Tuesday 15 November 2016

Thoughts on Recent Travels in Scotland

This is a pretty cute map of Scotland (Alba) with Gaelic place names, produced by some school children in Obar Dheathain, or Aberdeen as it is more commonly known, and on display in the train station there. I recently ventured up to Aberdeen, the furthest north I have ever been. It's at 57 degrees of latitude north and at this time of year, blimey, does it get dark early. It was here that it really hit me for the first time that Scotland is much closer to Scandinavia both geographically and culturally than England is. Of course the Scottish independence lobby are working on cultivating these links for all they're worth. Though First Minister Sturgeon has recently been much mocked for attending a conference of nations bordering the Arctic Circle, which Scotland conspicuously does not. I mean, even in the middle of winter the sun does rise for a few hours in the north of Scotland.

The main street of Aberdeen is called Union Street and there is also a Union Bridge and a Union Square, the last now taken over by a large and glitzy shopping mall in which to while away some of the hours of darkness. It's clear that Unionism was much in vogue at the time the Granite City was built. So it is appropriate that it was here I first encountered the campaigning end of the anti-independence lobby.

There was Scotland in Union, neutral between political parties but 'positive about Scotland in the UK', and opposite them in the central square, the Conservative party, explicitly demanding 'no second referendum' on independence and filled with spluttering dislike of and anger towards 'that Sturgeon woman'. The non-aligned faction seemed unhappy about the Conservatives getting in their space, probably conscious that association with that party has done enormous damage to the Unionist cause.

One of their leaflets is shown here. The view that the SNP government is concentrating too much on demanding ever more independent powers rather than on making good use of the ones they've already got seems to be widespread, and so does the feeling that the indyref was a horribly divisive experience that few people are anxious to repeat. We in England have had a taste of that with the Brexit referendum, which also divided families and friends. Now imagine having had to go through both those bitterly divisive campaigns in less than two years. And now imagine that your government wants to do the whole thing again a.s.a.p.

The timetable is reportedly now looking very tight indeed for the Scottish government to be able to transition seamlessly from EU membership as part of the UK to EU membership as an independent nation. Now that the UK PM Theresa May has announced she will trigger Article 50 early in 2017, Scotland would need to hold a new referendum on independence that returned a Yes majority not much later than that. Otherwise it will have to leave the EU along with the rest of the UK and then start all over again after independence at some unspecified time in the future.

The problem for Nicola Sturgeon is that the opinion polls are still showing a clear majority against independence. Though, with opinion polls now thoroughly discredited after their lamentable failure to predict the result of either the Brexit referendum or the US presidential election, that may not be something to rely on too much.

I travelled from Aberdeen to Glasgow by coach, braving a driver who threw my luggage around and didn't seem to like my English accent much. Glasgow is an extraordinary city - once the Second City of the Empire, as they are fond of reminding you despite the Empire being politically unfashionable nowadays - and the fact that its inhabitants voted majority Yes in the indyref seems to me to have been the result of their tremendous self-confidence and justified pride in themselves, rather than any anti-English feelings. At least nobody here seems to be as upset by an English accent as the Aberdonian bus driver. I remarked to the young receptionist in the hotel that I thought Glasgow was a great city, and he replied, 'Yes, it's the best city,' in a tone of great finality.

This statue outside Glasgow Concert Hall depicts Donald Dewar, 'Scotland's First Ever First Minister', as the inscription says. He represented the Labour party, and had been active in Labour politics UK wide before the new Scottish Parliament was created and he got the gig of being its First Minister. His death after only eighteen months in office is widely regarded as a tragedy both personally and for Scottish politics. It seems to have been almost forgotten in some quarters that the Scots did not rush out and vote by a landslide for a nationalist government as soon as they had the devolved opportunity, they elected a coalition of Labour and Liberal Democrats. That seems rather quaint now, so comprehensively have both parties screwed up in the sixteen years since Mr Dewar's death.

