[I didn’t go to Newcastle to enjoy myself. I went because John said he needed me. The fact that we ended up having a good two days is what I’m going to concentrate on writing about, despite the sad circumstances surrounding my visit. So a lot will necessarily be left out.]
On my first day in Newcastle we walked through Jesmond (which, in John’s words, is like a bit of Hampstead that wandered out of London and got very lost), Georgian Grainger Town, down the elegant curved Grey Street to the Quayside with all its lovely bridges especially the Millennium Bridge that opens and closes like an eyelid to let ships through, and lounged in chairs like big embracing egg-whites in the very cool Stereo bar. John was getting concerned – I was thinking Newcastle was lovely, despite his strenuous efforts to persuade me to the contrary.
So the next day he took me to see the Gateshead multi-storey car park. I was suitably cowed by this, but then we went to the fabulous Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (lots of pictures of it here), and watched life-size plaster casts of people being worked on for Antony Gormley’s new work Domain Field, and saw the Cobra exhibition described as too good for the North, and before long there I was going on again about how I would go back to London and become a Newcastle crusader.
Right then, said John, we’re going to Hebburn. We walked out of the Metro and gazed upon an industrial wasteland. Down the road was “Upper Crust”, an optimistically-named sandwich shop. Next to it was Jeanette’s Hair Design & Greeting Cards, where I hope Jeanette was aware of a synergy between the two products that eluded me. In the town centre we got Saveloy Dips, which were basically sausages, pease pudding and stuffing, in a bun. Apparently this Northern specialty is getting harder to find in shops, so I guess I was just lucky to be with someone who knew where to go. On the door of the town library, a poster proclaimed “The Internet has arrived!”
In the park, we read graffitti. John likes to keep himself informed on what’s been going down in the neighbourhood. Apparently Tino went to jail and got off with a lad. And I started feeling nervous about the Hebburn Hash Heads, a ubiquitious and most certainly menacing collective which left their mark everywhere. We climbed a hill, and I said “Nice hill.” “Oh, it used to be a slag heap,” John said. Bede’s Well was once revered as a source of miraculous cures. On Tuesday it was a trough in the ground clogged with beercans. One suspects the Bede’s Well Guest House nearby in Jarrow has been having permanent low season for a while.
In the corner store, a nice old lady gave John a big hug and said how sorry she was to hear about his mother. While making him a sandwich she chatted to me, asking me where I was from and little pleasantries like that. In hindsight I’d agree that she did say “And you’re going back” as more of a pointed comment than friendly question, but I didn’t pick up on it until we left and John mentioned that this nice old lady once told him how she thought the National Front was damn right.
In John’s house, we told his sister and her boyfriend about everything I’d seen. She pointed out that I hadn’t seen the River Don yet, and when all 3 of them burst out laughing I knew we were on to something. We got in the car and drove there past morose young men and angry teenage girls, all in tracksuits. The River Don didn’t reflect the sky the way water usually does. We walked along it, breathing in its bouquet of sewage and decay, and stopped on a bridge that led to some boarded-up derelict warehouses. “I wonder what’s in the River Don today,” John said cheerfully, and we peered over. There was a cooker, a microwave, and a shopping trolley.