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.