Wednesday, 24 April 2013

'A Deep Dive Into Uncharted Waters'

Yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered a speech about the possible monetary arrangements of Scotland after independence, which he referred to as 'a very deep dive into uncharted waters'.  So here is - ta da! - a picture of some deep waters. Off Eyemouth, a few miles north of the border. I have written before (here) about Scottish bank notes and the possibility of re-introducing a separate Scottish currency, and also (here) about Eyemouth's history as a centre of cross border smuggling. That was a while ago though, and it seems like time to revisit these topics.

There are some serious economists in Scotland working on post-independence financial matters, and whenever they emerge blinking into the light of a television studio the whole project sounds more workable, but First Minister Salmond himself has a tendency to dismiss legitimate questions with airy references to 'scaremongering' and how much England needs Scotland's oil.

The Scottish banknotes shown here differ only in design from English ones, they are still the same currency - sterling. Now that joining the euro zone looks distinctly unattractive, the plan is for an independent Scotland to retain sterling, but in that case how independent could its economy really be? This is the question the Chancellor was raising yesterday, and, though it pains me greatly to concede that George Osborne could ever be right about anything, he does have a point. His other line of attack, that England would not allow Scotland to keep sterling, really is just scaremongering. Trust me on this, I'm a Borderer.

Some of the most enthusiastic nationalists would like to revert to an independent Scottish currency, which does not have a great historical track record. By the 18th century the value of the 'pound Scots' was so much less than that of the English pound that some Scottish merchants refused to accept it and English notes increasingly circulated north of the border. It's true that was long before oil was found in the North Sea, so maybe things would be different this time round. In theory the residents of Berwick and Eyemouth would be facing the prospect of having to carry two separate wallets around with them every day as they commute across the border to work and shop, but in practice we can safely say that shops close to the border would accept both currencies. And of course there's always plastic - though you really wouldn't want to have to pay your bank's foreign transaction fee every time you nip out for a sandwich. The glory days of Eyemouth and Berwick as centres of smuggling and cross border profiteering would then return. I imagine that organised crime is already renting the warehouses for when Scotland introduces taxation that differs from England on alcohol, cigarettes, or anything else.

Even without a separate currency, it is certain that we will see 'benefit tourism' if Scotland maintains more generous social welfare provision than England - some older people in the Borders are already moving a few miles north in order to qualify for free nursing home care. If Scotland funds this generous provision by raising income tax we will also see some working people moving south. This movement of payers out of and beneficiaries into an independent Scotland could put a great strain on the new state, and so long as it remains within the European Union it cannot do anything to stop this migration.  And it's us here right on the border who will see the most population movement. Granny in Scotland, the weans in England, seems the likely future. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Only Good Thing to Come Out of Scotland ....

  .... is the road to England.  So said Dr Johnson, we are told. I was reminded of this by an article in the Berwick Advertiser this week. I've borrowed this picture from them, because I can't be bothered to go out and take my own boring photo of a road. (So sue me - I've given you lots of free publicity on here, 'Tiser.)

The piece was about the ongoing and frankly extremely tedious debate about why the A1 ought to be converted into a dual carriageway and how to persuade central government to cough up the money to do it.  The tedium lifted for me when I read that the Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Borders area, John Lamont, has denounced the Nationalist government for failing to upgrade the A1, saying 'just because a road leads to England is no reason not to invest in it".  Posterity will be grateful to Mr Lamont for this immortal utterance. I laughed so much that I dropped the paper.  It's lucky I was at home at the time and not on public transport.

Residents of North Northumberland have been quietly fuming for decades over the inadequate roads in the region. What is now prosaically known as the A1 was historically called The Great North Road and is the central transport spine of the country, running from London due north all the way to Edinburgh. Unfortunately the bit of it that runs through North Northumberland tends to get blocked every time it snows heavily or rains a lot. Never mind being the main link with London and Edinburgh, the residents of Alnwick and Berwick are cut off from each other in bad weather. I was once on the last bus to make it through from Alnwick to Berwick before the water from rapidly melting snow made the road impassable, and that kind of thing is hard on the nerves.

