Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: March, 2015

Forlorn, isolated, grim and worried / keep it in the ground

Going to church has suddenly become so much more fulfilling. I have a renewed  sense of peace and satisfaction.

What has changed? I am creature of habit so sit in the same pew. The music is as enthusiastic as ever, the sermon dependable and the companionship  warm as we shake hands over the peace. We Anglicans don’t like challenge or change.

The only difference is that three weeks ago I retired at the church treasurer. I have no responsibilities any more.

I only took the job on as a favour to the vicar after the previous treasurer resigned unexpectedly. The vicar was all kitted up for service as a chaplain in Iraq and someone needed to step in. I was a safe pair of hands.

“That’s casting against type”, an old friend told me. He was right. Regular readers of this column will know I am a big picture man. I am not one for detail and application.

In researching a talk about small voluntary organisations, I discovered that the flower arranging fraternity has a rule that the treasurer’s job rotates every two years. They believe that jobs are best shared out – even if some of the post holders are not the most skilled for the purpose. We support them, I was told, because it stops one person being typecast and taken for granted.

How true. I used to be known as a friendly fun loving bloke in the church, always good for a laugh and often organising the social events before I became the Treasurer ten years ago.

A slow evolution from beauty to beast followed.  I gnashed my teeth at the profligate purchase of candles at Christmas and grumbled that the cost of the telephone in the parish office. I frowned at the bright young enthusiast who wanted money for a parish pilgrimage and despaired of those kind hearted people who wanted to give our money away to support the latest disaster appeal.

I have become an increasingly forlorn and isolated figure in the church especially on those occasions when it has been my job to ask people to leave a few more pounds on the plate each week.

On those rare occasions when I am obliged to meet other treasurers to debate the endless question of our respective contributions to the diocesan coffers, I study my colleagues in awe of their calm and competent approach to these matters. Am I alone, I wonder,  in burning the midnight oil at the end of the year to balance the books.? Should I confess to my struggles in the job in the  manic manner of a self help group.

Of course, the Treasurer is a powerful person in the congregation. A key member of the church council, consulted on rebuilding plans and able to speak with authority at annual meetings where no one else is much bothered about the money.

It is also a safe stronghold from which to deflect requests to lead the prayers and to join house groups, because it appears to be such a time consuming activity. It even provides an excuse to opt out of those family outings and social occasions that I would rather avoid. “Id love to come” I say with a smile “but I must catch up with the church accounts”.

There are some satisfactions to look back on. People are generous and giving increased in our church by 10% last year. We have completed renovations to our Victorian buildings that leave then safe, warm and dry for the foreseeable future. My successor is a really likeable man, for now, and well qualified for the job.

In the  miraculous way that there is always a message for you in the sermon if you listen closely enough, as I sat in the pew for the first time, without having to scurry around to pick up the collection or get the cheques signed, the vicar preached on Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and which he exhorts young Christians, amongst other things, to seek a quiet life.

Discipleships can pull you in contrary ways. In the course of a week’s readings in Lent, I can be told to keep up the fight to bring about the kingdom ( see below) and to  listen in prayer for the word of God. Volunteers are always needed in  any church, club or charity to keep the show on the road.  Research shows that people who volunteer live longer and more fulfilled lives. But after a long innings, I shall live dangerously and listen for a while. As the vicar helpfully explained, just for my benefit, quietness involves being attentive to what might be the next calling.

Lets keep it in the ground

Three cheers for the students at Oxford University campaigning to get their lords and masters to sell shares in fossil fuel producing companies. Boo to the Senate for putting off a decision which provoked a peaceful student sit in last week.

It is no good waiting for the world’s governments to reach agreement on climate change, the argument goes. It is more effective to target the companies whose assets in coal, gas and oil are still in the ground. They must stay there to save the planet.

There is a moral case to move money out of the fossil fuel producers as people like Desmond Tutu have long advocated.  There is a tactical and pragmatic case, of which Mark Carney is ever more aware, that the business plans of companies like Shell, BP, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto will be undermined as alternative sources of energy gather pace and the idealists chip away at the share price. The shrewder fund managers will then start to dither and pull out too. Civilisation need not collapse if there is an orderly withdrawal.

Already some large endowment funds are divesting and others, like the Gates Foundation with an estimated £1bn invested in extraction, are petitioned to do so. Follow the campaign at #keepitintheground  and send your degree back to Oxford in disgust.


