Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: June, 2014

As Ovingham closes again, its time to part company with The North

The Ovingham bridge closes today for a £2m  refurbishment. The single carriageway iron bridge was the centrepiece of an infrastructure package for the North East announced by  George Osborne this time last year.

The bridge, which carries 5000 cars a day, will be closed for up to year. It only took six months to build in 1883. At the grand reopening, we will still have a single carriageway bridge hemmed in by the stone pillars at either end a level crossing on the approach road which stops the traffic for up to fifteen minutes an hour.

If the proposed new housing schemes in the surrounding area go ahead – and I actually think there is no harm in them doing so – there will be even greater congestion as traffic queues to cross the new Ovingham bridge.

I will miss the company of Gordon Halliday each morning at Prudhoe Waterworld. He lives on the wrong side of the river and his journey from Ovingham will now  involve a lengthy detour. Such fracturing of friendships and community relationships is the unintended consequence of modernisation.

There was good reason to build a castle at Prudhoe. After a few centuries of increasingly friendly relations, the north side divide between the contrasting communities of Prudhoe and Ovingham will be in danger of widening again.

As I said at the time, we may look back on the great works at the Ovingham bridge as the first green shoots of recovery. The Chancellor was just taking his foot off the brake last year and this modest scheme was the result.

Who knows what he might have dreamed up a year later now that he is in expansionist mode – perhaps the new bridge further downstream that is so badly needed.

In Manchester last week, the Chancellor  proposed that the cities of the North should come together as a northern powerhouse to challenge the might of London. He mooted the idea of a high speed rail link  (HS3) from east to west across the country but did not come up with the money to do so.

Sadly, it was not the Tyne Valley line that the Chancellor had in mind for upgrading. Commuters at Prudhoe  station were dancing  on the platform at the hint in George’s speech that  the successful bidder for the Northern Rail franchise will need to replace the bone rattling  pacer trains that  creak just like the Ovingham bridge and are nearly as old.

They knew in their hearts that the £5 per head spent on traffic improvements in this region fell short of what would be needed to build HS3. Commuters in the North West could club together with their £134 per head and those in Yorkshire and Humber have a more  healthy £210. According to ippr North, these paltry sums pale into insignificance with the £2,700 per head spent on transport infrastructure in London.

I love travelling on those  ultra modern trains that glide frequently and speedily into London  and rage at the contrast with the antiquated pacer trains. But I smile as the London bound trains become packed with commuters spending excessive amounts of time and money on their daily journey to work.   I reckon  I might be better off back in the Tyne Valley after all.

Keep a gazeteer handy if you read the Chancellors ‘northern powerhouse’ speech in full. You will not recognise many of the place names. He credits the investment in Nissan, Hitachi and Rolls Royce, gives an honourable mention to the research  capacity of, among others, Durham and Newcastle universities and  singles out for praise the National Biologics Industrial Innovation Centre in Teeside. But that’s about it.

Here is his reference to culture:

“ Here we already have world-class arts and culture, from Opera North in Leeds to the Tate in Liverpool, to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and the new Hepworth over in Wakefield. And then there’s the music of the Halle and the Liverpool Philharmonic and of course the best pop music on the planet.”

Anything missing? The Chancellor cannot have read the Journal’s 100 reasons why its great up north.

It became increasingly apparent from the ill fated ‘Northern Way’ initiative of the last government, that any argument for economic and political integration only really applies to the  M62 corridor linking Manchester and Leeds. Newcastle Gateshead is  out on a limb.  When the Chancellor talked of the North last week, he didn’t mean Prudhoe.

Of course, if Jeremy Middleton asks the right questions, as he did in the Chancellor’s den last week, George Osborne will come up with the right answers. But they are vague and familiar promises for after the election without any reference to the proposed powerhouse.

Others better qualified might debate the main hypothesis in the Chancellor’s speech that only world class cities with critical mass really matter when it comes to economic growth. The brightest and best want to crowd together in places like, er, London. Everywhere else should emulate its success. I suspect there could be other ways to thrive.

I think it is time we parted company with the North. We are not in that club and could do better on our own. Look at Yorkshire. Le tour est un coup spectacular. The Yorkshire brand has legs and wheels.

Now that the government has broken up the English regional structures , we have the opportunity to follow Yorkshire’s example. We need a new name like the English Borders, Reiver Country,  Nether Scotland -goodness knows what. It will confuse the weather forecast but the ‘North East’ has had its day.

The Chancellor suggests we need a new leader too. I still think politics should be left to the politicians. But if we are looking for a figurehead, and if column inches in the Journal is anything to go by, Alan Shearer, Jane Northumberland, Mark Knofler and Cheryl Cole must be front runners. Come to think of it, my mate Gordon will have time on his hands as he can’t get to the swimming  pool.


A tale of brain versus brawn – where the brain is the winner

“But who is this creature with terrible claws

And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws?