A footnote to justify including an old photo of Glasgow Central Mosque that I like. Some of the polling in the run-up to the indyref found that Scots of immigrant heritage had higher rates of support for independence than the population as a whole. Commentators speculated that this might be due to their fears about the rise of the populist right and anti-immigrant feeling in England. Interestingly, Police Scotland have reported that in Scotland they did not observe the large increase in assaults on people of Central and Eastern European origin that was recorded in England immediately after the EU referendum. Either Scots are just more tolerant, or the populist sentiments that are being channelled by the far right in England are flowing into the independence movement in Scotland and being expressed through a non-ethnic form of nationalism. The whole situation is extremely complicated, and now that we have a President Trump to contend with as well, God only knows what may happen.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Another Walled City

To anyone who knows Berwick upon Tweed this will look very like the walls for which Berwick is famous, but these fortifications are not on the border between England and Scotland but in a city that's now close to the border between UK-administered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everything about the place is so controversial that even choosing what to call it has political overtones. Its original name was Derry, in 1613 it became Londonderry, it is now referred to officially as Derry Hyphen Londonderry, and it's currently the fashion to call it LegenDerry, which I like.

The walls of Derry are similar to those of Berwick but more complete and with more imposing gateways through them. They are of course a big draw for visitors - so much so that an English accent surprises the locals less than it does in Belfast - and you are expected to stroll around the complete circuit and admire both the views and the structure of the walls themselves. I've done my best, but I can't see this defensive structure as anything other than oppressive.

This photo is taken through one of the crenellations in the wall, looking down on the Bogside area. The tourist info panel says that the nearby Royal Bastion was built to give a clear field of fire over the Bogside, back when it was the field of approach of an enemy army rather than a housing estate, but if I were living there now I would always have the feeling that the forces of the state could start firing down on me at any time.

Within the walls of Derry there are some of the most beautiful Georgian streets I've ever seen, and that's presumably where the rich merchants originally lived. Just outside the walls is where the poor people lived, and seemingly still do. I have never seen any other city where the historical distribution of power and wealth is expressed spatially in such a stark way. I don't find it conducive to a carefree holiday stroll.

This is one of the entrances / exits to the wall. It doesn't have actual gates any more, but during the Northern Ireland Troubles the British army blocked off some of these arches and set up checkpoints there. I've seen a photo, and I really think that it would cure anybody of finding walled cities romantic or picturesque. I don't suppose being shut in /out was any more enjoyable in the 17th century than it was in the 20th.

I've trudged round four different museums that between them cover every shade of political and religious opinion on the history of Derry-Londonderry, making conversation with the staff of all of them in the most neutral tone I can muster. The only thing everybody agrees on is that they're all really worried about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. There is much head-shaking and "we'll just have to wait and see."

One of my visits was to the temporary home of the Museum of Free Derry, an archive of the civil rights movement in the impoverished nationalist Bogside and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 local people were shot dead by British troops. Its permanent home is in the process of construction, and you can see in this photo that the European Regional Development fund is contributing some of the funds. Don't get the idea that the EU is doing this because it's pro nationalist and anti British, though. I also visited the Siege Heroes Museum, a loyalist operation attached to the Apprentice Boys Hall that celebrates the heroic defence of the city by its starving Protestant inhabitants against the troops of the Catholic King James II in 1689. The Siege of Derry looms very large indeed in the tradition and imagination of the unionist community. The young man on the desk told me that its smart new building was also funded by the European Union. "We took the money and now we've run," he said ruefully.

On the same day I arrived in Derry-Londonderry, Radio 4 broadcast a programme from it, exploring the fears of a new 'hard' border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. Though, as one contributor said, it shouldn't be called Brexit because it's not just Britain leaving, it's the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland. (Uxit?) There was a suggestion among some contributors that the events following the referendum on EU membership has exposed as a fiction the claim that the UK is a free association of equal partners and shown England imposing its will on the other nations of the UK. (Though to be fair, I think Wales voted majority Leave as well.) That's exactly how Scotland feels, and that's why Berwickers are worried as well.

I wanted to find a cheerful aspect of Derry to end this post on, and the best I could come up with was this golden teapot. It hangs outside a shop in the Strand Road, it's covered in real gold leaf and it's bigger than the golden kettle in Boston! A nice cup of tea, that really does unite us all.

Sunday 2 October 2016

You May Experience Connection Problems

Hello again! I drew my blog to a conclusion, as I thought, back in June, when I moved away from Berwick, but I now feel compelled to write again. In an attempt to get a different perspective on the future of the English-Scottish border, I've travelled to Ireland. The extreme cheapness of the flight to Dublin from Newcastle or Edinburgh with Ryanair makes it easy to justify doing this on a sudden impulse.

