Saturday, 5 December 2015

Debatable Land Heads for the Antipodes

This is the monument to Captain James Cook at Whitby. He stands on the headland of this chilly, windswept piece of the North Yorkshire coast, gazing out to sea. Whitby is outside the usual geographical range of this blog but it just about qualifies as north-east England. At any rate, Arriva buses do a North East Explorer day ticket whose validity stretches to the far side of Whitby, which is good enough for me.

More importantly, this monument to 'a great Yorkshire seaman' symbolises my imminent departure for Australia and New Zealand. I've been there before, in fact I had visited Auckland before I visited Whitby, which was perhaps a little unusual of me, but made my emotional reaction to the port from which Cook sailed on the voyages of discovery that led to the founding of the modern nations of Australia and New Zealand much stronger than it would have been if I'd remembered it from my childhood. I've just visited the town again and the plaques on this monument made me cry all over again. I know that it is now considered insensitive to talk about 'discovering' a land mass that was already occupied by other groups of people, but I don't believe that invalidates the spirit of adventure and enquiry that prompted the voyages.

I have also just visited the birthplace of James Cook, for what I'm ashamed to say was the first time ever.  It has now been incorporated into a lovely public park in Middlesborough, a city historically part of Yorkshire but now the centre of the modern urban county of Cleveland. Sadly the cottage where the great man was born was knocked down about fifty years later, though luckily he was sufficiently famous by then for the site to be marked. There's now a rather elegant stone urn on the spot, and round the base has been carved Cook's famous remark about wanting to go, 'not just farther than any man has been before, but as far as it is possible for a man to go'.

This line - at least in a revised gender-neutral version - has been my inspiration and motto ever since I first heard it. It has become confused in my mind with the classic opening of Star Trek about exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilisations, but I think that's fine because I'm sure the example of the great sea voyages has influenced the writers of fictional space voyages. One of my friends in NZ told me that Cook literally did go as far as it was possible to go, because he took his ship up to the edge of the ice of Antarctica. But of course the sentiment can also be taken metaphorically. It is absolutely right that it should be carved on the site of the humble cottage where he was born, in what is now an ordinary public park in an unglamorous town. It reminds us that genius can emerge from any background, a fact from which the contemporary British education system seems to be in determined retreat.

I was able to book my own voyage to Australia and then on to New Zealand with just a few distinctly non-epic mouse clicks. I leave on New Years Eve and arrive on New Years Day - appropriate or what? So this blog will be in a state of semi suspension for a few months. But if I come across anything relevant to the English-Scottish Borders while I'm out there - which is more likely than you might think - I'll post about it. And if there are any seismic political developments at Holyrood or Westminster that will affect the Borders - also not that unlikely - I will be on the case. In the meantime, wish me haere ra (Maori for bon voyage).

Saturday, 31 October 2015

A Symbol of the End of Empire Moored at the End of the Debatable Land

Having finally succeeded in divesting myself of my decaying flat in Berwick, I am a newly footloose traveller. Halloween finds me in the Premier Inn on Leith Waterfront, with the reception staff barely visible behind swathes of fake cobwebs. Leith Waterfront is one of those rebranding exercises whereby docks and industries are replaced with soulless blocks of over-priced apartments and a shopping mall. The harbour that my hotel room overlooks is actually that of Newhaven, originally a fishing village just outside Edinburgh.

The last few days have been what the Scots call 'dreich' and all this photo has to recommend it is that it captures the grey, damp, chilly atmosphere of the east coast in late autumn. The distinctive shape of the Forth Bridge in the background marks the northern limit of the area covered by this blog. Beyond the Firth of Forth, there is no more historically disputed territory, there is only unequivocal Scotland. The Romans surveyed the tribes beyond the Forth and decided they weren't worth the effort of conquering. The Kingdom of Northumbria once stretched as far as the Forth, but its kings never tried to push it any further. I look at the Forth Bridge and it seems to be saying to me: don't come any further, Englishwoman.

Today I decided on impulse to go round the Royal Yacht Britannia,  now permanently moored in Leith dock. It was decommissioned in 1997 in a controversial money-saving exercise and after touring the ports of the UK for a while (I remember it coming to Newcastle) it was sold to a maritime conservation charity and settled down as a stationary visitor attraction.

The blurb in the exhibition says that Leith beat off the competition from other ports just because it demonstrated the best plans for preserving the ship and making it accessible to the public. At the time though there was some feeling that giving Britannia to a Scottish port was a calculated act of political prudence, at a time when Scots were showing worrying signs of losing enthusiasm for the United Kingdom. It might have been even more canny to send it back to Clydeside where it was built, since Glasgow has proved the least keen on the continuance of the UK of any region of Scotland.

Today there seemed to be plenty of Scots just as keen on looking round Britannia as visitors from overseas, or from England. Things to do with the royal family are never top of my must-see list, but this was one of the best organised visitor attractions I've been to. See, it even has its own free wifi, presumably for all those people who feel the need to tweet their whereabouts continually to the world.

Everyone of my generation remembers those photos of newly-weds Charles and Diana waving to their adoring public from the ship's bridge. Today I got to see that very bridge, specially designed for royals to show themselves to the public, complete with teak windbreak to reduce instances of royal ladies' skirts blowing up. We all gazed intently at the bed in the honeymoon room, the only double bed on board, specially installed for Charles and Diana, and tried not to look too prurient even as we all reflected that a cramped cabin with a crew of 150 sailors watching your every move can't have been the best start to married life. The almost unbelievably basic sleeping quarters of the ordinary sailors were part of the tour, a sobering contrast to the luxurious royal rooms. As the sailors lay hunched up in their tiny bunks they must have speculated on what was going on in that double bed two decks above them. They simply must have done.

I found the experience of touring HMY Britannia more moving than I expected. I remember the scenes when Hong Kong was returned to China and its last British governor sailed away in Britannia in the pouring rain, in what seemed at the time to be the final instance of the flag coming down on a former imperial possession. In its after-life in Leith, Britannia could yet be a immobile witness of the Union Jack descending the flagpole for the last time in Scottish waters.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Most Scenic Rubbish Dump in the Country

Everyone who visits Berwick is impressed by its beautiful coastal location, but it may not always occur to those who only associate the seaside with holidays that when you live on the coast the sea view is always there, as a background to the most mundane activities. This is Berwick's rubbish tip. Sorry, 'household waste recovery centre', with an emphasis on the recovery part. I am happy to report that our recycling rates have recently shown marked improvement.

