Joe Robertson and John Hall are commercial cult heroes on Tyneside, feeding the impression that, despite the dole queues, Thatcherism is working. Now they want to take control of Newcastle United Football Club. By Johnathan Foster.
On Wednesday Joe Robertson’s gold bracelet will clink against a champagne glass and he will feel pretty contented with the world. It will be Mr Robertson’s 41st birthday, and the end of a self-imposed diet and bout of temperance. He is taking his 75 year old mother, Gladys, to Las Vegas to see the Mike Tyson – Frank Bruno world title fight. He may also be celebrating his appointment to the board of directors of Newcastle United Football Club.
Mr Robertson is a member of a consortium that has spent a year in expensive, complex and litigious conflict with the incumbent directors of Newcastle United. At the club’s annual meeting on Tuesday, the consortium will try to implement a new share issue which would give control to Mr Robertson and his friends. Even if unsuccessful, the aspirant consortium, mischievously named the Magpie Group after the club’s nickname, will not go away; the plotters have plenty of money. Some £2 million has already been sunk in the campaign to win shares and voting power.
Members of the Magpie Group are used to success. Mr Robertson has transformed Newcastle’s city centre pubs and made a fortune that he is not shy of flaunting. His Mercedes carries his number plate: JOE 5. The group’s leader, John Hall, has become a commercial cult hero by developing an old ash tip across the River Tyne into the enormous MetroCentre shopping complex. He is now building executive homes and a golf course around a stately home bought from an old coal family. Both men are happy to be regarded as new money and to have their assault on the football club directors described as an attack on privilege and to be seen as symbols of a prosperous Tyneside emerging from post-industrial dereliction: new wealth versus established interests.
Down the Bigg Market on a friday night, there is evidence of a whooping, extravagant prosperity. In this partly cobbled street that runs off the main Newcastle Shopping District, customers queue to drink in the bars so lavishly decorated by Mr Robertson. Expensive lagers and cocktails are consumed beneath the chilly eroticism of Bob Carlos Clarke prints. The sartorial style is the all-weather costume of young Tyneside: shirt or blouse and tight jeans or skirt. The air is thick with Body Shop fragrance.
The MetroCentre built by Mr Hall is also busy: 16 million visitors last year, a chain gang of shoppers parading down chain store malls. So is Newcastle city centre. Mr Robertson has sold his bars to a Leicester-based leisure company and moved into wider property deals. On Northumberland Street, the city’s main retail area, rents are the highest outside the West End of London, according to Mr Robertson.
Mr Hall’s father was a coal miner. It is one the first things he tells people. From the public platform he has constructed on the MetroCentre success, he repeatedly states that the economy is recovering, that growth is in Tyneside’s hands. The secret? “You tell ‘em success, and they want to be part of success.” he tells a conference of the Coalfields Communities Campaign.
His audience were mainly councillors and local government officers, representatives of areas reduced by the decline of mining. They listened in the Park Hotel, Tynemouth – a piece of art deco overlooking empty beaches – a hotel trying to make a living from the Information Technology age now that holidaymakers have fled to the Med. Mr Hall tried to tell them how to capture the new money: “We don’t talk about unemployment, we talk about the people in jobs.” The delegates wanted to know about their responsibility to the unemployed. He told them to forget creating jobs in old pit villages. Industry needed greenfield sites, including Green Belt. The conference was puzzled.
Mr Robertson is as confident as his Magpie ally. There had been men in his office that morning, all desperate for commercial properties. “There are now ten flights into Newcastle a day. The ones coming in are full, those going out are empty. Money is pouring in.”
There is more to the Hall-Robertson entrepreneurial style than courtship of footloose capital. Both are intensely chauvinist. “I’m a provincial,” Mr Hall informed his audience of coalfields campaigners, and launched into a paean of North East virtues: community strength, family as the essence of decent life. “I have stayed,” he announced, but asserted that his formative influences – pit village and chapel – have been tempered by a Thatcherite realism. Forget the Jarrow March: “Put your cap out for help and you’ll get bugger all.” Go out and get the investment. It will come.
Mr Robertson worked as a sales assistant, a ship’s steward and a rock group roadie, and then managed band, Lindisfarne, an experience that taught him how to spot a rip-off. Together, Mr Robertson and Mr Hall present an attractive Tyneside package: somehow combining hedonism and Methodism. The family that shops together stays together. “I don’t think I will ever leave,” said Robertson. “There’s an umbilical cord to the North East.”
The region certainly needs help. For all the Grolsch, the wind-surfing, the holidays in Turkey, and clamour for consumer goods, Tyneside is almost the poorest, sickest part of Britain. The Bede and West Newcastle areas, for example, have rates of premature mortality near twice the national rate. A study in 1987 by the distinguished sociologist Professor Pete Townsend selected four indicators of deprivation: unemployment, overcrowding, and car and house ownership. In Gateshead and Newcastle, overcrowding was at least 30 Per cent higher than the average for England and Wales. By all four criteria, Tyneside was judged deprived.
Yet there is no doubting the success of the Hall-Robertson methods, “They have psyched-up the region.” says Professor John Goddard, of Newcastle University’s centre of urban and regional studies. “I used to believe that it was impossible to regenerate an economy through the service sector. Now I’m not so sure.” Professor Goddard concedes that symbolism. image-manipulation and assertive PR are the essence of the economic “revival” – McLuhan and Marcuse are the gurus of this new prosperity. But, as even Mr Robertson admits, it may be illusory: “Iike trying t to find the centre of a rolling snowball.”
