Sunday 16 June 2019

The Future's Dark, the Future's Orange

It's been a long time since I posted anything on this blog, because I was living away from the region it concerns for a couple of years. I'm now back in Northumberland and, guess what, the political forces threatening to make life on the English-Scottish border difficult have not gone away. In fact they just get more and more complex.

I'm not living in Berwick any more but I go there regularly to catch up with the amazing community of artists and other creative folk there, which I really miss. This bohemian community is centred on Bridge Street, next to the river. I'd called in to Slightly Foxed bookshop to say hello to owner Simon Heald, and heard him talking to another customer about an Orange march that was apparently assembling in the town centre. I got the impression that the police had been round warning all the shopkeepers on the route.

How very odd, I thought. Many years ago, before I ever lived in Berwick, I came across a small Orange parade heading across the bridge, and was rather startled. I've never seen anything like that since and had assumed that like many old traditions it had died out. I was intrigued by the thought of seeing another one.

So I had my lunch in the cafe of the YHA in the Dewars Lane Granary and was just heading back up the lane when loud drumming was heard in the distance. I put on a burst of speed and arrived in Bridge Street just in time to see a rather large number of the biggest and loudest drums I've ever seen in a parade rounding the corner, accompanied by the odd flute and a lot of banners.

I have certainly never seen anything on this scale in Berwick before and neither has anyone I spoke to about it. None of the participants seemed to be local. I saw two banners from the Scottish Borders, Hawick and Prestonpans,but the bulk of them seemed to be from Yorkshire. I confess that the existence of groups called Sons of William, Crown Defenders, or plain Loyalist Yorkshire, had previously escaped my notice. Later in the day I saw a child wearing a sweatshirt saying Loyalist Yorkshire and found the sight disturbing in a way I can't quite put my finger on.

Simon in the bookshop, never a man to mince his words, seemed to be the most genuinely angry I've ever seen him about the sight of this lot processing past his shop. He was equally forthright a few years back when the Scottish Defence League, the north-of-the-border version of the notorious English Defence League, staged a march in Berwick. The gist of his views on all of these groups was that the whole bloody lot of them could bugger off. All of the feedback I've heard so far from Berwick locals is along the same lines.

One of the marchers was actually heard to shout No Surrender. During my period of travelling in 2016 I visited the Siege Museum in Londonderry (definitely not Derry in this context) and finally managed to understand what this slogan is all about. It refers to the city's defence against the army of the Catholic James II / VII in 1689. Even when I was in Northern Ireland I found myself thinking quite often that having your head permanently stuck in 1689 is a bit daft. And as for invoking its memory in 2019 in a town that is nowhere near Ireland, it's just, like .... what ??

The only explanation I can think of is that the Loyalist movement now sees the threat of Scottish Nationalism as the new front in the struggle to keep the United Kingdom together, and has decided that Berwick-upon-Tweed is the most appropriate place to make their point. The prospect of this march being repeated every year is deeply unappealing. What makes Berwick so special is that it transcends the border. While it is technically, legally, in England it exists culturally and socially in a place that is neither England nor Scotland. The last thing we want is outsiders trying to arouse artificial and non-traditional national loyalties here. Of course, one could say that all those infuriating London journalists who descended on us in 2014 during the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum were doing essentially the same thing.

I've often said that Berwickers are in denial about just how bad things could potentially get on the border after Brexit and possibly after a second Scottish independence referendum. Brexit has amplified many tensions and conflicts in the UK and unleashed some dark forces. Being a perverse sort of creature, this makes me very glad that I came back to Northumberland. I couldn't care less about encouraging tourism. I'm all about the dystopia.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

The 70th Anniversary of the NHS

Hello again, for the first time in a while. I decided to post these pictures on here because they have a local significance. These are the scanned images of some paperwork retrieved from the house of my uncle when I cleared it after his death. The originals are now in the Northumberland County Archives at Woodhorn.

This one is the notice of the changes to National Health Insurance about to come into effect on 5th July 1948. Note the address of the local office in Clayport Street, Alnwick.

This is my uncle's membership card of an 'approved society' collecting contributions under the health insurance scheme established just before World War 1, covering employed workers.

It shows my uncle's address, and so incidentally also illustrates the Blackpool connection in my family history. My grandparents called their Alnwick red-brick semi 'Norbreck' after the place my grandmother grew up, originally a tiny medieval village just to the north of Blackpool but now very much a suburb.

This is the inside of the membership card, showing the record of contributions. Notice that a separate piece of paper has been stuck in to cover the period up to 4th July 1948. From the day after that nobody had to pay for health insurance any more, it was all free.

I think these documents are really interesting and important, because they are the kind of thing that rarely survives. (My uncle was a man who never willingly parted with a piece of paper, a characteristic that was mostly exasperating but in this case proved valuable.) They make it clear that the National Health Service was originally designed as a system of insurance, to take over from previous schemes of insurance to cover sickness and unemployment. Over time the link with 'national insurance' payments has been obscured and largely forgotten. I think the time has come to restore a form of contribution directly linked to the health service. Obviously means-tested and collected through taxation, but something that would make an often indifferent and ungrateful population focus more clearly on what they're paying for and how much they're paying and whether it's worth it or not. Like other countries. Like grown-ups.

Monday 5 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 22 April 2017

A Wonderful Tribute to Salmon Fishing on the Tweed

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Thoughts on Recent Travels in Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Another Walled City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 2 October 2016

You May Experience Connection Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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