Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: December, 2017

Who walks away as Person of the Year? My survey of fellow walkers in 2017 reveals the results:

The great delight of a day out walking  is the ongoing chat and the chance to put the world to rights. So, once again, I have asked my walking friends to nominate their Person of the Year. Beware they are mainly elderly and leftie though this year the regular group has voted to admit women to keep in step with the changing times.

No sports stars have made the list this year. Our favourites Rafa Benitez and Joe Root have both struggled and  potential heroes like Ben Stokes, Mo Farah and Chris Froome have been under a cloud. Anya Shrubsole deserves a mention for making headlines for womens cricket.

In the entertainment field, Bruce Forsythe brought to an end the longest career on the stage of any male entertainer but Chips remembers Rodney Bewes, who died in November.  His finest hour was  when the North East was made glorious by newly built Leech housing estates, when Newcastle United fielded home grown players and  when, in select bars, you might even get a glass of wine.  Bewes was not a great actor and very much the foil for his partner James Bolam, but  together they  perfectly mirrored what is now called the Zeitgeist.  I saw him much later perform his one man show Three Men in A Boat at the Customs House and was enchanted. He toured with the boat strapped to the roof of his car.

John and Christine go  for David Attenborough who has been the BBC’s voice of natural history for over 60 years. In  his  magnificent new series, Blue Planet 2, Attenborough  has  described the desecration of our oceans in an authoritative and dignified manner. He has reached  millions of mainstream viewers who range far beyond environmental lobbyists and the green fringes. John and Christine  see their nominee as  the consummate broadcaster on matters of enormous significance and, at the age of 91, truly a man for all seasons.

Next a local hero, put forward by Wendy, who is Catrina McHugh, Artistic Director with  Open Clasp theatre company. Open Clasp creates  bold and innovative theatre for personal, social and political change and  performs in prisons, schools and community centres.  Wendy recalls coming away from the production of  Rattlesnake at Live Theatre exhausted by the power of the voices of women who were the victims of domestic violence.  The play was commissioned by Durham Police to help them understand about abuse in the home.   Catrina is the unassuming  founder and  driving force. She was awarded an MBE in June  for outstanding services to disadvantaged women through theatre.

In the community field, I also much admire Chris Milner, who once ran British Airways’s operation in Newcastle, before setting the charity Hextol to give work experiences to people with learning disabilities. This year, he has moved on again because he has ‘one more big project in him’ his wife told me.  Applaud too, my  former colleague Barbara Gubbins who retires this month from ten glorious years leading County Durham Community Foundation. Her sights are also set on pastures new.

I am most proud to have a group of friends who are passionate about the persecuted  and the marginalised. Jan follows Time Magazine’s example and nominates the #Me Too hashtag movement, which  has bravely broken the silence about sexual harassment. It was tweeted half a million times on the first day. There are famous names  featured on Time’s cover but the magazine stressed that this is a movement without a leader, of all classes and countries, which has set off the most fundamental shift in power and gender relations  the world has ever seen.

Ken picks 13 year old Amineh Abou Kerech, who is a refugee from Syria and winner of the Betjeman Prize for her poem ‘Lament for Syria’ . Amineh started writing poems in Egypt, after her family fled penniless from Syria  and has now mastered the English  language whilst living in Oxford. “Can anyone teach me how to make a homeland,” her poem, asks. Can any of us understand what she and millions like her have been through?

Robert and Caroline chose Richard Radcliffe for the way he has remained calm under extreme personal pressure to secure the release of his wife  Nazamin Zaghari-Radcliffe,  wrongfully imprisoned in Iran.  Even when Boris Johnson’s incompetence made the  situation considerably worse, Robert and Caroline say, Richard declined to criticise the Foreign Secretary, saying that such criticism wouldn’t help get Nazamin released.  Lets hope that Nazamin is home for new year.

I nominate the residents of Grenfell Tower, those who died and those who survived. It was the searing, defining event of the year which revealed the appalling conditions in which poor people live in one of the richest boroughs in the land. Their tragedy was confounded by the ham fisted rescue operation and the longwinded inquiry which is a shame to us all. Their bravery and resilience gets my vote.

In May, I was invited by Michael and Marion to join them on a walking holiday in Ireland and enjoyed five glorious days walking  the Sheeps Head Way. Michael nominates  Muhammad Yunus,  who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for  pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance which makes small loans to third world entrepreneurs who cannot get conventional banks loans. Michael says that Yunus  has changed, and continues to change, so many lives, not only in his native Bangladesh, but in the first, second and third worlds, especially for women who otherwise couldn’t break the cycle of disadvantage. His work confirms that it is the small, community based and largely unrecognized changes that have real impact for good.  From little things, big things grow.

Another international name in the frame is Emmanuel Macron  chosen by Fiona for creating a new political force, En Marche!, which within a year won him the presidency. He is the youngest President  in French history, and one who is still considered by the majority as respecting his campaign promises.  He inspired young people to engage in politics and broke the French establishment mould with his bi-partisan approach. His popularity has since blipped but how badly we need a European champion now that Merkel’s star is waning.

Merkel,  Markle, I get confused who’s who.? What about a late award for the soap star who is marrying her Prince Charming. Lets hope Meghan can be a protesting friend at court.

Finally, the big two. The men who have dominated the landscape this year; one good, one bad, depending on your politics, but both nominated by my even handed friends.

I was shocked when Chris nominated  Donald Trump. In almost every respect, Chris says, he  would regard Trump as appalling, but Trump stood out   because it was almost impossible to believe that such a person could be elected as US President until he actually was.  We wake up to a Trump tweet most mornings and live in fear and trembling of his next reckless move. For those of us who have always believed that democracy is a “good thing”, Chris says, Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote, shook comfortable assumptions to the core. The world became more  volatile and dangerous this year.

