Monday 25 February 2013

The Emigrants

I've written a bit recently about immigration into the Borders, so I thought this week I would look at the other side of the coin and write something about emigration from the Borders. This is a plaque on the wall of the old chandlery building on Berwick quayside. Sorry it's not all that legible. It was erected to mark a visit in 2007 by some residents of a town called Harvey in New Brunswick, Canada, which was founded by emigrants from Berwick. As this inscription states, Berwick itself was never a major port of emigration, but a few ships sailed from here to Canada bearing settlers.

Emigrants mostly sailed from large ports on the west coast such as Liverpool, where this memorial sculpture of an emigrant family is located. The Borders area experienced substantial population loss due to emigration, a fact which is only just beginning to attract proportionate attention from historical researchers. Life here has always been hard, and in the 19th century it was sometimes so hard that even a journey of many months to the other side of the world seemed like a worthwhile risk. I have visited the Maritime Museum in Auckland, New Zealand, which has a reconstruction of a 19th century emigrant ship, complete with a floor which cunningly moves as if it were being tossed about on the sea. I was glad to get out of there after ten minutes, and what it was like after dozens of seasick families had been crammed in there for weeks on end, doesn't really bear thinking about.

I have relatives in Auckland, descended from settlers who left Britain in the first half of the 20th century, by when the journey was somewhat more civilised. Big shout-out to Pearl and all her family if they're reading this. Pearl's father had the same surname as me. He and his brothers emigrated from Alnwick, a town about thirty miles south of the border, leaving their sisters behind to take care of their parents.This kind of brutal family rupture must have been quite common. Her mother's family came from Cockburnspath, a tiny place a few miles north of the border. This cross-border couple are responsible for a batch of flourishing great-grandchildren whose notable talents are being devoted to building the great country of New Zealand rather than to realising the full potential of the English-Scottish Borders.

Pearl in Auckland has a framed sampler on the wall which says it was made at Reston school in the 1880s. One day about a year ago I set out to locate the school in Reston, a village close to Cockburnspath. This is it. I looked forward to delighting the Kiwi end of the family with a picture of the very building their sampler was made in. Sadly however a close examination of the date on the school revealed that it was built later than the date on the sampler. The young embroiderer must have attended an earlier establishment, possibly a makeshift school in a residential house. I hope to find out more about this one day.The important point is that the craft work of a ten year old girl in the Scottish Borders has been treasured for more than a century in New Zealand,  the country to which her family were driven by the hardship of an agricultural labourer's life.

Saturday 16 February 2013

What Exactly Does the SDL Think It's Defending in Berwick?

I've just got back from a satisfying couple of hours spent joining in a demo in the centre of Berwick to protest against a march by the Scottish Defence League. This is the Scottish version of the English Defence League, a far right group which is making some headway in the present difficult times by blaming all our economic hardships on immigrants. The SDL's own advance publicity for the march described it as being staged by 'the Scottish Defence League (Borders branch)'. It turns out that I'm not the only person who's never heard of a Borders branch. Those protesters better informed than myself said that the Edinburgh members of the SDL have started to stage events in the Borders because Edinburgh is getting sick of them and they feel they will have more success out in the sticks. A number of Berwickers reacted with impressive speed to organise a counter demonstration which would prove them wrong, and about a hundred others turned out on the day. Although some protesters had come from Edinburgh or Newcastle the great majority were locals, and a surprising number of them were already known to me from other events more typical of the life of a middle-aged middle-class woman in a small town. The SDL lot, by contrast, had all come down together on the train from Edinburgh. Apparently members of the railway workers' union had refused to serve them in the buffet, which prompted a gleeful chorus of 'and they couldn't get a bevvy on the train' by some of our group.

Anyone who's been following this blog will have realised by now that since Berwick is not actually in Scotland, it is not immediately obvious why the Scottish Defence League would want to defend it, or from whom. Furthermore, since the recently released figures from the last census show that the Berwick area is 97% White and 73% Christian (and most of the other 27% denied any religious affiliation), this is not an area that spontaneously feels it is being over-run by ethnic and religious minorities. The SDL and EDL may find it necessary to undertake a long programme of re-education before they can convince Borderers that immigration is the reason why this is one of the poorest areas of Britain.

