Day 24: Durham to Whitley Bay

‘People don’t know how hard it is for them’ – Clarissa, Durham.

Ever heard of a council farm?

No, me neither. Today I find about these publicly-owned farms, and spend time with one farmer who introduces some of the difficulties facing farmers today.

I awake at the home of Clarissa, a leading academic at a nearby university. Her home is stuffed with intriguing books and scintillating Victoriana, and it’s a pleasure to spend time in this unique place filled with rich and hearty conversation.

Over breakfast we discuss the transformation of universities, and the type of work that happens in them. It’s a subject I have thought about in some depth, and it’s an opportunity to compare my own concerns, indicated below, with the observations of another.

The values of business management have infected great swathes of public life with devastating consequences. The values of public service, or research for the sake of knowledge, are under threat by the pusillanimous influx of overpaid managers determined to screw every last drop of productivity and impact out of their underlings. Though discussion within universities has focused on a unique experience of marketization, for instance by Andrew McGettigan or Martin McQuillan, I see a shared experience with primary and secondary teaching, local government, healthcare, and the civil service.

Governments of the last seventeen years have increasingly intervened in the basic operations of these social institutions. There has been a plethora of new laws, new priorities and new restructures that have each transformed, often in contrary ways, the daily running of hospitals, or schools, or local governments. This has been undertaken by individuals who largely have no practical experience and little knowledge of how these institutions work. Today we do not speak of MPs but politicians. It reflects a cultural and social homogeneity of elected representatives: largely white men, privately-educated, with a modicum of life experience as PR spinners, lawyers or hacks, before becoming professional politicians. Empathy, truth-telling and humility are early casualties in such occupations.

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I find it a little alarming that today health services are being privatised, and the schooling system overturned, by people who largely do not know what they are doing, and often willingly ignore the advice of workers’ organisations.

In the case of the universities, the word from on high is to increase the turnaround time of marking, reduce paid teaching hours, lecture to larger classes, yet remain available at all hours to respond to students’ concerns. They must be able to win large funds of money, and establish vague networks with business, public life, and distant universities to do this. They must also take a lead in travelling overseas to recruit international students, whose fees are often three times that of UK students. The academic must also produce more research publications than ever before, preferably in the most high-ranking of elite journals, in order to entertain any hope of retaining their current job, or getting another. Today the university academic is a teacher, researcher, networker, fundraiser, counsellor, and international pied-piper.

But mention work-life balance to anyone working in any of these kinds of places and you’ll get a guffaw of laughter, followed by a look of despair. Politicians have steadily eroded the rights and quality of life of workers in all these professions. They’ve done this by installing business-management fools who share their profit-driven values to oversee a process of continual restructures that whittle down staff, stretch those left behind to breaking point, and turn citizens, pupils or students into mere customers.

These are my own views mind, but they’re layered beneath with experiences and conversations over the last few years. Our conversation in Clarissa’s kitchen rolls over whether me, or my partner, would like a long-term career in the university. It’s an eye-opening and interesting discussion, but towards the end I realise that hoping for a fixed career in any public profession now is a flight of fancy. But all of these circumstances can be transformed, once a new kind of society is envisioned and proposed in detail. It requires courageous hope and strong-mindedness. Why couldn’t a university be run on democratic, cooperative lines, or a public council, or hospital, or school, without the need of any unelected and ignorant manager at all?

O, such youthful naivety, you think! If democracy made any difference, they’d make it illegal! Would turkeys vote for Christmas?

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Ok my reader, I apologise for testing your patience. Let’s move back to farming. And if all else fails, my second-best hope is to open an Elvis bar and diner on Kauai island, Hawaii. If there are any backers for this foolish scheme, or the other, big, democratic one, please get in touch…

Clarissa begins to describe her family and the different ways of life they’ve found themselves in. Her brother Eden works on a small council-owned farm in the nearby countryside towards Darlington. I’m staggered to here of such a notion – farming land owned by and for the people? – and she kindly offers to take me out to discover more. It’s also an opportunity to find out about another vital yet relatively unknown institution, the Workers’ Educational Association, and the work of her father within it.

