Monthly Archives: June 2014

Engaging the Peoplo

It’s 35 years this week, since I started working for Northumberland County Council – as an unqualified social worker in Bedlington. There’s a scary thought.
These days it would be illegal; you’re not allowed to call yourself a ‘social worker’ unless you are actually qualified and registered (which I am) with what’s called the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Back in 1979 it was a different world, much less regulated and formal.
I absolutely loved it. Social work is some of the best work in the world; getting alongside people at critical moments in their lives, using your skills, often yourself to help them make some of the biggest decisions it’s possible for a human being to make.
How’s a child going to be looked after? Where’s an older person going to live ? What impact has illness or disability made ? Sometimes having to intervene yourself when getting it right or wrong is a fine balance and the risks are huge.
Thankfully for the good folk of Bedlington everyone else in the team knew far more and had much greater experience than me. My immediate colleagues were a group of bright young people assisted by two mature women and managed by a senior group steeped in practice wisdom and local knowledge. I swiftly adopted the yellow Citroen 2CV and chugged around trying to make myself useful.
We did good work. Mightily enthused I left to go and get qualified then never returned; moving on despite the advice of one of those wiser heads who clearly thought that proper social workers stick around.
However, they don’t get their voices heard; nor are they recognised for some of the most important work undertaken our behalf.
I pay my Council Tax and vote for those who want to lead them but I find it incredibly difficult to find out about what today’s social workers are doing in Northumberland. Look on the County Council website and you’ll see prominent pieces about important things such as dustbins and holes in the road but nothing informative about the front line of social work and for instance, even more importantly, the children and young people in their care.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually suspect there’s a good story to be told here. Although I always take Ofsted with a pinch of salt they did praise Northumberland’s safeguarding services as ‘outstanding’ a while ago. Moreover to its enormous credit the County is one of the few local authorities which still operates a secure children’s home – a vital yet dwindling part of systems to protect the most needy children.
I’m not advocating that any confidences should be broken but good public communication is vital to underpin child protection.
A recent report on a child starving to death before everyone’s eyes noted that people had been unable to ‘think the unthinkable’. What utter nonsense; children are the most powerless members of our society and while we shouldn’t exaggerate child abuse there is just as much potential for them to be harmed as there is for potholes to appear in the road and for bins not to be collected. It happens.
As successive Governments have stated ‘child protection is everyone’s business’. It wouldn’t cost Northumberland a single penny more to use their website, publications, communications to enable us all to hear from their social workers and above all from their young people. They have an important story to tell which we citizens have the responsibility to hear.
Northumberland are hardly alone in this. Indeed every local authority in the area could improve its public engagement particularly when they are plainly struggling with massive financial cuts and when some are faced with fundamental decisions about joining a potential Combined Authority.
Given their oaths of office to serve the people who elected them I have considerable sympathy with the leaders of Sunderland City Council who express qualms about taking on these new, untested commitments at this time. Bloody-mindedly I’m even more on their side when I see some London-centred, unelected, self-appointed, so –called ‘think tank’ trying to take them to task through the letters page of this newspaper.
On the other hand the understandable difficulty experienced by local authorities trying to move beyond warm words and good intentions into breaking down long-established boundaries and working together, demonstrates the flaws in this whole approach to ‘regional’ development. Nobody expects Glasgow and Edinburgh or Cardiff and Swansea to slough off their identities, their commitments, their cultures, even their rivalries. What’s so different about Sunderland and Newcastle – and the excluded Middlesbrough ?
Why is the North East expected to make do with some sort of hotch-potch, spatchcock, papering over the cracks instead of having real power, real devolution, real democracy here ?
It’s public understanding and engagement which is truly protective of children and underpins the work of dedicated public servants in social work. It’s our political will, our action which will bring better opportunities to the North East.
Let’s not rely on a few people elected for other purposes. Far better emulate the people of Scotland – however they vote this Autumn.

