Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Clouds on the Tyne

In England's far northeast there is a river. Its waters are calm, not pristine but not particularly befouled. The air is silent. From heart to mouth there is little traffic upon it: perhaps a little patrol boat nosing around, or a massive tanker asleep on its banks. Someone, at some moment, might be fishing in it. It is far removed from the crowded, noisy, money-spinning concentration of madness that is London and England's southeast, in the cold, the wet and the wind of what one Conservative MP recently disdained as the 'desolate north'.

Keep opinions like that out of the earshot of the thousands of ghosts on this river, or their still-living descendents, for the heritage of that region defines their identities, their fears and their hopes to this day. This river, as they know it, is the river that made them who they are: a river of life and of death, teeming with ships – trade vessels, tankers, battleships of the royal fleet, birthed in its never-sleeping docks and set forth upon the waves, or ploughing in from or out to the sea, a maritime network connecting this region inextricably to the world. A river that was once one of Europe's mightiest industrial heartlands, whose people broke their backs to contribute to their society, and endured, in turn, far more than their fair share of its injustices and pains. Its story is a paradox of pride and sorrow, its waters a reflection of some of England's bitterest struggles of sustainability, of development and of peace, throughout the past and to this day. It is – of course – the River Tyne.

The former Baltic flour mills, now a museum of contemporary art.

The Tyne collects water from two tributaries at Hexham and flows through what were once England's mightiest coalfields. For hundreds of years, until the 20th century collapse of the British coal industry, the Tyne was the principal outlet for its export. It flows on east, separating the city centre of Newcastle on its north bank from Gateshead on the south, the latter itself a traditional centre of coal mining, ironworks and heavy industry. These supported the massive shipyards and commercial docks along the Tyne's lower reaches, making the Tyne in its day one of the foremost shipbuilding centres in the world. Further along its banks are towns like Jarrow, whose monastery was the home of the Venerable Bede, the celebrated 7th-8th century writer, monk and historian; and Wallsend, the eastern extremity of Hadrian's Wall.

Finally it discharges into the North Sea between North and South Shields, where two piers stick out liike stone lips into the Tynemouth to ease the tricky navigation in and out. South Shields is home to what is considered Britain's first established Muslim community: Yemenis, descended from sailors in the 1890s who served in the British navy out of Aden. They endured racist prejudice and discrimination until the mid-20th century, when attitudes finally began to soften, and their mosque experienced a visit from the boxer Muhammed Ali when he had one of his marriages blessed there in 1977.

The remnants of this heyday are evident all the way along the Tyne of today: derelict dry docks and cranes and warehouses, crumbling ruins, incongruous new housing developments. But we would do better than read the Tyne's story as a simple tale of decline and heritage lost. Along these riverbanks are lessons from Britain's timeless struggles against itself, and new signs of rebirth, perhaps, that hinge upon learning the lessons from these struggles.

England's Miserable Industrial Relations
I have extensively critiqued, on this blog and elsewhere, the likes of neoclassical economics and the heartless employment culture of the capitalist era, by which society takes on a casual expectation of deference from employees towards powerful employers. And you will find few people, from the pitiless flames of industrialization to the ruthless austerity programmes of today, who have suffered more from this broken economic paradigm than the people of the Tyne.

And no-one in England has mustered more courage than they in standing up to it. In 1936, amidst the appalling poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression, over two hundred people from Jarrow marched 300 miles to London to protest the demolition of their shipbuilding industry and to petition for jobs to support their families. Among their number was their MP Ellen Wilkinson, who later wrote about these events in her 1939 book, The Town That Was Murdered. The reaction in Westminster was typical. Prime Minister Baldwin refused to meet with them, and parliament was not bothered to come up with anything to help them other than £1 each for the train fare back to Jarrow. Nonetheless the Jarrow March is remembered as a significant landmark in the history of Britain's labour movement, a moment when some of the country's most exploited people found the courage to stand up to a society, economy and politics all colluding to keep them down.

