Who is your person of the year? I asked everyone I had walked with during 2016 to nominate the man or woman who had most inspired them. There are outwalkers in the group but I should warn you that my companions are mainly elderly, leftie blokes so no votes then for the epoch changing Nigel Farage who was shortlisted by Time magazine.
In a year in which the goodies lost too often and too many died, there were three posthumous nominations. Chips (valiant recovery from walking related injury) voted for David Bowie, an enigmatic pop alchemist who dispensed style with substance for over 40 years. His last creative acts were to finish the stage musical Lazarus and release the album Blackstar to critical acclaim, when he knew he was dying. The words gracious and generous occur frequently in his obituaries, Chips notes, but the word overrated only from his own lips.
Robert (debut novel launched next month) proposed Leonard Cohen who was the poetic, if glum, voice of our student years and the songwriter and wonderful singer of Canada’s most popular ever song – Hallelujah! Cohen struggled with sex and drugs and rock and roll, but was a fantastic poetic voice – and a Zen monk for five years too. I failed to persuade my chums over a pint that Dylan was greater than Cohen.
John ( welcome new boy to the group this year) went for the less well known Bob Holman. He was Professor of Social Work at University of Bath who took the audacious decision, aged 39, to relinquish his post and live with his family in the vast and deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow where he spent the rest of his life helping the poor and the sick, the troubled and the isolated. Holman continued writing and speaking about poverty and injustice right up to his death aged 79, but much, much more than this, John says, he lived out his principles. Whilst we may talk the talk, and many of the group are comfortably retired social workers, Bob Holman walked the walk.
In the international category, Paul (often away in camper van) proposed the Green Party’s Professor Alexander Van der Bellen, the newly elected President of Austria, for defeating the far right Norbert Hofer, a neo-Nazi, who Paul says “would have put the final nail in the coffin of the most dreadful year.” Paul’s runner up was Sadiq Khan for the dignified way he defeated the ugly and racist campaign of Zac Goldsmith in the London Mayoral Election, and stood out in British politics as a beacon of hope and aspiration for a multi-cultural and inclusive Britain.
The other international nominee came from Dan ( cheerful even in the rain) who put forward Dr Pietro Bartolo because of his extraordinary dedication over more than 20 years to the care of migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa. He has said ‘We do what we can, because it’s right to do it’. Bartolo has personally met around 250.000 migrants, most of them having arrived in dreadful circumstances.
Duncan (glorious week walking the Exmoor coast in June when the people spoke ) has a better feel for the mood of the nation than the rest of us. He nominated Boris Johnson as someone who flies the flag for the United Kingdom. Boris always causes controversy in the political arena, Duncan says, and gives the high profile political leadership we need in difficult days. Johnson is a popular leader in waiting though not, I suspect, a popular choice with the other walkers.
Another popular choice from Richard (at a desk in a darkened room), is the one woman British Olympian to have won four or more gold medals – Laura Trott. She stands around 5ft 4in and weighs just over eight stone which also makes her stand apart in a list dominated by brawny male cyclists and rowers. Trott was born prematurely, suffered a collapsed lung and only took up cycling to help her deal with her asthma. But, goodness, she is driven. A damehood surely awaits.
Richard speculates that if she and her new husband Jason Kenny, who has won six cycling Olympic gold medals, can order up a boy and a girl they will surely hurtle to victory at the Felling International Velodrome in the NewcastleGateshead Olympics in 2048.
Mike (rang in sick one morning in June) nominated 80 year old film director Ken Loach. Almost 50 years after making his legendary Cathy Come Home, Loach directed his best film in a long time. I, Daniel Blake is the story of a middle aged man and a single mum who are condemned to a life of poverty, not through any fault of their own, but by deliberate government policies. It is made all the more poignant as it is set and filmed in Newcastle. Asked why he was angry about the story he tells, Loach replied: ‘If you’re not angry, what kind of person are you?’.
Mike asks me also to mention Asif Raza Shah, Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the Freeman Hospital, who described his day as ‘uneventful’ when performing life saving surgery on our friend Mike, who will be back on the hills next year.
Ken (long conversation walking in Arkengathdale) championed the footballer Andy Woodward who found the courage to speak publicly about the alleged sexual abuse he suffered from a charismatic but perverted coach. Woodward felt scared and very alone, Ken says, but broke a powerful sporting omerta and cried when a number of ex players, inspired by his courage, felt able to tell their own painful stories. Andy Woodward is ‘pushing back’ against the odds and set an example to us all. Conversations about the troubled child sexual abuse inquiry featured on a number of walks this year. Will history judge our generation by how we resolve this horror?
Nick (repeated a walk from 1980 across the Seven Sisters cliffs ) went for the brave Gina Miller. By rights, Nick says, the parliamentary opposition should have been pursuing the claim that parliament had the constitutional right to agree to the serving of notice to leave the EU. It seems to have been left to private individuals to take it on themselves to assume responsibility to seek this really important clarification, and for her pains she has been subjected to trolling on social media and abuse from the gutter press. (We caught the bus back this year but think we walked both ways the first time. There is an inverse relation between age and ascent.)
Kathryn ( rainy day across Beadnell Bay) nominated Jo Cox not so much for the tragic events on 16th June which brought her to our attention, but for fighting so hard all her life for the most pressing causes. I would also give supporting awards to her husband Brendan and her sister Kim, for the remarkably humane way they spoke about her death. They refused to let evil overcome good. We need more young, energetic and passionate people in her mould to take up the challenge and fight for the common good in the year ahead.
Published in Newcastle Journal on 27th December