Up off our knees in 2014

It isn’t quite the famous Bobby Thompson story about acting as ‘first foot’ in Consett ( in June) ; however, it will still feel a bit late as I cross our threshold this afternoon. These family parties at the other end of the country do tend to go on!
With no great claims to be tall, dark or much of a stranger to those within I’ve always enjoyed the traditions of New Year. Apparently it started at the age of 3 months when I was ceremoniously ‘walked’ into the house by my father clutching a tiny piece of coal. A little later I recall standing outside with others on a cold, frosty night waiting for the pit ‘buzzer’ to sound out across the village.
We’re so accustomed to texts and emails that now it seems odd to remember the instant communication of that sinister noise. To recall those other communal events in Newbiggin when the lifeboat rockets went off and you’d join others rushing to the Quay Wall vantage point to observe what was going on. To think of those other obsolete forms of messaging, the four telegraph cables linking the UK to Scandinavia via Newbiggin by the Sea still lying there under the waves.
Still on communication, I’ve recently been stunned to see a print of L.S Lowry’s painting of St Bartholomew’s Church at Newbiggin and to read that he had a ‘special affinity’ (i) with the town. I love Lowry’s work, I’ve walked the Berwick town trail a number of times and I’m familiar with his stark painting of what is plainly the southern promontory of Newbiggin bay, the Needles Eye. However I hadn’t realised just how deep was the relationship between an artist who managed to be both a genius and incredibly popular- and the whole North East; particularly the industrial areas close to coast and rivers of Sunderland and Blyth. Art and artists enable us to see the familiar in a new light and I’m sure we should make more of Lowry’s prolific output and particular understanding of our region – from Middlesbrough to the Tweed.
Some other reading over Christmas has been a couple of papers about the core aspects of the Northumberland Local Plan and the consultation on the proposal to create a Combined Authority for Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear.
Every Council in the North East has been working on Plans to guide development for the next 20 years; Northumberland’s is at an advanced stage with the final version going to public consultation in the Spring and the whole thing due to be adopted in 2015. These are crucial documents which lay down policies to be followed way into the future and will change the communities where we live forever. They aren’t so difficult to read and I have no doubt that the effort to consult through public meetings, online documents, various means to support people with disabilities is sincere. Nobody gets everything they want but it would be sad to allow cynicism or a lack of confidence about local authorities/ politics/ ‘officialdom’ to get in the way of participating in critical decisions affecting all our lives.
One point I’ll be making is that Northumberland Council undermine their own case for substantial growth by failing to emphasise that the County has the worst major road in England. They should also address the fundamental issue that the place which led Europe in learning as long as 1,250 years ago now so lacks university presence and partnerships that Northumberland must be the largest higher education- free zone in England.
Both these are also critical matters for what I’d prefer to describe as the ‘Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear Combined Transport and Enterprise Authority.’
This addition of ‘Transport and Enterprise’ is intended to be helpful. If the new combined body comes into being we will need to hold its 7 council leaders to account for a limited range of measures to address key transport and development priorities. The really difficult issue for them will be to look beyond the interests of their own local authority – which they are actually elected to pursue – to those of the sub-region as a whole. If they openly agree and energetically address the main issues; if they lay themselves open to serious public scrutiny, the combined transport and enterprise authority will do the best it can.
However, if the 7/12ths of North East Councils represented try to pass themselves off as some sort of wider Regional Authority its lack of democratic legitimacy and the sheer unrepresentative nature of its membership will doom it from the start.
Whatever the work of politicians the key to all our futures, to ensuring our best for the place where we live is our participation, our engagement, our determination, our ability to use our democracy to its proper ends.
Some ‘think tank’ says ‘the North needs its own Boris’. Frankly Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool are welcome to him; what the North East needs is for all of us to get up off our knees.
All the best for 2014.

‘Don’t watch your leaders ……..’.

Early evening in November.
I was making my way home from a birthday party when I came upon Kevin..
‘HOW ! Di yee knaa President Kennedy’s been shot ! ‘
Such was the way that global news passed between 10 year olds in Northumberland, 50 years ago.

JFK’s presidency was different from the ‘Camelot’ he portrayed and it took the political guile of Lyndon Johnson to make some reforms work. However the anniversary remembrances have demonstrated that Kennedy’s oratory and idealism still resonates down the years.

On another November evening 18 years ago, I took a call from a young chap from Lancaster who said he’d like to nominate me as the Labour candidate for Lancaster & Wyre at the forthcoming General Election. Perhaps this wasn’t such a great offer as the newly formed constituency had a notional Conservative majority of 11,000. Nevertheless, Tony Blair was sweeping the country in similar ways to John Kennedy and thanks to a great deal of work by a considerable number of people I duly played my very minor role when things could only get better in May 1997.

Those heady days seem almost as distant as JFK. However when we do gain more perspective I think we’ll be better able to acknowledge Tony’s great work in Northern Ireland and his Government’s legislation on equalities. Each in their different ways have been great influences for good. Devolution too; although the tremendous strides that have been made in Scotland and Wales have hardly been matched here.

