Why it’s all about winning (A view from 6-3 down)

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I recently finished on the losing side in a General Election for the sixth time in my voting life and I’ve learned a big lesson.

I was 18 when ‘Sunny’ Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government, doomed by the Winter of Discontent, staggered to its close. My first vote was in the General Election of May 3, 1979. The choice: Callaghan or a dose of Margaret Thatcher Mark I.

I’d avidly followed Harold Wilson’s two Labour election wins in 1974, done history at school, devoured Ken Loach and Tony Garnett’s political dramas, such as Days of Hope and The Price of Coal, on the BBC. We had just been rehoused by a Labour council (by way of a slum clearance programme) and had a garden, a bathroom and an inside toilet for the first time.

It was natural that I should vote Labour — but I didn’t. Instead, I decided that Labour took the North-East for granted. The South Shields MP for years had been a grey man named Arthur Blenkinsop. His replacement was an outsider who had lost a by-election elsewhere and was, to my mind, being dropped into a safe seat. So I didn’t vote Labour. I voted for Llew Monger, a Liberal.

My vote was of no consequence. Labour’s David Clark took South Shields, Llew Monger came a distant third and I, for the first time, finished on the losing side in a General Election as Thatcher won with a majority of 43 seats.

In the 80s I reinforced my views: went to May Day rallies, walked part of a leg of the People’s March for Jobs, joined the Labour Party, went to miners’ strike benefit gigs, marched for Coal Not Dole in London, and had my opinions confirmed by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From The Blackstuff.

Little did I know then that my adult life, from 18 to 36, would be lived under Tory governments.


The People’s March for Jobs passes The Citadel in Carlisle, 1983

In 1983 Labour, under Michael Foot, fought the election with a manifesto titled The Labour Way is the Better Way, better known as “the longest suicide note in history”. In Carlisle, where I now lived, the Labour MP was Ron Lewis, who was then 83 years old. His final campaign leaflet was written in my living room. Not only did it not mention anything that was in the manifesto, it barely mentioned the word Labour.

Ron got in by 71 votes, then the only MP with a majority smaller than his age. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories won a landslide, their majority was 144.

By June 1987 I was in Darlington. Michael Fallon was the sitting Tory MP but Labour, under Neil Kinnock, was moving back towards the political centre, or centre-left. It had dawned on much of the party that winning from the far left wasn’t going to happen. Ossie O’Brien, who had lost to Fallon in 1983, again failed to take the seat. Nationally, the Tory majority was 102.

Somewhere after Carlisle I’d let my party membership lapse. I renewed it and helped select a bright young fellow named Alan Milburn as candidate for 1992. Milburn took back Darlington, the Tories, under John Major, won a fourth national victory in a row. I was beginning to think losing was inevitable.

Then came New Labour. The Major government limped into 1997. Labour had got its act together under Tony Blair and on the glorious First of May, almost 18 years after my first vote, I finally got to be on the winning side. Alan Milburn retained Darlington – one of a barely believable 418 Labour MPs. Blair’s majority was 179.

On that night, sometime between producing The Northern Echo’s 4am edition and dawn coming up on the South Bank in London as it rocked to the sound of Things Can Only Get Better, I wept tears of relief and joy. Mainly, I wept for my then 17-month-old daughter and the knowledge that she wouldn’t grow up under the Tories.

Labour won from the centre and the work of renewing a decaying Britain could begin. A focus on “education, education, education”. Schools renewed, NHS hospitals renewed. The NHS itself given new life.

A quirk of the Blair years, I discovered recently, is that Labour delivered the Freedom of Information Act (the work of David Clark, the outsider from 1979), a ban on fox hunting, a national minimum wage, and equal rights for part-time workers. All of those had featured in 1983’s “longest suicide note in history”. Dreamt up by the left, delivered from the centre.

I was on the winning side again in 2001 (another landslide) and 2005. Labour was in office for 13 years, finally being booted out in 2010. And this year the party again failed to convince the country. So I’m 6-3 down.

And what I’ve learned is that you help no one by being out of power. And you can’t, apparently, win from the left. But if you can win from the centre you can do some of the more radical things you want to do.

So I am finally, after the marching and leafleting and agonising and suffering defeat and disappointment, convinced that the next Labour leader has to employ a bit of pragmatism and take the party back towards the centre if I’m ever to finish on the winning side again.

Because it’s only when you win that you can help people.

I’m rejoining so I can have my say.


