‘Where’s all the customers?’
‘They’ve just left’. – Paul, at Betty’s, Sunderland.
I awake late in Whitley Bay. Paul and I did our best to drink all the wine the previous night. I rub my eyes and manage to reconstruct thoughts from previous days to produce another travel post before rolling out of bed. It’s a Saturday morning, and as I gaze out at the sleepy Tyneside suburbs, I imagine children wailing at the parents to wake up and feed them their favourite cereals, of adults gazing lacklustrely into garages full of half-finished home decoration projects, and young adults jumping into their credit card cars to head out to the nearest malls to look at things that disinterest them.
After a while Paul surfaces, and over cups of strong coffee, Paul discourages me from my stated plan of visiting Sunderland.
‘It’s a shit hole.’
Indeed, everyone I’ve met has told me similar, even native Makems (and Smoggies, and Geordies – don’t worry, a glossary will follow). And I’ve heard many other parts of the world I love described in similar terms. They compel me. I describe quite a lengthy tour of the Tyne and Wear region by bicycle when Paul offers to drive me and make a day of it. It’s an offer too tempting to refuse. My over-strained knees sigh with some relief.
So I hop into the passenger seat, and continue my journey through Albion aboard a new medium of investigation. The writer J.G. Ballard would certainly approve. For Ballard, there is no other way to appreciate the actual nature of the largely suburban, motorist-orientated landscapes of the country except by car.
‘We like the fast dual carriageways, the easy access motorways, the limitless parking lots. We like the control-tower architecture, the absence of civic authority, the rapid turnover of friendships and the prosperity filtered through car and appliance purchases.’
Do we? No, of course not. We don’t like any these things, but whether we like them or not has no impact on their existence. They have been built to cater for in inauthentic and largely culturally imported set of desires. Begrudgingly, we pass these transitory zones in the search of something to do. Better to face the banality of the modern British roadscape than get lost in bucolic fantasies. So off me and Paul head, ready to explore Tyne and Wear.
We drive out of the suburb of Monkseaton, stopping in a shop, and next pass the coastal side of Whitley Bay. The coast here is remarkably pretty. Golden sands adorn long and playful beaches where dog-walkers tramp below, whilst around us families gawp at the various shops selling local ice-cream. Another local friend, Johnny, sadly not able to join us today, tells me that Minchella’s is the best. The car skirts by wizened grand hotels, the ruins of former castles, and line upon line of unused rowing boats. The air conditioning is cool and shields the traveller from much of the physical contact with a landscape that cycling makes so pleasurable. We jump out and wander around the coast by Tynemouth. The Cullercoats beach here stands out as most pleasant, and we gaze at the squalls of the distant sea, deceptively tranquil from such distances. The Black Middens, devastators of who knows how many vessels, sit gracefully between the incoming waters.
Paul shares more information about Tynemouth, the sleepy secret seaside playground of Geordies in the know.
Once this was the gaping maw into a dirty industrial landscape of ship-building, transit and trade. Soot and stink, great hoots of noise. Where now? In March 1854 the Italian soldier and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi arrived here in exile. Warmly welcomed by local workers, he shunned the invites of local busybodies and spent a month plotting futile dreams about a future Italy on the Tyne.
The greatly underappreciated novelist Yevgeni Zamyatin also worked nearby during 1916-17. He wrote We, the first and still most sophisticated dystopia of a future totalitarian society where technological futurism and individual productivity have become one and the same. Both Huxley and Orwell came across the book. At least Orwell was more honest in admitting he consciously used it to produce 1984:either way, most disturbing visions of a technologically sophisticated, socially malnourished future owe something to Zamyatin. As well as the Russian revolution, he drew on his experience as a builder of ice-breaker ships on the Tyne shipyards, as well as life in middle-class Jesmond. These ghosts! Even Wittgenstein worked here for about a year as a laboratory assistant, also making some kind of awkward home in Jesmond.
