Newcastle upon Tyne: An Assemblage in 16 Fragments

I

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The Sage Gateshead at night

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I remember

How the darkness doubled

 

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Standing. In the dark, enveloped by a light rain on the quayside of the River Tyne.  The opening lines of Television’s Marquee Moon are snaking through my head. It feels as if the song is seeping out into the city’s arteries.  An energy circulating through the cobbled streets, overhead bridges and the reflecting river.  Marquee Moon is an album that has always seemed to stand outside of time and yet evokes a strong sense of  place. An almost cubist portrait of New York. Tonight it’s Newcastle that is being pulled into the gravity of the song.

The treacly purr of the Tyne does indeed double the darkness upon which two cathedrals of light are painted.  The Sage Gateshead, a silver slug of undulating movement in daylight, shape-shifts into a trio of glass pyramids. Bricks of light etched upon the darkness. Its reflective doppelgänger is traced in the depths of the lipping water. All edges smoothed into Guggenheim-esque spirals of shimmering curves.

MB 1

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I recall 

lightning struck itself

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Further up the quayside, the Millenium Bridge indicates the route of travel over the river to where Tom Verlaine & Co will shortly take the stage for a very rare UK appearance. Once again the city appears to absorb and reflect back the enigmatic lyric. Lightning/lighting appearing to strike itself. An arc of rainbow colours  – the illusion of movement  a solid sphere – a Marquee Moon?

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 II

At the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University:

(c) http://www.apollopavilion.info/Pages/PictureGallery.aspx?Gallery=2

Apollo Pavillion, Peterlee 1970

Pasmore’s description of the Apollo Pavillion as “an architecture and sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk”.

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III

The Merzbarn Wall

I recall being alerted by Diana J. Hale to Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbarn near Elterwater in the Lake District.  Created in 1947 – 48 the Merzbarn was Kurt Schwitters’ final, and in his own estimation, ‘greatest’, piece of work.

The Hatton Gallery has on display, as a permanent installation, the Merzbarn Wall which was part of the original barn construction at Elterwater. The Wall was unfinished when Schwitters died in 1948 and in 1965, after lengthy discussions about the barn’s future, the Wall was given to Newcastle University who undertook its removal, restoration and preservation. The Merzbarn was based on Schwitter’s idea of collage, in which found items are incorporated into an art work. Schwitters applied a rough layer of decorator’s plaster and painted over various found objects, giving the three-dimensional collage an abstract quality. The items incorporated into the wall include:

A slate log splitter
A small metal window frame
The rose of a child’s watering can
Twigs
Part of the rim of a cartwheel
A china egg
A section of guttering
Part of an oval gold mirror frame
A metal grid
A rubber ball
Stones from Langdale Beck
Some Gentians – which have now disappeared

Asked what the Merzbarn Wall meant, Schwitters replied: “all it is, is form and colour, just form and colour”.

The Merz Barn, 1947

The Merz Barn, 1947 (Postcard)

Schwitters on his 60th Birthday, 20th June 1947 (Postcard)

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Merzbau – the creation of environments which use the forms and even debris from local places to create a new environment. Initially in the form of assemblages, Schwitters developed the human scale environments which he called Merzbau.

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Wall 5

The Merzbarn Wall, Hatton Gallery Newcastle

Wall 2

The Merzbarn Wall – Detail I

Wall 4

The Merzbarn Wall, Detail II

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Wall 1

The Merzbarn Wall – Detail III

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IV

Kittiwakes on the Tyne

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(c) BBC

From March until August, Newcastle/Gateshead quayside becomes home to around 600 pairs of breeding Kittiwakes. Normally found on coastal cliffs, the Tyne Kittiwakes clearly prefer the narrow ledges of the Tyne bridges. The Kittiwake colony is the furthest inland anywhere in the world and makes Newcastle one of the few cities to have a seabird colony in its centre.

There are no Kittiwakes to be observed on this visit as they will be out soaring on Atlantic winds over the winter.  Some will travel as far as Canada and Greenland. However, it is comforting to know that come Spring, they will once again hear the unheard pulse of the city guiding them back to their breeding grounds on the bridges of the Tyne.

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V

The Bigg Market

A lonely carved stone huddles unceremoniously in the Bigg market. The elegance and grace of the craftsmanship still evident and contrasted against the utilitarian tardis of the neighbouring, municipal rubbish bin. The stone, in its displaced environment, is now likely to be a seated sanctuary for the nocturnal fag smokers taking a breather from Club Luna next door. A silent witness to the human stains from last nights excess dried hard against the pavement.

Bigg Market

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Bigg Market 2

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VI

A steampunk kind of city.  A collision of multi-level curves and cobbles as retro-futuristic bridges cut across the sky.

Curves and Cobbles

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VII

Saturday at 12.15pm

Under a shifting sky

a chorus of angels

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    – of the North

sing to the wind.

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Cathedral bells

flood the city

sound spilling

around

Amen Corner.

