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Friday, 27 January 2017

Walking The Beat Back To Gonzo Town, And The Book That Never Was

Earlier tonight I wrote a huge article that ended up being really self-indulgent, about how my drinking habits have changed and how I don’t go out much any more. Keeping it very simple, and consigning the fifteen or so paragraphs I’d written to Computer Hell, I’ve noticed from looking at my writing over the past few years I’ve tended to just do beer reviews sitting in my living room, on my own. My preview piece for the Plough’s beer festival in August of 2016, in which I took three of the beers that were to be featured home and drank them, is a very different beast to my coverage of the Rockliffe RFC beer festival in 2014, when I went there on my own, got pretty bombed and had a whale of a time. I like both of the articles, don’t get me wrong. I’m not disowning any of them. They’re all my dumb, ugly children.

Taken on its own this isn’t really a big deal. “Guy In His Mid-Thirties In ‘Not Going Out That Much’ Shocker” isn’t a headline that shifts copies. But when you hold it up against the fact that pubs are closing at a breakneck speed in this country, with CAMRA’s statistics from 2016 pointing to 29 a week being permanently shuttered, it looks kinda serious, because surely a beer writer should also be a going-out writer? A going-to-the-pub-even-if-nobody-else-fancies-it writer?

This time last year I was full of piss and vinegar and amazingly excited about writing a book in which I would drink in every bar and pub in the city of Newcastle in 12 months. This was going to be the apex of my work in the fields of “getting out of the house and doing stuff”. It all came to naught because by the rules I set myself it became an impossibly expensive undertaking.

Presented here is the first chapter, the only fully completed chapter. It’s rough and ready, but I’m posting it as a statement of intent that from now on I’ll be writing about beer in the wild again, as well as keeping up a steady stream of reviews written in my lavish and many-cushioned palace of decadence.

The book was going to be dedicated to the late Patrick Lavelle, my favourite lecturer when I was studying journalism, who taught me just how vital it was to know your patch and walk the beat. These are things I need to bear in mind more when I’m writing. Anyway, here it is.






JANUARY

I drag my screaming headache onto a bus headed for Newcastle. Two women from East Hartford catch the bus with me, and we talk about pubs. We talk about how Whitley Bay is a dead scene now, and how our village club has changed since closing down and reopening as a bar.

We talk about the quality of Aldi’s own-brand schnapps, and fruit cider, and they ask me my plans for the night.

I don’t tell them what I’m really up to. It doesn’t feel like it’s really happening just yet; it feels like to tell strangers that I’m planning to drink in every bar and pub in Newcastle over the next year before I’ve even had my first beer would jinx the operation before it even began. I tell them that I’m going to meet some mates.

Linda, Dawn and I get off the bus and they head for The Three Bulls’ Heads, or maybe The Goose. My first stop is Junction, a former Old Orleans a few feet away from the Haymarket bus terminus.

Junction is a wafer thin place. Years ago, as the brash and cheesy Old Orleans, it felt like the muster station for a Newcastle night out; a gathering point for tarted up tribes of all persuasions to gather and neck a preliminary beer while planning their next move. I never spent a complete night there and I don’t know of anyone who ever has.

Stripped bare of its kitschy signs, trombones and accordions nailed to the walls, Junction is like a sound stage. It’s like a set from a really dull soap opera. At one end the low ceiling hasn’t been boarded off, and the girders holding it up are visible.

I order a Newcastle Brown Ale and take a table. There’s football on, on at least three or four screens. Man U are playing Sheffield and most of the thirty or so people here are watching it happen.

I’ve sat too far from the bar, I’m in a silent zone of little footfall, with another solo drinker facing me from two tables away. We make awkward eye contact. He’s a heavy-set bloke in his 50s or 60s, drinking real ale at more than twice my pace. As I top off my half glass he tilts his head back and downs the last of his second pint, picks up his walking stick and leaves. I become aware that I’m the only solo drinker left and finish up.