Conflicts criss-cross Wallsend, the place where Hadrian’s Wall begins, separating Roman from barbarian around 1 900 years before. Today kids point into Tynemouth windows and dream up their favourite combinations of ice-cream flavours. ‘Where next?’, Paul asks, with innocuous curiosity. Passing yet another pub with World Cup England flags, I ask him what the St. George’s flag means to him.
‘I can’t see the St. George’s flag without thinking of racism and xenophobia.’
I’ve yet to meet few who, when asked one-to-one, have something positive to say about it.
Paul has a senior position in public health, which gives me the opportunity to talk to someone with a wealth of experience in local government and healthcare about some of the stories and experiences I’ve come across. We quickly start to unpick if, or how, public health can be effective.
There’s an assumption at work beneath drugs prevention in schools, or the stop smoking campaigns, or telly ads telling you to eat more fruit and veg. They assume that something bad is happening, and that something good can be done about it. In the process, they summon up an authority that can reform the faults of human nature. Public health owes part of its origin to the middle-class moralising of 19th century social reformers of the idle and drunken poor.
I raise up my experience of drugs prevention in my school. In our case, the abundance of detailed drugs information we received often introduced us to exciting-sounding new substances we’d have not otherwise come across. Barbiturates? Ketamine? Is it better to keep young people ignorant, I propose.
We talk on this, and agree not. It’s valuable for indicating what kinds of drugs might be safely experimented with, and what not. It leads back to a position I believe in, that we are better off fully legalising all drugs, with states managing and overseeing their production and recreational use. The online sale of illegal substances today is just the latest stage in the redundancy of policing drugs consumption.
Paul poses whether human nature can be reformed on any level at all. Shouldn’t we face our own animality and aggressive drives, rather than attempt to mask them with dangerous ideas of ‘progress’ that has led to industrialised genocides alongside industrialised social equality? Don’t ideas like ‘humanitarianism’ simply elevate and normalise one set of cultural values – a European, western secular one – over all others, with similar devastation? Are we not better served examining human behaviours as they actually present themselves, rather than how we’d wish them to be?
These are arguments made by John Gray in Straw Dogs and other works, and another writer greatly indebted to the works of Ballard. They feel tempting. But their effect is to accept (and reinforce) the current establishment. They ignore that reforms to human life on a collective and not individual level have been effective. The spreading of electricity and running water to most homes has transformed how humans live. Cases like compulsory education, or establishing a free healthcare system all served to determine humans to live longer and richer lives. They did transform human nature.
As Paul sees it, there is some power in not resigning oneself to despair for not being able to help all people. It’s an impossible task, particularly with those who are unable to accept help from outside or live trapped in cycles of self-perpetuating suffering. He gives the example of thousands of stranded starfish on a rock-edge. A little girl runs out and begins to pick off the creatures and throws them into the water. The work is exhausting and the number she saves barely exceeds the fingers of a hand. She’s asked
‘Why bother, when you can’t save them all?’
‘Because I can save this one.’
It’s a noble thought, though one that also returns back to the religious motivations of social reformers. Wouldn’t it be better to devise some device that flicks starfish in mass back into the sea or, alternatively, make peace with the casual inevitability of death?
Paul tells me about the competitive tendering for refugees that has transformed part of the work of local councils in recent times. It’s a bizarre market of asylum seeker places, as councils and private firms bid to take in numbers of asylum seekers. Business management buzz-words and free market rhetoric has spread beyond all logical limits. Public health has become understood in economic terms. I hear of some ludicrous terms. What do you think ‘Asset based development’ means? It’s the assets being individuals or things in a community that contribute to it, like a volunteer, or a library. Right. How about ‘additionality’? It’s the way certain communal institutions or actions ‘add value’, or contribute, to the success of a community. That clears that one up then.