The campaigners for improving the A1 have now leaped with commendable speed and agility onto the bandwagon of the Scottish independence referendum. Is the present government in Westminster not committed to the continuance of the Union? It is. Does it not wish to maintain and promote in every possible way the links between England and Scotland? Well, yes. So it must realise the importance of - drum roll please - the road which runs between the two countries?  Erm, suppose so. And so will it demonstrate its commitment to the continued existence of the United Kingdom by giving Northumberland County Council a big wodge of cash with which to build a sparkling new multi-lane highway to connect the council's taxpayers with the Scottish capital? Now hang on a minute ....

John Lamont MSP is, as you may have guessed, a member not of the SNP but of the party known north of the border as 'the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party'.  He has surveyed the portion of the A1 running through his own patch of 'Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire", noticed the same bandwagon trundling along it and joined Northumberland County Council on board. It must be a bit of a squash.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mythical Water Beasts and the Downfall of an MP

I've used this rubbish photo of a seal before to illustrate the difficulty of getting good photos of seals, but I'm now really wishing I'd saved it for this post, which is inspired by a book I've just read about the Loch Ness Monster. Since I've been living beside the estuary of the river Tweed I am far more sympathetic to those who sincerely believe they have seen an unknown beast in Loch Ness. Please note, I do not say that I am more inclined to believe in the existence of a large animal unknown to science, which seems to me unlikely for a number of reasons, but I completely understand why you might think you've seen one. In  a large body of water with constantly changing effects of light, shadow and reflection, it is remarkably difficult to tell the difference between a seal and a shag (a black water bird related to the cormorant which paddles very low in the water and dives for fish) and sometimes even between a seal and a log of wood, unless the 'log' suddenly dives. In such a vast body of water as Loch Ness it must be even harder to be sure what that moving black blob really is.

Rab Houston says in his most useful book Scotland: A very short introduction that Nessie was originally simply an example of a 'kelpie', a kind of malignant water spirit  that features in Celtic mythology. This seems to be borne out by the fact that the earliest reported sighting of Nessie is associated with St Columba. The monster tried to drag a man into the water but was driven back by the Christian power of the saint, which is exactly what you would expect of a kelpie. Some versions of the story say that the man got into trouble as a result of skiving off for a swim when he was supposed to be listening to Columba's sermon. The motif of a pre-Christian spirit punishing a man for failing in Christian observance reminded me strongly of the story of the Lambton Worm. This is a story from County Durham, which is a bit too far south to qualify as Debatable Land, but one of the Lord Lambtons was the MP for the constituency of Berwick upon Tweed. I've taken the story here from Folk Tales of the North Country but I've known it since childhood.

The young heir to Lambton Castle was, we are told, 'a wild and rebellious youth' who had no patience with his duties and cared only for pleasure. He took this to the shocking extreme of going fishing on a Sunday when he ought to have been at church. For this sin he was punished by catching a nasty looking aquatic creature instead of a fish. He threw it down a well and forgot about it and subsequently went off to serve as a soldier in foreign parts. While he was away the creature grew into 'a monstrous worm', climbed out of the well, wrapped itself round the hill on which the castle was built, continued to grow and terrorised the country for miles around, being pacified only by having the milk of nine cows delivered to it every day. Eventually the young heir, now older and wiser, returned home, was appalled by what he found and went to consult a convenient local witch about how to kill the worm. She told him not to challenge it on land but to stand on a rock in the middle of the river Wear so that when he cut it into pieces with his sword they would be swept away by the water and would not be able to join up again and come back to life, as the creature had done before. This trick seems to involve shifting the mysterious power of water away from the creature to the benefit of the human. It worked and the monster was soon no more. The sting in the tail is that the witch had told young Lambton that if he succeeded in slaying it he must kill the first living thing he saw on the way home - another common motif in folk tales. He had told his aged father to stay well out of the way and release a hound as soon as he heard his son blow his horn to signal the death of the monster. But the old man was so overcome with joy that he could not restrain himself from running out to greet his son. The son could not bring himself to kill his father and killed a hound instead, but because he had thus dodged the condition a continuing curse fell on him and all his heirs.