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Amen Corner

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VIII

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Powered by steam: the tendrils that connect the local into webs of possibilities and extended horizons.  Encounters with the other. Creating an expansive map.

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Outwards

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IX

The curious case of the virtual building at Trinity Chare on 57 Quayside. Did this building once exist here? It would appear improbable.

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Virtual 1

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Explore behind the facade of the spectacle:

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Behind the Virtual

Behind the Virtual

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X

Herbs in the City

Broad Garth

Broad Garth

Botany scrutinised at the bottom of walls

asphalt’s rust

imaginable palpation raises them to the dignity of

plants

emanated from the earth

to the condition of contention

 – Raymond Queneau – from Hitting the Streets

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XI

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“Dare to be Free”

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XII

Turning from the river, the narrow vennel (chare?) of Watergate frames Bessie Surtees House. All wobbly frames of black and white like a hand drawn illustration  This was the scene on 18th December 1772 when a young, 17-year-old Bessie, daughter of a rich banker, climbed out of a window to elope with her lover to Scotland. It was considered such a major scandal at the time that people would come to stand and stare at the house.

I stand and stare at the house before learning of this story.

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XIII

A shift of level.  With a final look back to the river, a chinese box of stairwells unfold to lead up towards the (New) Castle Keep and the Black Gate.

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Looking back to the river

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So he resumed his walk, but the way proved long. For the street he was in … did not lead up to the Castle hill, it only made towards it and then, as if deliberately, turned aside, and though it did not lead away from the Castle it got no nearer to it either.

Franz Kafka The Castle

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XIV

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A very well-preserved ghost sign built into the brickwork. It can always seen on any train journey that passes through Newcastle.

The building is a is a rare surviving witness to the replacement of the horse by the motor car. Originally built in 1897 as a horse, carriage and cycle auction room it was essentially a showroom for horse-drawn carriages. By the 1920s the future prospects of horse-drawn transport were pretty bleak so the building was adapted to serve as one of the first motor car garages and dealerships.  I subsequently find out that the building stands on top of, part of the buried remains, of Hadrian’s Wall.

Layered histories converse in the topography of place.

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XV

A fixed departure train ticket means that time is running short so no time to look for a building that I have heard so much about: The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle Upon Tyne or The Lit & Phil as it appears to be known locally.  Serendipity intervenes and I stumble across the building very close to the station only to discover a one day book sale in progress. Twenty minutes to browse before the train leaves. I trust the space and know that the books will call out.  They do. It all works and it’s a short walk to the station to catch the train.

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XVI

As the train heads northwards, I nod to Coopers Motor Mart. No longer simply a sign from a train window but time stacked in layers as a material place which the act of walking has ‘made real’.

A trace of footsteps are left behind. One more scratch upon the city streets and a drift through one version of Newcastle is assembled in memory. A small fragment of fragments. The city, carried within.

Merzbau – the creation of environments which use the forms and even debris from local places to create a new environment.

Now Playing: Tom Verlaine – Warm and Cool

References

The Apollo Pavillion

The Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle.

Kurt Schwitters and the Merzbarn Wall

The Wall, the harsh building of the Merzbarn

 

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20 Responses to Newcastle upon Tyne: An Assemblage in 16 Fragments

  1. thamesfacing says:

    Great piece. I came across the Mertzbarn earlier this year at the Schwitters exhibition at Tate Britain. An exhibition that really exceeded my expectations.

  2. Thanks for an entertaining ramble around Newcastle. I was last there circa 1980 but remember little except the wonderful Schwitters wall. I like the look of the Apollo at Peterlee and I was stopped in my tracks by the beautiful Bessie Surtees house. You might like to see http://blog.rowleygallery.co.uk/merzsonata/ because you can never have too much Schwitters.

    • Thank you. It was a very short visit so only fragments glimpsed but liked what I saw a lot. Glad to have seen the Schwitters Wall. Thanks also for the fascinating link. (Incontinence pads!) As you say you can never have too much Schwitters. I’m smiling listening to ‘MERZsonata’ at the moment.

  3. dianajhale says:

    Beautiful piece of writing and I like the idea of Newcastle as a steampunk city. It is a long time since I’ve been but some bits are familiar although many are new to me! Thanks for the mention too.

  4. ‘The treacly purr of the Tyne’ … genius! I’m reading a lot of poetry (and writing a little) at the moment so my ear is finely tuned…

    A beautiful tour, I particularly like the Apollo.

  5. annjrippin says:

    I really enjoyed this writing. Thanks.

  6. Ian Hill says:

    Well, I was arrested from the opening paragraph about Marquee Moon – a song which had somehow slipped in my subconcious, those jarring late-70s chords so alien to me now, but once a fixed pivot of my grammar-school rebellion, along with Patti Smith and the very early days of the Talking Heads.
    I confess to not knowing Newcastle well, despite living only fifty miles away, but this post has revealed the strange juxtapositions of the city, its contradictions and surprises. Thanks once again.