It’s early afternoon and the weather’s not great, so I make little resistance to the offer of a drive to the farm. As we zip along lanes in minutes that would’ve been hours on the bike, Clarissa points out more about the area.

‘There used to be mines everywhere in Durham. Every village was normally attached to one. Today there’s nothing.’

Whilst the stories of the mining communities have been documented often during my journeys, the stories of farmers have been less so. It’s hard to meet farmers. They are geographically isolated and tend either to work long hours on their own, or with closely-trusted relatives. Or, saving that, one comes across huge farms like those of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, largely worked by casual and underpaid eastern European workers. It’s hard to make contact on a sincere and equal basis with either.

Clarissa explains how difficult it is for her brother to even make a living. Eden largely keeps sheep. When a coat of wool will only earn the shearer 50 pence for half hour’s work, sheep-farmers depend heavily on a good price for lamb. But even lambing is immensely difficult. Sheep, like cows, have been reared to be very docile, and a paradox for any vegetarian is the simple fact that most livestock could not live independently without human farms. During lambing season, the lonely farmer can expect to be awake at all hours, helping ewes birth and tending the rest of their flocks. Ewes often have bad births and must be shot when something has gone wrong. Lambs often die in somewhat ridiculous ways, such as strangling themselves on thorns and fencing. But even a carcass requires an expensive vet to come out and remove it. Diseases are common. The devastation of Foot-and-Mouth outbreaks has also destroyed herds and brought isolated farmers to the brink of financial destitution.

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And then there are the supermarkets, which have such a stranglehold on meat-production and prices that farmers are caught in a desperate race to the bottom, and are unable to compete with massive farms. Suicide and depression are more common among farmers than many other occupations, and the poverty and isolation of the job plays its part. Yet rarely is any good said of farmers whatsoever. The population is largely ignorant of what they even do.

‘Nobody speaks for them’, Clarissa notes. She’s right. All I know of farming is what appears in a column in Private Eye magazine, a paper I’ll comment on in a different context later. It often gives the impression that farmers lazily bank their European Union CAP cheque and sit back on unused profitable land. The situation’s quite the reverse.

We reach the farm. The front garden betrays signs of medieval ridge and furrow farming with its neat, thin folds in the grass. Sheep lope about lazily. Next door is a massive Argos distribution centre, freight vans in and out, piled high with made in China TVs and toasters, a sign of things to come.

Eden is a middle-aged, friendly and very thoughtful man. His conversation is ponderous, and he takes time to digest and propose meaningful answers and ideas.

‘It’s an unholy mess that’s developing’.

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After the Second World War, some progressive local councils decided to make farm land available for returning soldiers. These became council-owned farms, and worked on a similar basis to council houses. They gave decent country houses and land to the ordinary worker, and demanded an affordable rent in exchange for the opportunity to establish a long-term livelihood. Seven centuries after the Peasants’ Revolt, land was finally being returned to the people.

This didn’t happen everywhere, but it did happen. That it could happen then makes me ask myself, why couldn’t it happen now? Some council farms exist still today, but they are few. Eden describes a form of work characterised by low-pay, subsistence, stress, isolation, and often sleeplessness. His farm is successful.

His concern is that the skills for farming are no longer being passed down today. Some farmers are losing their land, whilst many others are passing it on to no-one. The average age of farmers is 58. Foreign competition from commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand, alongside intensive factory farming, have meant that many farmers do not have enough to live. It’s not an attractive prospect for their children and grandchildren.

‘People want to blame the poor for the situation they find themselves in.’ Eden draws out links between the fate of farmers today and that of other workers on zero-hour contracts. The unholy mess developing isn’t just affecting farmers. As he fears, the country faces wide-scale collapse, as low-skilled and low-pay work becomes increasingly normalised, and the skilled professions become either too unsustainable or too stressful to survive in. This is clearly the consequence of a set of attitudes and policies that came in during the time of Thatcher and have magnified in intensity since. At the table, anecdotes are traded about the absurd computing courses that miners were sent on once the collieries closed after the failure of the Strike in 1985, barely worth the paper they were printed on.

