Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: December, 2016

Who walked tall in 2016? The walkers report:

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






Does Mrs May have a prayer? She does now

I light a candle every day and pray for Theresa May. My friend Ken came up with the idea. He lights a candle too, even though he is not religious. You might like to join us.  This is, of course, the season for candles. In the Christian world, a candle is a sign of hope for new life to come out of darkness and despair.

The words of the prophet Isaiah, read in church during December, have hit me particularly hard this year.  Isaiah looks forward to a time when weapons will be turned into ploughshares, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, when everyone will be fed and prisoners be set free. Giving a hint about the values of infrastructure projects, Isaiah tells us to make a straight highway through the desert. Those days seems further away than ever.

Isaiah’s prophecies are usually seen as foretelling the birth of Jesus Christ, some 700 years later.  I prefer to think of the old man struggling to maintain his belief that things will get better against all the evidence. That is why his words resonate so much to me in this, the gloomiest of years.

I can remember being  frightened  at the time of Suez and Cuba but have never since been afraid  of a major war in my life time until today. Daniel Blake has brought home to me that good people even in our own country may not be fed. Donald Trump and his entourage of climate deniers makes me worried that global meltdown is much closer.  His friend Vladimir Putin is rampant  on the war path.

In these weeks of Advent when it is dark in the afternoon, we wait expectantly that somehow  light will come into the world, that the  humble Bilbo Baggins will defy the odds  or that a baby will be born. Your ways are not my ways, the Lord told Isaiah.  All we can do is to light a candle.

And that brings me back to Theresa May. Not a messiah, thank goodness. The messianic qualities of the president elect scare me to the bone.  As far as Ken and I can see, a decent hard working politician born in a vicarage, Theresa goes on walking holidays, cooks her own Christmas dinner, forgoes a stylist and lets her husband chose her handbags. Move over glam Sam.  Theresa  may be our best hope.

Few would have predicted Theresa May’s coronation a year ago or have proclaimed   her inspirational leadership skills. As a politician, she made an impressive start taking risks in her cabinet appointments and not taking hostages to fortune. If she gives more credence to Sleaford than Richmond, she may yet spring an election to strengthen her majority in parliament.

As members of the Labour Party, it is difficult for Ken and I to pray for a Tory.  Theresa May has not lived up to the fine  words from the steps of Downing Street and on other days, we might argue with her about the  policies on selective education or cutting welfare benefits.  But on the defining issue of how her government  honourably negotiates a way out of Europe, Theresa May deserves our blessing.

It was an irresponsible referendum and a dishonest campaign. The result was closer than some might now like to think, but it was still a three-point win in the ninety minutes and there is no point complaining about the referee’s eyesight. Theresa May is charged, as Isaiah might say, with creating a new earth.

The European project has bedevilled the Conservative party for generations and her options are limited.  The Prime Minister has to pacify the people whose parentage was questioned by one of her predecessors. Like John Major, she has risen without trace. She is surrounded by more voluble and ideological colleagues. There is a lamentable absence of alternative leaders on the benches opposite.  She is a more responsible and pragmatic politician than any of those who might take over if she slipped up.

Theresa May may be keeping her cards close to her chest because she does not have a plan. A great chess master is supposed to see the whole game from start to finish but lesser players push a pawn up the board looking for openings and hoping for the best.

She was unwise to try and short circuit parliament and their Lordships and are likely to require her to do so. Her ministers play down the difficulties of the legalities involved in leaving Europe which academics reckon will require far longer than two years and an extra 30,000 civil servants.

Theresa May  could  be the most level headed person  to handle interminable  negotiations with the  European leaders and the most diligent  person to keep her head down and work through the morass of paperwork. We need a completer finisher in the most tumultuous political time of our lives.

That is why we should  light a candle, get behind her and hope for deliverance.  Ken and I wish, as Isaiah would put it, that Theresa  soars on wings like eagles, runs  and  does not grow weary, walks  and does faint.

published in Newcastle Journal 13 December 2016