Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 19th June 2018

LADY Mary Wilson, who had died aged 102, was a profoundly private person thrust into the public gaze when her husband Harold became Prime Minister in 1964.

Although she was cruelly caricatured, not unlike Norma Major and the peas for tea sketches on Spitting Image that came later, Mary Wilson was a strong, independent-minded lady who would no doubt have preferred the life of an Oxford academic to politics.

Lady Wilson may have unwittingly boosted Private Eye’s sales in the 60s, when she was lampooned in a regular Mrs Wilson’s Diaries feature based on Mrs Dale’s Diary, the popular radio soap of the day, but she was an accomplished poet in her own right and a close friend of John Betjeman.

As the daughter of a one-time Congregational minister in Penrith, the Rev Daniel Baldwin, there was naturally considerable interest when she and Harold moved into 10 Downing Street. Cue one of the Herald’s all-time scoops.

It’s pretty certain that Mary Wilson would not have welcomed press intrusion into her private life, but when the Herald called she plainly trusted the weekly newspaper, published in the town where she once lived, and reporter Evelyn Rae was granted an interview at No 10.

What emerged was a revealing in-depth profile of the new PM’s wife, and how she was adapting to her new role while her husband commenced the first of his two periods as Prime Minister. It was a unique and fascinating insight that not even the highest ranking political writers of the day could, in their wildest dreams, have hoped to get.

Mary was an active member of CND and voted against joining the EEC in 1975, although Harold was in favour. “I just couldn’t do it,” she told him when they later discussed the vote. She had also declined to say the word “obey” at her marriage, a rebellious move for a clergyman’s daughter, but further evidence of her independent mind.

The Wilsons met at a Cheshire tennis club and married in 1940, a marriage that lasted 55 years until Harold’s death in 1995. Latterly, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and Lady Wilson cared for him with similar loyalty she demonstrated as the steadfast figure in the background during his years in politics.

Lady Wilson was often seen as the woman behind the man, but it’s clear she was a great deal more than that.

BROADENING THE MIND

READING the Herald on Saturday mornings broadens the mind. I often have a dictionary at my side and Wikipedia up and running on my laptop, especially when it comes to digesting the cerebral musings of Penrith and Border MP, and Justice Minister, Rory Stewart.

Last week, Rory once again demonstrated the breadth and depth of his knowledge in an article about the currently fashionable trend towards re-wilding of the countryside. On his journey from Patagonia to Shap, he used the word Pleistocene. No, not a mis-spelling of the stuff we used to mould into animal shapes as kids, this is the real way we should refer to what is often colloquially spoken of as the Ice Age.

It is the epoch of the geological time from around 2.6 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, when we bade farewell to numerous land mammals including the mammoth and saber-toothed tiger. There was a lot more on Wikipedia, but being of small brain, I stuck with the basics and continued reading Stewart’s meticulously argued case on behalf of the human element within landscapes like Cumbria.

Like Rory Stewart I love our landscape and the local communities and I fear for their future if these radical ideas are adopted. Areas like the Lake District and Eden Valley should never be the playthings of environmental idealists who have no real care for the people that make up this wonderful part of the world where we are privileged to live.

Forget Wordsworth and the poets and artists and the people who colour our history. Turn Cumbria into some Jurassic Park concept with lynx, wolves, bison and beavers, kick the friendly Herdwicks off our fells, dispose of the farmers and the communities around them, let everywhere run to wilderness and ruin and sit back and discover whether the high risk philosophy was worth it.

For as Rory Stewart says, in a far more literate way than I can ever hope to emulate, it “leaves no place for humans in the landscape.” And now back to the dictionary.

WHEN GLITCHES NEED HUMAN HELP

THE big financial institutions are more vulnerable than most to glitches in technology, system failures and the wiles of fraudsters.

They want us to conduct our financial affairs entirely online in a cashless society. Bank online, pay by card and all will be right with the world--until there’s a computer fault caused by them changing their systems, or a hacker tricking us into revealing our details so he can strip our accounts.

They are forcing us online, but all too often events show they have not got it right. Plus, I blame the bank closures for part of the current slump on the high street. People used to come into town to do their banking, now they don’t bother. Well, most of the time there are no banks left. With one or two exceptions they have cut and run. Fewer people visiting the banks, fewer people to spend in the shops.

Labour MP Wes Streeting believes some banks are making arbitrary and frankly ludicrous assessments of what constitutes a regular customer to try and by-pass the spirit of the rules, while Lib Dem leader Vince Cable agrees they are “on a mission to get rid of branches as quickly as possible”.

A recent investigation discovered that some of the major banks, those bailed out by taxpayers not that long ago, claim only a tiny number of customers regularly use their branches, but only class a “regular” as someone who calls in as many as 48 weeks per year.

When there’s a glitch, small businesses need access to personal service, not some intransigent website that tells you there may be a fault and it’s being fixed when it could be anything from 24 hours to several weeks.

If I suspect an e-mail about my account, even one that bears the bank’s logo and looks genuine, I want to be able to call in at my branch and check it out in person. I never feel entirely comfortable banking online, but we’re told it’s the future so get on with it.

One of the lucky ones, I still have a local branch. For how long? For some older customers, I suspect the mattress looks the safer option than impersonal online banking. Why can’t the banks put their heads together and at least keep one composite branch going?Or isthat too sensible a suggestion?

PARENTING A FORGOTTEN ART

WE may have our issues, but thank goodness we live in Cumbria and not in London where in parts of the capital gang warfare and crime seem to be rife.

The police blame the financial cutbacks. The politicians argue without having a clue how to deal with the problem. But no-one mentions parents. It’s their kids on the streets. It’s too easy to blame the Government and austerity for the ills of society. People have not suddenly become poor. It was far worse years ago, but there was family life and kids were taught right from wrong.

Parenting nowadays seems a lost art. Four and five year olds are starting school unable to utter more than a few words, understand basic instructions or even use the toilet. Ofsted chairman Amanda Spielman says some children arrive at reception class still in nappies.

Nursery staff and teachers have a role in socialising young people in their care. But teachers are paid to teach, not to act in loco parentis for lazy parents wedded to their phones when they should be looking after their kids.

We like to think we are a developed country, and yet parents have to be reminded to teach their children elementary skills. It’s disgraceful. Some of them can’t even take their own coats off or use a pencil, let alone have basic speech and hygiene capabilities.

Children who start badly fall behind. Some of them will probably end up in the street gangs, part of a large group that has been excluded from school.

It’s high time we stopped blaming everything else and got back to the concept of parental responsibility.