Last week some good folk met in Newcastle to talk about regional government. There were those there who’d played key roles before the 2004 referendum and a good debate ensued with more thought of the future than raking over the past.

As one colleague said:‘2014 is crucial. Independence for Scotland would change everything.’ So could a new Party devoted to the best interests of the North East. Determined to get real power devolved to what otherwise will forever be the smallest, most deprived, least noticed region of all. Something different; profoundly committed to equality and to achieving the best through democratic regional institutions but a loose collective, enabling local action and initiative, building coalitions wherever we can. Adding ginger to the mix.

Indeed this could be new politics. Real politics; far removed from pathetic slogans and back-biting, always being ‘right’ and always protecting your friends. Comfortable with public apathy, never really moving on, spinning too many yarns, making too many deals.

There are Euro elections across the whole North East Constituency next May. Democratic politics in all its mess, but sometimes all its glory can change the world. Yet how can anyone doubt that we need a new approach when last time 70% of us didn’t use our vote?

Over the past week I’ve also talked to social workers about the challenges they face in protecting children, worked with a family preparing a funeral ceremony for their Mam and met with a group of ladies in Longbenton to discuss family history and whether or how they would want to be remembered in 100 years.

Working with people is an incredible privilege. Forever learning from the unique vitality and fascinating complexity of people’s lives it requires reflection, drawing on all sorts of resources. .One of many for me is Emily Dickinson who resided in Massachusetts 100 years before the Kennedys and lived a quiet, reclusive life far removed from theirs. She left behind a large number of short, spare apparently simple poems. When I go back to them I find words full of meaning, glowing off the page.

‘A Country Burial’ is an old favourite; revisited these past few days.

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgement break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground (i)

Most people live lives as unnoticed as Emily Dickinson’s but which in family, in work, sometimes in very small, shifting communities embody profound statements about what it’s like to be alive, making sense of past present and future. The feeling never leaves me that if people could properly engage with democratic politics that we’d see a transformation of our world. We don’t actually need leaders like Kennedy or Blair because we can make democracy work ourselves.

However, one immediate thing we can all do is respond positively to the Government’s consultation on the proposal to establish a combined authority for the area of Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear .The proposal doesn’t cover the entire region, the authority would be at one remove from direct democracy but in bringing some important decisions closer to home it might help move us on. It’s a ghastly, condescending document but we badly need some progress here.

One positive for me is that the first Leader of the proposed new body would be Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham Council. Now older, no doubt more care worn than the young chap from Lancaster who called me 18 years ago; I wish him well.