As you cudgel your brains to work out which skip your items should be tossed into, you can relax for a moment by enjoying the beautiful blue sea in the background. The view is particularly fine from the top of the ramp that leads up to the Rigid Plastics skip. Immediately behind Rigid Plastics is the area devoted to old mattresses, but if you lift your eyes just a little higher, the North Sea stretches out in all its glory.

It would be nice to think that the view helps to remind struggling recyclers of why it's worth making the effort to stop all that plastic getting into the sea, killing marine wildlife and then ending up back in our own food chain. Carrier bags are a particular menace to any kind of animal or bird that eats fish, because they have evolved to identify a white thing floating in the water as a fish and swallow it forthwith. They then either choke or starve to death as the plastic blocks their digestive tract.

On 5th October new legislation came into force in England obliging shops to stop giving out free carrier bags and start charging 5p for them. Similar rules have been in force in Scotland for quite some time now and Scots shopping in Berwick have been acting rather superior as the English folk next to them in the queue look confused about it all.  It is really remarkable though how quickly we have all got used to it. The number of plastic bags used has dropped like a stone since the legislation came into force. You wouldn't think that 5p would make that much difference, but as someone said to me, they all add up. Personally I think that the real difference it has made is that it is now socially acceptable to put my shopping in my backpack, whereas before it was regarded as a bit weird and hippy-ish.

A fantastic feature of Berwick for anybody moving house is that the rubbish tip, the new self storage facility and the Salvation Army's shop selling second-hand furniture and household goods are all located within a few minutes walk of each other on the development on the outskirts of the town formerly known as North Road Industrial Estate and now as Ramparts Business Park. The former name was less confusing, as the real ramparts are about two miles away. The Scottish border is a matter of a few hundred yards up the main road from the entrance to the estate, so ours is not only the most scenic but the most northerly rubbish tip in England.

I have whiled away the months that the English system of property sale takes to grind its weary way to completion (in Berwick you are always aware that it's all different, though not necessarily better, selling a property in Scotland) by disposing of as many of my surplus possessions as possible, and that means I have been spending a lot of time up here. Tip? Donate to Sally Army? Or store it?  The fact that the storage unit is immediately past the entrance at the top of a hill and the tip is at the far end of the estate at the bottom of the hill tends to incline me to just chuck it all into storage. I have a feeling that in a year or so's time when I've realised I don't need any of it I may end up just transferring the whole lot down the hill and into those recycling skips.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Berwick Film Festival 2015

I think that the Berwick upon Tweed Film and Media Arts Festival ought to be re-named the Festival of Film in Caves. Not since the prehistoric painters of Lascaux  have so many artistic productions been found in subterranean environments.

The video installation shown on the left was actually one of the less impressive offerings this year, but Coxons Tower is such a fantastic venue that it makes anything look good. It is the inside of a lookout tower on the defensive walls of Berwick and has striking stone vaulting.

You can see in this picture that the organisers have had the wonderful idea of installing a couple of real cinema seats in the Tower for viewers of the video. There is something really memorable about sitting in a red plush seat inside a centuries old fortification watching an ultra modern video.

Several of the other venues on the 'trail' of video art installations are ice-houses. Bleak, dank, echoing man-made caves, effectively, temporarily illuminated by film. You slither down, or up, the muddy entrance paths and pick your way across the uneven beaten-earth floor with a feeling of excited anticipation about what you may see inside. Nobody who has experienced this aspect of the Berwick festival ever forgets it.

To add to the excitement the festival now has a 'fringe', which has stuck with the subterranean theme by using the empty cellars of a house in the town centre. There seemed to be a smell of stale wine in the air when I visited and this led me to assume that the cellars had previously been used for wine storage, but when I mentioned it one of the young organisers said that it was more likely to be the result of their own activities the night before.

Most of the art in the 'fringe' house was as good as the official installations, and some of it was better than some of them. Special mention to Carole Lubey's powerful piece, shown left, of an older woman dancing nude, and Brooke Stephens' beautifully observed film of the patterns made by water spreading on a wall and mist rising Gothic-ally from a cemetery.

To grab the attention of passers-by the location of the fringe house was marked by this piano. I'm told that somebody was playing it some of the time, though I didn't catch that myself. Rather brilliantly, a Northumberland County Council parking permit had been propped on the lid of the keyboard, so that the piano could stand in the car park all day with perfect legality.

I'm afraid that this year's Festival finished on Sunday 27th September so it's too late to see any of these exhibits now. But do come next year, you will not regret it. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Ruins of Temperance

This is my first posting of photos taken with my new camera. The woman in the shop assured me that it had huge quantities of megapixels and would produce photos of a quality that would make me gasp in astonishment compared with those feeble efforts taken by my old camera. So far, I'm not convinced. But to be fair, it hasn't been trialled in a clear atmosphere yet, because the weather over the last few days has not been dry - unlike the subjects of this post (ha!).

This is the only surviving wall of the Good Templar Hall in Berwick. The name meant nothing to me at all, I had to google it. Turns out the Good Templars were / are an international organisation promoting the cause of temperance, that is abstention from alcohol. They have their own website if you would like to know more. Only American links come up, the UK branch of their operation seems to have quietly faded away. (If you know differently, please do leave a comment.)

I learned more about this building from a booklet with the splendid title Berwick's Battle Against Drink by Wendy Bell Scott. I originally bought my copy a couple of years ago from a newsagent while killing time in the main street of Spittal waiting for the Christmas reindeer to appear. My first thought was that, unlike Flodden (q.v.) it is a battle most Berwickers seem to be trying to lose. The book is also available online from a local publishing outfit called Blue Button. Wendy's research started life as part of her studies at the Open University, and I was delighted to see one of my own former O.U. advisers, John Wolffe, featuring prominently in the bibliography. Pious Victorian reformers are one of his things.