As we pass yet another series of similar-looking semis, Paul comments that poor people cost more to local governments. They get ill younger and more often, and often suffer from a number of intersecting problems. They are more likely to go to hospital, which is extremely expensive. But beyond keeping the poor out of hospital – a feat aided by the government’s closure of several A&E departments – what else can be done?
We arrive into the suburbs of Sunderland, and Paul points out the range of life expectancies in the towns we pass. Southwick has a life expectancy for men of around 66, as I recall, around 15 or 20 years less than the more affluent parts of London. Excessive alcohol consumption is one issue that does affect the north-east more than other places, but sufficient research is out there which links the additional factors of stress, bad housing, poor access to health resources, poor diet and other effects of poverty to a premature death. I wonder if the people of Southwick ought to organise a lawsuit of some sort?
He explains the work of Dahlgren and Whitehead on the wider determinants of health. There’s things any person will inherit, and there’s also things people do, their lifestyles and occupations. It isn’t always possible for the individual to control or alter everything in their life. We discuss this in relation to smoking, and healthy eating. The idea that people just need to wake up to reason and realise what (someone else has decided) is in their best interests and follow it is naïve. This is true of politics, as it is true of anti-drinking campaigns. Paul tells me that the most effective intervention he’s ever overseen were conversations. Health workers would simply ask patients: do you smoke? Have you thought about stopping? Would you like some help with that?
Yes, but these also were surrounded by a long-running anti-smoking media campaign, warning signs on boxes, the proliferation of smoking alternatives on the NHS and, above all, the banning of smoking in pubs and restaurants. Wouldn’t such coercive gestures work in the case of raising the minimum price of alcohol, stopping junk food takeaways opening, or banning supermarkets from selling cheap junk food, and forcing them instead to subsidise fruit and veg?
We arrive in the centre of town, but there doesn’t seem to be any central point to it. We pass a large derelict wasteland by the river where the local Vaux brewery once stood. The site is owned by Tesco who insist on turning it into some kind of hypermarket. Permission is still refused, and nothing stands.
Mark told me yesterday that in Sunderland there’s ‘only Nissan and call centres’. Whilst Nissan has brought skilled and well-paid work to the area, call-centres are largely low-paid and feel schizoid. Mark laughs as he describes lasting little over a week at one call centre, ‘like voices in your head’. Today he makes and writes about films. As we drive about in search of some distinctive landmark, I tell Paul about what local man Mark shared with me. There used to be a lot of shipbuilding here, like with the nearby towns. Pyrex once had a huge factory here, and the area’s still known vaguely for its glass, such as ‘Sunderland lustre’. Sea-glass appears at certain times of the year in nearby Seaham. The place has been hit badly by the decline of its industries, and we spot pubs, poundshops, Greggs bakeries, and little else.
We drive out to Hendon in the east, where much of the industry was based. Most British towns follow a similar spatial model in terms of rich and poor: stinking industries were based in the east, with poor workers’ communities around them, and wealthier middle class houses and homes were stuck out in the west. It reflects the way the wind blows, carrying the stenches eastwards. Even today, low-income areas are clustered still in the eastern parts of towns. Mark lives near here, and makes a joke about the abysmal beach here. Shit bricks often surface, sewage that has petrified. We pass Sunderland bungalows, a distinct kind of workers’ housing development, and Paul explains the good community work of one local leisure centre.
The speed of the car allows us to become more receptive to changes in the landscape. From the run-down shops and houses of Hendon and Grangetown to wealthy Ashwood in moments. We drive back into the centre of town, past the prominent university and towards a dull 1960s town centre development, surrounded by a British Town Centre mall and some grand Victorian shopping streets, mostly filled with empty or underpopulated stores.
Sunderland does have its charms too. There was always a punk movement here, and in recentish times the town has given us The Futureheads. Lewis Caroll was in part inspired by the town when producing Alice in Wonderland, and artist Brian Talbot has painstakingly linked together this work and other local myths in his own Alice in Sunderland. The town also killed Sid James. He died of a heart attack on stage at the Empire as audiences laughed, a strangely recurring fate for TV entertainers. I’m told that the area has a very small cultural quarter, consisting of a cinema, bowing lanes and a hipster vinyl shop, but we don’t spot it.
