Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Category: Uncategorized

I have never felt more demoralised about national politics….

There is just over a year to go and  I feel utterly despondent. Over the weekend, some called for it to be postponed and others said that would be a betrayal. The centre cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats once said at a terrible time in the history of his nation.

When I bring the subject up with my friends, they shake their heads in dismay. A  malaise  descends over the political life of the nation and quite possibly contributes to our dismal rating of 19th happiest country in the world.  Even the United States, with all its troubles, in 18th place is happier than us.

I believe that the country took a terrible wrong turn when it voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 but that is not the point. “Winning isn’t everything” Matt Busby said. “There should be no conceit in victory and no despair in defeat.” So why do I despair?

I just do not see how we can come out of the negotiations with Brussels with any satisfactory agreement, even less with any honour. The politicians in charge mouth platitudes. They dither, deny and contradict each other in a desperate way. No one seems to have any practical solutions or any political savvy to square all the conflicting factions involved.  Many are boxed into corners.

The truth slipped out in the questions that followed Theresa May’s latest speech at the Mansion House. The Prime Minister had been placatory. She had accepted there must be compromises . Then a German reporter asked she still think it was all worthwhile. After a long pause and a grimace, Theresa said  that the British people had voted and she would deliver.  I take her answer as a ‘no’, don’t you?

It is ironic that we have a Prime Minister leading us out of of Europe who is, in her heart, a remainer and a Leader of the Opposition whose  party is edging towards Europe against his better judgement.

Politicians dismiss each new opinion and deride each new piece of research, even if they have commissioned it themselves.  There was never a worse time to be an expert or a lobbyist.  The never ending drip feed of reports and research  that are forgotten the next day is like a slow torture.

Both parties are divided. They are failing in their duty to propose and oppose, to debate and test the issue to exhaustion in parliament.  The debate on a customs union has been postponed.  The  Labour party avoided  debating  Brexit at least year’s conference  because it was too divisive. They all ought to be considering what is best for the nation rather than being bound by so called ‘will of the people’.

I bemoan the overwhelming  failure of political leadership. Who is going to make a film like The Darkest Hour out of  this mess? There are few precedents to draw on, precious little experience in the civil service and no political majority to force through a solution. Problems are parked or hidden behind ever more obtuse terminology like “full regulatory alignment”.. I cannot believe that such intelligent people can be performing so badly abd that someone cannot come up with a clever scheme for the Irish border.

Neither do I see much sign of cross party cabals  or popular  protest movements emerging. Where is the march to support or the petition to sign? This is the greatest issue of our generation and we feel  paralysed  and unable to lift a finger of political activity. I have never felt so demoralised about national politics and have avoided the subject in this column for some months now.

In these dour times, it is too much to hope for moral leadership on other issues either. I admire Jeremy Corbyn’s measured  response to the attempted assignation of Sergei and Yulia  Skripal. He makes a better contribution that Gavin Williamson who tells the Russians to  “go away” and “shut up”.

If I was Prime Minister, I would pull England out of the World Cup to be played in Russia this summer. The Mail and the Sun briefly touted this idea but Mrs May meekly says it is up to the governing bodies to decide. What a cop out. If we want to make an impact, we must do more than the traditional tit for tat dismissal of diplomats.

Neither, if I was Prime Minister,  would I sell arms to the Saudis so that they can bomb the Yemenis.  BAE Systems has acted in a corrupt and contemptible ways for years aided and abetted by royalty and ministers. It was poor judgement of those running the Great North Exhibition to approach them as a sponsor.

But defence is a major employer  and politicians will not damage the economy. Neither will they put their own nest eggs at risk. Russian oligarchs donated almost £1m to the Conservative party last year.  Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important, so who would want to offend  the fans on the terraces  who will sooner or later head to the ballot box.

This government that will not offend anyone. As soon as there is the slightest criticism of the eminently sensible suggestion to withdraw copper coinage, the idea is dropped. If you cannot look after the pennies Prime Minister what chance of managing the pounds?

Published in Newcastle Jounral on 20th March 2018


We live in Food Bank Britain and should be furious

I am glad I braved the snow to attend the Food Bank AGM. I came away shocked, grateful and angry in equal measure.

