I was in Newcastle this week. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a huge amount of time in the city and, despite it being the Number One in my list of cities where I’ve been punched in the face by a random stranger, I have to say I love the place. To be fair, when I was punched it was the 80s and Leeds United were in town and this kind of greeting was regarded as customary.
Last week I was looking for an address I was unfamiliar with in the centre of the city. I knew I was nearish but I stopped and asked a couple of council workmen if they could point me in the right direction. Instead of doing so, they cheerily walked 200 metres with me and took me to the exact address. I say “cheerily” because they were smiling, but in all honesty their Geordie accents were so strong that I had little idea what they were talking about so I fell back on my usual tactic in these situations of smiling and nodding a lot. Regardless, it was a very kind thing for them to do for a complete stranger.
Maybe one of them recognised me as the bloke he punched in 1989 and felt guilty but I prefer to think that they did it because the cliche of people being friendly in the North, and especially in supposedly tough post-industrial cities, isn’t just a cliche, it’s actually true. In all my recent dealings with Newcastle I have found the people to be delightful. In fact, so delightful that the following story illustrates this perfectly. It also illustrates that I am cheeky (or dishonest, if you’re being pedantic). After I’d been to my appointment I went to get something to eat and walked into a pub that was absolutely heaving with folk at lunchtime.
“Do you want champagne or orange juice?” said a young girl in a waitress outfit standing just inside the entrance.
Now, I didn’t get where I am today without quick-thinking and I realised it was a works Christmas “do” in process. I was just about to walk out when I decided that I should view the situation as a role-playing challenge. So I took a drink.
“Which pizza did you order?”
“Erm, can I have another look at the menu?”
Ten minutes later I was walking around the pub, in the guise of mingling but not actually talking to anyone, eating a delicious pizza. All things considered it was the best works “do” I’ve ever been to because I didn’t have to speak to anyone I disliked.
On the subjects of tough cities that are actually warm, friendly and vibrant, my favourite of all is Glasgow. It’s another place I have visited many times and one where I have found the people to be incredibly friendly. On two occasions I’ve gone out on my own in the evening in Glasgow and had fantastic nights out. Unlike London, where saying hello to a stranger at the bar can be misheard as “I would like to butcher your Grandmother with an axe”, in Glasgow, more often than not, you’re dragged into a great conversation and drinks start appearing in front of you. This was especially true the night I left my usual Glasgow stomping ground of Ashton Lane for a few swifties on Sauchiehall Street.
I don’t quite know how it happened but within a few minutes of being in this particular pub I was in the company of a large group of men and women who included me in every round of drinks that was bought. When I tried to buy a round my attempt was met with “No way, Big Man, you’re oor guest.” Eventually I had to secretly slip some money to one of the women and ask her to get a round in on my behalf.
By the end of the night I realised I was so relaxed I couldn’t remember where my hotel was. The entire group, ten or twelve people, walked me back to my hotel before heading for their own homes. Kindness beyond measure.
The following morning I had one of those experiences that you hear about, when people wake up next to someone they don’t know. Except in my case it was a Eastern European cleaning man in a red tabard stood over my drink-damaged corpse-like body who said “Check out time ten minutes ago. Please go now please,” and stood there until I persuaded him I would like to get out of the bed and get dressed without him watching.
When I got to reception, nursing the worst hangover in Christendom, the staff actually laughed at me because I looked so bad. I’m fairly sure hotel staff are trained not to laugh at hungover guests but I was setting new records for “looking a state” and was beyond caring. As I checked out I asked where I could get “the hair of the dog” lest I perish. They directed me to a pub round the corner.
I walked in the pub and headed straight to the bar looking neither left nor right – a man on a mission. Mission Booze.
I ordered a drink and the barmaid told me that before 11am they only sold alcohol if the drinker bought food.
“Give me the cheapest sandwich you sell.”
A minute later I was sat down, tentatively sipping the thing that would kill or cure me before I hazarded a look around the room.
The pub was full of men, sat in silence, each on their own, drinking as though their lives depended on it, and at the side of each one of them sat an untouched, uneaten sandwich.
It was at this moment I realised I had found my spiritual home.
“I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town…”