Later, I read through the Farmers’ Guardian newspaper to enhance what I’ve heard. Between supplements about breeding calves and the latest stories of new genetically-modified cows, I read letters and anecdotes of farmers in a state of crisis. The costs of bovine TB are a recurrent concern, as are the race to the bottom of supplying greedy supermarkets. New EU restrictions against specific pesticides are forcing British crop production into decline, and unable to compete against international farmers. At the same time, a recent Cereals event between National Farming Union reps and large banks orders farmers to increase their competitiveness on a global level. But how can they, when they can barely make a living?

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International trade is itself a race to the bottom. The loss of jobs in every kind of industrial production to countries like China and India which will happily allow their workforces to be worked on slave wages should be considered a robbery that disserves all. But this is the law of the market, of free enterprise. Surely another answer would be to secede entirely from international trade, to leave the WTO and the EU, and return to an economy capable of producing most, if not all, energy and resources domestically? Yes, the consequences are impossible to predict and could be devastating at first. But I see no other way of providing a long-term sustainable future for this island, in terms of keeping the lights on and the supermarkets full without ever being victim to international pressures or plunging the majority of the population into crippling poverty. It could provide full and dignified employment. Alas, those turkeys voting for Christmas, right?

Clarissa prepares lunch for the four of us all, and conversation turns over to John, a retired local historian and proud participant of the Workers’ Educational Association. He taught local history to community groups, from groups of interested learners at night across the south and west of Durham, to working in Durham prison. He’s committed to an idea of ‘a lifelong education’, that learning and knowledge doesn’t end at the age of 14, or 16, or whenever. This community learning was a funded, extramural part of the university, and no money was ever made from it.

Much of these university activities have gone, but the WEA remains, albeit in lesser form. The small community centres and Further Education colleges that once housed their activities have been shut in places by successive cuts, or repurposed to callous workfare ‘training’ centres. They still present a wonderful opportunity for restoring lifelong learning back into communities, to enrich lives as much, or more, than simply boosting their employability.

John’s a wise conversationalist and retains that specific ability of historians to recall the minutiae of details, events and terms in a way I’ve always admired but completely failed at. He tells us about the Bread Strikes in the local area during the late 19th century. They were carried out by miners’ wives protesting at the excessively rising price of bread and other goods. When travelling salesmen would arrive at their villages, the most common way of buying goods, these women would harass, insult and pelt them with stones, eventually coercing them into accepting a lesser payment. It lasted two months and the wives insisted that no men were involved, and largely succeeded.

I would love to see something like this today, perhaps in the guise of a community march and mass pillaging of a local supermarket, who knows? History is rich with such surprises.

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It’s time to leave, and I am sorry to go. As we leave the farm and its somewhat uncertain future, we pass Gerard, another sibling, who heartily laughs when I tell him what I’m up to about Britain. ‘You must be joking?’ With the amount of pleasure I’ve had meeting others on this trip, my laughter would make it seem so.

Back in Durham I spend a little more time talking to Clarissa’s daughter and her friend, aged about 18 I think. ‘Lots of unemployment’, they tell me. It’s common for young men to join the army after a period of worklessness after leaving school. They give me the impression that there’s just so little around here for young people to think about doing. This especially affects those who don’t have the expectations and pride of a university degree. Factories, call-centres and little else beckon. Suicides among young men and women have become common around here, as has heavy drinking, something which they recount with a bit more glee. The local ‘Miners’ Gala’ is a humongous piss-up. Any of the righteousness of ex-miners’ speeches and banners has been gradually dissipated by zealous boozing that begins from 6am. I’d gladly return to this conflicted land to see it and, of course, participate.

I also spend a little time talking to Mark, a Sunderland native and friend who has popped by in-between stripping out the treasure from trash of a recently closed video shop. He gives some excellent stories and anecdotes about the town, but it won’t be tomorrow that I’ll visit the city and share some of these. The wait will be worth it.

