The best decision I ever made
Thirty years ago this morning, I got off a train from London and started work in Newcastle. I can still remember that it was a bright sunny day if a couple of degrees colder than it had been down south.
The previous November my wife had taken me out for a birthday meal and we talked about moving out of London. I should look for a job and her business could follow. By the time the coffee had arrived, it was all decided. I still think it was the best decision we have ever made.
To my surprise, as I was the only outsider on the shortlist, I was appointed to run the newly established Tyne & Wear Foundation in Newcastle. A very young David Whetstone interviewed me for The Journal, then a broadsheet. It was to be my job for the next 21 years and I always count my blessings that by chance I had pitched up in Newcastle.
It was the most friendly of places. A few weeks later I presented my credentials to the late Roger Spoor, one of the most influential members of the Board. I was given an appointment at 8.45am and imagined I had 15 minutes to make my pitch. After ten minutes of rattling off my points, he pushed his wheel chair back from his desk, and said “hang on laddie, lets get to know each other first” and we chatted away for an hour or so.
However, I don’t think there is anything innate about the Geordie welcome. It is partly to do with size and population. In London, you would never thank the bus driver or talk to the shop assistant, because there are far too many people milling about.
But I do think there is a strong tribal sense in North East. We are in border country and in recent times unemployment and failing football teams have bound us together. The image of the Jarrow march on London is etched on our collective psyche. The moral of the story is that nobody listened to them. They came home empty handed.
It is a close knit circle. On the evening before the Northumberland Plate, what was Northern Rock Building Society used to entertain the great and the good in a large marquee at the racecourse. Northern Rock is no more and their guests would have included other mammoths of yester year like Newcastle Breweries, Northern Engineering Industries, Tyne Tees Television and Vaux Breweries. The corporate landscape has changed dramatically in 30 years.
The point was that everyone that mattered could get into one tent. They were all men until Pamela Denham bravely appeared as the top regional civil servant. It was a great occasion for what is now called ‘networking’ but word went round fast and you could not afford to fall out with anyone in the tent.
There was a great sense of self belief that did not always help the cause. These were the days of the original ‘Great North’ campaign and also of the riots on the Meadowell estate. A then young academic called Fred Robinson was unfairly castigated for suggesting that the claims of economic revival could not be substantiated and that poverty was still rife. There are still signs of self deception in the region that even extends to the idea that Newcastle United will bring home silverware.
But the North East is endearing, self deprecating and very special. I am a veteran of every single Sunday for Sammy concert for the past 18 years and always sing Run for Home at the top of my voice. The audience is ageing and more overweight with every concert and I fit in all too well. There is nothing worse than a convert.
I have enjoyed an exceptional quality of life. I was walking the dog early one morning and thinking about applying for a more prestigious job back in London when a deer jumped out of the hedgerow and bounded across the field. This just does not happen in Haringayand I never gave the application a second thought.
There has been an extraordinary renaissance in the cultural life of the region since I arrived. The Angel and Sage Gateshead were audacious. There may not be the choice of events you would find in London but you can always bank on seeing a fair few friends in the bar of the Theatre Royal when they show serious drama.
The city skyline has been transformed. The Quayside and St James Boulevard are no longer run down and derelict. Tyne and Wear Development Foundation is now forgotten but was then all powerful.
It is also an extraordinarily generous part of the country. I will be forever proud that the organisation I started working for thirty years ago, now renamed Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland and brilliantly led by Rob Williamson, is the largest and most successful charity of its kind in the country by a long way. That’s a testament to the way people look after each other and handle their wealth in the North East.
After thirty years, I am just about accepted in these parts even though my accent is still deemed too posh. But after over six years writing this column, it is time to lay down my pen and give way to a young person with an ipad. Thank you for reading and fare thee well.
First published in Newcastle Journal 1st May 2018