I went with low expectations. As a veteran attender of such events, I expected an interminably long meeting which would not explain the finances followed by vast mountains of stodgy food when everyone just wanted to get home.

How wrong I was. I was offered a hot drink and finger sized portion of cake on arrival. The co ordinator gave a succinct power point presentation, the treasurer talked us confidently through the accounts and, with an eye on the weather, all was wound up in 40 minutes. Job done.

And what a job they do. This was the lesser known West Northumberland Food Bank, based in affluent Hexham with outposts in Prudhoe and Haltwhistle. It is a leanly run organisation, four years old, and a superb example of what a small  charity can achieve.

I was shocked by the facts presented to the meeting and they bear repeating. Requests for food parcels doubled in the last year with 2194 requests for help. These are not a few habitual attenders. 35% of the clients only visited the Food Bank once and a further 42% made less than 6 visits. Food poverty is widespread even in well to do areas.

18% of the requests came from people in low paid employment who typically worked few hours, often on zero hour contracts, with no job security. This is the desperate state of the modern job market.

42% of the requests came from people in debt, with talk of loan sharks prevalent in Haltwhistle. 30% came from people with mental health problems and a further 30% from people with physical health problems. We are not looking after the sick in our society.

22% of the visitors were experiencing delays in receiving their benefits and 11% had been sanctioned. We have devised a pernicious benefits system  which reduces claimants to hunger.

I was grateful for the generous outflowing of public support for the Food Bank. Local people donated an estimated £46,000 of food and household goods last year. Others made regular cash donations which, the Treasurer pointed out, are needed to pay modest wages.

In all, 83 volunteers provided 1,400 hours of their time last year to help run the Food Bank including a group of 19 volunteers trained in welfare rights. I realised there is much more to the Food Bank than giving out food. One of the recipients, quoted in the Annual Report, said this:

“ I was put on Universal Credit when I lost my job. I managed for four weeks without any money but was stressed all the time and ran out of food. Someone told me about the Food Bank and it took a lot of courage to go. When I walked in I burst into tears and could hardly speak I was so upset and ashamed. A lady took me to one side, made me a cup of tea and listened when I was feeling calmer. She was lovely and told me I could apply for an advance payment which I didn’t know about and she helped me phone the jobcentre to apply for one. I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for the Food Bank and their kindness.”

The Food Bank support worker predicted the situation will get worse as Universal Credit is finally “rolled out” in Northumberland later this year and as other advice agencies pull out. CAB drop in sessions at Prudhoe and Haltwhistle were cut  last year and  all that is left is the Food Bank.

I was angry that we are in this state. The Chair said that the original goal of the Food Bank was to be obsolete. It should have been a temporary sticking plaster. But he now sees food banks becoming part of the fabric of society. This is shocking. We are going backward to days of handouts  before the welfare state.

When  David Knayston comes to write the social history of our day, he should call this volume  ‘Food Bank  Britain.’  The rise of the food bank movement in the United Kingdom almost exactly mirrors the Cameron years and is due to the recession, austerity policies  and welfare reforms.

The government may be tearing itself apart over Brexit but it will be remembered by posterity as the time when private enterprise failed, local authorities went bankrupt, living standards fell and people went hungry.

The Food Bank tries to remain apolitical and says politicians only call at election time to have photos taken. When the next election comes, I hope everyone who uses and supports food banks ask candidates about their policies on welfare benefits and votes accordingly. Our compassion for the hungry needs to be turned into outrage at the ballot box.

Ursula le Guin died recently. I returned home earlier than expected  from the Food Bank AGM  and finished one of her classic stories written in the seventies  about an eminent physicist who travels to a more prosperous planet where he hopes his work will be appreciated. He finds himself cossetted in a well heeled university, dressed in the best clothes and served the finest food. He is oblivious to the living conditions of the oppressed  working people around him whom the government carefully keeps out of sight. Is this dystopian world so far fetched?