An existential regional identity

As the first place, apparently anywhere in the world, to be building a community family tree of everyone who ever lived there Newbiggin by the Sea is generating some notable pioneers. It’s also producing some fascinating stories out of the so-called ordinary lives of people from a small town which has spent most of its history being overlooked.
Last week we began to tell some of those tales through drama. Visiting Newbiggin Maritime Centre were Tyneside- based Cap-A-Pie theatre company with a play, ‘Under Us All’ based upon the real lives and words of 3 generations of an Irish family living in Hebburn. The links with our genealogy project are obvious so before the performance members of the company led a workshop to explore how our family tales might be turned into theatre.
It was a considerable success. Working with a group whose ages ranged from 8 months to 88 years the theatre company provided a stimulating experience upon which we are keen to build. Even the warm-up was instructive. Invited to place ourselves around a large room according to where we now live I found myself waving from the northern extremities of Warkworth at colleagues from Whitley Bay, Consett and the cities of Durham and Newcastle over the heads of the majority from Newbiggin. It was, it turned out an exercise which emphasised notions of identity, solidarity and sheer bloody-minded community resilience.
This prompted me to consider demography. At the last census in 2011 Newbiggin had almost 10 times as many people (6308) as at the first in 1841. However this apparently steady rise masks huge fluctuations with large increases in the post war years being completely offset by downturn during the decades of industrial decline in the ‘30’s and ‘90’s. Newbiggin has a considerable ‘diaspora’ of people who have moved away across the world to find work and this reflects the North East. Here we have the region with the smallest population, increasing at the lowest rate in England ; its most notable rise being in the group of people over the age of 65.
Some of the comments I’ve had since beginning this column have questioned the whole notion of a North East region arguing that it’s nothing more than a political construct employed by those who relish statistics.
Personally I don’t believe that ‘the North East’ is any more a political construct than ‘England’. It certainly has greater historical provenance. Although the Romans tried to divide us with the ultimate physical device of a wall the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, ruled from Bamburgh, united Northumberland and Durham, absorbed them into a Northumbria stretching from the Firth of Forth to the Humber and for a few years held power over most of what eventually became ‘England’. Moreover, that great arc of Christian culture – Lindisfarne- Jarrow- Monkwearmouth –Durham provided the greatest learning and art of the time.
We all know the North East has history on its side but what I’d argue really binds us is the lived experience of being here, the shared, mutuality not only of economic circumstances but of the whole of life amongst this landscape and language and people. Regional identity is an existential concept irrevocably tied up with how you see yourself which is inextricable with how you live your life –wherever you live it and however long you’ve been there.
Why there so many Sunderland supporters in Newbiggin by the Sea is a common issue for our group – perhaps most for those who think that football allegiance should be closer to home. Part of the answer is that somebody had the sense to put on a supporters bus; originally it was a result of droves of Durham miners who came to open our pit. 100 years on there are many who live that unspoken, unacknowledged heritage with pride.
We read in last Thursday’s Journal that the Leader of Newcastle City Council believes that the North East requires the same level of devolution as Wales. On Saturday we heard of the opening of consultation on proposals for a North East Combined Authority. The latter proposal is welcome, uniting local authorities across the region on the big strategic issues However it is no substitute for, indeed could be a distraction from the devolution of democracy, the empowerment of people here.
I agree with Councillor Forbes. Working recently in Wales, negotiating with the Wales Government and Welsh politicians of all parties I was struck by their energy and determination to pursue distinction and excellence for the people of Wales.
However Wales did not achieve their devolution easily through the benificence of others. We now lag behind them because of the nagging campaigning of a Welsh Party rooted in Wales, focused on the interests of Wales. Plaid Cymru has been an effective ‘thorn in the side’ their efforts engaging, resonating with people.
Do we need a new political party to battle for the North East in a similar way ? The debate starts next Monday November 18th 6-8pm at the Lit&Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne.
It would be great to see Councillor Forbes there.
Hilton Dawson

A powerful voice for North East England ?

A Powerful Voice for North East England ?
Lit & Phil
23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne N1 1SE
Monday November 18th
Look at the strides made by the people of Scotland and Wales in recent years as they have embraced devolution, strengthened their own democracies and gained confidence in promoting themselves to the rest of the world.
Compare them to the North East where we outstrip every other region in England for poverty, unemployment and poor services with our decisions made 300 miles away by people who neither know nor apparently care for what really goes on here.
The battle for devolution in Scotland and Wales has received as many setbacks as the campaign for regional government in the North East. Perhaps the only difference is that they have had dedicated political parties solely focussed on the needs of their areas rather than wider national agendas.
Perhaps it’s now time to establish ‘Wor Party’, a new progressive political party for the North East which can challenge the old institutions to bring real decision-making, real power here ?
Whatever your views you are welcome to join the debate. It will be chaired by Hilton Dawson – Journal columnist, amongst other things a former Labour M.P and Councillor but whatever is said – and where the debate eventually leads – will be up to you.
Further info :

