Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: April, 2017

St Magnus shows Donald Trump there is another way to sort out disputes between nations


It is exactly 900 years since Earl Magnus and Earl Haakon met on the island of Egilsay to try and resolve their differences. The two cousins had divided and ruled the islands of Orkney. But their followers had fallen out and rather than fight in battle, the joint Earls of Orkney agreed to meet and seek peace.

These were bloodcurdling times when rulers went by the names of Thornflinn the Skullsplitter and Eirik Bloodaxe. In this company, Magnus was something of an exception. According to Icelandic legend, as a young man he had refused to fight under King Magnus Barelegs against the Welsh ‘for he had no quarrel with anyone there’ and sang psalms while the battle raged.

In the Orkneyinga Saga, Manus is described as a man of extraordinary distinction, tall with a fine intelligent look about him. He punished the rich and supported the poor. He lived according to God’s commands, was faithful in marriage and whenever the urge of temptation came upon him, he would plunge into cold water and pray to God for aid. He could also put his enemies to death and torch their houses when necessary so lets not get carried away.

On the way to the fateful meeting with Haakon, Magnus was drenched by a freak wave in the stern of his ship which was deemed a bad omen. His men urged him to turn back.  It had been agreed that each cousin would bring two boats of supporters but when Magnus arrived he found that Haakon had turned up mob handed with eight boat loads.

Vastly outnumbered, and perhaps too trusting, Magnus offered his cousin a series of concessions. He would go on pilgrimage to Rome and never return. He would be confined to house arrest. He would have his eyes gouged out and spend the rest of his life in a deep dungeon.

None of these compromises satisfied the chieftains who wanted a single ruler and Magnus was executed by on Easter Day 1017.  Magnus allegedly prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors and asked to be killed by a single axe strike on his forehead as befitted his noble standing.  In an astonishing act of forgiveness, Magnus’s mother, Thora, later forgave Haakon in return for giving her son a proper burial. A cult developed, Magnus’s grave become a pilgrimage site  and a series of healing miracles were attributed to his spirit.

William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned against such heresies but was struck blind and only restored to sight after praying himself at Magnus’s grave. He quickly canonised Magnus, which may have been a simpler process in those days.

Twenty years later, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, promised to build a cathedral in Kirkwall in memory of St Magnus in return for ruling the islands.  In 1919 a wooden box was discovered during restoration in the cathedral. It contained a skull with a fractured forehead. In this same cathedral, St Magnus’s story was retold this past Sunday to mark   the 900th anniversary of his martyrdom and on Monday a pilgrimage walk on the route around the islands to his final resting place was inaugurated.

On this now peaceful island, whose history as a centre of civilisation goes back centuries before Magnus, I have spent the weekend anxiously listening to news of war mongering between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. I have felt more apprehensive over these last few days  than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis. Warships gathered, a Korean missile probably sabotaged by a cyber attack and all options were said to be on the table.

The President is failing on many fronts. He has been unable to get his way in Congress to repeal Obamacare. He has been unable to deny Muslims entry to the United States thanks to judicial challenges. He may well be impeached for his collusion with Russian sponsored election rigging. His advisors are squabbling, his press spokesman is embarrassing and his ratings are falling.

But this only makes Donald Trump a more frightening figure on the world stage. He tries to restore his reputation as a man of action by launching missiles and dropping bombs without any semblance of forethought or strategy.  At the back of my mind is Steve Bannon’s belief that  the United States long term interests are best served by  launching a war in the South China seas within the next five years.

It is wrong to single out Donald Trump. There are a few Skullsplitters and Bloodaxes around today including Bashar al-Assad.  Forget the obscene extravagance of the Mar-a-Lago holiday camp where Trump served President  Xi  chocolate cake and told him about bombing Syria. I would put them all in simple stone huts on a small remote island and with strictly two boatloads of aides and generals each. Let them eat gruel.