The subject of excessive consumption of booze is still very much a live issue, and Berwick as usual has particular problems because of its position on the border. I'm told that in the past, before I lived here, there was an influx of Scots on Sundays because in those days Scotland took a stricter approach to pubs opening on the Lord's Day than England did. This cross-border situation is likely to be recreated, because the Scottish government is keener than the Westminster one to introduce compulsory minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks, in an effort to reduce consumption. In a previous post I described the likely effect on the parts of England just over the border of suddenly making booze more expensive in Scotland. Thankfully, implementation of the legislation to that effect passed by Holyrood in 2012 is being held up by legal challenges from the alcohol industry. I say thankfully - at a personal level I have always been sympathetic to temperance ideals, but the prospect of my street filling up with Scots who don't share them is not an enticing one.

God knows our resident English drunks are already a big enough nuisance. The original plans for the restoration of the riverside park included provision for some brave soul to abseil down the steep bank beside the river to collect up and remove all the cans and bottles chucked down there over the years. By now the lower levels must require techniques more closely related to archaeology than to simple litter-picking. Sadly it was reported that the assessment of the bank found it too unstable for abseiling to be safe. And in any case the drinkers can throw the things down faster than the council can pick them up. So beer cans and wine bottles continue to roll out of the undergrowth at your feet and witness to the cause for which the Good Templar Hall was erected.

P.S. I shouldn't forget to mention that the new leader of the Labour party is reportedly a teetotaller, a welcome survival of the historical association of the temperance movement with socialism, particularly Christian socialism.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Northumbria's Backbone

Spurred by my imminent house move, I've been once again sorting out the mass of old papers that have descended on me from various deceased members of my family. (It's down to one storage box now - believe me, that's progress.) This booklet was one of the things I came across, and for the first time I've actually read it properly.

It dates back to the days when a presentation accompanied by projected slides was referred to as a (magic) lantern lecture. On a no doubt freezing February night in 1923 the inhabitants of Chatton gathered in the village hall to hear the minister of the Presbyterian church expound educationally on the Great Whin Sill, an important geological formation that gives the Northumbrian landscape much of its character. The Wikipedia entry can tell you more.

I expected this lecture to be a boring technical explanation of the kind that only the desperate tedium of life in a small village in the winter before the advent of television (or even radio) could drive people to turn out for. In fact, it is a romantic, almost mystical, description of the route followed by the stratum of basalt known locally as the Whin Sill, with mentions of all the notable man-made features along the way as well as descriptions of the landscape itself.  The Rev. W. Thorp points out that medieval castles, prehistoric fortifications and relatively modern churches are all found on major outcrops of the sill, and muses on how the whin gives us strength and safety. Okay, we can readily agree that builders of all periods would have recognised that a massive chunk of rock was a sensible place to locate your defensive structures, but the minister sounds like some modern believers in earth energies talking about ley lines.

The really unexpected aspect of this lecture is the writer's conviction that living on basalt has formed the character of the local people. That's why he called the lecture Northumbria's Backbone, meaning that the rock is both geologically and psychologically the backbone of the county. He comments approvingly that Ulster also has large amounts of basalt rock and its people display sturdiness and hardiness similar to that of the Northumbrians. (Remember, he was a Presybterian minister, so his Ulster sympathies would have been distinctly one-sided.) A vaguely plausible mechanism for this - drinking the local water filtered through the rock - is mentioned in passing, but the essential idea is not much better than a piece of sympathetic magic. Hard rocks make hard people.

This idea is even more batty than the more widespread notion that racial inheritance determines character. One wonders how long the effect was supposed to last after moving away from the nurturing rock. Rev. Thorp says that it surely cannot be accidental that so many famous men and women have been born on whin. On the contrary, Reverend, I think it really can be. And I'm sure that those luckless enough to have been born on the soft chalk rock of the far south of England would take offence at the suggestion that they have therefore not managed to produce any great or famous sons and daughters.

It must have been a lonely life being the only man with a university education in a Northumbrian village in the early 20th century. One can understand why rural clergy developed consuming interests in some odd subjects. The modern believers in ley lines don't have that excuse. Perhaps such a sympathetic magic approach to life - a mystical identification with landscape - is somehow innate in us. I have more than once heard people who grew up in Northumberland and moved away for a while say that they came back here because they just couldn't bear living in a flat landscape, that they just missed the hills so much.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Berwick Bear Breaks Her Chains

This terrific image was created by Borders artist Cara Lockhart Smith for the Berwick Trades Union Council to use on its banner. It cleverly references both the chained bear on Berwick's town crest and the famous Marxist advice that the workers of the world have 'nothing to lose but their chains'.

It is tempting to use this as a starting point for a discussion of the ideological arguments currently convulsing the Labour party, but those national issues are outside the local scope of this blog. I did have a purely local argument with someone over their blind devotion to an idealistic form of Christian socialism which life has cured me of believing in, but I don't want to go into that here either.

No, this image strikes a chord with me at present because I have finally succeeded in selling my flat. The buyers' faces were lit up with joy at the prospect of owning their very own holiday home on the Berwick quayside. Ah, how well I remember that feeling. Fingers crossed that in their case the feeling lasts at least until after exchange of contracts. The flat was marketed as a 'refurb project' or what my Kiwi friends call 'a fixer-upper', which marks my final admission that domesticity and DIY are perhaps not my strongest skill set and it would be better to let somebody else do it.

I hope I'm not betraying the whole spirit of this blog if I confess that I am getting a little home-sick for Northumberland. When I moved from Alnwick to Berwick I naively thought that I was staying in Northumberland, but I was very wrong. Berwick has been dragged kicking and screaming into a purely formal membership of that fine county, but it has never stopped resenting it. I told the estate agent that I would only consider buying a new place on the Tweedmouth side of the river, and it says a lot about this area that he did not look in the least surprised.

He had already told me that the political ferment north of the border has led to some clients deciding to move there because they want to make a definitive commitment to Scotland. I fear that I am starting to feel that I want to make a definitive commitment to Northumberland. Historical Northumberland that is, which includes the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Of course, if you want to go all the way back and talk about 'historical Northumberland' in the same way as scholars of the Middle East use the term 'historical Syria', the Kingdom of Northumbria once stretched all the way to Edinburgh. Yes, the present capital of Scotland was once ruled from Bamburgh castle. It was, admittedly, a very long time ago, and no Scot has ever expressed a desire to revert to that particular political regime.

