Monday, 5 June 2017

Carlisle: the other end of the border with some of the same problems

No, this is not a photo of Primark, even though I'm wearing one of their tee-shirts as I write, the point of interest in this picture is the two street names. Scotch Street and English Street are two of the busiest streets in Carlisle, the town on the English side of the western end of the English-Scottish border, and thus the opposite number of Berwick-upon-Tweed at the eastern end. These street names make it very clear that for centuries Carlisle was a centre for the administration of border law and a meeting place - often a violent meeting place - for rival families from England and Scotland.

After a period of travelling during which I spent far too much money I am now attempting to compensate for my extravagance by living as what is euphemistically known as a 'property guardian'. It's incredibly cheap but if you want the best deal you can't afford to be too fussy about where you live. So I'm now over on the west coast and having to travel frequently between my new home and the storage unit in Berwick I am desperately trying to empty out, which involves a lot of passing through Carlisle.

It is an attractive town with a lot of picturesque old buildings, many built from a lovely red coloured stone. At this time of year it is full of the kind of serious minded retired people whose idea of a fun holiday is a week of hard walking in the hills, possibly with evenings spent enjoying a fine restaurant or a glass of real ale. This border town is larger than Berwick, with a cathedral and some decent shops, something conspicuously lacking in Berwick. It does though have the same uneasy sense of a town dominated by fairly comfortably off retired people, both permanent residents and visitors, with a resentful working age population that is predominantly poor.

In Berwick, there is a general assumption that only the retired people have any money and so it will not be the working age folk contributing to any charitable event you're trying to get going, and this is only an extreme example of a spreading social trend. Yet politicians still talk as if pensioners were poor. Of course some of them are, but some of them have pensions that are double the average wage in small towns dependent on tourism, and yet they still get free bus travel, television licences and a chunk of their gas bill. Saying so during the current general election campaign has been absolutely taboo. I am not a supporter of the Conservative party but I think that one of the things Theresa May has got right is to attempt to shift the payment arrangements for care in old age away from the assumption that it is fine for ordinary taxpayers to subsidise other people's property inheritance. Needless to say she was forced to retreat on this by the massed ranks of pensioner power.

Oh dear, I seem to have strayed off the subject of the border, don't I? But wait, there is a link! Because the future of the border depends on the electoral performance of the SNP, and that depends to a large extent on how much the Westminster government pisses off the Scots, and that will all depend on the results on June 8th. It is noticeable that the SNP manifesto pushes the question of independence firmly onto the back burner - because all the polls are still showing a clear majority against it - and admits in a roundabout sort of way that they can't really use their newly acquired power to raise income tax as it might 'lead to a loss of revenue', i.e. a lot of wealthy Scots would move to England. We can probably expect to see even more comfortably off retired folk in the English border towns.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Wonderful Tribute to Salmon Fishing on the Tweed

Hello again. It's been a while since I wrote on this blog, because I've spent the last eighteen months being nomadic. But my heart will always be in the Borders (as indeed are most of my belongings, in a storage unit). I was back in Berwick last week to catch the closing days of a blockbuster exhibition at the Watchtower gallery, run by my friend Kate Stephenson. This place has been an important part of my life ever since it opened a few years ago, and I try to attend every show there. Some shows are visited only by other people who dutifully go to everything artistic in the area. But the one that's just closed was, according to Kate, packed out every day. Indeed I heard people talking in the street about how good it was before I even got there.






Because this was a show about the history of net fishing for salmon on the Tweed, a subject very close to the hearts of many people locally. Unlike the fancy angling indulged in by toffs further upriver, net fishing from a small rowing boat is a very ancient, almost primitive, way of catching fish that tends to move people to raptures about the disciples doing just the same thing on the Sea of Galilee. There is something really primal about the elemental struggle of man versus fish, the respect for the fish that comes from knowing their ways intimately, balanced against the need to kill them in order to eat.









