Cocktails and Captain Marvel

Thursday, my friend M and I went to see Captain Marvel. It was my first trip to a mainstream cinema since I moved back – the Gate, in Newcastle – since unlike the Picturehouses I was used to in Brighton (where I saw pretty much all my movies) the Tyneside Cinema doesn’t show all the big films. I liked the Gate – the neon decor makes you feel a bit like you are in Tron, and when it’s quiet it feels a bit post-apocalyptic, but the seats were comfy and the screen was huge. (So much so that I had misjudged and booked seats far too close to the screen – we were both a bit woozy by the end.)

The film was also great – like most of the Marvel origin movies, it took too long to get going, but once it hit its stride it was enormous fun. Goose the cat rules!

Before the film, we had cocktails in Bealim House, on Gallowgate. An old stationers, so close to my heart already, they specialise in gin, though of course I had to try their espresso martinis, my usual drink, and they did a decent job of that (plus, there was a two-for-a-tenner offer on. Bargain!)

Walking to the film, though, I realised there was another pub I should have tried…

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Bizarre Love Triangle at Northern Stage

Another day, another show! This time a trip to see Bizarre Love Triangle, a verbatim play about OCD that is being shown as part of Brain Awareness Week. I must admit OCD is a subject quite close to my heart, as a couple of my friends suffer from it, as did an ex-flatmate, and if you’ve ever seen it up close, you realise fast it’s far more than just ‘being tidy’.

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The play was sensitive, often surprisingly funny and handled the subject with care, though the ending came so abruptly I was left a little surprised that it was over. (God knows, it’s not often I think something should be longer, but it definitely could have done with more of an actual ‘ending’.) Read my full review here.

Bravo to Northern Stage for putting on such a small but important show (and hosting a discussion afterwards).

The Herb Garden

It’s been about a year since I last visited The Herb Garden – that time, as a visitor to the city – so was nice to make a return trip, in the company of my lovely friends L & U. We started off with drinks at Brown’s, which is another place I haven’t been to in ages, then made our way along to the restaurant.

I found it pretty much unchanged (though the titles of the pizza specials were sadly a bit less fun than last time), which is mostly a good thing. A plentiful vegetarian selection (with multiple vegan options), friendly service and tasty food combined with a funky ambience to make for a good evening. (L’s calzone was HUGE). Admittedly, I will never understand restaurants with high tables (who wants to eat feeling like they are perched?) and the slightly warped wood of my table meant my plate felt a bit wonky, but the food makes it worth a visit. And where else can you see a rollerskating horse?

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My mother’s daughter

So, the onslaught of Mother’s Day emails have already started. It used to be a holiday I had to keep a sharp eye out for, since my mum was famously unforgiving should a card not be on time. Or, indeed, early, since she liked a fair margin of error. (One year I was getting a train back from London to Newcastle to see her for her birthday, and she called me the morning of her birthday to complain her card hadn’t arrived. I answered the phone from the bustle of King’s Cross: “I have it with me. It’s with your present, in my case, I thought I would bring it. You know, when I come home, today, to actually celebrate your birthday in person.” She let out a huffy sniff. “You could have posted it.”) Now, of course, it is a day of being bombarded with marketing emails urging me “not to forget mum!”. As if I ever could.

Unsurprisingly, my mum has been on my mind a lot since I moved home. I’m not even sure I have yet to process that, and how – if – it affects how I think of her, how I remember her. Certainly, there are days when memories hit me sharply. When I walk past the cafe where we used to get coffee together, the bus stop to her house, the shop where she used to buy her favourite angel ornaments – there are days when I feel like I moved back to her city, rather than to my own. I was already starting to age into looking more like her, and the move up north and the creeping return of my accent means I sound more like her, too, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

I sometimes feel guilty about writing about her – especially as I try to be honest, and that isn’t always comfortable or pretty. My mum was a good woman – if we are all remembered as fondly and widely as she is, we’d be doing OK – but she was as flawed and human as the next person, and when writing about our relationship I feel I need to be as honest about that as I try to be about my own shortcomings. But I console myself that she loved attention, and would be glad that I was still writing about her, even if she didn’t understand so much of what I wrote, or why I wrote it. (“Why don’t you just write more about cats?” she once asked me, after I got published in – I kid you not – Your Cat magazine. To be fair, it’s a question I have asked myself many times since). Anyway, if I got famous for writing about my mum, I know she would be secretly smug. (Or not so secretly. Sorry, fellow beings in the afterlife, you’re probably sick of hearing about me.)