So there may be a bit of a hiatus in this blog while I sort myself out. But never fear, my loyalty to this region will never fade, and I will continue to write about anything interesting that happens here. In the meantime, please continue to browse my 122 previous posts.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

First successful SNP wind-up of Westminster is over hunting, of all things

Image result for fox

I confess this is not my own photo, I just copied it from an online library. I could not get a photo of the fox cub referred to in my last post because it was already stressed by the presence of so many humans, let alone by having a flash go off in its face. And I never see a fox in the wild to try to photograph - not in the Borders at least. In London, yes. Last time I was in London I saw a fox running past Victoria coach station and was told that's not unusual. These animals are not stupid, they know that in cities there is more food and less hassle.

In my last post I spoke too soon about the Conservative government quietly dropping its plans to re-legalise fox hunting. They announced a vote to take place today on liberalising the law to allow larger number of dogs to be used to flush out foxes before they are killed by shooting. At the last minute they cancelled it, apparently out of a fear that they would lose the vote. The Conservatives themselves, in line with tradition, would allow party members a free vote in accordance with their conscience, and enough Conservatives are opposed to hunting to make a majority uncertain when all other parties are also opposed. The Labour party broke with tradition to 'whip' their members to vote against, that is to make it a party disciplinary matter to vote as instructed, or else. The SNP gleefully seized the opportunity to 'remind David Cameron how small his majority is' by instructing all their large new wodge of MPs to vote against as well.

The irony here is that the law in Scotland is already more liberal than in England and the current plans would simply bring England in line. There was at one time a possibility that fox hunting might be legal on one side of the border and not the other, leading to much disingenuous argument by hunt supporters in the region covered by this blog to the effect that if the fox ran over the border, well, you know, it's not always very clear where the border is out in wild countryside, and you can't expect a pack of hounds to just stop running when they pass it ... So it would be better all round to keep the law of the two countries in line. But some people would rather do that by making Scottish law on the subject less permissive.

The really delightful aspect of this parliamentary manoeuvring is that the expression 'to whip' MPs derives from fox hunting in the first place. The party officials charged with making MPs do what the party leader wants, sometimes allegedly by means bordering on blackmail, were nicknamed 'whippers in' after the members of a hunt who keep the hounds rounded up and under control. There are other English idioms that come from the same source, such as 'in full cry', an expression sometimes used of 'a pack' of journalists in pursuit of their 'quarry'.

When fox hunting was first banned in England by the Labour government ten years ago I was quite sad about it, because I had happy memories of being taken along to meets as a child. I never went anywhere near a horse or a hound, we just went along to watch the riders assemble and enjoy the spectacle. Lots of people did that, especially on Boxing Day and New Year's Day, traditionally the two landmark meets of the season, hangovers notwithstanding. But the behaviour of hunt supporters in the decade since then has turned me against them. They have behaved with the most blatant arrogance, preserving the entire apparatus of hunting intact, ready for the confidently expected day when their own political party will legalise it all again, and pretending that it is merely an unfortunate accident when a fox is actually killed by dogs rather than the dogs being called off in time. Regardless of one's views on the ethics of hunting, most of us dislike seeing any group of people behaving as if they are above the law. It is not helping the Conservative party to shed its image as the party of the landed gentry and the large farmer.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Berwick Wildlife Trust Open Day

Regular readers of my blog may remember that I have always derived much comfort, in the face of the vicious local, national and international politics afflicting Berwick, from the herd of swans who swim serenely to and fro across the border, and that I have always admired the work of the Swan Trust with their  motto 'caring for wildlife both sides of the border'. So when I saw that they were having an open day I resolved to go. That was earlier today, and I was not disappointed.

The Trust was originally formed to protect swans from injury and the effects of pollution, but it has branched out to cover all kinds of wildlife and is officially called the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust.

It now has premises out on the industrial estate, named the David Rollo Centre in memory of a local vet who did a great deal of unpaid work for the Trust. Today the centre was housing: three adult swans, two cygnets, a brood of ducklings, two owls, assorted other birds, several hedgehogs, and a fox cub. The man who was answering questions said that they can't cope with otters, badgers, seals or deer. Seals are sent down the coast to Tynemouth or even Norfolk. Otters and anything large are taken in by the SSPCA (like the RSPCA only Scottish rather than Royal) over the border, who have more space and a bigger pond.

This cute little chap is a herring gull chick. They have lots of those. Apparently at this time of year a lot of chicks injure themselves by thinking they can fly when they can't. How sweet this one looked as he tried to flap his fluffy little wings and squirted out the contents of his tiny bowels! It was enough to make you forget that most Berwickers don't want herring gulls to survive, including me most of the time. Only, with timing so perfect you wouldn't dare make it up, one of the adult brethren of these little balls of fluff flapped his large noisy wings and emptied the contents of his large soggy bowels all over me as I walked through the town centre later this afternoon. That's right, on my head. I had to go straight home and wash my hair. Last year I lost a handbag to a seagull's forcefully ejected waste products. Still, as the man said, 'We are a wildlife trust, we can't discriminate between different kinds of wildlife.' He even claimed that numbers of herring gulls are falling. If they're falling in other parts of the country, that may be because they've all moved to Berwick.

This cygnet came into the centre because his mother rejected him and tried to drown him. Surely a case for avian social services. One of the adult swans was knocked down by a car on Holy Island causeway after the driver tried to cross before the road was clear of water - yet another example of the damage done by idiots who think they know better than the tide table.

The fox cub was adorable. There is still a division in rural areas between those who hunt foxes for sport and those who rescue and nurse injured foxes. A small child covered her ears in horror when the Trust worker explained that they feed the cub on day-old chicks, which seems to prove that pro-hunting propagandists are astute to use photos of hens ripped apart by foxes to support their case. Hunting is now technically illegal but hunts are doing everything they possibly can, up to and sometimes beyond the limit of the law, to carry on as before. The Conservative party once promised to re-legalise fox hunting when it was returned to power, but it seems to have quietly let that drop. The hunting-shooting-fishing lobby likes to describe its activities as 'the traditional country way of life'. Actually, the people who give their time and skills free to the Wildlife Trust are just as much true country folk.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Berwick Castle At Peace

I am conscious that my last few posts have consisted of intemperate ravings about the general election, and feel a need to redress the balance. So here are some pretty pictures of the ruins of Berwick castle on a lovely summer evening (yesterday, in fact).