One of the nice things about being in the Republic of Ireland is escaping from the endless wallowing in the First World War that's going on in Britain, but then the ROI keeps banging on about the centenary of the Easter Rising instead. This is a photo of the General Post Office in the main street of Dublin, now called O'Connell Street, that was the headquarters of the Rising of 1916. Note the flag of the European Union flying alongside the Irish tricolor. The amazing metallic spire, soaring to a giddy height that won't fit in my photo, replaced a statue of Nelson that was blown up by nationalists in the 1960s. I'm sure the spire was an improvement. If anybody would like to demolish some more statues of Victorian worthies back in Britain, they can feel free as far as I'm concerned.

I paid my 10 euros and went round the museum inside the GPO. The main attraction is a noisy film of comedy Englishmen of the 'I say old chap' variety having rings run round them by Irish rebels, but there are also some very good videos of interviews with serious Irish historians, from which I learned a lot. It is clear that the British reaction to the Rising was hopelessly bungled and only succeeded in uniting a nation that was previously divided over the aims and tactics of nationalism. I could see similarities with what is going on in Scotland at the present time. To settle for devolution or to hold out for full independence? Can such a small nation survive on its own? Is independence more important than prosperity? Surely the country's prosperity will actually be greater when Britain is no longer siphoning off the proceeds of its key industries?

The big difference between now and 1916 is of course the existence of the European Union. I snapped the photo on the right in the supermarket over the road from my hotel in North Dublin. It's a large section, because there are a lot of Eastern European immigrants in the Republic of Ireland. (Okay, I know Poles hate being called Eastern Europeans, they insist Poland is in Central Europe, but evidently the Supervalu chain hasn't had that memo.) Most of the crew on my Ryanair flight were Polish. From being always known as a country of emigration, Eire is now also a country of immigration.

I then got the train up to Belfast, and the bus back from Belfast to Dublin. I grew up in the 1970s when television news showed soldiers patrolling border checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is now a completely open border. Nothing happens when you cross it. Absolutely nothing. Cruising down the motorway on the express bus, the only way you can tell you're back in the Republic is that the direction signs start to be in Gaelic as well as English. There isn't even a flag or a 'welcome' sign like you get between England and Scotland. On the train, the only reference in the entire journey to the fact that you are technically travelling between two different states is that the log-in screen for the free wifi says 'you may experience connection problems between Dundalk and Portadown'. And sure enough you do, because the broadband codes are being switched to make sure BBC iPlayer knows when you're in the UK and can watch on-demand telly and when you're outside the UK and can't. My phone showed Roaming in the Republic but switched back to being in the UK north of the border, and the same in reverse on the way south. In Belfast, all calls were included in my monthly bundle, in Dublin, not. I found this weirdly fascinating. In 2016 we don't need anything as crude as soldiers stomping about the border, we can monitor your every move digitally.

This is a sculpture in Thanksgiving Square on the waterfront in Belfast. According to the distinctly waffly description board, it is inspired by a variety of female figures in Celtic mythology and expresses themes of peace, reconciliation, hope and aspiration, while the fact she is standing on a globe refers to our modern global village. If you say so. The last time I was in Belfast was in 2002 and since then the city has been completely transformed. It now has a very attractive and lively city centre, full of exuberant young people, and with the highest density of coffee shops I've ever seen, possibly indeed in Europe. Being there moved me very much. A small voice at the back of my mind said that perhaps in twenty years time Aleppo could look like this.

But today Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, announced that she will formally trigger the process of leaving the European Union in six months time. When I heard this I wanted to cry. All this openness and ease of travel, this creeping de facto re-unification under the auspices of the EU, could be destroyed by Brexit. In a few years time there may once again be armed checkpoints all across the Island of Ireland. And across the Island of Britain, if Scotland proves as loyal to the EU as Eire. Every time I go back to Berwick, a town that would be blighted more than any other by a 'hard' border with Scotland, I have to make conversation with Conservative supporting, Leave voting, locals who are thrilled at the result of our EU referendum. I just want to say to them, Are you out of your bloody mind?

