Another morning Full English breakfast is served up. This being my ‘Last Chance To See’ I have eaten Full Englishes and Fish and Chips most days on this tour. Treating them with some sort of reverence. Looking down on the plate as if visiting some great cultural relic. Eating them like I was taking holy communion. But as I say to Giristroula through a mouthful of egg, who really eats these things regularly in everyday normal life?
This tour has concentrated so many of these dubious, undetermined, ideas of British experiences for me. Sunday church bells floating from afar over the summer air or the tinkling Greensleeves music from an ice cream van – both of which I would usually ignore or which would perhaps leave me mildly content at best – now bringing me to gushing tears.
So we sit and eat our fatty English icon and, as the breakfast really starts to set in, I look around the breakfast room. Pictures hang on the walls around us, with long-departed sheepdogs staring lugubriously from the frames. An anorak-ed wife grinning with pride in the washed-out photos, rosetted in front of a beer marque, crouching in front of a canvas Gents. Tickling the ears of a blank-faced victorious dog at some Show Saturday festival.
The farm/hotel owner appears. “How are you today?” asks the father of a family of obvious regular-takers of their holidays here. “Oh can’t complain,” say the owner. “Still alive!” He then draws a deep breath and proceeds to complain at considerable length about how finances on the farm have turned difficult, what a struggle the business is now, not sure how they’ll cope. Times are tough, belts have been tightened. The owner fills the breakfast room with his troubles, bleating away, as the father looks as if he wishes he hadn’t opened his mouth and his family eat on in silence, clanging spoons on their bowls,.
“What happened to the famous British stiff lips?” hisses Giristroula, regarding the man through narrowed eyes. Not quite right, and without much care at the man’s plight either.
“It’s not just in Greece that people are struggling you know,” I say to her and we turn instead to the garden spread underneath the breakfast room window, which is an explosion of plants and flowers.
“How many flowers bloom and grow in an English country gar-den?” I sing, patting a cutlery rattling pom-pom-pom on the place mats with pictures of The Haywain printed on them, making the small plastic single-serving pots of jam jump and dance, watched over darkly by Giristroula.
“I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those that I miss you’ll surely par-don…”
My mind then goes totally blank. I can’t think of a single English flower. “Roses?” I weakly offer. Song over.
We set off with the harassed owner who’s conducting the, not–so-usual task in a British B&B, of taking his flocks to market. A woodpecker sends us off with a clacking farewell high above us somewhere and the whole scene is like something I’d expect from an H.E Bates novel. We say goodbye to the owner, salute some of his other luckless black-faced Cheviot sheep standing, unredeemed, waiting their turn, in the fields, and head out southwards through country roads towards Newcastle.
Coming down high above Hexham, the town looks incredibly picturesque: the fields, the abbey, the bridge, the river brown and muscled with currents. But there is a curse on Hexham. In the early 70s two boys dug up some carved stone primitive heads in a garden here and since then terrifying visitations have appeared in the town. Fearful paranormal apparitions: half animal, half man. Or so they say. As we drive down further, an impossibly ugly factory rises up, emerging above from the trees like a ghoul. I wonder if perhaps this is the true curse of Hexham – the smoking metal chimney smouldering away.
Clouds above us build and disperse as we continue. The weather turns bleak as we skirt round Newcastle, through roadworks, looking for a way to the Angel of the North.
The rain comes down and the roads around us are being dug up as I crane for a sight of the statue. And then I spot it: like a dark spectre on top of its hill on the grimy horizon. As we get closer, the gigantic figure – Gormley again – is doing well to hold his flasher’s mac opened in the wind and squalling rain.
We park up and battle out of the car to stand at the Angel’s feet and try to fully appreciate the art. The 20 meter high figure, with roots dug 22 meters down deep into the bedrock below, built on the hill of an old disused colliery. The largest sculpture in Britain. It is a great sight: the aircraft-like 54 meter arms open to embrace the travellers approaching Newcastle up the A1.
But we are being splattered with rain. A few picture for us under the Angel – quick snaps to remember these moments forever – and then we dive back into the car. I look out of the smeared window and watch as a father marches his family determinedly up the slope that we’ve just come down. The mother is carrying some sort of picnic hamper. One of the girls, glasses steamed-up with rain poking out of her pink rain-hood, looks utterly miserable. But their day out certainly isn’t going to be cancelled because of any slating, slating rain. The father ploughs on with their picnic – a great display of true British pluck, true British pigheadedness.
We have a room to stay in the Benwell area of Newcastle and stop to ask for directions. The face that’s pulled tells me that we’re not going to be staying somewhere particularly salubrious. As we park outside the house in the driving rain passing loafing oafs leer into the car window. We climb the stairs to the second floor flat. I hear our Geordie neighbour for the night below us bellow out instructions to his girlfriend. “Go on and get doon the offie and get us 6 cans’a strong lager. And don’t fanny fart aboot, like…”
With the rain lashing the windows, Giristroula and I decide to have a Greek siesta. Waking up later we find the downpour has stopped and an orange light is filtering thorough a delicate tail of thin drizzle. So we decide to drive in to see the city centre. But there’s a problem. The back wheel of the car has been nicked.
