Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: December, 2015

an or Woman of the Year from the Hepburn household

In an attempt to delay the onset of parlour games, I ask the Christmas guests to nominate their man or woman of the year.

Mrs Columnist proposes Barack Obama. It  has been immensely important to have  the a Black African American in the White House, she says. After the early heady expectations, he has stayed the course and turned up to progress the Paris Acord. If he could curb his countrymen’s love of guns before he retires, Obama really would deserve the Nobel prize.

My sister in law jumps in to put forward Hilary Benn. As she is aware of the leftward leaning tendency of our household, this is an astute choice. Sis admires the way Benn Junior spoke his mind so clearly and maintained his integrity under pressure. Does one speech make a summer however, I wonder.

In anticipation of his forthcoming Christmas dinner, my son favours his mother. The  Junior Columnist goes on to nominate Jeremy Corbyn for the way he has inspired  young people to get involved in politics and brought back back some ideals.  Atta boy, but St Jerome has yet to lead the faithful out of the wilderness.

My brother in law is a well informed Conservative supporter so his choice of Nicola Sturgeon is a surprising one. With a smile on his face, he explains that if Nicola leads the Scots to independence, the Labour party will never sit on the Treasury benches again.

To be serious he says, Nicola Sturgeon led the Nationalists to a historic victory in May and has handled the leadership superbly ever since. She is always first to the microphone with a sharp comment  on a major issue.  We all admired Nicola’s performance as the girl next door on Desert Island Discs.- though the younger ones thought her choice of music was excruciating. Nicola Sturgeon is in top gear but her chequered flag is some laps off.

Nephew Major proposes Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, whose glamorous new identity shot by Annie Leibovitz graced the cover of Vanity Fair. She also turns out to be the same age as me. Gender reassignment is the next big equality issue my nephew informs us and Jenner is the icon. Who am I to disagree?

Nephew Minor is the  thoughtful one and is still considering his options. What about the heartthrob Major Tim, I suggest, though I doubt if anyone will remember him in twelve months time. Mark Zuckenberg has staked a claim by giving away his fortune to celebrate the birth of a baby.  Shaker Aamer is a strong contender too for the way he has emerged  from  13 years of  torture and imprisonment  with such grace and goodwill. His interview with Kirsty Young cannot be far away.

I make the case for a special award to my friend and one time Enneagram teacher, Sarah Wilson. She  has spent the last few months driving battered caravans to the camp in Calais to provide  winter quarters for refugees,  Her Facebook posts  give graphic accounts of the conditions there. She and others like her deserve an  award for standing up and doing something.

When pressed, I reveal my own person of the year to be someone who has just retired from the world stage without ever becoming a household name. She has supped with Price Charles, the Pope, the Saudi Royal family and the mining moguls in pursuit of her aims. She has become a vegetarian  to live out her conviction that eating meat is not good for the planet.

Her nomination proves that you can achieve great things away from the public glare for Christiana Figueres is the brains behind the  Paris Accord on climate change.  The Costa Rican anthropologist only became interested in global warming when she realised that her children would never see the now extinct  golden toad that was a treasure of her own childhood. She took on the job of heading a demoralised  United Nations Framework Convention for  Climate Change secretariat after the failure of the Copenhagen  summit in 2010 and has worked relentlessly to build the consensus needed for the Paris Accord.

The politicians had to come away with a victory this time around but the target of keeping global warming under two degrees will be desperately hard to achieve.

The veteran climate change campaigner Bill McKibben  compares the task  to setting a new world record for the  marathon of under two hours if we are to keep global warming to 1.5% or to clock under three hours, a time only achieved by  elite athletes, to keep global warming to 2%. It will require the toughest training every day for the next five years.

McKibben says it will “involve raising the price of carbon steeply and quickly so that everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it”. No fracking, no drilling in the Artic and continued subsidies to promote solar power.

Don’t blames Figueres if we fall short. She has retired from the United Nations with honour  and carrying  the accolade of my person of the year. It is up to the rest of us now.

published in Newcastle Journal 28th December






Wibbly wobbly bridge is swept away and Christmas presents should be swept away too!