I don't usually post blurry photos on here, but participating in a march and taking decent photos of it are not easy to combine. This photo was taken while marching along at a brisk pace and holding a placard in one hand, so it's not that bad considering.

I would have liked to ask the SDL marchers whether the reclamation of Berwick for Scotland is one of their official policies, but none of us were allowed to get anywhere near them. The SDL and Berwick Unite Against Fascism were kept several hundred yards apart by the police and could only shout insults at each other across the barricades, in what has become a well worn ritual. The police have now got controlling these rival marches down to a fine art and a large number of extra personnel plus several horses had been brought into Berwick for the day. A helicopter seen circling overhead was assumed to be part of the police operation until the local paper revealed that it was carrying an entirely unrelated film crew.

I was captivated by this fantastic picture on the banner of the Berwick TUC. One of the women carrying it told me that the drawing was commissioned from Cara Lockhart Smith, a noted illustrator of children's books who lives in the Borders. It shows the bear who is the symbol of Berwick breaking his chains, in an image which evokes not just the chained bears used to entertain the public in the past but the Communist Manifesto's reference to the workers of the world having 'nothing to lose but their chains'.  It is so good to see the world reminded that rural areas are anything but idyllic for the workers.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Read Not Quite All About It

Today I sold my old tumble dryer to a young couple from Duns, a small town just over the border. I'd advertised the dryer in the Superbuys small ads of the Berwick Advertiser. They had seen the ad in the Berwickshire News. The young couple paid me with a pocketful of crumpled Scottish notes and took the dryer off to its new life north of the border.

This got me thinking that it might be interesting to write about the situation with local papers here in the Debatable Land. It sometimes seems that the number of newspapers with which we are blessed is inversely related to the amount of news that happens around here. If you want to keep abreast of all aspects of life in North Northumberland and the Scottish Borders you are obliged to buy four different papers at a total cost of £3.30 per week (though of course they're all anxious to tell us that it's much cheaper if you subscribe), which may shock Londoners who can get away with buying one paper covering their own borough, which probably has a population larger than that of the whole area covered by these four. Three of these papers are produced by the same company, the Tweeddale Press, but they evidently do not feel able to contemplate a cross-border merger.

The town of Berwick has been artificially separated by the border from the county of Berwickshire and therefore has a whole paper all to itself, which quite frankly struggles to find enough of interest to fill it some weeks. The lifestyle and general interest features, as well as the ads, are shared with the Berwickshire paper. Every now and then the printers muddle up some of the news pages and readers in Berwick are informed about events in Duns or Dunbar for a change.

The Southern Reporter has a more ambitious remit, covering the whole of the western end of the Scottish Borders local authority area, including the towns of Kelso, Galashiels and Jedburgh. Readers in the south of England may need to be reminded that 'southern' in this context means the south of Scotland. I used to love the masthead of the Southern when it included an impressively long list of all the papers founded in the 19th century which it has absorbed over the years and also the motto 'Leal to the Border'. Both of these have now gone. I would like to think that this is due only to lack of space and not because it has become politically inexpedient to be leal (loyal) to the Borders area rather than to the whole country of which the border is the southern limit.

The Northumberland Gazette is presumptuously titled because it actually only covers Alnwick. Once you get more than ten miles south of Alnwick you start getting into the territory of the Morpeth Herald. The Gazette would probably justify its title by affirming that it is the county town of Northumberland. Alnwick has waged an interminable battle with Morpeth over which of them should rightfully bear the title of county town, which stopped just short of defacing signboards.

Belford, Seahouses and Wooler are located in the area where the coverage of the Northumberland Gazette and the Berwick Advertiser overlaps, and therefore we are all exceptionally well informed about everything that goes on in these three very small and not all that eventful towns.