Home, as I’ve discovered, is not a specific location but an experience of pleasure around kind and pleasant friends.

But I must see out the rest of England, and get myself lost one million times around Scotland and Wales, and reluctantly I head out. I go back into Durham town, determined to see a little more of the place. The town is pretty though very small. After plunging into the deep valley that defines the town, one passes thick roads and enters a small settlement flanked by student bars, chintzy shops, a pleasant river, with the great, austere Cathedral hanging overhead from its mount. I push further, up a steep little hill and past posh-looking students in gowns pointing out the sights to proud parents.

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The cathedral sits in its own square, close to a small castle. [Apologies for the time-lag with photos here: Durham Cathedral’s is way up, and these images make sense later.] The university has repurposed many of the older buildings nearby, and the effect is a little charming though alien to the kind of modern universities I’ve encountered elsewhere. It fits a certain upper-class image of higher education which I dislike immensely. I have a poke around, admiring its spare and ascetic quality and the relative lack of ornamentation, except for the distinctive patterns on the columns which hold up, with a degree of skill I can’t fathom, the lofty roof.

Churches and cathedrals still provide a specific location dedicated to reflective and introspective states of mind that are open to all. Seek out these experiences if you can, especially in cathedrals, among the low lights and hush of solemnity. What secular structures are given over to the life of the mind, with the same degree of ambitiousness? Libraries, in theory, but rarely practice. I wonder over the value of religion, of the gifts of hope and faith over the tyranny, coercion and brutality that it has equally inflicted. Until perhaps the middle of the last century, death was something far more common and disruptive in everyday life, and faith helped individuals to make some kind of meaning of otherwise desperate and terrible circumstances. Today, it’s different. It relies on some big, distant master with a beard to return and solve all our problems. Perhaps Christianity isn’t the only religion that’s hanging over our concerns.

The power that each person back then found in these places was something that always existed within them.

My heart’s still soft for Lichfield cathedral though, and I wander out, peering about for whichever road leads north.

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The A-road takes me out, passing towns with names like Pity Me, and scuttering along lay-bys packed with truckers’ refuse and crashed car debris. I reach Chester-Le-Street, a small and somewhat dull-looking town where bouncers lurk out outside pubs in the evening sun. I feel the spirit of Newcastle coming closer. After Chester each settlement rolls into one another, gliding into a sticky and thick conurbation that will eventually stretch as far north as Blyth.

Leaving another suburb, Birtley, I approach the start of Gateshead, and stumble across something quite superb.

The Angel of the North pops up in the horizon quite from nowhere, and the effect is as you’d expect. Inspiring, distinctive and thoughtful, now this is good public art. It was commissioned by the progressive Gateshead council, and built during 1997-8 in Hartlepool, then placed over an old coal mine. It’s actually much smaller than it seems when one gets close, and it’s extraordinary how this steel shape manages to make such an impression on the 33 million people that pass it each year, usually in a speedy blur along the A1. Its designer Antony Gormley makes some remarks about it that border on some of the religious and spiritual discussions and problems that I’ve been articulating:

‘People are always asking why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them.’

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I’m energised by it, and continue on towards Gateshead’s town centre. It’s a place I’ll explore in some depth tomorrow, but my first impressions are of a town of contrasts. It presents a very distinctive identity of its own, yet it immediately borders Newcastle to the south of the Tyne. I pass Victorian and early 20th century terraced housing, some of it derelict, before arriving in a somewhat ugly if ambitious town centre marked by large and well-proportioned civic buildings. I pass a cheerless hotel and ex-servicemen’s club to my left, and the remains of a semi-bulldozed block of flats to my right, the multi-coloured storeyed sections on the one remaining wall acting as a concrete tapestry to commemorate the countless forgotten lives of people that once lived here. And then, before me, a tall if thin green bridge suddenly looms…

Ah! Newcastle, I’m here!

