacturing to service life. Hartlepool is demolishing houses because it has too many.
It was only by stopping to talk to people that I discovered how far-reaching some changes have been. Some of them mirror those which have overtaken the whole nation in the years since the gullible optimism of the Sixties. Some have been accelerated here in the North- east; others have been retarded. Yet others are particular to the region between the Tyne and the Tees.
Off the Scotswood Road, in a semi-derelict cul-de-sac where several houses have been set alight, is the shop of Mr Singh. He has been in Newcastle nearly 20 years now, since his job as a construction worker on the motorways brought him north. With his savings he bought the little shop and made a decent living at first selling pretty much the same things - bread, milk, sugar, butter, fresh veg and tinned fruit - the shop had sold when a woman called Blanche ran it in the Sixties. But first the supermarkets, and now the smugglers, have put paid to that.
The door-to-door selling of cigarettes and alcohol by men who bring them over from the Continent has knocked business sideways. "These cost pounds 3.77 here," he said, picking up a pack of 20, "but they sell them for pounds 2.50." Outside two boys, aged about six and eight, whom Mr Singh had just refused to sell cigarettes, were urinating in the doorway of an old church. The building had been converted into a nightclub at some point, but it seemed to have failed at that too.
I set off up the road to the Cruddas Park shopping centre to meet Joyce Robinson and Betty Bond who, among their many other interests, have started a local history group which brings local pensioners together to swap tales of the past. Cruddas is one of the poorest areas in a poor region. It is the kind of the place where the shops sell single toilet rolls. The road outside is full of elaborate traffic-calming systems to prevent "twocing" (taking without the owner's consent). Recently the pensioners' history group got together with a group of young single mothers.
Joyce and Betty's asides painted a depressing picture of life in the area:
"Two of them had four kids, all by different fathers."
"In the Sixties you could be married with two or three bairns and still be living with your parents."
"The men don't get up till midday because there is nothing to get up for."
"But some of these people on the dole manage to go on holiday to Spain."
"They opened a supermarket and said there would be 210 jobs. All but 15 turned out to be part-time."
"You see kids wearing designer labels and know that their mothers are in debt for it."
"The young mums wouldn't believe that it took all day to do the washing," said Joyce, "heating the boiler, and then doing all the baking while the oven on the other side was hot."
"Today, what with Hoovers and automatic washers," said Betty, "day-to- day motherhood is far easier than it was."
"And the extended family has gone. Once there were six generations of my family living here," said Joyce. "Now three have moved out."
Much of the women's voluntary activity around the Cruddas Park Centre - whatever the jargon of the various Single Regeneration, City Challenge, Community Trust, Health Action Zones and other schemes - boils down to one thing. It is a conscious attempt to recreate that vanished sense of community. That is what they miss most. It is why they can look at the begrimed scene outside Blanche's shop in 1963 and the cleaned streets of its modern equivalent and see in the former the laughing faces of children playing and in the latter solitary figures bound for home and the disconnected pleasures of their TV sets or the solipsism of their computer games.
Further south, in County Durham, in the new town of Peterlee, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of its creation from a greenfield site, Keith Woodhouse is in search of something similar. He retires this year after almost 35 years as the vicar of Peterlee - a post in which he has been such a success that local people recently voted to name the town's new park after him.
He arrived the year after Colin Jones' original photographs were taken. Peterlee was supposed to provide homes and services to the families of the men who worked in the pits surrounding the town. There are none now, of course. "There are very few prospects for youngsters - very few jobs, it's all schemes and projects which leave them demoralised when they lead to nothing," said Rev Woodhouse, who laments the spiritual change which has accompanied the economic one.
"When I came there were amateur operatics, drama groups, choirs, choral societies. They have all gone. Just as the youngsters, in my early years, were delighted to go hiking in the Cleveland Hills but they now only want to go to the leisure centre or bowling. They enjoy the commercial; they want to spend. Something has gone in the spirit. It's most evident in the increase in vandalism. Pit villages like Seaham, where three collieries have gone, which were celebrated for their community spirit are now notorious for vandalism."
The temptation always is to look back, if not in anger, then in sorrow. And yet, although Ray Waller is 60 years old and remembers the past well, he refuses to succumb. Councillor Waller is the leader of Hartlepool Borough Council and the aerial photographs displayed on his office wall in the Civic Centre speak as eloquently as do the statistics of slow, steady decline.
The one taken before he was first elected in 1962 shows a town with three shipyards, a marine engineering works, a thriving docks and two steelworks. "In those days we had full employment. School leavers were all marched down to the labour exchange and someone shouted `Hands up all those who want to be apprentice electricians'."
Ray thought he had a job for life when he ended up a slab controller at British Steel. The plant was producing the cheapest steel plate in Europe when he was made redundant in 1983. "It was inevitable everything would change when you looked at Third World wage rates," he now says. Some 20,000 jobs in manufacturing have been reduced to 9,000 today. But the flipside of that is that jobs in service industries have risen from 3,000 to 17,000.
At a cost. Call centres have replaced heavy industry. Wages are lower. The 5,000-job Siemens factory has become a KwikSave.Young people go to university and don't return to the town. There is a male identity crisis. "Being unemployed for a long period has had an impact," he says. "It's difficult to re-motivate people. They have got out of the work culture and ethic. Unemployment is 13.9 per cent overall but it reaches up to 40 per cent in some areas of town. More than that, if you have gone from putting five-ton plates on to the side of a ship to mixing Yorkshire pudding batter it has another kind of effect on you."
Although Ray Waller is a councillor, there is no sense of civic propaganda about the optimism with which he looks at the present age. For Ray and his colleagues are being creative. They have invested money in education and seen improvements in standards in schools.
They have started training courses to improve local people's command of English language and soften the extremes of regional accents to appeal to call centre employers. They have exercised their minds on the nature of the work ethic for the future - considering job creation for things which improve the quality of local life like laying paving stones on eroded moorland paths. They are looking at redefining work for those volunteers currently spending 60 hours a week or more running local advice centres.
"Life is much better for most people now than in the Sixties," says Ray. "All we need to recapture from that era is some of its self-confidence." The past may be a foreign country but we can learn from the things they did differently there.
"On balance I'd rather live now, but with the get-up-and-go of the old days," said Joyce, as she and Betty scrutinised the final photographs. "Yes," said Betty, "and don't forget about improvements to health and equal pay and all that."
The two women peered at the photograph of the modern housing which had replaced the old dairy with which they began. "Actually," said Joyce, "if you look at even the very latest photograph you can see some new houses which have been pulled down since the pictures were taken."
"And quite right too," said Betty. "They hadn't been up long but they were terrible. And anyway, it was time for a change"