Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 5th September 2017

BARRISTER, judge, politician, preacher. There is no doubt that Norman Lord Birkett QC was a most remarkable man.

Lord Birkett, a noted orator, is credited with the decisive speech in the House of Lords which prevented Ullswater, “the Lake District’s Lucerne”, from becoming a reservoir feeding the needs of Manchester.

The “Saviour of Ullswater” is commemorated by the naming of a fell, and this week a new memorial was unveiled as part of the Ullswater Heritage Trail, remembering Lord Birkett’s speech in 1962 and his role in saving the lake from becoming a reservoir.

Not bad for someone who left school in Barrow at 15 to join his father’s drapery business. It became evident, as Norman Birkett preached to Methodists in the area, that his great forte was his way with words. After going to Cambridge he was called to the Bar in 1913 and went on to have a distinguished legal career, becoming known as one of the all-time great defence advocates, an impressive figure in the law and politics.

He served two periods as a Liberal MP, was a British alternate judge at the Nuremburg Trials and was an early advocate of national parks. Lord Birkett suffered a heart attack the day after his brilliant Lords speech and died within hours.

While Ullswater may have been his legacy, he was involved in numerous famous court cases, notably the second Brighton trunk murder in which he defended a man called Tony Mancini, accused of killing his girlfriend and hiding her body in a trunk which was found in his apartment. Birkett’s exposure of the flaws in circumstantial evidence led to a not guilty finding by the jury. However, it is said he had a “low opinion” of his client, who was later to confess his guilt.

In paying tribute to Lord Birkett’s masterly eloquence, the crusading role of then Herald editor George Hobley ought not to be forgotten or under-estimated. His cause was the magnificence of Ullswater and he led the fight to oust the invaders, Manchester Corporation, with passion and determination.

Hobley wrote that, “as a sterile reservoir, Ullswater would be of no use to anyone except the thirsty people of Manchester”. He said it was “unbelievable” that, with all its engineering achievements, the need for more water for Manchester could not be met “without invading England’s most beautiful lake”.

A prime example of a local newspaper, and its editor, seen at their best when fighting a worthy cause.

LIFE IN THE OLD DOG

LOCAL and regional newspapers have been having a hard time of it lately. Many have closed, or been consolidated into other titles as the rise of on-line advertising and websites have dented sales. In the period 2012-15 at least 48 regional newspapers closed, according to the Press Gazette.

While it may be more a glimmer of hope than a new dawn, the relaunch of three weekly local papers in Dorset is to be welcomed. An editorial spokesman said that while it went against the current grain to be launching print newspapers in 2017 there was “still some life in the old dog yet”.

Journalists from the Christchurch Times attend every council meeting and write planning stories, and recent front page items have included a row over beach huts and the politics of the town council. The local bowls club features regularly on the sports pages.

When I call in at my local shop, it’s the older generation who are buying papers while the younger customers spend their time poring over the latest tablets and mobile phone accessories. What little news they get is acquired instantly on their computers and tablets. Sadly interest in local affairs figures low in their hi-tech lives.

However effective a communicator social media may be, and let’s face it, nowadays many news reporters spend a lot of time monitoring sites rather than leaving the office and chatting to contacts, you’ll miss us if and when we’re gone.

It’s the local paper that runs campaigns and crusades and holds councils to account. There was a time when every meeting was attended by journalists from local papers. Residents read what councillors were doing with their money, in their name. A time when every court case was covered. Now most local courts have closed.

Papers like the Herald still keep an eagle eye on such matters, but some councillors and courts, once accustomed to transparency, have developed a penchant for secrecy. Most government is local one way or another. Think everything from refuse collection to education and it’s your council’s job.

When old-timers like me get together to chew the fat we lament the decline in newspapers, worry that our race is run, but we still see value in local news. People do still like to see their clubs and organisations reported. They like seeing their picture in the paper. The inky trade is in a bad way no doubt, but there is more than ever a need for accountability in local affairs and no politician, local or national, should feel there’s nobody out there observing them.

Whether that trio of Dorset papers will survive long term only time will tell. They are relying on a traditional feel, concentrating on local news and looking for advertising where there is a strong local identity, and getting their product out to the shops and door to door.

Unfortunately many old-established community events, the May days, the fetes, the parades and processions, some shows, have gone by the board. Several are just about hanging on in this area, despite shrinking numbers of volunteers to organise them and population changes in towns and villages.

I will be watching our friends in Dorset closely to see how their revival works out. I’m hopeful rather than optimistic, but hope, as they say, springs eternal.

TRUST NEEDS TO CHANGE

THE National Trust just doesn’t get it. In its arrogance it thinks it’s doing a great job. “In a great place and in great hands,” says Dame Helen Ghosh, who steps down from her role as director general next March after six years shrouded in controversy.

Dame Ghosh is to become Balliol College’s first female master. Why does this convey memories of Porterhouse Blue, that splendid TV program starring David Jason as the traditionalist non-PC porter and Ian Richardson as the sinister new master of an Oxbridge seat of learning and over-indulgence? She could indeed be the new Lady Mary of author Tom Sharpe’s creation.

Gay Pride badges, dropping “Easter” from egg hunts, splitting up a Lake District farm, rows over fracking and wind farms and now trouble over tenancies of leasehold properties. Dame Helen admits to “alienating some of our more traditional visitors”. You can say that again.

It’s those traditionalists who support, help to staff and visit the trust’s properties. They are the trust. People largely of retirement age, certainly middle aged and beyond. They like looking at grand houses and mooching round magnificent gardens. Dame Helen appears to dismiss them as some eccentric fringe minority.

The National Trust continues to attract a healthy number of new members, I’ll grant it that. But that doesn’t mean everything in the garden is rosy. It needs to remember its core market, who it’s there for and what they want, to scrap a lot of the nonsense that seems to surround its management these days and get back to serving its volunteers and members, even if that’s minus rainbow badges.

HERE BE DRAGONS

WHEN, in days of yore, map makers were plotting their way round Britain, there remained certain outlying places they dare not tread — most of Wales, Caldbeck, Nenthead, Ravenstonedale, for example. They defined such fearsome spots, and their even more fearsome denizens, as “here be dragons”. Goodness knows what they would have done geographically about Millom and points west.

Some government ministers, terrified to travel beyond Watford, still regard the North as “here be dragons”. Former Department for Transport adviser Julian Glover told the Financial Times that plans for improving transport links up north may suffer because of this attitude.

Glover attended a meeting at which one government aide studied in astonishment a Google map and asked what was that green thing near Manchester. “I told him it was the Pennines,” he said.

The worrying aspect of this story is that it’s true. There’s some junior minister down there in Westminster who probably thinks Puff the Magic Dragon still lurks in Millican Dalton’s cave in darkest Borrowdale.