As I shrug my coat back onto my shoulders some people uninterested in the football arrive. There’s laughter and waheys and it feels as if Old Orleans is stirring to life beneath the thin flesh of Junction, the old ruined accordions ready to burst through the walls and ceiling and once more bring the cheesy Big Easy to NE1.

I want to stay and see, to find out if the old bar’s character returns, to see if it becomes the standing-room-only squeezefest it used to be in its heyday. But there are over two hundred pubs and bars in Newcastle and I have miles to go.

Without any real plan I walk down Northumberland Street, the city’s main shopping street. Since the Primark here had its makeover a huge screen high on the shopfront blasts out bright fashion for seemingly 24 hours a day and it lights up the rainy night, making the slick wet highlights on Marks and Spencer’s pillars glimmer.

“Suck your mother’s cock” yells a man beneath the department store’s canopy. “Suck your mother’s cock” he yells again into the light-lashed darkness at nobody in particular. He’s looking for a fight and he’ll probably find it at one of the city’s taxi ranks. He’s in his 40s, tightly-groomed with neat grey hair and a well-cut jacket. Nobody reacts and I keep walking in the rain. He is very welcome to his dry shelter.

Ignoring the turnoff for the subterranean Northumberland Arms, and then the turnoff for the equally below-ground Trillians rock bar I cut down the alleyway next to the Tyneside Cinema and pass under the stony gaze of  Earl Grey the Great Reformer, the area around Grey’s Monument silent now that the street preachers and anti-imperialists and Witnesses have gone home for the night.


Feeling the cold and damp cutting into my bones, I hustle towards No28, a boutique-style bar above what used to be the Blackett Arms, and is now a betting shop.

The Blackett Arms was a market pub set into the walls of the Grainger Market, much like its surviving comrade the Black Garter. It was loud and raucous and, as a soft lad with little life experience standing outside it to get into the Red Rooms indie club upstairs more than a decade ago, terrifying.

The Red Rooms played indie and rock ‘n’ roll, and my friend Garry Sykes and I went there regularly. It had two bouncers stood outside in all weathers, one of them a miniature Vin Diesel and the other a mountain of meat standing well over the extremes of human height. They had a lot to put up with; the time I saw them loom over a mortal drunk student who had staggered out from the Red Rooms’ side door to lie on Nelson Street semi-conscious, cuddling a toy fire engine is a fine example of the excesses with which they dealt.

That was the night that Garry had a drunken and enraged meltdown at the club’s clientele. Him sloshing with vodka and me full of whatever beer I could get the cheapest, we stood outside the venue as he yelled “you’re all fucking idiots, yeah? Peace and fucking, believe”, channeling TV’s Nathan Barley with skinny-jeaned fury.

I don’t remember going back after that.

Tonight No 28 is as close to being the opposite of the Red Rooms as a bar can be, without becoming a Starbucks or one of those places you pay to have fish eat your dead skin. No 28 is bright and airy, crisp and light. Whatever material was used to block out the windows in the Red Rooms days has been taken down. A bespoke “No 28“ disco ball spins above tables of couples and small clusters of friends. Another disco ball in the traditional shape hangs next to it and I wonder if it’s the same one that slowly spun over our heads in the days of the Red Rooms.

In No 28 a dead tree stands behind the bar, in a new life as a light fitting. A raised section of the bar-room is laid out like a secret garden, with a gazebo. No 28 has a gazebo in it, and I remember just how filthy the floor of the Red Rooms used to be.

There are no solo drinkers like me in No 28. I take up a seat by the window, looking out over Nelson Street at the old Music Hall. I drink the house lager and try and work out if the secret garden area is booked out for a birthday or a work night out. I’m sitting facing the wall that used to house the entrace to the Red Rooms. There’s a massive print of four nude models there now.

Funk music plays. I’m drinking on my own but I don’t feel eyes on me. Even in Junction I caught a few “what’s this lad’s problem?” glances from people. No 28 is cozy and welcoming. But I doubt many people drink here alone because when I get up and ask the barmaid if she could put my pint behind the bar while I went to the bathroom she seemed surprised, as if it was something she rarely heard.