All of the original photos taken by Jim Walker for his books on the industry, By Net and Coble and A Wake for the Salmon, were on display, and I got another chance to talk to the man himself. He takes the view that the net fishers were deliberately put out of business by the upriver angling interests, who charge a great deal of money for the privilege of rod fishing for salmon and don't want the common netters competing for the fish. Certainly, the end of the Berwick Salmon company came in suspicious looking circumstances; it was bought out by an outfit calling itself the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, which then shut the whole thing down, leaving the crews unemployed, without any compensation. If anybody feels libelled, take it up with Jim, not me.







One story that was completely new to me was that of the man whose obituary is on this poster: Augustyn Karolewski, Polish soldier and Scottish fisherman. After escaping from Nazi occupied Poland as a teenager and fighting with the Polish forces based in the UK, he settled in the Scottish Borders, married a local lass, and spent the rest of his life fishing on the Tweed, enjoying, according to this obituary, the respect and affection of all. This is a lovely and timely reminder of how much we Brits owe to the Poles who did so much to help defeat Nazism, and how badly we betrayed them in 1945. I suspect that after Brexit modern Poles will survive without Britain a lot better than we'll survive without them.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Thoughts on Recent Travels in Scotland

This is a pretty cute map of Scotland (Alba) with Gaelic place names, produced by some school children in Obar Dheathain, or Aberdeen as it is more commonly known, and on display in the train station there. I recently ventured up to Aberdeen, the furthest north I have ever been. It's at 57 degrees of latitude north and at this time of year, blimey, does it get dark early. It was here that it really hit me for the first time that Scotland is much closer to Scandinavia both geographically and culturally than England is. Of course the Scottish independence lobby are working on cultivating these links for all they're worth. Though First Minister Sturgeon has recently been much mocked for attending a conference of nations bordering the Arctic Circle, which Scotland conspicuously does not. I mean, even in the middle of winter the sun does rise for a few hours in the north of Scotland.

The main street of Aberdeen is called Union Street and there is also a Union Bridge and a Union Square, the last now taken over by a large and glitzy shopping mall in which to while away some of the hours of darkness. It's clear that Unionism was much in vogue at the time the Granite City was built. So it is appropriate that it was here I first encountered the campaigning end of the anti-independence lobby.

There was Scotland in Union, neutral between political parties but 'positive about Scotland in the UK', and opposite them in the central square, the Conservative party, explicitly demanding 'no second referendum' on independence and filled with spluttering dislike of and anger towards 'that Sturgeon woman'. The non-aligned faction seemed unhappy about the Conservatives getting in their space, probably conscious that association with that party has done enormous damage to the Unionist cause.

One of their leaflets is shown here. The view that the SNP government is concentrating too much on demanding ever more independent powers rather than on making good use of the ones they've already got seems to be widespread, and so does the feeling that the indyref was a horribly divisive experience that few people are anxious to repeat. We in England have had a taste of that with the Brexit referendum, which also divided families and friends. Now imagine having had to go through both those bitterly divisive campaigns in less than two years. And now imagine that your government wants to do the whole thing again a.s.a.p.

The timetable is reportedly now looking very tight indeed for the Scottish government to be able to transition seamlessly from EU membership as part of the UK to EU membership as an independent nation. Now that the UK PM Theresa May has announced she will trigger Article 50 early in 2017, Scotland would need to hold a new referendum on independence that returned a Yes majority not much later than that. Otherwise it will have to leave the EU along with the rest of the UK and then start all over again after independence at some unspecified time in the future.

The problem for Nicola Sturgeon is that the opinion polls are still showing a clear majority against independence. Though, with opinion polls now thoroughly discredited after their lamentable failure to predict the result of either the Brexit referendum or the US presidential election, that may not be something to rely on too much.

I travelled from Aberdeen to Glasgow by coach, braving a driver who threw my luggage around and didn't seem to like my English accent much. Glasgow is an extraordinary city - once the Second City of the Empire, as they are fond of reminding you despite the Empire being politically unfashionable nowadays - and the fact that its inhabitants voted majority Yes in the indyref seems to me to have been the result of their tremendous self-confidence and justified pride in themselves, rather than any anti-English feelings. At least nobody here seems to be as upset by an English accent as the Aberdonian bus driver. I remarked to the young receptionist in the hotel that I thought Glasgow was a great city, and he replied, 'Yes, it's the best city,' in a tone of great finality.

