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

An integrated Energy policy

There’s a paradise for small boys just off Longhirst Road, on the outskirts of Ashington.
Three of us; my brother in law , his friend and I had the privilege of visiting UK Coal’s Potland Burn opencast site a couple of weeks ago. The sheer thrill of seeing enormous machinery tearing into a huge seam of coal, then transporting what amounts to a weekly 9 thousand tons to the onsite rail head across a vast, grey landscape will remain with us all for a long time.
We were guests of site manager Peter Millar who very kindly gave up a couple of hours of his Saturday morning to demonstrate how what was once the ‘biggest mining village in the world’ is still making a contribution to meeting UK energy needs. Potland Burn is Ashington’s last gasp of coal mining and it seems fitting that part of the site encompasses some former workings of the Ashington Coal Company. In 2013 they are recovering coal which would have held up the roof for our 1850’s forbears then working 100 feet below. It is fascinating to see the ‘lid’ lifted and the galleries where 19thC miners walked and worked. Poignant also to reflect on Peter’s collection of old mining implements and bottles left behind in the dark by people who surely never imagined what vast enterprise would again expose them to sunlight and rain.
Opencast industry has been criticised for its huge impact on the environment. However, Peter’s explanation of how the layers of overburden are carefully retained plus our visit to parts already being landscaped provided excellent insight into the development of what will soon be a new, public open space for Ashington. It was awesome to contemplate the huge power able to move vast quantities of material; re-configuring a landscape set in place by the last ice age more than 12000 years ago. As ‘Northumberlandia’ demonstrates here is the possibility of Art on a grand scale.
It’s also vital industry; the Potland Burn surface mine exploits one of the few remaining coal resources in Northumberland; in the process sweeping up the remnants that could not have been recovered by Victorian mining technology. While this particular site will be gone by 2016 its Middle Main Seam continues out under the North Sea beyond Amble providing what could be a 100 year resource.
Examining large, brittle chunks of shiny black coal the other Saturday this aspect of energy policy seemed to be the one that dares not speak its name.
Of course we have to address climate change, reduce our use of fossil fuels, tap the extraordinary natural resources of sun, wind and waves, recycle and use ever more sustainable technology. Certainly there is a place for nuclear power; particularly on sites where it has already been developed and where waste can be safely stored. Admittedly it would be extremely expensive to develop a new, deep, undersea coal mine. However, clean coal technology offers excellent prospects for the future while millions of tons of foreign coal and vast quantities of foreign gas are currently being imported.Most recently the short term unsustainability of ‘fracking’ is now touted as a magic solution to our immediate economic and energy problems.
Although some clown from the House of Lords presents an inviting target the real problem is that our vital energy policy is dominated by short termism, ideology and the bitter legacy of old industrial battles. If we are to keep the lights on we should require anyone with government aspirations to demonstrate a coherent, sustained and integrated approach to energy which takes account of all our potential resources in order to meet very long term needs. What lies hidden off the Northumberland coast must at some point have its part to play.
Whatever we think about what’s left of its coal the biggest hidden treasure of Northumberland and the North East is its people.
On Wednesday this week a small band of us will be traversing Newbiggin by the Sea from 10am to 6pm on a ‘Tale Trail’. We’ll stop off at Café Indulgence and the White House Café, restaurant Due Fratelli, the Coble Inn, the Bank House Club, the Library, Lifeboat station, Maritime Centre and St Bartholomew’s Church for readings about Newbiggin or by some of the extraordinary people who have lived there over the years.
Some of these will be tall tales. Did Engelbert Humperdinck really work as a railway porter at Newbiggin station ? Some will be about local characters ‘Bella Flat Hat’, ‘Quay Waal Jimmy’ and ‘Billy the Whaler’.
There will be work by published writers; the odd (quite) famous literary figure has made their home in the town and there are accounts of Newbiggin from a variety of sources dating back hundreds of years. However, the real stuff of the day will be the contributions of local people – from family histories, memories, reminiscence and the creative efforts of individuals and the Newbiggin Writers Group.
Amongst all this rich treasure we’ll hopefully have some contributions from children too; another moment for small boys – and girls.
Join us at any point if you can.