Published in Newcastle Journal on 6th March 2018



Time for Prince Charles to take a giant leap

Last week, a supposedly eminent group of people allegedly met to discuss who should succeed the Queen. No, this is not sacrilegious and they have not been locked up in the Tower of London. We are talking about the Commonwealth.

For readers under sixty, I should explain that the Commonwealth is a group of 53 nations and 2.4 billion people covering nearly one quarter of the world’s land mass. The only common thread is that they nearly all are or have  been  ruled by the Queen.

When I first went to school we spent the morning of  March 12th making  Union Jacks and studying a map of the world largely coloured in red. We then had a half day holiday to wave the Union Jacks and celebrate Commonwealth Day. It was previously known as Empire Day.

When we first applied to join what was then the Common Market in the 1960s, one of the main concerns was that we would upset the sheep farmers in New Zealand as trade with our Commonwealth partners far exceeded that with le continent. Nowadays the Commonwealth is best known for The Games in which entry is restricted to members of the Commonwealth and so the United Kingdom does rather well.

Members of the Commonwealth mostly speak English, play cricket and may drive on the left ( but check before leaving). I like to think that it is a force for good in increasing international understanding but, truth to tell, it has never had much success in persuading recalcitrant members to respect its shared values of democracy and human rights. A public opinion poll a few years ago found  widespread ignorance of the Commonwealth. The lowest levels of support was  in the United Kingdom itself so an incoming monarch might be only too pleased to be relieved of the role of ceremonial head.

The manner of appointment of the  Secretary General  is well defined and has rotated between member nations but there is no automatic right of a future King Charles III to succeed his mother when she finally lays down her chains of office. The Queen has pressed her son’s case but leaked memos suggest that he doesn’t command the same respect and is seen as too divisive a figure.

If I were Prince Charles, I would quietly let it be known that I would step aside in favour of an really eminent figure from another Commonwealth nation. There are five other monarchs and 31 Presidents available as well such respected leaders like Kofi Anan or  Barack Obama, who qualifies by dint of his Kenyan ancestry. Leadership does not always come from the front and if the Commonwealth is to  outgrow its old Imperial shackles, how much better for Britain to accept being  one among equals and rotating the ceremonial role with others.

If the Prince of Wales made this small step, then I hope he would consider a giant leap too. It would be in the public interest if the crown passed to his son, Prince William, when the Queen dies. This would be really tough on Charles as he has spent his entire life as heir apparent but the trouble is that monarchs live so long these days.

In his brilliant Brief History of Humankind, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari recounts the reign of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor in the thirteenth century. Their children would have enjoyed the best conditions and most nurturing surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe.  Even so, of their 16 children, ten died in childhood and only three lived beyond the age of forty. The sixteenth child, Edward, survived to ascend the throne but his wife, Isabella of France, had him murdered when he was forty three.

Not so today. The Windsors also live in the lap of luxury and appear to have a strong physical constitution  so there is every prospect that future Queens and Kings will live as long as the late Queen Mother. Indeed, Harari says, it is only a matter of time before medical science conquers disease. Then only car crashes, terrorist attacks and  regicide will take us away. He actually thinks that enhanced super humans and artificial intelligence will have taken over anyway but thats another story.

If I were the Thomas Jefferson of my day, with a clean sheet of paper to draw up a constitution, I would not devise a system based on genealogical descent and divine right to rule until death. Deposition post revolution is still a way off and so I believe we at least need a rule of succession for the twenty first century.

Imagine the scenario. The Queen may live another ten years and by the time he succeeds, Charles will be  80. He rules for 30 years by which time William will be 75 and so on. I may be ageist on this point. The prime of life may get ever later and people who now draw their pensions may still in be in positions of power.

But I think it is time for Prince Charles to fall on his sword. Pass on the crown, Sir, to the next generation so that we model  leadership through a relatively young and  hopefully happy and thriving family. Limit the period of office to 25 years. The marketing department at Buckingham Palace would be delighted and you could carry on talking to plants and  being controversial, which is what you do best.

Published in Newcastle Journal  20th Feb 2018



Farewell Ingvar, were you the William Morris of the day?

Farewell, Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea  who died last week aged 91. Was he indeed  taken away in a flat pack coffin?