The story relates that for nine generations no Lord of Lambton ever died in his bed. It does seem to be the case that the Lambtons had a habit of coming to unfortunate ends, though their rate of death in battle may be no higher than the average for the aristocracy. In recent times the political career of one Viscount Lambton did, as it were, die in bed. His stint as MP for Berwick was abruptly terminated in 1973 when photos of his activities with several prostitutes were sent to the press. As MP for our constituency he had been scheduled to speak to my school a couple of weeks later but the invitation was speedily withdrawn, since, as my father memorably remarked at the time, he was 'definitely not the kind of man we want to come and talk to young girls'. That Lambton had in fact renounced his title in order to be able to continue as a member of the House of Commons, but he apparently insisted on being addressed as Lord anyway. He sounds like a true heir of the young Lambton who brought down the curse of the worm.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Fun At the Seaside in the 1950s

This post exists purely and shamelessly as as way of sharing these great photos with the world. The blog description above does say that it includes 'the merely entertaining'. And the photo on the left is just too entertaining to keep to myself! I've been sorting through some boxes of Inherited Stuff, which is a tedious, finicky and emotionally draining business, but every now and then you are rewarded with a find like this.

I'm fairly sure that this photo was taken at Alnmouth, a village on the coast of North Northumberland. It is only a few miles from Alnwick and has the distinction of having its own railway station on the main East Coast line because although the line was intended to go to Alnwick the Duke of Northumberland of the day refused to allow the nasty thing anywhere near him. So ever since travellers to Alnwick have had to negotiate a hopelessly inadequate bus service from the end of the road where the station is located - which is, if you are being really pedantic, not even in the village of Alnmouth but in a tiny cluster of houses called Hipsburn.

One of the ladies enjoying a paddle, or 'plodging' in the local vernacular, is my grandmother and the others are presumably her best mates. There is no date on the photo but judging by the dress styles and by my grandmother's age I would put it sometime in the 1950s.

This second photo is helpfully dated by the processor 'February 1957', but since nobody sits on the Northumbrian coast in a sleeveless dress in February I reckon it had been sitting in the camera since the previous summer. It shows my other grandmother and her family and friends outside my grandparents' beach hut, which was located at a place known locally as Seton Point, just a few miles along from Alnmouth. This hut stayed in the family for another twenty years, by which time it had become a museum of 1950s artefacts covered in sand. Sadly I was too young to have any say in what became of it - if I'd had the chance to keep it I would probably be living in it right now.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Our Enduring Links With Scandinavia

I have written a couple of times before about the close links between this area and Scandinavia and those posts have been quite popular, so I thought I'd go back to that subject. This is a picture of the memorial to Danish seamen who were based in Britain during World War II which has been placed in the Cathedral of St Nicholas in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was originally located in the Danish church in London, but when that closed down Newcastle cathedral felt that it was the most appropriate permanent home for it, because most of the Danish sailors it honours were based in the ports of Tyneside.

An English translation of the inscription is provided on the small plaque just visible on the left. It says: 'A memorial to the Danish seamen of all ranks who gave their lives in the service of their country during the years 1939-1945. As you read these names, remember. They died for Denmark, they died for freedom, so that we like they might live as free Danes.'

I love this memorial to the wider community of the North Sea. The most important reason for the north-south divide in England is that historically the south of England has been oriented to the Channel and the Mediterranean, to France and southern Europe, while the north of England has been oriented to the North Sea and the Baltic, to Scandinavia and Germany. This extends to the accents and dialects of northern England and southern Scotland, which are closely related to the languages of Scandinavia. Until very recently the British education system paid no attention to this and treated them simply as deviant and defective forms of speech which should be eliminated. I am really hoping that the present popularity of so-called Scandi-crime on television, and even more so the huge popularity among the opinion-forming class of Borgen, a Danish political drama about the trials of a liberal woman prime minister, may lead to a greater appreciation of our indigenous inheritance from Scandinavia.

One of the best known features of the speech of north-east England is the use of 'wor' where standard English has 'our'. This is held in such affection by native speakers that even some people educated to degree level will use it in certain situations. A light went on in my head when I heard someone on the radio explaining that March 25th is celebrated in Sweden as Waffle Day and that Waffle is a pun on the Swedish for Our Lady, which is Var Fru. Even back when I was at school, my German teacher commented that students with a strong local accent could acquire a decent German accent more easily than those down south who spoke posh, but that this was not reflected in any of the teaching materials.

So I am very happy to say that the theme of the Berwick film festival 2013 will be exactly this: the cultural connections between this area and the lands of northern Europe across the North Sea. Look it up here