This statue outside Glasgow Concert Hall depicts Donald Dewar, 'Scotland's First Ever First Minister', as the inscription says. He represented the Labour party, and had been active in Labour politics UK wide before the new Scottish Parliament was created and he got the gig of being its First Minister. His death after only eighteen months in office is widely regarded as a tragedy both personally and for Scottish politics. It seems to have been almost forgotten in some quarters that the Scots did not rush out and vote by a landslide for a nationalist government as soon as they had the devolved opportunity, they elected a coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats. That seems rather quaint now, so comprehensively have both parties screwed up in the sixteen years since Mr Dewar's death.

A footnote to justify including an old photo of Glasgow Central Mosque that I like. Some of the polling in the run-up to the indyref found that Scots of immigrant heritage had higher rates of support for independence than the population as a whole. Commentators speculated that this might be due to their fears about the rise of the populist right and anti-immigrant feeling in England. Interestingly, Police Scotland have reported that in Scotland they did not observe the large increase in assaults on people of Central and Eastern European origin that was recorded in England immediately after the EU referendum. Either Scots are just more tolerant, or the populist sentiments that are being channelled by the far right in England are flowing into the independence movement in Scotland and being expressed through a non-ethnic form of nationalism. The whole situation is extremely complicated, and now that we have a President Trump to contend with as well, God only knows what may happen.








Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Another Walled City

To anyone who knows Berwick upon Tweed this will look very like the walls for which Berwick is famous, but these fortifications are not on the border between England and Scotland but in a city that's now close to the border between UK-administered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everything about the place is so controversial that even choosing what to call it has political overtones. Its original name was Derry, in 1613 it became Londonderry, it is now referred to officially as Derry Hyphen Londonderry, and it's currently the fashion to call it LegenDerry, which I like.

The walls of Derry are similar to those of Berwick but more complete and with more imposing gateways through them. They are of course a big draw for visitors - so much so that an English accent surprises the locals less than it does in Belfast - and you are expected to stroll around the complete circuit and admire both the views and the structure of the walls themselves. I've done my best, but I can't see this defensive structure as anything other than oppressive.

This photo is taken through one of the crenellations in the wall, looking down on the Bogside area. The tourist info panel says that the nearby Royal Bastion was built to give a clear field of fire over the Bogside, back when it was the field of approach of an enemy army rather than a housing estate, but if I were living there now I would always have the feeling that the forces of the state could start firing down on me at any time.

Within the walls of Derry there are some of the most beautiful Georgian streets I've ever seen, and that's presumably where the rich merchants originally lived. Just outside the walls is where the poor people lived, and seemingly still do. I have never seen any other city where the historical distribution of power and wealth is expressed spatially in such a stark way. I don't find it conducive to a carefree holiday stroll.

This is one of the entrances / exits to the wall. It doesn't have actual gates any more, but during the Northern Ireland Troubles the British army blocked off some of these arches and set up checkpoints there. I've seen a photo, and I really think that it would cure anybody of finding walled cities romantic or picturesque. I don't suppose being shut in /out was any more enjoyable in the 17th century than it was in the 20th.

I've trudged round four different museums that between them cover every shade of political and religious opinion on the history of Derry-Londonderry, making conversation with the staff of all of them in the most neutral tone I can muster. The only thing everybody agrees on is that they're all really worried about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. There is much head-shaking and "we'll just have to wait and see."

One of my visits was to the temporary home of the Museum of Free Derry, an archive of the civil rights movement in the impoverished nationalist Bogside and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 local people were shot dead by British troops. Its permanent home is in the process of construction, and you can see in this photo that the European Regional Development fund is contributing some of the funds. Don't get the idea that the EU is doing this because it's pro nationalist and anti British, though. I also visited the Siege Heroes Museum, a loyalist operation attached to the Apprentice Boys Hall that celebrates the heroic defence of the city by its starving Protestant inhabitants against the troops of the Catholic King James II in 1689. The Siege of Derry looms very large indeed in the tradition and imagination of the unionist community. The young man on the desk told me that its smart new building was also funded by the European Union. "We took the money and now we've run," he said ruefully.