I was reading Fiona MacCarthy’s  life of William Morris at the time he died  which was the heaviest tome in my Christmas stocking.  The two events were not connected but both men, in different centuries, changed the way we live.

In Kamprad’s case, it started, as so often, with a stroke of genius. He adapted his uncle’s kitchen table into what become the trademark  MAX  table. Morris designed a simple but elegant  dining chair with a rafia seat, the Sussex chair, which sold and sold. Likewise,  Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner and Wylie the accountancy software package. The rest is history or rather marketing.

Today, Ikea is the largest furniture manufacturer in the world. 10% of Europeans are reckoned to have been conceived on an Ikea bed. The brand with strange Swedish names is popular everywhere. Three people tragically died  in the rush when Ikea opened in Saudi Arabia.

An HND is self-assembly has eluded me.  I am always convinced there is a bolt missing and get to the point of returning it all to the store. But I have learnt  to persevere until the chair, table, bed, chest of drawers comes together.   Assembling the furniture induces a sense of  pride and ownership which is known as the Ikea effect.

When Kamprad’s flagship store burned down in 1971,  he rebuild it as a self service operation, which encourages the shopper to throw more items into the trolley on the long and well defined route around the store  with the obligatory stop for a plate of meatballs .

I have been a regular visitor to the  Gateshead  store since it opened in 1992 – only the second  to be built in this country.  I enter an exciting new world of contemporary design, with clean uncluttered lines at remarkably low prices. It is a colourful, and complete life experience.  There was recently a craze to hide in an IKEA store at closing time and spend the night there.

The store is decked out in the bright yellow of the Swedish flag. Scandinavians jump into icy water straight out of their saunas and have an enviable  uninhibited  lifestyle. They are, dare I say it in these troubled times, European and I want to buy into it.

William Morris had a similar effect on domestic lifestyle in the late nineteenth century. He and his friends, the self styled  Fellowship, started by designing bespoke and beautiful furniture for lords and ladies of the land.  Swaths of oppressive  Victorian furniture were swept aside. As Morris said in one his public speeches “ I have never been in any rich man’s houses which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of none tenths of all it held”.

The fashion for simple craftsmanship caught on among the professional middle classes setting  up house in the London suburbs and spread throughout the world. It embodied an ideal of the rustic and creative workman from whom  flat pack builder is directly descended.

Then  Morris moved on to designing textiles and wall papers  that are still in production today. They grace  my living room right now. Why have Morris’s free flowing designs of flowers and birds proved so enduring? They are quintessentially an innocent English rural idyll  summoning memories deep in our psyche, as Morris’s  daughter put it. I relax when I see a  Morris design in a friends house. I know we are kindred spirits and share the same outlook on life.

Morris was the antidote to the industrial revolution  and a hugely underrated figure. His bearded head  deserves to  be on the £20  note. In his life time, Morris was best known as a poet but he was also a founding father of the  peculiar English variation of socialism. In 1887, he was supporting of striking miners in Northumberland. Morris marched from Blyth to Horton where his speech was “inflammatory without being irresponsible” according to the Newcastle Chronicle. He was dismayed by the dismal living conditions in the North East.

By contrast, Kamprad had right wing affiliations and was accused of being sympathetic to the Nazi party. He later apologised for the mistakes of his youth but maintained his political friendships. Maybe furniture making is really a political act?

Both Morris and Kamprad were contradictory characters. Morris regularly had to answer questions about his own wealth on the soap box. He paid his workers well but never shared his profits or set up the kind of collective enterprise that he espoused. He too was a shrewd businessman who knew how to sell his wares.

Kamprad  made his fortune by undercutting his rivals. He was the 8th richest person in the world but squirrelled his money away and lived as a tax exile. He travelled economy,  bought second hand clothes and took home the salt and pepper from restaurants.  He saw himself as the father figure of the Ikea family and ran the company for 70 years.