Sunday 19 June 2016

And It's Goodbye From Me - Tweed to Tyne

This post will be my last on this blog for some time, possibly for good. It depends on whether there are any more dramatic developments affecting the border between England and Scotland. My original thinking regarding the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, now almost upon us, was that a vote to Leave would trigger a fresh outburst of campaigning for Scottish independence that I ought to write about, but that a vote to Remain would mean I could gracefully sign off from reporting on the Borders as the status quo would be assured. I now think that whatever happens in the referendum we are in for a turbulent time politically, so I may as well sign off before the fateful date of 23rd June.

Because the thing is, I'm not actually living in Berwick any more. I sold my flat there and went to the Antipodes for three months, as previously described on this blog, and I am now living mostly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne while I contemplate the possibility of returning to the Antipodes for a while. I found I couldn't bear to move out of the region described in the heading of this blog, the land between the rivers Forth and Tyne, but I am now living at the far end of it, on the bank of the Tyne. This photo shows two of the bridges across the Tyne, the railway and the swing bridges.

I chose this view because archaeologists have now discovered that the original Roman bridge across the Tyne, the Pons Aelius or Hadrian's Bridge, was on the same site as the modern swing bridge. Presumably because convenient crossing points don't change that much. So this post continues the theme of my last about the Roman sites at Wallsend and South Shields. The photo here on the right shows the entrance to the harbour at South Shields. On the left side of the picture is the town / village / suburb of Tynemouth. This is where the river we love so much flows out to sea.

I was fascinated to learn that matching altars to the Roman gods Oceanus and Neptune have been found near the swing bridge, and that Alexander the Great is known to have sacrificed to the same gods when he reached the mouth of the river Indus. Presumably the Romans were conscious that the mouth of a river was the point where they left the land and entered the realm of the sea gods, and so it would be prudent to ask for their protection.

This is the Shields ferry. It chugs between the two banks of the Tyne several times an hour, a journey of only five minutes or so but one rich in cultural associations within the region. This vessel is called Spirit of the Tyne, which is apt. There is a sculpture outside the Newcastle Civic Centre that is supposed to represent some sort of presiding deity of the Tyne. I hope that the spirit of the river was able to share in the sacrifices to Oceanus and Neptune.

I read somewhere that it may not be mere coincidence that so many rivers on the eastern side of Britain have names beginning with the letter T. The Tyne, the Tees, the Tweed, the Till, the Teviot ... they divide up the region and mark out areas of allegiance and affection. The suggestion from linguists is that these names may all derive from some ur-name beginning with a T that just meant a river, and that would mean there is unity in their diversity. I like that.

Recently I have become deeply gloomy about the political and social strains tearing at the fabric of life in the UK. Nobody could deny that this country faces some really serious problems and challenges. I think that's why I've come to find it so soothing to look at the rivers Tyne and Tweed and imagine the thousands of years that their waters have been flowing to the sea. We fight each other, but the land and the waters outlast us all.

Sunday 1 May 2016

'Where Rome's great frontier begins'

This is the reconstruction of the West Gate of Arbeia,  the Roman fort on the south bank of the river Tyne, in present day South Shields. It is not part of Hadrian's Wall, which apparently confuses a lot of visitors who can't conceive of any Roman ruins not attached to the Wall, it guards the other side of the estuary of the Tyne, preventing Northern British enemies from sneaking down the coast and attacking from the south. The counterpart on the northern bank is Segedunum, in modern day Wallsend (duh!) and I talk about that below.

At a later date Arbeia became a supply base for the garrisons all the way along Hadrian's Wall. Excavations have shown that it had far more granaries than was normal  for a fort and also dug up an unusually large number of the metal tags bearing the Emperor's head used to seal supplies. So it seems that food was shipped from Continental Europe into the estuary, offloaded here, then transported to the line of forts stretching to the Solway Firth on the west coast.

In fact it was a jolly important place, and the commanding officer accordingly enjoyed the ostentatiously large house you can see reconstructed in this photo on the right. One of the staff told me that even after the Romans had been there for 200 years and must have understood that the climate of North East England is not well suited to al fresco living, they still insisted on employing the standard house plan involving having to cross a roofless courtyard to get from one room to another. Adapting to local conditions would have meant an intolerable loss of status. Compare the British in India.