Despite its importance as a border fortress, there is not a lot left of Berwick castle, because it was inconveniently occupying the site deemed most suitable for a railway station by the Victorians. I have always admired the confidence in progress that led them to feel no qualms about knocking most of it down. A fine view of the only surviving outer wall can be had from the northbound platform of the station. It continues down the hill to the river, as seen in this picture.

Some local tourism activists would like to rebuild the castle, or at least erect a gift shop amid the ruins. This seems to me to be: a) barmy b) expensive and c) unlikely to attract visitors who have the option of any number of other castles within half an hour's drive. Castles are pretty much ten a penny in the English Borders. As somebody who grew up in the shadow of one of the most imposing, Alnwick, and regularly played on the beach beneath another, Bamburgh, I have serious castle fatigue. When we went on holiday to Wales during my teens I moaned all the time about being made to tour another load of castles - built of course for the same reason, to maintain English control over another nation of the British Isles. But lots of people from more peaceful parts of England love the things.

That bird obligingly alighted on those stones at just the right time. When a composition like this comes together in a fine evening light, I remember why I came to live in Berwick in the first place. On a wet Wednesday in January, the ruins just look, well, ruined. There are a couple of benches strategically placed for admiring the views that also provide a home for the local drunks, hence the fine scattering of broken glass all over this ancient monument. In the right mood I appreciate this for the same reason I appreciate the Victorians knocking the rest of the thing down. Life goes on. Some of the activities of medieval people that we research today would have been disapproved of and censored in their own time.

If you want to know about the history of the castle, read Jim Herbert's blog, Berwick Timelines (linked to in my sidebar). It's more his sort of thing than mine. He has all the dates and facts about the history of Berwick at his fingertips.

These rooms on the lowest level of the castle, used by the soldiers on duty to keep warm as best they could while keeping an eye out for the enemy, are the only rooms to have survived. I always find it a little creepy when walking past them to the river bank, as shown here. The atmosphere in the tunnel is dark and dank even in the summer. The local drunks treat the cells as convenient waste disposal chutes for their cans and bottles, and the metal grilles installed by the conservation bods make it impossible to reach and remove them. Yes indeed, life goes on.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Never Tickle A Sleeping Lion

Has David Cameron ever read any Harry Potter books? Surely his children must have told him about them at least. So he should know that the motto of Hogwarts school is 'never tickle a sleeping dragon', and yet he has learned nothing from it. A few hours ago Alex Salmond announced that 'the Scottish lion has roared this morning across the country'. This is not surprising to those of us who follow these things closely, because any lion would roar if it had been, not just tickled, but poked and prodded mercilessly for weeks, as the Scots have been by Mr Cameron.

The Conservative party decided that their best electoral hope was to terrify the English with dire predictions that a Labour government could only stay in power with the support of the Scottish National Party, and that it would thus be forced to allow its leader Nicola Sturgeon, whom it depicted as a combination of Valkyrie and Wonderwoman, possessed of political super-powers, to sweep down across the border and lay waste to England. This kind of rhetoric became more and more absurd as the campaign wore on, and by the final week before polling had crossed the line into being offensive. The final straw for me was when Boris Johnson, wannabe prime minister, said that a Labour-SNP alliance would be 'a jock-alypse'. Even allowing for the fact that Boris is known for his eccentric humour, this is not okay. He would not think it acceptable to coin a facetious term featuring any other ethnic nickname or stereotype, but somehow insulting the Scots is fine. The fact he did not realise that this expression was offensive illustrates the problem.

The Conservatives have now got what they wanted. The English have rejected the scary Labour party with its nasty foreign allies and returned a Conservative government with an overall majority, in defiance of all opinion polls. The Scots have rejected everybody except the SNP. The most memorable aspect of the night for me was hearing James Naughtie on Radio 4 sounding genuinely shaken by the Scottish results he was reading out. It takes a lot to shake a hardened news and politics presenter like James Naughtie. At one point he used the word 'revolutionary' about what was happening in Scotland, and he was right. This is not a vote for a political party, this is a wholesale rejection of the Westminster government and the present constitution of the United Kingdom.

The Conservatives are committed to holding a referendum on membership of the European Union in a couple of years time. There is a real possibility that it will return a majority for Yes to leaving in England but for No in Scotland, and Nicola Sturgeon has astutely reserved the right to demand a second referendum on independence if England tries to force Scotland to leave the E.U. against its will. I think she would be right to do so. But the consequences of that are frightening, at least from my viewpoint right on the border. We will once again have to face the bullet we thought we had dodged last September, that Berwick could become the frontier of the E.U.

I believe there is now almost no question that a second independence referendum would return a Yes majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum last September, I pointed out on this blog that the headline figure of 55% favouring staying in the UK should not blind us to the fact that the percentage of No voters had fallen steadily over the course of the campaign. Guess what, it has kept on falling for the last seven months and here we are with the result today.

There are only so many ways of saying 'David Cameron is an idiot' and I have used most of them on this blog over the past two years. To my great regret he is now an idiot who seems likely to keep being prime minister for another five years. His utterly inept handling of the Better Together campaign and his cynical use of the SNP as a bogeyman to frighten his core support in the south of England has brought us to this point. The only ray of hope I can see right now is that Boris Johnson, who is far more intelligent than Cameron, was on breakfast radio today already talking about the necessity to move towards outright federalism as the only way of countering the demand for full Scottish independence. I completely agree with him, and I hope he does penance for his ill-advised joke by forcing his party to get on with it and by ousting Cameron as PM if he refuses. The United Kingdom will not survive another five years of the Honourable Witterer for Witney.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Tories receive 'every mark of disapprobation' - in 1859

I am writing this during voting hours for the general election, so I can't tell you who won yet. I've just returned from attempting to mark my cross with a choice of using either a pencil tied on the right-hand side (I'm left-handed, and we're about the only minority group you're still allowed to discriminate against) or a free-range pencil with a broken point. My polling station is the one shown here, which the rest of the time is St Cuthbert's church hall. The clerk told me he was already so tired that he was struggling to read the numbers on my card, because turn-out has been brisk. There is always a rather moving contrast between the extremely low-tech nature of actually voting and the vigour of British democracy. As far as I can see the only technical innovation in the last fifty years has been the provision of a gadget that allows blind people to mark their paper unaided.