Soon I leave No 28, back into the bleak weather and still without any real strategy.

I realise, as I pass the suspiciously-beckoning pink cervix  of The Mushroom bar’s entrance, that I’m heading downhill towards an old drinking ground, the area around Central Station just before the Diamond Strip begins.

***

The Head of Steam has been refurbished. I can’t see properly for all the rain on my glasses and when the automatic door opens for me I thank it like an idiot before realising it was a robot all along.

The Head of Steam is one of the few bars in Newcastle in which I drank underage. I went there for a friend’s birthday night out when he had just turned 17. I got loaded on vodka and orange and, anxious that I hadn’t bought him a present, sloped over to the Central Hotel, staggered into a function room and nicked some chicken from a buffet table for him, bringing it back like a moronic pet with a mouthful of roadkill and horny for a head-pat.



More recently, on a busy night here a few years ago, a mate and I struck up a chat with a couple at the bar. Soon the male half of the duo pulled me outside for a chat and told me he’d kick me in if I kept on flirting with his fiancee. I found out later that while this little man in a fisherman hat was promising me a thrashing his fiancee had been necking furiously with my buddy. Mazel tov.

Tonight the Head of Steam is all light wood and 2/3 pint glasses hanging over a beautifully-stocked bar. Johnny Cash plays (over the stereo, the bar’s not quite good enough to raise musicians from the dead just yet) as I walk in. They have a sale on cans and I plough through fine beers from Moor Beer and Oskar Blues. I sit at the bar and feel entirely comfortable even though I’m drinking solo. I tell the barman I’m adamant it was a ghost that opened the door for me. The barmaid excellently advises several punters on the huge range of beers and I see that time is passing faster than I thought and I leave for Westgate Road.



My plan is to drink at Tilley’s, or the Bodega, pubs that sit either side of the Tyne Theatre. Tilley’s is closer so that’s where I go. But first I stand outside the burned out shell of the Kard Bar poster shop, a Newcastle subculture landmark just across the street, that burned down a few weeks prior and claimed the life of its owner. There are no jokes in this paragraph, it's just really fucking sad. I go to Tilley’s and drink a Schlenkerla in darkness in the snug, the physically farthest from the bar I can be without sitting in the theatre next door.

Tilley’s has an excellent range of beers, more than 100 bottles from a continent’s worth of countries. A bar that is properly shabby, not fake shabby, not sandpaper-ran-lightly-over-a-pretty-wardrobe chic. It’s mismatched and metal-signed and one of Newcastle’s most perfect boozers. I watch my first ever episode of Flight of the Conchords, mute and on its big screen, and have no idea what the Hell is going on. I assure myself I’ll be back later this year, with friends and off the clock.


I leave and let gravity guide me down Pink Lane, a downward and crooked defile leading to the city’s Central Station. Outside Rafferty’s bar a burly man in his 60s, bearded and wild eyed like a renegade Santa Claus, is being coralled by a younger man, seemingly bent on stopping him doing something questionable. “You’re being a twat, mate”. The old man sways and lurches as he tries to walk past him. “You’re being a twat. Go home”.

Nobody says “mate” quite like a Geordie. On our lips it can mean anything from an exclamation of absolute love and devotion to a promise of quick and terminal violence. The  Anti-Santa (or Atnas, if you will) is undone and staggers away back to his land of black snow and blood-drinking elves, and I step into the Forth Hotel, an old Victorian establishment once home to bare-knuckle fights and now home to excellent beers, great food and a roof terrace where I once saw some nice posh boys get busted by the staff for skinning up in public. Come on, at least try to be subtle.

I’d planned to end my night on the roof terrace of the Forth, looking out over the city I love, and whose drinking holes I’ve planned to patronise and immortalise over the course of a year, but at night the vista from the terrace just isn’t the same as the daylight city skyline. Still, I look out over the rooftop car park next door, and at the bright lights of an office building down the way and it’s good enough of a view for me to complete the night. I finish most of my bottle of Brooklyn 1/2 Ale before a barmaid tells me the terrace is closing. I chug down the last of it standing by the bar.