Great wealth cannot be easy to live to live with and geniuses can become  deluded over time  but  both   William Morris and Ingvar Kamprad have bought a lot of joy to my home. As Morris once  said “the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”.


published in Newcastle Journal Tuesday 6th February 2018





We need more people with cool heads like Nick Hardwick

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Parole Board last November. Set up by a  reforming Home Secretary in 1968, the Parole Board has made a consistent contribution to rehabilitating offenders and helped reduce overcrowding in prison as well.

The Parole Board is independent of government. Its sole criteria for deciding whether to release a prisoner on parole is whether the offender is a risk to the public. The Parole Board comes to decisions after a thorough review of the evidence and has a reputation for being cautious, some would say too cautious. Nick Hardwick, who chairs the Parole Board, says that less than 1% of prisoners released on parole reoffend in any serious way.

You may never have heard of the Parole Board until it recommended the release of John Warboys, known as ‘the black cab rapist’, three weeks ago. All of a sudden, the Parole Board is castigated for coming to a reckless and inexplicable decision. Did Professor Hardwick have a rush of blood to the head? What could have happened?

John Warboys had led a sleazy life before  becoming  a London taxi driver in 2000 where  he picked up women late at night, told them he had come into money  and offered them champagne which was laced with sleeping pills.  Most of the victims have no recollection of what happened next.

The Metropolitan Police does not come out of this case well. Black cab drivers were held in such esteem that the women who made complaints  were not believed. The police failed to link similar incidents together.  It was only in 2008 that the Police realised they were dealing with a serial rapist and tracked down Warboys.

The Independent Police Complaint Commission concluded that some of the attacks could have been prevented if the Police had acted more quickly. Two of Warboys victims subsequently received damages for the way their complaints had been handled.

John Worboys was convicted at Croydon Crown Court in March 2009 of one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges.  He received an indeterminate sentence requiring he serve at least eight years.  Mr Justice Penry-Davey said he would not be released until the Parole Board decided he no longer presented a threat to women.

Further allegations came to light after the trial and the Police now believe  Warboys assaulted over 100 women  over a 13 year period. Other charges may still be pending which leaves a simmering dissatisfaction that his sentence does not meet the scale of misdemeanours.  Given the  premeditated attacks that Warboys made over a prolonged period it is extremely surprising that he has been  granted parole  at the first time of asking. The Parole Board must believe he is a reformed character.

The decision was instantly controversial. Some of the victims complained they had not been informed and Nick Hardwick immediately apologised, though it seems the failing may have been from the hard pressed National Probation Service.

The reasons for releasing Warboys are confidential to protect the offender but this appears  to embarrass  Hardwick who is working towards a more open accountable system as already operates in Canada.

The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has decided that he cannot instigate a judicial review  but some of the  victims plan to challenge the decision.  Hardwick says he would welcome a review to ensure that the rules have been followed.

Brandon Lewis, the new  Chairman of the Conservative Party goes further. He says the government must do everything it can to make sure Warboys stays behind bars.  Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan says Warboys should not be allowed to set foot back in London. There was a general furore over the weekend that the decision must be changed and the law reviewed.

Hardwick may have underestimated the political implication of the decisions but I think he has played a blinder.  He says “It would be a bad day for us all if people’s rightful abhorrence of Worboys’ crimes or concern about a Parole Board decision allowed these basic principles of justice to be overturned.”

I am dismayed at the way experts are derided these days.   It is a sad state of affairs if we cannot appoint well qualified, experienced and clever people to make difficult decisions where expert judgement is required. The Daily Mail and Joe Public does not know best.

We are shocked by the extent of depravity perpetrated in our midst for generations. We have to deal with our feelings of  disbelief, disgust and revulsion and must not over react or take the law into our own hands.

In Bristol, an Iranian refugee called Bijan Ebrahimi was beaten to death by his neighbours and then his body set alight, because Ebrahrimi was mistakenly suspected of being a paedophile. The police and the local authority did not deal with the complaints made by Ebrahimi  and have deemed found guilty of institutional racism.

It is one of the greatest breakthroughs  in society that sex offenders and paedophiles are now coming to justice in huge numbers thanks to the bravery of their victims in speaking out. The days are gone when we unquestionably trust black cab drivers, football coaches and priests.

