Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: July, 2013

George is seen as a farmer, dependable, a hard worker

It has been a great week to be a George. As you may have noticed, our numbers have been swelled by one and  our standing has been transformed.

Several people have run up to congratulate me, as if the choice of the royal name was my doing, and indeed I can now reveal my small part in this grand event.

 For years, I have been the brains  behind a clandestine campaign to restore the fortunes of this great name. I sidle up to expectant mothers with a ten pound note and offer it as a small christening present if they decide to name their baby George.   

I had problems with access on this occasion and spent  many sleepless nights pondering  with the kind of sweetener might  be appropriate for a royal couple to persuade them to adopt my favourite name.

 I always confident that they would do the noble thing and, on Wednesday evening last week, I cracked a bottle of champagne to toast the arrival of Prince George. I will be sending the customary £10 note.

 When I launched my campaign, George languished low in the list of popular boys names. Whilst other traditional names like Thomas and Edward  rose up the charts again, for some strange reason George remained a party pooper. Thanks to my efforts, George has risen up the ranks to No 12 in the league chart of boys names. There will be no stopping us Georges now.

I funded research into the connotations behind the name. George is seen as dependable, a farmer, a hard worker but my focus groups revealed the painful truth that too many young parents saw us Georges as  boring, old fashioned and curmudgeonly.

 Note that Prince Harry is quoted as saying he will teach his nephew “to have fun”. I dread to think what Uncle has in mind. Does he think that us Georges do not have fun?

Some of my alumni have not helped the cause either. Whilst brilliant in their different ways Brown, Best, Bush and Boy all blotted their copybooks. Eddie was uninspiring and Cluny too American. 

The low point in my campaign was the moment that Asda  launched its George brand. The name would forever be associated with cheap, and by implication, smelly underpants.  A chance to reposition the name was missed when a company embodying great British values in contemporary clothing went for Jack Wills instead.

For several years, I hung out in cheap cafes in  Edinburgh and thereby had some hopes that a new childhood hero would emerge as George Potter. To no avail.  The fun loving and mercurial Harry, another royal name, was chosen instead.

But I saw a link. I needed royal patronage and have no doubt that the great name will now shoot up the ratings. 2014 will be the year of George. My phone has not stopped ringing over the last few days with offers of sponsorship deals.

George was always a front runner for a royal name. It is the most popular name of an English king and  has the  patronage  of our national saint. It has recently been named as the national  football training ground though  I have to admit the brand is tainted through its adoption by far right groups.

The creeping modernity of the monarchy also worried me. Clearly someone has been working on their brand image and may well have been advising that Justin, Wayne or Bradley would reposition them.

There is still a danger that the baby may become known by his second name as ‘Alex’, which was reported to be a favourite name with his mother. It would be a clever move that could unite the nation and scupper Scottish independence.

It has not been easy being a George. Taunted in the playground as Georgie Porgy, derided on the cricket field when on one occasion the bowler at the other end was called Fred, and regularly taken as someone much older and more staid than I am, I have struggled with my self image as a George. I considered  founding George Anon.

It has been lonely being George. It is rare to find a namesake and when I do, the back slapping quickly gives way to an honest discussion of what our parents had in mind in giving this name. In my case, I was named after my father which was just the best thing to do in the circumstances.

To my mind, the Windsors would now be well advised to skip a couple of generations. The Elizabethan Age would give way to the Age of George.  I just hope I am around to bask in its glory.


After all the excitement and flag waving that followed the announcement on Wednesday night,  the morning swim at Prudhoe  Waterworld on Friday was a quieter affair. The staff had kindly provided breakfast for the early birds on the second anniversary of the death of Ruth Fletcher. Ruth was an experienced diver  who died in a freak accident off the coast at Bamburgh.  She was a great character who encouraged us all and made the left hand lane of the pool her own.

Apart from the customary ‘Good Morning Gordon’, the early birds rarely talk to each other. There is the occasional exchange about holidays, ailments and children at the end of the lane or under the shower but, for the most part, we just swim.

But there is a touching sense of community among the regulars which was apparent over the croissants and bacon rolls before we all went off to work or the golf course, which also reflects well on a great organisation in Leisure Tynedale. There is more to swimming than meets the eye.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene


The sound of ” a motorbike starting up” is not all bad

I have set the dials on my time machine to 7th June 1945. It is an antiquated device and cannot be relied on to convey me accurately to the date or place required, in this case, Sadlers Wells Theatre.