My reveries are interrupted by the tooting of buses and cars. Newcastle, it turns out, can boast having the most aggressive and rude drivers of any town I’ve passed so far, including London – quite the achievement. I head over the bridge and find myself quickly in the heart of town on a Friday night. It’s still relatively early, around 8pm, but the streets are full of lads in same-coloured shirts and overweight lasses in small, brightly-coloured dresses. Every cliché is trilling out with the cheery alarum of a pinball game. There’s much more to write on this in the next post, when I do experience a Toon night out.

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I absorb the lively town centre through each sensory organ, laughing a little, baffled mostly. I spot the town’s minuscule and bland cathedral, and wander about the pretty Georgian-looking town centre, characterised by a yellow sandstone one sees on most central buildings. I drift up a pedestrianized shopping street, characterised by the most unimaginative of British Town Centre stores. It’s a bit hard to like the place. A drunk man interrupts the chatter of his surrounding family to hail me.

‘What yous doin round ere mon? Ya should be in Brazil for the World Cup like!’

I drift on, here to pay teenage homage to a publication that has brought a good deal of pleasure and delight to the populace: Viz. Characterised by hilariously excessive toilet humour, sardonic and downright dirty jokes, and a creativity without parallel for creating and defining offensive words and phrases, Viz deserves special praise. It started as a small comic distributed around pubs and music shops in Newcastle by Chris Donald around 1979, and quickly picked up a following. It’s always retained a surreal affection for the town. There’s no real monument to it, but I seek out the restaurant of the late Abdul Latif, ‘Lord of Harpole’ and owner of the Rupali tandoori, whose bizarre tips and mocked-up adverts would appear in the Letterbocks section.

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The Rupali is still there, located in the Bigg Market, a district now renowned for especially-excessive boozing and partying. Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags can be spotted nearby. I don’t have a copy of Viz with me, but let me share these superb ‘Top Tips’ from the archive:

  • MOTORISTS: When going through a speed camera, flash your lights twice quickly and watch the driver in front hit his brakes when he thinks he’s been caught.
  • EMPLOYERS: Avoid hiring unlucky people by immediately tossing half the CVs into the bin.
  • BANGING two pistachio nut shells together gives the impression a very small horse is approaching.

Come on now, these are superb! I remember once not revising for my GCSEs, and wasting a few hours completing an extremely offensive Viz crossword, perhaps the only one I’ve ever completed. I entered the competition and won myself a Profanisaurus. Forget anything by Roget or Samuel Johnson. This monument of literary reference has aided me in all walks of life since that moment of tender youth.

It is mostly jokes in very bad taste, but there’s something I want to mark out about Viz’s satirical approach. It sends up everyone, and nothing or no-one is safe. It is neither left-wing nor right-wing, but mocks anything remotely clichéd or po-faced. Though satire exists in most cultures, there’s something worth flagging here in relation to the cultures on this island. Kate Fox has written a lot about Englishness, and she argues that ‘the English have satire instead of revolutions’.

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What do you make of this?

Tour through English, Scottish or Welsh humour, and it’s easy enough to observe that taking the piss is a pretty common feature. Irony, irreverence, sarcasm and gallows humour are distinctive. At the same time, there’s been more uprisings, riots and popular revolutions here than most European states. I think we have both, if that’s possible. But does satire displace a more serious discontent?

I’m not sure, but let me take the case of the one publication that I still carry with me in my bike bag, an issue of Private Eye that I’ve still not read. Now on the one hand, Private Eye presents a uniquely critical and well-informed survey of corruption and hypocrisy in governments, the popular media, and aspects of civil life more broadly. I can’t recommend any other news publication higher. At the same time, it pokes a particularly public-school style of hoorah humour at events, and often glides into outright snobbishness, particularly in ‘Dumb Britain’ or the ‘Yobs’ comic. There’s nothing about Private Eye that would make one expect or desire a political alternative. Boris Johnson is a buffoon, Rupert Murdoch is a corrupt rogue, and most figures in public life are either incompetent or downright dangerous, but that’s all. It gives the impression that this state of things will always remain the same, even if the names of individuals change.