It also means that people who have committed repugnant crimes against women and children will come back into the community under supervision after serving their sentence  and that we will have to learn to live with them again.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 23rd January 2018








Mick Cash and I agree about the East Coast bail out: it stinks

I agree with Mick Cash when he says it stinks. The rail union leader was referring to the government’s extraordinary bail out of Virgin Trains franchise for the east coast main line.
I am travelling south on a Virgin train as I write with a complimentary glass of wine waiting for my free lunch to arrive. If you can book well enough in advance, and take advantage of a senior railcard, the first class ticket is very good value. I am not defending the pricing policy. If you have to go to London unexpectedly, the cost of a walk on ticket is extortionate. Fares are much cheaper on the continent.
I have rearranged my journey to take account of the strike on Northern Trains called by the aforementioned Mr Cash, and the disruption to local services as the part of so called Great North Rail Project of major investments in rail infrastructure. There are grand schemes in the Leeds and Manchester areas but all we seem to get is 10 days of disruption to replace warn out points installed 30 years ago which failed 15 times last year.
I enjoy the train ride to London. The trains are usually on time and exciting new trains are promised. The staff are always helpful and smiling. Their uniform changes each time the franchise is passed like a baton in a relay race. I wish I had a business painting railway coaches in the latest livery.
The annual indignation over fare increases took place last week, with protests at Newcastle and a visiting shadow minister handing out leaflets. The Minister of Transport flew off to the sun to drum up trade and avoid answering the criticisms of a 3.4% fare increase on east coast and more elsewhere.
Virgin Trains East Coast is also in trouble for returning the worst punctuality of any train operator at 3.6m hours lost and for sexist behaviour in calling a customer honey, love and pet. It apologised straightaway. But all this pales into insignificance compared to their failure to finish the franchise. Virgin is the third private operator to come off the rails on the east coast route.
You could not make it up. The first franchise was awarded to GNER. The Hatfield crash, caused by Railtrack’s poor maintenance, happened on its watch. I liked GNER’s nod to tradition by adapting the names of the original founding companies and using a traditional livery. The line overbid for the franchise and when the parent company got into financial difficulties in 2006, GNER was stripped of the franchise.
National Express took over in 2007 but in 2009 also admitted defeat which lead the then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, to put the line in public ownership as East Coast Main Line. It returned a £1bn to the Exchequer over the following 6 years and achieved 91% customer satisfaction though critics said it did not invest in new rolling stock.
Einstein said it was madness to repeat the same experiment and expect a different result but nevertheless David Cameron’s government put the line out to tender again and awarded the franchise to a partnership between Stagecoach and Virgin Trains in 2015. ( Stagecoach is the major player by the way not Virgin.)
Last November the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, agreed to terminate the franchise in 2020, three years early. The line had been losing money but payments are loaded heavily into the final supposedly profitable years so this let Virgin and Stagecoach off £2bn. Stagecoach shares leapt 12% on the news.
Personally, I am not convinced by Richard Branson’s protests at the weekend that this would never have happened if the infrastructure had been improved as promised and the economy had remained buoyant. There are always ‘leaves on the line’ when it comes to railways.
Tom Watson called on Chris Grayling to resign; Andrew Adonis resigned in protest from a committee most of us had never of whilst skiing in Austria and Mick Cash said that “the government was rigging the market again in favour of the private sector.”
What happens now to the lacklustre line? Chris Grayling calls for a partnership to run the east coast line that will somehow bring the train and rail operators together but the details are desperately vague. It may be a step forward, but Grayling has already made it clear that his friends at Stagecoach will be invited to bid again under the new arrangements.
Just consider the implications for other train franchise holders of the Stagecoach deal. Silly money can be offered to win rail franchises in the certain knowledge that the payments need never be made. There is virtually no risk to the private operator. What a way to run a railway.
Time for full disclosure. My father used to run Mick Cash’s union so I would dearly love to see railways restored to public ownership in my lifetime. But I despair at the way railways have become a political football between competing ideologies. Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to renationalise as the franchises expire is not thought through. The railway insiders call for a more pragmatic middle way.
In the meantime, Chris Grayling can expect a hard time when his plans are scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee. If you want to add your voice, sign the petition at for East Coast to be run for public good rather than for private profit.

published in Newcastle Journal on 9th January




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





So long Remembrance Day, lets move on.