Because of these reconstructions, built on top of the foundations of the originals, Arbeia is more fun than the usual archaeological site where you just stare at a few old stones. It also has a small but wonderful museum of things found on site, some unique in Britain and all of amazing quality.

The fort is thought to have been originally called something else and to have been later nicknamed Arbeia, meaning 'place of the Arabs', after the employment of specialist boatmen from the river Tigris, in modern Iraq, to sail and fight on the Tyne. I can't tell you how much I love this image. Although of course this happened before the emergence of Islam, and those Arabs were probably Christians, I still see some sort of appropriateness in the modern presence of a mosque just down the road from the site. On this ancient imperial border, we see that the Romans were multi-cultural avant la lettre.

This picture on the left shows the archaelogical site of Segedunum, or Wallsend, on the northern bank of the Tyne estuary, with the building that is now used as the museum but was formerly the canteen of Swan Hunter shipyard, hence its resemblance to the prow of a ship.

This site presents a moving exploration of how successive layers of history were lived out and left their traces on the same site. Both Segedunum and Arbeia used to be covered with 19th century terraced housing that had to be demolished to expose the Roman sites, and some of Segedunum lay under the Swan Hunter yard. The piece of Wall that ran down the slope from the fort to the river was first exposed when the shipyard was being extended to make it large enough to build the Mauretania in the early 20th century. And a coal mine can still be seen adjacent to the surviving stretch of Wall on the other side of the fort. A considered decision was made to preserve some visible evidence of this mine and grant it the same respect and validity as the Roman remains.

I took some photos from the observation platform in the former shipyard workers' canteen, showing the striking landscape of river, abandoned shipyard, excavated ancient fort. This is the one with the least reflection of me and my camera - sorry it's still not great, but you get the idea. You can see a reconstruction of a bathhouse in the far corner of the site, sadly now closed to visitors because it's no longer structurally safe. They're still trying to work out how the Romans prevented a steamy bathhouse from rotting in the damp British climate.

A modern monument has been erected on the site bearing all the names of those Roman army personnel known from surviving records to have actually physically built the Wall, with space left to add any more discovered. When I first visited the site, Swan Hunter was still operational, and this juxtaposition of modern and ancient construction workers was very powerful. Now, the shipyard is as derelict as the fort. It has passed into history in its turn.

And what of the layer of history below the Roman one? The museum explains that the people who lived in North East England before the Roman colonisers arrived were called the Brigantes. Below the foundations of the fort archaeologists have found ploughed furrows that were never planted with anything. The invaders kicked the farmers off the land between ploughing and sowing. The Brigantian farms near the Wall were abandoned soon after, either because the Romans forcibly removed the local population for security reasons, or simply because their social and economic systems were so badly disrupted by having a giant wall built through the middle of their community that their lives became impossible and they moved of their own accord. This all sounds horribly familiar from more recent times. Brigantian farmers, Roman builders, Geordie shipwrights - all just local people trying to make a living on the banks of the great river.

Monday 18 April 2016

Oh God, Not Another Referendum.

I'm now back from my three month adventure touring New Zealand and Australia. I've lost my acclimatisation to the bitter Borders wind, and I've spent the last week going round huddled in my thick winter coat telling everyone I can't believe it's still this cold, much to their bemusement since everybody who's spent the whole winter here thinks it's quite pleasant and spring-like, actually.

As if the weather wasn't enough to get used to again, the state of British politics is enough to make me want to jump straight back on a plane. The first I heard about the EU referendum was when I was lying on my bed in a hostel in the resort of Franz Josef Glacier, in the Southern Alps of the South Island of New Zealand, listening to the BBC news online. Ringing across cyberspace came the voice of David Cameron telling me that this was the most important political decision I would have to make in my lifetime. It quite spoiled the holiday mood, I can tell you.

My first thought was that I really resent having to go through this referendum business all over again after being put through the wringer less than two years ago over the Scottish independence vote. This has continued to be my dominant feeling about the whole thing, and now that I'm back in the Borders I can confirm that it seems to be most people's overriding reaction here. There is a kind of weariness about the way people discuss the EU vote. Or, in fact, don't discuss it, because it is clear that most people are avoiding stating their views openly in social situations for fear of falling out with their friends and acquaintances, in exactly the same way as they did with the question of Scottish independence. One of my Berwick friends told me, 'we just don't talk about it to anyone, especially in Scotland, we're afraid there may be murder done'. What makes it trickier is that, unlike the Indyref, it's impossible to predict what any one person's opinion will be on EU membership. It cuts right across all other political alignments.

