Visited: Tuesday 26 January 2010
When I was 16, a couple of lads who’d been in the year above me at school knocked on the door and said: “You like The Smiths, don’t you?” It was true. “Right,” they said, “let’s start a band.” As well as leading me astray into the ways of rock and roll, they were the first people to take me to the pub. To begin with, it was the New Empire, a tense locals’ local down the road. Then we started going to the Barge, which was a far better fit for my long Echo and the Bunnymen overcoat and black backcombed hair.
The Barge has been known for ages as a pub for ‘alternative’ types of all stripes. Some places have become, more specifically, ‘goth pubs’ or ‘student pubs’, say. When we inhabit these pubs and make them our own, in all our grand teenage countercultural finery and dreaming, we define them. When we move on, and we retain a sense of ourselves that’s partly shaped by those formative days and nights we spent in these pubs, they define us.
Everyone has a pub that defined them. Which is yours?
And every middling provincial town should have a haven for the outsiders. I don’t know whether the Barge has counterparts in Mansfield, Cheltenham and Melton Mowbray, but this version has long provided sanctuary for the punks, rockers, goths, crusties and indie kids of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, and all the surrounding villages for miles around. When I used to come here regularly, the three most played songs on the jukebox were ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ by The Smiths, ‘Whisky in the Jar’ by Thin Lizzy and ‘Hurry up Harry’ by Sham 69.
And how regularly it was. I’ve forgotten more things that happened to me on the Barge than might happen to some people in their whole lives.
For two or three years at the start of the 1990s I would come here New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve and birthdays, and at least nearly every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night of the year. When it was full I used to sit on the floor here under the stairs that take you down from the entrance to the bar. I drank a lot of Cameron’s Brown Ale here (it cost 98p a bottle). When I was feeling flush, I drank Newcastle instead (£1.28, I think). I kissed a few girls here and I had my heart broken here. I grew up a lot here. I threw up quite a lot here as well.
To drench so many sentences with ‘I’ is all wrong, because going to the Barge was all about belonging. Grimsby is the sort of town that kicks the living shit out of people who look different (it’s not just a casual sport: there’s a palpable, otherworldly anger about the aggressors: how dare you be different from me?) and, perhaps more than any pub I’ve made my own since, it was a ‘we’ place, not an ‘I’ place.
The day after the 1992 general election, we gathered here to mourn the Conservatives unexpectedly winning a fourth term in government (younger readers may be surprised to learn that there was often a political aspect to youth subcultures in those days). As that dreaded sunny afternoon wore on, more and more of us arrived at the Barge, simply nodded sadly at each other and probably wept into the Riverhead. When spirits were higher, an evening would sometimes end with people jumping into the Riverhead. If anyone tried that tonight, they would meet an icy doom. Not that there’s anyone around just yet.
We can go no further without you coming to understand that the Barge is, as its name suggests, a barge, and that it’s permanently moored in the Riverhead, a bit where the Rivers Freshney and Haven meet in the town centre, which Grimsby has failed to make the most of compared with ‘waterfront developments’ in other places; it’s just grown edgier since the adjacent installation of townie piss bars. On the other side of these it’s overlooked by Grimsby’s extraordinarily bleak bus station, some takeaways, an amusement arcade and, above the arcade, accessed via stairs, Gulliver’s.
Gulliver’s is the matchbox-sized club where, again almost uniquely among Grimbarian licensed premises, people who look a bit different can go without fear of getting their heads kicked in. The Barge and Gulliver’s exist symbiotically, and share their legendary status. On the Barge you can ask whether someone is going on to Gulliver’s afterwards just by thrusting an index finger vertically and saying: “You off up?”
Tuesday nights, of which tonight is one, were traditionally busy on the Barge, because at Gulliver’s it’s ‘indie night’ (or whatever they call it now). I’m here with Rob, who had to leave my band a few months ago because his work made him move over here, so I guess I thought it’d be a bit of a trip to show him a scene from my awkward fresh-cheeked past. But it’s about half eight and the place is dead: it’s just us, the bar staff, three or four kids, and the sound of the Foo Fighters boomed furiously all around the Riverhead by a jukebox the size of a car. When I arrived I nearly texted Rob to meet somewhere else instead.
But I sat at the bar waiting with a bottle of Newcastle, and now Rob is here and we’re shouting at each other over Dave Grohl while sitting at my old favourite table, just at the bottom of the stairs so you can see who’s coming down. For nearly an hour nobody does, and I grow anxious that the local ‘alternative’ kids have found a new place to go, or these days they just stay home, or, God forbid, they’ve all grown fed up of the abuse and chosen sensible haircuts with outfits from Gap.
At last they arrive, though. In my gloomy old sod moments I wonder whether British education’s obsession with what can be measured is creating a generation that is good at passing exams but can’t think for itself, and which is passive to a fault. Like most people over 30, I am troubled by the coming of an era which deems it acceptable and even admirable to wear a scarf indoors. But ultimately I can’t help thinking that the world must be OK as long as there are white-faced girls in eyeliner and stripey tights.
Rob and I stay just long enough to be reassured by the numbers in which the black-clad youth arrive, and then take ourselves off to the Tap & Spile (where a folk and blues night means we’ve gone from being the oldest people in one pub to almost the youngest in another). I suppose nothing lasts forever and everything dies in the end – sorry, I think being around those goths must have rubbed off on me – but this floating sanctuary looks alright to keep providing solace from the eternal darkness of the void for a year or two yet. God bless the Barge and all who mope in her.