A bold new voice for the North East

It was great to see the response of Ronnie Campbell M.P. to my last column (Journal Letters October 17th). Ronnie is immensely worthy of respect for his support of miners, the people of Blyth and the North East over decades.
Ronnie’s abiding interest in regional development and devolution demonstrates that these are issues which are central to the real practical issues of people’s lives. Regional Government is not a panacea for all our ills but to use a recent example I don’t believe that an empowered North East would make or allow a decision to cut local firefighters jobs and render local people less safe.
The Chief Fire Officer of Tyne and Wear is to be commended for his honesty but the lack of political clamour about what has been portrayed as an administrative decision to cut 131 firefighters and risk people’s lives is a good example of how we need a new passion, a new challenge on the local political scene.
Surely we should learn from the past rather than be bound by it?
Ronnie’s reaction to the debacle of 2004 where the North East rejected a feeble talking shop of a Regional Assembly and then the Government rejected the majority vote of 66,140 Northumbrians for two unitary local authorities is to recommend that in future we ‘let the politicians do the fighting.’
I couldn’t agree less.
Receiving an occasional good hiding from people using their vote is actually rather good for the political soul. Hard as it may seem, the remedy to 2004 is not to try to sort things behind closed doors but to go out listening, engaging and involving people in what should be a process of democratic as well as economic renewal.
Of course I’m being less than fair. The whole approach of the present Government through Local Enterprise Partnerships, ‘City deals’, the work of Lords Adonis and Heseltine actually encourages the development of unaccountable elites and instills division as well as providing a broad wash of Whitehall mediocrity over a distinctive region full of its own talent and diversity.
Why should we settle for regional development which amounts to doing London’s bidding on the cheap or re-creating local government on a grander scale? Surely we need real decisions, real power located here – with all of the responsibility that entails.
Regional Government is not an easy option – which is why it needs to be pursued consistently, debated thoroughly and encouraged to grow out of the real priorities of real people’s lives, right here.
Regional Government could work in the North East. Perhaps it has to work here if we are to make substantial progress with our major, embedded problems?
Consider the call of Alan Milburn, now the Government’s ‘Child Poverty Czar’ to raise educational standards in areas of entrenched unemployment by paying the best teachers more to work with children in their schools. An exciting prospect; personally I think he’s bang on right. Yet how easy would it to be to introduce such a system in the face of the institutions and the interests – the profession, the unions, the local authorities, the schools and those a few rungs higher who might think their own children will miss out?
Radical action is needed to help thousands of North East children gain opportunities to transform their lives but as well as good ideas we need local implementation, local determination, local decision making to ensure that things really happen here.
I’d go further than Alan. There is a huge body of international evidence that children’s potential is critically affected by how their brains develop in the first days, weeks months of life. There are numerous programmes, tried and tested to the highest evidential standards which can be used to help parents do their best by their children. All this is well known. Successive Governments have invested many £millions but there is little consistency, little continuity, and national politicians have been far too timid in the face of influential commentators who betray their own privileged upbringings by references to ‘the nanny state.’ This is lamentable failure which needs to be addressed by progressive politicians, firmly and decisively in the interests of coming generations.
Of course the future of the North East depends on how well we support, encourage and bring new investment, science, technology, research, industry and jobs here. However the region’s greatest asset is its people. If we can empower ourselves and build the structures and systems to drive the highest standards here we’ll give the region and its people a much better future.
Perhaps we could have a stimulating, face to face discussion about the benefits (or otherwise) of a new political party solely focused on empowering the North East?
The meeting is entitled ‘A powerful voice for North East England ?’ It’s at the ‘Lit and Phil’,23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne N1 1SE on Monday November 18th , 6 – 8pm. Absolutely everyone is welcome, it’s free and it’s a debate not a lecture so therefore wide open for everyone to join in on the night or in writing, faithfully reported,to the gathered throng.
Hilton Dawson

‘Wor Party’ – a new politics for a new North East

It’s an October early morning and I’m dazzled by the sun rising out of the sea behind Coquet Island, gleaming on the waters of the estuary, making dark shapes of boats by Amble Marina.

How glorious to live in a region so sharply defined by the quality of its light and the sea to our east. Important to remember though that despite all the natural beauty of the North East we live amongst the worst poverty in our country – the highest rate of economic inactivity, the lowest household incomes in England – with a divide that’s getting worse.

Almost 9 years on from ‘the debacle’ of November 4th 2004 when the North East referendum rejected the creation of a Regional Assembly we have heard Sir John Hall deploring a ‘lack of regional leadership’. While I’m not so sure about the rest of his argument I think Sir John was quite right to suggest that we look at ourselves.

Perhaps Sir John just raised some issues in order to knock them down but it’s futile to look for ‘leadership’ from business when it should have enough to do making money, investing, creating good jobs and supporting training.

As for those who have democratic legitimacy and accountability I think he was too hard on Council Leaders and MPs. Whatever their Party these people stand for election on the basis of manifestos largely drafted in Westminster and carry responsibilities for a constituency or a local authority not an entire region. With so much pressure for the creation of divisive ‘City –Regions’ and so many funding cuts our Council leaders might be praised for whatever co-operation and unity they have actually managed to achieve.

In fact there are excellent people throughout the North East doing all sorts of good jobs in a place of distinction with a powerful identity founded upon a shared history, culture, language, industrial and scientific legacy in an inspirational landscape. Moreover there are world class initiatives in science, technology, communications, medicine bringing innovation and hope for our collective future.

However, there is something missing.

Some people have started to worry about Scotland. Rather than being threatened by their prospective independence , or ‘competition’, or ‘border controls’ I think we should take heart from the Scots re-invigorated spirit and sense of purpose and pride.

I don’t care whether Scotland votes ‘YES’ to independence or not – it is a matter for the Scots. However, we should learn from them and perhaps even more so from the Welsh.

Wales has hardly more people than the North East, Their nationalism used to be the stuff of ‘cranks’ – fire-bombings of holiday cottages and wild threats about the Prince of Wales.