We spend the next hour or so piling up tea cups, talking to incompetent rental car services and inattentive police on the phone. The guy downstairs shouting at the top of his voice, the tv on full blast. In the end there’s nothing left to do but walk, solemnly, unhappily into town.
Someone leans out of the passenger side of a passing car as we walk along. He shouts “Hat!” at me as I happen to be wearing a hat.
The sky is purple behind the Tyne Bridge. We walk up a path that climbs a hill up from the river and find a vantage point where we can look down on the city. Newcastle sitting below like a jewellery box of a million twinkling yellow street lights.
We gaze down on an area of new construction that has sprung up on the riverside. The conversion of Hovis’ old Baltic flour mill into an art gallery; the glass and steel of the Sage concert hall rolling like the high arches of the bridges that surround it and looking like some shiny-scaled snake that has just swallowed a pig. The Millennium titling bridge rolls over to let boat traffic under its span, like a giant eye winking at us as it conducts its cute manoeuvres.
We walk down through the arches and turrets of the main university buildings and then through dull pedestrianised shopping roads to look for Grey Street. I had read, some years ago, that Grey Street had been voted Britain’s best road. It’s easy to see why: classical architecture from the 1820s and 30s, Grade I-listed Theatre Royal, a monument to a man who reformed Parliament and gave the country Earl Grey tea. It is also of grim significance to us as we have travelled here – in a long crescent moon-shape – all the way round England from our home just off the Streatham High Road: the road that was voted the worst.
For all its physical beauty though, Grey Street still has to accommodate a fairly charmless crowd within its wide descending subtle curve. The weekend revellers are out. No one dressed for the chill evening of course. The same inflatable penis from Swansea making an appearance. I spot one man walking along in a pair of fancy-dress trousers that make it look as if he is being given a piggyback by a frog. None of his other friends appear to be in fancy-dress. I wonder if he’d just popped out for a quick drink and was crestfallen to find these were his only clean pair of trousers in the drawer.
The whole scene makes the Greek stop and wonder.
“The difference between going out in Britain and Greece,” Giristroula says contemplatively, as she stops and stares at the crowds filtering past. “Is that every night seems to be carnival night here.”
Greeks always seem to have a sort of mixture of horror and fascination about the British drinking. The Greeks I’ve met all shake their head in a disappointed headmasterly way when talking about how “You, the British, your drinking… your fighting, your shouting… and then you all puke in the street…Why do you do this? What’s wrong with you?”
But, of course, the Greeks have no understanding of the cold needed to be kept out, the social lubrication needed to be slapped on. People having worked all week in zero-hour, minimum-wage jobs, coping with puffed-up fat-gutted Team Managers in cramped office desks divided by perspex walls. Name tags. Two hour long commutes. Shit rental accommodation. The release. Greeks spread out their relaxation over the whole week – too much so, the austerity-mad drivers from Germany and Brussels would say – but the British just have their Saturday nights.
A group of lads, wet-look hair, three-quarter length shorts, big bottles of Stella walk past us.
“John!” shouts one guy further down the road. “John!!” he shouts again, louder.
John isn’t interested. Doesn’t respond, carries on with his group of mates walking ahead.
“John!!!” the man with his hands in his pockets leans back and roars up to the sky. He seems desperate.
“What?” shouts John, turning round at last.
The first guy stops for a moment. Thinks to himself. Lowers his pink face. “Oh…nothing…” he says, and jogs on to catch-up with his mates.
The Greeks, of course, have no need to be drunk to be this deafeningly loud – happily hollering to one another in the cafes and tavernas, stone-cold sober. It all somehow feels very different though.
As we get out of the smooth, clean, Newcastle Metro system at Central Station – odd, but brilliant, for a city of this size to have a whole metro system to itself – Giristroula points out one of the new public art instillations, a representation of Newcastle Man striding by in causal garb. “Even the statues are wearing short sleeves,” she notes quietly to herself. She saw back when we were in the Northwest of England how everyone was in a big anorak, drawn up tight, even in the blazing midday sun. I think she might believe that the wearing of coats, like the accents or the rules on scones, is governed by some geographical orders set down by ancient decree.
We stop at the Centurion bar in the station. Originally the first class waiting lounge in the 19th Century, in the 1960s British Rail used it as their cell for ticket dodgers and perpetrators of other miscreant deeds committed under the great curving station roof here. They happily slapped red paint all over millions of pounds worth of historic tiles, murals and columns. It’s all now been restored though and so we sit sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale in overly-grand surroundings, as old men watch the silent Sky Sports news reports on high tvs and the more nervous and retiring hen dos chat mousily in the corner. A sign above the bar: ‘Last train home? Why not jolly up your journey – 4 cans for £8’.
Later, as we make our enforced walk home – the rental car up on bricks two miles away – Giristroula points at the dominating sight of St James Park stadium. Oblivious to all the “football is a religion” guff of this part of the world, she looks at Newcastle United’s holy stadium stands and says “Look at that place. That’s what we needed. We would have been alright if we’d parked in one of those sort of big car park type places…”
I say nothing. We trudge on in silence.