Sunday 31 March 2013

Happy Easter

A very happy Easter to all my readers. On this holiday weekend I am reduced to showing you photos of flowers taken a few years ago, because not a daffodil or forsythia blossom is to be seen in the Borders at the moment. This is partly because Easter is quite early this year and partly because this spring has been exceptionally cold. As I celebrate the first anniversary of this blog, I have realised that it has coincided with the worst period of prolonged bad weather in living memory. A radio presenter the other day referred to 'our fifteen month winter' and that's about right. So the pics are here to symbolise spring, new life and new beginnings, rather than to represent the reality outside my window. I've known it warmer at Christmas. Seriously.

Yesterday I found a dead puffin on the slipway at Tweedmouth, but I felt you wouldn't want to see a photo of that. The Farne Islands rangers, whose blog is linked to in the sidebar, have been reporting worryingly large numbers of dead birds washed up all along the east coast. They were hit by a very unusual spell of bitter cold and high winds just as they were beginning to return to the Islands to breed. This is one of the years they take a 'puffin census' so in a few months time we'll know how badly the population has been affected.

Since it fits in with both the theme of new beginnings and the anniversary of my blog, I want to acknowledge the announcement of the date for the referendum on Scottish independence. It is now fixed for Thursday 18th September 2014. All elections and referendums in the UK are held on Thursday, even though this has not made any sense since 1832 when the franchise began to be extended to people who have to work for a living. Maybe an independent Scotland would hold its votes on a Saturday, wouldn't that be exciting. Anyone who is following the independence debate seriously may be interested in these two articles, one on the widespread sentiment that Scotland has a different political culture from England, here, and one on the surprisingly large difference in the attitudes of men and women to independence, here.  Whatever happens in the next two years, I'll still be here, giving the view from the border.

Friday 22 March 2013

Local Food for Local People? No, not really.

This is the Craw Inn in Auchencrow, a very small village or possibly hamlet in the Scottish Borders, about half an hour's drive from Berwick. It is near Reston and I ended up there while trying to track down the old school in Reston, as mentioned in a previous post. It is one of those places which started off as a traditional village pub and still calls itself a pub but is in fact now essentially a posh restaurant and mini-hotel. When I found that the pub in Reston had closed down many months earlier and just hadn't bothered to take down the large sign at the entrance to the village advertising its menu, a friendly bus driver deposited me at the Craw Inn. This experience took place a few weeks before I started this blog and was in fact what finally prompted me to start it, because it brought home to me the weirdness of some aspects of life in the Borders.

I still plan to do a post called By Bus Round the Borders detailing the trials of being reliant on public transport in such a sparsely populated area, but I feel silly taking photos of buses. In addition to being a non-driver I am a non-foodie, which can also make life in the Borders difficult. Personally I can't see the point of driving miles around empty countryside just to get to a remote outpost of culinary sophistication, and I also dislike the way that driving under the influence of alcohol is in consequence a way of life in rural areas. The trick is to stay just below the limit. Every week there are reports in the local papers of people who haven't quite managed it. And losing your licence is a very serious matter in the Borders. It could mean that you can't get to your job. It could even mean that you have to live like me, and I don't think that the customers of the Craw Inn would be very happy about that.

When I was in there wasn't a Scottish accent to be heard in the place, but it seems that even being English does not confer enough cultural distinction on some residents of the Scottish Borders. The next time I came across the name of Auchencrow was when I saw a poster advertising their village jumble sale. Except they didn't call it a jumble sale or a car-boot sale, they called it a vide grenier. I did a double-take when I saw this. Later I checked with a native French speaker and he confirmed that vide grenier means literally 'empty attic' and is the French version of a jumble or car-boot sale. Just how posh do you need to be to feel that the only way you can contemplate buying anything second-hand is if the sale has been given a French name? But I suppose it fits in with the assiette de fruits de mer in the local restaurant.

To me this illustrates some of the paradoxes of the whole 'buy local' agenda which is so powerful now. Oysters were a common food of the poor in coastal areas in the past - when I went excavating for old bottles in the abandoned rubbish tip in Alnwick I found lots of oyster shells. But ordinary people certainly aren't eating oysters any more. The shellfish may be caught locally but it's turned into dishes that are given French names, sold at luxury prices and eaten by people with non-local accents who got there by driving nice cars. Many of the people whose ancestors have lived in this area for generations can't afford to eat in places like that. Sometimes they can't afford to run a car, so their experience of the place they live is truly local, intensely concrete and limited, in a way that those who make so much of local community, traditions and food barely understand.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Richard III is welcome in our car park

Like many people I have followed the events surrounding the excavation of the grave of Richard III under a car park with great interest, but I never expected that they would have any relevance to Berwick. Then this week a letter appeared in the Berwick Advertiser from one CW Ross arguing that the late king ought to be ceremonially re-buried neither in Leicester, where he died, nor in York, where he lived, but here in Berwick, because he was responsible for the town's final capture for the English, 'routing the Scots in the process'. Well, that sent me straight back to the history books.

As previously explained in this blog, the town of Berwick upon Tweed has changed hands between Scotland and England many times but the last time was in 1482 and since then it has been under English control. The victory of 1482 is conventionally attributed to King Edward IV. But maybe it's true that a lot of the hard graft was performed by the king's younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who later succeeded him to the throne and became Richard III. It does fit with the reports of Richard's skill and courage on the battlefield which were quoted by the historians investigating his grave.

I imagine that Mr or Ms Ross had his or her tongue firmly in his or her cheek, and there is of course no possibility of anyone taking the suggestion of this letter writer seriously. Staging a triumphalist ceremony to honour the man responsible for vanquishing an army of Scotland and seizing a chunk of its territory might upset the Scots of today just ever so slightly. I can almost see Alex Salmond quivering with rage on Newsnight. There have been other battles between England and Scotland since then, notably the epic tragedy of Flodden in 1513. As the heritage industry gears up to cash in on - sorry, respectfully observe - the 500th anniversary of Flodden, studied neutrality between the parties is the order of the day. The official memorial on Flodden Field is inscribed 'to the brave of both nations', and quite right too.

I was initially stumped about what photo would be a suitable accompaniment to this post, but finally decided that a view including both the parish church and a car park would hit the right note. It occurs to me that if any archaeologist wanted to dig up a car park in Berwick the overwhelming response from the residents would be outrage at the loss of parking spaces. The typical Berwicker appears to believe that there can never be too many parking spaces. They must be free, they must be right outside wherever you want to go whenever you want to go there, and the best use that could be made of any empty building would be to knock it down to create lots more lovely parking spaces. There was a great piece in the New Yorker magazine a couple of weeks ago, written in the style of a Shakespearian tragedy and having fun with the idea that Richard was killed in a fight over a parking space because the markings on his horse clearly showed that it was only entitled to be stationary there during certain hours 'which are not now'. I can see that happening in Berwick. I can absolutely see it.