There is no doubt that the prospect of a Leave result in the EU referendum triggering a second Indyref in Scotland has reactivated all the fears and uncertainties over the future status of the border between England and Scotland. Property prices in Berwick are still falling, with masses of lovely houses up for grabs and not shifting. Nobody except me seems willing to come right out and say so, but I am sure that the property market in this area is being depressed long term by an unwillingness to live on a border that could yet become the frontier of the EU. I'm glad I sold my flat when I did.

Being in New Zealand at the time of the announcement of the Euroref, if I'm allowed to call it that on the analogy of the Indyref, has given me a rather different perspective on it to the way I saw it before. The Kiwis see the EU as 'a hostile trading bloc' and resent being relegated from a favoured 'daughter' of Britain to just another non-EU country, stuck in the longer queue for passport checking at Heathrow and told that their butter has no privileged access to European markets any more. And they really, really resent the way EU farmers are showered with subsidies and handouts while Kiwi farmers just have to stand on their own two feet in the market. Actually I think I agree with them about that. Today the National Farmers' Union came out in favour of remaining within the EU. Gosh, there's a surprise.

I look forward to seeing how Anne-Marie Trevelyan, our new Conservative MP, balances the demands of subsidy-seeking farmers and immigrant-loathing housing applicants in her constituency over the next few months. I reckon that even if it achieves nothing else, the Euroref could well destroy the Conservative party. And that result would be worth any amount of biting our lips and changing TV channels between now and June 23rd.

Saturday 26 March 2016

So Where Exactly Does the United Kingdom End?

As I come to the end of my period of travelling around Australia and New Zealand, I am thinking more than ever about the future of 'the United Kingdom'. One of the things I'm looking forward to about returning to 'the UK' is that the people who live there hardly ever call it 'the UK'. We think we live in Britain, but when I offer this in response to the person on the ticket desk of some museum who is dutifully collecting visitors' origins for their stats, they often look a bit confused. Then they look down their list of options and say, 'So that'll be the United Kingdom then'. If I get the opportunity, I explain that in the wake of the Scottish indyref the term United Kingdom has become associated with an explicitly Unionist political agenda and 'Britain' is more neutral. Nobody much in Australasia seems to understand this, and really, why should they.

I do think though that the management of Best Western Australia could be expected to have a firmer grasp of political geography than that demonstrated by their online hotel booking form. It gave me the options of saying I was from: a) United Kingdom - Great Britain, b) United Kingdom - Scotland, or c) United Kingdom - Wales. Being from England is not possible except by identifying England with Great Britain, a bad habit the English already have that ought not to be encouraged, and being from Northern Ireland is not an option at all, an egregious howler since the correct differentiation between Britain and the UK is that the latter includes Northern Ireland and the former does not. But hey, Best Western is run by Americans, what can you expect.

My stay in New Zealand (or Aotearoa as its inhabitants increasingly like to call it) coincided with its referendum on changing the flag. The photo above shows the present flag flying beside the war memorial at Bluff, the southernmost point of the New Zealand mainland. It was a pet project of the current prime minister, John Key, to change the flag to one that does not include the flag of the United Kingdom and thus could be seen as representing the modern independent nation rather than the former colony. The previously chosen alternative is shown below - it keeps the stars of the Southern Cross but replaces the UK flag with the Silver Fern long associated with NZ. The result of the referendum has just come in and the Kiwis have rejected the proposed alternative and opted to keep the old flag. Not by as large a margin as predicted though, the result was 57: 43, and as I understand it a lot of No voters were motivated more by dislike of Mr Key and all his pet projects than by devotion to the traditional flag.

I am not, of course, entitled to have an opinion on what flag Kiwis ought to adopt, that's entirely a matter for them. I am though entitled to have an opinion on the attitudes to 'the mother country' that were displayed during the referendum debate, and I found a lot of them exasperating. I was told by one tour guide that it was appropriate to keep the UK flag because 'we are still part of the Commonwealth'. Very few countries of the Commonwealth have chosen to reference the UK in their post-independence flags, and anyway, the sad truth is that hardly anybody in Britain outside Buckingham Palace gives a damn about the Commonwealth. There seems to be a widespread view overseas that the Union Jack has something to do with the Queen. It doesn't.

I even read one letter in a newspaper that said NZ was still part of the United Kingdom, and considered writing to the paper to point out that it very definitely is not, but wasn't quite sure if the letter was intended satirically. Even if that particular writer was being sarcastic, there is certainly a degree of attachment to the UK in New Zealand that is not reciprocated and seems embarrassingly inappropriate to a British visitor. All the more so because the proportion of New Zealanders who have Scottish ancestry is very great and you would think that some anti-Union sentiments would have travelled out there with them.

I started off by telling people that if Scotland becomes independent, which everyone I know believes is inevitable eventually, and the United Kingdom breaks up, NZ is going to look a bit daft using the flag of a country that doesn't exist any more. Then I realised that the NZ flag has taken on a range of associations that are no longer anything to do with the UK. The most emotive argument used by the No to the New Flag lobby was that thousands of New Zealanders had fought and died under the present one. The photo above of it flying beside the war memorial on a weather-beaten coast seems to me to capture a lot of the emotions evoked by this argument. It was tempting to say, So doesn't that just prove that Kiwis ought not to have got involved in British wars? But I could see that would have been insulting to those who feel deeply about this. The Returned Services' Association in Aotearoa New Zealand will keep flying a flag that includes the one created to celebrate the Union of England and Scotland, regardless of what happens in Holyrood. Such are the vagaries of colonial history.

Sunday 28 February 2016

The Scotland of the South

Hello again from the southern hemisphere. I am still working my way around New Zealand by bus, and have now made it right down to the bottom end, to the province of Otago. This is the statue of Rabbie Burns in the centre of the city of Dunedin. When I first saw it I was impressed by this evidence of the residents' devotion to literature, or perhaps to the egalitarian ideals of the poet. I then discovered that the city was founded by a Rev. Thomas Burns who was a nephew of Rabbie, and deduced that erecting a great big statue of his famous uncle was a way of perpetuating the family name somewhat more subtle than putting up a great big statue of the founder himself.

Dunedin is the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh - it is still used in modern Gaelic - and the settlement in Otago was a conscious attempt to re-create Edinburgh in a new land. The main street of Dunedin is called Princes Street. Other streets in the central city are called George, Stuart, Moray, Hanover and St. Andrew. There are suburbs called Mornington and Corstorphine. Luckily the discovery of gold in Otago later generated the wealth to enable the New Edinburgh to be built in a fitting style.

The city's coat of arms shows a Maori and a Scottish Highlander standing side by side. In fact, apparently, Lowlanders were actively preferred for migration to the early settlement, as they were felt to be more sober and Protestant, and the names of the small towns in Central Otago sound like a lullaby of home to a visitor from the Scottish Borders: Roxburgh, Teviot, Ettrick, Kelso. There is even a Berwick just outside Dunedin.

It seems that when raising sheep in the rolling hills of Otago became a big thing, Highlanders were then thought the best people to do it, hence the man with the kilt and the crook. Though, to be honest, most of the Scottish diaspora seems to have adopted tartan-ism as the most obvious signifier of the old country, without bothering to distinguish Highland and Lowland traditions. The motto means 'by following in the steps of our forefathers'. My O' level Latin can't really see that in it but I will have to take the word of Dunedin city council.

I am writing this in the city of Invercargill, on the very tip of the South Island, with only a few small islands between it and Antarctica. The weather here would make any migrant from the Debatable Land feel right at home. I've had to finally pack away the hot weather clothes and buy an anorak.

 The town was named after the William Cargill commemorated on this plaque, the joint founder of Otago. Note the motifs on the corners of the plaque. The image of the thistle entwined with the fern has long been the symbol of the Scots in New Zealand, as in this 19th c. poem, while the juxtaposition of the fern and the Southern Cross constellation anticipates the design of the proposed new NZ flag.