On the same day I arrived in Derry-Londonderry, Radio 4 broadcast a programme from it, exploring the fears of a new 'hard' border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. Though, as one contributor said, it shouldn't be called Brexit because it's not just Britain leaving, it's the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland. (Uxit?) There was a suggestion among some contributors that the events following the referendum on EU membership has exposed as a fiction the claim that the UK is a free association of equal partners and shown England imposing its will on the other nations of the UK. (Though to be fair, I think Wales voted majority Leave as well.) That's exactly how Scotland feels, and that's why Berwickers are worried as well.

I wanted to find a cheerful aspect of Derry to end this post on, and the best I could come up with was this golden teapot. It hangs outside a shop in the Strand Road, it's covered in real gold leaf and it's bigger than the golden kettle in Boston! A nice cup of tea, that really does unite us all.



















Sunday, 2 October 2016

You May Experience Connection Problems

Hello again! I drew my blog to a conclusion, as I thought, back in June, when I moved away from Berwick, but I now feel compelled to write again. In an attempt to get a different perspective on the future of the English-Scottish border, I've travelled to Ireland. The extreme cheapness of the flight to Dublin from Newcastle or Edinburgh with Ryanair makes it easy to justify doing this on a sudden impulse.

One of the nice things about being in the Republic of Ireland is escaping from the endless wallowing in the First World War that's going on in Britain, but then the ROI keeps banging on about the centenary of the Easter Rising instead. This is a photo of the General Post Office in the main street of Dublin, now called O'Connell Street, that was the headquarters of the Rising of 1916. Note the flag of the European Union flying alongside the Irish tricolor. The amazing metallic spire, soaring to a giddy height that won't fit in my photo, replaced a statue of Nelson that was blown up by nationalists in the 1960s. I'm sure the spire was an improvement. If anybody would like to demolish some more statues of Victorian worthies back in Britain, they can feel free as far as I'm concerned.

I paid my 10 euros and went round the museum inside the GPO. The main attraction is a noisy film of comedy Englishmen of the 'I say old chap' variety having rings run round them by Irish rebels, but there are also some very good videos of interviews with serious Irish historians, from which I learned a lot. It is clear that the British reaction to the Rising was hopelessly bungled and only succeeded in uniting a nation that was previously divided over the aims and tactics of nationalism. I could see similarities with what is going on in Scotland at the present time. To settle for devolution or to hold out for full independence? Can such a small nation survive on its own? Is independence more important than prosperity? Surely the country's prosperity will actually be greater when Britain is no longer siphoning off the proceeds of its key industries?

The big difference between now and 1916 is of course the existence of the European Union. I snapped the photo on the right in the supermarket over the road from my hotel in North Dublin. It's a large section, because there are a lot of Eastern European immigrants in the Republic of Ireland. (Okay, I know Poles hate being called Eastern Europeans, they insist Poland is in Central Europe, but evidently the Supervalu chain hasn't had that memo.) Most of the crew on my Ryanair flight were Polish. From being always known as a country of emigration, Eire is now also a country of immigration.

I then got the train up to Belfast, and the bus back from Belfast to Dublin. I grew up in the 1970s when television news showed soldiers patrolling border checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is now a completely open border. Nothing happens when you cross it. Absolutely nothing. Cruising down the motorway on the express bus, the only way you can tell you're back in the Republic is that the direction signs start to be in Gaelic as well as English. There isn't even a flag or a 'welcome' sign like you get between England and Scotland. On the train, the only reference in the entire journey to the fact that you are technically travelling between two different states is that the log-in screen for the free wifi says 'you may experience connection problems between Dundalk and Portadown'. And sure enough you do, because the broadband codes are being switched to make sure BBC iPlayer knows when you're in the UK and can watch on-demand telly and when you're outside the UK and can't. My phone showed Roaming in the Republic but switched back to being in the UK north of the border, and the same in reverse on the way south. In Belfast, all calls were included in my monthly bundle, in Dublin, not. I found this weirdly fascinating. In 2016 we don't need anything as crude as soldiers stomping about the border, we can monitor your every move digitally.