Take, for example, the struggle for the football club. It has been pursued not with a formal takeover bid, but largely through the columns of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. whose near hysterical support for the Magpie Group has worried its own journalists. The present directors are of modest individual means compared to Mr Hall and Mr Robertson. The chairman. Gordon McKeag, is a middle-aged solicitor, the son of a former Lord Mayor. His patrician ways are an easy target for the arriviste and populist capitalists ranged against him. Mr McKeag’s father may not have been a miner like Mr Hall’s, but his grandfather was killed in the pit. There have been a peer and a knight on the Newcastle board, but they were honours awarded for services to trade unions. Neither Mr Hall nor Mr Robertson is fond of trade unions.
Some commentators claim to see a resemblance between the modern moguls Robertson and Hall and the great Tyneside entrepreneurs of the past. But unlike the William Armstrong or Charles Parsons, the nineteenth-century inventors who began heavy engineering industries in Tyneside, neither Mr Hall nor Mr Robertson is an innovator in search of a factors: They are derivative importers of American ideas, American shopping malls, American beers. Mr Robertson an amiable and enterprising man, reckons he may have created 1,500 jobs and invested £20 Million; Mr Hall admits that the thousands working as a result of the MetroCentre are low paid. But. “Get the work in, and the wages will rise.” he says.
There are hints of Poujadism in all this: the target a neglectful. absentee establishment which, in Mr Hall’s view, has to be drawn to Tyneside. But much of the wealth that finds its’ way into shops and bars has more to do with central government support than might be assumed: One of the principal sources of spending around Newcastle is the 10,000 civil servants who run the British social security system. They are paid nationally negotiated wage rates, which gives them a comparatively high consumer spending power.
The MetroCentre was built on land prepared with central government funds but, abandoned, like so many sites around Tyneside, as a result of central government decisions. It stands in an enterprise zone, pays no rates until 1991, and afforded its developer tax advantages: regional policy by any other name, except that individuals rather than corporations were the recipients. Rather than the Victorian entrepreneurs to who’ll they have been compared, the new rich on Tyneside have more in common with those whose wealth came front the dissolution of the monastic property. If, like pubs once frequented by shipyard workers, city centre sites become cheaply available as a consequence of political decisions affecting the heavy engineering industry, the rise of a new rentier class is assisted. Dispossess one group in society. redistribute the freeholds, and inevitably the Bigg Market will rock to the rhythms of a new prosperity.
Fred Robinson, of Newcastle University and the editor of Post-industrial Tyneside, does not dispute the bustle around John Hall’s shops and the hectic gregariousness in Joe Robertson’s bars. But, he points out, half a mile from the MetroCentre are the offices of the Scotswood Credit Union, a savings and loans co-operative established to counter usury on a housing estate where almost all disposable income comes from the Giro. “At the last count. 17,611 court summons were issued in Newcastle against people who could not repay loans, an increase of 10 Per cent over the previous 12 months. More than 10,000 warrants were issued by Courts allowing bailiffs to seize goods from householders. Scratch the surface of a bustling Newcastle and it is not hard to find a level of poverty that ought to be an affront to civilised society.”
Brian Tate, who runs the Scotswood Credit Union, compares the MetroCentre to Disneyland (The MetroCentre boasts the recent addition of “Europe’s first indoor theme park”). Few of his members shop there, nor do the professional,middle classes. ‘The place nevertheless represents the main street of a community: Mr Hall says MetroCentre is based on the high street of his native pit town, Ashington. The shopping centre he developed is significantly different. In the MetroCentre the affluent working class finds common cause with the mercantile class. It is this alliance of bourgeoisie and proletariat that is the political essence of Thatcherism, and it is an alliance which, to the bemusement of the Labour movement, is felt as strongly on Tyneside as anywhere. Its potency. is demonstrated by the fortunes of the football club.
The Magpie Group has touched on a sensitive nerve. The team is passionately supported, an emblem of the parochial machismo evident in Joe Robertson’s bars. But the team has not won a major football honour for more than 30 years. Blaming the directors is a universal reaction, and the Magpie Group and the Chronicle have exploited the opportunity. “John Hall’s a winner.” says a disconsolate fan. By implication, the present directors are not. Most culpably, they sold three locally born internationals – Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gasgoine – for large transfer fees instead of securing their services for Newcastle. But of the trio only Waddle might conceivably have staved.
The others wanted to leave Newcastle for what they saw to he greater opportunities elsewhere: Beardsley went to Liverpool for the same wages he was paid at Newcastle and Gascoigne’s conduct was deplored by those at close quarters as uncouth selfishness. He was believed to have been promised £500,000 over three years, yet could not be bothered to attend a ceremony: at ‘Which he was to be made player of the year and Geordie Player of the Year. But it is not as though the club has stinted on investment. A large new stand contains extensive catering facilities. and the bank of terracing where the rank and file supporters stand and chant, “Sack the Board” would be a prize site in the likely inane development of the Gallowgate district of the city centre. John Hall and Joe Robertson have views on property development, of course and a brewery is backing their challenge.
Nobody doubts Mr Robertson when he says: ‘I’ve made a lot of money out of Newcastle – now i’m prepared to put some back.’ Nor does anyone question John Hall’s devotion to this totem of Tyneside, even thought his original suggestion was to more the club from its secular chapel of St James’s Park to a plastic pitch adjacent to the MetroCentre in Gateshead. But whether a couple of million raised by a rights issue would save a team on course for relegation to the Second Division is questionable. Similarly, can the torrent of cocktails and Pils or the MetroCentre retail bonanza represent economic recovery? The Magpie Group’s message is certainly optimistic: Tyneside is booming and could have a team to match. But it may all prove no deeper than the laminate on a credit card.
By Jonathan Foster. First Published in The Independent Magazine, February 1989