When they did gain a referendum on devolution in 1979 it was lost just as decisively as ours in 2004. Yet they didn’t give up; achieved some measure of devolution in the 1997 referendum and finally acquired real law making powers in an easily won ballot in 2011.

Wales has no more distinctive culture than us, no more beautiful landscape, no more industrial dereliction, just as many acute social problems. Yet like Scotland they have benefited enormously from devolution, adding confidence to their identity and distinction. All those voices who howled down their ‘YES’ campaign back in 1979 are gone now. A massive constitutional victory and a triumph for people like us has been achieved in the course of a generation.

The major difference between the North East and Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, considerably smaller than we are, now emerging from utter tragedy into empowered devolution is that they have their own dedicated political parties, offering a clear focus on their needs and strong challenge to Westminster.

That’s what’s missing here.

‘Wor Party’ (now there’s a challenge to southern broadcasters). A North East People’s Party founded no doubt to howls of derision, but determined to stand up for our region, our whole region. Working with any of the Westminster parties when it can, battling them when it needs to; intent on devolving real power here and utterly dependent not on the goodwill of technocrats such as Lord Adonis, or a few crumbs falling from Whitehall but on local membership and strong support among 2.5 million people..

Our democracy would be invigorated, our region revitalised by a new force on the political scene. It would aim for that hallowed centre ground, practice politics with a smile; unafraid of challenge but open to co-operation, uncompromising on its commitment to the best interests of the North East and full of good ideas. Respectful of the past but not bound by it – determined that women, people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, older people, young people, entire neglected communities will have their voices heard and play their part in our future.

Sir John Hall is absolutely right. In considering our region we should look at ourselves. Effective leadership will come from all of us working together in a focussed way.

Everyday the sun comes up out of the North Sea and everyday it’s the people of the North East who can lead our region and ensure that it moves on.

60 Today

Carol, who attempts to tame my silvered yet still unruly thatch has been offering me haircuts at pensioners rates for ages. After today I’ll be able to claim them.
In fact at ten to one, this afternoon, probably somewhere on the M5 I’ll turn 60. I’m looking forward to being the ‘lean and slippered pantaloon with spectacles on nose and pouch on side’ of Shakespeare’s 6th age of Man. ‘Lean’ would be great, ‘slippers’ sounds very comfortable, ‘spectacles’ already in place, ‘pouch’ implies you’ve got something in it and ‘pantaloon’ must be such enormous fun. I think I’ve been working towards ‘pantaloon’ for ages even though some say I achieved it a long time ago. Indeed there’ll have been plenty of pantalooning before today what with a party back in the old Lancaster & Wyre Constituency on Saturday and then an early start for a quick dash 250 miles to Exeter for Isaac’s big bash yesterday.
Two years ago our eldest daughter displayed a sense of timing so remarkable that it has never been seen before or since and presented us with our third grandchild on what is now both Isaac and his Grandad’s birthday. At the moment he doesn’t have much say in the matter of joint parties so because I have to spend much of today travelling back to do some work in Newcastle tomorrow and Isaac and his mates have packed social diaries typical of the average two year old we have celebrated early. The cake is gone, the sausage rolls squashed and another ‘do’ consigned to the memory along with those others -sheltering under a beach umbrella in a Greek thunderstorm, the fancy dining room in the Commons, bopping in the legendary Phoenix club in Lancaster, the tears, the tantrums and the drink. I’ll wager yesterday’s was the best of all – even if we stuck to the orange squash. I hope I make it till I’m 76 and I can embarrass Isaac when he turns 18.
By then according to Shakespeare, if I’m still around, I’ll be ‘sans teeth’ and all the rest and just about back to the ‘mewling and puking’ stage of helpless infancy. There certainly is a downside to all of this. My personal tragedy is that my father never even made it this far and when I look at photos of my grandfathers whom I can just about remember being 60 I see men visibly worn down by lifetimes of manual labour with not much longer to go. Indeed, I can think of friends, of contemporaries who have died long before their time.
Shakespeare though is out of date. Despite economic and social deprivation continuing to undermine progress, the problems of providing very long term health and social care and the horrors when it all goes wrong, the illnesses of old age which were never before seen in such numbers, the huge moral issue over ‘assisted dying’ and the colossal public expense of it all. The wonderful fact, so often overlooked, is that we are living longer, in greater numbers than ever before. Certainly this causes problems – but these are very good problems to have.
Some of their solution is in addressing social attitudes which pre-date Shakespeare’s time. My wife rather quails at the prospect of 40 more years with me but I delight in telling her that ‘60 is the new 20’. Of course the issues of poverty in old age must be much more emphatically addressed but many of us are secure with roofs over our heads, a reasonable income and vigour and vitality after we stop working for someone else, when we don’t work every hour God sends and when at last we have the chance to do what we really want to do.
Of course attitudes are beginning to shift but I think it’s in the area of ‘work’ that we really need to see a change. As someone who never, ever intends to retire of course I welcome the good examples that many firms now set of employing older workers as well as the statutory measures supported on all political sides to outlaw age discrimination.
However, I still think we have extremely unimaginative approaches to employment and very fixed notions of the nature of work. I’ll be putting all this to the test over the next year or so as the Newbiggin by the Sea Genealogy Project seeks to use voluntary effort, lottery funding, sponsorship, commercial income and more. We’ll be developing a ground-breaking database of ‘everyone who ever lived in Newbiggin by the Sea’, utilising the knowledge, experience and passionate interest of people from all ages, background and abilities to build a lasting resource and develop a huge range of publications, displays and events. Whether paid or unpaid, young or old, highly skilled researchers, experts by experience or just good at leafleting like me there’s some sort of job for everyone, far removed from the old routine of the 9-5.
In 18 months time both the process and the product will be fascinating to review – and hopefully I’ll still need a good haircut from Carol.

