Thursday 19 April 2012

Whatever Happened to the English Borders?

This flyer recently arrived in my letter box. Since I wholeheartedly agree that ‘the Borders is a special place with a great future’, I got rather excited at the prospect of a Borders Party. At last, someone has recognised the special problems of living on the border and started a party which will just stick up for this area and not be dictated to by either Edinburgh or London! I looked up their website. Alas, it was immediately clear that the Borders Party is only concerned with the Scottish Borders and has no candidates in Berwick. I fired off an email demanding to know why in that case they had bothered to deliver leaflets to Berwick. From the party’s headquarters in Jedburgh its leader, Nicholas Watson, sent me a cheerfully apologetic reply, explaining that this was an unavoidable consequence of taking advantage of the Post Office special rate for delivering to every address in a postal district. ‘We have raised a few eyebrows in Biggar as well’.

Berwick on Tweed has the postcode TD. This is a cross-border postal district which covers a fair amount of land on either side of the river Tweed (from which the code TD is presumably derived).  This is a source of enduring annoyance to some English loyalists who resent the fact that Berwick was not allocated to the NE (for Newcastle) area which covers all the rest of Northumberland, and see the anomalous postcode as an expression of a lack of commitment to the far north of the county by English local government. On a practical level, having a cross-border postcode sometimes throws up deliveries of junk mail which is irritating not merely for being unsolicited but for being addressed to the residents of another country. The RNLI exhorts  me to ‘support our Scottish lifeboats’. All of the supermarkets assure me that their milk is obtained 'from local Scottish farmers’. Meanwhile, there used to be a textile recycling bank outside our local Asda which promised that ‘everything donated in Scotland is recycled within Scotland’. Interestingly,  Asda stuck a large notice on it saying that this bank was unauthorised and should be removed, and eventually it was. I couldn’t say whether this was a corporate response to local sensitivities, but none of the recycling banks there now make claims about working in any particular geographical area.

What upsets me at a deeper level however is the increasing appropriation of the term ‘Borders’ by the Scottish end of the area as their exclusive property. When I was growing up in north Northumberland it was accepted that England had border country and that we were living in it. Historically the town of Alnwick has been considered to be the southern limit of the Borders, leaving a stretch of around forty miles regarded as the English Borders. There was a popular sense that the English and Scottish Borders were essentially a common region and that people living on either side of the line had more in common with each other than with the dominant urban areas of either country.

This started to change in 1996 when the name of the local government authority in south-east Scotland was changed from those of the historic counties it covers to Scottish Borders Council. This has led to a routine ambiguity, in speech at least, about whether the term Borders refers to the local government area covered by S.B.C. or to a loosely defined geographical region, and seems also to have hastened the disappearance of the term English Borders from popular use. The formation of a Scottish political party called the Borders Party looks like the ultimate expression of this. To be fair, Mr Watson did say in his reply to me that he feels Scottish politicians should recognise the shared heritage and common problems across the border more than they do. But I still resent receiving a flyer that promises ‘candidates in every part of the Borders’ when I have no possibility of voting for one myself.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Birds

It’s that time of year again in Berwick. The time when the seagulls are busy producing baby seagulls. The mating, nesting, breeding season. Whatever you want to call it, it means the season when they never stop screeching by day or by night. For seagulls any man-made structure near the water is just another cliff. All three bridges and any house within striking distance of the estuary are in a bird’s eye view handy nesting sites thoughtfully provided by humans. I know I’m very lucky to live beside the sea. But when I lie awake at 3 am listening to the ceaseless shrieking of the gulls circling around my roof, I sometimes wish I didn’t. When I do go inland for the day, I find myself wondering what that strange silence is. Isn’t there something missing?

Checking out the online reviews of local tourist accommodation, I noticed that complaints about the noise of the seagulls feature regularly. Quite what the unhappy visitors expect the hotel proprietors to do about this is not clear. Go out and shoot the gulls, perhaps? Some locals have been known to do this but when undertaken by amateurs it is illegal. According to the strict letter of the law, as interpreted by the wildlife columnist of the Berwick Advertiser, destroying nests is also forbidden except where the nest is causing serious inconvenience which the property owner cannot reasonably be expected to tolerate. This is a loophole into which many nests have disappeared. The photo here was taken two years ago and the nest shown was destroyed soon after by persons unknown. Since this particular pair had chosen to set up home right on the harbour wall, a most ridiculously unsuitable place, it is likely that their removal was officially sanctioned.

