Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: October, 2013

In the hours before dawn, a glimpse into some different worlds

It is amazing how much you can learn, even in a state of semi stupor, between five and  six in the morning by listening to Radio Four.

To those of you blessed with sound sleep and who have no reason to be up early, this will be news indeed. For those us who sleep fitfully and hope that a radio turned down low will lead to sweet dreams, this will come as no surprise.

 I sometimes wonder if I am waking from a nightmare of torture, genocide, rape and disaster through listening to World Service which feeds Radio Four until 05.20.

Is the world really a nastier and more violent place during the night? Last week  included harrowing  screams from relatives of asylum seekers drowned in the Mediterranean. Most of these events, especially atrocities in Africa, are not reported after 6am when domestic news predominates. Maybe John Humphries decides on what is palatable for people eating  cornflakes in Potters Bar and tones it all down.

The World Service is paid for by the Foreign Office and so I have always wondered if it is a way of flying the flag as if the Empire still  ruled ok, the BBC was the voice of truth  and the Brits were beyond reproach? This anachronistic arrangement ends next year.

During the Shipping Forecast, which follows at 05.20, I  try to navigate my way round the North Sea  to places that sound like Fred Astaire and Germans bite. Berwick upon Tweed is always mentioned and must be very important.

There is apparently no longer any need to broadcast this information four times a day as ships have on board weather information. I suspect that the Shipping Forecast survives only because the names and numbers include some coded messages to our secret agents in foreign parts.

Paranoia is common at this unearthly hour. It is a relief when the News Briefing kicks in at 05.30. According to Michael Heppell’s survey of successful people who have  ‘the Edge’, high fliers only  listen to the news once a day.

In  the next thirteen minutes News Briefing tells you, in a somewhat dull way, all you need to know for the day ahead and throws in the odd gem with items of news ‘on this day’ in previous years.

Last Wednesday  marked the anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793. I learned that she stood on the executioner’s foot as she mounted the scaffold and asked his forgiveness before he cut her head off. There is something surreal about this time in the morning.

At 05.43, Prayer for the Day is a paler imitation of its later brother ‘Thought’. This week the reflection has been given by the Muslim Tutor at Eton College. But a few weeks back a Rabbi told one of the funniest stories I have heard in ages and I laughed myself silly as I tottered downstairs to the kitchen.

As I make the porridge, I give my full attention to Farming Today which runs for a mere 13 minutes of copy book  broadcasting. Last week focussed on various initiatives, present and future, for farmers to grow crops for bio fuels and discussed whether this was an good use of land that used to grow crops for us to eat.

The reports included a poignant interview with  a famer who had received a £1m grant to grow willow only to find two years later that his local power station could not process the crop.  A professor from Southampton commented that such examples were common and that there was a deplorable lack of joined up thinking. The vagaries of government policy on farming is a frequent leit motif on Farming Today.

Also this week, we heard the reflections of the retiring NFU President who wants to get back to his farm; about the tragic snow storms in South Dakota which have killed livestock and ruined livelihoods, the problems caused by horses fly grazing  in Wales and by rampant geese in the Hebrides. Not a bad count on violence and foreign affairs.

For thirteen  minutes, I enter into a world that might otherwise pass me by. I never know when some passing knowledge of farming will come in handy at the dinner table or when I bump into the  farmer next door – who is also a fan.  

Although you might think that farmers are chaps with few words, those interviewed  on Farming Today  argue their case clearly and never seem to stumble for their words. Perhaps they receive training at the studio in Bristol?

The presenters work to a well researched script and never get over excited or hector their guests. To my amusement, they are women invariably interviewing men and do so extremely well. There are no plugs for other programmes or annoying ditties, just good plain reporting.

Anna Hill and Charlotte Smith  work alternate days and  do not indulge in  small talk in the mistaken belief that the listener is more interested in them than in the news. They do not aspire to celebrity status like those on the gardening programmes.  

I learn from the website that Charlotte is mother of two small children so I hope the programme is pre recorded at a more civilised hour.

 I have no doubt Lord Reith, who might turn in his grave if he twiddled his dial to  Radio Five, would be proud of the standards set by Farming Today. If only Tony Hall listened to the prgramme from the back seat of his chauffeur driven car, the BBC would be a better place.

After tweet of the day at 05.58, in which I hear a new birdsong each morning, I switch off the radio before the Today programme takes over and settle into my book.

