I have spent the last two weeks following in the footsteps of Jim Robertson.
He was sitting across the aisle from me at the launch of ‘Still People Like Us’, an exhibition of photographs of asylum seekers living in the North East at the Discovery Museum. Jim asked a pertinent question about why those seeking sanctuary are referred to in such a derogatory way in the media.
The exhibition brought home to me that asylums seekers have families like us too. They deal with painful separation from the loved ones they have left behind. It is an excellent exhibition which runs until Friday and show a series of proud, dignified if sad people making their way in the world. Catch it if you can.
The previous evening Jim had been delayed at another meeting and was late for the AGM of Church Action on Poverty North East which was discussing a Christian approach to money. He still made a good point about the right to a basic guaranteed income. I wondered whether we also needed a maximum wage. Church Action on Poverty suggests a 1:10 ratio between the top and bottom earners in a company.
Something is wrong about a society in which we all love a bargain to save money and work harder to earn a bonus to make money. How did money become so important?
The following day Jim was sitting towards the back of the hall for the latest Hexham debate. He asked a question about whether society can afford the rich. The speaker was Chris Howson, Anglican Chaplain to Sunderland University, lifelong political activist and serial protestor at Faslane. He believes you have to put faith into action and quotes the black theologian Robert Beckford as saying that “if you are not in trouble with the law, you are probably not doing theology”. Whether you can do theology by attending meetings must be even more doubtful.
I am still reflecting on Chris Howson’s interpretation of the parable of the talents. The servant who buries his talent in the ground and is punished by the evil master is, in his view, the hero of the story because he refuses to have anything to do the iniquities of the banks and stock markets. He will eventually get his reward in heaven. Jim and I nodded knowingly at each other as we left the hall.
I don’t know if Jim made it to the opening of Pattinson House on Thursday. I had gone to London to attend more meetings. By all accounts, it was a glorious affair attended by over 150 people crammed into a community centre converted out of empty shops on the Old Fold and Nest estates in Gateshead. The Mayor cut a huge red ribbon; a buffet lunch disappeared within minutes and fresh bread was cooked in the newly installed ovens. It is a triumph for residents and the hard working staff and all thanks to funding from the Peoples Health Trust, Virgin Money Foundation and Gateshead Housing Company.
Jim will be at Christians on the Left in Durham next Friday when I will be watching Naomi Klein’s film about climate change at Northern Stage. We will meet up at the regional gathering of supporters of the Iona Community on Saturday which will aim to unravel what a Good Society should look like in the North East and doubtless enjoy music and worship in Iona style. I have been looking forward to it for ages.
The Iona event now clashes with a march in London to protest against renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. The ‘main gate’ decision to commit £100bn (some say £169 bn) of public money will be made by parliament shortly.
I have never discussed Trident with Jim. We pass like dissidents in the night. But he is bound to be opposed. The arguments in favour of Trident make my blood boil. The new system will secure our influence in the world and save valuable jobs in the defence industry. 6,500 people are employed as Faslane alone.
But, er, that’s about it. Nobody can really tell me who the missiles are pointed at or why countries like Germany or France have slept safely at night without nuclear weapons. As the late defence chief Sir Michael Carver once said ”What the bloody hell is it for?”
Of all the issues I rant about in this column, the abolition of nuclear weapons is the closest to my heart. It is immoral. It may be my age. I was brought up in the heyday of CND and was genuinely scared about the prospect of being bombed into oblivion. Anyone landing from outer space would find it hard to understand why the United Kingdom should invest so much money in an obsolete system of defence that will never be used. ( The next Hexham Debate on March 12th asks ‘Britain’s nuclear weapons: who should decide’.)
In any event, I will be at the Sunday for Sammy concert on Sunday. Along with everyone else, I will miss Brendan Healey’s contribution. He has always been the funniest of the funny men and a very talented musician as well. There must be some light relief from attending meetings. I hope Jim will be there too.
Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 23rd February