Tuesday 28 January 2014

Let's Hear It for Rabbie Burns

This is the window display put up by one of our local independent butchers here in Berwick to promote their haggis for Burns Night last Saturday. Pretty eye-catching, isn't it?  You will probably have heard of the 'address to a haggis' that is traditionally read at these Burns suppers. I looked it up today for the first time ever. It is written in a mock serious style and contrasts this splendid traditional food of the Scottish peasantry, responsible for raising a population of hardy tillers of the soil, with 'French ragout and fricasee' that would 'make a sow spew'. Take that, you celebrity chefs.

I have written before of my affection and admiration for the political views so eloquently expressed by Rabbie Burns, but to mark this year's celebration I thought I would quote him at more length. Probably his best known poem after the one about the haggis is the paean to the values of democracy and egalitarianism featuring the line 'a man's a man for a' that'. This was sung at the opening ceremony of the re-formed Scottish parliament in 1999, because it was felt to express the values that the parliament should defend.  The verse I really like is the one that comes after that line.

See yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts and stares and a’ that
Though hundreds worship at his word
He’s but a coof  [fool] for a’ that
For a’ that and a’ that
His riband, star and a’ that
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.

 My 19th century edition of the complete works glosses 'birkie' as 'a spirited fellow'.  Hmm.  Chambers dictionary gives the meaning as 'a strutting or swaggering fellow' and suggests that the etymology is related to the verb 'to bark'.  Now that's more like it. Any number of 'coofs' in modern Britain who swagger about barking nonsense and getting away with it because they have 'lord' or some other aristocratic title in front of their name come to mind. And nowadays they're not just hereditary ones, we have the cursed invention of life peerages, largely used as a way of getting the prime minister's mates into parliament without the inconvenience of an election but sold to the public as an introduction of the meritocratic principle into the whole rotten aristocratic system. I would like to see this poem inscribed on a plaque and nailed over the entrance to the House of Lords. 

Friday 10 January 2014

Why Berwicum Super Twedam Does Not Seem to Floreat Much

I snapped this ornate piece of civic pride hanging in the council offices on the sly while stewarding an installation for the film festival in there. The piece of rather naff Latin translates as 'may Berwick upon Tweed flourish' and so seems as suitable as anything to illustrate this report of a talk I attended this week.

It has become an annual custom for the speaker at the January meeting of Berwick Civic Society to be a representative of some branch of local government. I sometimes wonder why they agree to make the long trek to this furthest outpost of Northumberland on a freezing winter night just to be abused for a couple of hours by irate residents who don't get many other chances to express their dissatisfaction with what they get for their council tax.

This week the speaker was John Lord, the Berwick project director of Arch, a company set up by Northumberland County Council as an 'arms-length' deliverer of regeneration projects. Last January Mr Lord gave us what I thought was an excellent talk on the problems involved in regenerating Berwick. There are a lot of them. He was bold enough to make the point that nobody nowadays needs or wants to do their shopping in a 1950s style high street, because we have supermarkets now and we like them a lot more. This year he had expanded this point to an entire presentation, packed with quotes, graphs, charts and other assorted data to illustrate the massive changes in the way we live, work and shop over the last few decades. I was very impressed. I think I may have been the only member of the audience who was. Confronting some of the local activists with economic reality is a pretty thankless task.

A few examples of statements which may appear obvious to my readers but produced frissons of disapproval in the room. There is a general trend for local high street shops to move downmarket because they increasingly cater primarily for a captive group of consumers who cannot afford to travel far to shop. Anybody who has the means to travel to a large urban centre to shop does so, because it's just a much more enjoyable experience. It is 'not remotely true' that the rents of shops on Marygate, Berwick are higher than those on Princes Street, Edinburgh. (As if! I wonder how long it is since that questioner has been to Princes Street.)  The reason that most of the small towns in the Scottish Borders are much more attractive and prosperous looking than Berwick is because - wait for it - the people who live there are richer than the people who live here. At this point the chair helpfully chimed in with the information that average incomes in Berwick are the lowest in the whole of Northumberland. No data on how they compare with the Scottish Borders, which is a more meaningful comparison for Berwick residents, seemed to be immediately to hand, but we can guess that the conversion of places such as our namesake North Berwick into essentially dormitory towns for Edinburgh, with a bit of tourism thrown in, has raised the average a fair way above us.

The nub of the problem is that Berwick upon Tweed is a bit too far from both Edinburgh and Newcastle to attract affluent commuters, but near enough to both of them to attract locals to do their shopping there. So the economic forces drawing money out of the town are stronger than those pulling it in. Add in the reluctance of most Scots to live cross border, and we're stuffed, really. 

Thursday 2 January 2014

What Does 2014 Hold?

This is the Sallyport in Berwick, shown here to give me an excuse to say: as we finally emerge from the long dark tunnel of 2013 towards the faintly visible light of a new year, what can we expect here in the Borders?

Are We About To Be Over-run with Immigrants?

The media yesterday were doing their best to give the impression that we are. At one point after listening to the BBC radio headlines I peered gingerly out of the window, thinking that I would see a gradually thickening flock of Romanians and Bulgarians advancing stealthily nearer to the house, like the seagulls in The Birds.  But I couldn't see a single one, and the real seagulls were no more threatening than usual. The only effect of the lifting of restrictions on these migrants' right to work in the UK that I expect to see immediately is that Illi, the nice Romanian man who has been patiently selling the Big Issue in Alnwick since the shop he stands outside was a Woolworths, may finally be able to get a proper job.

Will the Scottish Independence Referendum Return a Yes Vote?

This is the big one. The polls all say No but some well-informed commentators urge against complacency. A Glaswegian activist told me recently that the result would be much closer than everyone is predicting, and added with complete seriousness, 'Alex Salmond is a master politician'. I was interested to see that no less an authority than the Financial Tines,  in its predictions for the year ahead, backed this up, saying that 'the campaigning genius of Alex Salmond should not be under-estimated'. So a few more people here in Berwick had better wake from their political stupor before September.

Does Anybody in the English Borders Actually Care About Any of This?

On the whole, I would say that the average Berwicker would only take an interest in Scottish independence if they thought it might affect the number of parking spaces in the town. Or the quantity of seagull droppings or the frequency with which the gutters get cleaned. If a resurgent Scotland ever decides to pursue a revanchist policy towards Berwick, it would scarcely take a campaigning genius. The place is anybody's for a multi-storey car park.

A very happy 2014 to you all!