This is a sculpture in Thanksgiving Square on the waterfront in Belfast. According to the distinctly waffly description board, it is inspired by a variety of female figures in Celtic mythology and expresses themes of peace, reconciliation, hope and aspiration, while the fact she is standing on a globe refers to our modern global village. If you say so. The last time I was in Belfast was in 2002 and since then the city has been completely transformed. It now has a very attractive and lively city centre, full of exuberant young people, and with the highest density of coffee shops I've ever seen, possibly indeed in Europe. Being there moved me very much. A small voice at the back of my mind said that perhaps in twenty years time Aleppo could look like this.

But today Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, announced that she will formally trigger the process of leaving the European Union in six months time. When I heard this I wanted to cry. All this openness and ease of travel, this creeping de facto re-unification under the auspices of the EU, could be destroyed by Brexit. In a few years time there may once again be armed checkpoints all across the Island of Ireland. And across the Island of Britain, if Scotland proves as loyal to the EU as Eire. Every time I go back to Berwick, a town that would be blighted more than any other by a 'hard' border with Scotland, I have to make conversation with Conservative supporting, Leave voting, locals who are thrilled at the result of our EU referendum. I just want to say to them, Are you out of your bloody mind?




Sunday, 19 June 2016

And It's Goodbye From Me - Tweed to Tyne

This post will be my last on this blog for some time, possibly for good. It depends on whether there are any more dramatic developments affecting the border between England and Scotland. My original thinking regarding the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, now almost upon us, was that a vote to Leave would trigger a fresh outburst of campaigning for Scottish independence that I ought to write about, but that a vote to Remain would mean I could gracefully sign off from reporting on the Borders as the status quo would be assured. I now think that whatever happens in the referendum we are in for a turbulent time politically, so I may as well sign off before the fateful date of 23rd June.

Because the thing is, I'm not actually living in Berwick any more. I sold my flat there and went to the Antipodes for three months, as previously described on this blog, and I am now living mostly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne while I contemplate the possibility of returning to the Antipodes for a while. I found I couldn't bear to move out of the region described in the heading of this blog, the land between the rivers Forth and Tyne, but I am now living at the far end of it, on the bank of the Tyne. This photo shows two of the bridges across the Tyne, the railway and the swing bridges.

I chose this view because archaeologists have now discovered that the original Roman bridge across the Tyne, the Pons Aelius or Hadrian's Bridge, was on the same site as the modern swing bridge. Presumably because convenient crossing points don't change that much. So this post continues the theme of my last about the Roman sites at Wallsend and South Shields. The photo here on the right shows the entrance to the harbour at South Shields. On the left side of the picture is the town / village / suburb of Tynemouth. This is where the river we love so much flows out to sea.

I was fascinated to learn that matching altars to the Roman gods Oceanus and Neptune have been found near the swing bridge, and that Alexander the Great is known to have sacrificed to the same gods when he reached the mouth of the river Indus. Presumably the Romans were conscious that the mouth of a river was the point where they left the land and entered the realm of the sea gods, and so it would be prudent to ask for their protection.

This is the Shields ferry. It chugs between the two banks of the Tyne several times an hour, a journey of only five minutes or so but one rich in cultural associations within the region. This vessel is called Spirit of the Tyne, which is apt. There is a sculpture outside the Newcastle Civic Centre that is supposed to represent some sort of presiding deity of the Tyne. I hope that the spirit of the river was able to share in the sacrifices to Oceanus and Neptune.

I read somewhere that it may not be mere coincidence that so many rivers on the eastern side of Britain have names beginning with the letter T. The Tyne, the Tees, the Tweed, the Till, the Teviot ... they divide up the region and mark out areas of allegiance and affection. The suggestion from linguists is that these names may all derive from some ur-name beginning with a T that just meant a river, and that would mean there is unity in their diversity. I like that.

Recently I have become deeply gloomy about the political and social strains tearing at the fabric of life in the UK. Nobody could deny that this country faces some really serious problems and challenges. I think that's why I've come to find it so soothing to look at the rivers Tyne and Tweed and imagine the thousands of years that their waters have been flowing to the sea. We fight each other, but the land and the waters outlast us all.