We will observe the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war on Remembrance Day next year. Whilst this year’s ceremony is still ringing in my ears, I want to plea for the whole event to be rethought and scaled down thereafter.  I do not understand why Remembrance Day grows in attendance and importance every year, as opposed to diminishing in stature. I suspect we hold on to it for the wrong reasons.

A caveat: I know that soldiers have died in combat in recent years and agree their memory  should be honoured. There are memorials in my church  to Kevin Leech  who died on active service in Iraq, aged 20 and to Derek Armstrong who died in the Falklands War, aged 22. They come from a long tradition of young men from Prudhoe  serving Queen and Country.

Another caveat: I always find the two minutes silence extremely moving. In Prudhoe, a long parade of military personnel, ex service men, cadets, scouts, guides and brownies led by a  pipe band marches along Front St and assembles outside the lychgate to church, which is the town war memorial. They are joined by several hundred members of the public for two minutes silence. I have no doubt that we should gather together in silence more often.  It speaks louder than words.

The Church was full to overflowing for the Remembrance Day service.  We did not sing the now controversial ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and made a shared commitment to strive for peace, heal the wounds of war and work for justice for all humanity.  It is a valuable statement of reconciliation and aspiration, but it can be lost amidst the marching boots and the military banners. It may also be a missed opportunity for the Church to attract back young people, who are frozen stiff  in their uniforms by the time they enter church, and facing a cumbersome liturgy.

The loss of an individual life in a close knit community is always tragic but it does not scale up in my view. I am bemused by the hold of  Remembrance Day  on the nation. It may not have become commercialised like Mothers Day, though the British Legion is a force to be reckoned with in fundraising.  But the event competes with  Children in Need in capturing the public imagination.

I scrambled to find my poppy on the way to church realising that these days it is politically correct to wear the poopy for a good two weeks beforehand – preferably a handmade designer poppy. Even the dancers on Strictly had poppies embroidered into their costumes and Moeen Ali was harshly criticised when his apparently fell off in a team photograph. Jon Snow calls it “poppy fascism.”

I think that grief and homage should be more personal and less of a public requirement. I prefer the quiet observance of All Souls Day at the end of October when families who have lost a loved one  gather quietly in church in candlelight to remember them and pray for strength to go on. And grief has a natural and healing passage. It should not go on forever. There is time to forgive and forget.

Although no one does ceremonial as well, we are not as a nation given to parades and commemoration. The national identity gets expressed  through just  the one collective act in November. Perhaps we should wave flags and express feelings more often. Commonwealth Day has disappeared but what about St Georges Day, which would be popular with Brexiteers, Thanksgiving Day, if we don’t mind adopting another American custom, or, my own favourite, World Peace Day.

Remembrance Day primarily recalls the good old days when Britain ruled the waves and  the ‘few’ triumphed. Their stories continue to fill endless books and films. It may not be a coincidence that these were wars that our history books tell us we won. We still evoke ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ in every public emergency and appeal for everyone to “keep calm and carry on”. We delude ourselves that these mottos can still sustain us in more nuanced days we live in now.

The first world war was the war to end all wars. There was a resolve in 1918 that the  sacrifice of 1 million lives and 2 million wounded should not have  been in  vain. But the commitment to end wars has been lost in what can be seen as an affirmation of our military prowess. Hence the white poppy movement to acknowledge the continuing loss of life in armed conflicts like Mosul and Raqqa this year, where now 90% of causalities are innocent civilians, and to campaign for swords to be turned into ploughshares.

By chance, two different voices helped me make sense of the event this year. Firstly, Rev Sam Wells on Thought for the Day who suggested that we should be grateful for all sorts of people who had made sacrifices to save our lives; our parents, our teachers and even the back seat driver who screams out that we have driven though a red light. November 11th should be called Gratitude Day.

Secondly, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, who argued that whilst we are meant to remember lest we forget, it is much more difficult and much more important to eventually forget and to move on. When we have marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice in 2018, lets try ‘Forgetting Day’.



