I am on the early train from Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, through the delightful Esk Valley, which cuts its way through the North Yorkshire Moors and brings me to Middlesbrough.
Trying to cut down on CO2 emissions, save money and keep the mileage down on our car I am trying to travel as much as I can by public transport and more often than not this is by train. Most days here at the convent, having risen early to write for several hours, I have taken a late lunch and then go for a walk. Several days I have walked down the hill and alongside the river from Sleights, through Ruswarp and onto Whitby, picked up a bit of shopping, occasionally reading a newspaper whilst enjoying a latte in a delightful, out of the way, “locals” café before often catching the bus back to Aisalby, from where I walk down to the convent. Overhearing conversations in cafes and on buses is a fabulous pastime. Enlightening, occasionally disturbing, often amusing and every now and again informative.
As I look with some disbelief at the cost of my bus fare, for the four mile trip I can nevertheless, as the Bible says, rejoice with those who rejoice; that is with those of pensionable age who are enjoying all the benefits of a free bus pass. It is a wonderful thing, (not sure how long it will last and don’t hold out much optimism that it will still be around when I retire) but it provides far more than just access for elderly people to travel from their homes to shops and other vital services. It keeps or opens up opportunities to get out, travel, go places, do things and meet people. I got chatting at the bus stop with three elderly women who had come to Whitby from Teesside. An hours ride over the North Yorkshire Moors, half an hour pottering round Boyes Store, (a shop that slightly resembles what Woolworths used to be ~ before it went bust!), sum total of their purchases, a packet of curtain hooks and a halogen bulb, they had then walked along the harbour side, had a cup of coffee and a teacake. “It’s lovely, you should go pet, (must be a Geordie), it’s only £2.99 and if you don’t like coffee you can have tea and you choose what jam you want on your teacake”. I had not asked for any of this information, I’d only made a tentative enquiry as to whether I was at the right bus stop but I am smiling and want to laugh, not to mock but just out of joy at sharing such an ‘ordinary moment’ with three really canny ladies who were clearly enjoying their few hours excursion which had taken them from what I remember of Cargo Fleet, is not the prettiest place to live. In the ensuing few minutes I learned that these women spend at least two days, most weeks, travelling around to places throughout the North of England but Whitby as their favourite, because, “it’s dead handy, no changes, and if you want fish and chips, there’s no better place than Hadleys”, (well, actually there is, it’s called the Magpie or the Quayside but I didn’t want to be contentious or interrupt the flow of conversation that was definitely one directional and these women, clearly knew a bargain when they saw it and would no doubt have paid less for their fish and chips than you would pay at the Magpie and who am I to question either their culinary taste or financial acumen?!). They told me that they’d been to Durham last week, “ lovely place but dead hilly, that cobbled street up to the cathedral. ‘I love the cathedral me’, said one of the women, ‘ Have you ever been to Durham love?’ With my first real opportunity to contribute to any of the discussion, I replied that I had and in fact I had come from Durham to Whitby last week and with that I had to bid them farewell as I made my way down the bus as I was nearing my stop. Isn’t it wonderful (well, sometimes wonderful) how elderly people, slightly hard of hearing, speak loudly? There thoughts about me and their conjecturing as to who I might be and what I was doing remain a secret, I mean it’s not as if they wanted to broadcast it to the world! but I have to say that it was complimentary and caused me to chuckle all the way down the hill to the convent. God bless bus passes and all who use them!