The glorious thing about Invercargill is that all of the streets in the city centre are named after Scottish rivers. The main shopping area is on Dee, Tay and Esk streets. Keep going and  you come to Spey, Clyde, Don, Forth, Ness. Most poignantly to a Borderer, there are streets named Jed, Gala, Eye, Yarrow, and yes, Tweed. They've even allowed the Tyne to sneak in. The southern gales blow me through a permanent memory of home, a lyrical grid plan of settlers' nostalgia. I can't decide if I feel homesick or I feel at home. Probably the early settlers experienced the same ambivalence.

Monday 25 January 2016

Warkworth's Namesake in New Zealand

In my last post some weeks ago, when I explained that I was about to depart for Australasia, I promised that I would post about anything I came across there that seemed relevant to the remit of the Debatable Land blog, and this seems to fit the bill.

Warkworth is a village in North Northumberland, about twenty minutes' drive from Alnwick, where I grew up. Yesterday I visited the town of Warkworth in New Zealand, which was named after the Northumbrian one. The tourist blurb describes it as a 'captivating historic village', and while in truth it is increasingly becoming a commuter suburb of Auckland, from where it is less than an hour's drive north, its setting on the bank of the Mahurangi river is not dissimilar to Northumbrian Warkworth's lovely location on the bank of the river Coquet.

Warkworth in Northumberland has a sign at the entrance to the village announcing that it is twinned with Warkworth in New Zealand, so I was happy to see that the latter returns the favour. Although at present the sign is somewhat obscured by the flowers of the southern hemisphere summer, you can see that Warkworth NZ  has sibling and friendship arrangements with a number of other places too.

According to the New Zealand History website, Warkworth NZ was founded by John Anderson Brown, who bought the land in 1843 and named the town after his birthplace in Northumberland.

 He went on to name one of the original streets after Alnwick, and of course I just had to go and check that out. After labouring some distance uphill in heat of around 30 oC, I was rather disappointed to find that Alnwick Street is, at least to the British eye, a not particularly historic looking stretch of unremarkable houses.

Before doing this I called in to the visitor information centre - in New Zealand these are given the rather brilliant name of the i-site - and found the staff less excited about the arrival of a visitor from Northumberland than I hoped they might be. They did though let me have an original copy of the leaflet with the map in, rather than the photocopy they were giving everyone else due to leaflet stocks having reached a critical level. I asked them how they pronounce Alnwick - in the original town the l and w are elided to end up with Anick, but the street named after it is just pronounced the way it looks. This got me wondering whether John Anderson Brown pronounced it that way himself or whether the Northumbrian pronounciation was gradually lost over time. Alas, we may now never know.

Lilburn Street, also seen here, is named after another village in Northumberland. The Lilburns were a prominent family among the Border Reivers, but that probably wasn't the association intended for the street.

Less commendably in my eyes, Mr Brown named several streets of his new settlement after families of Northumbrian nobility - Percy, Neville and Bertram. It was some consolation to see that the main feature of Percy Street is now a large branch of the appropriately named New World supermarket chain. I found it pleasing to see the family name of the Duke of Northumberland attached to this most egalitarian and mundane feature of modern life, rather than to the elegant 19th c. town houses that still constitute Percy Street and Percy Terrace in Alnwick.

In fact, there is a fascinating ambiguity in the use of Old World names in the settler societies of the New World that is difficult to appreciate without making the journey between them. Was the founder intending to honour the nobility of the country he had left by naming streets after them, or to subtly bring them down to earth by attaching their names to a rough pioneer settlement? There is also the consideration that the Percy and Neville families were bitter rivals and might have taken a poor view of seeing their names attached to parallel streets, to stand side by side on a map for ever more.

In a new country old names take on new significances and associations that are just as valid as the original ones. The people who go about their daily lives in the shops and cafes of Neville Street don't care tuppence about what the Nevilles of Northumberland were getting up to at the time of the Norman Conquest, and nor should they.

The original Warkworth is dominated by the ruin of a medieval castle, apparently such a textbook example of a motte and bailey castle construction that school parties regularly go to study it. Warkworth NZ seeks to draw the visitor's attention to its historic cement works. There is a nice parallel there of an Old World building designed to maintain the power of the nobility and a New World facility for producing the material for sheltering ordinary people.

Let's not get too idealistic though - the most prominent and historic looking buildings in the centre of Warkworth NZ nowadays are this Masonic Hall and the Bank of New Zealand, which is a pretty clear indication of the early residents' priorities.