The scene in Get Carter is iconic: Michael Caine’s Jack Carter confronts businessman Cliff Brumby in the bowels of the concrete car park as the cold Gateshead wind whips by them. Owen Luder’s exercise n Brutalism has dominated the skyline of Gateshead for more than 40 years, but is slowly being chipped away at by a duo of sharp-toothed pneumatic pincers, coming down slowly.
It all provides a spectacle befitting the former movie set, of course. Daily commuters walk past it with their heads turned and cameras ready, a steady stream of gawpers and amateur photographers trying to commit to memory and posterity the last few months of one of the town’s greatest eyesores.
There is a strange dichotomy in the feeling those in Gateshead have for the car park. Even when it was initially built it was decidedly ugly; there was no heralding of concrete being the latest in-thing or a respect for its attempts at modernity in an often wide-of-the-mark 1960s. To locals it was architecturally a continuation of T Dan Smith’s much-maligned policy of regeneration in Newcastle that had bled across the river. In the larger city just north of Gateshead, some of the most sensitive and delightful Victorian and Edwardian buildings were knocked down and replaced by huge blocks of concrete, an open wound that Newcastle still hasn’t fully recovered from (despite an attempt in recent years to right the sins of the past. Like Get Carter‘s Brumby, a businessman on the make, T Dan Smith fell into ignominy and has since become a local villain, a byword for a time that the region would much rather overlook.
Despite the architectural blight that it inflicted on Gateshead, despite the fact that the restaurant on the top floor that was meant to be the height of fine dining but never properly opened, and despite the fact that pound shops that snuggled inside its lower floors were ten a penny and pretty much all you could get at the rundown cafes ran like a Biblical sermon (“egg and chips, ham and chips, fish and chips, bun and chips, pie and chips”), there was sense of unity with the car park that meant that everyone that passes and looks up at the demolition is doing so with a “good riddance” coming from their mouth but a tear in their eye.
The car park was Gateshead: full of promise and initially flashy, but rapidly realising that it was run down and a little tawdry. In the thirty years before the Angel of the North, the Millennium Bridge, The Sage Gateshead and the Baltic, the Trinity Square car park was the icon of Gateshead, the one thing that made it famous. You can’t dislike something that contributes to a town like that. Yes, it may have presented the seedy side of Gateshead, famous for being a place of broken promises between underworld shysters, but it was ours.
It spawned a hive industry of shops, butchers and bookmakers that capitalised on the film’s success to try and give their failing businesses a bit of a boost – today in the slowly shrinking shadow of the car park there still is Get Carter’s butchers, offering chicken breast fillets at a pittance. It created memories, indelible and etched in the minds of those who lived and grew up in Gateshead.
My personal memories are like many peoples: in the late 1990s I remember going into the indoor market that sat, unloved, at the bottom of the car park to visit a videogame shop that sold legal second hand games over the counter and cheap copied ones under it. There was also a fish and chip shop – the kind that you know will be good because, rather than in spite of, the layer of grease that coats the walls, the rickety plastic seats and the formica tabletops. I went in there with my dad and amongst the flickering electric strip lights and the few rays of sunlight that managed to battle through the clouds and the improbably small, incredibly high-up windows, we had a really good meal.
The Get Carter car park reminded you of where Gateshead was just a few years ago, and just how far it has come. It gave you a grounding when you thought that the town that will forever be the sidekick to the balshy, urbane Newcastle was getting just a little too big for its boots and most of all, it was unspeakably, unforgettably grim in the great Northern tradition. That’s the reason why old men stop and stare as chunks of concrete the size of your torso hang perilously from the torn-open side of the building that once was Gateshead’s icon.