You might remember a couple of guest posts from author Paul Breen, which graced the blog earlier this year. Paul is a London-based writer who has become something of an advocate for my northern hometown of Middlesbrough, and last weekend he returned for another visit.
Football supporters, up and down the country, spend their weekends suffering in one way or another. If it’s not the game on a Saturday afternoon, it’s Sunday morning where the country’s united in hangover, in a way not seen on the disunited terraces of the day before, where some of the banter makes an away trip to Sunderland for James McClean seem polite in comparison.
This weekend I was no different in terms of the suffering, though not the ‘banter’ that always seems a distraction from what’s happening on the pitch. After a Saturday trip to Charlton Athletic’s latest away game, I awoke on the Sunday morning feeling punch-drunk as Wayne Rooney on a mate’s mobile phone.
Fortunately then, pulling back the curtains, the scene outside my window was like a head massage for the hangover.
The golden light of November’s first dawn danced on the dewy green baize of Central Square, with the spirals of a fountain rising suddenly in the foreground, and then dipping away once more.
Further back, the plate glass skull of the town’s art gallery pushed through the mists, glazed by the fog like a bathroom mirror when you step out of the shower. Deeper still, the church of Saint John the Evangelist was no more than a smoky shadow against the pale blue sky, alone in the distance, as the surrounding streets slept – still as the trees forming a truce with the calm breeze. The whole image was so serene and peaceful it felt as if nature was readying for Remembrance Sunday a week early on the calendar.
Not a leaf falling; everything silent except for the rhythm of the fountain rising in white lace on the torso of the square.
The head massage was working, spreading down to the neck and shoulders too, as traces of the hangover slackened with the view.
This could have been a weekend break in a town in northern Europe, the last morning of a trip to Scandinavia perhaps.
Looking down on the neat hanging baskets and the park benches, for a few minutes it could have been a view upon a park in Aarhus or Oulu, where I looked out the window and reflected on the high cost of beer, and the perfect English spoken by the natives.
But it wasn’t that sort of trip, even if the scene painted in the distance could have passed for such. This was the lawn and fountain on Middlesbrough’s Central Square, leading towards the town’s landmark Institute of Modern Art, and the series of sculptures scattered around its edgings. There it stood as a reminder of how I’d managed to combine arts and football on a weekend break to this town on the eastern edge of England where I’d been before, savouring the industrial heritage.
This time around, the experience was post-industrial. Even though Teesside has been in the news of late mainly for its series of steel plant closures, I barely saw anything of that aspect of the town, more by accident than design.
I had come as a football tourist, a term that’s not too common yet in a country where, for once (or maybe twice if you count the recent Rugby World Cup), you’re trailing behind the Irish.
Every week, up and down England, thousands of people travel to see games such as the one I watched at the Riverside where Middlesbrough hammered Charlton 3-0.
Among these many thousands are some who make an overnight stay out of the experience, while many pass through without ever getting any sense of the place they’re visiting.
Yet there’s a market there and this weekend, for me, was a powerful reinforcement of the message that this has real potential for development. Not everybody’s happy to just come to a game, get drunk, and wallow in stereotypes. We bemoan and berate the players on the pitch for their lack of creativity and originality at times, yet we go to stadiums all over the country, as fans, and listen to songs about as original as the X-Factor’s early stages.
‘X is a shithole, I want to go home,’ often seems to the favoured chant of football supporters. But in many cases, those who sing this sort of stuff have probably seen nothing of the towns and cities they are visiting other than the nearest pub to the station.
I’m not sure you’d ever get many of those supporters as potential tourists but there is a market out there, and my weekend in Middlesbrough suggested the town’s going in the right direction in terms of getting more people to come, and stay for a night or two. The new Holiday Inn Express where I stayed offers a great deal to that battle to attract visitors. The location, as I said, takes you away almost completely from the industrial settings that are more commonly associated with the town. I happen to like industry, but there was a different type of atmosphere to waking up on Sunday, and having that artistic, aesthetic view right outside my window.
That image, the head-massage for my hangover, was a really good emblem of how I’d spent my weekend, so different to previous visits where I’d concentrated on the industrial heritage of the town. This time I gained only mere glimpses of the Transporter bridge, and never noticed smoking furnaces until heading for Hartlepool where I spent a few hours in trying to catch the delayed Grand Central train back to London on Sunday afternoon.
Most of my time in Middlesbrough was spent in artistic pursuits, in between sessions of football and food; having noticed that the range of eateries has increased greatly in the past year. When I first came up here, lots of Internet reviews suggested there was a lack of available quality restaurants in Middlesbrough compared to some of its neighbours.
This time around I had a tasty feed in a new Italian restaurant, the name of which I didn’t write down, but found to be very friendly, decorated with beer bottles strewn along the walls, and comprehensive in the menu that if offered.
I even got the pleasure of seeing the famous Parmo on somebody’s plate on the table next to me. Then, being a semi-vegetarian, was very glad to learn that there is even now a Quorn Parmo option somewhere out there, which happens to be doubly local, since I also learned that Quorn is cultivated in parts of the North East.