Newbiggin by the Sea Tale Trail August 21st 2013

Newbiggin by the Sea Tale Trail
August 21st 2013
Newbiggin by the Sea is a town full of tales – the stories of almost 50,000 people who have lived and worked here over the generations and centuries.
Written by or about people from Newbiggin some of these are great tales of heroism and achievement, others are more down to earth. Many are tall tales or humorous stories. A few have been published, more have been handed down within families or the community. Many have never, ever been heard. There are tales about things which happened years ago and there are those which were written yesterday. A couple are quite famous. The majority however will be completely unknown.
The whole point of all of this is that everyone has a story, everyone has their own tale to tell and the Tale Trail is an opportunity to tell it and to listen to others as we wend our way through the town during the course of one day in August. Join in, drop by the wayside or stay with us all day.
Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a tale to tell
Participation is free with a collection for the RNLI and encouragement to spend your money with excellent local traders as we wander through town.
Newbiggin by the Sea
Tale Trail
Wednesday August 21st

10.00 Café Indulgence – ‘What the Papers say’ – Newbiggin in the news
11.00 Newbiggin Library – children’s writing – Newbiggin’s future.
12.00 Bank House Club – ‘Jack Charlton, Engelbert Humperdinck and
Newbiggin’s – sporting and other heroes.
1.00 White House Café – John Braine ‘Room at the Top’ and David Mercer ‘A
way of living’ – Newbiggin’s ‘famous’ literary figures.
1.45 The Coble and Quay Wall – Newbiggin characters down the years
2.30 Due Fratelli – Coming to Newbiggin – the experience of arriving.
3.15 Lifeboat House – 1851 and other Disasters
4.30 Newbiggin Maritime Centre – family tales
5.30 St Bartholomews Church – reflective writing.
Finally, the Nickname competition.
Newbiggin’s tales are full of nicknames – but just who were ‘Bella Flat Hat’ or ‘Quay Waal Jimmy’ or even the legendary ‘Billy the Whaler’.
Give us a nickname, tell us who they really were, contact Northumbria People and the first 3 out of the hat on August 21st can have their family tales told on another day at your own family ceremony or celebration – for free. www.northumbriapeople.co.uk

Everybody’s Business

It’s on again tonight, 9pm, ITV, straight after Coronation Street.
If like me you don’t watch much telly beyond the News and Match of the Day you won’t know what I’m talking about. However, if you take a broader approach to viewing you may well have seen it – ‘Long Lost Family’ an ‘award winning’ programme now well into its 3rd series.
I saw it by chance last Monday when, apparently for the first time, it devoted the whole of almost an hour to one family story. To the heart –rending tale of loss and ultimately joyful re-uniting of a local woman ‘Margaret’, the brother whom she’d never known existed and her two mothers – the one who brought her up and the one who had given birth to her, relinquished her after an hour and thereafter gone missing from her children’s lives for 50 years.
Nothing that I’m going to say should in any way detract from the utter joy that those good people must be feeling, the truly excellent outcome of helping them repair a gaping hole in their lives or indeed the perfect right of adults to take part in a TV programme if they wish.
Moreover, ‘Long lost family’ is very well-produced, skilfully presented and it certainly knows how to tell a gripping tale.
On the other hand I thought it was highly unethical; crossing what admittedly has become a blurred line, staring deep into people’s most fundamental emotions for the sake of a successful programme..
The point at which one of the presenters Davina McCall gave Margaret the bad news that her mother had not been found and then paused for one exquisite moment before she told her that they had located her brother was I thought quite despicable in its public toying with someone’s deepest feelings.
We are used to game shows and reality TV offering ‘life-changing’ amounts of money or opportunities. Cameras now follow people into the most personal moments on the labour ward or at the very end of life. However, I thought this quite different. Here we saw presenters playing at being social workers with the addition of cameras but without the skill, professionalism or accountability. Human beings who have been made vulnerable through life’s circumstances were not only recorded but actively used for a TV programme. At a tumultuous time in their lives they were treated as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.
Of course it is possible to do the right deed for the wrong reason. Apparently on this occasion everything turned out well. However I wonder how well the programme manages the circumstances where members of ‘long lost families’ do not want to be found, where carefully constructed plans to keep people safe might be compromised by naivety or the camera’s demands. I wonder at the long term effects of some of these interventions when the presenters and cameras have moved on.
If ‘Long Lost Family’ is supposed to be a documentary series where is the reference to the work of real life agencies supporting people after adoption?
Where does it make the links between the very real reality that it presents and current Government policy ?
Although there are elements of ‘Long lost families’ which I find deeply concerning I am however pleased that such issues are being very publicly raised. Despite my qualms last week’s episode touched on issues that need to be wider viewed.
The people who I would particularly like to see Margaret and Adrian’s story would be David Cameron and Michael Gove (himself adopted) alongside their ‘adoption Tsar’ Martin Narey. Out of what are undoubtedly good intentions the latter gentleman is currently promoting the idea that siblings should be separated and links with birth parents broken in order to ‘simplify’ the process and boost the numbers of children being adopted.
Of course adoption can be an important resource and provide wonderful outcomes for some people who have experienced a very poor start in life. However, it is not a panacea and when it is used it must be done very well. Margaret and Adrian have done us all a huge service in allowing us to see what can be the decades of difficulties which can result from breaking the bonds between parents and children and siblings
Perhaps Margaret and Adrian’s story might help to persuade Mr Narey that his simplistic approach to a complex issue will produce heartbreak for needy children and families of another generation. As well as a successor to Long lost Family in whatever medium has replaced television in 50 years time.
Unfortunately Governments of all colours are not good at using evidence or resources which are so ready to hand.
22 years ago a Conservative Government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since then successive Governments have comprehensively failed to ensure that one of the world’s most universally accepted documents on human rights is known, understood or used. This most powerful of documents lies on thousands of dusty shelves while a child of four is horribly neglected, abused and eventually murdered while a variety of public agencies look on.
The shocking murder of Daniel Pelka should not blind us to the great success of child protection systems in keeping children safe.
However I simply do not believe that we will begin to make the further required progress until we stop commonly treating children as the possessions of their parents. UK law sets out that parents have responsibilities, under the UN Convention signed by our Government it is children who have rights.
Oh for the skills of those programme makers to make this point to the world.