He has knobbly knees and turned-out toes

And a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.

His eyes are orange, his tongue is black;

He has purple prickles over his back.

“Oh help! Oh no! It’s a Gruffalo!”


The terrible creature put in a personal appearance in Corbridge on Saturday to open a new childrens book shop. It is an offshoot of Forum Books in colourful premises  decked out just for children. The definitive childrens bookshop in the North East may be at Seven Stories but this is a great addition to the genre.


Forum Books Kids! is  a  enterprising  initiative by Helen Stanton whose own children were on hand to help. The pavement was packed to overflowing as we waited  for the Gruffalo to open the doors.


But why did the Gruffalo have this honour?  What makes it the country’s favourite bed time story ( as voted by Radio 2 listeners) .  Julia Donaldson may have  written 167  books, but she will always be known as the creator of the Gruffalo. The 700 word story ( shorter than this column and  much more fun)  took her a fortnight to write, has sold five million copies and been translated into 50 languages, including Latin.


The repetitive  bom diddy bom rhyming lines are  loved by children and dreadfully familiar to their parents. If you may know the story by heart skip the next few pharagraphs, but if not here is a synopsis of a classic modern fairy tale:


 Our hero the mouse, no name no pack drill, “took a stroll through the deep, deep wood.”. Woods are the repository of fairy stories the world over.  The mouse meets in turn a fox, an owl and a snake, each of whom smells a tasty lunch, tea or feast, at the mouse’s expense. The mouse takes them all his stride  by a conjuring up a terrible imaginary creature called a gruffalo who is coming to eat them up.


The mouse gets its come upperance when it  meets a real gruffalo with terrible teeth in its terrible jaws. The first pictures of the gruffalo from the gifted illustrator, Alex Scheffler, whose memorable pictures make the story, were too terrifying for Julia Donaldson and a more ambling and benign monster emerged who looks none too bright.


Here’s the twist in the story. You might expect the mouse to run away, like the bear hunters in Michael Rosen’s story, but the mouse outwits the gruffalo by claiming to be “the scariest creature in this  wood.”


Indeed, the snake, owl and fox all scarper as the mouse approaches, closely  followed by the gruffalo. When the mouse reveal that its favourite food is “gruffalo crumble”  the gruffalo runs off too.


Why is this simple tale  such a runaway success? Kate Edwards, Chief Executive at Seven Stories  says that young children identify with being the small mouse who is smarter than the other animals. It is a battle of brain against brawn and the under mouse  wins through by living off its wits  with a spin that might on other occasions leave us wondering about the integrity of the little creature.


Like the best children’s stories, Kate says, it introduces  a scary situation from in the safe  company of the trusted  parent reading the story. We find the the Gruffalo is not really formidable  as the mouse gets the better of him. 


Some of the children on the pavement in Corbridge were still a little uncertain when the gruffalo rubbed his large stomach but confronting fears is what life is all about.  I always end up feeling slightly sorry for the Gruffalo who is the bumbling  fall guy. Perhaps that’s why he comes over to most of us as a loveable creature that opens bookshops, rather the mouse who was nowhere to be seen.


Going out in some style


Thomas Zehetmair’s farewell concert with Royal Northern Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead last Thursday is still ringing in my ears. It was a great occasion  at which everyone was on their feet at the end to applaud  the ever youthful if exhausted  and emotional conductor.


He departed clutching a bottle of Newcastle Brown having given away the flowers to the leading ladies in the orchestra.  Zehetmair will be back in December in his new role of  Conductor Laureate but this concert  marked the end of his twelve year reign as Music Director.


Under his leadership, the orchestra  has gone from good to great, recruiting a new young generation of musicians like the outstanding principal cellist Louise Tuck and receiving the accolade of royal patronage just a few months ago.   


The concert  concluded  with a rousing performance of Beethoven Fifth Symphony, conducted by Zehetmair  apparently without the score in front of him and the orchestra hugely enjoying themselves.  But for me, the highlight was the world premiere of  ‘That Subtle Knot’ by the Northumberland based John Casken  and  commissioned for Thomas Zehetmair, in his other role as violinist, and  his wife Ruth Killius  the violist.   The couple played engagingly together  while Zehetmair conducted the orchestra with the occasional flourish of his bow.


I have heard Casken’s chamber music before but was bowled over by the scale of this double concerto for full orchestra. Aren’t we fortunate indeed to have performance of this world class standard in Gateshead?


The Right Priorities


Did the Pope sit up on Saturday night with the Archbishop of Canterbury to watch England play Italy?  I struggled to stay awake in the second half. They were together in Rome working  on a joint initiative to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. About two million people are sold into slavery each year in what is predicted to become the most lucrative criminal activity around the world. What a great idea to put aside any ecclesiastical differences  and  work together on an important issue  where they can both bring power and influence to bear. Never mind who won the football.






