Thursday 27 August 2015

Northumbria's Backbone

Spurred by my imminent house move, I've been once again sorting out the mass of old papers that have descended on me from various deceased members of my family. (It's down to one storage box now - believe me, that's progress.) This booklet was one of the things I came across, and for the first time I've actually read it properly.

It dates back to the days when a presentation accompanied by projected slides was referred to as a (magic) lantern lecture. On a no doubt freezing February night in 1923 the inhabitants of Chatton gathered in the village hall to hear the minister of the Presbyterian church expound educationally on the Great Whin Sill, an important geological formation that gives the Northumbrian landscape much of its character. The Wikipedia entry can tell you more.

I expected this lecture to be a boring technical explanation of the kind that only the desperate tedium of life in a small village in the winter before the advent of television (or even radio) could drive people to turn out for. In fact, it is a romantic, almost mystical, description of the route followed by the stratum of basalt known locally as the Whin Sill, with mentions of all the notable man-made features along the way as well as descriptions of the landscape itself.  The Rev. W. Thorp points out that medieval castles, prehistoric fortifications and relatively modern churches are all found on major outcrops of the sill, and muses on how the whin gives us strength and safety. Okay, we can readily agree that builders of all periods would have recognised that a massive chunk of rock was a sensible place to locate your defensive structures, but the minister sounds like some modern believers in earth energies talking about ley lines.

The really unexpected aspect of this lecture is the writer's conviction that living on basalt has formed the character of the local people. That's why he called the lecture Northumbria's Backbone, meaning that the rock is both geologically and psychologically the backbone of the county. He comments approvingly that Ulster also has large amounts of basalt rock and its people display sturdiness and hardiness similar to that of the Northumbrians. (Remember, he was a Presybterian minister, so his Ulster sympathies would have been distinctly one-sided.) A vaguely plausible mechanism for this - drinking the local water filtered through the rock - is mentioned in passing, but the essential idea is not much better than a piece of sympathetic magic. Hard rocks make hard people.

This idea is even more batty than the more widespread notion that racial inheritance determines character. One wonders how long the effect was supposed to last after moving away from the nurturing rock. Rev. Thorp says that it surely cannot be accidental that so many famous men and women have been born on whin. On the contrary, Reverend, I think it really can be. And I'm sure that those luckless enough to have been born on the soft chalk rock of the far south of England would take offence at the suggestion that they have therefore not managed to produce any great or famous sons and daughters.

It must have been a lonely life being the only man with a university education in a Northumbrian village in the early 20th century. One can understand why rural clergy developed consuming interests in some odd subjects. The modern believers in ley lines don't have that excuse. Perhaps such a sympathetic magic approach to life - a mystical identification with landscape - is somehow innate in us. I have more than once heard people who grew up in Northumberland and moved away for a while say that they came back here because they just couldn't bear living in a flat landscape, that they just missed the hills so much.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Berwick Bear Breaks Her Chains

This terrific image was created by Borders artist Cara Lockhart Smith for the Berwick Trades Union Council to use on its banner. It cleverly references both the chained bear on Berwick's town crest and the famous Marxist advice that the workers of the world have 'nothing to lose but their chains'.

It is tempting to use this as a starting point for a discussion of the ideological arguments currently convulsing the Labour party, but those national issues are outside the local scope of this blog. I did have a purely local argument with someone over their blind devotion to an idealistic form of Christian socialism which life has cured me of believing in, but I don't want to go into that here either.

No, this image strikes a chord with me at present because I have finally succeeded in selling my flat. The buyers' faces were lit up with joy at the prospect of owning their very own holiday home on the Berwick quayside. Ah, how well I remember that feeling. Fingers crossed that in their case the feeling lasts at least until after exchange of contracts. The flat was marketed as a 'refurb project' or what my Kiwi friends call 'a fixer-upper', which marks my final admission that domesticity and DIY are perhaps not my strongest skill set and it would be better to let somebody else do it.

I hope I'm not betraying the whole spirit of this blog if I confess that I am getting a little home-sick for Northumberland. When I moved from Alnwick to Berwick I naively thought that I was staying in Northumberland, but I was very wrong. Berwick has been dragged kicking and screaming into a purely formal membership of that fine county, but it has never stopped resenting it. I told the estate agent that I would only consider buying a new place on the Tweedmouth side of the river, and it says a lot about this area that he did not look in the least surprised.

He had already told me that the political ferment north of the border has led to some clients deciding to move there because they want to make a definitive commitment to Scotland. I fear that I am starting to feel that I want to make a definitive commitment to Northumberland. Historical Northumberland that is, which includes the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Of course, if you want to go all the way back and talk about 'historical Northumberland' in the same way as scholars of the Middle East use the term 'historical Syria', the Kingdom of Northumbria once stretched all the way to Edinburgh. Yes, the present capital of Scotland was once ruled from Bamburgh castle. It was, admittedly, a very long time ago, and no Scot has ever expressed a desire to revert to that particular political regime.

So there may be a bit of a hiatus in this blog while I sort myself out. But never fear, my loyalty to this region will never fade, and I will continue to write about anything interesting that happens here. In the meantime, please continue to browse my 122 previous posts.