Thursday, 29 August 2013

Gateshead Revisited

I had certainly been there before—but only from a distance. We had passed the coppery guardian many times on our travels around the north east, but to encounter it close up was to experience a sense of the Angel’s size, presence and majesty.

Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North sculpture stands 66 feet tall with a wing-span of 177 feet. It’s a much-loved icon of the north east, and it’s easy to understand why—it embodies pride in the area’s history of mining, it protects the natives and welcomes travellers. Arriving at the site at 9am we expected to be the only tourists there, but within minutes cars and minibuses had arrived and a steady stream of Angel-lovers were lining up to have their pictures taken at its heavenly feet. 150,000 people a year pay the Angel a visit, and it’s seen by 90,000 drivers a day as they pass on the A1. The Angel is a constant in the life of every Geordie—it feels like it’s been there forever and will be forevermore.

The Angel of the North
Elsewhere in the Toon and beyond it was time to catch up with some old haunts and ponder what changes had been made in our absence. Work is finally beginning to revitalise Scotswood—13 years after the area was cleared. Formerly home to Vickers Armstrong workers, the industrial decline led to the area’s degeneration. Happily, residents who had at first opposed the mass clearance and demolition are now excited about, and involved in, the area’s future.

Happy news for Blaydon residents, too, as I understand construction of a new Morrison’s with multi-storey parking is underway adjacent to the Brutalist precinct, through which I have pushed a pram on many an occasion!

Over to Jesmond, known as the posh end of town, and of which I have also been resident. The curious name is derived from its sobriquet “the hill of Jesus” as it’s said that in Norman times the Virgin Mary appeared there with her babe. St Mary’s Chapel—now ruined and enclosed within Jesmond Dene—sprung up in her honour, and Pilgrim Street in Newcastle city centre was so named in recognition of the pilgrims who made their way to the chapel. On a cloudless August day a visit to the Dene is a delight—its shady woodland and banks cool and tranquil relief. I remember it best on late autumn afternoons, when I would push my baby boy in the pram along its paths. Quiet, cool and damp, this is the best and most private time, I think, to enjoy the Dene.

Aside from the landmarks, what I realised I had missed most was the dour bonhomie of the Geordie folk. They’re not great smilers, but they’ll talk to you as if they’ve known you all their lives—and they would hate to admit it, but they’re as soft as butter. Despite my pallor (no fake tan visible) and obvious southern tones, I was instantly befriended by another parent in the playground, “Didna I see you in the Toon a coupla of hours ago, like?” and made to feel like one of the gang.  And I can’t help smiling as I remember the dad encouraging his scrap of a boy to perform a series of press-ups and complicated manoeuvres around the climbing frame. It seemed a bit tough at first—the lad could only have been four or five years old—but the last requirement of the routine was that the child give his dad a big kiss and enjoy a moment’s suffocation in his muscly forearms, tattooed with the boy’s name.

We had driven down the previous day from a sojourn in East Lothian and Berwickshire, the trip arranged around the arrival of the newest member of the clan. In the kind of delightful twist that Vintage Script regulars will know I love, my new great-niece bore the same name as my own great-aunt!

The landscape couldn’t have been more different from East Anglia—hills that looked to us like mountains, and rugged undulations, and the curious reddish mud, coloured by sandstone, that make you feel like you’re walking on Mars. My son was in disbelief that we had arrived in Scotland—a foreign country! —and befuddled all the more by the sight of his uncle in a kilt at breakfast.
The hamlet where we were staying (Whittingehame, East Lothian) is encompassed by the Balfour estate, acquired by the family in 1817. Its most famous resident was the Arthur, the First Earl of Balfour, Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. As Foreign Secretary in November 1917 he was the author of a letter to Lord Rothschild declaring Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which became known as the Balfour Declaration. The area’s connection with the Jewish folk continued during the Second World War when Whittingehame House was used as a school for Jewish refugee children from the Kindertransport mission.

Hand-holding at Dunbar Harbour
Today residents are a mix of lifers and newcomers (perhaps resident for 20 years or more), and there’s a gentle affability as you bump into near neighbours (from five or ten miles away) in the woods. Connections to Edinburgh are good if you fancy a bit of razzle-dazzle, or there’s Dunbar closer to home, birthplace of St Cuthbert, famous for his connections with Holy Island further south, and of the conservationist John Muir, who emigrated to America as a boy.

Sitting on the steps at Belton House
Other highlights of the trip (all easily accessible from the A1) include the National Trust places Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire (eighteenth century splendour on the site of a medieval priory), Gibside, Tyne and Wear (an estate once owned by the Bowes-Lyon family) and Belton House, Lincolnshire (“the perfect English country house”), as well as Beamish Museum near Durham, presenting life as it would have been in the area,  mainly in the early twentieth century, complete with an early Co-op, a branch of the Sunderland Daily Echo and a colliery village.

Notice at Beamish
An essential part of any holiday is, of course, returning home, and remarking upon what has changed in the past ten days (the earlier sunset) and what is still the same (no hills had sprung up in our absence). A cup of tea, the abandonment of bags till the morrow and the first night back in one’s own bed were the finishing touches to one of the best holidays where spirits were refreshed, connections renewed and—essential to history-lovers—the winged host of memory was brought to life.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Summer's Here...And So Is Vintage Script!

Summer’s here…and so is the latest edition of Vintage Script! Take a peek inside with our mini reviews of this issue’s stories and articles.