The awesome TTIP comes to Hexham and the pacers are history

Hexham never fails to surprise me. The first woman rector in the 1300 year history of the Abbey has been installed. The adjoining Great Hall has been restored from its former life as the magistrates court and hosted its first concert  in over 100 years – an ambitious production of a Purcell opera performed by a local choir.

On the same evening over the road at Queens Hall, Core Music held for its raucous sixth anniversary concert where the young folk musicians stole the show. New art galleries are opening on every corner and next month the 10th Hexham Book Festival packs  49  events into two weeks with speakers ranging from  Mona Siddiqui  to Andy Kershaw .

Earlier in the same day, the latest Hexham Debate showed that this conservative market  town is also a protest town.  Over a hundred people took time out from Saturday  morning shopping to debate  the TTIP ( pronounced tea tip) which is grinding its way through the European parliament.

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is an ambitious attempt to create a free trade area between the European Union and the United States. There have been eight rounds of negotiations in the last eighteen months. The whole process is only half completed and success is by no means assured.

Free trade is a good thing, Judith Kirton-Darling MEP, reminded us in opening the debate. The North East is the single largest beneficiary of international trade in the country and the only region with a trade surplus.

The treaty proposals are beset with problems.  Public services may be opened up to commercial interests and our high standards of food safety, environmental  protection and employment law may be comprised. Most disturbing of all, multi national companies may be granted the right to sue national governments if their profits are put at risk by restrictive legislation.

TTIP is awesome in its scope. It will encompass about half the world’s trade and set the standard for other bi lateral trade agreements. Multi lateral trade negotiations  are deadlocked  and TTIP will  usurp their place as a rich man’s club which excludes the developing world.

The negotiations take place largely behind closed doors. The papers cannot be scrutinised by trade experts or even properly studied by elected members. The European Parliament will ultimately be asked to ratify the treaty but cannot amend the terms. Judith

Kirton-Darling, who leads on the negotiations for Labour MEPs, is still hopeful of obtaining satisfactory terms and gave a fascinating insight into the daily workings of a politician away from the election trail.

She has been encouraged by thousands of emails from all over the region expressing concern at the TTIP provisions. “ I think democracy is a fragile flower” she said “and public debate and interest is the water to keep it alive”. No shortage of watering cans in Hexham.

The next Hexham debate is this coming Saturday in St Mary’s Church Centre at 11am when Dr Emma Briant from Sheffield University speaks about  the Anglo American attempts to adapt propaganda strategies to global terrorist threats in a post 9/11 media environment.  If you were thinking that lively political debate is a thing of the past, the Hexham debates will reassure you.

New piece

For someone who travels regularly on the Tyne Valley line all the way to Middlesbrough ( a journey of well over two hours form Hexham) , the good news is that the proud new owner of  the Northern Rail franchise will be required to phase out pacer trains by 2020 – though  there could be many a leaf on the line before then.

The Transport Secretary allegedly fought his own civil servants to get the commitment  included in the  prospectus and I have been pondering  over his statement about pacer trains.

“I do not think that the continued use of these uncomfortable and low quality vehicles is compatible with our vision for economic growth and prosperity in the North” he told the press.

It is a statement with utopian undertones, of a kind likely to heard frequently in the next few weeks. Will we be given a new train set only if we fulfil the vison of new found riches? Will we be consigned to endless rattling journeys in so called cattle trucks if we do not meet up to expectations?

My fellow commuters on the early morning train were not evidently excited at the prospect of new trains.  On the long haul from Sunderland down to Hartlepool, I thought about going round the carriage to cheer them up.

Do not worry, I would say. Prosperity is around the corner and new trains will surely follow. The view out of the window across the far  reaches of County Durham did not provide much supporting evidence . There are no cranes on the skyline or even lights in the new office blocks alongside the tracks. Perhaps the much maligned planning inspector who rubbished the County Durham plan knew a thing or two.

Here is an embarrassing admission. After six months of commuting, I confess that I have a soft spot for the poor old pacer trains.

I have developed coping mechanisms. I fight for one of the few seats with any appreciable leg room. I take a flask of tea.  I learn to live with my right leg  scalding  from being too close to the hot water pipe and my left shoulder freezing from the blast of cold air coming down the carriage.

The trains are all slightly different and have a character of their own. They could be named after the succession of transport secretaries dating back to the 1980s when they were first introduced.

One day soon, a pacer train will  be preserved in the National Railway Museum with an interpretation panel to say that people in the North East  travelled to work struggling to make ends meet  for over  forty years sustained by a vision of a better future under the Conservatives and the thought of free trade with the United States.