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Sunday, 6 November 2011

I had high hopes of this weekend, and indeed it turned out to be quite memorable. Started off on Friday night with our weekly get-together with friends at the Cross Keys pub in the village of Esh. I have always suspected that the name must have Scandinavian roots, but I have just discovered that it’s the old Anglo-Saxon word for ash, as in ash tree. Live and learn….

Saturday morning I took the train to York and met up with Chainsaw Phil. He showed up at the Maltings pub wearing the black stetson he bought in Chadron, Nebraska, and startled my camera into misbehaving (well, that’s my excuse for a lousy picture).

We had a couple of pints, I had a steak pie and home-made chips, and my son, having slept in, arrived from Leeds too late for either of the above. The Chainsaw has never been persuaded of the need to attend football matches on a Saturday afternoon so we left him to amuse himself around town while we went to watch York City take on the mighty Wrexham, who sat top of the table and brought about 700 supporters with them, many of whom had taken up the best seats in the Maltings but at least had the good grace to acknowledge that our beer is better than they get in North Wales.

York’s is a classic old-style city centre football ground where we traditional supporters still get to stand on concrete terracing behind the goals. In the higher leagues it’s all plastic seating (and inflated admission prices), but the fans spend half the time on their feet in any case. In a couple of years’ time City will move out to the edge of town and a purpose-built, state-of-the-art ground with proper toilets, and this die-hard will mourn the day. I grew up watching football in discomfort; for me, it’s part of the experience.

0-0 doesn’t sound a very exciting scoreline but this was a cracking game characterised by top quality, free-flowing football (mostly by York), some great saves (mostly by our goalkeeper) and huge tension. They (Wrexham) will be happier with the result than we are - we drop to fourth position -  but it’s a long, long season (18 games down, 28 to go) and as they say in the post-match interviews, it’s where you are in May that matters.

I got back to Durham in time to meet A for a little light refreshment and then troop up the hill to the public firework display, organised by the police. This is where I realised that I have yet to master my camera. It’s all fine and dandy taking pictures of flowers in broad daylight, but for fireworks I need to get into the computerised section and fiddle. I also need tuition. Still, I think I got a couple of interesting images.

Sunday was another full day. We drove up to Gateshead, the ‘other’ Tyneside city. Everybody’s heard of Newcastle upon Tyne, home of… well, guitarist Mark Knopfler immediately leaps to mind, as does R&B singer Eric Burdon - and some of England’s  greatest footballers. Gateshead has always been seen as the poor relation on the south bank of the river, but in recent years it has become a major player in the cultural landscape of the north-east with the transformation of the old Baltic grain warehouse into an art gallery, and the construction of the ultra-modern Sage, an arts and performance centre that genuinely takes your breath away, whether you’re outside it or enjoying the huge airy spaces within.

We were on the south bank for two events. At the Baltic they were exhibiting the work of the four finalists for this year’s Turner Prize for Art, which generally throws up controversy and outrage in equal measure. ‘You call that art?’ and all that. I was shocked to find that I actually liked two of the four works on show this year. My favourite was a series of realist paintings by George Shaw, scenes from around his native Coventry. Here’s a link to a short interview with him:

In the Sage they had a series of lectures by contemporary thinkers, all of which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later in the year. We missed Germaine Greer, having slept late, but caught Aditya Chakrabortty talking about the demise of British manufacturing and asking what we can do about it. A. then went to hear a talk by Charles Jenks, designer, theorist and landscape architect, while I sloped off to participate in the imaginative ‘Speed Dating With A Thinker’, compered by the Bard of Barnsley himself, poet Ian Macmillan. Ian is poet in residence both at Barnsley Football Club and English National Opera. I was flattered when he greeted me with a big smile and introduced me to all and sundry: ‘This gentleman wrote a fantastic book celebrating Manchester United’s most calamitous defeats.’ When I penned that one, back in about 1997-8 he was very supportive, as well as highly amused. He never forgets a face, or a name. ( I think my book languishes at about 5,000,000th place in the amazon chart.

Still, it sold a couple of thousand copies back in the day, and upset enough United supporters to cheer up the rest of us, the hordes of ABUs (Anybody But United).

The speed-dating went roughly like this: there were ten philosophers seated at ten tables. You got three minutes with each one: two minutes to listen to them pitching an idea, and one minute to ask questions; then you graded them and moved on. I was seduced by a number of ideas, including:

Magistrates’ courts should be held in pubs (as in the 17th century)
Romantic fiction should be banned for the under-18s
The smart phone is a weapon of mass destruction
The Houses of Parliament should be moved to York
.. and the winning idea, Dancing holds the answers to most of our problems

It was a fun way to close an action-packed couple of days. Not that the coming week is without its highlights. Tomorrow, 1,000 words and then back to the Sage to see the legendary John Mayall, the godfather of the British Blues movement, whom I last saw in… 1969 when he had a young Mick Taylor in the line-up (shortly to move to the Rolling Stones to replace Brian Jones); and on Tuesday a total change of scene: Sedgefield races with my buddy Gerry, the mad Irish taxi-driver; if he shows up. This is proper racing, over hurdles, in the mud, with a crowd of rustics. Can’t wait.

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