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Your Cat magazine – mum’s proudest moment

Anyway, I wrote this a couple of years ago, and I shared it over on my Dark Dates blog, and a lot of people seemed to like it and even find it helpful, so I thought I might as well share it again.

It’s too early for Mother’s Day. But then, she would have liked that.

On Mothers and Daughters

It’s a weird thing to be no one’s priority, and have no one be your priority in return. It’s approaching four years since my mother died – and ended the one defining relationship of my life – and this is a thought I find myself returning to. In a very real sense, I am completely alone. An orphan without siblings, a partner or children, it’s an unusual form of both isolation and liberation.

Untethered, I am tied down by nothing – I don’t own a home, I don’t have a ‘job’; there is no one who is my unique responsibility, no one on whom my claim is the highest. It’s the ultimate form of adulthood – I have to make every decision, do every task myself, from deciding where to go on holiday to putting out the rubbish – yet it’s also strangely infantilising, since I don’t have any of those things that mark my contemporaries out as ‘adults’: families, mortgages, office jobs. I am a woman lucky enough to be born at a time of better-than-ever opportunities for my gender, with a portable career, and that is a heady freedom – but it also can be terrifying, every day another mile on a journey with no roadmap, where I often have to pave my own path as I go. And in a way I’m only just realising, it’s all because of my mother.

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A friend of mine – happy married, with a surviving father and a bushel of siblings and nieces and nephews to anchor him to life – told me that, on losing his mother, he felt a deep-seated sadness that wasn’t just about her loss, but was also the knowledge that no one would ever love him as deeply again; no one’s love would ever feel so unconditional. At the time, I was moved, but it didn’t resonate with me: so much in my own relationship with my mother felt utterly conditional. It’s only with the passage of time, and the clarity of hindsight, I understand just what he meant.

It’s safe to say my mother and I didn’t always get along. She could be a tremendously difficult woman, and I’m probably no cakewalk myself. It often seemed some cosmic joke that the universe would see fit to yoke such disparate personalities together, without the buffer of a father/husband or siblings to absorb some of the tension, but then again, perhaps much of what I think of as my personality was developed in reaction to hers. My mother liked noise and chatter – she put the TV on ‘for company’, loved it when the neighbours popped in unannounced. The phone was constantly ringing, and conversations were often conducted against the backdrop of the blaring television and the commentary of whoever happened to be on the sofa at the time. I like silence and solitude and, although I can be sociable, I dole out my company in measured amounts, the greatest portion always reserved for myself. My mother loved ‘stuff’ – she lived surrounded by knick-knacks and ornaments and held onto things forever, a shield against a hostile world. I am my local charity shop’s best friend: I treat all of my belongings as temporary. I was 43 years old before I owned a piece of furniture.

Quite often, I suspect we didn’t like one another very much. We certainly didn’t understand each other. My mother was baffled by my choices: a homebody who lived her whole life in the city she grew up in, with family a stone’s throw away, she couldn’t comprehend why I needed to leave. She wanted me home, she wanted me married, she wanted grandchildren she could bounce on her knee. (Her desire for this was so well-known in my circle that once, when asking a friend what she thought I should get for my mother for Christmas, her answer was simply, ‘pregnant’.) The one time I felt we she was truly content with me was a brief spell when I lived in Newcastle – an easy walk from her flat – with a serious boyfriend, a man I could bring to family parties and Sunday lunches. A life she understood.

We were frequently at odds over many things, money being a key bone of contention. We had little of it in my youth, and my mother – who had grown up relatively wealthy – never quite recovered from that lack of status. She had a weirdly resentful attitude to other people’s affluence (an easy way to infuriate my mother was to spend money on something she didn’t think was worth it, no matter who you were, or how little you had to do with her).

When I moved to London, she both failed to understand the economics of the city, and that living there didn’t mean I was suddenly rich. She would regularly make passive aggressive remarks about my lack of daughterly generosity, and get mad when I didn’t take the hint (she wasn’t subtle, either: “It would be lovely if someone would buy me a new washing machine” being a typical opening gambit.) Despite living in social housing all of my life, she thought I was being deliberately wilful in not buying a house, having only the vaguest ideas of how much property in London actually cost. (“Why not just buy somewhere for £20,000 and do it up?” she asked me, on more than one occasion. In an exasperated moment, I finally retorted: “Why don’t you give me a deposit like most of my friends’ parents have?”. She got furious, then upset, and stopped asking the question, though I felt mean every time I thought of it, afterwards).

She could be vain, and selfish, and utterly self-absorbed. (On the morning of a close friend of mine’s funeral, annoyed at my unwillingness to spend an hour going through her holiday wardrobe choices, she snapped at me to ‘stop being so miserable.’ Properly angry, I fell out with her for a while. Her apology, when it came, was ‘you have no idea how upset I am that I upset you’ – managing to make even that about her).