On a previous outing, I have been transported to the back row of the lecture theatre in Vienna to hear  Sigmund Freud  deliver his new fangled  theory  of psychoanalysis  and realise that his students were  non plussed. My longest journey has been  to Putney Common in 1647 where Cromwell’s army debated beheading the king.  No one realised the significance of these events at the time apart from your intrepid time traveller.

If all goes to plan, I will witness the first night of  Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes which was performed exactly four weeks after the German’s unconditional surrender. It was a controversial choice of opera with which  to reopen the theatre. Britten’s music is never easy.

When the final curtain fell, there was a long silence before shouting broke out in the audience. The stage crew thought it was a political demonstration  and brought down the curtain but the shouting gave way to applause, curtain calls and bouquets which left a shy and nervous composer in no doubt that his work was a success.

Britten was only 32 and had led a sheltered life devoted to composing since  his schooldays .He was regarded as a rising star and this first night  finally established his reputation. The opera  played to packed houses, was revived the following year  and produced in New York the year after.

It is the story of an evil  fisherman and how the community turns against him. According to  Peter Pears, who played the leading role,  the bus conductor would call out at the stop for Sadlers Wells, “Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman.”

The opera had inauspicious beginnings. In California and felling homesick,  Britten read an article  about the obscure Suffolk poet George Crabbe, who came from the same sea faring  community as Britten and whose poem ‘The Borough’ became the unlikely source for what became the defining opera of English culture.

In Britten’s version of the story, the community turns against Grimes vindictively, driving him to madness and suicide “ A central feeling for us “ Britten wrote” was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation”.


He had not endeared himself to the public by departing to the United Sates before the war as a part of a ménage of gay artists  who were pacifists and attempting to avoid conscription. Their behaviour was questioned in parliament and condemned in the press.

In his review the  following morning, the News Chronicle music critic worried that the success of the opera depended on “the unstable temperament” of a fickle public. Were they ready for discordant music with few tunes?

He was proved right when a  prestigious commission for an opera to celebrate the coronation in 1953 was too avant garde for  the great and  the good. Britten’s patron dubbed it  “one of the great disasters of operatic history”.

Britten had a good eye for how to promote his work and win people round. It was regularly played on the radio – far too much for some peoples liking – and Britten was among the first to grasp the potential of recording his work on disc and later for performing it on television.

His  fellow composer, Micheal Tippett  later  recalled the immense significance of Peter Grimes to the development of an operatic tradition in the United Kingdom.    Before the war, English opera had been blinkered, poorly performed and under funded – which was one reason why Britten packed his bags for America. 

The Arts Council, established in 1944, decided  to fund classical music and opera generously. Covent Garden became the main beneficiary but as part of a welcome move to decentralise funding,  Britten’s own festival in Aldbrough, the home of Peter Grimes, was supported as well.  

It took the American critic, Edmund Wilson, to point out that Grimes “ could have been written in no other age” and that it spoke to “the blind anguish , the hateful rancours and the will to destruction” of the war years.

In a small way, the evening in June epitomised the much greater changes fermenting in  a society which only a month later  dropped Churchill at the general election and voted for nationalisation of the mines, a national health service and much else besides.

Rationing continued, devaluation followed and the country endured years of further hardship but it must also have been a great time to be alive. Perhaps  our descendants may look back on our current bleak times as a turning point as well?

Over supper after a Samling Concert, Sir Thomas Allen  once told me to persevere with Britten; not to be put off by what one of Britten’s own  friends described in an unguarded moment as the sound of a motor bike starting up.

After hearing a performance by the Bach Choir at The Sage Gateshead, Britten’s War Requiem has forced into way into my Desert Island Discs but I will  need a few days under a palm tree to appreciate it fully.

In an excellent  new biography, published to mark the centenary of Britten’s birth this year, which is the main source of this article,  Paul Kildea  concludes that “although he remained a prickly and easily offended character who increasingly  sought refuge on the Suffolk coast, Britten produced a body of works and performances that was unrivalled in the twentieth century and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.”

I shall find out for myself if the cranky mechanism of my time machine allows me to hear Peter Pears perform as Peter Grimes back in 1945. Just in case that fails, I have booked tickets to hear the Opera North production at the Theatre Royal in November. It might be safer to wait until then.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene

Its a return to Victorian days of handouts to the poor

In the week that George Osborne announced more punitive measures on welfare claimants, the Trussell Trust was named as Britain’s most admired charity.  You may not have heard of it yet.