We should mark the centenary – but we must learn something

Don’t mention the war. I have fought shy of all the articles and programmes  to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war this August.

I have already read the novels, watched the documentaries and answered the exam questions. They have left me thoroughly sickened by the degradation, suffering and sheer insanity of an avoidable escapade that cost the lives of 20 million soldiers and civilians and left another 21 million, including my Uncle Bert, wounded. A veteran of Gallipoli, he was never a well man again.

There is every danger that we will all get sentimental and  I doubt what purpose is served by making such a fuss about this centenary unless something new can be learned for our times.

 At the end of his fascinating  book describing the diplomatic  failures leading  up to the war, Christopher Clark points to similar behaviour in dealing with the Eurozone crisis. No wonder that Angela Markel read ‘The Sleepwalkers’ recently.

 The sacrifice of those who died should be  honoured. The Journal is celebrating first world war heroes but should remember that not everyone was a hero and that not all the heroes supported the war.

At the Hexham Debate two weeks ago, the peace campaigner Valerie Flessati described  the experiences of conscientious objectors in the first world war  They  stood up for their beliefs  and were humiliated and  punishment  endured in a despicable way.

The pressure to enlist  before conscription was introduced in 1916 was overwhelming.  Thereafter, tribunals set up to hear any objectors  were probably rigged to get as many people into the army as possible.

Conscientious objectors were held in solitary confinement  and some were even sentenced to death and only reprieved at the last minute.  The ‘conchies’ came from all sorts of backgrounds and were sustained by their  religious and socialist beliefs. They were reviled as cowards and shirkers and the treatment by the authorities was designed to break their spirit.

 I admire their commitment to a deeply unpopular belief when it must have seemed so tempting to cave in. Strangely, the conchies reported from their prison cells a great sense of freedom  because they had stuck to their principles.

The case of Meriam Ibrahim, who gave birth shackled in a Sudanese prison last week, shows that imprisonment for religious belief is still  happening a hundred years later. The widespread protests in the last few days condemning  the Sudanese government for  denying  religious freedom may have had  an effect but the family’s supporters are sceptical.

My heart goes out to the courage of a young mother who was given three days to renounce her faith and refused to do so. She  faces lashings and hanging for apostasy, but the sentence is deferred until she has nursed her new born baby.

Bravery is rarely the reserve of the brave. It is more often asked unexpectedly of innocent and ordinary people who are not looking for martyrdom. It could be asked of you or me without any warning. Amnesty International has been campaigning on Meriam’s behalf for some months and you can sign a petition to support her on their website.

Volunteers in danger of being taken for granted

Did you know that joining a voluntary group halves your chances of dying in the next year? Conversely,  joining too many groups may lead to exhaustion and reduce life expectancy. The world of volunteering, which is celebrated in the  30th Volunteers Week from 1st – 6th June, is full of such quirky facts and figures.

Research from University of Exeter shows that volunteers are less prone to depression and enjoy greater life satisfaction.  The explanation  might be that healthier and fitter people are more likely to volunteer in the first place.

According to National Council of Voluntary Organisations, the North East comes bottom in the regional league table, with 29% of us volunteering  as opposed to 49% in the South West. It is still an amazing testament to our willingness to get involved.

People in work are more likely to volunteer than those out of work, which seems strange. Over half the volunteer hours come from a much smaller cadre of signed up volunteers. There is an opportunity here for many of us to upgrade our commitment and no better time to do so than in volunteer week.

I met some dedicated volunteers at Tyneside Samaritans last week. Over 120 volunteers answer telephones and texts from desperate callers twenty fours a day. The lines are busiest at night when the other helping services have closed down. On average, Samaritans take 96 calls a day in the Tyneside area.

I had not realised that all the training,  publicity, administration, and maintenance of their premises in Portland Terrace is also carried out by the same volunteers. Apart from a much appreciated grant from Gateshead Council which pays for adverts on the Metro, all the funds are raised by the volunteers too.

We are in danger of taking The Samartians  services for granted  They deserve your support. ( for more go to )


A life raft and a springboard

Any party leader wanting to revive his  fortunes before the general election would be well advised to take time out and read Mary O’Hara’s new book, ‘Austerity Bites’. She visited  poor communities around the country and found deep unvoiced resentment at the effects of losing funding and services because of austerity measures.

The book concludes that the coalition is now showing its true colours. As the economy recovers, austerity is no longer an expedient but a principle in its own right. “We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently” David Cameron declared at the Lord Mayors Banquet at the end of last year.

“What is so rarely understood – and what has been under direct attack during austerity” Mary O’Hara writes “is that the welfare state is not about dependency; it is about opportunity. Done well, it is a life raft when times are tough and a springboard to better things.”

A party supporting the welfare state would get my vote.

George Hepburn is Proprietor of Bewick House Enterprises