Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: August, 2017

Bringing Virginia Woolf back to life

I have enjoyed two weeks holiday on a grand tour down south. I have visited chocolate box places like Saffron Walden, Rye, Chichester and Lyme Regis. I have remembered old times with longstanding friends, told long winded tales and listened to theirs in return.  I am increasingly convinced that visiting friends is the only good reason to travel.

I have walked along cliff tops, listened to chamber music and watched village cricket. I have paid a ridiculous sum in a fashionable restaurant for a turbot plucked out of the sea that very day and I have met Marie Bartholomew.

To explain why a chance encounter  with Miss Bartholomew was the stand out moment of my holiday, I must try to unravel my lifelong fascination with Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest novelists of the last century, and her husband Leonard, author, journalist, politician and sage.

The late Jimmy Morris, my English master, as teachers were more appropriately called in those days, maintained that E. M. Forster was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Morgan Forster was a confidante of the Woolfs. On another day, I would make the case for Graham Greene but Virginia Woolf is right up there too and, to my mind, no one writes more beautifully.

A good cameo of  Virginia’s writing can be found in one of her first short stories which has just been reissued in Two Stories, to mark the centenary of The Hogarth Press. The Press started life in 1917 on the Woolf’s dining room table with a second hand printing machine  as Leonard’s idea to give Virginia some occupational therapy.

Virginia’s story, ‘The Mark on the Wall’,  is one of her first free flowing attempts to break away from the traditional novel form that was to find its apogee in The Waves 14 years later. Woolf is not an easy read but is well worth the effort.  The lyricism of her writing and her sensitivity to human feeling is incomparable especially when accompanied with a glass of chilled white wine.

I trawl bookshops in the vain hope of finding an early edition from the Hogarth Press, perhaps one of those printed by the Woolfs themselves. Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, designed the covers so they treasured by affectionados, but produced in modest numbers and long since ferreted away in libraries and collections.

Hogarth’s  jaw dropping  list included The Wasteland, perhaps the greatest long poem of the twentieth century, T S Eliot being another friend, and the complete works of Sigmund Freud.  Leonard’s unorthodox but successful  business model astonished the publishing trade and is worthy of a Harvard case study.

My fascination with the Woolfs extends to their role as members of the Bloomsbury Group who kicked over the traces of the Victorian age in their lifestyles, their culture and their thought. They were always up for what Virginia described as a ‘lark’ such as the occasion when they disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and were entertained by the Royal Nay and inspected the fleet.

In his autobiography, Leonard describes returning to Bloomsbury in 1911 after seven years as a civil servant in what was then Ceylon, to be amazed by the outpouring of art at the controversial post  impressionist exhibition, the  performances of Russian ballet at Covent Garden  and falling in love with Virginia, who was one of the great beauties of her day.  He adds, honestly, that anyone meeting Virginia in the street would regard her as odd.

Civilisation, he believes, was destroyed by the first world war and then  battered by the barbarism of Hitler. The Woolfs  carried cyanide pills in case Hitler invaded. Writing in the swinging sixties, by then it his late eighties, Leonard Woolf is one of the most poignant witnesses of the century.

The Bloomsberries wrote extensively, kept diairies and left ephemera like holiday snapshots that have been endlessly mulled over for deep meaning. Their influence may be exaggerated. Virginia was well regarded in her life time but no one expected that so many books and thesis would follow in her wake including, for example, a study of her relations with her servants and an imagined novel of her time in the United States, where she never set foot. Enough!

I have read the books, visited the exhibitions and seen the movie ( the moody Hours) but never expected to meet someone who actually knew the Woolfs. Then came the unexpected  highlight of the holiday, on a visit to their home in Sussex, now a National Trust property. I arrived in the nick of time to hear a talk by Marie Bartholomew, aged 87.

Her father was the Woolf’s gardener and she recounted watching from her bedroom  window as the visitors in their party frocks arrived  at the Woolf’s house across the road;   how  her father argued with Leonard  over horticulture and how Mrs Woolf lived in a world of her own. It was as if it had happened yesterday.

I dared not ask Marie Batholomew about that day in March 1941 but without prompting she told how Leonard how banged on their door in desperation  whilst they were eating their lunch and asked her father  to help him look for Virginia who had waited until Leonard was out of the way, left a letter for him on the mantelpiece and set off to the river.


