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Dundee - Scotland - Sleeping with Dennis the Menace

Dundee was once famous for the three J’s. Jute, Jam and Journalism. Of the three only journalism remains as a key part of the economy yet Dundee has managed to re-invent itself as The City of Discovery. Hugh Taylor and Moira McCrossan made a long overdue mid-week visit.

Driving into Dundee we stopped to look at the on-going construction of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is the first one outside of London, scheduled to open later in 2016. Despite the construction work it’s still possible to visit Discovery Point.  

The RRS Discovery was the Antarctic research vessel used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton during their successful Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic. The vessel was the last traditional wooden three-masted ship ever built in Britain and was launched on March 21st 1901 from the Panmure Yard of the Dundee Shipbuilders Company. After her research work she had a series of owners but was ultimately saved from scrapping by a Maritime trust and we recall seeing her berthed on the banks of the Thames during a visit to London in the 1970’s. She came home to Dundee on board a cargo ship on 3rd April 1986 and now fully restored is the centrepiece of Dundee’s visitor attractions.

We had booked a room at Malmaison Hotel, which we remember as the rather faded Tay Hotel, which closed and lay derelict for over a decade. Before that it was Mathers Hotel, owned by a family of that name. During the renovations, workmen chipping away some cement discovered the letters MH worked in ornate, wrought iron filigree on the main staircase. The Malmaison Hotel group was delighted and restored the grand Victorian staircase to its original state. It’s well worth walking up or down rather than taking the lifts.  


Travel Facts

 

Over the bed in our room was a portrait of Dennis the Menace and that got us thinking about Dundee’s last J, Journalism or more precisely comics. For Dundee is home to D.C.Thomson, publisher of over 200 million comics, newspapers and magazines each year including The Dandy, The Beano, Jackie, Bunty and Commando. Many of the most famous comic writers and artists, including Alan Grant and John Wagner, started their careers with Thomson’s.

Dennis the Menace is one of the longest running and most popular of Thomson’s characters. He first saw the light of day in March of 1951 and was inspired by an old music hall song. ‘He’s Dennis the Menace from Venice, a gay gondolier wears gold rings in his ears, Dennis the Menace from Venice.’ The then editor of The Beano rightly thought the name was perfect for a cartoon character and working with an artist created the rascal we all know and love. 

Seeking lunch we wandered up nearby Union Street and were immediately attracted by the retro look of The Palais Tea Room. It’s named in tribute to a famous Dance Hall that used to exist in South Tay Street. It’s now converted to offices but the front door and sign can still be seen at number 31.



Inside the Tearoom we spotted a massive front page of the Beano, featuring Dennis the Menace and they were playing sixties music so that clinched it. We had a grand lunch of chicken with pesto on brown bread with salad and green tomato chutney. We enjoyed it so much we returned with friends the next day to investigate the cakes. For anyone who was a teenager in the sixties there is no better place to eat.  

Two of the many posters on the wall immediately stood out as connected. The first was of the old Palais featuring Andy Lothian and his band and the other a reproduction of a ticket to the Beatles gig in the Caird Hall.

It was Andy Lothian, along with Albert Bonici from Elgin, who first brought the Beatles to Scotland. They arranged a series of gigs in Dance Halls round the country and despite paying the Beatles just forty pounds a night, managed to make a loss. But Lothian was convinced that they would be successful and so he and Bonici went to London to persuade Brian Epstein to let them organise another tour. This time they wanted to pay thirty pounds a night. Epstein agreed to the tour in October 1963 but at five hundred pounds a night which was an absolute fortune.

While predicting that The Beatles were going places the first indication as to how big they would become came when Lothian received a 4 am phone call on the Monday in April 1963 when the tickets were due to go on sale.

I answered and a voice asked if I was Andy Lothian. Using my best theatrical voice I answered Yes this is he. The other voice said Well this is the Dundee Polis. There are six hundred kids outside your office so you’d better get your arse down here and open up before they wreck the place.

In half an hour Andy and his secretary opened the office. By the end of the first day a thousand tickets were gone and shortly after two full houses in the massive Caird Hall were sold out.  

Before playing Dundee The Beatles played Kirkcaldy and Glasgow and that was where Moira saw them live. Saw rather than heard as the noise of girls screaming drowned the music.

We decided to go to South Tay Street to view the remains of the Palais. It’s just along the street and on the other side from Dundee Rep. Returning to the hotel we passed another place that featured on a poster in the Palais Tea Room. After forty years in various locations Grouchos music emporium is now at a corner site at 132 Nethergate. Warning! Entering this store can seriously damage your wealth.

We had taken photographs and were just going to move on but rather foolishly decide to take a peek. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of CD’s and Vinyl. They even have repro and restored old record players and restored vintage radios. Fortunately they didn’t have a Dansette or we might have been tempted. As it was a few CD’s were bought but we kept well away from the vinyl.

On the corner just across the street from Grouchos, at 118 Nethergate, is The Folk Café. We breakfasted there the next morning. French toast with Maple Syrup, bacon and fried eggs and a full vegetarian fry up. We’ll be back there on our next trip.



 

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