Before you judge Berwickers too harshly for this, let me tell you that sentimentality about seabirds does not long survive living in close proximity to gulls. Their behaviour has convinced me that Michael Crichton was right in his Jurassic Park speculation that birds evolved from velociraptors. They have no fear of humans at all and are absolutely ruthless in their pursuit of food. Someone I know claims that a seagull mugged him for his cornish pasty. I was once mobbed by gulls while ill-advisedly eating chips on a bench beside the river, to the point where I dropped the box and fled. I have seen gulls swooping on leftovers on plates at outdoor cafe tables. And I thought myself lucky that they’d allowed me to finish what I wanted first.

Needless to say, all this indiscriminate consumption of food that neither birds nor velociraptors evolved to eat leads to messy excretions. The subject of seagull droppings rouses Berwickers to frenzies of loathing. Cars cannot be kept clean, neither can windows. The gulls like to amuse themselves by waiting until the window cleaner has finished his round before circling back to target the sparkling panes. Last summer I allowed myself to be lured by an attractive view into forgetting one of the elementary rules of life in Berwick: never stand still underneath any object on which a seagull is able to perch. The result was that I had to return home with undignified haste and put all my outer clothing straight in the washing machine.

Most bizarrely of all, my first attempt to decorate the window sill of my new home with a vase of flowers resulted in a gull taking up residence on the outer sill and pecking persistently and noisily at the glass. The look in its eye was chilling. The eventual shattering of the glass seemed inevitable. I surmised that it had been attracted by the sight of flowers which it viewed as useful nesting material, and removed the vase to the far side of the room. This seemed to do the trick; at any rate the gull departed. Since then no vegetable matter of any kind has been visible in my windows during the spring. But I still wouldn’t be surprised to see a crowd of gulls crashing into my bedroom in a Hitchcockian bid for final supremacy. 

Thursday 5 April 2012

Hadrian's Wall

This week Debatable Land has travelled to the furthest limit of its range and brings you a photo from the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne. I am very fond of Newcastle and I urge you to visit it sometime, but describing its many attractions is outside the remit of this blog. The reason I’m going there now is to clear up the confusion about the location of Hadrian’s Wall. The term ‘the land north of the wall’ is sometimes used in loosely the same sense as ‘the debatable land’, but it has a much more precise meaning.

A remarkable number of people, and not just overseas, are under the impression that the ‘Roman Wall’, built by Emperor Hadrian in the year 122, followed the same route as the modern boundary between England and Scotland. This is NOT repeat NOT the case. For a start, nations in the modern sense did not exist anywhere at that period, let alone those of England and Scotland. The island of Britannia was still divided up into the territories of different tribes. Monarchy in a form we would recognise it emerged a few hundred years later and then for a few more hundred years after that the Scottish kings tried to push the border of their territory further south while the English kings tried to push it back north.

The Romans built a bridge across the river Tyne (Pons Aelius) and  a fort at the north end of it. Then they built a big wall on the north bank of the river, and eventually extended it across the whole width of Britannia. Yes, that is how Wallsend got its name. To complete a total defence against any attack by land or sea they later built forts on either side of the estuary of the Tyne, Segedunum and Arbeia, respectively located in what are now Wallsend and South Shields. The Wall itself survives only in some sections further west, but the line of it runs right through the centre of Newcastle. The main train station is situated about a hundred yards south of the line of the Wall, so if you walk towards the city centre after arriving there you are already technically in ‘the land north of the Wall’, even though drinking a latte in a packed shopping mall may not be how you imagined this barbarian territory.

The plaque in the photo is attached to the wall of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, a thriving private library and cultural centre which could not be further from the stereotypes, both ancient and modern, of the Barbarian North. The red paving stones it refers to are a bit grubby now, but can still be distinguished by anyone who is sufficiently interested. Sadly very few visitors are. Step inside the library, find a copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth and read the dramatic scene where the hero, fleeing from hostile tribesmen, hammers on a gate in the north face of the Wall and demands admission ‘in Caesar’s name’. Then thrill to the knowledge that that Wall was located right underneath your feet.