She could be volatile, and petty – she nurtured lifelong friendships, but fell out with friends and family on an almost weekly basis. She cared too much about other people’s opinions and the appearances of being a good mother, of me being a loyal daughter. She could be emotionally manipulative, and wasn’t above weaponising her illnesses (consciously or unconsciously) as tools of control: I could predict that, if I said I was too busy to come home for a visit, she would experience a sudden downturn that would necessitate my return. She genuinely suffered, it’s true, but she also liked the drama and attention that suffering created. Once when I rushed, tear stained and panicked, from London to her bedside after she’d had a heart attack, she gleefully told me afterwards, ‘the nurses have never seen anyone so upset!’.

And yet… and yet. Many of the traits she railed against were ones she herself instilled in me. She resented my habit of reading, taking any silence in her presence as a personal affront, yet it was she who fostered my love of books. She bemoaned that I moved away and didn’t visit often enough, but, herself the long-suffering daughter of a mother who had been in poor health, from my childhood on she told me: ‘Don’t ever give your life up for mine. Stick me in a home, take me outside and shoot me. But don’t ever give your life up for mine.’

She was vibrant, gregarious and open-hearted, with a talent for making friends. She was loyal and generous with her time, always happy to help out a neighbour. For all that her politics were, to me, horrifically right wing, she did more for her community than I, with all my bleeding heart liberalism, have ever done for mine. She raised money for a garden for local families, she helped out at a refugee centre, she stood up to politicians whose policies she thought would hurt the vulnerable. Despite being single all of my life, she was an incorrigible flirt with an eye for a handsome man. I still have a picture of her, beaming, standing between two strapping young gardeners at the opening of the community garden she had worked hard to help establish, and I know she wasn’t just looking so pleased because the kiddies would have somewhere nice to play in. That’s one trait, at least, I hope that I inherited.

She was strong, too. She rebuilt a life that was very different from the one she’d anticipated after her marriage broke up; and when I left to go to university, never really to return, she reinvented herself again. She had surrogates in my absence: a niece she adored became as close as a daughter; she built a maternal friendship with a divorced Iranian woman whose young girls she treated like grandchildren. She filled her life with colour and chaos and I, having failed so spectacularly to meet any of her expectations, was freed to live up only to my own.

She was proud of me. She never really said it to me, though she said it plenty to other people. It was a constant refrain after her death, when I was accosted by yet another stranger who seemed to know my whole life story: ‘she was so proud of you, you know.’ And it maybe wasn’t until then that I properly realised how proud I had been of her.

I suspect, if the universe was such that we could have picked our own families, neither of us would have been the other’s first choice. She would have liked a daughter who stayed home, had children, married a man rich enough to buy his mother-in-law that new washing machine. I would have liked someone more liberal, more travelled and, yes, a bit richer (I really could have done with a deposit on a house). But in the end, forced to move in wider circles because we couldn’t live together in a narrow one, both of us lived bigger, better lives. We might not have got what we wanted, but perhaps, in one another, we got the thing we needed most.

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Gregg’s vegan sausage roll

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that, despite my outspoken love for fine local delicacy the stottie, I have hardly set foot in Gregg’s since I returned to Newcastle. Partly this is convenience, partly I am at an age where it takes me roughly three days to recover from the heartburn I get after eating a pasty. Well, today, I made up for that, when I finally got around to trying their much-famed vegan sausage roll.

It’s hard to deliver a verdict – I don’t eat meat (or even meat substitutes, generally) so I have no idea how authentic it tastes. The unglazed pastry makes it look slightly undercooked, but the filling is tasty, and it definitely hit the spot. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t bother having one again, since sausage rolls aren’t really my thing – to be honest I only tried it because so many commentators acted like its very existence was the work of the devil and that made me curious (I’m sure I share this motivation with many: Gregg’s should probably send Piers Morgan a fruit basket, or something), but I’m definitely glad I tried it.

Wise Children at York Theatre Royal

It’s been a week of jaunts this week – after Edinburgh on Monday, came a trip to York that I booked without realising they would fall in the space of a few days, to see the first production by Emma Rice’s new theatre company, Wise Children.

I’ve long been a fan of Emma Rice. I love Kneehigh, and although I didn’t catch much of her stint at the Globe, what I did see I really liked. I admit I was disappointed when I heard that the company would be using the Old Vic for its London base – this is a theatre that I have long avoided, having fallen out of love with it for various reasons, all of which I admit are personal (and perhaps a bit irrational).