The wibbly wobbly bridge was swept away in the floods last weekend. It had only reopened in the Spring after a crowd funding appeal raised the money to rebuild it following the last round of floods in 2013.

The Victorian suspension bridge in the Allen gorge  was built  in the 1850s as part of a wilderness garden on the Ridley Hall estate which is now owned by the National Trust. The moniker comes the violent swaying movement that could deter anyone without the bravado of an Indiana Jones.

The National Trust is hoping to at least put back in place a construction sympathetic to the setting. The River Tyne recorded its highest ever levels last weekend. The Victorians never had reason to expect flooding of this order.

The demise of the wibbly wobbly bridge is hardly headline news compared to the loss of life and property in the Lake District and in the Tyne Valley. My friends in Corbridge have been had their home flooded for the second time in ten years. But the fate of the bridge is a portent that the excellent engineering of the Victorian age is crumbling around us due to global warming.

Flooding calls for a knee jerk reaction just as much as bombing Syria. BAE shares have risen as high as the floodwater this week, by the way.  Instead the government has cut funding for flood defences.  Anne Marie Trevelyan has proposed that  200 million trees are  planted in the lifetime of this parliament. This is surely a leaf out of Chairman Mao’s red book slogan of letting a million flowers bloom.

If this government is serious about infrastructure, then a comprehensive programme to contain flood water, upstream and downstream, should be a greater priority than HS2 or the third London runaway. Increased air travel will of course make floods even more likely.

With all the commotion about floods, the launch of my Christmas campaign has been overlooked. I am lobbying for a lane to be reserved on all the main roads into town that excludes Christmas shoppers.  ‘ No Xmas Shprs’ will be painted in large white letters on the carriageway.  Rushing to attend supposedly important business meetings, I should not be impeded by the hoards clamouring to empty the shelves of Sports Direct. The company was branded “a scar on British business” by the Institute of Directors this week.

There was never any such problem in Bethlehem despite the extra traffic caused by people returning home to be counted in the census. The wise men turned up late because they read the stars wrong and not because of a camel jam. And gold, frankincense and myrrh were the only presents handed out that day.

There is no Biblical basis for the huge splurge of present giving. The shepherds did not start handing out parcels in fancy wrapping to everyone in the stable. So why has Christmas shopping become so important? Perhaps because it accounts for one third of retail sales in the entire year.

In the Christian tradition, we are encouraged to give to the poor at Christmas. John the Baptist told his followers that anyone who had two coats should give one away in order to prepare for the coming of the Lord. There are plenty of people in Calais in need of a coat this Christmas. Whoever has food must do likewise, he continues. Food banks are open for donations.

The prophet Joshua told us all to clean up our act in preparation for the wonderful events to come. Clothes should be washed and unhealthy food avoided which could be interpreted as heading off to the dry cleaners without stopping at McDonalds.

Of course much of the embellishment of the Christmas story does not stand up to scrutiny. There is no reason to suppose that the baby was born on 25th December although as the Christmas candle is lit in the dark of the night in our church, I am always moved  by the symbolism of light coming into the world at precisely the darkest time of the year.

It is a time of renewed hope for the future of the world symbolised by the precariousness of the birth of a new baby. There is much hope in the greater than expected promises made in Paris to keep global warming well below two degrees even if it will be as difficult to meet these targets as for the camel to get through the eye of the needle.

In the Anglican church, of which I am a member, there is much to hope for in the enthronement of Christine Hardman on Saturday as the first woman bishop of Newcastle  and only the second women appointed to head a Diocese in the country.

The Church has endlessly debated an issue that may seem common sense to many of us. I cannot follow the theological arguments about women bishops but am thrilled that this milestone has been reached. My own experience of the ministry of ordained women has been overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. So welcome Bish Chris as a sign of great things to come and Happy Christmas one and all.

published in The Newcastle Journal on 14th December 2015