From the sound system displaced Northerner Bryan Ferry sings about being taken on a rollercoaster, an airplane ride, a six day wonder, and I take my leave at this perfect moment. Ahead of me lies a year of drinking in at least another 200 pubs and bars in the city of stone and steel.

In my immediate future is a bus ride home, and a hot meal from a woman who understands why I’m on this stupid adventure. I eat well, watch a Bruce Campbell film and sleep for 12 hours. I’ll need all the rest I can get.

***



It’s my 31st birthday. Newly single and drunkenly unchained. I crash into the city with a warband of friends that quickly dwindles to just myself and my mate Pete, who will probably feature in a lot of these tales.

We end up drinking in Sam Jack’s, a Newcastle binge emporium with a nominal Wild West theme. It has a mechanical bull and it’s really loud. The bar, not the bull. At one point in the night, my head smashed in with far too much beer, I leave Sam Jack’s and accidentally go into Sinners, the bar next door. From there I furiously text Pete to tell him to go home and that I was “on a missiom” (sic).

I don’t hear back from him and end up talking to a group of girls on an away day from Durham (the city, not the prison). We talk a while, yelling and slurring and failing to get any real information across, until one of them pauses mid-conversation to open her handbag and loudly vomit into it. It is a primal technicolour scream, a roaring un-eat that drowns out the music, and this is my cue to leave, my brain drowning in neon-coloured vodka shots.

The next morning, upon review, I find the earnest “go home, it’s fine, I’m on a missiom” texts had been sent to the unmonitored inbox of my mobile phone provider.

It has now been two years since I drank there. There is no avoiding this place of vomit and miscommunication.

I return to Newcastle with a plan to drink at the cheap and dirty and loud and unavoidable party bars in the area close to The Gate entertainment complex. Reflex, an 80s theme bar, is on my list. As are Sinners and its neighbour Sam Jack’s.

Horrifyingly sober, walking down a bitter-cold Northumberland street, my confidence in walking into one of these places alone is shaken. I need a beer to ready myself for the task and, disoriented by this change in plans, I wander until I end up in the polished, pseudo-Victorian dreamland of The Botanist.

The Botanist takes up the area that used to be the Monument Mall food court. I enter through what used to be a side door to the mall, walking past a lad with impeccable hair who sits manning a laptop at the entrance. Inside there is well-groomed success everywhere. Nobody is drinking here on their own. The crowd at the bar shifts like a perfectly dressed dune. I have the cheapest haircut in the building.



I stop gawking up at the tree, complete with treehouse, that sits where the lifts and escalators down to Sports Direct once were, and mine my way to the bar. I order a can of Flying Dog’s Snake Dog IPA but I must have stumbled on my words because after the barmaid slides the can over to me she turns and comes back with a glass full of crushed ice.

I sheepishly leave the glass where it is and slink off to stand roughly where the overpriced, monstrously greasy, but angelically delicious pizza concession used to be in the heyday of the food court, and try and get this first beer out of the way quickly.

Soon the empty can has been dumped on someone else’s table when they weren’t looking, and I am out the door, back into the cold and aiming for Reflex, for a sticky-floored dive with awful music and basically getting some of the worst out of the way early in the year.

***



Something is wrong. I’m not as awake to the night world of the Toon as I had thought. Reflex is gone, replaced by something called Label. The name screams “generic designer ambience” and inside there’s a gaggle of men in black shirts and blue jeans who communicate by yelling in each other’s faces. Boudoirish frilly lampshades hang from a dark ceiling, over a dark floor and dark tables. Everything is black and gold. There are offers in the windows for cocktails served in beaten-up enamel teapots. This is one of the growing number of bars where you can scrape up £65 with your mates to chip in for a £15 retail price bottle of vodka to sit around while you pretend to be rappers.

