Saturday 23 August 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

This is Bank Holiday Weekend in England, that is, Monday is a public holiday. In Scotland they will be at their desks as usual on Monday, having had their summer public holiday on 4th August.  The Scots are more sensible than the English in this matter, because late August is in fact pretty much autumn and the sight of cagoule clad families trudging glumly along a rain-swept beach trying hard to pretend that they are enjoying a wonderful summer seaside break becomes a little saddening after a few decades.

This picture of the bridges of Berwick upon Tweed is the same one I used in my very first post on this blog, over two years ago now. At that time the referendum on independence for Scotland seemed far in the future and not many people outside Scotland were taking much interest in the subject. It is now less than a month until the ‘indyref’ and nerves are wound increasingly taut. In Scotland lifelong friendships have been strained by differing voting intentions for the indyref and even here in Berwick where we don’t have a vote, we approach the subject very cautiously when talking to our Scottish friends. As September 18th hurtles towards us, thoughts of what the future might hold for us here on the border loom ever larger. So while we still can and it is still officially summer, please let us all just chillax for a bit.

The Tweed has been described as a great Scottish river that enters the sea in England.  It is comforting to watch every day the ceaseless flow of its waters and know that they answer to no politician and care not whether they are classified as being in England or in Scotland or as forming the border between the two. Every day the tides rise and fall exactly at the times printed in the handy booklet supplied by the local angling shop, according to the dictates of the moon and not of any human agency. Today, for example, high water was at 14.39 and low water will be at 20.38 and no latter-day King Knut can change that. 

 The herons stalk stoically up and down the mudbanks of the estuary at low tide, gazing fixedly into the water for a passing fish. The impudently mobile fish themselves create many bureaucratic headaches for the officers of the fisheries protection patrols who, even without full Scottish independence, have to follow rules about how far into the neighbouring authority’s waters they are allowed to pursue fishing malefactors. (They have the right of ‘hot pursuit’ but not to just hang around on the off-chance of spotting known villains with their illegal crab-pots down.) 

The swans swim serenely to and fro across the border and the good people at the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust care for them when they are injured on either side of it, as their motto says.

As we worry over the prospect of border controls becoming necessary in the future, and fret about the possibility of needing a different currency to go shopping in the next town up the road,  it makes me envy their freedom. In the words of the song, “birds fly over the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” 

Saturday 2 August 2014

Memories of World War One

Monday is the centenary of the start of the Great War for Civilisation, as it was known at the time. I have very mixed feelings about the unstoppable tide of reminiscences of war that is engulfing us this year, but it does give me a reason to show you a photo I’ve been wanting to share for a while now. 

This is a picture of my grandfather, Jack Rowsell, and two of his mates at a Northumberland Fusiliers training facility (possibly Fenham barracks in Newcastle), dated 1910. It is difficult to be certain which one is him under those hats, but my best guess is the one in the  middle. He sent it to the young lady who would later become my grandmother and wrote on the back, ‘Please don’t laugh too much or woe betide you when I come on furlough’. You can see what he was worried about. That rig-out does indeed seem more likely to make his girlfriend giggle than swoon with admiration of his manly physique.  
Jack and Amy married in 1914, probably at least partly because of a desire to secure the entitlements of a soldier’s wife as Europe moved towards war. They and their three daughters then spent the next thirty years living the life of an army family in various colonies and troublespots before retiring back home in Alnwick.

Both of my grandfathers were fortunate enough to survive the Great War and to be laid to rest in Alnwick cemetery only after achieving their three-score-years-and-ten. This is a photo of the cemetery. It has a rather fine avenue of trees down the centre, though that has never made me feel any better about having to attend an interment there.

On my last visit there I noticed the gravestone of a man with the given name of Verdun. Sure enough, he was born in 1916 soon after the Battle of Verdun. It seems that his parents got carried away on a surge of patriotism and sympathy for France. Their unfortunate son then had to live out the rest of the twentieth century burdened with that moniker. I strongly suspect that he was always known as Dun.

It reminded me that Amy, my grandmother, had a close friend who was always known as Effie but who had actually been christened Euphrates. I have seen the name on her gravestone and so know that this is not just a family legend. The inscription gives her middle initial as T, which irresistibly suggests that her second name might have been Tigris, though I don’t recall anyone ever saying it was. The story went that the vicar who conducted her christening was so outraged that he initially refused to baptise her unless the parents came up with a more suitable name, but he was for some reason eventually won over. In relation to the theme of war, this is a rather melancholy reminder that there was once a time when the region now called Iraq meant nothing to people in Northumberland except that its rivers had rather pretty names.