As championed  in my last column, I would rather go for Juli Briskman , the cyclist who made a rude gesture as Donald drove by. We must show dissent at every chance and stop him coming to the United Kingdom.

Runners up  in the world domination category must surely include Kim Jong-un and Prince Mohammed bin Salman who this year held  his corrupt  competitors to ransom in a luxury hotel, bought a Leonardo painting and let women drive. Vladimar Putin remains the dark horse.

The other big beast is the man who has changed the political landscape. He stopped  benefit claimants being described as ‘scroungers’,  questioned whether seven years austerity had been necessary  and  promoted public over private. Another fine mess requires the private train operator  to be bailed out on East Coast, by the way.   Jeremy Corbyn is  proposed as Person of the Year by both Mike and Edward.  Ed contributed a wonderful couple of days walking around  Vienna to my year.

Mike admits to having been being sceptical when Corbyn was elected two years ago but young Edward has been a staunch supporter all along. Other walkers are not so sure.  They worry about his policies, his hencemen and his management skills.  But who else emerges from the Palace of Westminster with a shred of credibility this year?

Against all the odds, Mike believes, Jezza  has given us  a vision for the future of our country which is different to what we have had served up for forty years and which has led us into the mess we’re now in. And he is taking a growing number of people with him.

So in this season of hope and goodwill, the man who lost the vanity election is crowned Person of the Year.  It was not a year to be proud of. But, funnily enough, out of adversity came some signs of profound change. May we walkers wish you all, that’s the many not the few,  a prosperous rather than a preposterous new year.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Boxing Day 2017

Donald is not welcome here….but Strictly evidently is!

I admire Juli Briskman .  When out for a bike ride, she gave a rude one finger salute  to Donald Trump as his motorcade drove past  on way back from Trump National Golf Club in Sterling Virginia. She caught up with the President’s car at the traffic lights and repeated the gesture, which she says was completely out of character.

Briskman  lost her job as a marketing executive  and was shunned by her the yoga club but kindred spirits raised $100,000 for her online.

I applaud ordinary people who make spontaneous gestures to stand up for their beliefs. Juli Briskman does not have a history of political activity.  It was a spur of the moment decision to show her dislike of the President of the United States. Such chance incidents can change lives. Briskman  now talks of finding a more worthwhile job where can work for political change.

I hope I would be as brave in a similar situation.  In every day life, we may have to choose in an instant whether to speak up, for example in challenging a misogynist or racist or remark.

Last week Time magazine announced their ‘Person of the Year’ to be  the silence breakers who had spoken out against sexual harassment. It is reported that Donald Trump was expecting to receive the accolade. Their bravery seem set to change attitudes and behaviour.

We must chip away at Donald Trump and his ilk; the wealthy, powerful men who think they can do what they like and get away with it. Trump’s behaviour licenses others to abuse women, retweet extremist texts and be audacious without regard to the consequences. One of them will drive down your street one day soon.

Small acts of protest add up and they also make us feel better. I bet Juli Briskman doesn’t regret it. There is the smallest of opportunities to protest  in relation to Donald Trump’s forthcoming state visit to the United Kingdom. It takes 30 seconds to sign the online petition at 38 Degrees calling for his visit to be cancelled.

I know we should listen to people with contrary views and treat them in a civil manner. But Donald Trump is a horrible man in his personal behaviour who professes racist, white supremacist views and feathers the nests of the very rich. He has pulled out of the climate accord and has now disgusted me by irresponsibly destroying any chance of peace in the Middle East. He is not a man we should deal with.

So say it loud and say it clear, Donald Trump’s not welcome here.

But Strictly is…..

Now let me admit to the limit of my political activism.  I have my seat booked on the sofa next Saturday for the final of Strictly Come Dancing. I am a man with two left feet who hardly know how to work the television remote control, so why am I hooked on Strictly?

I am not alone. 11 million people tune in and have been doing so  for the past  fifteen seasons of the show.  When the cultural history of the present time comes to be written, there will be some explaining to do. Here’s my view of Strictly’s success  in, as they say, no particular order:

It is brilliantly produced television with stunning sets and dazzling costumes. The band is an unsung hero. Tess and Claudia may be paid a fortune, if less than a male compere, but they never miss a beat.  The show harks back to the days of live entertainment like  Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which Brucie also compered, and which all the family can enjoy.

We must believe  that with enough application we could all fulfil that ambition to star on stage even if we are not in the first flush of youth – like Debbie – or do not have a  dancer’s build – like Susan.  The aspiration is commendable and transfers to other parts of life.

We love competitions and we strangely identify with losers. The couple who have “got to leave us this week” get all our sympathy and tears in the closing moments of the show … and then they pop up on Take Two the following night.

It is slightly saucy and raunchy and keeps the red tops in copy all week. Did Emma and A.J. find love and did Daisy lead Louise into becoming the latest victim of the Strictly curse? Don’t you  love the salacious gossip, darling.

We also like the predictability. Just like Cilla’s Blind Date, the programme is formulaic and works off a limited template.

But don’t be taken in. The best dancer does not always win, as Greg Rutherford complained last year. In the long jump, the athlete who jumps furthest wins as there is no public vote to distort the matter. Charm, character and colour of skin all matter. Sadly, the public has not warmed to Alexandra this year even though she tops the leader board.

The viewers are somehow drawn into the all embracing and glamourous  Strictly bubble.   The departing celebrity always says it has been the best time of his or life and the irritating Strictly jingle goes round in our head all week.

So, keep dancing. Strictly is good escapist fun that gets us away from the nightmare of  President Trump. Cast your vote on Saturday night but don’t forget to sign the petition about his state visit too.

Published in Newcastle Journal on Tuesday 12th December