Nobody is doing this tonight. A roped-off VIP area is empty. I sit with a bottle of Fosters Gold and quickly leave, wondering what the point of the place is.

The point of Sinners is obvious. It’s there to sell trebles and a lot of them. It’s billed as a student bar, a holdout from the days when student drinking was about lowest-common-denominator cheap-shots, and not a weird combination of glamour and quirk. This is not a student bar any more, if it ever was one.

I like to think of the area in which it sits as Newcastle’s Binge Quarter. Sam Jack’s is next door, all dentist’s chair and Wild West schtick. Players is nearby, a lightless vault that doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a strip club or a sports bar. People stand outside trying to hawk up business like Vegas criers and the clientele is dedicated to getting inelegantly wasted.

Sinners looks like a set from an incredibly cheap vampire movie. The windows are blacked out with wooden boards. The walls, ceiling and floor are black and the names of the seven deadly sins are writ large and bold on the walls in blood red.

Tonight Sinners is freezing cold. A fog machine has been in use at some point and the lingering clouds make the place feel more like a meat locker than a bar. It smells of sick, and it’s not even eight o’clock yet. I order a pint of Fosters from a barmaid in a parka and pitch up beneath the word GLUTTONY. There are about twelve other people in the bar, all men and all standing awkwardly on the dance floor, each one wondering where the women are.

I try to work out where I had been sitting when my friend from Durham vented her stomach contents into her bag. The stillness of the place tonight, weighs heavy on the buzz I’m trying to get. By the time my pint is finished I’m alone, and I decide against a subsequent one.

I escape the halls of the undead and the cold outside catches my chest. I cough heartily, almost being sick with it. I look up and see the bouncers outside Sam Jack’s staring at me and decide that Sam Jack’s is a bar for another night.

This light-sick vampire drifts off towards the hum and throb of Sergeant Pepper’s.

***

Sergeant Pepper’s is a party bar close to the Haymarket bus and Metro stations. It has existed pretty much unchanged for decades and even when the sun finally goes out and Earth is enveloped in eternal and freezing night there’ll still be someone behind the bar serving up cocktails with names like Mexican Rocket to the space ghosts that will inherit the place.

There is no attention paid to the growing trend towards luxury and kitsch in the bar business. Sergeant Pepper’s was tacky years ago, before tacky was cool. It serves lager by the can and cocktails on an industrial scale. Large men move slowly but with confidence through the crowds after buying Stella or Carling in cans on a two for one offer, cracking them open and sucking them down, crushing the empties in their hands on the return to the bar for more.



The cocktail list at Sergent Pepper’s exists outside the growing bubble of artisanal speakeasy drinks, works of ingenuity comprising fifteen thousand ingredients, shaken with sprigs of lime and served on a page from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The cocktail list that runs the length of the bar’s back wall features an array of drinks, very few of which have more than three ingredients. None are shaken, or stirred, or set on fire or shot out of a cannon or served in a three hundred year old crystal skull. The cocktail of the month is called a Dr Pepper. It’s made of Amaretto, brandy and cola from the gun and it costs £2 and I set about drinking a lot of them.

I get to the point where the barman is pouring one for me by default as soon as my glass is empty and I look in his direction. A lad pulls up next to me and orders a lime and soda and a glass of water. He is wasted, chewing his face as he tries to slam his brain into line long enough to word his request. He is baffled when his drinks turn up and there’s no vodka.

Sergeant Pepper’s cares not for panache or style, and with this in mind it lives its own life, accidentally being an endearing, raucous and brightly-lit lifeboat in the cold January night. The dance floor is a heaving beast of middle aged men and women losing their shit to Oasis. Bohemian Rhapsody drags at least one hundred people temporarily into a cult of synchronised headbanging and I leave happy and fully aware of the fact that Sergeant Pepper’s is truly timeless.