Readers may also be interested to know that there are two editions of the Radio Times on sale in Berwick. (For overseas readers: despite the name the Radio Times is the biggest selling television listings magazine. It was founded before television was invented. Yes, really.) One edition covers north-east England, the other covers Scotland. All of the 'nations and regions of the UK', as the BBC refers to them, have their own local programmes in certain slots, and Scotland has some Gaelic language programming. The Berwick branch of WH Smith thoughtfully places the English and Scottish editions in separate racks, for the convenience of its cross-border clientele. But if like me you tend to put off buying the listings magazine until the weekend you usually have to take whichever version hasn't sold out and then try and work out what's actually on the telly tonight in the slot where the magazine says it's something in Gaelic. And if snow has stopped delivery lorries from one depot getting through, heaven only knows what Smiths will have on the shelves.

You can see that the Gazette is the only one of the four papers to have gone tabloid so far, but  the Tweeddale Press has just announced that its papers are going 'compact' too, so my photo has preserved a little piece of history!

Saturday 2 February 2013

Cameron Hurls a Spanner into the Borders

This is the river Tweed at Coldstream,with the Cheviot hills on the horizon. For those readers who have not seen my previous posts on this subject, I should explain that Coldstream is a small town about half an hour's drive west of Berwick, on the north bank of the Tweed and therefore in Scotland, because once you get west of Berwick the river returns to its natural role as the boundary between England and Scotland. The loop the border makes around Berwick is an artificial political device. At the risk of being accused of harping on this theme to a tedious degree, I will say once again: does it strike you as sensible or practical to make the river seen in this photo the frontier of the European Union?

In this blog I only touch upon national politics in so far as they affect the life of the Borders, but national politics has just taken a turn with the potential to impact on the life of the Borders profoundly. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, has announced that his government intends to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain within the European Union or leave it. He did this because the UK Independence Party is taking too many votes from the Conservative party and he wants to pull the political rug from under UKIP's feet by stealing their main (arguably their only) policy. Mr Cameron has always given the impression that he finds it difficult to think about more than one problem at the same time. I am not sure that it even occurred to him to consider how this announcement might affect the other important referendum coming up in the next couple of years, the one that will ask, according to the revised wording just announced: Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or No? But to those north of the border it was immediately obvious that he has thrown a giant spanner into the independence debate.

One of the key tactics of the unionist or anti-independence campaign has been to scaremonger about the consequences of independence for Scotland's membership of the E.U. They have said that it would lose its membership as part of the UK and have to re-apply for membership in its own right, which would take a while to be processed, leaving the Tweed in the meantime a vulnerable border of the E.U. The Prime Minister has now merrily jettisoned this useful argument by presenting us with the prospect that the whole of the UK might decide to leave the E.U. anyway. Although he says that he will personally campaign for the country to remain within the E.U., everybody knows there is a real possibility that the referendum will return a majority in favour of leaving, particularly in England. So where does that leave those Scots who wish to remain within the European Union? Are they to conclude that they had better vote for independence after all, so that they can retain their own membership regardless of what xenophobic Middle England decides to do? We now face the genuine possibility that England will leave the E.U. and an independent Scotland remain within it, which will make the Tweed a vulnerable border indefinitely.

Of course this might not be an entirely bad thing. It would certainly solve Berwick's economic problems, described a few posts back. Instead of being a declining town in the middle of nowhere, Berwick would become a magnet for every smuggler and people-trafficker on the continent, its hotels and restaurants newly prosperous on the custom of free-spending gangsters, its caravan parks packed to bursting with desperate migrants heading in ... I'm not sure which direction,  either south to London's imagined streets paved with gold or north to a more liberal immigration policy and a travel pass to the rest of western Europe.

Let us not get too carried away. A lot of unlikely things would have to happen before that scenario could come to pass. The most unlikely of all is that the Conservative party stays in power long enough to introduce the E.U. referendum. But the party's sheer disregard of the effect of its policies on Scotland is what is so telling. In the same issue in which it blew an editorial fuse over the Prime Minister's announcement of the E.U. referendum, The Scotsman newspaper reported that the most recent opinion polls taken before this bombshell showed support for independence down to 23%. But Mr Cameron has just demonstrated yet again that one should never under-estimate the ability of the Westminster government to alienate the Scots.