Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: June, 2015

Best fun for under a tenner

Did you get along to any of the great events to mark Independent Booksellers Week, which ended last night?

I went to lunch at Sydney’s Bistro in Hexham, where the restaurant is hidden away upstairs. Now I have found it, I will go back again.  The literary guest was Louise Welsh, who is one of my favourite authors. Her first book ‘The Cutting Room’ dealt with such unsavoury sexual practices that it remains the only title on my shelves that I have felt unable to pass on to the church book stall.

She was  invited by  Claire Grint  of Cogito Books to  talk about ‘Death is a Welcome Guest’ – the  second volume of her  thriller trilogy about Britain in the wake of a flu pandemic.  I couldn’t put the first volume down and am still haunted by her description of a rat infested modern hospital full of decaying corpses.

These stories tap into our endless speculation about how we would cope in an end of a world crisis. Since aged ten, I have wondered  how I would have tackled the triffids.  Welsh’s characters  find unexpected strength and resolution, she suggested,  when civilisation breaks down.

I was reminded of John Ironmonger’s new novel, ‘Not Forgetting the Whale’ in which our hero, a self seeking merchant banker, is washed up on a Cornish beach  and saves the local people from another pandemic,  which  seem  to abound  in the literary imagination at the moment. This is a light hearted novel  that  still tops my list of most inspiring reads of the year.

Then on to  ‘Tea and Tipple’, my favourite coffee shop in Corbridge  for afternoon tea,  to listen to not one but two debut novelists, hosted by Forum Books;  the self proclaimed “ best bookshop, in Corbridge”.

Katarin Bivald  is Swedish and her novel ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ is  about a woman setting up a book shop  in Mid West America .  Rebecca Dinerstein is an American whose novel ‘ The Sunlit Hours’ is  a love story mainly set in the Norwegian arctic circle.

Authors  like policeman  look  ever younger .  How do they  produce best selling first novels imagined in countries far from their own, and how do they do so in such numbers?   Creative writing courses have a lot to answer for.  Lets hope the all elusive  second novel fulfils their potential.

So what is  special about the 400 or so independent bookshops around the country who have provided such rich fare this past week?

Admittedly the staff  at Waterstones  are always friendly and well informed but when I walk into  an independent bookshop  I know I will find a selection of books curated by the proprietor that I will not  see  elsewhere  displayed in  their own special way. I will make friends and discover some new delights.

At Forum Books,  the bookseller , Helen Stanton, will tell me that she thinks  I will like a particular new title and she is usually right. It is a skill akin to a vintner suggesting a new wine to a connoisseur.

Helen has played a large part in promoting Corbridge with events like the midsummer market and  Claire  at Cogito is a key player in the Hexham Book Festival. Independent bookshops  host soirees, support book groups and   put a lot back into their communities  which is more than you can say for that online outfit that doesn’t pay its tax bills.

I owe my greatest  book reading surprise of the year to the Hexham Book Festival where I heard a consummate literary talk  from Alexander McCall Smith, most famous for his Ladies Detective Agency series, whose  hilarious  and apparently ad libbed observations ranged  far and wide. Claire Malcolm from New Writing North who chaired the conversation did well to hang on to him.

Young writers take note. Mc Call Smith  has over 80 titles, all written in retirement. I picked up one of his  44 Scotland Street series in the Tynedale Hospice second hand book shop in Hexham, which is only surpassed in my view by the Amnesty Bookshop in Westgate Road. This could  be the one place I could offload my copy of The Cutting Room.

44 Scotland Street  tell the adventures  of  the ill assorted  bourgeois tenants of a house in Edinburgh New Town with a pathos  for a lonely collection of souls who come out all right at the end.   Some real life characters like Ian Rankin and real  places like the Valvona & Crolla delicatessen are woven into the stories until you wonder what is fact and  fiction. I am now on to my third volume.

In his talk, McCall Smith compared  his books  to the safe and circumspect  world of Jane Austen –  he has just rewritten Emma in modern dress –  but I would class him alongside P G Wodehouse for his humour and observation of social mores.