As David Bowie famously addressed the town,
‘Good evening Newcastle!’
We’re unsure what to make of it. What distinguishes these towns – at least to their residents – is a competitive fixation with football. Accents widely vary across the area, and the voices I hear in Durham and Hartlepool are as distinct and variable as anything in Newcastle, Sunderland or Middesbrough. But football rivalry has pushed Geordie against Makem, and Makem against Smoggie. It’s part of the history of the area. An extremely obscure team, West Auckland FC, won the first world cup. A ragged bunch of Darlington coalminers who entered the Thomas Lipton cup in unlikely circumstances, being a shoddy team even back in 1909, they beat the best and made history. A few months later they had to pawn the trophy due to financial problems at the club. The many secret histories of the fascinating north-east.
Locals can tell the difference between each accent, apparently. The people of Sunderland, or Makems, turn make and take into mak and tak, and school into skoo-ul. Haway! The Smoggies of Middlesbrough have a softer and more lilting accent to my mind, with cobbled hints of Knaresborough and Harrogate resonating within. Geordies are more distinct, and their accents can at times sound like a heady brew of vowels. Amganyam mon! This declaration that I’m going home! is almost identical to the Norwegian. It’s harder to follow, and shares with the Durham accent a kind of Irish sound to the outsider, compared to the more clipped and lucid flow of Smoggie and Makem. As I head further north, it becomes even more confusing. At times I feel like I’m going aka!
‘All the shops are closed down!’
The people we pass are not optimistic, as this one lady points out. I ask Paul: what can be done with a town that has grown too large? Can there be an organised shrinking, to restore the place and its centre back to the needs of its community now? Some way to remove the obvious signs of decline and indicate some kind of collective aspiration for the future? He’s as unsure as me.
Paul and I drift into Betty’s (or Elizabeth’s), a chintzy old tea room in the centre of town. It’s pretty deserted. We gaze through the menu, a wonderful smorgasbord of classically British dishes like corned beef pie and soup and sandwiches. Paul has tea served in at least four different drinking vessels, a wonderfully over-formal faffery, and I go for a bottle of double maxim, a recreation of Vaux’s local brew by another brewery. It’s a bland brown ale, just what I seek. Round these parts they call it a ‘bottle of dog’, homely and refreshing. It’s the closest I’ll get to a local broonale like. Newcastle Brown is now brewed by Heineken back in Burton-upon-Trent, where they most definitely call each other ducks and not c-…. . If only I’d realised!
We head out, drifting through the bland malls of the town. Have you seen enough now? Paul’s glare communicates itself easily enough, but I’m passing through parts that remind me of home, Peckham and Croydon, places where lots of poor people live in largely peaceful if unhappy lives. Perhaps I’ve always lived in what others would call shit holes. But I find more life and stories in any one shit hole than any rich man’s middle class resort or excruciatingly bland country village. This is where most of us live and, bringing in our man J.G. Ballard again, ‘we’re in no hurry for you to join us.’ Bill Bryson, Josie Dewes, Paul Theroux, and any other rich British travel writer you care to mention, please move on.
We drive back towards Newcastle, and stop at the little town of Jarrow. Signs everywhere alert us to ‘Bede’s World’, a ridiculous cash-in on the life of the venerable monk who lived and died in this area during the 6th and 7th centuries. We’re not hear for that though.
Reaching the town centre, one comes across a small but not awful-looking 1960s central development, filled with a Bright House, discount stores, and a large supermarket. There’s a random statue of a Viking hovering overhead opposite the town hall, where the plaque to the famous Jarrow marchers of 1936 has been mysteriously removed. We park by a jobcentre and discount pub, and snoop around.