Thunder? They could have been Vikings…

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newera2015RUGBY League stands at the beginning of (yet another) new era. It’s the sport’s latest reinvention — and reinvention is something rugby league has always pursued.

In 1895 the founders met at The George Hotel in Huddersfield and created the Northern Union, breaking away from the Rugby Football Union over the issue of broken time, the act of paying working men for wages lost as they played their sport. In other words, it was about the money.

Over the next 100 years rugby league evolved, all the while being persecuted by rugby union. And then, in 1995, the entire professional game was uprooted from its winter season and turned it into a summer sport. Once again, it was about the money.

And expansion of the game was on the agenda. Why did this sport have to be confined to its heartlands?

newcastlethunderAn idea was forming, one which led, in 1999, to Gateshead Thunder joining the Super League. For the latest new era that club has a new name and a new home. So welcome Newcastle Thunder and good luck…

The article below, a reaction to a plan for a club playing its games in York and Gateshead, goes back to the beginning…

First published in The Northern Echo, April 18, 1995
The dust has yet to settle on plans for radical change in the sport of Rugby League but Echo writer PHIL LAMBELL believes the North-East should be included in the Super League

MEDIA tycoon Rupert Murdoch has forced Rugby League into profound, and much-needed, change.

Only a handful of the 32 professional clubs have two pennies each to rub together. A game which is athletic, action-packed and colourful is played in slums – a 90s sport with 30s facilities. The offer of £75m over five years from Murdoch was too good to turn down. It took the club chairmen just 96 hours to write off 100 years of history.

This will be the last season of Rugby League as the sport’s fans know it. Coming soon: the summertime Super League.
Clubs will be forced into shotgun marriages, famous names will vanish. There is uproar in the heartlands of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. There are cries of class betrayal.

But Super League is a golden, once-only opportunity for the sport to break out of those heartlands and the North-East should be on board.

So far only a handful of observers have recognised the opportunity that the North-East offers to a sport desperately in need of national credibility.

John Stabler, chairman of Ryedale-York, has recognised it, but his Northern Vikings plan may not be what the region needs. It could be difficult to build if only half the team’s home games are at Gateshead.

Much hard work has already been put into building the sport in the North-East and 6,000 — almost all locals — turned out on a foul February night to watch England play France at Gateshead Stadium.

The sport is now played by hundreds at amateur open-age level, hundreds more in schools. Last Saturday 15 teams of under-nines filled the Gateshead Riverside Bowl with their Little League enthusiasm.

On an average Sunday 50,000 pay at the turnstiles to watch Rugby League. Yet there are 2,300,000 within 45 minutes’ drive of Gateshead Stadium. Even a gate of 5,000 would boost an entire professional sport’s attendances by ten per cent.

A North-East crowd would come fresh to the sport with none of the prejudice or bitterness presently stalking established Rugby League territory and none of the baggage of the schism with Rugby Union 100 years ago.

The commercial appeal of a sport backed by exposure in the Murdoch media and the crowd potential of the North-East make a Super League team based in Gateshead irresistible.

It may be that Stabler’s scheme is not what is needed but someone in the sport must grasp the North-East opportunity. I think they will.

o The Northern Vikings never happened. Widnes, one of the founders of the Northern Union in 1895, adopted the Vikings name. Shane Richardson, an Australian, and Kath Hetherington, from Yorkshire, grasped the North-East opportunity and started Gateshead Thunder in 1998. John Stabler was a shareholder and director. The club’s Super League life lasted only one season, 1999, before the money ran out.

In retrospect, it’s all about that sweet soul music, 2014

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MY favourite band are playing their annual hometown Christmas gig on Monday, December 29, at the Rolling Mills Club in Darlington. Here’s who they are, and what they do. Gig details at the end of the article.

First published in Darlington & Stockton Times, December 2014

A SOUL band that can trace its roots back more than 35 years is marking Christmas with a new CD and a home town gig.

The Smokin’ Spitfires have been performing their unique combination of soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues originals and covers of Stax and Atlantic classics since 2003.

But the band can trace its origins back to 1978 when the still-remembered East Side Torpedoes played their first gig in the upstairs room of the Travellers Rest in Darlington and set off on a journey that saw them get very close to the music business big time.


The Smokin’ Spitfires 2014. Back, from left, Alan Thompson (sax), Bob Garrington (guitar), Ian Rigby (bass). Front, from left, Gary Cain (drums), Mike Hepple (keyboards), Steve McGarvie (sax), Terry O’Hern (trombone), Neil Hunter (vocals). Picture supplied by the band (copyright unknown).

