Tuesday 27 June 2006

A bit rough

It just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Not only do I live within shell-firing distance of the best place to live in Britain. (Alnwick, that is. Do try to keep up.) Now I find that I am less than an hour away from the absolute top, not-to-be-missed attraction in the whole country: ‘a night on the town in Newcastle upon Tyne’.

I’ve got the publicity for the new Rough Guide in front of me, and it’s only fair to quote their exact words: ‘Northeastern England’s premier arts and nightlife destination has a scintillating quayside of bridges, bars, galleries and concert halls’. One can quibble that the riverside gallery and concert hall should be more in the singular than the plural, and that they aren’t technically in Newcastle at all. But they mean well, bless them, and at least this gives a somewhat more balanced impression than the accompanying press release on Britain’s Top 35 attractions, which simply lists at number one ‘a night on the town’. And we all know what that usually means.

Or at any rate, what it means now. When I was a sixth former in Newcastle in the early 70s, a night on the town typically comprised a few pints in the pub till chucking out time at 10.30 sharp, with maybe a bag of chips on the long walk home. And this didn’t reflect our lack of enterprise and social sophistication, though we were decidedly short of both. It was because the infrastructure of the party city hadn’t even begun to be developed.

It is a lasting mystery to me how, as the traditional economic base of the region was systematically demolished, and the proportion of youngsters in the population declined, the number of bars, nightspots and fun-loving people to fill them positively exploded. Though not so much a mystery as how, over the same period, the typical drinker’s clothing evolved from overcoat, cap and muffler to virtually nothing at all, even when Spencer Tunick wasn’t on hand to record it.

By the time that Viz was in its million-selling heyday in the 1990s, I was regularly bringing southern fans to Newcastle to prove that it was not actually a work of fiction, and that the Fat Slags could be seen on virtually any night teetering down the Bigg Market on their stilettos, kebabs in hand, while that silver-tongued cavalier Sid the Sexist made vivid suggestions for the better arrangement of their clothing.

If I were a Viz character I fear I’d be Cedric Soft, or one of those modern art critics. Maybe it’s because my mummy always warned me about rough boys, but the name of the Guide leads me to suspect that many more of their readers are going to interpret ‘a night on the town’ as a truly epic booze-up, rather than an opportunity to catch some Schoenberg at The Sage.

Which seems like good brand marketing, as it will guarantee that most readers canvassed about their experience will include the word ‘rough’ in their reply.

Of course, you can do both. A kind lady once took me to dinner at a restaurant in The Side, after an opera at the Theatre Royal. The food wasn’t particularly memorable, but I shall never forget the bare male buttocks repeatedly pressed against the windows, nor the eardrum-threatening shrieks from the various hen parties at adjacent tables. Interestingly, they all went eerily quiet as soon as they got their pizzas, just as if they were fractious babies presented with their bottles.

Yes, Newcastle now has it all. Only 50 minutes from my home, and about 30 years too late.

The next thing to look out for will be the verdict of the new Soft Guide to Britain. A high ranking here could bring train-loads of panama-hatted boulevardiers seeking out the finest avant garde galleries and experimental theatres, and mean that you can’t enter a restaurant without tripping over Michael Winner. Do keep your fingers crossed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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