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.