Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: September, 2015

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope: Easily says George Hepburn

My previous with Trollope was not portentous. Despite being a sometime  aficionado of the Church of England, I have found his Barchester books about life in the cathedral close stodgy.

My eye was caught by the look and feel of a substantial hardback volume in an elegant dust jacket in the Everyman Library. The typeface looks like a facsimile of the original edition. It was begging to be lifted off an unloved bookshelf in Booths.

The great enjoyment of this voluminous bookshop is to wander around looking about until something catches your eye. Trollope was furthest from my mind as I walked in the door. Browse expectantly and you are rarely disappointed.

This is the first of Trollope’s longest series of novels loosely based on the life and times of the liberal aristocratic Pallister family in the 1850s. I was looking for a worthy  blockbuster to take to the Hebrides but found I skipped through all 800 pages with delight, wanting to know what happened next, and got to the end before I knew it. Theres a good story line told in an easy way for the original serialisation in a newspaper.

Its not as finely drawn as Dickens or as profound as Elliot and with just a touch of Jane Austin. The good looking men are bounders and the decent ones rather dull. Our heroine keeps changing her mind about who to hitch up with, which provides the title line, and all comes well in the end.

The balls and the hunts are vividly described as if Trollope was there himself – which he probably was. The politics of the mid century ring true. Ministries come and go as ministers fall out with each other.

At each turn of the tale letters are written ( telephone being yet to be invented)  and often included in their entirety. What a skill there once was in laying out ones heart in a letter. At one point, a letter is dispatched from London on Christmas Eve to be laying on the breakfast table in Westmoreland on Christmas morning.

And all the while, the characters weigh up whether to marry for love or money and Trollope describes their anguish with such feeling and delicacy. I can understand why Harold Macmillan always kept a Trollope on his bedside table.  I have requested the next two volumes for my birthday, in the same Everyman edition of course.

Oldies are back: what a week for Jeremy and me.

For the first time since 1994, the Labour leader is older by a few months than me. He rides a bike, hardly drinks and still fits into a pair of shorts. What a hero. Oldies are back.

Old policies  are dusted off too. Rattle the zimmer frames with delight.  Sometimes the old ones are the best ones. Ban the bomb, tax the rich  and nationalise the railways. Dare I whisper it comrades but Old Labour is back.

Old politics (sometimes called  new politics) have come round again. It is alright to disagree, to debate and to resign your post.  Do not worry about all those former  front bench prima donnas who could not cope with this upheaval. There is plenty of talent among new Labour members and hoards of young people signing up for political activity too.

Most of all, weep tears of joy for passion is back. The Labour Part is a political movement again.  If anything will regain respect for homo politicus, it is authenticity. Jeremy Corbyn is not worried about the consequences of what he says.

Nothing is buttoned up by the spin doctors anymore.  This is disconcerting for young whipper snappers like BBC’s Laura  Kuenssberg  who was desperate to know whether Jeremy Corbyn would  kneel before the Queen. Corbyn wanted to think about it. Does it really matter?

Corbyn is his own man and the political establishment does not like it. Expect far more attempts to discredit the Labour leader as he  takes on the energy companies, the mighty military or the oligarchs.  The Daily Mail has already  reported that there were  ‘reds in the bed’ back in the 1970s  and  even our own Paul Linford, whose must read  Saturday column will be sadly missed, got angry at Corbyn for not briefing the media in the time honoured way.

It took a few days for the scale of Corbyn’s victory to sink in. However foolhardy the process, no one can say that the three pound carpet baggers elected Corbyn. He won the vote in each of the membership constituencies showing that the members are bolder than the parliamentary party.

It will take us all time to  realise  that Jeremy Corbyn’s views are not necessarily Labour party policy – on NATO, student fees   or welfare caps –  and that it doesn’t matter. Next week’s Labour  conference will be worth watching. The big decision about renewing Trident will not be made quietly now. McDonnell describes Osborne’s policies on tax credits  as immoral.  We have an opposition again.

What a delight to find a political leader who can speak on a platform . The acceptance speech was a barnstorming performance.  What a masterstroke to go straight off on a march to welcome refugees and what a human touch  spend Friday night dealing with housing problems in Islington and not grandstanding at Twickenham. Who says this man lack political antennae?

I have no problem with him singing the Red Flag, though many of us will have to learn the words, and I sympathise with a republican atheist having to mouth ‘God Save the Queen’. There are other ways to show respect. But as Jonathan Freedland perceptively  said in Saturday’s Guardian,  the lifelong individualist now has to realise that he is representing his party and not just himself.

Of course, there are  mountains to climb. A  poll last week found three quarters of the electorate do not see Corbyn as a Prime Minister in waiting. Perhaps they are still looking for an identikit man in a sharp blue Armani suit. But the general election is a long way off. Who would have bet on Syriza winning an election five years ago?

I am surprised by the number on people on the No 10 bus who say that they agree with some of what Corbyn says. No one likes the energy companies or enjoys riding on pacer trains. They admire his whole approach to politics. No cleaning the moat on expenses here. The bandwagon may just roll rather than the lose the wheel that his critics  gleefully expect.

Much needs to be sorted on the starship Corbyn .  Just what is peoples quantative easing and how will it deal with the deficit?  I can live with some unresolved policy issues. I can ride out some divisions on questions like NATO. I can smile at the inevitable embarrassing slip ups because  I would love to see a  government  that really fights inequality, supports welfare  and tackles the banks  before I am too much older.