 I am reading the reflections of the solitary American monk, Thomas Merton who is the subject of a forthcoming retreat at Shepherds Dene. He warns against “ the noise and business of men” and tells us “to keep beyond the reach of their radios.”   Quite right. By six o clock, I have had my fill for the day and set off for a swim. 

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene              


Money is like manure – worthless unless spread around to encourage growth

The penny finally dropped about five o’ clock on Tuesday afternoon. I had been listening to an extremely lucid analysis of the financial crisis by Peter Selby. A whole series of memories flashed through my mind as the long slippery slope into the debt crisis was explained to me.

I remembered the way that a television, a washing machine and a refrigerator arrived in parents house shortly after the credit act of 1958  made hire purchase so much easier for working classes families like my own.

I trembled at the way I failed to  manage a credit card as a young man. I had to be bailed out by a friend before anyone came knocking at my door.  I suspect most of us have experienced a similar rite of passage.

I recalled the shock of finding that friends were increasing their  mortgage to buy a car in the seventies, without any questions asked, when I prudishly  believed that mortgages were  hard fought over arrangements for one purpose only.

I heard the thump of unsolicited invitations to take out loans on the most favourable  terms falling through my letterbox in the eighties. They tempted me to fulfil my  wildest dreams and promised a lifestyle that was beyond my reach.

I reviewed the decision in the early nineties to take  my pension out of a safe local authority scheme, lured by the prospects of higher returns in a personal pension scheme. Interminable discussions with my excellent pensions adviser have followed to this day  about whether to  tolerate higher risks for the sake of higher but riskier  returns.

And earlier this year, I made a convincing case to my son to buy a property that would be “a better investment” as opposed to a more affordable one that he “really liked.” It is a sad state of affairs when a house becomes an investment rather than a home. I am pleased to say that the young man stuck to his guns.

In the course a week long retreat at Shepherds Dene, I realised  that I had grown up  in a  world in which credit became more readily available and in which  I could obtain an ever increasing range of goods and services that I may or may not have wanted in the possibly mistaken belief that I would be happier and more fulfilled as a human being.

In the old days, a sovereign was guaranteed by the king and a bank note promised an equivalent amount of gold from some dusty vault. Everyone had confidence in the currency of the realm. Bankers were respected and played a public role in town.

 But for both good and bad reasons, over the last fifty years, the money supply has lost all touch with reality as the banks gained a vested interest in lending us more money to make more money for themselves. Technology has allowed all sorts of chicanery  in circulating money at the speed of light.  Debt has  became an honourable  if precarious state as long as you can juggle. We have gradually  lost confidence in money and those who dispense it.

Quite by chance, the Old Testament  reading at prayers that Tuesday evening, was the story of how King Ahab expressed such regret as his misdeeds, that the penalty for his sins was paid by his children rather than by himself. My heart sank at the thought that the fecklessness of our generation will be paid for over many years and mainly by those who did not contribute to the present crisis.

If I had come to this conclusion by Tuesday evening, what did I learn in the rest of the week? How can I  live  my life in a way that I control my money and it does not control me?  Peter Selby, former Bishop of Worcester who is well known in this region from his time as Diocesan Missioner in Newcastle and William Leech Fellow in Durham, had some suggestions.

 He argued that the power of money comes from the fact that  numbers look objective and so gain undue authority in our lives. We should not be obsessed by  the amount of money in the bank or by the value of our possessions. We should live more lightly with money.

Money is a means of exchange and not a god in its own right. However much time I spend with my pensions advisor, I reflected, there is relatively little I can do to affect my income in retirement and there is not a great deal of point in worrying about it.

My energies would be better spent arguing the case for a fairer deal for those on zero hours contracts or those likely to have their benefits cut. Financial insecurity really is a daily issue for them. I should protest against a political mentality  that strives to put as much money as possible into the pockets of the rest of us at the cost of those on the margins.

We should be less acquisitive and more generous with money. “Money is like manure” according to Thornton Wilder “ it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” 

Again  by chance, the evening reading on Thursday was the story of the woman who poured a bottle of precious oil over Jesus against the protests of those who wanted to sell if for money.  Once in a while it is alright to make a lavish gift with your money. In the Gospel account, Judas Iscariot, responsible for group finances, appeared so offended at this waste of money that he set off straightaway to shop Jesus to the authorities.

I ought to remember that some things are more important than money and cannot be measured in monetary terms. Money does not necessarily bring happiness or satisfaction.  “ Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal “ Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount”  but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.. for where your treasure is, there is your heart will be also.”

It seems extremely unlikely that the first question anyone will  be asked at the pearly gates, is about how much money you have brought with you.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene