The relationship between Newcastle and Gateshead, proud communities separated by a majestic stretch of the River Tyne, has never been harmonious. J.B. Priestley may have come from Bradford, but he spoke for most of Newcastle when he remarked that Gateshead ‘appeared to have been invented by an enemy of the human race’. Until recently Gateshead’s major tourist attraction was the dingy multistorey car park that featured in the 1971 cult gangster film Get Carter and still towers over the town like a malignant ghost. One Newcastle grandee contemptuously referred to Gateshead as ‘that heap of rubble across the water’.
So can we assume that the rebranding of the city as NewcastleGateshead has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon on the north side of the Tyne? Not entirely — and that’s not simply because most people ignore this expensive piece of marketing nonsense and still call Newcastle Newcastle. No, it’s because Gateshead, or at least Gateshead Quays, is busy reinventing itself as a seriously important business and leisure destination.
The catalyst for this renaissance, ironically, is the development of Newcastle Quayside and the impressive Millennium Footbridge which links the two. Earlier this month Gateshead Council announced plans for the £100 million GQ2 site, featuring a new cinema, four-star hotel, shops, restaurants and 324 apartments. The development — which sits between two iconic buildings, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage international music centre — is the next stage in the transformation of Gateshead Quays. At the same time, work on the Baltic Business Quarter by a developer called Terrace Hill has just begun, creating a brand-new office park on the south side of the river. Tim Evans of property consultants Knight Frank told me that Newcastle Quayside has ‘stood the test of time’ and that without the vision and quality of design that has been realised on the north bank, ‘it’s unlikely that Gateshead Quays could have succeeded in the magnificent way that it has’. Having said all that, the ugly, sprawling centre of Gateshead is a graphic reminder that J.B. Priestley wasn’t entirely wrong.
The Sage concert hall may look like a giant slug, but it has magnificent acoustics. I recently went to a concert there by Roger McGuinn (founder member and lead guitarist of the legendary Byrds, for all you non-ageing-hippies) and McGuinn declared it the loveliest auditorium he had played in for ages. Newcastle also boasts the Metro Arena and the Carling Academy, emphasising how far ahead the city is of its nearest rival, Leeds, in providing decent-sized concert halls. During the past 12 months I have seen Bob Dylan, Pink (with my daughter, I hasten to add) and the Doves in Newcastle. None of those could have played in Leeds.
Of course, the two glittering quaysides are but a snapshot of the city of Newcastle. Go west or, more particularly, east, and you will come across some of the most poverty-stricken areas in Britain, if not in the whole of western Europe. Walker and Byker, with their litter-strewn streets, boarded-up houses, dingy flats and crime-infested estates, are still desperately in need of regeneration. There are signs of hope, notably on the site of the old Maling’s pottery factory in Walker Road, where entrepreneur Freddie Hoult has created an urban village in which small businesses, mainly in the hi-tech and media sectors, are thriving.
In the centre of the city, too, there are areas that are less than salubrious. Newcastle has a well-deserved reputation for being the stag- and hen-night capital of Britain: Bigg Market in Grainger Town on a Friday and Saturday night is a place to avoid if you don’t want to be trampled underfoot by binge-drinking Sharons and Waynes, and possibly a Newcastle United footballer or two. Time Out recently voted Newcastle the best city to visit in England, but I suspect the magazine’s researchers gave Bigg Market a wide berth.
Every city needs a beating heart and, for me, Newcastle’s is the River Tyne. It could so easily have been the football club, because Geordies love their football, but a series of unforgivable gaffes by the board of Newcastle United, combined with consistently poor playing performances, have driven a wedge between the club and its supporters. In 1998 two members of the board, Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall (son of Sir John, builder of the Metro Centre shopping mall and Thatcherite hero of the city’s 1980s revival) were ‘Fake Sheikh-ed’: foolishly, they told the News of the World that Newcastle fans were stupid for spending extortionate amounts of money on club merchandise, that their female supporters were ‘dogs’, and that star striker Alan Shearer was the ‘Mary Poppins of football’. All this was recorded while they were visiting what was described as a Spanish lap-dancing-club-cum-brothel. And what happened next? Shepherd is now chairman of the club and Hall is his deputy.
Newcastle United, of course, is also Tony Blair’s club. Who can forget the time when the Prime Minister talked, with misty eyes, about his first visit to St James’ Park, ‘sitting in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn’. Milburn, for the uninitiated, was Newcastle’s record-breaking centre forward in the immediate postwar years. He left the club in 1957, when Blair was four years old and living in Australia. Worse still, the Gallowgate End was a banked open terrace with no seats. It was around this time that the Prime Minister told anyone who would listen that he was ‘a pretty straight sort of guy’.
No, for me the Tyne is the heart and soul of Newcastle. The other night, after that memorable Roger McGuinn concert, I sat quietly on the new Millennium Footbridge and gazed across a city lit up like a psychedelic firework display. Breathtakingly beautiful reflections danced on the still water. Like the omniscient river in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha the Tyne has seen everything, from the days when Newcastle was an important mediaeval walled town, through the proud years of mining and shipbuilding, to today’s post-industrial revolution. It is entirely fitting that it is now flanked by two of the most attractive and popular quaysides in Europe, for the Tyne has always shaped Newcastle’s destiny.