But to my mind, it tends to be overly expensive, most of its productions are too long, and their lack of decent toilets means you stand a very good chance of missing the first 10 minutes of the second half either because you are stuck in a queue, or your view is obscured by people returning to their seats for the same reason (and this is even before you even consider the queasy, hard-to-shake taint that Kevin Spacey’s uncovered antics have tarred the place with). There are a ton of great venues in London and no such thing as an unmissable production – there’s usually half a dozen ‘unmissable’ shows on at any one time, and unless you are a full-time critic, you can’t possibly catch them all – and I decided a while back I wasn’t giving my money to any venue where I felt so ill-served. So I sadly resigned myself to just not seeing any more Emma Rice shows for a while.

Moving to Newcastle, though, has actually opened up my theatre-going in exciting new ways. Edinburgh is 90 minutes away, York just over an hour – and the economics of regional theatre mean the cost of excellent dress circle tickets (in a theatre small enough where that means I was closer to the stage than I would have been in most London venues) AND return train tickets came to roughly the same as the Old Vic is charging for most stall seats for its current productions.

Unfortunately, the weather gods had used up their benevolence on me with a lovely day on Monday, so I didn’t see York at its best, but even rain and grey it’s a beautiful city. The theatre was a short walk from the station, and it’s a lovely space: a bar / bistro space downstairs that caters to any comers so was a bit rammed for my tastes, though upstairs was a little calmer, and the staff were efficient and friendly. My seat – front row dress circle – was great, and I was seated next to a pleasant couple with whom I had a nice chat in the interval.

And toilets! My god, toilets! I will never stop banging on about the need for good toilets in theatres: it’s an accessibility issue for anyone elderly, pregnant, on their period or with bladder/digestive issues, and too many theatres are bloody terrible. These were plentiful – pretty sure there were more women’s toilets in the dress circle alone than in the Donmar, Old Vic and Almeida added together – and kept clean. I’d go back to the place on that reason alone.

As a fan of the book that both play and company were named after, my expectations were high but the play (mostly) matched them. It balanced the trademark Emma Rice playfulness and theatricality – fourth wall breaking, gender/race-blind casting, bawdy humour, music and physical theatre – with the spirit of Carter’s novel, and when Rice came out at the curtain call (the show was being filmed by the BBC, which is possibly why she was there for an afternoon matinee), many of the audience were on their feet.

My travel wasn’t quite as smooth as I hoped city hopping would be – my train was a bit delayed by a cancelled service – but the trip was my no means onerous, and definitely one I would make again if something that struck my fancy.

A day trip to Edinburgh

After three weeks without a day off, I finally had some downtime, and headed up to Edinburgh to meet my friend K, who I haven’t seen in years. Edinburgh is only an hour and a half away from Newcastle – and the East Coast train takes you along some of the country’s most beautiful coastline, so it’s a pleasurable as well as a fast trip. The plan was that we would have lunch, do some culture, then have some cocktails before I headed back. And… we managed most of that. You can probably guess which bit got dropped…

I haven’t been to Edinburgh in years – last time was to do some research for A Vampire in Edinburgh, during my unfortunate homeless stint, when two of my Glasgow friends let me stay there when they were on holiday, so I took advantage to do a day trip to the city. I had forgotten quite how gorgeous it is – all those dramatic cliffs!

We started off with a wee wander round the Old Town. Edinburgh Press Club looked promising but we were too late for breakfast, and none of the sarnies appealed, so we settled for coffee then wandered some more. We had planned to do Mary King’s Close but were put off by the cost (nearly £16!) so had a wander around a nearby church instead. Lunch was a couple of wraps at old-school vegetarian cafe Hendersons, which had been much recommended to me, and after that we felt we could justify a cocktail.

I missed my chance to go to the new Ivy in Brighton – it opened just before I left – so was keen to try the Ivy on the Square. K and I are both fans of espresso martinis so started with them. Well-made by the charming and friendly barman, they were very rich and accompanied by a choice of syrups to choose your own (I plumped for Creme Brulee, K – more wisely – Amaretto). After that I plumped for something lighter – a champagne based drink – and then we decided that some shopping was in order.

A quick wander round Jenners and Harvey Nichols followed – while I love the architecture of Jenners, I found HN a bit bland, though I did buy some fancy pasta and a notebook there, partly cos I wanted to buy something. (K bought a Count Gracula garlic crusher, which looked enormous fun). We rounded off the day with cocktails at The Refinery, then headed back to the Ivy for chips and a last drink before I caught the train home – a fantastic day out, and home before 10? I could get used to this…