A phenomenological approach to the Northumbrian Landscape

I’m sure there must be other flight paths into Newcastle airport but the one I like the best and seem to experience most often is when the pilot takes us east over the North Sea somewhere about Tynemouth and then turns and comes back in descending and crossing the coast just south of Blyth.
That was our plane early on Thursday afternoon; arriving back in the North East from a sunny week in Majorca. In fact the sun had disappeared shortly after the Pyrenees and that glorious sight of the Northumberland coast as far north as maybe Amble was a particular delight as we came down out of 1000 miles of cloud. Blyth beach, Cambois, Newbiggin Bay, then Cresswell and Druridge ; these are the parts of Northumberland excluded from that arbitrary form of snobbery designated as the Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB). Perhaps it was all that grey cloud but they looked pretty good to me with the industrial estates and geometric housing developments no more the works of man than the agricultural landscapes and stone circles further north. Is it age or the picturesque which tempts some people to divide Northumberland in two ? While I revel in its history and its significance is one of those twee postcards of Bamburgh really preferable to a stark image of Lynemouth power station set against a dark beach against the sea ?
In case this is too provocative I should say that I deplore the installation of wind turbines against a hilly skyline. Nevertheless, in a flat place, wide open to the elements I think the clean lines, massive presence and repeated numbers of wind turbines can be an awesome addition to the landscape.
Of course everyone has their own view. I suppose that there is a subjective element in any aesthetics. However I think it goes beyond ‘beauty being in the eye of the beholder.’ Looking down from 10, 20, 30,000 feet I thought about something from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty which I needed to look up once I got home.
‘But the system of experience is not arrayed before me as if I were God it is lived by me from a certain point of view. I am not the spectator, I am involved and it is my involvement in a point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception.’ (Phenomenology of Perception – Maurice Merleau – Ponty 1962)
So we don’t just look at the world, a passenger in an aeroplane flown and guided by someone else, we are engaged with it and how we work in it, walk through it, live our lives in the streets and landscapes affect how we see it. I think this must be right. I recently re-visited the back lane in Newbiggin by the Sea where I spent a huge amount of my time until the age of 11 more than 50 years ago. The same telegraph pole oozing tar, the same bricks where we marked our goals, the walls over which we so often kicked balls now seem so much lower and the bank down which we used to sledge and drive our bogies so less steep. I was sad to observe that too many cars would prevent North Seaton Road being utilised as Wembley, Lords or the Olympic Stadium, these days but it was the shock of recognition of a sort of uncanny familiarity that actually brought tears to my eyes.
I hope that today’s residents weren’t too concerned if they saw some strange bloke weeping. However, I think we should have much more of this sort of thing. The familiar sight of a gate set in a very ordinary wall put me in mind of the work of the painter Edward Hopper whose lifetime’s work of very ordinary people set in very ordinary scenes shows such a sensitivity to the strange quality of the mundane and the everyday. L.S. Lowry was in Newbiggin painting the Needles Eye in 1963 and I wish old Edward Hopper had been with him or with me back in June when emerging from a meeting about 10pm I found myself in an empty street in that grey, midsummer light which makes you think that anything might happen.
We can’t all be great painters and Northumberland certainly doesn’t always enjoy the golden sun of Majorca but I think there’s incredible beauty all around us and that we can each of us create our own unique vision to enjoy.
Getting off the plane with such ‘profound’ thoughts the reverie was interrupted by a bag stuck on the carousel, an impatient trek across the car parks when the bus didn’t turn up exactly when I wanted it and then a flat battery when we eventually reached the car.
45 minutes later we were on our way; courtesy of the friendly, highly competent mechanic who’d seen it all before. Sometimes the North East’s people outshine the whole of its landscape and what’s left of its summer sun.