Workers like these may have poured their sweat and blood into huge contributions to British industrial growth, but they lived their lives in abominable conditions. Coal mining was especially notorious. Employers provided next to no health and safety measures or socio-economic support, and kept their labourers working in lethal underground environments with primitive tools, hazardous gases, cramped and crumbling tunnels and a perpetual risk of disasters. Pit owners typically considered these people expendable and controlled their lives even outside the workplace, starving them back to work if they went on strike and providing insulting compensation to accident victims and their families. This should be considered an episode of unpardonable shame in British and human history, and one of numerous inhumanities for which powerful employers owe a grievous debt to our kind.

A debt which still accumulates. There is a clear thread through time of socio-economic exploitation, cooperatively maintained by politicians and elite employers, that connects this mistreatment and episodes like the Jarrow Marches all the way down through the twentieth century, through the 1984-5 Miners' Strike and demolition of workers' rights by the Thatcher regime which killed off the Tyne as an industrial heartland once and for all. Britain's labour movement has never really recovered, and was effectively cast from politics when Tony Blair transformed the Labour Party, born of that movement, into the “New Labour” project which shunned the trade unions and embraced the market. And that thread still coils its way around necks today, with the current government's vision for the country: one of limitless privilege for business elites, contempt and humiliation for the unemployed, zero-hours contracts, farcical back-to-work schemes, the slashing of social support for the most vulnerable people in the country, and an utter, unashamed disdain, within and abroad, for human rights.

Thus does England, led by London, descend. Might the Tyne, however, be far enough from the maws of madness to find a better way forward?

The Struggle for Sustainability
If you sail down the Tyne today, for all its whispers and ghosts and tranquility, you may notice some actual industrial activity. Look closer and a certain theme is apparent. There is a Siemens facility, servicing wind turbines for the North Sea. Another site nearby processes biomass fuel, including for British power stations. And Nissan is there too, having chosen South Shields as a terminal to export their hybrid and electric cars.

The low-carbon economy, it seems, is bringing the Tyne back to life.

Though the carboniferous economy has not yet gone of course. The few remaining active industrial ships are typically hulking beasts like these, servicing the offshore oil industry in the North Sea.
A profound irony. As a river synonymous in its time with coal and steel, the Tyne was for decades clogged to its banks with filth. Domestic sewerage, industrial effluents and mining runoff deprived the river of its oxygen, making it toxic and inhospitable to life, human or otherwise, and blighting the local communities with cholera. In those days, so I heard, if you fell into the Tyne, then if they got you out quickly enough, and cleaned you up quickly enough, and got you into hospital quickly enough, then if you were lucky you might just possibly not die. Neglect for the environment has long been a reckless hallmark of the story of “modernity”, and the Tyne at its worst may have been its consummate symbol.

All the more surprising, and encouraging then that the Tyne has now been drastically cleaned up, and is finding its new significance in the rejection of that old economics in which environmental destruction is both inherent and ignored. This is in a Britain where the response to climate change has been contradictory, with great efforts and courage in some quarters struggling against great ignorance in others determined to carry on business as usual. And when we look back one day on the story of this struggle, regardless of who wins it, we may find a Tyne that has secured itself a worthier place in it than many in Britain, and that has accordingly reaped the benefits. Even of late, at a time of stagnation and misery, the low-carbon sectors were among the few that continued to grow.

Clouds Disperse
Cold, wet and windy: but at last the skies begin to open. Shafts of light shine through in places, but the clouds are yet to clear enough for a vivid view of this river's future.

The Tyne of the past may have vanished, but so important it was to local identites that there seems little chance those memories will fade any time soon. And that is essential. There is so much, whether to be proud of or ashamed of, that must be remembered and learnt from in the story of England's industrial northeast. So let us hope, for everyone there and for Britain as a whole, that the Tyne's re-emergence may lead it to a cleaner, fairer, and much more pleasant destiny than its past; and one which, perhaps through a front-line position in Britian's continuing struggles against its broken economic paradigm, may promise glories yet to come in making this – at last, one day, at last – a country where humans no longer seek gain from the suffering of others, or of the planet they depend on.
Look closely. Can you see it?

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