Doughnuts could save the planet

My Book Of The Year is all about doughnuts. It could be mistaken as the history of Greggs The Bakers but  is actually about a doughnut that  is really good for you.

Doughnut Economics  wins the Award for stimulating, provoking and encouraging me to feel that  economics has turned a corner and there may be a future for the planet. Unlike other similar tomes, I enjoyed and mostly understood it.

The author is Kate Raworth who describes herself as a renegade economist. She has worked for the United Nations and for Oxfam and  is now an academic  at Oxford and Cambridge but still talks about  the real world in a forthright and punchy way.  Get a taste from her TED talk.

For too long economics has been dominated  by the thinking of the two giants of the last century, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek , whose ideas are still the bedrock of mainstream political thinking,  but  their time has passed. It is the day of the doughnut.

Kate copied  another great economist of the last century, Paul Samuelson, who when challenged to write a textbook that engineers could follow, used diagrams rather than words. It became a best seller  and sat on my desk in the sixth form.

Raworth  drew a doughnut to sum up the kind of economy needed to tackle the world’s problems. It  is an American doughnut with a hole in the middle. The aim of the economy is quite simply to keep everyone in the ring of dough which is the Holocene era where crops will grow,  ice will not melt and everyone can thrive.

One in three people on the planet still do not have access to a toilet, Raworth tells us. Economists should stop people falling into the hole in the middle of the doughnut  by ensuring a basic level of subsistence and they should equally prevent anyone living in the lap of luxury beyond the outer ring of the doughnut where the planet is put at risk..

In describing  seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Raworth shows how homo economicus is not as self seeking as is traditionally assumed. She lists the cast needed for her modern day economic play  which includes a few newcomers like’ the household’ , ‘the commons’ and   ‘the powerful’  – who must be constrained. She drops in facts that make you stop and think. For example, the resources of five planets would be required if everyone lived like an Australian or a Kuwaiti. She uses metaphors  like airplanes that may never land. It is a romp of a read.

The heart of her argument is that economic growth has been the cuckoo in the economists nest  ever since the Great Depression.  John F Kennedy pledged to grow the U S economy by 5% a year back in 1960.  Growth is a proxy for progress. No one has ever been brave enough to forecast whether growth can go on forever  and now growth rates in advanced economies are flattening out.

In  popular parlance, ‘upwards’ is good. ‘Feeling down’ is bad. Growth is a political necessity, conventional  economists  tell us. Just imagine an election pledge to restrict growth and prosperity. But the same economists are no longer sure it can be achieved.

Growth also means that the rich inevitably get richer. The three richest man in the United States  own as much wealth as the 160 million people in the bottom half of the country’s population and Donald Trump’s proposed tax reforms will make them even richer.  It is an inevitable spin off from the capitalist system , Raworth argues, even though we now know, thanks to Richard Wilkinson, that no one, not even the rich, benefit from inequality.

Growth means  that the environment gets ever more polluted and precarious. It is not good enough for developing economies like India to go for growth and clear up the mess they make later. We are, Rowarth says, “the first generation to properly understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household and probably the last with the chance to do something transformative about it.”

“ We have an economy that needs to grow whether or not it makes us thrive”” Raworth tells us but “ we need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows”.  The economy of the future  must  be redistributive and regenerative by design.  This is a tall order as “no country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy “ or “ended ecological degradation with one”.

In the final chapters,  Raworth proposes a whole host of good ideas that together might just work. She commends  the butterfly model of regenerative manufacturing and  the generous city movement of  climate positive cities like Oberlin, Ohio.  She sees great potential for the internet to freely exchange innovation, for the state to invest in renewables and tax finite resources and for texting digital cash direct  to the world’s bottom billion –  to name but a few.

Kate Raworth  has an infectious optimism about economic change  even when faced with formidable  challenges which inspires me  to put a copy of Doughnut Economics into everyone’s Christmas stocking and to encourage you to give broad  hints to Santa too. Here are the details: Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist , (Random House) £20 with the paperback due in the Spring.

Published in Newcastle Journal 14th November 17