So I thought this would be a good time to write about an election held in Berwick back in 1859, before the introduction of the secret ballot, long before women's suffrage, and after only the most limited reform of the franchise. Michael Cullen, a local historian, has painstakingly researched this subject and written up his findings in this short booklet. I am entirely indebted to him for this information.

It seems that Berwick was notorious for corrupt practices in elections even by the lax standards of the 1850s, and the goings-on at the 1859 election were even more deplorable than usual. It was regarded as a 'cheap' seat because it only had 1,300 enfranchised residents, and buying that many votes was considered do-able by most candidates, who seem to have treated the matter as a straightforward cost-benefit analysis.

In those days the voters had to announce their choice of candidate within earshot of anybody who cared to hang around the polling station. This resulted not only in intimidation but in a running total of votes being kept throughout the day, so that the candidate who was behind knew he was behind and would probably go out and drum up some more support by whatever murky means seemed necessary. Although only a small percentage of the adult males of the town had a vote, most of the population had an opinion and did not hesitate to make it known. One local paper reported that ' votes given for the Liberals were received with the most enthusiastic cheering, while those electors who gave their support to the Tories were received with hisses, groans, and every mark of disapprobation'. The other local paper described the anti-Tory protests as 'groans, yells, hisses and cats' noises'.  When it was announced that the Tories had won, the crowd broke down a barricade set up to keep them back, over-turned the table being used by the clerks for refreshments, and 'shied' the resulting pieces of broken glass and crockery around the hall. Then they rampaged around the town breaking windows in the houses of known Tory supporters.

The Liberals decided to challenge the results of the election on the grounds that their opponents had engaged in extensive bribery. This had only been technically illegal since the passing of the Corrupt Practices Act of 1854 and cultural change was lagging behind. Such a formal legal challenge was a recognised custom at the time, and although the fee was very expensive it could be worth it if the outcome of the election was reversed. The procedure was that a Royal Commission was set up to enquire into the matter and numerous witnesses were required to travel to London to give evidence. They were paid a per diem rate for their expenses there, and since it was more than many of the voters earned back home, the result was that some witnesses were dismissed by the judge as being too drunk to say anything useful or even coherent, and at least one was arrested for contempt of court. The judge was also exasperated by the mysterious loss of memory afflicting many of the witnesses regarding the question of payment for their vote, most amusingly in the case of a man who said that he had seen a hand place a coin under his glass in the pub but had never caught so much as a glimpse of the body to which the hand was attached. The final report complained that some of the witnesses had 'prevaricated and perjured themselves with the most hardened effrontery'.

The picture which emerges from the proceedings is that it was usual practice for the candidates to withdraw several hundred pounds in coins from their banks and present it to their election agents to distribute as they thought best, with many nods and winks. The going rate per vote seems to have been about £2. One voter was brought by train from Beadnell and claimed that the money was for his train fare, but was at a loss to explain why it had been necessary to pay £2 for a ticket that normally cost 2 shillings. Some men accepted cash from one side and then voted for the other. Some happily accepted cash from both sides. Some immediately spent a chunk of the money on getting so drunk that they had to be held up in the polling booth. A policeman stationed on the town walls had reportedly encouraged the crowd to go down and get their share of the goodies, as 'there was plenty going', though he later denied saying any such thing. Some of the ladies of the voters' families had been offered silk gowns. And beyond straight-out cash payments there was widespread 'treating', the lavish purchasing of food and drink for voters.

The Commission finally found a long-ish list of people guilty of giving or taking bribes. The Tory agent fled the country to avoid arrest. It was generally conceded locally that the Commission ought to have looked more closely at what was going on over on the Liberal side as well, since they were well known to be up to all the same tricks. Michael Cullen wonders if hostility to the Tories locally was driving support for the case. From their behaviour on polling day, it certainly seems that anger was widespread among those who had no vote towards those who did have one and sold it to a hated party.

More disturbing than actual bribery is the evidence that loss of employment was a real possibility for a man who voted in a way disagreeable to his boss or a potential future boss. One voter said he had only voted for the Tory candidate because he expected him to offer his son a job. The introduction of compulsory secret ballot in 1872 removed this fear, and it also removed much of the incentive to bribe, since a candidate had no way of knowing whether he had got his money's worth. In the long run, though, it was only the extension of the franchise that ended routine bribery, as the number of voters became un-affordably large.

I have some concerns that the rise in postal voting at the present time may be re-introducing some of the 'corrupt practices' of the 1850s. Over the last fifteen years or so there have been numerous reports of people selling their postal votes on Ebay, handing them over to strangers in the pub in exchange for a drink, or allowing helpful candidates to fill the forms in for them. But I can't believe that this is typical of the 21st century voter. Even in 1859 there were reportedly some Berwick voters who refused bribes and told the agents they were not to be bought. Looking at the number of people waiting to use the broken pencil in the church hall today, I believe that their spirit lives on. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

General Election 2015

One of my neighbours here in Berwick is leaving nobody in any doubt about where their political loyalties lie. Their flat has another set of windows round the corner and there are Green party posters in all of them as well. Walking past them every day is starting to have a slightly brainwashing effect on me.

But I don't really mind that because it forms a valuable antidote to the cartloads of leaflets that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have been delivering to my mailbox. In fact the word 'leaflets' does not really cover it - some of them are disguised as newspapers.  So far the LibDems have the edge over the Tories both in sheer quantity of trees felled for the sake of winning my vote and in having the effrontery to send me a Christmas card. Their electoral machine was already fired up and running in December and at that time I had not yet learned to recognise a Derby return address as a warning sign that a letter comes from Clegg  Co., so I opened it eagerly in the expectation of finding a card from an old friend, only to find my local candidate Julie Porksen waxing lyrical about the happy family Christmas she was looking forward to and hoping I was doing likewise. I am sure that Ms Porksen would be saddened to learn that I hurled the card across the room and immediately became quite a lot less likely to vote for her.