Oliver Hambley
Lucy E. M. Black
We welcome back expert storyteller Lucy this edition, with her tale set in mid-twentieth century Canada. We meet Oliver Hambley, unsophisticated and flawed, but with a hidden depth and sensitivity: ‘Oliver listened to the magnificent organ intently for a moment, and then he began to sing also: his voice soaring in the cavernous space…Dulcie edged toward him and saw that his face was wet with tears. Oliver felt her move close to his side and he looked at her tenderly. Still singing, he reached for her hand and pressed it tightly against his heart’.

Happy and Glorious
Roger Harvey

It’s 60 years since the Royal Yacht Britannia first set sail, and Roger celebrates the landmark in his lively article. Roger paints a picture not only of a majestic yacht, but also a cosy, much-loved home, replete with its original 1950s furniture and fittings…sounds like heaven to me!

China’s Sorrow
Clare Reddaway

Another thoughtful and masterful tale from Vintage Script favourite Clare. This time she takes us far away to China, to the banks of the Yellow River, and powerfully describes a strategy that became a tragedy: ‘An old lady, white hair cropped below her ears, wide black trousers flapping around her spindly legs, hobbled through the water on her tiny feet. She was trying to get home…The water rose over the village and took the roofs and the trees and the crops and covered the land with yellow brown water and corpses’.

Digging up the Family: Victorian Juvenile Justice
Gill Garrett
Gill finds inspiration in research done into her family tree, and here she uses her grandfather’s detention in Little Mill Reformatory to explain the fate of young criminals in Victorian times. The details Gill includes tell their own stories: the names of Little Mill boys carved into the pews in the local church, and the brass tablet bearing the names of nine young men, former residents of the reformatory, who fell in the Great War. ‘One hundred and thirty “old boys”, branded as criminals as children, served the colours; many received honours and decorations, including the Distinguished Conduct Medal.’

Baret’s Voyage
Jerry Saville

Jerry’s fictionalised account of a true—and remarkable—story is enticing, intriguing and inspiring. We learn of a well-kept secret that is revealed at last, and delight in Jerry creates a thirst for adventure: ‘The easterly breeze stretched the creaking canvas of the square-rigger…The helmsman had set a steady course and the weather-beaten wooden helm groaned against its lashings on the deck behind me,’ and peppers the narrative with delightful details that make us want to read on: ‘We sat side by side on the beach gazing across the lagoon where the two ships were being readied for departure. At our feet lay a bag of roughly sewn sail canvas from which bright orange and red flowers overflowed’.

Pippa Brush
Hope and disappointment go hand-in-hand in Pippa’s exceptional tale, inspired by Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach. Her observations on human nature are acutely drawn, and expressed poignantly through fine detail: ‘The room darkened around her, all light pooling on the page in her lap…She felt the tightness of her dress around her waist, the pull of her collar at her throat…She raised her head enough, just enough, that the hot salt tears did not fall upon his proffered devotion, but slid down her face where she could hide them on her tongue’.

Mary, Queen of Scots: Conspiracy, Intrigue and Murder
Stephen Davis
Stephen takes through the ups and downs of the life of one of the most controversial—and fascinating—Scottish monarchs.  As Stephen’s title suggests, the Queen’s life was a turbulent one, coming to an abrupt halt in the winter of 1587, found guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth I. Stephen’s narrative draws together the strands of Mary’s dramatic life, and leaves us wondering what if she had succeeded in establishing her historic claim to the English throne?

The Hollow
Bruce Harris
Bruce was inspired to write this story by the impending two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.  Robert waits anxiously for news of his soldier brother. A dip in the cool waters of the Hollow offers relief, and Bruce’s magical words give the Hollow a life of its own: ‘I knew the Hollow like the back of my hand, quite literally, every nook and cranny, all the depths and obstructions, and the contrasting worlds of the surface and the dimmer, hypnotically quiet underwater realm’. Time is suspended as Robert experiences something supernatural, unexplained while in its waters. It may be a hot summer’s day, but Bruce’s story leaves a chill in the air.

Against the Grain
Maria Watson

Maria reconstructs her ancestor, James Cooter’s youth, here, imagining his various occupations. Her story is lively and full of detail and drama—after an unfortunate tumble into a bin of grain at the mill (‘The grain inside is like quicksand…keeps shifting under his feet and he is screaming by the time the kernels move up his chest, past his chin and over his face’), he reinvents himself as a beetroot farmer, then an ostler. The reader can only admire his versatility and optimism.

The Story of Catherine of Braganza, Neglected Wife of Charles II
Michael Montagu
Michael describes Catherine as, ‘…a good woman, plain, pious and virtuous,’ but explains that ‘…this did not make her the ideal wife for the outgoing and uxorious Charles’. It’s a sad story, ending with Catherine’s return to her native Portugal, but told with the zest and attention to detail that we have come to expect from Vintage Script regular Michael.

Trafalgar Dusk
Rebecca Stonehill
We end with this thought-provoking vignette from Rebecca, packed with revealing detail (‘Iris’ dark hair is loose around her shoulders and the placard she is holding momentarily rests at her side as she kicks away the army of pigeons that peck furiously at our feet’) and a sense of the shifting sands of history (‘…as she takes me in her arms…I gaze happily upwards as the pigeons fly scared and crazed by the commotion into the darkening sky’).

The summer edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.