Friday, 25 January 2013

To The Immortal Memory

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland, celebrated wherever a few Scots gather together. Part of the ritual which has developed to mark Burns Night is the toast 'to the immortal memory' of the great man, hence the title of this post. Burns Night suppers are a very big thing in Scotland, and since Berwick is known in some quarters as 'occupied Scotland', it's a pretty big thing here too. You can tell that from the notice in the photo below - even if the local St Andrews Club is inexplicably holding its supper on the wrong day. Maybe all the members are attending other suppers north of the border tonight, and hold a duplicate celebration on Monday to bemoan their occupied state.

All of the local butchers have posters in their windows urging us to buy their produce for our Burns Night celebration, particularly their haggis. I'm fond of haggis myself and quite often buy it at the chip shop. I hope that hasn't shattered too many illusions among my readers. Haggis is not some rare and exotic dish only seen on 25th January, it is routinely served with baked potatoes in cafes and in battered form by chip shops in Scotland and some way south of the border. Though I'm sure that Scottish foodies would wince at the suggestion that this national dish is most commonly eaten battered with chips.

Now for a surprise. The photo above of an imposing monument to Burns was not taken anywhere in Scotland or even in the Debatable Land - it was taken in Dunedin in New Zealand. This city was founded by Scottish emigrants and in its architecture, street names and cultural traditions is still extremely Scottish. The name Dunedin was taken from an old name for Edinburgh. In a more correct Gaelic spelling this is still used as the name for Edinburgh in the Gaelic versions of official notices in Scotland. I have also seen an even more imposing monument to Burns in a park in Auckland. The early Scottish settlers in New Zealand seem to have revered Burns not just as a great poet and part of their cultural heritage but because of his then radical political views. He expressed a spirit of egalitarianism and democracy which many emigrants hoped would be the norm in their new land, away from the oppressive system of land ownership in Scotland.

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, an emotional occasion marking the final success of decades of campaigning for devolved government, a musical setting of Burns' most famous poem, Is There, For Honest Poverty, was sung.  That's the one that says 'the rank is but the guinea's stamp' and 'a man's a man for a' that', and makes pointed remarks about how having some aristocratic title in front of his name doesn't stop a man being a fool. Our Rabbie was known to sympathise with the French revolutionaries. I found the inclusion of his endorsement of liberty, equality and fraternity moving and appropriate. Believe it or not however, some particularly curmudgeonly elements of the English press thought that it was scandalous to give such prominence to a hymn to the meaninglessness of worldly ranks and titles in a ceremony presided over by Her Majesty the Queen. That's a pretty good example of the kind of thing that's making the Scots so fed up with the English.

Friday, 18 January 2013

A Frozen Economy?

Greetings from a snowy Berwick. After a few bitterly cold days we woke this morning to find the white flakes falling steadily and the ground well covered.  I took these photos a couple of winters ago but the view was just the same today. In the snow this street lamp on Quay Walls looks just like the one in Narnia, if that's not too romantic a thought.

I had the luxury of being able to drop the blind with a groan and snuggle back under my 13.5 tog duvet, because I'm one of those people the government has been denouncing who still have their curtains closed when their hard-working, striving neighbours are heading to work. Though, as already indicated, I have quite smart wooden blinds rather than curtains, and I prefer to describe my lifestyle as 'working from home' rather than 'shirking'. Okay, it's a fine line. There are a great many people in this area who are much harder working than I am, but are blocked at every attempt to access employment and economic opportunities.

Last week I attended an excellent talk by John Lord of ARCH, a regeneration agency run by Northumberland County Council, on the economic problems and future prospects of Berwick. He delighted me by saying that anyone who thinks the decline in trade at the traditional high street shops is entirely due to the fact that parking in the town centre is not free, is, and I quote, 'barking mad'. I couldn't agree more. I have this odd notion that the shops would get more trade if they sold stuff that people want to buy, but I don't dare to express such radical thoughts in public.

Mr Lord gave a brutally honest summary of the factors which make Berwick 'one of the more acute cases' with which he has dealt. It no longer has any clear economic purpose, now that the military have left, the shipyard has closed down and the fishing industry is a fraction of its former self. It's a long way from anywhere. The population is ageing and young people don't want to stay. On the plus side, it's not as badly off as Margate, which he has also consulted on. Berwick has a beautiful environment and a fascinating history and it should capitalise on those. I try to do my bit for that with this blog.