Had it not been for Lord Beeching, whose report to the Government in the 1960’s led to the closure of thousands of miles of rail lines, I might have been able to travel all the way to and from my home in the Cheviot hills of Northumberland. You go to other parts of Europe and see integrated transport systems, running like clockwork, appreciated by the public and you think why did it all go so wrong for us in Britain? Of course there is now investment going into improving the railways, or rather the railway line that the present government seems determined to push through, HR2, despite the astronomic costs. This is of course the railway line that will create faster links to London and the south-east. The propaganda says it will open up access to the North. Try telling anybody on the East Coast, North East or in fact any other region in Britain other than London, Birmingham or possibly Manchester that they’re going to benefit from this line and it’s a bit of an expensive, sick joke. Having travelled to the South West of England recently, now in complete disarray as a result of floods, landslides, causing weeks if not months of delay, there is no parity between what is being proposed for a particular route and the rest of the rail network. It seems to me that the only area that will gain will be London and the south-east. Now I have nothing against London and the south-east and I enjoy travelling through, visiting there and staying in our amazing capital city but I am increasingly feeling as I travel the length and breadth of Britain that we live in a two nation state; no longer north and south but London, the South East and everywhere else. In and around the capital there is an economic boom, there are jobs and house prices are rising. I read last week of someone who earned more from renting out two floors in their modest terraced house in North West London than they earn in a year’s salary. Our own lovely house in Wooler would be valued four or five times more what it is here in Northumberland if it was in the Home Counties.
What worries me about the disproportionate growth of the economy in London and the south-east is the inequality that it creates with the rest of the country. When a banker in the city of London can earn over £40,000 in bonuses in one week and I live in an area where most people earn less than £20,000 in a year, there is something seriously adrift in how we value people and run the country.
I am also troubled that political and economic policies are being made, in the main, by people whose lives are almost exclusively shaped by wealth and the values that emanate from the city of London. I have this unnerving feeling that for many people in such positions of responsibility and power, that they have little if any understanding of what life is really like for the vast majority of people. It really concerns me that our politicians, particularly those on the frontbench, those who are government ministers, determining and driving through policies and bills that affect the rest of Britain, are nearly all incredibly wealthy, many of them millionaires. In the same way I am disturbed by the emergence of career politicians, of all parties, many of them who come from independent schools, who go to Oxford and do PPE, get jobs as research assistants or political advisers and quickly work their way through the ranks and take the opportunity when it comes to become MPs with very little experience of life outside of the cocoon of politics and an elitist culture that is narrow in the extreme. How on earth can they be expected to be representatives of the “common people”? As there is an understandable call for women only shortlists in relation to people candidating to become MPs, I wonder if there is a place also for having some ordinary folks from other backgrounds. One or two people who have done something other than being a career politician? Folks who bring wisdom and experience from other walks of life and work.
I am sickened by how our democracy and government now resembles a PR company, employing marketing practices, delivering soundbites and spinning stories, (inevitably a part of politics but taken to new heights in the era of Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair). Where energy and resources are now deployed in electioneering in those key marginal seats that will determine the outcome of the next general election, instead of ruling on behalf of all the people, throughout Britain. The carefully orchestrated dropping in of the Prime Minister to flooded Somerset last week, carefully timed in order to make the 6 o’clock Main News just about sums up the lack of integrity and contributed to my loss of respect for so many of our present politicians. Now they are all at it, all parties, as the floods have hit the Home Counties. As the River Thames burst its banks, and water levels rise and saturate, political leaders are donning their Burberry coats or Barbour jackets and putting on their new Hunter or Joules wellies. They have to be seen as heroes in a crisis; remember that there’s an election next year and there are votes to be had among floating voters!
Now that the floods have hit the Home Counties, politicians have really started to pull out the stops and get things moving. “Money is no object” says our Prime Minister. So where was the money for flood stricken communities in the North when they were hit a couple of years ago, where homes, workplaces and livelihoods were devastated without any government intervention, compensation or financial support? No, we are just in the forgotten North, that place beyond Watford Gap, where according to Lord Howell, the Chancellor’s father in law and former Energy Secretary under Margaret Thatcher fracking should be carried out. Last year in the House of Lords, he described the North East of England as an ‘unhabituated and desolate place’. He went onto to say, “I mean there obviously are, in beautiful natural areas, worries about not just the drilling and the fracking, which I think are exaggerated, but about the trucks, and the delivery, and the roads, and the disturbance, and those are justified worries…. but there are large and uninhabited and desolate areas, certainly in the North East where there’s plenty of room for fracking”. I can think of a word that I would be tempted to say in response to his suggestion that rhymes with frack but wont! But I am so frigging angry that we have such people advising and ruling our country, blind to the realities that most ordinary people feel and insensitive in the extreme.
