Monthly Archives: August 2014

People who matter

About 30 of us spent Saturday afternoon thinking about an old photograph.
It dates from 1901 and shows Robert Embleton Heslop, my great grandmother’s cousin, standing in front of the old Queens Head Inn, Newbiggin by the Sea.He’s recently taken over as landlord and he’s holding up his one year old son for the camera.
Robert’s pride is palpable; you can almost hear him saying ‘my bairn, my pub.’
At the age of 35 Robert had a great deal of work ahead of him. 20 years after this photograph was taken he was still in charge of a rebuilt Queens Head and the child in his arms had made him a grandfather. With the coming of the Pit the population of what was once a tiny fishing village had multiplied 3 times.
The baby in Robert’s arms actually represented the 5th successive generation of his family to live at the Queens Head. Robert knew that he was succeeding 3 women – great grandmother, grandmother and aunt who had been the licensees before him. In all, Ann Embleton, Jinny Cowell and Sarah Davison ran the Queens Head for seven decades of the 19th Century – 1828 to 1899.
What extraordinary women they must have been.
All widowed, for many years , all mothers who lost some children in infancy, all in business at a time when women were so repressed, with opportunities so limited. They all had to manage a public house whose customers would overwhelmingly be men; fishermen, sailors, miners . Hard men from a hard men’s world.
At a time when it was reported that Newbiggin publicans were remarkably short-lived, remaining in business no more than 7 years ,they must have been formidable.
There was opposition; the temperance movement deplored the ‘ inveigling’ of young people with ‘fish suppers and dancing’. In 1874 the Medical Officer of Health joined in the condemnation; complaining that living conditions of fishing families were so cramped the wife would usher her husband off to the pub so that she could tidy up the house, thus ensuring that men acquired the habit, the taste for alcohol. Later, Dr. Reid acknowledged that these widows seemed better able to keep orderly houses than men.
Every family must have similar tales; the difference in Newbiggin is that we are building a community family history, resurrecting the interlinked family tales of thousands of people, resonating with those alive today, wherever we are in the world.
It’s important that we do so. Not only because everyone is surely to be valued in themselves but because the more we learn about people, the more we recognise our own identity and, learn to make sense of our own world.
Some think that genealogy is an interesting pastime for people with plenty of time on their hands. I think it’s critical to understanding who we are. It demonstrates respect for people; recovering information about past lives ensures that a vast treasure house of experience can be reflected upon, utilised rather than being squandered. It’s a tool with which to build humanity.
We now know that three women ran the Queens Head, spending their whole lives around a few streets in an obscure fishing village at a time when Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire spanning the globe. Yet why should accident of birth or greater opportunity mean that any human being is valued more ?
Sometimes I reflect that we haven’t really moved on. While it is possible for some individuals to rise from very humble beginnings I think we constantly re-invent an ‘aristocracy’ of money, unelected officials, so-called celebrity driven by the pernicious influence of ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ you know. Millions are simply ignored.
Whether they are alive or long dead, I believe this to be stupid as well as immoral. In a long career of meeting fancy people in fancy places my experience is of learning most about life from other kids in the back lane, children in care, powerless people who I was elected to represent, dispossessed people seeking refuge, under-valued people from undervalued communities.
We all, when it comes down to it, inhabit small places for what turns out to be a short time. However, there’s really no question of any of us living small lives. In fact it’s just sensible for us to learn to listen not just with our ears but with our whole being and to forever put the principles of equality and democracy into action.
One month today Scotland has the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s a matter for the Scots people; what gladdens my heart is the vigorous democratic debate taking place, involving people as never before.
What utterly saddens it is the bunch of cronies from the ‘Core Cities’ group of local authorities who have the undemocratic effrontery to advocate that a Councillor elected by a few hundred people to represent one ward can thereafter be entitled to lead a million people deploying vast resources in a ‘City Region’.
100 years and more since they last walked on the earth my great grandmothers tell me that people require better than that.