The Quorn Parmo was a discovery that I made in MIMA, where I visited earlier in the day as a consequence of going on The Hidden Women of Middlesbrough tour, which was part of the Discover Middlesbrough series of activities.
Once upon a time I came here expecting to find a single mother in a shell suit begging outside the station, such were the stereotypes. I didn’t find her then and she wasn’t found on this tour either, as I learned about the lives of local women who made major contributions to their town. This was part of a trail that stretched from the art gallery through the Shopping Centre and out towards Baker Street, and the University of Teesside before spreading further up to the Dorman Museum.
I have to confess though that I didn’t reach the museum and its splendid tearooms or exhibitions, because it was getting towards kick-off time, and I didn’t want to miss the football. I didn’t want to miss a chance to buy the match programme either because I’d written a piece in the View from the Opposition section, and was keen to see how that looked in print.
Thankfully I managed to get there on time, and got myself a shiny red match programme, with my article buried as deep in the Charlton end as the ball for most of the match that followed. More positively though, getting inside the ground, I was glad to see a relatively large crowd of Charlton supporters in attendance on the day; some of them travelling from as far as the coast of Kent.
Unfortunately, as a visiting supporter, that was the last moment of gladness on an afternoon when we got well beaten. After the final whistle I sought out better fortunes in the Middlesbrough night, and headed up towards the university area.
Here, again I was very impressed with all of the changes, and the shiny modern additions to the campus. Close by, I discovered the Westgarth Social Club hosting a poetry evening and book launch, which I attended in the company of FMTTM editor and blogger Rob Nichols. Having been to a few open mic evenings I wasn’t expecting that much, but was pleasantly surprised to find poets who rose above the personal to touch universal themes, and give me a sense of the diversity in the voices of the town’s artists. Last time I came across the work of MacKenzie Thorpe, and found a powerful sense of the local combined with a broader worldview.
The Westgarth poets unearthed something similar, in the way that each poet had a different message, and one that had echoes of those who may have inspired them somewhere along the line, rather than run-of-the-mill, angsty personal reflections.
These were poets with a passion, and a backstory to their poems, which is always a sign of well-considered writing. Poetry, for me, is normally an outlet, mostly scribblings in a notebook that are never edited, so when I see people who take their time to hone their craft I have great respect for them. I could talk at length, and maybe even offer literary critiques, but I’ll just give one example to capture a sense of the night.
This was a poem called Mummy, Goodbye, which summed up the night for me. It was a simple story inspired by true events, written and spoken in a way that painted a broad spectrum of human emotion from suffering to triumph in just a few short words. It was a story based on a child who was only two years old when her mother died of cancer. Over the course of the night I met other writers too, turning their personal tragedies into the written word, and hope to one day read more of their harrowing, but powerful, tales of how they have endured in the face of trying struggles.
All these stories touched me like the image outside my window on the morning after those pints in The Westgarth that, I should add, did not cloud or romanticise my view of the poetry on offer.
It was good and I have a permanent sticky reminder of it too, in the form of beer stains on my football programme – though thankfully not on the page with the interview where I predicted a 2-2 draw, and shared my view of Charlton’s chances with opposition fans.
So this time around my trip to Middlesbrough is summed up in probably three words – poetry, pints, and programmes. Even though the football didn’t turn out as expected I got to see a whole new side of Middlesbrough and might well have seen more if my tolerance levels for alcohol was not a lot like Charlton Athletic. I can survive about two thirds of the night, as they did in the game, and then collapse into sleep. So just as I was leaving the university area, the student side of town was wakening up for Halloween night, and in that I noticed a major difference in Middlesbrough and one group of near neighbours (compared to London).
In Newcastle, from a few weekends spent up there, everybody goes out on the town with as few garments on as possible. Here, in Middlesbrough, everybody was splashed up to the nines in costume. Yeah, I know it was Halloween but this gives me a chance to be a tourist again at some stage, on a quest to see if this is repeated on other Saturday nights of the year. Right, I’d better go then and do some form of training for my weak tolerance level.
And by the time I come back hopefully football tourism will be more of a common force in the town too. Like I said about Ireland, especially when it comes to rugby and Gaelic games, they’re a lot better at keeping their visitors in towns for the whole weekend when football matches are on. And as I also said, developments such as the new Holiday Inn Express facing out on Centre Square are also a positive step in that direction for Middlesbrough, which seems to be ahead of the game with its enthusiasm for this. Indeed, for a place that’s often been so marginalised, it’s great to see the town leading the way on something that could not only change the business of English football, but also the culture of away supporters rarely learning anything about the places they visit.
I look forward to hearing more of this, hopefully even in the form of poetry!! Just not sure that I’ll be writing in next year’s programme, since Boro have a strong chance of promotion this time round. That means I’d better cherish the pint-stained programme as a souvenir and memory from this visit, and look forward to seeing that morning view again in a different season.
And lastly a word of thanks to all those who helped me with different aspects of the pints, the programme and the poetry – was a pleasure meeting those of you I got to see, and those I didn’t there’s always next time.