Then, as now, the lead singer and songwriter was Neil Hunter. The East Side Torpedoes started as a five-piece, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section. Terry “Ernie” O’Hern on trombone is the other constant in the two bands.

The East Side Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by Chas Chandler, formerly of The Animals. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop station. They appeared at the Knebworth festival and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film about them.

Along the way they were the first band to play at Darlington Arts Centre, in what would become the Garden Bar. In July 2012 the Smokin’ Spitfires were all but the last band to play there before the centre closed.

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Hunter – in the mid 80s. He and O’Hern stuck together in North-East bands the Blue Sharks , the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires.


Retrospective features ten tracks from the Smokin’ Spitfires

The new ten-track CD which was made available at the Spitfires’ monthly Sunday gig at The Cluny in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago is called Retrospective.

Hunter explains: “In the early days of the Spitfires we decided we would release some CDs of original material, five CDs of five tracks each and we called them Five for a Fiver.

“The original idea was we’d release them over about ten months. It took closer to 10 years. We still get asked for them and there haven’t been any to sell for a long time. We felt we needed something for those people who wanted it so we looked at what we had and polled the band on their favourite two tracks from each of the five CDS. Retrospective is what we’ve come up with.”

Producing the CD was a task for the band’s youngest member, tenor sax player Steve McGarvie. According to Hunter: “He reckons I’m old enough to be his granddad.”

“Steve got hold of what was left of any masters and went to work,” says Hunter. “He’s done a pretty good job really, considering what he had to work with. Then Gary Consiglio, who has done the artwork for CD, has come up with some new branding that’s so much better than anything we’ve had in the past.”

The Spitfires are a band happy in their work, which shows on stage. “Everyone in the band gets on so well together,” says Hunter. “The age range doesn’t matter. If you love the music and love what you’re doing anything else is irrelevant. We’re happy as a band, we’re a good band. I think it’s like BB King says, it’s 60 per cent personality, 40 per cent musicality.

Many musicians have passed through the Smokin’ Spitfires over the years and some will return for the Christmas gig being staged at the Rolling Mills Club. For that one evening the band becomes The Mighty Smokin’ Spitfires with 11 on stage.

As well as the Spitfires’ original songs the audience can expect a selection of soul classics made famous by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave and James Brown.

“We’ve been doing this gig between Christmas and New Year in Darlington for about 10 years,” says Hunter. “We started in the Travellers, then the Arts Centre and since that closed this’ll be the third one at the Rolling Mills. It’s always been a good opportunity to play more of our own stuff than we get to do normally. The Cluny gig has taken that on too. We’ve almost had to start learning our own stuff again.

“It’s definitely a Darlington-based band. I lived in Darlington, Terry, Steve and Mike (Hepple, keyboards) are all based in Darlington, Ian (Rigby, bass) is from East Layton.

“The important thing about this gig is that people can have a good time, dance, drink some beer, have some fun.”

Smokin’ Spitfires, live at the Rolling Mills Club, Longfield Road, Darlington, on Monday, December 29, 2014. Admission at the door £8, doors open 8pm. Retrospective will be available at the gig.

The band is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Smokin-spitfires/203721456304804
or visit the website: http://smokinspitfires.wix.com/smokinspitfires


Brass and banners

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I’M on the train to Durham for the 130th Miners’ Gala – the Big Meeting. Across the aisle are four Yorkshiremen. One wears a T-shirt with a slogan which won’t be topped during the day — “Druids against fracking”. Their conversation is about the iniquity of employers (and why not, on today of all days?) not allowing time off for religious festivals, such as Beltane, Samhain and Imholc. It’s more Peter Tinniswood than Monty Python. Then one alights upon the signs on the door to the rear of the carriage. “There’s first class,” he observes. “But why in’t there space for working class.” They’re going to be getting off at Durham.

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The new St Hilda pit banner, paraded at the Big Meeting on July 12, 2014

It would be a cliché in a film but you really can hear the sounds of brass bands tuning up as you emerge from the station.

And by the time you reach the city centre you can sense the occasion. People started arriving before 8am. By 11am bands and banners are queuing many hundreds of yards back from the County Hotel – where the day’s fraternal guests gather – in three directions.

There’s a press of people, some waiting with the bands, some squeezing by, inching their way towards the County and onwards to the Racecourse, some with something else to do and caught up in this unique day. The streets of Durham weren’t built for festival and impatience.

