Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: August, 2014

A journey into the independent state of Essex

They say foreign travel broadens the mind  and this year’s expedition  was no exception.

Long haul was out of the question  and so we set off last week  for a few days in  Essex.  For once,  the border  controls were no trouble at all. . As we sped down the M11 past a ‘Welcome  to Essex’ sign, all sorts of electronic gizmos must have flashed  into action to log our arrival and scan our possessions for  dangerous weapons.

I noticed all those subtle difference of  being a foreign country immediately. Our little car, weighed down with buckets and spades and other holiday paraphernalia,  was buzzed by much larger vehicles, which drove past  at great speed on either side of us.

The familiar landscape of soot  ridden stone buildings gave way to  a charming vernacular architecture of  red brick  and wooden beams.  The market towns with quaint names like Saffron Walden are straight out of Middle Earth. As we headed even further south,  along  Loughton High Street with its glitzy shops,  I knew  we were in quite a different country to Front Street in Prudhoe.

I noticed that everyone seems to eat on the pavement . I learned this is known as   ‘al fresco’ and involves drinking ‘pre secco’.  I always like to try out the local cuisine and in Essex there was much on offer including Italian, Indian and Chinese. Almost  everything in fact, except English.  Thank goodness then for the occasional branch of Greggs, where I could find a cheese and bacon wrap.

After a few days, I got to grips with the lingo.  The locals  have  an  in your face accent  that reminds me of a klaxon  but I relaxed  when  I realised that every greeting   ended with the patronymic ‘mate’ which must be an offering of friendship.

With the referendum in Scotland fast approaching, I was keen to find out how manifestations of nationalism played out in another small country like Essex – whose population is comparable to the North East.

 To my surprise, the Queen is still on the throne in Chelmsford.  She has shown all her legendary astuteness  in delegating  the practical side of opening fetes and old peoples homes  to a local footballer and his model wife who act rather like the Northumberlands  back home.  They  also have that  heart warming common touch despite their immense wealth . In the Beckhams’ case, it is a self made fortune and that seems very important here.

Indeed wealth is admired and displayed  in Essex in an admirably open way that you rarely see in County Durham. They wear gold a lot and have boats. It is all so much more affluent.

Connectivity does not seem to have suffered with independence. Frequent modern trains whisk the working population away early every morning and return them,  late at night. The roads are all dual carriageways and seemed an extremely popular place to meet your friends  from five o’clock onwards.

Subservience to a large city further west is accepted as the price for all this prosperity. The treaties skilfully negotiated several decades ago with the wider economic area known as the South East have ensured an standard of living that poorer neighbouring countries further north will never match. They  thrive on international trade and co operation here.

Essex has immense self  confidence  but  displays  of national pride  were  strangely muted. The  red  flag with three scimitars is not waved   in your face on every street corner like some other places  I could mention.   The good burghers  of Essex wear their national pride in such a light and easy that I began to wonder whether independence had really been worth the fuss after all.

Of course, it could have been so different. If Queen Boadicea  had prevailed against the Romans we could all have been subjects of the Empire of Essex. If the Earl of Essex’s coup d’etat had not been defeated by special forces in the sixteenth century, Essex would have ruled the world.

I bought some  miniature jars of Tiptree marmalade which will be  much appreciated by my friends as souvenirs of our holiday.  As I loaded the car, I wondered whether   there really is a role for the small nation state in the twenty first century?   Isn’t it something that only appeals to those with a chip on their shoulder?   Yes indeed, there is always something to learn from trips abroad.

Sunday service

One of the highlights of my foreign holiday was a visit to Tomassi’s ice cream parlour in Southend on Sea. According to the helpful history on the back of the  menu,  Pasqual and Marianna Tomassi started making ice cream  in Langley Park, County Durham in 1912. They made the bold decision  to move their business to  the boom town of Southend in 1934. The Tomassi’s  invested in the first Triple Hedda ice cream  machine in Southend  and the first Gaggia coffee maker in Essex. 

The present two storey restaurant occupies a prominent position on the way from the station to the pier and boasts the best and  largest selection of sundaes anywhere. Of the twenty nine varieties of offer, I opted for the Mystical Macaroon and was not disappointed.

Their business, kindled back in those early days in County Durham,  has led them to become respected pillars of the community in their adopted country where they were awarded ‘Freedom of Southend’. The firm is now run by Antony and Giovanni Tomassi, who are the third generation of the family. Another brilliant success for entrepreneurship from the North East, exported around the world.  I must tell James Ramsbottom.

Sadly,  the world’s longest pier, praised by Sir John Betjamin as the heart of Southend,  did not live up to my childhood memories.  It may, of course, be me rather than the pier that has changed. The main attraction is now Adventure Island whose rides looked very frightening  though not as frightening as the proposed Boris Island which may have been built by the time I return to these shores.