Osborne was out of order. At the tail end of his spending review, George courted   popularity  by announcing that the unemployed must now report to the job centre every week as opposed to every fortnight and  that claimants would have to wait seven days before they receive benefit.  This had less to do with economics and more to do with winning votes. The  Chancellor knows that  there is little public sympathy for those dubbed ‘scroungers’ in the Daily Mail.

Enter the most admired Trussell Trust to fill the gap. The charity organises food banks to feed those denied state benefits and its business is soaring.  Almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12.

One third of foodbank clients are people whose benefit claims have been delayed. About a fifth are in work but on low wages. Contrary to what you might expect, less than 5% are homeless. In other words, food poverty, ( a  respectable word for going hungry) is the experience of a growing number of poor people.

 New research by Kellogg’s estimates that 4.7 million people in the United Kingdon live in ‘food poverty’. The cereal maker is distributing  15 million breakfasts and snacks over the next three years through the Trussell Trust.

In the North East, the Trust has foodbanks in East and West Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham. Others are opening up independently of the Trussell network in unlikely places like Hexham where you can donate goods outside Waitrose and Tesco.

Be in no doubt. The need for foodbanks has increased following the government changes to the Social Fund which came into effect in April when crisis  loans were abolished and funds made available, at a reduced level, via local authorities to support those without food.

Chris Mould, Executive Chairman of our most admired charity, says “the sheer volume of people who are turning to foodbanks because they can’t afford food is a wake-up call to the nation that we cannot ignore the hunger on our doorstep. Politicians across the political spectrum urgently need to recognise the real extent of UK food poverty and create fresh policies that better address its underlying causes. This is more important than ever as the impact of the biggest reforms to the welfare state since it began start to take effect. Since April 1st we have already seen increasing numbers of people in crisis being sent to foodbanks with nowhere else to go.’

Most of the foodbanks are run by local churches. The Revd Tim Ferguson, curate in Benwell, told me during a break in his meeting at Shepherds Dene last week, of his delight  at the generosity of supermarket shoppers to buy extra food to donate to the West Newcastle foodbank.

Trussell is Christian charity and quotes  the words of Jesus that when “ I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me”

As a Christian and as a social activist, I should applaud the Trusssell Trust and the many churches answering the call to set up foodbanks.  Why do I have misgivings?

I might well have voted for them in the poll of charity chief executives that led to Trussell’s  award as most admired charity last Thursday night. It is an exemplary organisation with eighteen staff and good fundraising skills that has developed and co ordinated a network of over 300 foodbanks around the country in a comparatively short period of time.   This is an admirable achievement indeed.

But it is worrying that foodbanks are becoming institutions in their own right, with warehouses and  paid staff, and are needed  on such a scale. It is not like a Friday night  whip round in the pub or  a flood disaster appeal .  Foodbanks do not deal in occasional and unforeseen misfortune. Foodbanks are a response to a continuing need  for food  brought about by the retreat of the welfare state. It is a return to the Victorian days of handouts to the poor.

 Joseph Rowntree’s   wise advice to the trustees of the  three charitable trusts that bear his name  comes to mind. He urged them to search out “the underlying causes “ of poverty rather than deal with its “superficial manifestations” The Edwardian  soup kitchen in York, he quipped,  never had “difficulty in obtaining adequate financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support“

Is it the same with foodbanks?  They are a great humanitarian gesture and as with all such aid,  it is given to all  freely and without discrimination.  As Jackie McCormack, on behalf of the Hexham foodbank makes plain,  there must be “no means testing or quibbling about who is to blame for individual financial predicaments” .  “There is” she says “no place for moral judgements or politics in the new foodbanks”.

This coming weekend Tesco, another big corporate getting in on the act, is organising a nationwide collection for foodbanks. When you donate groceries, as I hope you will, just remember Joseph Rowntree’s words and George Osborne’s actions.

It is a scandal that there needs to be a foodbank in every town and city throughout the land and  that the skills and organisation of the Trussell Trust are needed at all. Foodbanks are  all about politics. It is a measure of the meanness  of our politicians  to those living in  poverty   and of our own    selfishnesss  and acquiescence  in turning a blind eye to the underlying problem  that not even the most generous donation of tins of soup this coming weekend  will expunge.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene