Saturday 31 May 2014

Jokers and Thieves

This fine piece of calligraphy was created by local artist Arthur Wood for the Watchtower art gallery here in Berwick. The picture loosely evokes the building housing the gallery (originally a church) and the text is of course the lyrics of the classic song All Along the Watchtower. As I gazed at it during my most recent visit to the gallery, it occurred to me that the lyrics describe the current political situation in Berwick with an almost uncanny accuracy.

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s just too much confusion
I can’t get no relief.

There is an awful lot of politics going on here just now, and all of it is confusing. The impending referendum on independence for our friends on the other side of the Scottish border would be quite enough on its own.  Indeed, it was reported this week that cinemas in Scotland have decided to stop accepting advertisements by either side in the independence debate, because movie-goers at the end of their tether have complained that they go to the cinema to get away from the saturation coverage of the wretched referendum.

Then, on 22nd May we had elections for the European parliament. As usual only about a third of the electorate turned out to vote in these, but the ones who did seem to have been motivated by an extreme level of fed-up-ness with the present government and all its local associates.  The UK Independence Party (whose only real policy is leaving the European Union) gained the most votes of any party nationally and came second after Labour in this area.  Under the peculiar voting system used for the European elections whereby MEPs are parcelled out in job-lots of three per large region, North East England now has two Labour and one UKIP members of the European parliament. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrats, who historically have behaved as if North Northumberland were a football to be passed between the two of them and all other parties were playing in some lower league, sank to ignominious third and fourth places.

The way that the debate over EU membership relates to the debate over the future of the UK is brain-torturingly hard to follow, especially for Scots. Basically: if you are a Scot who wants to stay in the UK but leave the EU, you vote UKIP; if you want to leave the UK but stay in the EU, you vote SNP; if you want to stay in both the UK and the EU you can vote for any of the three older parties; and if you want to leave both the UK and the EU, you currently have no major party to vote for. Meanwhile, those of us just over the English side of the border put our heads in our hands and just hope that none of the possible permutations of outcomes involve building a big wall across the motorway.

With all this going on you might think that members of Berwick Town Council would be gravely concentrating on the bigger picture and putting aside individual differences in a manner befitting the local government of a community on the front line of the most important political questions of our time. Instead, they have just plunged themselves into an extraordinary piece of in-fighting that to an outsider displays a combination of viciousness and pettiness that only very small towns can manage. I don’t wish to get into the details and personalities, merely to reflect that the town council appears to do almost nothing of any importance but to take itself with a seriousness inversely related to its usefulness. Some of its members are now calling loudly for the council to be dissolved pending new elections. This would seem to be a rather risky strategy - they might find that nobody missed it.

And just to round it all off, someone has written to the local paper suggesting tongue-in-cheek that, given recent unfortunate events in that country, the question of whether Berwick is still at war with Russia ought to be clarified as a matter of urgency. This hoary old story dates to when Berwick was a separate legal entity; the declaration of the Crimean War  listed 'England, Scotland and Berwick upon Tweed' as belligerents but the peace treaty concluding the war allegedly mentioned only England and Scotland.

I wouldn’t want to suggest (honest, m’lud, I wouldn’t) that any politicians - locally, regionally, nationally or internationally - are ‘thieves’, but a right pack of jokers they most certainly are. 

Saturday 10 May 2014

The Alnwick Column

This is the Column in Alnwick, located in the nearest thing the town has to a public park. (The Alnwick Garden is not a public park.) It is never, but never, referred to by locals as anything other than The Column, in the same way as hardly anybody in Newcastle has any idea who The Monument is a monument to. (Earl Grey, since you ask.) The formal name of the Alnwick Column, as found in guidebooks, is the Tenantry Column. It was erected in 1816 by his grateful tenants to their landlord, the Duke of Northumberland of the day, in thanks for his reduction of their rents during a period of economic hardship, and the inscription on the base says so, fulsomely.

It has probably occurred to you at once that if they could afford to put up this fairly impressive chunk of masonry they couldn't have been all that hard up, and indeed, the story preserved in popular memory is that the Duke took the same view and promptly put their rents back up again. I seem to remember reading somewhere that this story is historically unfounded. The most likely interpretation would seem to be that the tenant farmers saw it as a shrewd investment, a calculated piece of schmoozing that would make it hard for the Duke to become more demanding in the future.

The sculpture on the top of the column is the symbol of the Percy family, the straight-tailed lion. There are four more lions around the base of the column. The picture on the right shows the present writer (as they say in posh books) at a tender age beside one of them. The similarity to Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square is very evident, but the local sculptor wasn't in Landseer's league. The lions are kind of cute and cuddly rather than imposing. At least I thought so as a child. I was especially fond of the one whose tongue had been partly broken off, because I felt sorry for him, and I think this is what I'm pointing to in this photo.

Alas, it is no longer possible for children to climb all over the lions, because railings have been erected around the base to keep out the vulgar masses. This was part of the original design, but the original railings were taken away during World War 2 as part of the drive to recycle every possible piece of scrap metal into armaments. Because my grandfather was on the town council at that time, I have inherited a copy of the newspaper report of the council's debate on whether or not to agree to part with this piece of their 'built environment'. Some members were extremely unhappy about sacrificing their elegant railings, but my grandfather argued strongly that this was a very trivial sacrifice compared to what they were asking of their young men at the front, and his side carried the day.

And for sixty years or so the children of Alnwick played happily around the railing-free plinth. It was only a few years ago that new railings were put up, in line with the currently prevailing orthodoxy to Restore and Conserve everything in sight back to its Original and Authentic condition. Why can nobody ever admit that the original form of something is not always the best?

Thursday 1 May 2014

Riding the Bounds 2014

May Day, and here in Berwick the weather is most unsuitable for it. Wet, chilly, breezy, foggy. A typical day in the Borders in other words. I once saw a postcard on sale in a shop in Coldstream that depicted a freezing, windswept tourist with the caption 'I survived the Scottish summer'. Too true.

Because of the weather attendance was well down for the annual Riding the Bounds event, and I had no trouble getting a spot right at the front of the pavement as the riders came back into town in the afternoon. Excellent, I thought, at last some fine photo opportunities with nobody's head in the way. And then this keen type threw himself determinedly into the middle of the road. I think he may have been the official photographer from the Advertiser, because none of the stewards attempted to haul him out of the way with stern health & safety warnings about horses, which is what happened to everybody else who strayed off the pavement.

Two years ago I published a post about Riding the Bounds with more photos, taken in better weather, and more details about the event (here). I am still suspicious that it is far more of an 'invented tradition' than most locals let on.  But the essence of it can't have been invented that recently, because the Berwick Advertiser, in its intermittent 'snippets from 25/50/100 years ago' feature, once printed a report from the early 20th century about a couple of lonely riders turning out on May Day to observe the custom and finding nobody else interested in joining in. Of course that was when Berwick had many sources of income other than tourism. Read a very good post by local historian Jim Herbert about Riding the Bounds in the past here.

My favourite thing about the event is the proud display of the three flags, England and Scotland on the outside and Northumberland sandwiched between them. Thanks to the breezy weather this year they made more of an impression than they sometimes do. In this referendum year this symbolic display of our rather uncomfortable position in between England and Scotland seemed particularly poignant.