It all started quite well. My friend’s train arrived on time at Newcastle Central, leaving him with nothing to moan about apart from the repeated announcements that the train was “arriving into” a station, rather than the more straightforward “at”.
I retaliated with a whinge about my own pet dislike, “station stop”, which takes two words to say what could be conveyed by either one of them. If I had been feeling a bit stronger I would probably have gone nuclear with my well-established rant about the use of “train station” rather than “railway station”, though my claim that this is a ghastly Americanism was rather undermined by an actual American pointing out that they traditionally did not have train stations either, but depots. Pronounced “deepo”, naturally, and not to be confused with the places where the British store buses.
Later in the morning I enjoyed a glorious pint of Gladiator and an excellent packet or two of pork scratchings in the Crown Posada, perhaps the finest pub in Newcastle, while my friend pottered around the alleyways off the Quayside, reliving what must frankly have been some pretty dubious memories of his childhood. Then we enjoyed a splendid mixed grill lunch with some other fine chaps, and their offspring, at my Newcastle club.
It was the whole football match thing that seemed a bit strange – though perhaps, given my limited experience, it was my first time at the ground that was odd. It was certainly different, because that time, two and a half years ago, I was sitting in one of the grand corporate boxes rather than on the terraces. It was also a critical relegation match against a local rival, Middlesbrough. I just assumed that the enthusiastic, flag-waving, chanting atmosphere was customary, when on the evidence of this Saturday it clearly isn’t. There wasn’t a flag or even a waved scarf to be seen. No-one audibly joined in when Blaydon Races was blasted out on the loudspeakers. In fact, for want of a better word, the best way I could describe the mood of the crowd was subdued. Which seemed odd to me, when I had been reading that Newcastle were enjoying their best performance for years, unbeaten to date and standing in fourth place in the league.
People turned up at their seats at the last minute, or ten minutes into the game in the case of the couple next to us, who then left again five minutes before the half time whistle. The blokes to the right of us also well before half time, and did not return for the second half. Those who did stick it out seemed, for the most part, disengaged and rather depressed, though they did manage a ragged cheer when Newcastle finally scored, ten minutes before the end.
My friend had loudly observed on arrival at our seats “It’s much more civilized than I expected!” This prompted me to shush him. “Shush? It’s not the opera, you know!” he joshed, setting me off on the train of thought that resulted in my column. I pointed out, sotto voce, that it probably wasn’t a good idea to proclaim at the top of his voice that he had expected to be surrounded by a load of yobs.
|Typical Toon fan and owner|
In fact our neighbours were for the most part older than us, and rather quiet. I found their shared reminiscences of the old days quite endearing, but no doubt they would pall quite rapidly if I heard them repeated at every home game, as they no doubt are. I was also struck by the number of times that they referred to the amount that the players were being paid to do very little. Although many of those on the pitch were black I never heard a word of racist abuse uttered, though there seemed to be a widespread conviction that a statistically implausibly high proportion of the players were practising homosexualists.
All in all, the game felt flat to me, the spectators uninvolved. There was none of the audience response one might expect at the end of a decent operatic or theatrical performance. I know where I would rather spend my money.
In the evening I took my friend out to supper at my local pub. Having consumed much meat at lunchtime, we both ordered fish and chips. It turned up looking delicious, a beautifully presented plate of nicely battered haddock, chips and mushy peas. I must have eaten about a third of it before I voiced my reservations to my companion: “Is it just me, or did this taste of absolutely nothing at all?” He nodded in wholehearted agreement. The only thing on our plates that had the slightest hint of flavour was the tartare sauce, which tasted as though it had been run up as part of an experiment by the remedial stream in a school chemistry lab. I had thought it must just be me who could taste nothing, as I had had a bit of a cold all week, after a doubtless ill-judged flu vaccination last Monday. We debated whether to mention it to our charming and attentive waitress, but decided against on the grounds that we couldn’t decide how to phrase any complaint. There appeared to nothing wrong with the ingredients or with their cooking or presentation. It was just that somewhere along the line they had been magically deprived of all flavour.
Still, it was at least the perfect meal with which to round off our bland and curiously unsatisfying afternoon at the football. I think I shall suggest that the pub renames the dish “Haddock St James”.