There is another way.  It requires courage and integrity to talk to each other. You can be betrayed as Magnus found out to his cost.  Ron Ferguson, former leader of Iona Community who preached the Easter Day sermon in St Magnus’s Cathedral, wrote in his foreword to Magnus’s life, “if human beings are to live together on this fragile earth, worship, reverence, love and willingness to sacrifice for others must be seen as necessities rather than as idealistic impossibilities.”

published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 18th April






Charities are run by inspirational people who need our support more than ever

The highlight of my week was an all too brief visit to the open day at Children North East held at their WEYES project on the West Road in Newcastle. I was shown around by a bright young volunteer and then spoke to a series of staff about their work.
First, Lesley Henderson, running NewPIP, one of seven pilot schemes offering intensive counselling to young mums and dads in the belief that help in the first years of a child’s life prevents trouble later. This was seriously well thought out work and it seemed a no brainer to me.
Then on to the Whoops scheme which makes sure that young children are safe at home and the Youth Link peer mentors scheme which trains 18 year olds to support young teenagers. I shuddered to think how I can have coped with that role in my youth.
Next, Poverty Proofing the School Day which offers a week long audit for schools to make sure that children from disadvantaged homes get the most out of their education. The scheme was developed by CNE and is being delivered around the country. Finally the sexual health clinic, a fully equipped room with a confidential service fed by outreach sessions in schools and colleges.
More young volunteers offered me tea and cake, told me about the young people’s drop in sessions at WEYES and signed me up for a fund raising event in a pizzeria on Saturday. I nodded in passing to the besuited Chief Executive, Jeremy Cripps, and reminisced with one of the management team about a past Chief Executive and personal friend, Joy Higginson, sadly no longer with us, who would have so proud of what has been achieved.
No wonder Children North East was North East Charity of the Year in 2016. Here was a series of innovative schemes, some just practical and others policy making, presented articulately and passionately. They take this 126 year old charity that originally took poor children for a day out to the seaside, slap bang into the present day.
Children North East restored my faith after picking my way through a series of reports casting doubt on the future of charities. On Sunday of all days, but still failing to grab the headlines, the House Of Lord select committee report chipped away at government policy on regulation and commissioning and almost convinced me of value of a thoughtful second chamber.
The public has lost trust in charities and My Lords call for better governance. They recommend improved selection, rotation and training of trustees and make a sensible idea that companies give staff time off to sit on charity boards. They uphold the cherished principle that trustees should not be paid for their time.
As a veteran and increasingly intolerant trustee, I have endured more than my fair share of frustration, crisis and scandals but I do not think that the governance of charities is any better or worse than public authorities or medium sized business. It is just that the public expects us to be holier than thou. Everything palls in comparison with Tescos’s £129m fine for false accounting which passed by almost without comment last week.
A punchy report from Lloyds Bank Foundation warns that charities must change to keep up with the times. They are a service industry and digitalisation is the order of the day. Face to face meetings for advice, information and support will be out dated and too expensive in a few years time. I hope that the soothsayers are wrong as nothing beats looking people in the eye with a little human kindness.
An IPPR North survey by the redoubtable Tony Chapman points out that charities perforce spend too much time on fundraising and grant applications to the detriment of strategy and operations. Get that right first, Chapman argues, and the funding will follow. As a trustee of a grant making trust, I am depressed to see so many medium sized charities desperately seeking money just to get through the next twelve months and having little hope of a long term future.
A friend who volunteers for a bereavement counselling service tells me that since the local authority withdrew its grant to save money, it has been forced to make the administrator redundant and expect new volunteers to pay for their own training. This cannot continue.
There has been an unwritten deal for as long as I can remember that selfless volunteering, madcap fundraising and philanthropic grants are under written by public funding. It is the small frontline charities like bereavement services, the Lloyds Bank report warns, that are most at risk in these hard times.
My cousins in the United States spend every Friday at an extravagant charity fundraiser and I really hope we don’t go that way here. They are the most inefficient ways of raising money and favour the cuddly causes with well connected friends.
I am continually amazed by the creativity, perseverance and self sacrifice of people running charities. They often would not fit into more bureaucratic organisations. They come up with the best new ideas and get to places that others cannot reach. If charities become the easy pickings of austerity, we will lose something precious in our civic life and all be the poorer.

Published in Newcastle Journal 4th April 2017