And it’s not all about mining any more. It is, after all, 20 years since the last coal was wrenched from underground in the once great Durham coalfield. So the first band I see isn’t brass or silver at all. It’s a pipe band, from Morpeth, in Northumberland. But brass is all around.

The steps at the bottom of Saddler Street, as you go down to Elvet Bridge, have become an impromptu grandstand. A group of men have decided the best protection against the rapidly warming sun are little paper cooks’ hats, courtesy of Krispy Kreme, the doughnut people. Two dancing women dressed for a summer night in Tenerife are demanding a tune from the nearest, patiently waiting, brass band. Eventually the conductor gives in and rewards them, not with an anthem but with Rock Around The Clock.

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The rear of the St Hilda banner, depicting the causes of the 1839 disaster and the subsequent adoption of the safety lamp in the mines

The party is in full swing. Arms full of tins (here rarely called cans) are carried and handed round. It is, apparently, even acceptable today to drink wine from the bottle. Why not, it’s a celebration. Of something.

Halfway down Elvet Bridge I find a banner representing St Hilda pit in South Shields. It’s the pit I think my great-grandfather George worked in, before he went off to the war that began 100 years ago this year. He worked underground, then spent three years in the Hell that was France. And he didn’t come home. He survived it until July 1918 and lies in an unvisited grave in a place called Crouy. What a life.

St Hilda closed in 1940 but, wonderfully, this new banner has been created in commemoration of the men who worked in it and those who perished in the disaster of 1839. The front bears a picture of the South Shields pier, which helped create safe harbour for the ships taking coal to the South. The rear tells the story of the disaster, which killed 51 men and boys, the youngest aged nine. Out of tragedy, it is a thing of beauty.

In among the miners’ lodges are other trades unions. The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers are here to mark the passing of their leader, at the age of 52. They wear T-shirts proclaiming “Bob Crow. RMT. Legend.” Unison are here, fighting to protect public services from austerity cuts. The teaching unions are here, postal workers, firefighters. And sword dancers. And a primary school from a one-time pit village, keeping their heritage alive. And a group of men from the Rhineland, I think, in smart blazers and the most marvellous pillbox hats with tall white plumes.

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The Boldon banner passes the balcony at the Royal County Hotel

On the balcony of the Royal County Hotel the leaders of what is left of the Durham Miners’ Association and their guests look down from above a sign for Starbucks Coffee – one of the current great Satans of the left for its history of avoiding UK tax – as the bands each play their party piece.

And down on the Racecourse, normally home to Durham University’s cricketers, what a scene. Imagine if you will, a fairground, thrown to the edges of a field, with all the light and colour and noise that entails. In the centre, a political rally, with rabble-rousing orators. A crowd of thousands of the committed and the curious.

And in amongst it the casualties of the beating sun, and the early start to drinking. Never have so many slumbered through so many speeches for so long. And all the time, turning pinker.

It’s here that I spot my second favourite T-shirt slogan of the day. “Labour,” it says. “I preferred their early work.”

If you’d like to know more about the Gala, or Big Meeting, try http://www.durhamminers.org

Just another grim Northern town?


I’M from a town called South Shields. It sits at the mouth of the River Tyne in the North-East of England, the region recently characterised by The Guardian newspaper as the UK’s Detroit – a grim metaphor for urban decay. Despite its size – it’s a town of about 90,000 people – it often seems few people have heard of it. “It’s near Newcastle,” is our reluctant last resort.

It was a coal mining town, a shipbuilding and repairing town. It’s where County Durham’s miners and their families went for a summer day out. Long before that it was famous for glass – and salt. And before that, the Romans built a fort there to protect the river mouth that gave access to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s where the lifeboat was invented.

In recent years its biggest exports, via TV talent shows, have been the likes of  Joe McElderry, half of Little Mix, and, last week, a small percentage of Collabro. The comedians Sarah Millican and Chris Ramsey are from Shields, as is the journalist and political commentator Kevin Maguire.

It’s struggled since the demise of the heavy industries and the town centre isn’t the best. I moved away in 1980, but when I go back, and that’s been more often recently, I marvel at the coastline and the seafront. Here are some recent views from my grim Northern town…


Night train to Venice

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May 31, 1984: Love at first sight. I’m on the steps outside Santa Lucia station. The streets are full of water.

EXACTLY 30 years ago — in the late evening of May 30 — I was on a train rumbling south from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, bound for Venice.

I was 23 and had barely travelled — I’d been to Scotland and that was about it. I was no Alan Whicker. I’d left the UK for the first time four days earlier, seeing London for the first time as I passed through at the end of the first leg of this journey. Carlisle to London Euston. Then onwards to Charing Cross, bound for the Sealink ferry from Folkestone Docks.