Time to take responsibility over Syria

Ah September!
Thank goodness we’ve had a decent summer and now we can enjoy the change to early Autumn days. Already there’s a fresh tang in the air with glorious colours starting to show themselves, the hedgerows full of fruit and a couple of months on from midsummer even the nights are starting to cut in.
September has always had a sense of purpose for me. Even the dread ‘back to school’ days of childhood were interspersed with the joys of a new football season and some decades on I’m impatient to get on with turning over a new page. When the relationship of so many of us with the land is so tenuous, when whatever the season we rely so much on the bland sameness of the supermarket I wonder how much the idea of harvest is still embedded within ?
At this time of year I can’t get over the feeling that there’s a job to be done.
35 Autumns ago, out of such a sense of wanting to do things I spurned earlier idealism and joined the Labour Party. Family apart, it’s been the longest ongoing relationship of my life. I began with no illusions; after all I’d grown up in the North East with an early understanding that the old Labour hierarchies were part of the problem rather than the solution. However, I joined out of growing awareness and respect for what Labour Councillors did on a daily basis in Choppington where I lived and because ‘warts ‘n all’ I had begun to consider the Labour Party as a practical force for good in our society and I wanted to make a contribution.
Please don’t get me wrong, what in my opinion is the finest piece of legislation I’ve seen -the Children Act 1989 – was passed under Margaret Thatcher. I don’t think I’ve ever been some sort of Party zealot and the old Commons adage that the people opposite are your ‘opponents’ whereas your ‘enemies’ may be found on the benches around you has some truth. Nevertheless I have no doubt that the Labour Party has delivered great good for people. I have been and remain proud to be part of it.
However, I was saddened by my Party last Thursday.
That old rogue Karl Marx once declared something to the effect that ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce’ and this came to mind as I watched the votes being declared on the 10 o’clock news. 10 years ago last March I was there; voting against my Government on going to war in Iraq, calling for Tony Blair to reflect on the impact of unilateral action on international institutions and delicate balances within the Middle East, telling Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that a ‘special relationship’ with George W Bush was not worth the yarns which Parliament was obviously being spun.
I still don’t believe that it was necessary to go to war with Iraq in 2003. Sanctions were plainly affecting the regime, with credible armed backing UN weapons inspectors were doing the job which we now know would have ended with the conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction left and some protection was being afforded to oppressed minorities. Of course the end of Saddam Hussein and his family would have taken a long, bloody time but it was possible to forsee that the Iraqi people may have been able to free themselves, particularly with international forces ‘holding the ring.’
Ten years on the invasion of Iraq has undermined respect for the office of Prime Minister, the devastating impact of death and appalling injury from Iraq and also the wholly justified action in Afghanistan has removed any appetite for engaging troops in further middle east wars and massive cuts to defence expenditure have in any case reduced our capacity to intervene.
However doing nothing cannot be a proper option for countries which have a moral duty to uphold and enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – established in 1948 as a result of ‘barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.’ The gassing of children is just one vile manifestation of a regime which has slaughtered thousands of its people and made millions homeless and destitute refugees. The utter failure of the international community to pursue such measures as a ‘no fly zone’, provide effective ‘safe havens’ and support brave people fighting for their own ‘Arab Spring’ leaves the Syrians at the mercy of a wicked dictator, Russian arms suppliers, Al Quaeda, Iran’s surrogate Hezbollah and an Israel Defence Force which will always act fiercely to defend its own.
If I’d been there on Thursday night I’d have refused to play party politics, joined David Cameron in his lobby and thus supported the Prime Minister and Barack Obama in challenging the antics of President Putin in manipulating the UN Security Council.
Handwringing won’t help the people of Syria. Before Autumn turns to Winter and adds further to their refugee woes I expect my Party to recover its sense of purpose and do its duty.

Hilton Dawson