Published in Newcastle Journal on 22nd August 2017

If we wait for Michael Gove to deal with air pollution we may well be dead

I have never been too concerned about longevity. But I now want to hang around until 2040 and live longer than the internal combustion engine. My life has evolved around the car. I can still recite my number plates on 16 cars in 46 years and so the demise of the motor car will be a poignant moment.

Michael Gove announced that petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 23 years time when I will be ninety. It seems a long time away and Norway, which is such a sensible place, will ban gas guzzlers in 2025. I am curious to know how it will play out.

There are signs that the changeover will happen more quickly. Volvo has announced it will stop building conventional cars in 2019.  Tesla has half a million orders for its new economy model. The value of traditional cars will fall and we will shortly stop buying them. Petrol stations are already closing at the rate of 100 a year and will be consigned to Beamish.

The car of the future will probably also be driverless and configured in a completely different way. I imagine getting in my car in the evening and sleeping all the way to London. We are more likely to rent cars than own them and the most imaginative futurists envisage cars arriving at our door when we need them and going where we want to go without anyone giving the orders.

The problems  of electric technology  can be overcome  if  the engineers put their mind to it.  The price of electric cars will come down and no one doubts they are quieter, cheaper to run and last longer.  At present only 1 in 700 cars on the road are electric but expect that  to change rapidly soon.

There is a colossal  threat to the car industry but there is an opportunity too, if the government gets behind battery technology and skews transport policy. The German government, as ever much smarter, knows diesel is dead. They held a summit with car manufacturers last week to plan the transition.

There is a danger that we will run out of electricity. Electric cars will consume more power by 2030 than will be generated by Hinckley Point but solar panels and overnight charging may be the answer. Street lights can be adapted as charging points.

Government revenue for petrol duty will plummet as 67% of every litre from the pump goes straight to the Exchequer.  Fuel and excise duty could be replaced  with an annual charge for the number of miles driven weighted by the toxicity of the vehicle as proposed by Gergely Raccuja, a young post graduate student who won the Wolfson Prize for his scheme  in July. Like all good ideas, it is deceptively simple.

But hang on a moment, before I get carried away. Michael Gove grabbed the headlines with an announcement about electric cars when he was supposed to be outlining the government’s plan for tackling air pollution. This is the government’s third attempt to bring forward measures to satisfy European regulation. Client Earth calls it a “shabby rewrite of previous draft plans.. lacking in urgency” to  tackle  a public health emergency  that is killing 40,000  people a year. Air pollution is a bigger killer than alcohol or obesity according to Friends of the Earth. They call for a brand new Clean Air Act.

Electric cars do not get a clean bill of health either as they still emit particulates that are every bit as damaging as the damned diesel. The government plans to retro fit buses and taxis to control their emissions but it fights shy of charging motorists with diesel cars to enter city centres or introducing a scrappage scheme for the dirtiest cars. Instead, it has got itself in a tangle over a minor proposal  to remove sleeping policeman  and reduce air pollution  which has infuriated the road safety lobby. It should not come down to bumps in the road.

The trouble is that cowardly politicians do not want to antagonise motorists or offend the powerful automobile industry by bringing in measures with any bite. Neither will they make any attempt to control the growing number of cars on the road or put money into more efficient and healthy alternatives.

My friends in London rarely get their car out for urban journeys because the roads are so congested. It is quicker and healthier to cycle, take a bus or walk down the road to the train station.  According to London’s traffic expert David Kelly, the only real answer is fewer cars in cities.

We all travel more. It is tempting to load up the car and get away for the weekend even if the journey down the A1 is slower and more frustrating than ever.  We all expect white vans to deliver our consumer goods overnight even when we don’t need them in a hurry.  We are obsessed with getting there quickly and neglect the beauty of staying at home.

Yes, bring on electric vehicles and driverless cars as soon as possible but don’t be deluded into believing that the car of the future is the answer to a more healthy and fulfilling lifestyle and do not let Michael Gove kid you that we can wait until 2040 to control air pollution as by that time a good many of us will be dead.

published in Newcastle Journal 8th August 2017