Sunday, 1 May 2016

'Where Rome's great frontier begins'

This is the reconstruction of the West Gate of Arbeia,  the Roman fort on the south bank of the river Tyne, in present day South Shields. It is not part of Hadrian's Wall, which apparently confuses a lot of visitors who can't conceive of any Roman ruins not attached to the Wall, it guards the other side of the estuary of the Tyne, preventing Northern British enemies from sneaking down the coast and attacking from the south. The counterpart on the northern bank is Segedunum, in modern day Wallsend (duh!) and I talk about that below.

At a later date Arbeia became a supply base for the garrisons all the way along Hadrian's Wall. Excavations have shown that it had far more granaries than was normal  for a fort and also dug up an unusually large number of the metal tags bearing the Emperor's head used to seal supplies. So it seems that food was shipped from Continental Europe into the estuary, offloaded here, then transported to the line of forts stretching to the Solway Firth on the west coast.

In fact it was a jolly important place, and the commanding officer accordingly enjoyed the ostentatiously large house you can see reconstructed in this photo on the right. One of the staff told me that even after the Romans had been there for 200 years and must have understood that the climate of North East England is not well suited to al fresco living, they still insisted on employing the standard house plan involving having to cross a roofless courtyard to get from one room to another. Adapting to local conditions would have meant an intolerable loss of status. Compare the British in India.

Because of these reconstructions, built on top of the foundations of the originals, Arbeia is more fun than the usual archaeological site where you just stare at a few old stones. It also has a small but wonderful museum of things found on site, some unique in Britain and all of amazing quality.

The fort is thought to have been originally called something else and to have been later nicknamed Arbeia, meaning 'place of the Arabs', after the employment of specialist boatmen from the river Tigris, in modern Iraq, to sail and fight on the Tyne. I can't tell you how much I love this image. Although of course this happened before the emergence of Islam, and those Arabs were probably Christians, I still see some sort of appropriateness in the modern presence of a mosque just down the road from the site. On this ancient imperial border, we see that the Romans were multi-cultural avant la lettre.


This picture on the left shows the archaelogical site of Segedunum, or Wallsend, on the northern bank of the Tyne estuary, with the building that is now used as the museum but was formerly the canteen of Swan Hunter shipyard, hence its resemblance to the prow of a ship.

This site presents a moving exploration of how successive layers of history were lived out and left their traces on the same site. Both Segedunum and Arbeia used to be covered with 19th century terraced housing that had to be demolished to expose the Roman sites, and some of Segedunum lay under the Swan Hunter yard. The piece of Wall that ran down the slope from the fort to the river was first exposed when the shipyard was being extended to make it large enough to build the Mauretania in the early 20th century. And a coal mine can still be seen adjacent to the surviving stretch of Wall on the other side of the fort. A considered decision was made to preserve some visible evidence of this mine and grant it the same respect and validity as the Roman remains.

I took some photos from the observation platform in the former shipyard workers' canteen, showing the striking landscape of river, abandoned shipyard, excavated ancient fort. This is the one with the least reflection of me and my camera - sorry it's still not great, but you get the idea. You can see a reconstruction of a bathhouse in the far corner of the site, sadly now closed to visitors because it's no longer structurally safe. They're still trying to work out how the Romans prevented a steamy bathhouse from rotting in the damp British climate.

A modern monument has been erected on the site bearing all the names of those Roman army personnel known from surviving records to have actually physically built the Wall, with space left to add any more discovered. When I first visited the site, Swan Hunter was still operational, and this juxtaposition of modern and ancient construction workers was very powerful. Now, the shipyard is as derelict as the fort. It has passed into history in its turn.

And what of the layer of history below the Roman one? The museum explains that the people who lived in North East England before the Roman colonisers arrived were called the Brigantes. Below the foundations of the fort archaeologists have found ploughed furrows that were never planted with anything. The invaders kicked the farmers off the land between ploughing and sowing. The Brigantian farms near the Wall were abandoned soon after, either because the Romans forcibly removed the local population for security reasons, or simply because their social and economic systems were so badly disrupted by having a giant wall built through the middle of their community that their lives became impossible and they moved of their own accord. This all sounds horribly familiar from more recent times. Brigantian farmers, Roman builders, Geordie shipwrights - all just local people trying to make a living on the banks of the great river.