A Family Christmas and a trip to Spanish City

I’ve never really done the ‘big’ family Christmas before. When my mum was alive, we tended to keep it small: my friends would come over with their kids in the morning, and various neighbours might pop in, but it was generally low key. Over the years I have had working Christmases, Christmases alone and ‘orphan’ Christmases – all of which were varying degrees of OK – but never done the big family event.

So I was actually a little nervous of agreeing to my cousin’s and his wife’s invitation to spend Christmas at theirs. They host the big family ‘do’ every year, of which I have heard nothing but good things, but I was still a bit anxious. Sometimes eating in big groups makes me self-conscious, and while they generously invited the friend (N) who was staying with me over the holidays, I worried that being thrown in the deep end of someone else’s family might be a bit much for her.

In the end, I needn’t have worried at all. My family are generally excellent company, and proved themselves great hosts, generous and welcoming to me and my friend, who was really touched by how much they made her feel at home. It was a multi-generational gathering that spanned pensioners to babies and all stages in between, lavishly fed and in a beautifully decorated setting. My cousin’s house – always impressive – looked like a Hallmark movie set; the photo below is of the hallway, not even the main room! (Should I ever get around to writing a Christmas romance, I might pop back here for inspiration.) There was vegetarian food aplenty (N is also vegetarian, but since one of the daughters of the house was vegan, this proved less tricky than I feared) and the whole day turned out just lovely.

Boxing Day, we did a brief detour to the sales, though my assertion that ‘it’ll probably be quiet’ was way off the mark, as the whole town was packed. Many of the pubs were closed, though – after a late lunch downstairs at the Tyneside because the coffee rooms were closed, we wandered down the Quayside with the plan to meet some friends in the Pitcher and Piano, which of course wasn’t open. Still, we managed a drink in both the Red House and the Head of Steam, and N got to see the Quayside at night, which is never a wasted trip.

Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the clement weather and take a trip to the coast at Whitley Bay. Of all the things I miss about Brighton, proximity to the sea is the main one, so it was nice to be reminded that I have a stunning coastline just a Metro ride away.

It was also nice to see the recently re-opened Spanish City. I remember it well from my youth, and was sad to see it go into decline, so I was keen to check out this revamped offering. The building has been nicely utilised: a selection of restaurants (a waffle house and patisserie on the ground floor, alongside a restaurant, Trenchers, in the central space, which seems popular for fish and chips, with a fancier restaurant and bar upstairs, and a luxurious space for afternoon tea). In the end, N and I decided to eschew eating there for lunch, venturing to a little cafe round the corner on Marine Avenue that did a nice line in vegetarian tapas. But we did pop back in for an espresso martini – a tradition of ours – to round off the afternoon, and it was lovely to be able to have a fancy drink while looking out over the seafront.

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Tyneside Cinema

As I said in my previous post, I made my first trip to see a film at the Tyneside last night. It really is a delight of a cinema, and boasts not just one but several great cafe / bars, one of which hosts free movie screenings. Expect more posts, as I joined their membership scheme!

They also stock some beers that I feel my friend Linda over at Raven in A Graveyard might approve of.

Blackwell’s Bookshop – Thorne’s that was

Today was supposed to be all about a trip to Quilliam Brothers, but alas it was closed for refurbishment so my friend and I ended up in the Tyneside Coffee Rooms, where I ate a portion of apple pie and custard so big I needed a lie down afterwards.

But heading in that direction did give me a chance for another wander down memory lane: a visit to Blackwell’s bookshop. Another one of those shops that utilises the city’s stunning architecture, this is on the ground floor of what I believe used to be the Grand Hotel (going from the sign, anyway). But to me it was more memorably the site of my first bookshop job, at Thorne’s University Bookshop.

I worked there when I was doing my A levels and, if I recall correctly, when I was home through uni: at one stage doing a day shift there then heading to my evening shift at the now defunct Cooperage pub and nightclub: a punishing schedule that had me so tired I regularly nearly walked into traffic.

My memories are overwhelmingly fond, if sometimes odd. The place was run by the Thorne family: Mrs Thorne was generally kindly and pleasant, but my limited experience of Mr Thorne was of a stern, Victorian type figure who toured the shop each morning to a chorus of “Morning, Mr Thorne!” as he greeted us individually. The shop was run as a cross between a personal fiefdom and Grace Brothers: the staff were nearly all women, most of whom were – or seemed to my teenage eyes – middle aged, and we were all expected to address one another by our surnames, reinforcing the Are You Being Served vibe (I don’t think I have been called Miss Sinclair since – and it was always Miss or Mrs, never Ms).

It gave me a crash course in crazy customers: from ‘sandal man’, the foot fetishist who would salivate over our strappy sandal wearing window dresser as she did the windows, and stare at the feet of any woman he was talking to with a lascivious expression. After my arrival, whenever he came in, the staff sent me to serve him, since he took one look at my Doc Martens and walked away, disappointed.

Then there was map man, who used to come into the map department, unfold a map and examine it at close proximity while vigorously rubbing his luxurious head of hair.

It was here I learned that customers expect you to be able to find ‘that blue book’, can’t understand why a book that just came out in hardback can’t be bought in paperback, or can get snotty about you not having any of Shakespeare’s novels in stock (“You have all of his plays!”).

But it was also here I learned the pleasures of actually being able to help people find a book they would love; a task that, without computerised records – we did our stock taking in paper catalogues and relied on memory a lot – wasn’t easy. I am still proud of the fact I somehow figured out “that book with the man on the cover” was The Once and Future King.

It was also here I met a girl who became one of my closest friends, Sarah from Caution Spoilers. I was drawn to her because I thought she was cooler than me (these days she jets off to Cannes, so turns out I was right), and we proved we were proper rebels by calling one another by our first names. In such fires friendships are moulded…

The Tyneside Cinema Coffee rooms

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.