There’s little sign of much now. We peer up at a statue of Charles Palmer, a shipbuilder who pioneered a new kind of boat capable of bringing coal down to London in 8 days instead of a month. It was called a screw steel collier (I think), and transformed the area. A local shipyard provided a huge number of new jobs.
There’s no museum telling me this. Nigel, a local history teacher, spots us poking about and starts regaling us with his knowledge and passions. ‘There’s not enough local history these days’, he fears. Thirty minutes later he laughs, glances at his carrier bag, and says ‘I’d only gone out for a paper!’ Glorious and generous serendipity. Nigel’s also able to explain where the plaques might be. Following his advice, we find one statue between a Morrison’s supermarket and a cash converters pawn shop. At the nearby Metro station we find the other, opened by Neil Kinnock in 1984. There’s also a small plaque left on the town hall from the 50th anniversary march.
What was the Jarrow march about though? Workers in 1936 marched for over a month from Jarrow to London to protest about unemployment in the area and the wider north-east. They asked for dignity, recognition, and the opportunity to simply work. 207 marchers were picked from the most fit of men, and were supported by a small bus with food as they travelled down. At the time, the march failed in its objectives, and workers were given £1 to get the train back. But the lasting effect was traumatic and powerful. Instances like Jarrow would remind soldiers and factory workers nine years later that the causes of fascism must not be repeated. The hungry and desperate people of communities like Jarrow were a burning spur in forming what Ken Loach has documented as a ‘Spirit of 45’.
Curiously though, the peaceful Jarrow march has been better remembered than a number of others that had well more participants but often ended more violently in big riots, like the October 1932 National Hunger March in Hyde Park. Bet they taught you at school about that right? Hunger and malnutrition were issues in the 1930s as they are today, and thousands joined hunger marches to demand the simple right to eat affordable foods. They often ended up in riots, and didn’t conform to the moralising work-is-good attitudes that perhaps Jarrow reinforced.
We potter about Jarrow and I buy some deodorant in the local Wilkinson, and we head on up to Bede’s world. It’s not as tawdry as it sounds, and we drift out towards St. Paul’s Church near where Bede was once based. Bede matters to this project. He wrote An Ecclesiastical History of the English People back in 731, providing one of the few historical documents of the early history and Christianisation of England. It’s a work I want to devour, but have only dipped into so far. Let me share this beauty from my notes. Read it carefully and to the end, as its story is quite worth the struggle:
‘The present life of man upon earth, oh King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall were you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.’
Bored lads in their late-teens climb up and wander about the ruined walls of the priory, dispelling the atmosphere a little, but giving a good opportunity to compare more notes with Paul on the Geordie accent. We hop back in the car and drive towards Gateshead.
Paul is most familiar with this part of the world, and provides a wealth of detail and anecdotes about the place. As we pass a jobcentre, I ask him about food-banks. Most people who use them are forced to when the DWP have docked their benefits payments. He gives one idiotic instance after another where bureaucratic callousness has led to malnutrition and despair. We drive through Bensham where there is a huge Hasidic Jewish community, larger than any I have seen in London. Men wander the streets in long hats and women with wigs sit out at the front of their Newcastle flats. Centuries of trade have installed other communities in the area too, like an old Arabic community in South Shields.
We drive through Benshem and Paul shows me the effects of the Pathfinder programme. All around us are terrace after terrace of condemned and boarded up Victorian housing. Many have new doors, windows, and roofs in good condition. Though John Prescott’s programme sought to replace slums with new housing, it began during the late 90s when house prices and communities began to boom. Costs of refurbishing or rebuilding houses in places like Gateshead began to rocket. Yet in the most brutal of ways, the programme rolled on, demolishing or condemning housing that was to a large degree habitable. Millions were wasted on piecemeal improvements to front gardens and doors in whichever districts remained safe. The effect is catastrophic. I expect to see more of it in Liverpool and Bradford on the return leg of this trip.
