Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: September, 2014

The Enduring Legacy of Guy Readman

Exactly twenty years ago, I picked up Guy Readman from his house in Gosforth, Newcastle and drove him  to visit a community project in Saltmeadows, Gateshead.  It may only have been a few miles  drive but  the two places are a long way apart..

Guy Readman was honoured last year with the inaugural North East Philanthropy  Award  as a lifetime achievement for a series of increasingly generous  donations to build his endowment fund at the Community Foundation, where I worked at the time.

I reflected affectionately on our day out  when I heard  that Guy Readman, who died recently, had left a legacy of £2.5million to  the Community Foundation.  It is typical of a man who always thought carefully about his affairs and liked to plan ahead.

The Readman Foundation  had awarded a grant for a group of children  to go on a canal boat holiday. After the local women who ran the project had described the week away and shown us  the scrapbooks the children had compiled, Guy broke into the conversation with one of the piercing and incisive questions for which he was famous. ( I should know. I had to field a lot of them – not always to Guy’s satisfaction.)

“Can you tell me why it was worth making a grant of £2000 for this holiday” he asked, with just a hint of exasperation. “Bairns nerrbinoota Gitesead” the project leader barked back without hesitation. It took us a minute or two to decode her message which roughly translates as “the little darlings have never had a holiday.”

I smiled to myself. There you had it. The Hepburn family had just returned from a fortnight family holiday on a narrow boat  which had emptied our piggy bank.  Guy  had been telling me about his latest holiday on the Queen Elizabeth, moored off the coast of Spain, for golf lovers to follow the Ryder Cup nearby. And the bairns had never been out of Gateshead.

I did not for a minute begrudge Guy’s holidays and lifestyle. Voted North East Business of the Year, he worked  hard to make a success  at his factory in Gateshead  and  had taken a series of  highly calculated risks.

He was absolutely clear that  Margaret Thatcher had removed  business regulation in order to let entrepreneurs like him create the wealth the country needed.  He was equally adamant that he was  expected in return to use his wealth  to benefit those less fortunate than himself.

Guy made this point   with such conviction that I imagined that the then Prime Minister had looked him straight in the eye and ordered him to do so herself . Given the circles in which Guy moved, she may well have done so.

Levels of poverty are just as high today as they were twenty years ago. In its latest report, Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs £29 billion a year. Inequality between rich and poor  has grown at an alarming rate and, according to the Equality Trust, costs £39 billion through its impact on health, wellbeing and crime rates.

Guy would have drilled into such figures sceptically and  rigorously. But in the last twenty years of of his life, he threw himself into trying to improve  to improve the life chances of young people with all the passion he had brought to his business affairs.

However deep their pockets, philanthropists  cannot solve the enduring  problems  of poverty and inequality on their own. But they can set an example for the rest of us and few have done so more fulsomely than Guy Readman.

Slow Going on the Tees Train

My late mother in law strongly endorsed Montaigne’s view  that “the journey not the arrival matters”. I was often the recipient of  tales of the terrible experiences she endured  when I picked her up at  Newcastle station.  I learned that no one is really interested in the trials and tribulations of  the transport tales of others.

However, I just have to tell you about my adventures  on the early train from Prudhoe to Middlesbrough, where I am consulting to a  great charity  called Hope North East.   As I take up the cudgels with the self service ticket machine, I find that Middlesbrough does not pop up among the popular destinations. Perhaps  if I make the journey often enough , it will rise up the rankings.

As the level crossing barrier falls, I crane my neck to see the train coming down the track. I jump for joy on the few random occasions when a modern sprinter train glides into the station.    Most mornings, a smaller older pacer train, dubbed as “cattle trucks”,  approaches round the corner. The train must be pacing a tortoise as we set off on the painstakingly slow journey at  an average speed  of 20 miles an hour. I take a flask of tea with me.

Last Wednesday the pacer train arrived 15 minutes  late due to a faulty engine and was  taken out of service at Newcastle. The next train, another pacer, was deemed  by the fitter to be ‘not fit for service’ and  was cancelled. A hardy gang of us caught  a mainline service to Darlington to pick up another Northern Rail pacer  due for Middlesbrough. For reasons I never discovered, this train was also withdrawn from service.

Northern Rail kindly laid on a taxi to complete our journey at their expense.  As I sped along the A66 with my new friends forged from common adversity, we debated the pros and cons of commuting to Teesside by train or by car.

It beggars belief that the tender for the  Northern Rail franchise has dropped the requirement to retire the pacer trains. The lack of connectivity ( to use the word in vogue)  also  goes some way to explaining why Tyneside and Teesside have so little to do with each other. Is it a conspiracy?  A vestige of Margaret Thatcher’s  dislike of the railway?  My mother in law would have no doubt about it.