    Ian

    • Thanks Ian. Funnily enough those same three bands were the staples on my turntable for a long time. Still go and see Patti Smith whenever she comes to Scotland which in recent years has been quite frequent. Have passed through Newcastle many times in the train but this was my first real visit. All too short but yes strange juxtapositions and surprises.Will certainly go back.

      • Ian Hill says:

        And how was the gig….?

      • Hi Ian – well being a bit of a Television anorak, I’ll take any crumbs of live performance that are offered. However, thought they were magnificent. Here is a brief review shared informally with some other TV aficionados:

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        Well made it to the Sage in Gateshead with about 10 mins to spare. Wondering on the way down from Edinburgh whether it would be worth it. A bit apprehensive about the venue initially. Very modern concert hall. All seating. Mmm.

        Nice buzz in the hall as the bells started chiming out over the PA. An usher yelled “quiet” and we waited for another few minutes before they ambled on.

        They were utterly magnificent.

        A lot of the usual stage tics from Tom (almost) absent. No lengthy tune up. A quick check and started off with ‘The Sea’. Slow and gorgeous. Between song tuning quite minimal. No complaints from him about the lights which were quite subdued throughout. Blues and reds mostly. No white spots. Didn’t keep a running list of the set but these were all played at some point: 1880 or So; Venus; Guiding Light; Little Johnny Jewel; Friction; See No Evil; Glory; Elevation; Prove It; Persia; Marquee Moon. I’m Gonna Find You. May have missed some. Played for well over 90 mins.

        Tom looked almost relaxed and was relatively chirpy throughout. At one point he commented about being worried how it would sound out front – “big roof” but then said that it was sounding great on stage. He joked about not finding the right pick as he searched his pockets. His guitar playing was sublime, lots of extended improvisation. Jimmy is solid and delivers but unlikely to really surprise and Fred and Billy just top notch. The more you listen to Billy you realise he must be one of the most under-rated drummers around. Tight and inventive. More Elvin Jones than a rock drummer.

        Crowd reaction was ecstatic. Standing ovations and everyone I chatted to very happy. Two encores and the band seemed genuinely warmed by the response. Given the venue which also hosts classical concerts etc, the sound was pretty pristine and actually was a pretty good environment to see them in. Maybe it’s an age thing where sitting down doesn’t seem such a bad idea. Hopefully someone will have taped it.

  7. Wonderful post, and with a hint of synchronicity about it for me. Only a few weeks ago I crossed the Tyne on a train and remembered how I’d lived there for some months after first leaving Canada, my first port of call. And my partner remembered a period of her life there as well, studying at the university there many years ago. These fragments of yours echo with me in the same way as those fugitive memories, called up out of the dark and impossible to piece together, but resonant and meaningful all the same. Perhaps fragments are all that we can ever ask for, rich vignettes like the sixteen you have sketched here.

    • Thanks Julian and much appreciated. I’ve always loved the train journey through Newcastle. There is a fleeting moment crossing the Tyne when all of the bridges sort of line up. I also like the idea of fugitive memories. It’s funny what triggers can cause them to resurface at unexpected moments: a sound, a smell, an image, a name… Sometimes the fragments are enough to open the door to wider vistas.

  8. Excellent piece – much to enjoy and discover. I particularly liked the fragments about the Merzbarn Wall and the kittiwakes. I was last in Newcastle in the summer, sprinting through the city centre to catch a Sunday night train back to Glasgow after watching the cricket at Chester-Le-Street, a gliding sprint both aided and weighed down by the numerous ales of the day!

    I have always been struck by Newcastle’s juxtaposition of bridge, building and street and I like your angle of steampunk retro-futuristism. Where are the jetpacks cry the Geordies?

    Now to dig out my old copy of Marquee Moon.

  9. Thanks very much Alex. I was also very taken with the story of the Kittiwakes and how they have adapted to an urban environment. Glad you made your train. I’ve only been to one cricket match but do remember that a fairly constant flow of ale was a feature!

  10. aubrey says:

    A wonderful portrait – and a fine synopsis of Marquee Moon; it does indeed sum up the neon underbelly of late ’70’s New York. I remember being quite stunned the first time I listened to it.

    There is also a beautiful understanding between words and photography. A single image can inspire a flood of words that will create a journey through a deep and complex city.

    Also, the sight of any bird in the city is reason to celebrate, and to marvel at the tiny and inspired homes they have made for themselves.

    • Thank you Aubrey. I never experienced late 70s New York directly but subsequently listening to the despatches from Television, solo Verlaine, Patti Smith etc created a mythical picture of the East Village in my head. Managed to finally visit a couple of years ago with the family and of course it must have changed so much, not least the Bowery. Our kids were a bit bemused as to why we were wandering through these streets. We ended up having a coffee in Little Italy where we fell into conversation with a ‘regular’ who regaled us with tales from the old days of CBGB and the surrounding environs.

      And yes, birds in the city, always a reason to celebrate. Thanks once again.

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