Monthly Archives: July 2014

Looking East

These are the best days of Summer; long and warm with all the promise of holidays, clusters of people, families staying late on the beach.
I love a beach in all weathers. Ever wary of the sea I’m an inveterate beach-comber cluttering house, car, pockets with odd bits of smooth stone and boody – sea-washed pottery and glass. That’s one way to experience lots of wind and rain as well as cold, hard, bright days.
However my best treasure came from the sea at the slow end of a hot afternoon. I remember it well even though more than 50 years ago. The family, school teachers and their bairns had been on the beach all day; I recall feeling slightly burnt and salty but clean, with that warmth you get when you’ve dried yourself off from the sea.
Leaving everyone else to pick up all our gear I’d wandered back to the sea and then I saw it, a green flash of light about 50 yards out, heading steadily in, towards me. When it came nearer, clothes and all I just plodged back in, then deeper, wanting to protect it, determined to claim it for myself.
I have it here now, it’s an old green glass fishing float, crudely plugged, marked with a letter ‘M’.
It isn’t actually worth anything at all. You see loads of replicas amongst lots of other tourist tat, even the old ones found in junk shops sell for a couple of pounds. However it is beautiful, dark green with impurities that catch the light and I have treasured it all these years, wondering where it really came from and trying to persuade generations of children that it’s some sort of crystal ball.
I suppose that it bobbed up from an old wreck or long-discarded nets no further than Newbiggin bay, but it certainly fed my childhood imagination, and remains part of my fascination with what lies over that easterly horizon and the idea of a North Sea community.
I’m no sailor so the great travel book that I just know is inside me will be about my long journey around the shores of the North Sea.’ North Sea Littoral’ will take in the part of England I’ve already done – Spurn Head and that ship burial at Sutton Hoo, then to the huge beaches of Belgium and before Denmark the shifting sands of Holland and Germany.
That’s something for the future, perhaps.
However I was thinking about Germany last week, enjoying the celebrations of their ‘golden generation’ winning the World Cup, thankfully, without the aid of penalties.
Long ago, with the North Sea still frozen into a receding Ice Age our ancestors could walk there; some of them probably came from what is now Schleswig- Holstein the northernmost of the 16 regions of Germany. Further research will have to wait for my travel book but I’m interested in the parallels between their region and us.
Northerly, bordering on the North Sea and another country, similarly sized population; Kiel their major city is comparable to Newcastle with shipbuilding and naval traditions. However, they are prosperous even by German standards while we are poor by English – and their region, playing its part in federal Germany has its own Parliament and Government.
There are those who will doubt the role of politics in developing an effective economy but I would argue that without one elected, accountable body with real power to invest, to tax (or not), to plan and to focus its efforts on our region alone we are not going to get where we all want to be. We are not going to do as well as our neighbours, 400 miles across the North Sea, closer than places in England.
A few days ago a friend and colleague was telling me of his journey from redundancy when the coal mine closed to successful small business via university and reflecting that he had met more clever people ‘doon the pit’ than in the halls of academe. The tragedy for all of us is that 30 years on many of those talented North East people have never made it out of unemployment.
We spoke with some business people about how important it is to ‘enable’ the good ideas emanating both from world class research and communities. Of how enterprise culture should start early, provide real practical help to fledgling companies with finance, tax breaks and wise advice readily available now and in the long term. The vital necessity of calculated risk- taking to create jobs and opportunities. Regional focus and regional solutions.
I thought of the German football team and a set of attitudes around team work, efficiency, consensus and long term planning which have ensured that wonderful talents have been nurtured rather than squandered.
I spent 11 years working at all levels in London and have enjoyed no more than a few hours in the company of friends from northern Germany. Nevertheless, if we really had a crystal ball I wonder if it would advise us to look south or east if we are to build our region anew ?

Hawaay Hyem

Wor Billy’s coming hyem next weekend. After years in Liverpool my brother will still want to trek further north to the best beach in England. It’s 7 miles of vast space and sand dunes, castles, wrecks, with a little island cut off by the tide.

Whether ‘Yem’ or ‘hyem’ it’s a good word. Derived, I’m told from Old English, exactly the same in Danish or Norwegian, similar to Swedish, Dutch and German. Our common feeling for ‘home’ demonstrated by shared language and history across the North Sea, revealing common humanity.How important it is to be rooted somewhere.

Laughably for someone who has barely set foot outside of England I consider myself to be a world citizen; my freedom to travel to the ends of the earth unaffected by the fact that I very rarely use it. However when I have been briefly furthest away, to Israel, Japan, Angola, California, when we were only 150 miles distant for quarter of a century in Lancaster, I always felt the pull of home. Missing family of course but also lacking that uncanny sense of place, wondering why ‘here’ semed more real. Revelled, for example, in the writing of James Joyce, partly because in decades of exile in Trieste, Zurich, Paris, ranging across life and language he only ever wrote about a few places, on a few days, in Dublin.

Talking to a woman last week about employment in the North East I was struck by her passionate motivation to ‘bring my lads home’. Or at least, with them exiled to good jobs in London and Birmingham, because there had been ‘nothing for them here’, to try to ensure that other mothers’ children didn’t face the same lack of choice.

This is the region whose primary export is its children – to the armed forces, to universities, to jobs, to the world. Of course there’s a good side to all that; we should give young people the very best start in life, set them free, ambitiously, excitingly, to serve, to pursue opportunities, to make their own way across the whole world .However they should have the real choice to stay here and prosper. As well as the opportunity to return and remain when they are in their economic prime. Indeed, we should be better able to attract other people’s children from way beyond the North East to come here for world class universities and jobs because there’s something for them here too.

Unfortunately the brutal facts are that we are the smallest, slowest growing region in England with the oldest population, the highest rates of unemployment, the fewest people in work, the lowest wages and the most people living in poverty and ill health – and sometimes,some of the poorest educational standards in the country.

These matters are well known and they are being addressed – by Local Government, Business , Education , Members of Parliament. Reported almost daily, considerable energy and skill is being well deployed to chase the next opportunity, to pursue new investments, to promote ourselves at first sight of every new government scheme. All this is commendable and worthy of acknowledgement and support.

However we remain the last and the least of England, disregarded for example by that major project which ends the railway of the future at Leeds. When we are promised some special emphasis we find we are just another part of some national initiative, competing with every other region which is better connected, closer to London and already has more jobs than us. All those worthy efforts; working very hard – to keep us coming last.
With forever being the place whose children have to leave.

We really shouldn’t allow this to go on.Take one step outside Northumberland and we find somewhere with exactly the same need for opportunity and experience of exile. Yet Scotland successfully makes its own decisions, last week launched the biggest ship ever commissioned by the Royal Navy and enjoys an annual level of Government funding which if applied to our region would provide us with more than £1billion extra every year.In all the debate about Scotland’s independence there is not one voice calling for less devolution, In fact, whatever their views, everybody is responding to Scotland sticking up for itself by falling over themselves to give them more. We should demand much more.

There’s no need for special favours, just fairness. Consider the 12 million people from the UK who have no stronger identity, face many of the same problems yet have far more resources and the far greater devolved power we need to benefit 2.6 million people here. Thankfully, just as in Wales and Scotland the cause of North East devolution is picking itself up, not content with London’s leavings.

One thing we might do is mimic Scotland’s ‘homecoming’ for its exiled population. We should say ‘hawaay hyem’ to a million North East people living all over the world. With great enterprise we could establish a major, identifying cultural event to help re-engage people with home, to remind ourselves that the North East requires the best of everything.Way beyond Wor Billy’s favourite beach.