Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 4th March 2019

I CAN’T recall a time when politics was more toxic than now. It’s a toxicity of extremes that is beginning to seep into society.

With the Conservatives lurching ever closer to the right under the influence of the European Research Group, and Labour veering back into the grip of the hard left, there must be many who feel, like me, that there’s no-one to represent our views.

Whether the defecting Independents point to a new dawn for British politics, or will fade away like the Social Democrats, I just hope they at least get a chance to change the tone of political rhetoric and begin a turn away from the septic atmosphere that is spreading from Parliament out into the nation.

The Conservative obsession with Europe has already done for three prime ministers and has now led us to the cliff edge of Brexit. My children and grandchildren stand to suffer in decades to come from their intransigent folly.

We barely have an active government while Brexit occupies the Tories’ every breath. The NHS, prisons, education, care for the growing number of elderly have been shoved into the shadows as our politicians feud amongst themselves.

The Tories have gone stale and are led by one of our most ineffective prime ministers, someone who fails to listen and communicate, even with her own. Yet, without Jeremy Corbyn, Labour would now be a shoo-in for Downing Street. British voters are, by and large, not extremists and they worry when they see a leader who has palpably failed to deal with racists and who backs the old view of deselecting any candidates who don’t slavishly follow the hard left line.

Right now we face a choice between two hardline parties, both deeply divided and not fit for purpose. There are many decent, honest and honourable MPs, but what chance do they have in the current fetid air? We’re not a nation of extremists in nature, but with our politics no longer fit for purpose it’s an open door for extremists.

We don’t know if the Independents can agree on policies or how many more defections there might be. But, for the future of politics in this country, I hope this is the beginning of something better than the mess we are wallowing in.

A UNIQUE STAG DO

WE’RE all familiar with a pre-nuptial stag do. Boozed up stag nights, increasingly popular stag weekends away doing indescribable things in Latvia, and not forgetting hen nights and days out at the races when the bride-to-be and her cohorts are invariably clad in pink sashes detailing their role in the forthcoming wedding, just in case they get too drunk to remember which one of them is the intended.

<But how about a pre-wedding stag run in a Lake District forest? The intended groom and several of his wedding party getting up early for a quick 5k dash along with hundreds more Park runners, all part of a burgeoning fitness phenomenon that has taken root in these parts.

Cumbria now hosts at least half a dozen Parkruns. In fact they take place all over the country, usually on Saturday mornings, when serious club runners are joined by joggers and walkers in search of a recorded time for the three-mile run. Regular runs are held at Penrith, Keswick and Whinlatter Forest along with venues in other parts of the county.

On Saturday, for example, 312 runners turned out at Frenchfield, on the outskirts of Penrith, while another 193 set off along Keswick’s railway footpath where the first stages of reinstatement, following Storm Desmond’s worst impact, were completed just in time to permit the usual run to go ahead.

At Whinlatter the 116 participants, including 70 first–timers, were joined by a chap named Matthew, and several of his pals, in a pre-wedding outing. “What a fabulous way to start their wedding day,” remarked the organisers’ website, offering congratulations to Matthew and his new wife, Alanna.

Parkruns are organised by teams of volunteers and attract a wide range of runners, ranging from local and national athletic club members to individuals who just want to take part at their own speed. At Keswick, since it started in April, 2014, almost 11,000 have clocked times, covering a total distance of more than 178,000km. Whether it’s 17 minutes or an hour, it’s all about reaching for that elusive PB — personal best.

This is no passing fancy. Penrith recently marked its 250th Parkrun and at the weekend runners, many on holiday, brought out their trainers and running kit to represent whimsical clubs like Bramley Breezers, Norfolk Gazelles, Whitchurch Whippets, Coltishall Jaguars, Scrabo Striders and NHS Couch to 5k (there’s got to be a story behind that one).

We may be a nation in the grip of childhood obesity, but the signs are hopeful when you consider how many people have taken up sports like running and cycling. Come the weekend and the highways and byways of Cumbria are alive with joggers and cyclists who may not be Geraint Thomas, but have all the Le Tour gear.

Parkrun has teamed up with the Royal College of General Practitioners and many doctors’ surgeries are encouraging patients to do outdoor activity rather than take medication. Some, I’m told, are even prescribing rounds of golf though my local course has an uphill hole members call “cardiac” so that may not be altogether the wisest thing.

It’s a far cry from when I got involved in running back in the 1960s. I remember a chap ringing me up and inquiring “are you the Keswick runner?” He’d just moved up here and wanted a fell running companion. He’s in his 90s now, but we still keep in touch.

Runners were a relative rarity back then. You would get dog’s abuse from boy scouts and kids on outdoor pursuits trips. “Get them knees up” and “Is there summat wrong with your legs, mister” were familiar cries. A minibus full of youngsters once tried to run me over on the Borrowdale road while its occupants cheered loudly and made rude gestures.

Runners like me were regarded as a bit of an oddity. Now, in the words of a famous old song, “everybody’s doing it, doing it”. Even bridegrooms on their wedding day.

MELVYN’S CONCERN FOR LOST ERA

LAST year St Bega’s, the little church near Bassenthwaite Lake, which dates back to pre-Norman times and is named after a Celtic saint, held 11 weddings. Another 11 are booked for this year, I’m told.

These are encouraging figures at a time when people are moving away from traditional church weddings to big venue events costing the earth. If you can’t get somewhere like Woburn Abbey — Spice Girl Geri Halliwell was married there — or Blenheim Palace, where footballer John Terry tied the knot, then at least you can go for a posh hotel or maybe a favourite Premier League footie ground.

Celebrity venues are all the rage these days. St Bega’s, where Tennyson is said to have been inspired to write Morte d’Arthur, and where Melvyn Bragg set Credo, has history on its side if not the capacity for the hundreds of X-list hangers-on who attend these starry weddings from hell. Was it the Beckhams, Posh and David, who had a special throne provided for their nuptials?

In Borrowdale they are raising money to repair a careworn village hall in the hope of attracting weddings and other functions. The vicar says a local hotel has spent £13 million “tarting up” for functions. While the hotel aims to host hundreds of weddings he says the church wouldn’t mind a few more to supplement the handful of bookings it gets.

Reading a remarkable interview by Brian Appleyard with Melvyn Bragg in last week’s Sunday Times, there is something of a lament for a lost era, in Bragg’s case childhood in the post-war North which was “financially poor but culturally rich”.

Bragg is not religious, but has an obsession with keeping the stories and meanings of Christianity alive. He spoke of a christening, everybody dressed up to the nines, where no-one bar the priest and himself appeared to know the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “There must have been 70 people there, mostly in their early 20s, and I just thought: it’s gone. It’s gone,” said Melvyn.

Churches are fundamental to our history. Believers or not, they tell us great stories of the past. More South Bank Shows for Sky, In Our Time for Radio 4. A new book just out. At 79 Lord Bragg is as busy as ever, but Appleyard notices “a sense of grief, rising to panic”, over so many of the traditions we are surrendering to modern life.