Living in London and Brighton, it was often easy to believe I was in some post-Logan’s Run landscape, where all the old people had mysteriously vanished. Occasionally you would see them – in London, being studiously ignored by business men who didn’t want to give up their seats on the tube*; in Brighton, the audience at the Theatre Royal, where I regularly reviewed shows, often skewed elderly. But other than that, encounters were so rare as to be memorable (well, that time I saw the slightly pissed, leopard print clad old lady outside the Co-op who brightly announced “I’m 79 and I just had champagne!” stands out for other reasons).
In Newcastle, they are everywhere. I’m not sure why, except a Geordie unwillingness to quit your nights out no matter your age, free bus passes, or a working class culture that tends to be more embracing of multi-generational families that, in London, I tended only to see in the non-white, traditionally working class areas (there were always plenty of treasured grannies and dapperly dressed grandpas in Brixton, for instance).
But Newcastle is a vibrant, constantly changing city – its bars and cafes chasing the youthful buck. So where do all the oldies actually go? Well, one answer is the Tyneside Coffee Rooms.
Few buildings have adapted better to their community than the Tyneside. It was a fixture of my youth: the only place you could see arty or gay films. I discovered who Harvey Milk was at a double bill screening of the documentary of his life with Parting Glances, a film that taught me more about Aids than my teachers would in the ignorance-plagued, Section 28 eighties. I dragged my best friend to see My Beautiful Laundrette six times in two weeks to fuel my Daniel Day Lewis crush. Long before I would subtitle foreign films for a living, I got my first taste of international cinema in screen 2, the less glamourous sibling to the art deco beauty of screen 1 (screen 2 was at the time so basic if anyone went to the toilet mid-film you had to hope they didn’t dry their hands, as the drier in the bathroom – which opened out into the cinema – was loud enough to drown out the film).
The Tyneside Coffee Rooms were also a haven. Red velour sofas, cheese savoury stottie sandwiches, a cool enough vibe that my friends and I could feel grown up, even if we were a bunch of skint teens skiving off our college lectures.
30 years later, and the Tyneside has seen the best kind of renovation. A redesign that embraces its history as an arts and cultural centre, but spruced up for the city’s younger, more bohemian populace: a cool bar on one floor, a trendy, sprawling cafe bar on the ground floor where some Bieber-haired youth can usually be found working on a screenplay on their MacBook pro, but where as a woman alone I felt comfortable having a glass of wine and watching the world go by; a welcoming environment where tattooed cool kids sat comfortably next to a table of middle aged ladies giggly on gin.
But for the real treat? Go upstairs. The Coffee Rooms have remained almost unchanged in decades – I still recognise some of the staff. Here cheerful old ladies and spry gentlemen order from a resolutely unfancy menu – there may be tempura vegetables on there now, but these pale besides the delights of a cheese toastie and chips, a proper pot of tea. It’s the place you take your granny or your mam for lunch (as I write this, a guy with a sharp outfit and a sleeve of tattoos passes my table, going to pay for the food him and his mum just had).
It’s not just the oldies – a coterie of Coffee Rooms devotees like myself prefer these laid back charms to the flash of the downstairs cafe. And whenever we catch one another’s eye we smile, smugly congratulatory on being in on one of the city’s best secrets.
*I was on a busy Metro the other day and an elderly couple got on and the rush of people literally leaping to their feet to give them a seat caused an updraft. You don’t see that in London, folks.