Look at it, Paul gestures. But in Gateshead there is no shortage of council housing. Depressingly, the introduction of the bedroom tax has meant that many people on council housing waiting lists simply cannot afford the rents of their flats. Properties remain empty.
We drive by pretty Saltwell and its Little Theatre, before heading towards the centre. I spot the glistening silver roof of the Sage, a music venue that faces the Tyne and, nearby, the old mill which is now home to the Baltic gallery. The quayside here is a little sterile but pretty, and much smaller in extent than I’d expected. I’d been told earlier by one person that the Quayside was evidence that gentrification had worked in Newcastle. Transport and cultural space were given as key causes. It’s all possible. We move closer to investigate.
We cross the Gateshead pedestrian bridge and gaze up at the overhanging Tyne Bridge. We talk for some time about suicide prevention and the role coroners ought to play in better recording suicides. Our morbid thoughts are interrupted by two well-built streakers who run down from nowhere and take a diving leap into the Tyne! A huge crowd gathers about them and cheers. But where’s the way out? We approach the Quayside pub, a raucous and rambunctious boozer by the Tyne, and take a closer look.
The two lads are laughing their heads off, and the crowd about them cheers and celebrates. What’s it for? Oo gives a fook? We wander in and get two bottles of Newkie brown, that Burton brewed beer with the Tyne bridge on its front. Compared to the malls and multiplexes that pretty much make up most new recreational spaces in towns today, there’s something to be said for the galleries, parks, libraries and attractive public places that progressive Victorians left behind, and which a few forward-thinking Labour councils have continued to maintain.
I try to find out more about the Trinity Square carpark. It’s been lauded as a monument of British brutalism and is well worth Googling. But, like those Park Hill streets in the sky and the old slums of Birmingham and Wallsend, talk to locals and you’ll find that most are happy it’s gone. The ‘Get Carter’ car-park, used in its final scene, it was a grim and boring place, just another instance of the marvellous legacy of 1960s town planning.
We drift back into the centre. We wander along the town’s old castle walls, and Paul points out to me Morden Tower, an absolutely tiny little rump of a building along the city wall where once Allen Ginsberg came to read poetry. Today it is in disrepair and interrupts a long alley that Chinese restaurants back onto. The smells provoke a ravenous appetite. We pass the university, known for its nanotechnology and its recent bomb, and pass the old Hancock gallery with its stuffy autodidact Victoriana.
Afternoon is fading into evening. We have a pint in the superb Trent House pub, another beloved place of Viz magazine and perhaps the only town-centre pub I’ll find that’s any good (people also recommend Pillions though, if you’re ever caught in the Toon). We drift out and seek somewhere to eat. We wander back through Bigg market, now a hubbub of extremely drunk men and women out on the lash. I spot a fountain in the centre between the drunk clubbers, built by the Temperance movement. As police gaze on irritably and pished-up partygoers pass out on street corners, I laugh at the aspirations of this little fountain: my drink is water bright. If only!
Though there’s a lot of fun to be had in touring the Toon at its most excessive and ebullient, the place is largely unpleasant. It’s noisy and full of arseholes, and I see no bar worth brushing past the bouncers to enter. The image is of a place where one would not like to spend time. We take a detour through a back-street so that Paul can show me the mythic vampire bunny of the town, a bizarre building feature close to the Black Gate, before drifting back in search of food.
In classic Toon fashion, we end up at the most lively of all takeaways, the Magic Flame. The place seems to cook everything, and the payment and collection service is ticket-based, like a drunk Argos. I get a pizza and Paul gets a burger. It’s been a fun and strange night, and we head back to Whitley Bay. Over more red wine, we trade findings over the day whilst Paul makes it up to Mr Beak for being absent all day.
I’m still unsure about the Tyne and Wear area. I think I like it but, oh my, like Zamyatin, Garibaldi, Wittgeinstein and the Hendon brick, I’m not sure how long I could stick it out. Further north I go.