Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 19th November 2018

THE National Trust put its sizeable foot in it again when it covered up art work at its Cragside property in Northumberland, the one-time home of Victorian industrialist Lord William Armstrong, in a bid to encourage visitors to “notice the absence of a female voice” by concealing male representation.

The trust has a remarkable propensity for shooting itself in that self-same foot. And just when one hoped that a new director-general would spell better public relations for the charity. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Hilary McGrady, who succeeded Dame Helen Ghosh earlier this year, promising a “radical” new approach aimed at getting more people to use the trust’s services with a particular focus on those living in urban areas.

Ms McGrady, the first internal appointment as director-general in 16 years and formerly the trust’s chief operating officer, said she accepted some of the criticisms levelled at the organisation, admitting “we need to listen more to the people who live in these areas”.

She could have been referring to the furious dispute which flared up in 2016 when the National Trust bid over the odds for land at Thorneythwaite Farm, Borrowdale, a move condemned by Lord Melvyn Bragg as “a nasty piece of work”.

The farm was put on the market in two parts — the land with its flock of Herdwick sheep and the farm buildings. The trust bought the land, reportedly bidding £950,000 against an initial £750,000 valuation, with Dame Helen stating it enabled the organisation to “highlight a debate” about sustainable farming in the modern age.

The sale prompted some colourful criticism locally, with one valley farmer claiming the trust would never be forgiven in his lifetime, while James Rebanks, best-selling writer and farmer, accused the trust of alienating the local community with “Mafia tactics”.

Of course the trust has previous. It was accused of succumbing to pressure from the hunting lobby after a motion to ban trail hunting on its land was defeated at the annual conference. It also made the wrong sort of headlines when it decided to ban volunteers from public-facing roles at a stately home in Norfolk after they had refused to wear rainbow gay pride badges. The trust was, it was claimed, following a politically correct agenda.

And now it’s come over all PC again at Cragside by covering up paintings and sculptures during a student programme marking the centenary of women’s suffrage. Visitors paying up to £49 to view the collection, which includes paintings by Turner and Raffaello Sorbi, instead saw half the works covered in white sheets and sculptures with bags over their heads.

Having initially defended the “thought-provoking” exhibition, the trust subsequently denied censoring the art work, but admitted “sometimes it doesn’t work as we intended”. Say that again.

The new director-general comes across agreeably enough in her interviews, but she should not confuse a “radical” new look for the National Trust with the need to nurture its more traditional role. In expanding the trust’s influence into the big towns and cities, it must not forget the countryside and its dwindling local population. As an increasing number of holiday and second homes take over our valleys there’s a real danger of rural areas and their traditional way of life becoming mere museums to a disappearing past.

Taking her own advice, to listen more to people on the ground, would be a good start for the new director-general. It’s something Dame Helen signally failed to effect during her time at the helm.

WARNING MESSAGE TO MESSAGERS

WILLIAM Sitwell, as editor of Waitrose’s food magazine — with 700,000 readers it is one of the UK’s highest circulation publications — patently has no future as a stand-up comedian, but I’m told by those in the trade he’s held the post with some distinction for nearly 20 years.

The fact that one ill-judged email, meant as private correspondence, has led to him “stepping down” as editor has left me seething, first with the freelance vegan writer who was miffed that he didn’t offer her an immediate lucrative contract, and even more so with gutless managers at Waitrose who urged him to walk rather than give him their support because they were embarrassed and unwilling to upset a vocal minority.

And what do we learn from this unhappy situation? Well, if you are an emailer you must now know there is no such thing as a private message. The days are gone when you could exchange lively chit chat. Be worried, be very worried. Any old email, intended as a joke, could appear online and in the pages of the tabloid press. Your emails are effectively public documents.

Selene Nelson emailed Sitwell offering to write a regular series about plant-based diets. “How about a series on killing vegans, one by one? Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?” wrote back William.

Cue confected outrage. Nelson pompously defended her action in making the reply public saying it was not acceptable or funny to speak to vegans “with hostility and anger”. And so a distinguished career is ended. Presumably Ms Nelson and fellow furious vegans are pleased with their hatchet job. Presumably Waitrose’s spineless bosses are heaving a sigh of relief.

As fellow foodie critic Giles Coren put it with admirable bluntness: “You should be able to take the p... and not lose your job.”

VEGAN SOCIETY FOUNDER

THE Keswick schoolteacher who founded the Vegan Society was a gentle chap, well liked by former pupils, and I don’t suppose for one moment he would have supported the vilification of William Sitwell.

I often jogged past Donald Watson’s house and passed the time of day. The son of a headmaster in a mining community in South Yorkshire, he taught for 23 years at Lairthwaite School. In November, 1944, he called a meeting of five other non-dairy vegetarians to discuss diets and lifestyles. They felt a new word was needed and settled on vegan, the first three and last two letters of vegetarian.

He became vegetarian aged 14, after witnessing the slaughter of a pig on his uncle’s farm. He was “horrified” and changed his view of farm life. A non-smoker, teetotaller and committed pacifist, he led fell walks, became involved in organic gardening, cycled and played the violin. It was said he never used a spade in his garden for fear of harming a worm.

Donald Watson died aged 95 in 2005. He once said his greatest achievement was “in starting a new movement which would not only change the course of things for humanity and the rest of creation, but alter man’s expectation of surviving for much longer on this planet”.

FIRING PUBLIC OUTRAGE

PUBLIC outrage prompted quick action by police to haul in that gang of idiots who posted pictures of themselves laughing and joking as they set fire to a paper model of Grenfell Tower. As far as I can see their principal crime is one of infinite stupidity. They didn’t have the wit to realise their faces were in full view on the internet.

As the outcry grew for the men, most of them old enough to have known better, to be charged, let’s pause. Not one single person has been charged as a result of the Grenfell blaze. Similar cladding to that which helped spread the fire is still in place on many blocks of flats and it’s even been suggested residents help pay for the removal of the material.

Much as the clowns who set fire to their model deserve the public’s opprobrium, let’s get our priorities in order first.

A MUSICAL WELCOME

RUMBLE strips that play a song when they are driven over are to be laid on road surface over the Humber Bridge, making it the first musical bridge in the UK. It’s thought to be an idea that might amuse tourists.

We need to move fast on this. Wordsworth’s Daffodils has survived several musical settings over the years and could provide the perfect accompaniment for motorists entering the heart of the Lake District, while a quick burst of D’Ye Ken John Peel on the road to Caldbeck would be appropriate, though not with the anti-hunt lobby.

Keswick museum has its musical stones. Musical roads could be the modern day equivalent.