We were Inter-Railing. You bought a ticket, a booklet really, which gave access to rail travel across Europe. You wrote in it where you wanted to go – then you got on a train (or a Sealink ferry, because British Railways ran those too) and went. I’m looking at it now, a record of 23 journeys. Only British Rail ever stamped it. I don’t imagine it’s as easy these days.

Four trains and a ferry got us to a youth hostel in Suresnes in the west of Paris — all of those in central Paris being full at such an hour — and a late supper involving a first encounter with real live Americans, who were friendly, but terrifyingly self-confident, and cous cous, which I didn’t try again for years, possibly decades.


Ticket to ride: write in where you want to go, and it happens

There was no plan, other than Paris, then Italy. We had a chunky red paperback — the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. That, a passport, an Inter-Rail ticket and an ability to sleep sitting up, were all you needed.

Venice became the first Italian destination by default. We needed to sleep, and spend no money on accommodation. Anywhere else was too close. But the train to Venice (and beyond) arrived there at about 7am. So it had to be the one.

And so to Gare de Lyon, the biggest, most confusing, busiest station we’d ever seen. But we found the platform early and walked the length of the outside of the train before boarding, sometime after 8pm.

The further you were travelling, the closer to the front of the train your carriage was. I’d swear now that the one directly behind the loco was Greek and there may have been one from Albania. I could be romanticising. Someone may be able to put me right.

Behind that came carriages from Yugoslavia (remember that?). Our seats were in those belonging to the Italian railway — Ferrovie dello Statto. Behind were French SNCF coaches to be dropped off along the way.

I was more accustomed to the rattler along the Tyne Valley line — for me, exotic didn’t begin to describe this train.

We were heading towards Lyon, then on to Milan. Somewhere in the night there was a desultory passport check, long before the Schengen treaty opened the borders. Then maybe it was Verona and Padua, by which time the sun was up. Anyone who wasn’t awake by then was jolted into the day by some shunting at Venice Mestre.

And then, with the sun burning off the morning lagoon mist, we rolled across the Ponte della Libertà. And got our first sight of Venice with its campanile and domed churches.

Not long later, we were off the train in the morning cool of the unmistakeably Italian Santa Lucia station.

Soon after that, we stepped outside into the heat, and the glare, and I saw the Grand Canal for the first time.

And — I don’t care that it’s a cliche — I fell in love with a city.

The Great Goodbye


THEY’RE just machines aren’t they? One hundred and two tons of metal forged and hammered into shape to fulfil a function.


Mallard at The Great Goodbye

Well yes, and no. If that’s all they were we wouldn’t care about them would we?

Not only do we care, we are in awe of these machines. This morning I involuntarily smiled when I heard one of them whistle, a sound carried on the breeze across the north of Darlington, as it made its way down the branch line from Shildon.

And we cared in huge numbers over the last week or so as the remaining six Class A4 Pacific steam locomotives went on show at Locomotion in Shildon (http://www.nrm.org.uk/PlanaVisit/VisitShildon) in an event named The Great Goodbye.

I was one of 18,000 to visit on Saturday. Organisers expected 72,000 visitors over the nine days, they eventually welcomed 120,000. Shildon, not a big place, came to a standstill at times, overwhelmed by traffic. Normally empty two-car trains heading for the event were leaving Darlington full-and-standing.

The A4s were built between 1935 and 1938. Much of the love for them relates to the world speed record set by the most famous of these six survivors – Mallard – as it hurtled down a bank north of Peterborough at 126mph in 1938. It is little remembered that Mallard then broke down, and never completed the run into Kings Cross.

It helps that the A4s are streamlined. Their curves speak of speed. They were nicknamed Streaks. Like the Spitfire, or Concorde, or the Tyne Bridge, they are beautiful. What they all share is that their designers and builders managed to combine engineering and purpose with grace.


Union of South Africa steams along a short line at Locomotion, Shildon

One of the guides at the event pointed out that the A4s remained in service into the 1960s. After their glamour days were over they finished their working days painted black, pulling goods trains. The last ran in 1966.

It was Sir Nigel Gresley, named after the man who designed the A4s, I heard this morning. Union of South Africa and Mallard left yesterday. Bittern will take its leave tomorrow. Dwight D Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada will be at Shildon for a few weeks yet, before going back to their homes across the Atlantic.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see the six together. And I’m glad that someone saw beyond the metal and the functional to save them.

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