Saturday 14 December 2013

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers. Here is Santa visiting Spittal yesterday. Accompanied in his sleigh not by an elf but by the Spittal Gala Queen. His journey down Main Street was the culmination of a very well attended Christmas fete, with a funfair in the street and the Norham school brass band playing in the church hall while you browsed the stalls and refreshments.

The great attraction of the Spittal Santa is that he comes complete with real reindeer. Or rather, the last time I was there he came complete with a whole team of reindeer from the Cairngorm herd who earn their keep by being hired out to pull sleighs at Christmas. This year he was drawn by one single solitary reindeer. Maybe this is yet another example of Austerity Britain - perhaps we didn't put enough money in the donations tins last time to cover the cost of hiring a full team again. I was sufficiently concerned about this to put £1 in the bucket on the way out of the church hall, as well as spending £1.50 on the cup of tea and a mince pie meal deal. On the other hand, it could just be that the limited number of reindeer in Britain are in such demand at this time of year that their agent could only spare one for this little town.

I took this photo two years ago when half a dozen reindeer came. I spotted their transport parked outside the local school playing field, where they were being shown off to the children before leaving to prepare for their sleigh pulling shift. I did see them being led back to the van but could not get close enough to grab a picture, as their minders were understandably careful to prevent them being mobbed. And of course photographing a single reindeer in the dark is even more challenging. I did not feel comfortable about letting off a flash in the poor creature's face. I wonder if these reindeer go on the sort of training course that police horses are put through, to get them used to noisy crowds? They certainly seemed very stoical about it all. Maybe they have just understood that if they play along with this human idiocy for a couple of weeks a year their reward is to roam free and happy in the Scottish mountains for the other fifty.

Friday 6 December 2013

Storm Surge

This was the scene beside the Tweedmouth end of the modern road bridge across the river Tweed this morning, a bright, calm day after a wild day and couple of nights on Wednesday and Thursday. Very strong winds combined with an unusually high tidal rise of 5.4 metres caused the river to overflow its banks at high water yesterday, which was at 16.03 according to the book of tide timetables on sale in the local angling shop, a copy of which I usually carry in my bag. After consulting it I went out at 4 pm to have a look. I know that makes me one of the sightseers loathed by the emergency services, but I like to think that I am not a complete idiot, and I stayed well out of the way of the rising water and of the workers.

At 4 pm in December it is nearly dark and so I was unable to take any photos, even if I had wanted to risk getting any closer to the action. The water was pouring through this gate across the road. Police had blocked off the road with cones and firemen were wading (or 'plodging' as we say here) around knocking on doors and delivering sandbags. A care home is located just at the end of the old bridge, and the prospect of having to evacuate many elderly and ailing residents must have been worrying the police considerably, but luckily the turn of the tide came just before the water reached their door.

On the other side of the bridge the path beside the river was completely flooded and the police had fastened a criss-cross of their blue-and-white tape across the entrance to the path, for the benefit of any members of the public who can't be trusted to rely on the evidence of their own senses. On the quayside the water was level with the top of the harbour wall and breaking over it, until the benches where one can sit and enjoy the view in more clement conditions were swimming halfway up their legs in water.

Only a couple of hours after high tide the water had all receded and as far as I know had not entered any properties. There was some worry about what would happen at the next high tide at 04.43 am and I expect some homeowners stayed awake to see. That was predicted to be a rise of only 5.2 metres though and also the wind had died down, so it was okay. This morning the yellow highways agency signs saying 'harbour and seafront closed' have been taken down but the sandbags remain for the time being.

I confess that I found it exhilarating walking around in the twilight cold, observing a force of nature that we cannot control. But of course I would not be saying that if I lived in the house shown above. I used to envy the folk who live along the Tweedmouth river bank. Not any more! 

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Alnwick Mechanics Institute

This is the Mechanics Institute in Alnwick, in Northumberland, a building that is what in other places might be called a community hall. It has several rooms that can be booked for meetings of clubs and societies, dance classes, etc.  Many hours of my life have been spent in this building, one way and another. Then for a while one of the rooms was used as the office of the local registrar, to whom one is obliged to report all births and deaths. This meant that when my father died I had the strange experience of having to register his death in a room a few steps away from the larger room where he attended the meetings of the Alnwick Camera Club, every Wednesday night at 7.30 pm, for years and  years.

Because this building was so much a part of my everyday experience, taken completely for granted, I was well into adulthood before it occurred to me that the design of the doorway is a bit odd.  In fact it looks like an Egyptian tomb. You can see on the picture of the upper part of the building that the theme is continued all the way up in the 'pylons' feature.

I thought about this again when I finally got round to reading the book Black Athena by Martin Bernal, which traces the history of scholarly attitudes to ancient Egypt. By the high Victorian period the racist belief that Africans could not possibly have contributed anything to the culture of classical Greece or of the rest of Europe had become dominant, but in earlier times there was a positive craze for and veneration of all things Egyptian. Bearing in mind that Alnwick has always been some way behind the trends in the metropolis, I reckon the Mechanics Institute must have been built when this craze was in full swing. Bernal also explains that the Masonic movement has stayed loyal to the veneration of ancient Egypt through all the shifts in intellectual fashion and still uses a plethora of symbolism derived from it. I wonder if there was any Masonic involvement in the building of the Mechanics. If anybody knows, do please leave a comment.

The other interesting thing about the Mechanics Institute is of course the reason for its existence, the fact that it was erected out of the purposeful idealism that aimed at 'diffusing knowledge among artisans'. This was a widespread movement in the 19th century.  Birkbeck College in the University of London, of which I am a proud alumna, started out as the London Mechanics Institute.

In the second half of the 20th century we were finally blessed with universal provision of free public libraries and the need for private libraries and newspaper reading rooms disappeared. Or has it?

My views on this have recently diverged from popular orthodoxy. Many British public libraries are no longer doing what they were originally supposed to.  They are full of mass market fiction, DVDs of Hollywood films and CDs of popular bands. Serious non-fiction is squashed into a small corner. Encyclopedias have entirely disappeared. In one way this is, of course, fair enough, since the internet is now a much more efficient way of distributing knowledge to the masses. But that means that the priority now has to be ensuring equal access to the web, and public libraries are not even managing to do that. The computer system of Northumberland public libraries is disgracefully inadequate. It is very slow and the versions of all the software are several release numbers out of date. It refuses to show any adverts at all, even ones that might be useful, or any user-generated photos, just in case they're 'inappropriate'. It has a very crude content filter which regularly blocks book reviews and history blogs because they have used a trigger word. And sometimes the whole system just falls over and dies for no apparent reason.

I would no longer take to the streets to protest the closure of public libraries. Frankly I wouldn't miss them. I am a loyal supporter of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, a triumphant survivor of the age of private library provision. I feel that a second age of the necessity for it is dawning. And I would love to see the return of a (suitably re-named) Mechanics Institute, diffusing serious knowledge to the workers.