Northumberland Street is a different place at night when you’re drunk and alone. You notice things that normally fly by your senses. An old woman dragging a shopping trolley suddenly drops to the ground and for a moment I’m terrified that in my pissed state I’m going to have to aid an injured geriatric but then I see that she’s shot her hand out, grasping like a blue-rinse snake for a packet of tabs she’s just spotted on the street. She stands up unaided and throws the clearly empty packet down in disgust.

Down the street bounces a teenage dandy in a blue suit with blocky-heeled blue suede boots. His hair bounces like something from a Timotei advert and I imagine he’s been summoned by a secret signal to some kind of fashion emergency, like “Someone near the Monument is wearing odd socks. Move to intercept.”

Minutes later, as I wander down the main drag, he bounces back up the street with a paper Burger King crown in hand and I have a feeling that he is probably having the best night of anyone in the city.

***

Butlers (there’s no apostrophe so I don’t know if it’s meant to be named for one or multiple manservants) is a Greene King pub close to the Grainger Market. Its toilets aren’t as bad as they used to be and these days you don’t need SCUBA gear to get to the urinals. There’s karaoke going off and in fact I can’t remember a time when karaoke wasn’t going off at Butlers. I join a queue for the bar as a woman who’s belting out the Cher part of Meatloaf’s Dead Ringer for Love slips her arm around my shoulder and serenades the Hell out of me.

Linda and Dawn, my friends from the bus, are here. They are well on their way to hangovers and leave shortly after I arrive, after we’ve yelled pleasantries at each other over someone sluggishly rapping through Gangsta’s Paradise. I neck a bottle of Desperados, then a bottle of Monteith’s IPA and I slide out just as the karaoke compere orders the guy belting through Sex is on Fire to get the lasses going.



Fully lubricated I decide to break my rule of only visiting each pub once in this mission early on. I return to Sinners. I want to see a train-crash of decadence and disinhibition like I did on my 31st birthday. I’m dying to see a recreation of the bag-sicking, phone network-texting, memory-making night.

Sinners has come to life by now, or to unlife if we still want to labour the low-budget vampire film theme. I’m confident I have enough money for a couple of pints and cut through the crowd of dancers to the bar where I’m served by a Norse colossus who unmans every other bloke in the pub by wearing a vest in the meat-locker chill. I struggle to see anyone looking anything other than hammered. I drink Fosters and stand against a wall. The next morning I will find the word “transcendent” noted down in my phone and won’t have a clue what I was on about.

The toilets are downstairs. I make a quick visit to them and leave reeking of Gaultier as the toilet attended assails me with a shirt-dampening amount of eau de toilette. As I approach the staircase a plastic pint glass flies down and bangs into the wall, followed by an autocannon rattle as a young drinker follows it, hitting every step and banging into the wall. I help him up and we slur at each other in the language of drunks and I realise it’s time to go home because I’m sure neither of us understood what we were even saying, never mind each other.

A barmaid lets me get away with another pint despite being two pennies short and I throw it back.

As I wait for my taxi I think of the souls I’ve brushed up against tonight. The Shouting Men of Label, the Southern girl telling her mate how chill Sergeant Peppers is as I left and they entered, the Dandy King of Northumberland Street, the towering woman who yelled “get up there sausage” in my face as I stood at the bar in Butlers. Bartender Thor and the Parka Barmaids of Charity.

All cells in the bloodstream of the beast that is Newcastle by Night, carrying cash like oxygen to its beating bank account as the city exhales its beer-breath miasma of hangovers and morning regrets. Over the next eleven months I will drown myself in this network of glass and iron blood vessels and it is daunting.

There are over two hundred pubs in Newcastle’s city centre.

Oh shit.

2 comments:

  1. I thought that was thoroughly well written and made me think of the times I used to get the tube into the city centre (London in my case) and walk for miles, stopping off at each of my haunts, gradually getting more pixellated and watching how the creatures around me and their behaviour changed as the evening wore on. Your observations on inebriation are spot on. You should definitely persevere with this as a writing project.

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    1. I only just saw this comment now, but thank you so much mate! I'm certainly getting more tempted to continue this, just maybe not limiting it to 12 months. Cheers!

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