Whatever happens in the referendum, a new era is surely on its way

What a summer: sitting on the beach happily reading endless articles about Scottish independence.  Now the days draw in and the vote approaches to put an end to this season of sunshine and speculation.

Of what must be well over a hundred articles , letters and blogs  discussing the oil revenues, the nuclear submarines, the monarchy,  the Barnett formula and much more , two have impressed me so much that they are pinned above my desk. Their authors will vote in opposite ways.

The first is by Ian Hamilton QC, a lifelong nationalist who believes  that the people of Scotland are not fighting for a political cause – they are fighting for their national existence and against Britain’s ruling elite.

The following  took me by surprise: “ Hardly any of us belong to the Scottish National Party. From the nooks and glens of my country have emerged a storm corps whose members have never taken part in politics. They are not the SNP. They are the people of Scotland.”

“The rustle in the heather which was the SNP has become the soaring anthem of a people awakening form a long sleep. When we awake, we will walk away from you”.

The latest polls appear to  confirm Ian Hamilton’s prediction. At the weekend, one poll put the yes camp ahead. There are too many unpredictable factors for anyone to be sure of the result. I have booked a chair in front of the television in the belief that this could be one of those moments comparable to JFK’s assassination or Mandela’s walk to freedom or even, for some of us, the night that Tony Blair was elected.

Ian Hamilton continues: “ You may wonder why. I will tell you: we are repeatedly ruled by governments we do not elect. We currently have more pandas than Tory MPs. Ordinary English people will be on our side. It is the toffs who make the UK look so silly.”

All this summer, if pushed to commit myself, I have said that if I were a Scot I would vote for independence despite all the problems that the scare mongers have predicted – the banking system, the health service, the loss of research grants and even, I was amazed to hear, of UK charitable trusts withdrawing their grants north of the border.

Guy Opperman and others point out the dangers to the North East.  I still think these are all second order problems and that ways will be found to surmount them.

The other article on my noticeboard is by Murdoch MacKenzie  a life long member of the Iona Community. The Community has not taken a formal view about independence, but asks its members, mainly Christian activists in Scotland, to vote for whoever they consider will best improve the lot of the underprivileged in Scotland.

I heard Murdoch MacKenzie preach in Iona Abbey some years ago, resplendent in a   kilt and full regalia and so have no doubt about his allegiances.  But he writes:

“I was brought up to believe that nationalism and patriotism were pernicious and usually led to war and conflict. In recent years nationalism rears its ugly head once again with the True Finns, President Putin being praised for his patriotic nationalism, nationalist struggles in Crimea and Ukraine, not to mention Nuers and Dinkas in Sudan, Hindu nationalism in India and Scottish nationalism in the UK.”

The prospect of further skirmishes with the Border Reivers seems far  fetched but MacKenzie recalls the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn saying that people in the world could be divided into two groups: the harmonisers and the polarisers. He concludes:

“So let us’ think again’ and with the Good Samaritan cross boundaries and become harmonisers and not polarisers. Let us live in dependence on and with our neighbours. We cannot ever be independent because, as John Donne so clearly said: ‘No person is an island’.” Let us vote and pray for unity in the UK and in Europe and throughout the whole wide world and not tear the world apart.”

As an Englishman, without a vote, I hope this greater sense of internationalism prevails both in relation to Scotland and in the mirror image  debate about  Europe but I worry that the Better Together campaign has misjudged the mood and not appealed to this higher idealism.

In the 1970s, 40% of the Scots saw themselves as British, now only 23% do. Whatever the result, the fervent nationalism described by Ian Hamilton and  supported by almost half  of the Scottish nation will not go away. It must not be ignored by Westminster or appeased by devo max.

If, as still seems most likely, independence is narrowly defeated, David Cameron should immediately announce a Royal Commission into the future structure of the United Kingdom and the powers of its constituent nations. The members must include wise people from outside these islands with experience of federal government and written constitutions.  It should report in the lifetime of the next parliament. That would be the act of a harmoniser.

Leaving beds empty

I am delighted that the brave  nurse who caught ebola has recovered and been  discharged from hospital. But am I alone in having an uneasy feeling that an RAF jet that went all the way to Sierra Leone to bring back William Pooley  for the kind of specialist treatment that is thankfully available at the Royal Free Hospital. Why wasn’t the plane filled up with other ebola victims?

The epidemic continues to rampage and half of those infected do not survive. Why is not the experimental drug ZMapp given to Mr Pooley made widely available and funded by the rich nations?

 There are two isolation beds in the secure unit at the Royal Free  which are apparently  only used once in about two years. Why cannot they  be offered continuously to any victim while this current epidemic lasts?  It is inhumane to leave a bed empty and put such a high value on a British life as opposed to the lives of others.