Sunday 25 November 2012

Polski Sklep: a frontier trading post?

This is the Polish shop in Berwick, which has been open for a while now and always seems to be busy. I've been in there myself a couple of times; it sells very good sausages and also jars of pickled beetroot, which is a secret weakness of mine. I was the only customer who couldn't understand Polish but the staff were happy to speak English to me and translate some labels. The bottom photo shows the new Eastern European food section in the local Asda. It seems that the small Polski Sklep is doing good enough business to make the mighty Asda feel it needs to get in on the act.

The arrival of large numbers of Eastern European migrants over the last decade has been one of the most dramatic changes to British society that I've seen in my lifetime. While this phenomenon is now taken for granted in cities, friends in London are often surprised to learn that the community here in the Borders is large enough to support specialist shops. In fact, according to official figures as quoted by the local BBC news, the North East region of England has the second largest number of Eastern European settlers after London. And if you counted the ones who choose to live just on the other side of the border it would be an even more striking statistic. The ability of Eastern Europeans to find work in places where the conventional wisdom is that there are no jobs is truly remarkable, and raises questions about the mismatch between the skills of indigenous job-seekers and those which are in demand locally. I don't want to get into that controversial area here though. For the purposes of this blog the interesting point is how migration within the E.U. relates to the campaign for Scottish independence.

The policy of the Scottish National Party is to increase the population of Scotland by encouraging immigration. It can't do this at present because immigration policy is a power reserved to the Westminster parliament, which would like to reduce immigration to England. The present population of Scotland is around 5 million, which is comparable to some other countries whose independence nobody would question (Norway is the favourite example) but dwarfed by the 52 million or so in England. Also there's an awful lot of empty space in Scotland.The SNP assures us that the New Scots will be people of all backgrounds and ethnicities - although they'd still really rather not have too many immigrants from England, thanks.

Modern Scottish nationalism has always been based on the assumption of membership of the E.U. 'An independent Scotland within a federal Europe' was a slogan back in the 1970s. Current crises in the E.U. are making all those plans rather uncertain, and now the Westminster government is emphasising that Scotland could not remain in the E.U. after independence without formally applying for re-admission in its own name. In reality the legal situation is very unclear and, as I have said in earlier posts, having Berwick become a frontier town on the edge of the E.U. would be just so staggeringly impractical that it won't be allowed to happen. So we can safely assume that Poles and other E.U. citizens will retain their unrestricted right to enter Scotland and that Polski Skleps will continue to flourish north of the border as well. 

Saturday 17 November 2012

'Keep Calm and Carry On'

The success of the slogan 'keep calm and carry on' is truly extraordinary, and since the source of that sales phenomenon is within the range of this blog I thought I might as well bring you some pictures. Barter Books, 'one of the largest second-hand bookshops in the country', located in Alnwick's former railway station, seems to have become fairly famous now and doesn't need any help from me publicity-wise, but that's no reason to ignore it. Ten years or so ago when I was living in Alnwick I treated Barter Books as an extension of my living-room and was deeply fond of the place. That affection has waned somewhat since it became  a major tourist attraction and installed a full scale cafe. Back in the days when the only coffee available was from the jugs shown in the photo, I spent many bleak winter afternoons snuggled up by the open fire in the old waiting room reading or writing. Nowadays you might as well try to work in a railway station that's still  operational.

This is an exterior view which shows the design of the original station building. I can just remember catching a train there as a very young child in the 1960s. It was a victim of the 'Beeching' wave of closures and was subsequently bought and converted into a second-hand bookshop by Mary and Stuart Manley. And since then it's just got bigger and bigger. At some point around the turn of the millennium they found an original Second World War poster bearing the now famous slogan and framed it to hang behind the till. It was so much admired by customers that they started selling reproductions of it. The rest is history. I was an early adopter of the poster and when they introduced mugs I even bought one of those, but I drew the line at the tee-shirt and I've now thrown out the poster and the mug because I am absolutely sick of seeing variations on the slogan everywhere I go.

I think that the original success of the poster had a lot to do with the national mood following 9/11, a mood which intensified after the 7/7 bombings. The top photo shows the full range of reproduction posters now available. (The precious original is kept securely behind the counter where it's hard to photograph without a crowd of heads in the way.) When the green one first went on display a few years ago a fellow customer turned to me and said with perfect seriousness that 'freedom is in peril - defend it with all your might' was a poster we should all be displaying because it was just as true then as it was when the poster was first issued. I'm fairly sure that it was the government he regarded as the threat to freedom. A lot of us felt that way then. This may be why I've failed to warm to all those 'keep calm and go shopping' etc etc variations. The memory of that frightening period when the original poster seemed to speak to us very directly is still too vivid. But now that I'm in Berwick, I do rather like the cross border variations that have appeared. The last time I was in Glasgow I saw a mug bearing the official Scottish translation, which is 'och wheesht and get oan wae it'. My sentiments exactly.

Friday 9 November 2012

Votes for Borderers!

