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.