Wednesday, 14 October 2009

"Err, with HONEY in?": Looking for Gerhard in Middlesbrough

Caught unaware at the moment of embarrassing Southern misunderstanding.

Despite claiming to love the North East, I've actually only really snooped around Newcastle and a bit of Northumberland. Went to the centre of Gateshead once, don't intend to go again, never been to Sunderland, etc etc. It's because up here Newcastle is like the center of everything, which is really saying something, and as a result I've really no need to go elsewhere.

However, when I discovered that Gerhard Richter, German realist artist extraordinaire, was showing in Middlesbrough, I figured it was bound to be a fun day out. All I knew of the place is that its inhabitants go by the name of 'Smoggies' and it had been unfortunately dubbed the worst town in the UK a couple of years back. I had a craving for greasy food and German artwork and I wanted to be satisfied.

The train took literally about a million years to get there. Not least because the line provides a nice sight-seeing tour of all the abandoned industrial sights of the North East along the way. Really should have taken a camera, but we're talking trailer parks and the kind of decaying industrial infrastructure you normally see around the made-up Hicksville-meets-dystopian-vision bit of theme parks. There was seaside too, which was nice. But essentially big disused towers, cranes, and the coincidence of grey clouds in the distance.

Once I'd arrived I saw a nuclear family set up ahead of me, except the father figure was smoking a joint. On the high street. My companion revealed that this was probably the best introduction to the place I was going to get and that we should be careful as my joke of an outfit may get us killed.

Anyway, we soon found the cultural oasis that is MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) with pleasant weird ambient music and a view over the totally mushed up Middlesbrough skyline. Oh, and some nice German artwork too.

But it's when we left that things got really interesting. It was getting to about 3.30pm, we were peckish to say the least and wandering around an unknown town ended up in a few places which looked dangerously like housing estates run by drug barons. After establishing that we were scared and even contemplated Maccy D's for a grease break (totally not greasy enough), we stumbled out of a tunnel to find the best street ever.

Four greasy spoon cafes, all claiming to do a weirder variety of international food than the last, and a few amazing charity shops. Going with the instinct that one eatery was completely rammed and the others as empty, we got involved with it and entered literally the hottest place in Middlesbrough. A film of grease smacked me in the face upon passing through the ribboned curtains, mmm.

After standing around getting in everybody's way for about forty seconds whilst trying to take off as many clothes as possible, two old ladies offered us up their seats whilst jabbering away to my smiley face. Then it was a matter of checking out the menu - when you can get a massive plate of full English for £1.80, the world really is your oyster. Opting for a couple of burgers, chips and a coke, all for under six pounds, I attempted to order without being totally conscious that I'd never felt more out of place. This was confirmed when I misheard the proprietor ask if I wanted onions for 'honey in'. Embarrassing to say the least.

We were joined at our table by a massive plate of gammon and a man accompanying it. Who munched, completely in silence, totally unaware of our presence. We wanted to stay for a £1.30 helping of jam roly-poly and custard, but the heat was getting near unbearable and we had to leave. I'll never go to a better cafe in my life.

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