But please don't think that the Conservatives are trying any less hard. This is their constituency office in Alnwick. The reason that their garden is looking so beautifully groomed may be that David Cameron honoured our constituency with a visit last week. I only found out about it after it had happened, so I missed the opportunity to avoid him. The Conservative candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan is being promoted with the cringe-worthy slogan, 'take it from me, we need Anne-Marie'. Thanks to the party's strong support among the farming community, Mrs Trevelyan is beaming out at the voters from fields, hedges and caravan parks across the constituency.

Despite being thirty miles apart and usually behaving as if they were entirely unrelated to each other, Berwick and Alnwick are in the same parliamentary constituency. It is in terms of geographical area the largest in England, though it still has fewer residents than many. The constituency is named after Berwick, which I'm quite sure galls many residents of Alnwick ("we're the historic county town, you know!").  After the blip when it elected William Beveridge, it stayed solidly Conservative, but it turned Liberal again in 1973 after the MP of the day resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, and has kept on returning Alan Beith ever since, partly because he is a likeable and hard-working man and partly thanks to large scale tactical voting by people who would really rather vote Labour. Mr Beith - sorry, he's now Sir Alan - has decided that 2015 would be a suitable time to retire, and the Conservatives are certain that they can now take the constituency back, because the anticipated reversion to Labour by coalition-haters will cost the LibDems their majority. Hence the visit by the PM himself.

Labour have never bothered to seriously contest Berwick, but this year they have roused themselves sufficiently to send me one leaflet, featuring their candidate Scott Dickinson posing in front of the railway bridge over the Tweed in a manner rather too obviously calculated to indicate, 'I do actually know where Berwick is, you know'. Although distracted by the shocking standard of proof-reading in the leaflet (I do that for a living and I notice these things), I can't argue with their central point that last time we voted LibDem tactically to keep the Conservatives out and ended up with both of them in government, so this time why bother.

The Greens have not so far sent me any leaflets at all. Some of my friends report receiving a Green leaflet, so maybe they just don't have the personnel to cover the whole town, though I would have thought that the occupant of the multi-postered house shown above could have strolled around the corner to deliver a few. The Green candidate is called Rachael Roberts and I keep getting her confused with Rachel Reeves, a Labour MP who is often interviewed about economic matters. I imagine some other people do too, and who can tell whether this works for or against Ms Roberts.

UKIP have just got around to delivering their one leaflet. Their candidate,Nigel Coghill Marshall, is using a photo that doesn't do him any favours, but there's always something appealing about the sheer purpleness of the Kipper stuff. Mr Coghill Marshall sent me a nice email telling me about himself after I emailed all the candidates asking them to upload their CVs to the website, a project run by the Democracy Club. None of them have done that, and the other four never replied to me either. During the 2010 election campaign I scanned and uploaded leaflets for this project, but in 2015 I have opted out of that because if I try to keep up with all the Trevelyan and Porksen leaflets my scanner will probably catch fire.

Late in the day, a sixth candidate threw his hat into the ring. Neil Humphrey is standing for the English Democrats. They are apparently similar to UKIP but have split from them because they object to UKIP saying that they 'believe in Britain', rather than in England. Do try to keep up. The EngDems' main policy is the creation of an English parliament to balance the Scottish parliament, and they have targeted Berwick as a key constituency because of worries about what concessions the Scottish Nationalists may be able to extract in the next parliament. This is of course right up the street of this blog, so I hope that the EngDems are able to scrape together the cash to print a few leaflets explaining all this in more detail and put one in my mailbox.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Lion and the Unicorn Are Fighting For Our Taxes

This is the coat of arms over the gateway of the Barracks in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I was vaguely aware that something similar turns up on many official institutions of the British state, but never knew what it meant until I finally got around to looking it up after taking this photo. Apparently it's the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. Somehow I've managed to avoid learning that for the last five decades, which I think means I've just failed my UK Citizenship test.

The Lion is a symbol of England and, through English domination of the Union, of the whole of Britain. I remember in history lessons at school looking at Victorian cartoons from Punch magazine that showed ill-advised foreigners daring to 'twist the tail of the British lion'. It is less well known that the Unicorn is an old heraldic symbol of Scotland. The reason it is chained is because this mythical beast has such dangerous supernatural powers, as we all now know from the Harry Potter books. It has nothing at all to do with Scotland not being free, but of course the symbol of the chain has now acquired a new resonance.

Thanks to an 'interesting facts about Scotland' item in the Scotsman newspaper, I now know that the old royal coat of arms of Scotland showed a shield supported by two unicorns. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 King James VI / I replaced one of them with the English lion to represent the Union. The version of the Coat of Arms now used in Scotland shows the Unicorn on the left (because in our culture where we read from left to right the left-hand position is considered to have primacy) and also wearing a crown. It does though still seem to be chained.

A popular piece of verse made famous by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass joked that the Lion and the Unicorn looked as if they were fighting over the crown rather than jointly supporting it. Since independence for Scotland became a live issue that view seems most apt. The reason for adapting the line for the title of this post is that today is the first day of the new tax year. It has a special significance here on the border because the first steps towards letting Scotland set its own taxes come into effect this month. As of April 1st (yes, I'm sure everybody's made that joke) there is an entity called Revenue Scotland up and running. It will start off by collecting some existing taxes and get geared up ready to collect new or different taxes that the Scottish government may introduce under newly devolved powers.

I don't claim to understand all the details but I am inordinately excited about this. I confess that life on the border has seemed a little dull and flat since the indyref returned a No result. But if and when Scottish income tax becomes higher than the English kind, we can look forward to a flurry of activity again. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing and house buying and selling. I can tell that this prospect is really worrying some people because the campaign against the SNP by all the other parties contesting the general election is starting to get dirty. That's way better than treating it as a joke like they used to. I love this stuff! Bring it on!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Hail, Holy Light

Hail, holy light! Only a quotation from Milton can do justice to the joy those of us who live at these northern latitudes feel over the return of the sun in springtime. Today is officially the first day of spring, and I have now ceremonially washed my gloves and put them away in the drawer until the autumn. I'm holding off on parting with my woolly hat for a bit longer.

This afternoon was a gorgeous day of spring sunshine and I took this photo of the lighthouse at Berwick-upon-Tweed. We were amazed at the way the waves were breaking right over the pier. Today this was not because it was windy or stormy, as in the Craster post below, but just because the tide was exceptionally high. We were warned that it would be because of the proximity of the moon to the earth, related to yesterday's partial solar eclipse.