I laughed out loud so many times in  the quiet coach on the way back from London that I earned the disapproval of my neighbours. “I m only reading a McCall Smith”, I explained. Where else can you get such enjoyment for under a tenner?

Time to face the music and dance?

To my  lifelong embarrassment,  I cannot dance. I can bop about if push comes to shove   but cannot do the real thing. My embarrassment was never greater than listening to the Joe Loss orchestra at Thoresby Hall Hotel on Saturday night.

I was still spellbound by the grace of couples ballroom dancing.  Most were in their seventies and eighties. Some were none too nimble as they made their way to the dance floor but came alive with the music and waltzed round effortlessly. Ballroom dancing, by the way, reduces the chances of getting dementia by an incredible 74%.

Joe Loss himself left the floor in the early nineties but the orchestra lives on led by his protégé, Todd Miller . Several members of the band date from Joe’s era and strike up his theme tune “In the Mood” with all the freshness  of a youngster.

Loss must have been a charismatic and warm hearted man who was mobbed  like a pop star by his fans. Something of this charm lived on in the way Todd Miller recounted the history of the orchestra – now running for over eighty years  – and bantered with the audience. It was a great two hours entertainment even if you couldn’t get up and join in.

The place to go dancing in the early sixties was the Oxford Galleries – more recently Fluid night club and now in danger of conversion  into student flats. The Old Assembly Rooms was more classy but charged 7/6 and did not serve alcohol. Further afield was the Seaburn Hall, now Morrisons, and the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay which was regarded as shabby.

Come Dancing appeared on the  black and white TV screens of my childhood  compered  by Peter West and Brian Johnston, when they were not commentating on cricket. It broadcast from elegant ballrooms around the country that are long since gone. The dancers were ordinary folk  purporting  to be  posh  as ballroom emanated from stately homes in the nineteenth century.  I was allowed to sit up late to watch it.

The night with Joe Loss made me wonder how many of my friends had learned to dance. I discovered one couple who  met at a dance hall and have recently celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. It was the place to meet a girl.

In free flowing ballroom dancing , the man takes the lead. It allows strong assertive men to tell attractive women what to do according to research at Royal Holloway College. The more confident couples charge imperiously around the floor. Sequence dancing is more equally balanced and based on a sixteen bar repeating series of steps which are performed by all the couples together.

Other grey haired friends reported  learning to dance with same sex partners in the school hall but there must have come a point in the late fifties when dancing dropped out of the school curriculum. My contemporaries by and large did not learn to dance. My mother never sent me off to the local dance school  above Montagu Burtons. At the time I was relieved and now I regret it.

Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the swinging sixties and greater informality may all have accounted for the decline of ballroom dancing. Ballrooms were turned into discos in order to make more money as a disco could pack them in and fuel them with drinks. You need a clear head to cha cha.

By the time the Mayfair Ballroom opened in 1961, replete with sumptuous art deco fittings, the golden years were over. The Mayfair is remembered as a pop venue and for assignations in the upstairs balconies before it gave way to less romantic Gate leisure complex where, no doubt, couples still eye each other  over a bag of popcorn.

You can still go dancing at Eldon Square, at Age Concern and at Woodlands Community Hall in Wideopen where Jennifer Davidson  runs tea dances on a Monday afternoon  and sequence dancing on a Friday night. The fun and companionship is as good as ever and the evidence shows that dancing makes us healthier and more optimistic about life.

There is no shortage of classes at Dance City, the family run Newcastle Dance Centre and even at Newcastle University Students Union. Tango and Salsa have experienced a revival and Strictly has lead everyone to believe that you can become an expert in just one week.  Darren Gough’s success on Strictly was the single best day for ballroom classes as real men realised it was cool  to dance.

My wife insists that  I have two left feet and my own discordant sense of rhythm. Even with these limitations, is it time at long last for me to overcome my embarrassment; follow in the unlikely footsteps of John Sergeant and Ann Widdecombe and learn to dance? Have I missed out on one of life’s great joys and passions?

Cameron needs help to win dangerous game

We Brits have an amazing capacity for self delusion  when it comes to understanding how others see us. David Cameron should beware as he  tours the capitals of Europe with a packet of Rennies in his pocket.

