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Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 24th January 2017

A WOMAN came up to me in the street while I was doing a spot of window shopping in Penrith recently.

“I remember when you came to our do with that funny photographer who made such a production of taking our pictures for t’ Herald,” she said.

At this point I realised the event she was referring to with such clarity must have taken place all of half a century ago and that the “funny” photographer in question was Eric Davidson, one of that little band of “ambassadors” for the newspaper whose pictures have, over the years, so faithfully helped record the history and the people of this area.

She remembered that, while Eric lined up his subjects for a photo, his accompanying junior reporter — usually me in those days — had the job of holding up his flashbulb, mounted on the end of a tall pole surrounded by a dustbin lid shaped contraption.

Eric was pure theatre. Like Fred Wilson, his present day successor, everyone knew him and went along with his engaging chat. He’d sometimes have me standing on a wobbly chair or a table, while locals chuckled at his inventive system and at my discomfort. I was straight man to the star comic.

The occasion this woman so vividly recalled took place in a village hall. I reckon, as a reporter, I’ve visited practically every village hall in Cumbria in my time. Flower shows, WI events, fairs, royal visits, funeral wakes, the crowning of May queens on wet Saturdays, fetes worse than death!

But for all that, I have a deep, inner love of these buildings that, for decades, have been the hub of their communities. Every time I drive past a village hall it brings back a certain memory of an event I covered there as a young, wet behind the ears, reporter 50 years and more ago.

If Donald Campbell was the archetypal British hero, then village halls are as British as tea and crumpets and cricket on the green. But once the cornerstone of communities, Britain’s 10,000 halls are at risk as an ageing group of 80,000 volunteers continues to dwindle.

I’m aware that some are thriving under the guidance of a younger generation. They still host annual village events — themselves dying out in many of our valleys — and have modernised and broadened their appeal to bring in the necessary funds. At Threlkeld they opened a cafe and put on regular night-time top class entertainment.

But many stand virtually unused because they are struggling to find recruits willing to give their time to keep them alive. Action for Rural Communities (ACRE) is calling for drastic action before yet another aspect of rural life is lost.

During my lifetime I have witnessed whole valleys being virtually turned over to second homes. Young locals can’t afford houses and jobs take them away during the week while people are reluctant to commit to the extra legislation and paper work that now goes along with volunteering. It’s not just a matter of turning up to help any more.

“There are a raft of duties to deal with, from licensing to health and safety, and communities are in danger of taking their volunteers for granted,” said Deborah Clarke, ACRE’s village halls manager. “Younger people work long hours away from villages in order to live in them while the newly retired often don’t want to commit.”

It’s incredible to think that 10,000 village halls rely on more than 12 million hours of volunteering each year. However, more than half of those volunteers told ACRE that they were struggling to find help with people saying they were too busy, too old or just not interested.

If that truly is indicative of a widespread crisis then it’s terribly sad. These village halls have always been a place where folk got together and interacted. These days it’s easier to use social media to communicate. Then we don’t have the fuss of turning out on a damp January evening to actually meet our friends and neighbours face to face.

The woman who approached me in the street said: “We had some grand do’s in the old days. The whole village and folk from round about used to come and we baked and made things specially. I don’t go very often now. Getting on a bit for going out at nights. And anyway, there’s not much on.

“But I remember you getting dragged along with that photographer and how the flash bulb exploded when he said ‘smile’. I think it gave you a bigger shock than it did us. Eee, we did laugh!”

Eric and his flash bulbs are a thing of the past. So, soon, could be active village halls. For as 69-year-old Alan West, of the now disbanded National Village Halls Forum, put it quite simply in a recent comment: “The crunch has finally come.”

HERE TO HELP

RONALD Reagan once said the nine most scary words in the English language were: “I’m from the Government. I’m here to help you.”

The former United States president knew only too well the perils and pitfalls of being a politician and the cynical view of politicians as held by the public at large.

Football referees and MPs. You sometimes ask yourself “why?” Why would anyone of sound mind want to take on either job without having either a career death wish or a monster ego, or both.

It’s been said before that no Prime Minister leaves office in a blaze of glory. They usually end up being turfed out by their own. Even Margaret Thatcher went tearfully and unceremoniously in the end.

Trust in politicians is “approaching rock bottom” according to the latest Ipsos Mori “veracity” survey. Just 15 per cent. of the public believe they can depend on politicians to tell the truth. Politicians are rated the least trustworthy professionals in the annual survey, sinking a further six per cent. after a year that brought the Brexit vote.

The survey found that neither Leave or Remain campaign covered itself in glory and added that politicians in Westminster had much to do to start reconnecting with voters and demonstrating that they have priorities other than getting their own viewpoints across and ignoring debate.

I have a theory that politicians are mostly decent, well motivated people who, on their own, do a good job. It’s when they get together in packs that things start going awry.

Before Christmas three of them, a Conservative, a Labour MP and Nick Clegg, of the Lib Dems, bravely opened up their constituency roles to a TV documentary. Each came across as impressively caring and interested in the problems voters laid before them. They listened patiently and took what action they could. It was quite shocking — MPs actually getting a good image.

No doubt, back in Parliament, they are toeing the party line, giving the usual flannel, yah booing when the whips tell them to. Not answering the question. Putting themselves first. And yet here they were, human and honourable members of the great democratic estate.

Perhaps the late lamented AA Gill hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “It’s a ghastly game, politics. They don’t have mates because none of them knows how to be mates. They’ll all die alone and friendless.”

Bleak, but probably true in many instances. And again you ask yourself, why does it have to be this way?

A HIGH IDEAL

IT was always a lofty aim. A scheme which was fated never to reach the heights it aspired to, but for all that it was a worthy if probably impractical effort.

The Friends of Blencathra charity has admitted failure with its bid to buy the mountain and is to start refunding donations, less £6 to cover costs of the campaign which was launched in 2014 after the Earl of Lonsdale, the landowner, put Blencathra up for sale with a £1.75 million price tag to meet an inheritance tax bill.

Presumably he and the tax authority came to an accommodation, for the mountain was taken off the market bringing to a conclusion something that was almost as clouded in rumour and false trails as Carlisle United’s mystery “billionaire” investor saga.

The fact is nobody could build a casino on Sharp Edge or flog Blease Fell for housing like racing plans to do with Kempton Park. Not while there’s a national park. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

CUMBRIA MISPLACED

PROOF if it was needed that these days schools have ceased teaching British geography about anywhere north of Watford.

In the corrections and clarifications column of The Times on Saturday was the following. “A map showing potential locations for tidal lagoons (News, Jan 13) mislocated Cumbria some distance to the north, in Ayrshire.”

One can only hope that the London-centric Thunderer’s correspondents are able to locate Copeland prior to the forthcoming by-election, otherwise a bunch of Rabbie Burns-loving Scots are in for a rude awakening when the canvassers come knocking.


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