The eclipse was a fantastic experience. While London based broadcasters sulked in overcast conditions that rendered the sun invisible, we enjoyed a perfect clear, sunny morning. I was down on the quayside with a group of neighbours. As the moon began to move across the sun at about 9.25 am the seagulls seemed to become agitated and swirled around in a squawking flock. I was certain that it would take more than an eclipse to upset Berwick seagulls, the gangsters of the avian world, but I was wrong. At the point of maximum eclipse both the temperature and the light level  had noticeably dropped. The red tones of the stones of the Old Bridge were more pronounced than usual and the quality of the light resembled that before a thunderstorm. One of my neighbours went to have a look at the swans and reported that they had assembled on the slipway and gone to sleep, as they do in the evening.

I was kindly granted a look at the screen of a filtered camera one person had set up on the quayside, and sure enough there was a beautiful crescent sun at the point of 90% eclipse, the maximum visible here. Two people told me later that they had made pinhole cameras that gave an excellent view of the sun, but sadly I didn't think of that soon enough. What was really good was that when clouds passed over the sun as the moon was moving away, it was possible to look directly at the sun for a moment and see the silhouette of the moon very clearly behind the cloud.

I am rather regretting not taking a photo of the Old Bridge during the eclipse, but I'm not sure that the unusual lighting effects would show up in a photo. Instead here is one taken this afternoon, complete with a large clump of grass floating incongruously downstream, presumably dislodged by the high tide.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Cromwellian Green Man

This is the carving on the lintel over the main door of the parish church in Berwick upon Tweed. It is an example of the type of figure known as a 'green man', that is, a man's face surrounded by foliage. These are apparently quite common on churches, much to the delight of Neo-Pagans who see them as an indication of the survival of pre-Christian belief long after Europe was nominally Christianised.

This one is evidently little known, judging by the fact that all the Google results for 'green man Berwick' were about a pub called The Green Man in Berwick Street, London.  The thing that always seems strange to me about it is that Berwick church is an extremely rare example of a church built during the Cromwellian period, that is the decade or so between the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 when hard-line Reformed Christianity was the power in the land. The original design of Holy Trinity church conformed to strict puritan principles: no steeple, no bells, no stained glass, no altar. Graven images of any kind were anathema to these strict Protestants. So why then put a Green Man over the door ??

I have found a great little website that explains all things to do with Green Men. It suggests many interpretations: that such images may have been purely decorative, with no remembered symbolic significance; that they may have been identified with the devil and placed over church doorways as a warning to worshippers; that they may have been perceived as Christian because of the tradition that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made from wood from a tree descended from the Tree of Knowledge that was the downfall of Adam and Eve; and of course that they really were a lovingly retained symbol of folk practices related to the cycle of the seasons.

During my four years as a rather mature research student I went to a lot of conferences on religious studies, and developed a love-hate relationship with the modern pagans who attended them in quantities. Most of them were very pleasant and interesting people and I sometimes miss them. On the other hand the shiny-eyed enthusiasms and sweeping unscholarly statements that some of them were prone to frequently exasperated me, and put me off taking an interest in pre-Christian religions for a long time. I have now mellowed somewhat, and am prepared to take pagan survivals seriously again, though I still have issues with anything involving the 'collective unconscious'.

In fact I have mellowed so much that I have just re-read my old Pelican of  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, a classic work by H.R.Ellis Davidson, born Hilda Ellis in 1914 and far removed from the scholar-practitioners who abound in academia nowadays, but very sympathetic to the loyal followers of Odin and Thor who witnessed the replacement of their ancient faith by Christianity. By the time I had finished this book I was quite convinced that the centrality of the crucifixion in the iconography of European Christianity has a lot to do with the centrality of the story of Odin hanging on a tree in order to acquire mystical wisdom in the faith which it slowly and with difficulty replaced. There are Old English poems whose imagery blends the two traditions of cross and tree almost inseparably.

So I am now open to suggestions about ancient symbols of foliage too.  I do have a nagging feeling that the use of this symbol on a church built on such severe puritan principles may weaken the argument that it was a genuine pagan survival and reinforce the view that it was intended to be either purely decorative or actively diabolic. Unless of course it was put up at a later date as an ostentatiously anti-puritan gesture. I think I need to do some more research. But I'm sure that lots of readers will be keen to help me with that.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Challenging Weather at Craster

Discovering that it is possible to digitalise transparencies has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for blogging. I'm posting this old 35 mm slide just because it's such a great picture. It shows the harbour at Craster on a stormy day with the waves breaking impressively over the wall.

Definitely the kind of day when the emergency services put out stern warnings against standing on the harbour wall just to gawp at the view, but no committed photographer has ever cared much for health and safety. Certainly the one who took this, my late father John Housby, never did and nor did his camera club buddies. I have a photo of him gleefully standing on a cliff edge on the wrong side of a sign that says 'danger, do not go beyond this point', taken by one of the said camera club buddies. Maybe I'll digitalise and post that one some day.

Craster is a small fishing village in north Northumberland. It did not have a harbour at all until the family in the local 'big house', who have the same name as the village, had this one built as an act of philanthropy in the early years of the 20th century. Imagine what it was like having to launch a fishing coble straight out into the open sea. Challenging.  The village has its own history site here.

In the distance on the left side of the picture is Dunstanburgh Castle, a ruin so picturesque that it has become the greatest visual cliche in Northumberland and has accordingly been banished from my blog, but I'm prepared to let it just sneak into the corner like this. As I related in my post on interesting local place names, the name Craster is derived, according to Stan Beckensall's handy guide, from the Old English craw-ceastre, meaning a fort inhabited by crows. Looking along to the ruined castle it still seems a very apt name.  During my childhood visits to Craster we always had a cuppa in a local cafe called The Choughs. According to the RSPB website, the chough is indeed a bird of the crow family but it is no longer found on the north-east coast. Shame.

I used a section of this photo for the cover image of my first attempt at writing fiction to self-publish. I wanted to have a go at evoking the feeling of a small coastal village when the summer tourists have gone and the winter storms have arrived, and I ended up writing a short story set in a fictional village that is a cross between Craster and Seahouses. That has been quite well received and I am now working on publishing more short stories. I'll put the link on this blog when it's live.