Perhaps it is the legacy of Empire when we claimed to rule the world; perhaps it is our traditional aloofness and  stiff upper lip  as,  for whatever reason, our efforts, in peacetime, of getting other nations to do what we want is poor indeed.  We are just not that popular abroad.

I cite as evidence of how we delude ourselves  Manchester’s failed bid for the Olympics, when we were told Manchester was  neck and neck with Sydney, but ended up a long way back. I remember watching the promotional videos of all the contenders .  I  was so awestruck with the Australian  landscape that  our family booked tickets the next day  to visit to the ‘rellies’ down under.

We did not jump off the sofa and head off to Manchester whose video rather confusingly showed a picture of Buckingham Palace. The putative powerhouse  has only now got its act together.  I am on my way  to see the refurbished Whitworth  Art Gallery.

Then, despite all our expectations,   there was the ignominy of only two paltry  votes for  our 2018 World Cup bid and the annual embarrassment of being a null point nation in the Eurovision Song Contest. The London Olympics is the exception that proves the rule.

At least we can now claim the moral high ground about the World Cup. It is a shocking reflection of public probity that two thirds of the national delegations  voted to reinstall a corrupt regime but  Sepp Blatter’s  excuse that you cannot constantly supervise everybody will put a smile on the face of  anyone running a bank.

The script of David Cameron’s European tour this past week could have been written by  Evelyn Waugh.  It has been a brave if demeaning  act of  diplomacy.

The Prime Minister should not deluded  by the pleasantries from  Jean-Claude Juncker after a dinner of spring salad, pork belly and lime bavarois  at Chequers . This is the man whom Cameron went flat out to stop getting the top job in Brussels.  Waitrose had sold out of limes by Friday night. Anyone wishing to patch up a relationship must be serving bavarois.

He should treat Angela Merkel’s apparent willingness to negotiate with caution. She is an astute politician not wanting to make unnecessary enemies.  She also knows that a Brexit would be a body blow to the European dream.

Away from  the ceremonial  guards of honour, all the evidence is that the continental shelf is shifting  ever further adrift .  France and Germany  have come to an agreement for even closer political union. Le Monde says this “shows that the French and German leaders do not have much in common with David Cameron.”

No one in Brussels will want to reopen the Lisbon treaty which will need  the unlikely  agreement of all 28 members.  The Polish Prime Minister was defending her rights over breakfast on Friday.   Cameron is not concerned  about the greater European good as opposed to the  political turmoil at home.

He may come back, as Harold Wilson did in 1975, claiming success for very little.  He may even admit defeat and be bound to recommend leaving  the EU with the  prospect ,that Paul Linford outlined on Saturday, of a Prime Minister who  loses a referendum.

The main vote winners in a referendum would be restrictions on the free flow of labour and withholding of benefits to migrants. All else is window dressing for those on the right.

The trouble is that Eurospecticism is a state of mind spiced with prejudice and paranoia. The spectics  demands cannot be easily  ticked off. Those with firm convictions either way are unlikely to be swayed by whatever concessions our knight in shining armour may extract.

Over the past week, David Cameron has gone out on a limb to fulfil his commitment to improve the terms of British membership.  His premiership will be judged by the outcome. He may yet come to rue the day he offered a referendum to appease the sceptics in the Conservative camp  and UKIP hoards at the gate.

A referendum is a dangerous game of bagatelle in which the ball may end up anywhere.  According to  YouGov ,  support  for staying in Europe has a ten point lead and  growing but  the outcome can be thrown by any number of  unforeseen  events like another  Euro crisis or a refugee scare or  by some clever electioneering from Nigel  Farage or Nicola Sturgeon.  The SNP’s demand for separate country referendums is yet another headache for the Prime Minister.

If he pulls it off , the man will be a hero but  David Cameron will need all the help he can get. He should call up Prince William, Seb Coe, David Beckham , Sandie Shaw  and all the other  cheer leaders  to press the British case.  Wish him well. Unlike the Eurovision Song Contest, this is not a laughing matter.