I don’t think Viz has anything remotely connected to a political message, but it makes me wonder. Is humour a displacement activity? Or in laughing about the contradictions and absurdities of these figures, do we inch a little closer to realising just how vulnerable and undesirable they are?

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I head on to Jesmond, a suburb just to the north and close to Newcastle University, where a couple of days before an unexploded bomb was discovered and detonated. This unlikely suburb is where Chris Donald grew up, though gives little clue as to Viz’s other heritage. I laugh at myself for carrying on this daft pursuit, and take the coast road east towards my final destination. The road is dull and busy, and I summon up weird mental distractions to pass the time, like describing the passing scenery in the monotonous and deadpan seriousness of BBC news anchor Moira Stewart, and singing about my observations of the day in the style of David Bowie. To the weary cyclist, I heartily suggest such activities to you.

After a time I leave the busy A-road and drift into the dusky suburb of Monkseaton, just by Whitley Bay. I reach a quiet street and follow my accurate instructions, looking out for a scarily off-putting front garden. In response to my knocking appears Paul. He welcomes me in, pointing out first the great collections of ferns he has growing about the place and, not long after, the corny and deliciously macabre collections of taxidermic specimens he has about the place. As I drift into kitchen, agog at the strange and exciting décor of the place, something suddenly whooshes behind my ear. Perched above a door is Mr Beak, an African Grey parrot, and Paul’s companion. I love the place. Beak!

Paul and I share a good few glasses of red wine and start sharing stories and observations from our lives. He tells me about himself. Though we are in a leafy part of suburbia, he grew up in exceptionally dire circumstances in nearby Wallsend, a nearby suburb that once faced the docks. He was an only child brought up by his mother and female relatives, and his upbringing was distinctively tough. His strength of character and good humour has been hewn through, and in spite of, such experiences.

‘I remember growing up and thinking council housing was posh! They had a plug in every room, and heating…’

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Though Paul is somewhere in his late 40s, he grew up with no home bath or toilet, surrounded by noisy cranes of shipyards. His accommodation was distinct to the area: small Tyneside flats, of which many still remain, though most now updated. He has no sentimentality for the past, for the dire slums of the 1960s and 70s or the cranes, scrapped off and sent to India. But he reports a concern that I’ve come across before.

‘I never felt very sentimental at the time but looking back I dislike the way the government just closed these places down without providing jobs. They just left legacy populations. You had all these people who weren’t going to get a job. That scene from Abigail’s party, they all work in computers! That never transpired.’

We talk about the slums, and I share some of the experiences of my mum’s family in 1960s Leeds, as well as other stories found on my journeys. Paul has a similar take. ‘People lose perspective. The high rise flats I saw as a kid were palaces, absolute palaces.’ So what went wrong?

Difficulty in maintaining them, and their often isolated locations, was one issue – this we’ve found in the Midlands. Paul also highlights ‘deck access housing’, those streets in the sky, as turning out to be pretty unpopular for similar reasons. Another issue particularly affects the Toon. T. Dan Smith was once the charismatic head of the council during the first half of the 1960s. People called him ‘Mr Newcastle’: he wanted to clear the slums and turn the Toon into a progressive modernist utopia, ‘a Brasilia of the North’. He oversaw many of the prefabricated streets in the sky, particularly in the west of the town like Cruddas Park. He achieved a good deal, Paul thinks, but this was based on a great deal of corruption, back-handers, and left behind a wide number of very bad buildings. His mixed legacy reflects that of 1960s council housing more broadly, much of which will likely disappear over the next decade. The dreams have turned sour. Can new dreams take its place?

We stay up very late talking. Eventually food is called for, and Paul shares out some stottie cakes with pease pudding, a distinctly northern dish that soaks up the booze. Paul shows me a hilariously grotesque work of 19th century French Diableries that can be glimpsed through 3D glasses and starts to explain his collections. At around 3am I’m starting to plummet, and we wisely call time on our conversations for the morning. I collapse in bed, surrounded by all manner of books and the echoes in my mind of Mr Beak. Bok bok bok!

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