I do hope there is money for the devastated rural communities, the farms, land and livestock that is struggling to survive. Some of the truly heroic stories do not belong to politicians but to the support given by caring, concerned and supportive farmers not directly affected by the crisis. Like the story of the farmer from Barnsley, yes Barnsley in Yorkshire, who drove for 15 hours with his tractor pulling a trailer load of silage to Somerset to a farmer unable to feed their cattle. The impact of the flooding upon land where crops are either ruined or contaminated by the raw sewage that is strewn across hundreds of miles. Livestock, thousands of which have died or who will in due course contract pneumonia, mastitis and TB as a result of the flooding, damp conditions and the stress of being evacuated from their pastures. New born lambs, safely delivered in lambing sheds, face a very uncertain future as they are unable to be put out to pasture, which will lead to health problems and potential disease. Thank God there have been few fatalities to humans but the catastrophic loss of wildlife is something that is almost too hard to contemplate.
And whilst recognising the terrible conditions and plight faced now by several thousand people as a result of the flooding, I want to put a good word in for those who work for the Environment Agency. In a blame culture, where it appears so much easier to point the finger at other people, accept that there will always be lessons to be learnt from any situation, nearly always room for improvement, I have felt really sorry for those men and women from the agency. They are working night and day, in horrendous conditions, some inevitably taking risks to their own lives in order to help alleviate suffering of others.
It is horrendous for all those who suffer from flooding; its impact on their lives, health, home, work and the environment are deeply troubling. The hardships, suffering and impact on the economy and environment cannot be underestimated. There are immense challenges in what is a very real crisis for some parts of Britain given the atrocious weather conditions that continue unabated. But for politicians to be leaping around with film crews at their heels, grabbing every opportunity to “reassure”, make promises and spin stories is sickening and in my mind irresponsible. This is ‘disaster politics’, where political leaders have not only to be doing something but seen to be doing something.
There are other things happening in society and the world that also matter and which they should be giving their time and attention to. David Cameron has cancelled an important trip to the Middle East because of the floods. Syria and the crisis there has disappeared off the news headlines. Heralded the other week by the government that we were now willing to receive Syrian refugees, (actually a miserly 500 and only after much pressure from aid agencies) I learnt this week, unheralded by politicians, that the Home Office is using a clause in the regulations to return asylum seekers back to the first country they entered in Europe. Unbelievably and under the radar of most news editors, we have returned some of these Syrian refugees back to countries like Bulgaria and Hungary. We are the first to condemn the EU for the wave (barely a trickle if truth be known) of Bulgarians that are now allowed to ‘flood’ into Britain but we are happy to send them Syrian refugees. Bulgaria, economically among the poorest in Europe, where there are people dying of hunger and hypothermia, has taken more Syrian refuges than we have in Britain! God help us!
The Prime Minister was to have welcomed and given a keynote speech as Britain hosts the largest ever summit on illegal wildlife trading. Over fifty heads of government gathered this week in London to address the serious issue of the illegal trading of such things as ivory which threatens the extinction of elephants and rhinos. Over a hundred elephants will be killed today and every day in Africa, their tusks ripped off to satisfy the world’s desire for ivory. 50,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year, their tusks being illegally sold to markets across the world, including Britain but principally China. Rhinos are also under threat of extinction, where, like the elephants tusks, rhino horns in China are used in Chinese medicine, a practice that bears no scientific evidence whatsoever that it cures any illness or disease. I have not uploaded the horrific images of elephants and rhinos that have been slaughtered for such an illegal trade but your mind’s eye will be sufficient to get the picture. The growing myth of Chinese medical cures and the desire for ivory luxury goods is a death sentence to the rhino and elephant.
The summit gathering at Lancaster House London was an important opportunity to address this serious and illegal trading issue and we should have been represented at the highest level by the Prime Minister. Homes, flooded in Britain, (some no doubt with ivory ornaments and furnishings in them), will recover; extinct elephants and rhinos will not.
And it’s not just about illegal trading but an opportunity to address the issues of consumerism that drives the demand for such things, end corruption that is endemic in some nations and how we can help developing countries to develop alternative, sustainable economies, with a global market that needs to operate on fair, equitable principles and trade justice.
The train is pulling into Middlesbrough station….