Damaged in Newcastle

I’m talking about my poor brolly at least, that took a fair amount of beating in the blustery winds and heavy rains that accompanied my visit down south to Newcastle – a less than perfect backdrop for the famous 7 bridges across the River Tyne.

Newcastle, suspiciously run-down and dreary from the train on a sunny day, looked like an industrial wasteland whose construction was abandoned in the 1800s after the Revolution in the rain and cloudy weather. But a step out from the Central Station and onto Grainger Street where the urban centre begins and the atmosphere as I imagine it would be minus the bad weather, would have been nothing short of electrifying.

Newcastle’s brilliant, as the Brits themselves would say. But now that its FC has been relegated for the next season, I wondered if the thrill’s diminished somewhat, judging from the tragically empty stores selling the club’s gear.

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The urban square is confusing at first, and the sheer number of shops, inter-looping shopping malls can drive one crazy. But the river Tyne provides instant navigation access, and soon I found myself trudging across the famous Tyne Bridge while wrestling the high winds and an increasingly flimsy umbrella in the hopes of visiting Baltic, the converted warehouse now a contemporary art gallery sitting at the foot of the Millenium Bridge. Essentially a glassed-up white cube many storeys high overlooking the river and its bridges, the Baltic’s views and its rotating exhibitions of the most famous names in contemporary art left me overwhelmed.

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The walk back across the river was equally excruciating and I passed a mix of Geordies (you are either cursed or blessed with that accent, depending on whose perspective you are speaking from) revelling in the rain, or looking plain miserable. From a distance, I saw a man start to strip. A stag-night party  looked as though it either started early, or ended really late when a group of males (not men) made the presumably-groom-to-be run around in the wind and rain clad only in black briefs. He returned soaking wet to hoots and cheers and most probably, yet another pint on the house for such bravery.

I boarded an incredibly filthy National Express East Coast train on the way back (coming up from London Kings Cross) where the seats in front of me were taken by American surfer-jocks who yakked non-stop in the Quiet Coach.

They were stunned speechless by the waves of the North Sea hitting the rugged coastline, and expressed it the only way they knew how:

“Wow!”

“That’s cool. That’s so cool.”

“I dare you to swim in that!”

Smirking, I simply toed off my shoes, peeled off the wet socks, dried my clammy toes and prayed that my feet smelled bad enough to make them pass out.

Wandering (part of) the Black Country

I found out not too long ago from a quick perusal of the trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook that the Black Country was another name for the West Midlands area of England, the blue collar championing area where the ‘real’ people toiled and laboured at work before celebrating hard in a pub with tons of beer, and spoke (according to some websites that had forums) with the ugliest accents.

A last-minute journey required me to go all the way to Walsall via Birmingham and I practically pounced on the opportunity to do something else other than travel the eastern Coast as I’ve been wont to do so much these days.

The train tickets were so costly, but still less than Flybe that went into Birmingham International – for this nearly 5-hour journey. Only when the train passed Oxenholme, Preston, and the stations in between did I realise I was so close, so close, to the Lake District but couldn’t stop there.

I was collected at Walsall’s train station by my host, an Orthodox priest who had kindly arranged accommodation for me, and insisted on paying for everything else – not normal in the country, or in the Western world, as he deemed. Walsall was anything but familiar. A high percentage of immigrants who led simple lives, working in their corner of their world.

“To die naturally is all I can ask for,” said the manager of the Indian Restaurant when we went for dinner. “After seeing my father die, my grandfather die – all of illness, best to go naturally. Best way to end life.”

It was not a perspective I am familiar with once again – dying ‘naturally’ as he said, somehow had always occurred to me as going gently into the good night. Conditioned from goodness knows where to rage against the dying of the light, this rather placid view seemed to call for all-round defiance.

The place I was to stay in for the night was an old Victorian house just behind the church, tucked away neatly deep into Walsall.

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It had a staggering number of rooms (many of them for tenants), and a slowly but surely decaying interior that made for fantastic shots. I learnt that the rooms were specifically meant for people doing church work, or had some connections with the Parish – to them, I was probably the curious outsider who did not know how to respect people’s personal stuff.

Much of the time for the best part of the 2 days, was spent just listening to the wealth of information this priest had to tell me of the Orthodox tradition and its practices. He spoke a lot, and I wondered insanely at times, if discipleship in the ancient days of the philosophers meant doing the same exact thing, just in togas and sandals.

I left for home the next day via Birmingham New Street station. The length of transit time wasn’t long, but permitted me a quick walk through the jaw-dropping shopping streets – now that was unfortunately something I could relate to better after the Walsall experience – shallowness and superficiality. But it was also overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, modern and sleek, and packed with people and the comfort of anonymity.

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An exhausting trudge through the streets lugging a laptop and my overnight stuff (enduring unpleasant verbal abuse from a mad man out of nowhere as well) later, I felt more than ready to return to Edinburgh.

Now a tiny diptych of the Theotokos and the Christ Pantokrator now sit on my work table, courtesy of my host – in faded colours, a reminder not just of these icons meant to contain the presence of their prototypes, but of the surreal experience of the Latin West meeting the ‘mysterious’ East.

Heat in the Granite City

Yet another train journey, in a pale, pale imitation of Paul Theroux’s penchant for them. Only that this left me with an aching bum (never mind the rather nice countryside obscured greatly by fog that lined the North Sea east coast of Scotland), and a lingering bit of train feebleness (read: motion sickness). It was however, fantastically quiet in the Quiet Coach – that’s not really the norm by the way – and I tried to pacify myself by bringing a large book to lug around in the hopes that some academic distance might be gained in recompense for taking a day trip when it seemed just unnecessary.

“Did you read about us?” trilled the lady inspector as she made her way down the carriage. “We’re busted. The government’s got us.” A fantastically fatalistic way of beginning a journey to the Granite City – or Aberdeen.

Then came the train driver, who made a woefully funny announcement which I think only tickled my funny bone as the train pulled into Inverkeithing.

“Ladies and gentlemen…passengers in Coach B are requested to alight from other coaches. This is due to the national express train being longer than the platform.”

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Britain is in the middle of a sweltering heatwave, and for some insane reason,  a city as far north as Aberdeen wasn’t spared the heat and humidity, made worse by granite, granite and more granite. Stately buildings vie for visual priority, and seem determined to create an urban jungle sort of beauty on its own aesthetic terms. It makes for a strange feel though, almost Nordic, but not quite.

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Travel guides don’t seem to be able to know what exactly to say about its atmosphere, industrial, made rich and thriving by its night life and North Sea oil industry. Union street is where the visitors naturally head for, a long, long shopping street to indulge every fashionista – but without the crowds of London or Edinburgh or Glasgow. To my disbelief, I had never seen Primark so empty. H+M was in comparison, dull with the lack of people around. People seemed to have forgotten that Topshop was smack in the centre of it all. Even the Scottish accent mellows out here, vowels pitching and rounding and flattening when you last expect it.

But I loved it all – what do I not, really? There wasn’t much to do except to duck in and out of shops, wandering in the tiny streets off the arterial one, and popping into the Art Gallery. Somehow that passed the 5 hours rather easily that I had there.