Monday, 5 June 2017

Carlisle: the other end of the border with some of the same problems

No, this is not a photo of Primark, even though I'm wearing one of their tee-shirts as I write, the point of interest in this picture is the two street names. Scotch Street and English Street are two of the busiest streets in Carlisle, the town on the English side of the western end of the English-Scottish border, and thus the opposite number of Berwick-upon-Tweed at the eastern end. These street names make it very clear that for centuries Carlisle was a centre for the administration of border law and a meeting place - often a violent meeting place - for rival families from England and Scotland.

After a period of travelling during which I spent far too much money I am now attempting to compensate for my extravagance by living as what is euphemistically known as a 'property guardian'. It's incredibly cheap but if you want the best deal you can't afford to be too fussy about where you live. So I'm now over on the west coast and having to travel frequently between my new home and the storage unit in Berwick I am desperately trying to empty out, which involves a lot of passing through Carlisle.

It is an attractive town with a lot of picturesque old buildings, many built from a lovely red coloured stone. At this time of year it is full of the kind of serious minded retired people whose idea of a fun holiday is a week of hard walking in the hills, possibly with evenings spent enjoying a fine restaurant or a glass of real ale. This border town is larger than Berwick, with a cathedral and some decent shops, something conspicuously lacking in Berwick. It does though have the same uneasy sense of a town dominated by fairly comfortably off retired people, both permanent residents and visitors, with a resentful working age population that is predominantly poor.

In Berwick, there is a general assumption that only the retired people have any money and so it will not be the working age folk contributing to any charitable event you're trying to get going, and this is only an extreme example of a spreading social trend. Yet politicians still talk as if pensioners were poor. Of course some of them are, but some of them have pensions that are double the average wage in small towns dependent on tourism, and yet they still get free bus travel, television licences and a chunk of their gas bill. Saying so during the current general election campaign has been absolutely taboo. I am not a supporter of the Conservative party but I think that one of the things Theresa May has got right is to attempt to shift the payment arrangements for care in old age away from the assumption that it is fine for ordinary taxpayers to subsidise other people's property inheritance. Needless to say she was forced to retreat on this by the massed ranks of pensioner power.

Oh dear, I seem to have strayed off the subject of the border, don't I? But wait, there is a link! Because the future of the border depends on the electoral performance of the SNP, and that depends to a large extent on how much the Westminster government pisses off the Scots, and that will all depend on the results on June 8th. It is noticeable that the SNP manifesto pushes the question of independence firmly onto the back burner - because all the polls are still showing a clear majority against it - and admits in a roundabout sort of way that they can't really use their newly acquired power to raise income tax as it might 'lead to a loss of revenue', i.e. a lot of wealthy Scots would move to England. We can probably expect to see even more comfortably off retired folk in the English border towns.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Wonderful Tribute to Salmon Fishing on the Tweed

Hello again. It's been a while since I wrote on this blog, because I've spent the last eighteen months being nomadic. But my heart will always be in the Borders (as indeed are most of my belongings, in a storage unit). I was back in Berwick last week to catch the closing days of a blockbuster exhibition at the Watchtower gallery, run by my friend Kate Stephenson. This place has been an important part of my life ever since it opened a few years ago, and I try to attend every show there. Some shows are visited only by other people who dutifully go to everything artistic in the area. But the one that's just closed was, according to Kate, packed out every day. Indeed I heard people talking in the street about how good it was before I even got there.

Because this was a show about the history of net fishing for salmon on the Tweed, a subject very close to the hearts of many people locally. Unlike the fancy angling indulged in by toffs further upriver, net fishing from a small rowing boat is a very ancient, almost primitive, way of catching fish that tends to move people to raptures about the disciples doing just the same thing on the Sea of Galilee. There is something really primal about the elemental struggle of man versus fish, the respect for the fish that comes from knowing their ways intimately, balanced against the need to kill them in order to eat.

All of the original photos taken by Jim Walker for his books on the industry, By Net and Coble and A Wake for the Salmon, were on display, and I got another chance to talk to the man himself. He takes the view that the net fishers were deliberately put out of business by the upriver angling interests, who charge a great deal of money for the privilege of rod fishing for salmon and don't want the common netters competing for the fish. Certainly, the end of the Berwick Salmon company came in suspicious looking circumstances; it was bought out by an outfit calling itself the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Trust, which then shut the whole thing down, leaving the crews unemployed, without any compensation. If anybody feels libelled, take it up with Jim, not me.

One story that was completely new to me was that of the man whose obituary is on this poster: Augustyn Karolewski, Polish soldier and Scottish fisherman. After escaping from Nazi occupied Poland as a teenager and fighting with the Polish forces based in the UK, he settled in the Scottish Borders, married a local lass, and spent the rest of his life fishing on the Tweed, enjoying, according to this obituary, the respect and affection of all. This is a lovely and timely reminder of how much we Brits owe to the Poles who did so much to help defeat Nazism, and how badly we betrayed them in 1945. I suspect that after Brexit modern Poles will survive without Britain a lot better than we'll survive without them.