20 January 2008

A night at the Riverdale

Bellingham’s Riverdale Hall Hotel is a survivor of a bygone era. Not because it is in any way dilapidated; on the contrary, the building, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and its appurtenances, of a distinctly pre-World War Two character, are rather well kept. It’s the concept. The owner, John Cocker, oversees everything with a personal eye that gives the place the stamp of his warm, slightly bohemian persona. In spite of the constant flow of guests, betokened by the quantity of vehicles usually sitting in the car park, John seems to know every customer by name, both the locals and the visitors. The place must, indeed, be of considerable attraction to the latter, magnificently perched on the north bank of the North Tyne, with the promise of abundant fishing and an excellent restaurant. But it is not the fishing or the restaurant I mean to write of; it’s the bar.

A small space with a red floral carpet and floral curtains, the bar has no more than five or six tables, but most of the action takes place around the bar itself and in the clearing at the centre, which is warmed by a log fire of incendiary strength.

On this particular occasion K and I went to the Riverdale at the suggestion of The Farmer. It was a Friday night and, as is often the case on Friday nights, there was musical entertainment, in this case provided by the singer Leevi, whom I knew in her incarnation as a music student at Newcastle University.

We arrived around ten and there was already plenty of what can be called an atmosphere: animated conversations in tones that had lost their reserve. The Farmer knew everybody and at once disappeared among his acquaintances. K and I stood by the fire. Soon a local singer, KD, from Falstone, came to say hello. Some other people recognised K and greeted her in passing. From his stool beside the bar, The Farmer glanced over every now and then. After a prudential time, he came over to our spot by the fire and introduced us to his friend B, who was to be the discovery of the night. Tall, brimming over with vitality, a tanned face betraying outdoor work, eyes sparkling with mischief, B engaged K in a whirl of talk, banter and drink. His twitchy body language made it clear he would have liked to dance too, but he confided that his health prevented him for the moment – a reminder that, despite many signs to the contrary, he was in his sixties.

Leevi began her show. She sang pop classics to the accompaniment of pre-programmed backing tracks and of her own guitar. She surprised me with her confidence in front of her audience, and the ease with which she charmed them into listening and participating. She may be learning at university under her student guise, but as Leevi running her own show she certainly knows what she is doing. The songs, varying in pace and character, were unknown to me but not to the audience, who sang along to many of them. There was also dancing at times, of the sedate kind you would expect to see in a cross-generational crowd such as this. Except that at one point out of nowhere came The Farmer with a young blonde grabbed by both hands. Usually measured in action and speech, he was now as if possessed by a demon. He twirled the girl at high speeds, he pulled her towards him and pushed her away without letting go of her hands, he lunged forward making her arch backwards and stepped back to allow her to stand vertical again, and he performed many other moves, too fast for me to register. Our good Farmer had turned into a berserker, and the blonde looked too surprised to resist. When the song came to an end The Farmer gently led his abductee back to her table in a corner of the room, where her male companion waited with a bemused face. Then The Farmer went back to his drinking as if nothing had happened, never looking again in the direction of the blonde who, it seemed to me, had become rather intrigued by the thunderbolt that had hit her. Puzzlingly, several times since that evening I have heard The Farmer tell exactly this story but attributing the actions to his friend B. This must be The Farmer’s personal brand of bashfulness.

All this time glasses of wine – white for K, red for me – had been coming our way from various quarters and I don’t think we had the opportunity to buy more than one in the whole night.

I lost K for some considerable time, so I went to investigate in the direction in which I had seen her go. I found her in an adjacent room, still part of the bar, talking animatedly to a woman I had not met before and, apparently, neither had K. She appeared to be the companion of J, a tree expert who had just devised for us a strategy to deal with the trees around our house. K wanted me to hear it from J, but, once introduced, J was only interested in talking to me about music. He was evidently proud of the presence of several musicians in his family. Pressed by K, he summed up the tree strategy thus: ask R for the smaller tree jobs, but for the bigger ones get somebody with the right insurance. This advice was to capture K’s imagination, making trees one of her principal enthusiasms for some time to come. R, it was clear, was not present at this time; he was to take a while to materialise, but I will expand on him some other time.

Among the younger contingent, in the same group as KD the singer, was Young R, who had served us at the now-extinct Oscar’s and at the till in the local Co-Op. She could not be much more than school age, but clearly she was working hard. In conversation I found out that Young R was studying for her A-levels, one of them in music, and she now had a new job, at the restaurant in a nearby town.

And of course I talked to Leevi, in a more relaxed fashion than it was possible to do at university, and she was introduced to the Farmer, who did not fail to exercise his charm on her. Meanwhile KD had bought K one more glass of wine, which was more than K could drink, so I offered it to Leevi, no thanks, driving, and to Young R, no thanks, underage. K and I together made a brave final effort as we got ready to go home. By this time a new group of drinkers were asking me where I was from, and at this billionth repetition of the same question I said I was from Albania, but this was received so earnestly that I didn’t have the heart to keep it up. I said where I was from on the way out, prompting some to try out a few Spanish words, along the lines of adiós or hasta la vista.

We left with the conviction that the Riverdale would play a part in our lives.