Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 14th March 2017

THE politician who has been described as “the best Prime Minister the country never had” will be delivering the keynote talk tomorrow when the curtain comes down on Keswick’s 2017 Words by the Water literature festival.

While Labour sleepwalks into disaster, it’s ironic that, in Alan Johnson, they have a figure who appeals to all shades of political opinion. The former postman knows the tough side of life from personal experience and, unlike so many politicians these days, he comes across as an honest, decent and compassionate man.

It’s been said that Alan Johnson was always “too nice” to become leader. His credentials as a caring and experienced politician are not in question. But he was labelled “too unambitious” when he eschewed the chance to stand for the Labour leadership at the end of the Blair era.

If ever you needed someone in politics who understands what it is to be vulnerable and poor, then Johnson’s background tells a remarkable story. Orphaned at 12, after the death of his mother, he was largely brought up by his sister, herself just 16. Having left school at 15, he stacked shelves at Tesco before becoming a postman.

Johnson held a variety of senior cabinet posts, including health and education and is a former Home Secretary and Shadow Chancellor. Since 2010, when the last Labour government was voted out of office, he has turned his hand to writing. No fewer than three volumes about his early years and his time in government.

While those books offer a fascinating insight into the man and his view of the top table of government, it’s a crying shame that someone of his talent and capacity to appeal to the voting public is now principally dispensing his views on the political situation at literature festivals and book signings. Especially when the party he served with distinction is in denial.

One Herald correspondent launched a robust defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in Saturday’s paper. It would be easy to blame the messenger, in this case the right wing media, but no matter how you spin it, thousands of Labour supporters in West Cumbria decided not to support his candidate at the recent by-election. More than just “a few” as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested.

The Tories ran a good campaign with a local candidate who performed well in public. But the fact that the Conservatives were able to snatch Copeland’s popular vote against a Labour candidate who campaigned on a pro-NHS ticket to save the local maternity hospital was very revealing.

Speaking to several Labour supporters after the result was announced, it was clear that the Corbyn factor played a significant role in the voting. The new MP, Trudy Harrison, stole Labour’s own campaign motto from under them when she spoke of wanting to represent “ordinary working people”.

Jeremy Corbyn might be a man of principle, and the Prime Minister’s honeymoon period may hit trouble when she has to get down to the nitty gritty of Brexit negotiations, but right now even staunch Labour traditionalists have grave doubts that Corbyn can make their party electable.

Thousands of Labour Party members may be backing Corbyn, but what about the millions of potential Labour voters in the country? Is Labour listening to them? Apparently not in Copeland.

It’s a sad indictment of Labour’s current situation when Tories say Theresa May’s best friend in Parliament is the leader of the opposition. At PM’s Questions, Mrs. May described Mr. Corbyn as “incredible”. She wasn’t being complimentary. Jeremy is a gift to the Prime Minister.

It’s a sorry story when the Scottish Nationalists are able to lay claims to being the most substantial opposition to the Government in the Commons.

But as Alan Johnson was quoted as saying about the current Labour Party: “We have got to recapture this party again, otherwise it’s dead and finished and gone.”


ONE of the saddest stories I’ve had to write in my half-century plus in journalism was about two boys, good pals, who became benighted on Scafell Pike in winter conditions. A dog handler with Keswick mountain rescue team found their bodies, huddled together. A tragic end to a search.

Thankfully, due to the diligence and skill of our rescue teams, the vast majority of incidents end well. And for those who go on the hills, that’s a reassuring thought. Even the best, most experienced, can find themselves in trouble.

The “silly season” for charity challenge walks appears to have spread from a few summer months to a year-round business and one can understand those who are critical when ill-prepared groups get lost. One Lake District rescue team responded to four calls in 24 hours last month. A spokesman for Wasdale MRT said: “There has been a doubling of call-outs over the last 10 years, primarily people getting lost.” Charity walkers tend to rely on mobile phones for navigation rather than a good old map and compass.

However, Keswick rescue team’s Facebook page contains some salient comments. “All our members happily choose to go out and help. It’s what we all signed up for in the first place and those who call us only do so as a last resort,” it says.

Yes, there are the clueless and stupid. But when you’re stuck, it’s good to know that those coming to rescue you don’t make a distinction between the unfortunate, the unlucky and the foolish.

When the rescue teams were formed it was with the express aim of helping fellow climbers in distress. In those early days there would be half a dozen call-outs a year. Now they often hit three figures. At times it must get frustrating, but these volunteers train to the highest standards for when that call comes, and thankfully that same altruistic premise continues to hold good.


FOR a whole year of my school life, I was subjected to a big weekly dollop of Trollope. The writer Anthony Trollope to be precise.

Apparently secondary school pupils don’t read “sufficiently challenging” books any more. Professor Keith Topping, who led a study into the reading habits of young people, was scathing in his conclusion that literary classics are given short shrift compared to Harry Potter.

It takes me back to my schooldays and English literature studies. The set reading in GCE year was Barchester Towers, Trollope’s portrayal of clerical life in the cathedral city of Barchester.

The Guardian put Barchester Towers in its list of 1,000 books that “everyone must read”. AlI I remember is that it was heavy going when, at age 15, my reading preferences were Football Monthly and the Playfair Cricket Annual.

We had to study Barchester Towers at length. The names of Obadiah Slope, Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie will haunt me to the grave. I’ve never read another Trollope novel since.

I’ve always suspected a certain literary snobbishness. If you’re a teenager and Harry Potter’s your thing, why not read Harry Potter? As long as young people are reading, does it really matter? Better to form a love of books, unchallenging books if you follow Prof. Topping’s reasoning, than to be given an early impression that literature is dull and boring.

I presume pupils still have to revise hard for their GCSEs. Do they still have Barchester Towers on the set books list? I hope not. There’s plenty of time for the oily Mr. Slope and his porous hooter later.

Reading, whether for exams or as a diversion on the summer holidays, ought to be for pleasure. Otherwise what’s the point of it? The very statement “challenging books” smacks of literary elitism. Let the kids read the books they love and you will have reading converts for life. Isn’t that the aim?


ON the subject of books, I hear Mills & Boon, publisher of those steamy paperback romances so beloved of women readers, is going into the grunt and groan sound business.

The company has made audio books for some years. But its latest bodice ripper was recorded on location with each actor wearing two microphones to create a more authentic full sound.

Executive publisher Lisa Milton says teasingly: “Believe me when I say you’ve never heard love like this before.” In the old days M&B books were mainly about romance involving doctors and nurses — at least that’s what I’m told, I’ve never been an aficionado myself — and it was all left up to the imagination of the reader.

A mate of mine used to work on the travelling library and at one stop a posh-sounding lady customer, a leading historical novelist, was a regular customer. “Anything new ?” she inquired this particular day.” Sorry, just these latest Mills & Boons,” he replied. “We call them the slops.” “Ah, yes,” said the lady, carefully studying the cover of one of the books, “I know, I wrote that one.”