If Jeremy Corbyn was my guest of  honour round the dinner table this weekend, who else  deserved a seat too ?  Justin Welby was invited  for his  audacious u turn, Lidl UK’s Ronny Gottschlich for promising to pay up  and Charlotte Proudman for tackling a sexist boss.

I would  have found extra  seats  for Shah Lalon and Jenni Yuill, founders of North East Solidarity for Calais Refugees,  if they were not  on their way to Calais with a staggering seven lorry loads of goods. What an exhilarating week full of hope for oldies like Jeremy and me.

published in Newcastle Journal Monday 21st September

Nobody’s Perfect : Obituary of the loving, inspriring and formindable Carole Howells

Carole Howells, who died in June aged 73, was a champion of the voluntary sector in Newcastle upon Tyne for more than two decades. Her influence extended far and wide.

As  Director of Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service (NCVS) from 1987 to 2009, Carole  stridently argued the case for the charitable sector and was passionate about Newcastle, which became her adopted city. She  knew that it was important to build a professional relationship with the City Council but she  could also be fiercely critical about ideas of which she disapproved. On one occasion, Carole  refused to have anything to do a  government funding initiative  because she considered it was so ill conceived.

Carole was a brilliant manager, strategist and organiser. She ran an impeccable organisation that was widely respected. Carole  prided herself on developing her staff and giving them responsibility. A number of her proteges have gone to run their own organisations with distinction including Shona Alexander at Newcastle CAB or Paul Marriot at St Cuthberts Hospice.

Under the auspices of NCVS she nurtured a number of initiatives, including what is now Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. Carole had the original idea to start the community foundation which at the time was seen as a radical and risky venture. She was deputy chair of the foundation for its first nine years and, although she did not agree with all its eventual directions, was  extremely proud of what it achieved.

Carole was the first choice to represent the voluntary sector on public bodies including the boards of Newcastle College, Northumbria Probation Committee, Tyneside TEC and the  regional advisory group of what is now The Big Lottery. She was punctilious and usually arrived  fifteen minutes before the start of the meeting. One chief executive described Carole as  ‘the grit in the oyster’ – because she would always ask the awkward question.

Carole acted as eminence grise to a number of leading voluntary and public sector figures.  One said he  invariably  asks himself what Carole would do when he is in a tight spot.  Carole would never have called herself a mentor as her forthright advice was usually given over lunch, afternoon tea or an early supper amidst much good humour but her influence on a whole range of people, including myself, was perhaps her greatest legacy.

Born in Watford in 1942, Carole went to Bushy Grammar School and then studied philosophy and psychology at Bristol University. She was forward thinking and fashion conscious. Carole  later gained an MA in Education from the University of the West Indies and an MBA from Durham Business School.

One of her closest friends  at Bristol was the feminist writer Angela Carter who, according to a forthcoming biography, described her relationship with Carole as one of the most central in her life. Carole was an assiduous correspondent with all her friends and recently gave her letters from Angela Carter to the British Library.

Carole’s love of the North generally, and the Yorkshire Dales in particular, came about fortuitously when her first employer, the Civil Service Recruitment Board  ( 1967 -9 ) relocated from central London  to Basingstoke. She could not face commuting  and  decided to look for pastures new.

A colleague took her to visit Bradford and then on a tour of the Dales. Carole was instantly captivated both by the urban life of northern cities and by the rugged and dramatic landscape. This visit was quickly followed by Carole accepting a post as a research psychologist  at Leeds University (  1969 -74). Although she later switched careers, Carole never lost her enthusiasm for research and evaluation and continued to take on projects throughout her time in Newcastle.

Carole moved to Bradford where she lived life to the full and later  purchased a cottage at Langcliffe near Malham with two friends.  Her love of visiting her cottage and being able to visit friends in Yorkshire  was a constant source of joy for the rest of her life.

After narrowly missing out on a job in the Far East,  Carole  moved to Jamaica to work at  the University of West Indies (1974-78) where she met Jill Knight  who became a life long friend and holiday companion. She was, according to Jill, a refuge in times of trouble.

When Carole  returned from the Caribbean, she worked  for the crime reduction charity  Nacro   in  Manchester (1978 -87), before settling in Newcastle to run NCVS.  She was awarded an  MBE for her services to the voluntary sector in 2001.

Carole had a great love of art and, in her retirement, took up painting again  herself . She was seen more often at Theatre Royal, where dance was a particular delight, and at Tyneside Cinema, where she sponsored a seat which she called  ‘Nobody’s Perfect’. This was an affectionate catchphrase about colleagues who did not meet Carole’s  exacting standards.

She was diagnosed with cancer in early 2103 but, with treatment, managed a reasonably full life until Easter this year, when her health quickly deteriorated. She continued to chair The Derwent Initiative and Involve North East, until shortly before she died.

Carole  had a  great gift   for  making and maintaining  friendships and it was utterly in keeping that she spent her last day at home in the company of one of her oldest friends who had flown in from America especially to be with her.

Carole was briefly married and had a number of other boy friends. She is survived by her younger sister, Penny, and by her nieces Lucy and Charlotte who describe Carole as a loving, inspiring and formidable influence on their lives.

There is a memorial event to celebrate Carole’s life and work at The Mansion House on Saturday 3rd October. For details go to