Every year I ask my fellow walkers for their nominations for the Person of the Year. In this dramatic and worrying year, they had to cast their net wide:
It has been a bad year for heroes. When I asked my fellow walkers for their annual nomination of Person of the Year, some shrugged and shook their heads. “Sorry George” said Chips, summing up the mood” I cant think of anyone this year”.
The best Ken could do was to come up with a dog. Scully was much photographed with his master’s coffin when he accompanied George H W on his last journey to and from Washington D C displaying loyalty, compassion and dignity. Those qualities were in short supply in 2018.
So lets deal with the big beasts first. From the other side of the world, where we walked along a beach together in April, Doug nominates President Donald Trump as the man against whom we can test our moral compass. He explains:
“If we find ourselves agreeing or reflecting any of his views we know to turn one hundred and eighty degrees and head in the opposite direction. If we find ourselves reacting or behaving toward our fellow human beings in a Trump like way we know to check ourselves and do the opposite. If we are contemplating a comb-over, painting ourself orange or grabbing anyone by anything, we really shouldn’t. If a Person of the Year only communicates with his own reflection and expects others to mimic that reflection then Trump is your man”.
Chris does only slightly better. He nominates Theresa who has the misfortune to be in the middle of a completely split party. Her resolute fixed stare as the ship sinks surely has to command some sort of admiration, Chris argues. I sympathise with Theresa, I despair for Theresa and I hope that she will have more time to go on her much loved walking holidays next year.
Jan picks Leo Varadkar for being good looking and openly gay as well as a straightforward and clear minded politician in the mould of the great Mary Robinson. How do they continually find such splendid people in Eire? Varadkar successfully championed reforming the Irish abortion laws and stood up to Pope Francis about abuse in the church.
My most memorable walk of the year was around the coast of Arran with Edward. We stayed each night in local pubs and rediscovered the thirst quenching properties of lager and lime after a hot day clambering over boulders. Ed and Ken both nominate Anna Soubry thus making her the only politician to get two votes. A state educated One Nation Tory implacably opposed to leaving Europe, Anna Soubry consistently speaks her mind. This puts her at odds with many on her own side, the mostly posh, upper class, wealthy men, Ken says, and exposes her to awful personal attacks particularly on social media. Unlike last year, and despite my friends leftward leaning, no one nominated Jeremy Corbyn.
Still in the political arena is Mikes nomination of the U N rapporteur Philip Alston. On a two week mission to Britain hearing stories of families facing homelessness, of people too scared to eat, of those on benefits contemplating suicide he declared that levels of child poverty are ‘not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster’. Austerity was ‘driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity’ Alston told us.
“It took a UN envoy to hear how austerity is destroying lives in this country” Mike says. “And the government’s response? To dismiss the report as too political “
Moving on to the environment, Fiona chooses that national treasure, Sir David Attenborough who opened the Katowice climate change conference by saying that “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon” Some say he has not spoken out forcibly enough on environmental issues in the past but this year the nonagenarian came good.
Personal note about longevity of the specis : Attenborough was running BBC television when I was a teenager. He introduced snooker to colour television and commissioned Bronowki’s Civilisation.
Jenny picks Guy Singh-Watson, after eating in his café in Devon. Guy founded Riverford Food which started as a man and a wheelbarrow and now grows and delivers organic vegetables to 50,000 families a week. Jenny says Guy is passionate about sharing his knowledge and love of food. Riverford is southern based so I would add the wonderful Laura Jayne Burlinson, of The Paddock at High Spen, who delivers vegetables from her small holding with equal idealism to my door step.
In the community category John nominates Brian Burnie, the philanthropist who sold his country mansion to set up ‘Daft As a Brush’ Cancer Patient Care. (John himself deserves a vote of thanks for leading the regulars on a splendid and much needed shorter walk to the Border Ridge in the College Valley). Burnie set off on an epic 7000 mile walk around the coast of the British Isles in May to raise funds to expand Brush nationally, getting married along the way. He is 74 and diagnosed with Parkinsons and so may touch the wanderlust in us ageing walkers “You become a servant of your possessions” Burnie says “… but the real pleasure is in sharing your wealth when you’re alive.”
My walks with Robert always end with a bacon roll. Robert champions retired teacher Julie Gibbon who describes herself on social media as ‘manyhatsjulie’. Julie is behind the campaign to reopen Gilsland Station and the refurbishment of the waiting rooms at Haltwhistle station. She is an indefatigable fundraiser for these causes. She is an instructor at Kielder Sailing Club, a warden in the national park and now chair of Haltwhistle Partnership . You could not meet anymore more hard working or with such infectious enthusiasm and a real gift for getting people working together, Robert says.
On to the last lap where we have some real heroes on the world stage. Christine B nominates Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who has now been imprisoned in Iran for alleged spying for nearly three years The conditions have destroyed her health. A sudden brief release for a few days in August caused her great distress. It is so important, Christine says, that her case and others are kept in the public eye. Whilst her husband Richard exempts the current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt from criticism, he questions whether the softly softly approach of Hunt’s diplomats, who don’t like publicity, is helping matters. Another Christmas approaches with his wife no nearer returning home.
Christine N picks 15 year old Jamal Hijazi for extraordinary bravery. Jamal comes from Homs in war-torn Syria, where some of his relatives were abducted and killed by the Assad regime. Jamal and the rest of his family fled and were eventually resettled near Huddersfield.
Jamal looked forward to life in Britain but was badly bullied at school without much sympathy from the authorities. He was subjected to a vicious attack on the school playing field where he was head-butted, dragged by his neck to the ground, water thrown over his face and threatened with “drowning”. He did not retaliate, simply got up and walked away, later asking that his attacker be left in peace. The incident was filmed and was circulated online, providing some long needed attention and which may now lead to the family being rehoused.
My own nominee is Christine Blasey Ford who accused nominated Supreme Court judge, Brett Kavanaugh of molesting her and so brought down the wrath of the aforementioned Donald and a surprising number of fellow Americans. After Dr Ford’s allegations were made public, she and her family were forced to move out of their home and hire security guards. I admire her dignity and resolution in squaring up to Trump and all he stands for.
“Although coming forward was terrifying, and caused disruption to our lives, Ford says” I am grateful to have had the opportunity to fulfil my civic duty… the lasting lesson is that we all have the power to create real change and we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by the acts of others.”
As a postscript, I propose a special award for a young Swedish student called Elin Errson. I was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands when I came across her story on utube. Elin boarded a plane in Gothenburg prevented the plane from taking off by refusing to sit down until a refugee being deported to Afghanistan was taken off the plane. “Whats more important” she replied to an aggrieved passenger “ your time or his life?”.
In one sense, her protest was futile. The refugee was deported the following day and his fate is unknown. Elin faces prosecution and I can’t image any airline will ever sell her a ticket again.
But in another sense, Elin is an example to us all. Would I have stood up to support her, I pondered as I walked across the hills the following day? Sometimes all we can do is stand up, speak up and keep on marching. Put your best foot forward in 2019 fellow citizens.
published in Newcastle Journal Friday 21st December