I'm recycling a photo this week. I used this picture of the bridge at Coldstream in one of the earliest posts I did on this blog, back in March. I reckon that most new readers won't scroll that far back, so here is another chance to see it. The river Tweed here forms the border between England and Scotland and if Scotland lost its membership of the European Union after independence it would become the border of the EU, with potentially dramatic consequences for local residents. This post is all updates on previous topics, because of a couple of items in the local paper which caught my eye this week.

Back in May I reported on the fascinating research being undertaken at the University of York on the accents of Berwickers and their opposite numbers across the border in Eyemouth. They're covering two towns on either side of the border at the western end as well, Carlisle and Gretna Green. The project is called Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border or AISEB. An exhibition is now being staged at the university of the work of the Department of Language and Linguistic Science which features the AISEB project. Principal investigator Dominic Watt was quoted in the Berwick Advertiser as saying that the vernaculars of our area have been relatively neglected by researchers, even though 'it has been claimed that the greatest concentration of distinctive linguistic features in the entire English speaking world is to be found along the Scottish-English border'. I am reasonably well travelled in the English speaking world and I think that claim is probably true. So hoorah for AISEB.

In April I wrote a piece about the problems of having a cross border postcode. Here in postcode TD nobody can tell which side of the border we're on. At one stage Channel 4 was showing me endless adverts urging me to be sure to complete the Scottish census as it was so important for the future of Scotland and for Scottish people like me. My April post was prompted by receiving an election flyer for a political party that wasn't actually fielding any candidates in England. Now we are about to have elections in England for the newly created post of police commissioner, and the old postcode problem has reared its head again. Some of the more politically engaged citizens of Berwick went online to learn about their local candidates, only to be told that they were not entitled to vote in this election as they lived in Scotland. Irate letters to the press ensued, denouncing this sinister attempt to disenfranchise the residents of the far north of the Northumbria police area. The website in question was the official Home Office site. That's right, the Home Office, that's the government department that's supposed to know about everything that's going on in the internal affairs of the UK. We are told that the mistake was caused merely by an unfortunate software glitch which has now been corrected. In reality we understand perfectly that it happened because the software was programmed to think that all TD postcodes were in Scotland. For heaven's sake, if it causes this much trouble, just change our postcode to NE and have done with it! Then we'll only get endless adverts for shops in Newcastle.

Friday 2 November 2012


It was of course Halloween this week, so here is the splendid lantern produced by the hard-working and ever-cheerful young staff of Berwick youth hostel and perched on the corner of their reception desk. I'm a regular in the cafe there, where you get a great cup of coffee for about 50p less than in any of the fancy coffee shops. Berwick youth hostel is located in a converted granary famous for its lean, clearly visible in the photo below. Until a few years ago it was so derelict that it was in danger of toppling over altogether, but it has now been beautifully restored. If you fancy staying there look it up here.

I want to take this opportunity - since to be honest it's the only one I'll get - to say something about the whole controversy over: Is Halloween purely an American import? It seems to be fashionable now to say that Halloween is just a piece of commercial nonsense that nobody in the British Isles had heard of until Hollywood brought it our attention. The answer to this is not straightforward. Pumpkin lanterns definitely were unknown in this country until we saw them in the scream-queen movies, and supermarkets here only sell them at this time of year. If you want to buy a pumpkin to eat in any week except the end of October you will struggle to find one. In fact I'm not sure that all the children making lanterns out of them have realised that pumpkins are edible. But the basic principle of making Halloween lanterns is indigenous - when I was a child we made them out of turnips. This custom appears to have been unknown in the south of England, and my southern friends at university gawped in disbelief when I told them about it, but it was an old tradition in the north of England and Scotland and also, I believe, in Ireland. So when pumpkins arrived the south took up lantern making from scratch and the north switched from turnips to pumpkins, a change embraced with some thankfulness because turnips are very hard work to carve.

The term Trick or Treat is also an American import but the general concept was already current. In my childhood, which was a regrettable number of decades ago, we used to get dressed up as witches or ghosts and go round our neighbours to show ourselves off, and they would usually give us small amounts of money - possibly sweets as well but I mostly remember money. This custom tended to blur into Penny for the Guy, which is the tradition of taking a 'guy', a stuffed model human figure in a pram or wheelbarrow, around from door to door on 5th November in memory of the Guy Fawkes plot and being given money to spend on buying fireworks.  Penny for the Guy lingered on into the 1980s but has now almost completely died out as Trick or Treat has become universal. And also children aren't allowed to buy fireworks any more, which is probably for the best.

There is a very famous book by the folklorist couple Iona and Peter Opie called The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, documenting childhood customs in Britain in the 1950s. They reported that October 31st was a major festival for children in some parts of the country, as big as Christmas. It was associated with licensed disorder and in some places was in fact known as Mischief Night. Children felt entitled to play all kinds of tricks on their adult neighbours with complete impunity for this one night. A favourite was removing garden gates and hiding them in outbuildings or throwing them in a handy pond. I feel that if this custom were revived we would hear a lot in the media about the failure of modern parenting. The present Americanised practice of Trick or Treating is a form of Mischief Night, exported to the United States by emigrants from the British Isles, sanitised over time, then re-exported back to us by Hollywood.