What strikes me in the provinces is the sense of being noticed much more than would happen in London. I went to a gig in a pub opposite the train station. The guy doing the door asked me towards the end of the evening if I was enjoying myself. I can’t imagine a Londoner asking this in similar circumstances unless the ensuing punchline was ‘Try letting your face know then, you miserable looking bastard.’ Even though I’d mentioned that I was from out of town, he gave me a flier for some other gigs he promoted in the city, so it’s possible he suspected me of being an A and R man.
That’s happened to me quite a bit in London, largely, I suspect because I’m of an age where most people have stopped going to gigs. Once people clock that I’m not there to pick up my daughter, or anybody else’s daughter, they seem to assume that I must have a business interest in attending. Strangers have approached me and asked who I work for. When I tell them I work in a library they nod knowingly as if this is some sort of crude cover story. I’ve had demo CDs pressed upon me with a broad wink and the words, ‘Here’s something for you to listen to in the library, mate.’ The drummer of a support band once bounced up to me like a big dog in a small room and said, ‘Here mate, do you work in A and R?’ On the bus home I thought of saying, ‘No. But I once had a Saturday job in M and S if that helps.’
The doorman’s concern for my enjoyment wasn’t a one off. At a Manchester art gallery’s exhibition of punk memorabilia I was looking at some photos of Vivienne Westwood wearing rubber fetish gear, when one of the attendants came up and asked if I was enjoying the exhibition. Still wearing my London head, I immediately felt defensive. It was probably a perfectly innocent enquiry. Or perhaps they’d been having trouble with latex fancying oddballs and it was part of a strategy to stop perverts and gawpers from getting too settled.
Walking to the Newcastle gig I got some more uninvited attention. A thin bloke carrying a tatty pair of Big Issues asked if I could help him out. Following the Big Issue’s own advice I declined as he wasn’t badged and he wasn’t actually on a pitch. He said, ‘Come on for fuck’s sake. I haven’t eaten for two days.’
I thought better of coming out with the stock response, ‘Force yourself, mate. You’ll make yourself ill if you carry on like that.’
I’ve a feeling he’d spotted me as an outsider because I was wearing a jacket and it was only October. The stereotype of Geordies swanning around in minimal clothing in the bleak midwinter seems a true one, but otherwise the place supplied a reasonable number of surprises. Not least of these was that I understood the accent easily. I think context counts for a lot. When I’ve met Geordies in London they’ve often sounded like Norwegians talking through a wah-wah pedal, but on their home turf I adjusted without difficulty.
Returning to the B and B I swear I walked past a block of flats called Valium Towers. I’d phone the council to check but I’m afraid the signage might have been put there by pranksters and I don’t want to blow the gaffe. That was the second pleasing sign of the day. On the coach up I went past a sign for a fast food outlet called All Pizzas Great and Small.
I went down for breakfast early the next morning. Some Dutch Christians made themselves at home at my table and promptly started saying grace. I did my best to sit in a way that indicated to other diners that I wasn’t actually with the God squad, without appearing actively rude. They seemed determined to engage me in small talk. I was having none of it. I got through breakfast as quickly as possible. At the time I was trying to lose a bit of weight. As it turned I’d come to the right place; the portions were tiny.
One of the pleasures of staying in B and Bs is that the staff aren’t dragooned into the sort of impersonal arselicking enforced at chain hotels. It spares the staff humiliation and myself embarrassment. Having said that, I felt the fact that nobody was in when I arrived at the arranged time at the Newcastle B and B was nudging things slightly too far in the direction of informality.
With bed and breakfasts you don’t get a standard product. This applied particularly to the architecture of the Newcastle guesthouse. It was squeezed above a plant hire shop and a Chinese chippy. Inside, it resembled one of those crazy houses you get at amusement parks; there wasn’t a right angle in the place. My room was in the loft, which had apparently been converted by an alumni of the Norman Wisdom school of carpentry. What looked to my untrained eye very much like a crucial supporting joist had been cut away to make space for the en suite. I suspect the proprietor was a jobbing builder who’d gone into early retirement, perhaps at the request of the local Trading Standards department.
I remember reading recent statistics stating that the average art gallery visitor spends 7 seconds looking at each picture. I may be to blame. Between 10am and 3pm I ‘did’ six of the cities galleries. Newcastle has an impressive number of art spaces, yet I only saw one charity shop and no pound shops; what are these people thinking? The six I visited ranged from the Laing, one of those leaden municipal places that suck the life out of you as you browse, to the insistently modern Baltic, full of school parties and attendants who look like they’re just filling in until their band gets signed, ie never.
Most irritating of the art was by Santiago Sierra, who if nothing else has got to be in the running for sponsorship by a car manufacturer. His piece was a video installation showing six young, poor, black Americans who’d been paid by the artist to have a ten inch line tattooed on their backs. This, apparently, was a commentary on the materialism of US culture. It struck me as a bit like farting in a cowshed to draw attention to the smell of shit.
Further irritation followed on the coach journey home. Three seats along sat a buffoon from Sheffield who spent the start of the journey necking can after can of Foster’s, singing to himself, farting, whistling, mooing at cows, baaing at sheep and bragging on his mobile about the brawl he’d been in the night before. At a rest break at a nameless service station he failed to rejoin the coach and we left without him, to general glee. He’s probably still there. I hope so.
When I told my mate Sean the Obscure of my cut price excursions he predicted that Megabus would be populated by the likes of the Sheffield buffoon, but that hasn’t been the case. The one exception was en route to Aberdeen. Two burly women in sportswear got progressively tired and emotional on Diamond White, and began trading insults. The row hit the buffers when the bigger of the two trumped the other’s, ‘Well at least I haven’t got Hep C!’ with ‘Yes you have, you bitch. You’ve got Hep C and Hep B!’ Oscar Wilde eat your heart out.