Hawaay Mandela

We won’t stand this good weather for too long.

A fine day lifts the soul. A few together, especially at the weekend gets everybody smiling. On the very rare occasions when it goes on there’s a glimpse of a different lifestyle – staying out on warm evenings, seeing more of neighbours, meals outdoors.

Then it gets too much. The ‘heatwave’ sounds ominous, uncomfortable. The ‘haar’ mist coming in with the tide, at least for us on the coast, actually a blessed relief.

At the risk of sounding like Corporal Jones from ‘Dad’s Army’ my biggest experience of unrelenting, baking heat was in Sudan.

40 degrees plus that’s 104 fahrenheit and dry, like an oven. We were on a Parliamentary visit, accompanied by the British Ambassador, but hundreds of miles of desert south of his air conditioned embassy in Khartoum.

This was April in Western Upper Nile.

We were staying in a village called Keeuw, guests of the enormously dedicated staff of Tearfund and Save the Children. Our purpose ? To visit their project supporting people living in the disputed oil rich areas, towards the south of a country the size of Western Europe, where millions had died from conflict and starvation in a largely unreported war lasting decades.

That day we had witnessed women, children and old men bearing away sacks of rice and grain dumped out of the sky on pallets from a low flying transport plane. All was done in great haste; the flight nipping in and back to Kenya, avoiding the helicopter gunships of the Sudan government.

Later in the evening, dark but still very hot, with a million stars shining, the rebel soldiers arrived.

The local SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) Commander had heard of the Parliamentarians visit and wanted to discuss the peace process.

Speaking excellent English, educated in a former colony with great respect for British institutions he was immaculately clad in military fatigues, boots and beret. Most of his men were similarly attired but some had bare feet. All were heavily armed – pistols, machine guns with extra magazines taped to their sides. One chap in flip flops was swathed in a wicked looking bandolier of heavy duty ammunition.

They wanted to talk, to know of what we were doing to assist the long running peace process, however they were themselves fatalistic. The man who only ever identified himself by his rank told us ‘my father was an SPLA Commander until he was killed, I will be an SPLA Commander until I am killed or we achieve our goals.’

When I asked him what those were he simply replied ‘to vote’. ‘To vote in a referendum and then no matter what the result- to go home.’

That was 11 years ago. Sudan has had its referendum and as a result the world’s newest country, South Sudan came into being in 2011. There is still fighting in the border area but I hope our honourable friend has been able to go home.

A long way further south in Africa the greatest person of our time has just turned 95 years old.

A lawyer, rather than a soldier, Nelson Mandela, ‘Madiba’ to give him his respectful clan name also put his life on the line for democracy in his speech from the dock at his trial for treason in April 1964

‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Madiba spent 27 years in prison rather than being sentenced to death – surviving his own privations and family tragedies with great fortitude.

Of course, most astoundingly of all he then exemplified wisdom, reconciliation and forgiveness as the first President of a democratic South Africa. Preventing the monumental bloodbath that apartheid would have otherwise provided.

The world knows that Madiba has been lying in hospital for weeks, a billion of us fearing that he would soon be gone.

However, the latest news is good. He is plainly hanging on. Though still critically ill he is ‘getting better’.

It might be that the old man has the capacity to astound us yet. Let’s hope he puts hospital as far behind him as Robben Island and makes it to 100.

Another 5 years will also make a huge difference to Africa.

One country after another, Africa is beginning to use its vast resources to put war, famine and disaster behind it; slowly, painfully, with many setbacks, emerging into development and democracy. Contributing to the world rather than simply being robbed and receiving aid – and weapons -in return.

We see elements of this close to home with the African players who now grace our local football teams and the exemplary involvement of Sunderland Football Club in ‘Invest in Africa.’

Whey man it almost makes you long for cold, grey, wet November, shivering at the match, peering out at the players through the rain.

Hawaay Mandela !