Missing in Gaza

We were looking after some of our bairns last week. Then, with the grandchildren peacefully, quietly in bed we collapsed in front of the TV; horrified to see other peoples’ bairns being killed in their hundreds, only a few hours away.
Later we heard the calm, rational arguments of intelligent, civilised men from the most established democracy in the Middle East. They offer reasoned justification – explaining their actions in terms of the self-defence to which they are surely entitled; assuring us that they target their missiles at terrorists and provide warnings to people whose elected Government launches rockets from their neighbourhood and stores weapons in their hospital. We even have the odd apology – for the deaths of four boys playing on a beach. Then they go on with the relentless bombardment of a place about as big as Tyneside but packed with three times as many people.
Sue and I lived in Israel for a few months in 1976. It was our first time outside Europe and the opportunity to work on a kibbutz, experience a communal, sharing way of life and visit places familiar from the Bible was one of the adventures of our lives.
It wasn’t great. Our biggest disappointment was that understandably, the mainly young, largely privileged, very temporary volunteers were kept at arms-length by those whose whole life this was. Reservists in the armed forces when they weren’t on the kibbutz, the Israelis needed our work on the farm and in the factory. However the newly qualified teacher so keen to work with children never got the chance and when your own politics is so febrile who cares about the budding politician straight from university? They were tough people, committed to their collective survival, worthy of our respect. Perhaps none of us had time to get beyond the easy familiarity of work on those sunny early mornings when the ‘guys got on the wagon’ and we went out to ‘cut more bananas than anyone else in the whole state of Israel.’
Assigned to a beautiful place in the Jordan Valley, just south of the Sea of Galilee we were acutely aware of how threatened people were; the armed guard at night, the minefield beyond the banana groves and the air raid shelters which we cleaned out and re-stocked. Weapons were everyday tools; the middle-aged woman shopping in Tiberias with a bag over one shoulder and a sub- machine gun on the other. One Saturday, driving in a lorry to a beauty spot near the Golan Heights; the volunteers took the picnic, the drivers the kalashnikovs. Later, on a public bus travelling through the West Bank we were stopped at an army checkpoint somewhere out in the Judean desert; all the Arab men onboard were made to get off, spread-eagled in the dirt, searched while we watched, then came back to their seats and what was plainly a normal journey carried on.
Israel made us want to affirm life; on coming back to England we started our family. Last week, with our grandchildren asleep, resisting the urge to turn off the images of terrified, injured, screaming children; parents clutching them, desperately trying to keep them safe I thought of Yad Vashem.
Israel’s great memorial to six million people murdered in the Holocaust expresses all its tragedy on an epic scale; strangely uplifting, it reserves its most telling, poignant fact for last. My abiding memory of visiting all of 38 years ago is of turning a corner on the way out, thinking it all over, then coming across a final glass case containing one small, scuffed, well- worn child’s shoe with the simple statement that of all those who died, 500,000 were children.
If you had any tears left to weep this would surely be the time to let them go.
Israel cares for its own children and I believe that its people will be concerned for the children of Gaza. I hope they will spurn the cruel obduracy of leaders who are so self- righteous in their disproportionate pursuit of terrorists that they have lost sight of their duties to humanity. I trust we will soon hear the voices of a coming Israeli generation who don’t wish to spend their whole future in conflict with people scarred by the wicked treatment of children and their families in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
It’s an irony of our time that atrocious suffering can be ever more easily inflicted, ever more easily observed, while it’s ever more easy to feel there’s nothing we can do. Nevertheless we must not turn off or turn away.
Whether we are from Ashington or Ashkelon we live in democratic countries which are part of a system of international law and human rights which needs to be used and supported and developed further to deal with international crises.
Democratic politics is the best weapon and it’s in all our hands. We should invest in our own democracy, take time to meet with our politicians during their recess and take our bairns along. Call for the whole world to do better – and more.