During the Q&A I asked whether any purely Northumberland based agency could succeed in regenerating the town, when so much of its economy is dependent on the Scottish end of its hinterland, and commented that there seems to be almost a conspiracy of denial over the extent to which Berwick's problems are complicated by its anomalous position in relation to the border. Presumably because his employers at Northumberland County Council would not condone any suggestion that being in Northumberland could ever be less than an unqualified blessing, Mr Lord made non-committal responses to this. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

'The roofs shall fade before it, the house beams shall fall'

Although I promise 'at least one nice photo' with every post, this blog has never been intended to be a touristy sort of production with pretty pictures and promotional puff about what a great place this is. I try to write about things that are genuinely interesting about this area rather than what some taxpayer funded quango has officially decreed will attract visitors. So here is a picture of Berwick's most notorious 'grot spot'. This building has been derelict for years. That clock stopped a very long time ago. It is a cause of furious tut-tutting and head-shaking among the activists of the Civic Society and other heritage preservation enthusiasts. Every now and then rumours circulate about who owns it and what they're planning to do with it, but the basic reality seems to be the same as with so many buildings now, the owners are not prepared to sell the property for what it would fetch in the present market but can't afford to renovate it either. But of course, while markets may cease to function, nature never does.

Before I even moved to Berwick I discovered this site on a day trip and was fascinated by the fact that there was plants growing INSIDE the building. I had never seen this phenomenon anywhere else. I still haven't. I've since learned that it's because the floor was dug up in the course of some sort of investigation of the condition of the ground, thus liberating an abundance of dormant weed seeds. And since the building is now far from rain-proof the plant life continues to grow and flourish. There is an amazing stand of ferns in one corner that would not look out of place in a New Zealand botanical garden. Sadly the windows round that side are so dirty that I can't get a photo.

As a child I fell in love with a poem in The Jungle Books which describes an abandoned village being reclaimed by the jungle. This may be why my first reaction to the sight of a building being steadily overcome by plants is always to marvel at the way nature can reclaim all the works of man, rather than to think, 'we really must get a section something-or-other order to force the owner to do it up'. In the final analysis, does it really matter if we don't preserve every single building? After all, the only reason Berwick still has so many fine 18th century buildings is that its fortunes declined drastically after the end of the Napoleonic wars and it spent the 19th century being too poor to knock them down and build chunks of curclicued Gothic which we now don't like as much as the Georgian stuff. In the 1960s it was still too poor to knock them down and build concrete shopping malls as so many other towns did then. Isn't there something to be said for a slow aesthetically appealing decay?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Welcome to 2013 in Berwick

A Happy New Year to all my readers on January 2nd, when it may or may not still be a holiday here in Berwick upon Tweed. England only takes January 1st as a public holiday, Scotland takes 2nd as well. (No jokes please about Scottish hangovers requiring a longer recovery period.) So naturally here in Berwick confusion reigns. Since the local council has to follow the letter of the (English) law, that means that our bins were emptied this morning. Since the opening hours of large stores are dictated by head offices in London, that means they're all open today. But since many of the independent shops are run by people with loyalties north of the border, some of them stay firmly closed today. In some cases one feels that these shop owners would rather lose money than be seen to be ignoring a Scottish holiday.

A word about the terminology of this time of year. Most people know the word Hogmanay, an old Scottish folk celebration to mark the change of year. This has now been so successfully commercialised in Edinburgh that the Scottish capital is avoided until the second week of January by anyone concerned to prevent their credit card from melting. It is not so well known that here in North Northumberland and the Scottish Borders the traditional expression is Old Year's Night. My grandparents never said New Year's Eve, always Old Year's Night. This is still heard - only today somebody I was talking to referred to the weather on Old Year's Day, meaning the earlier part of December 31st. But as with so many other things the traditions of this area are being squeezed between the better known usages of Scotland and the South of England.

My parents maintained the custom of setting out drinks and snacks in readiness for anyone who chose to call round on Old Year's Night, the tradition being that everybody visited the houses of everybody else then. The welcoming table lingered on into the 1980s, but by then the contents were consumed only by the occupants of the house and any guests who had been formally invited. They took the custom of first-footing very seriously, so much so that my mother once forced me to stand in the snow in our neighbours' garden while we waited for my father to catch us up rather than risk either of us entering the house ahead of him, because having a woman as your first-foot is extremely bad luck and she was not prepared to be responsible for visiting a year's bad luck on the household. The worst possible luck is to be your own first-foot. I never got a straight answer on whether even having a woman as your first visitor of the year is better than being the first to enter your own house after midnight.

Every year of my childhood my family's first-foot was an old friend of my parents whose hair, I was assured, used to be raven black, which qualified him as the ideal dark male, even though his hair was nearly white by the time I can recall him. I've been told that one of my old neighbours in Alnwick now has a mixed race grandson who fulfils all the criteria of a perfect first-foot. His Caribbean mother probably has to wait outside in the snow.