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Friday, 18 March 2016

Brown Bottle City: A Year In Newcastle's Pubs



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 Pete (from the previous Head of Steam story), 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. 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'm writing a book. Up there is an excerpt from it. It's almost three months into 2016 now so it's a safe enough time for me to announce that this year I will be drinking in every bar and pub in Newcastle's City Centre and writing about it. 

As you can see from the excerpt, this isn't going to be some dull book of dry pub reviews, a volume of statistics and factoids. I'd like to think it's got a lot more heart than that and there'll be nothing like "the Murderer's Arms has four cask lines and five handpulls, the landlord is called Geoff and at the time of writing the guest beers were Tragic Sweat, Jeans Shop and Dogs Fucking. The jukebox is connected to the Internet and please just kill me now". It's not a city guide. It's my experiences as I take on a task that is looking more and more daunting week on week. It harks back to my memories of drinking in this fair and wild city and it's already shaping up to be a cavalcade of freaks and a funhouse of weird experiences and I've already thrown up on my shoes in it.

***

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 entrance 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.

***

Brown Bottle City is a working title and I'll likely think of something better. This is looking to be a giant-sized project and I've decided to bypass pitching at publishers and just run a Kickstarter for it in late 2016.

This is why I've been kinda quiet on the beer writing front, and this is why most of my weekends now involve me traipsing around Newcastle alone. 

Last night I was given a list of pubs in which I would be killed if I entered on my own. 

Needless to say, I am very excited about this project.

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