The Blue Carpet has seen better days. Thomas Heatherwick’s Blairite folly outside the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle still curls up wittily when it brushes the corners of the buildings that surround it, but the blue chips which gave it sparkle have worn away over the years. Increasing footfall to the gallery has eroded the artwork outside it, as people step over the fading tiles to see Isabella and the Pot of Basil or John Martin’s Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Newcastle is a city at war these days, a city of conflict between the incoming and the established, the old and the new, the haves, have-nots and never-wills. War is written into the fabric of the city, in the names of streets and tower blocks, the plaques on buildings, the collective memory.
Ride through Sandgate, up and doon
There you'll see the gallants fighting for the croon
And all the cull cuckolds in Sunderland toon
With all the bonny blew caps cannot pull them doon.
It’s all there, even the use of ‘cuck’ as an insult.
I came to the carpet to report on the war, but by the time I got here the troops had moved on. Difficulties with the Metro ticket machines mean I am forced to entrain without a ticket and disembark at Jesmond, the nearest station to the City Centre where I stand a decent chance of getting out without having to remonstrate with an angry revenue inspector. From there I have to walk to the Carpet via the campus of Northumbria University and John Dobson Street. By the time I arrive the carpet is empty. An old couple sits on one of the curving branches used as ramps by skateboarders, but the Keep Corbyn rally I was planning to get a look at has already decamped – to Leazes Park, I’ll find out later, but my initial instinct is that they must have gathered at Monument, the City’s main contested space.
At first I think I’m on the right track. I pass by the new Central Library, the glass and steel building that replaced the old Brutalist fortress, the black knight’s visor lowering over Princess Square, with a structure which makes a fetish of openness, a viewing platform with novelty Big Brother chairs, the stacks hidden away in a white cube halfway up the building and the bookshelves tucked away at the back of the ground floor. I can hear noise, groups, chanting.
I pass the MakerSpace and bookshop on New Bridge Street, the basement theatre where, almost a year ago, I asked my friends to throw rice and fake blood at me while I stood on stage and talked of love. The noise is louder now but it seems wrong. No megaphone, no samba bands, no sound system, no they say cut back we say fight back. The voices seem different. And here’s why: this is not a political crowd but a confessional one, a crowd of black people, probably from some evangelical outreach initiative, hallelujah-ing while stalls emblazoned with the red and white banner of Coca-Cola distribute free samples. As far as I can tell the coke and Christianity are not officially connected, but it sure looks like a land grab to me. I wonder if the ticketing problems on the Metro were deliberate: not just to stop me, but to thin the numbers of people coming in for the rally. But why? What’s the motive? Cui bono?
Try this for size: the Metro is a German-owned company these days. Corbyn has said we need to invoke Article 50 as soon as we can. Thinning his crowd is a bulwark against continental financial catastrophe. Or this: the Metro recently had an industrial dispute with its cleaning staff. Corbyn wants to stand up for the workers. Thinning his crowd is industrial relations by other means. Or: Corbyn is Christ and the Devil Himself fucked the ticket machines up out of spite. Or Corbyn’s the Devil-turned-Roundhead and in protest the Metro will only accept payment today in tiny pictures of the Queen.
It’s ludicrous, but we know conspiracies exist. The existence of the plot against Wilson was once thought colourful fantasy. We moved on pretty damn fast from the general threatening a coup if the current Labour leader was elected, but I’ve seen bumper stickers emblazoned with Support the Troops – we’ll need them to get Corbyn posted online. The Deep State abides, shuffling personnel as needed, sweeping BoJo into office at the moment the banks all collapse, a handy man for Diamond Bob to have inside the system.
The square around Monument is overlooked by bastions of conspiracy. Here: HSBC, the bank that broke bad, laundering Mexican drug money to bolster its liquidity. There: Pret a Manger, the chain whose management impose a Maoist cult of good cheer on its staff, surveilled by mystery shoppers, the secret policemen of consumerism, lured in by the promise of free goods. (Full disclosure: I’m partial to breakfasting on a Pret filled croissant, but I’ve never received one of the free coffees the staff are empowered to give. Come on, guys, I compared your management to Mao!)
And here, in what used to be a bookshop, Byron burgers, the company which recently conspired with the UK immigration authorities to deport 35 workers it had employed for years, working 50-70 hour weeks. The company asked no questions and enjoyed its lowered overheads, but turned grass to dodge fines and branch closures. Staff were invited in for ‘training’ on the dangers of cooking rare burgers, only to find out it was their goose that was cooked. A ‘quirky’ toy cow sits on a shelf behind the counter; a sandwich board outside advertises ‘The B&A Burger’. They need to add ‘UK’ to that, I mutter.