\\\\\Big Brother is looking after me – so why am I so suspicious?

On the day that that the women ministers  marched down  Downing Street as part of a  reshuffle  to make the  government  less liberal, more euro sceptic but, thankfully, a little more green, the DRIP bill was rushed through parliament. There was barely a mention in the press. Skirt length was much more important.

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act  requires phone and internet companies to keep all personal communications  for twelve months just in case they are required for a criminal or intelligence investigation.  It is the keeping a haystack to find a needle.

It is difficult to know  whether such draconian surveillance legislation  is required. The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, argues persuasively of the need for such information to  track down criminals. But there are  warning signs in the way this legislation has been rushed on to the statute book  that makes me suspicious.  

It was a consequence of a declaration  by the European Court of Human Rights in May that  blanket data gathering was illegal. The DRIP Bill was not published  until  three months later by which time it had unnecessarily become a crisis measure which had to be  approved in the week before the parliamentary summer recess.

Ever since Edward Snowden  revealed that billions of personal  communications each day on both sides of the Atlantic are ‘harvested’ through Tempora and Prism, I have been shocked by the reach of  the security services.

The system of parliamentary scrutiny of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ  might have been good enough to keep an eye on George Smiley but cannot keep pace with current electronic surveillance systems.  We await a review of the reporting requirements to be undertaken by the aforementioned Lord Macdonald.

 In the meantime, I  tingle with fear every time I reach for my mobile phone. “Look at that”, I can hear someone mutter in Cheltenham, “George has texted his wife again. That’s suspicious.”

There ought to be a debate about the extent that our privacy and civil liberties should be eroded in order to uncover potential acts of terrorism and track criminal behaviour.  Is this  kind of detection even effective? Will we sleep more safely at night because Big Brother is looking after us?

Liberty doubts it, and with the support of two independently minded parliamentarians, Tom Watson and David Davies, is challenging the legality of the legislation which they claim conflicts with agreed standards of privacy in personal and family life. I’m with them.


Bombing is not the answer

The march of the woman in a sari out of Downing Street also got the attention of the press last week. Kate Fox asked on this page on Friday what we can do to follow Lard Warsi’s example and protest against the way that Israel has destroyed the houses, schools and power stations in the Gaza strip.  Send an email to  Philip Hammond urging the government  to stop arms exports to Israel, as we have already done to Russia. Go to and click ‘take action’.

Before the images of the rubble left in Gaza after Israeli bombing raids fade from our screens, American jets are again in action over Iraq.  The plight of the  refugees is desperate but bombing is not the answer to the troubles of the Middle East. As is Gaza, it inevitably kills the innocent and only strengthens the conviction of those on whom the bombs fall.

There must be a greater role for a United Nations peacekeeping force. The preordained allegiances of Security Council members rule out any effective action in a way so reminiscent of the unthinking alliances that lead us into the first world war. Reform of the Security Council is long overdue.

What would Leonard have made of it all?

 As I visited the current exhibition at the National Portrait  Gallery, I wondered what  Leonard Woolf would have made of it all?

Leonard wrote a book  on international government in 1916 that foresaw the League of Nations. A Jew himself, in a lifetime of perceptive journalism  he predicted the troubles that would follow the creation of a Jewish state and was wary of all kinds of religious extremism. He is most  remembered as the long suffering husband of the novelist Virginia Woolf.

 As the Woolfs numbered so many painters and photographers among their friends and family, there is no shortage of material for the exhibition ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’  which is  superbly  curated by Frances Spalding, Professor of Art History at  Newcastle University.

Any aspiring novelist should read Virginia Woolf. She gets beneath the skins of her characters and understands their sensibilities better than anyone else. There  have  been some outstanding debut novels this year from young women novelists who can conjure up unlikely scenarios with utter conviction.

 Try the description of 19th  Iceland in Helen Kent’s ‘ Burial Rites’, the decline into dementia in Emma Healey’s ‘Elisabeth is Missing’  or the feel of 17th century Amsterdam  in  Jessie Burton’s  ‘The Miniaturist’.  All young women with  rich literary promise but none can so far match the beauty of the prose or the nuance of feeling in a Virgina Woolf novel, where the action is always off stage.

My affection for Leonard stems from how thoughtfully  he supported his wife through a series of mental  breakdowns.  He gave up his career as a colonial civil servant and set up the Hogarth press initially as occupational therapy. It printed the first editions of T S Eliot and the works of Sigmund Freud in addition to the Woolf novels. Quite a publishers list.

 In the poignant and lucid farewell note that Virginia left  before drowning  in the river at the bottom of their garden, and which is the last item in the exhibition,  Virginia wrote that no one could have given her greater happiness.

I nearly met the great man in 1969 shortly after reading his  autobiography. He was  spotted in a tea shop in Lewes one Sunday when I was a student down the road in Brighton but was never seen again and died a few months later.