Margaret Thatcher, Dr Who, grief and good stories.

Longer version of my Journal column for 12/4/13images

“We’re all stories in the end, just make it a good one, eh?” said Dr Who during his David Tennant incarnation. Though the stories of my own life have failed to have neat beginnings, middles and ends I’ve come to rely on the emotional and fantastical realities of those who travel through Time and Relative Dimensions in Space (i.e The Tardis) to give me some to escape into. I’m not a Dr Who geek – but I was once moved to write “Bad Wolf” in the sand on Tynemouth beach to mark the end of one particular story arc and replayed the scene where Billie Piper and David Tennant said goodbye forever about twelve times in lieu of being able to cry over a real life doomed relationship. I’m not so much a fanboy as a tissuegirl.

During the first series in the eighties, Dr Who episodes were just more stories like Little Red Riding Hood or the Magic Faraway Tree that I read under the sheets after lights out. In 1981, while Tom Baker was morphing into Peter Davison and Margaret Thatcher was visiting Belfast factories, it was my adoptive father’s family in California who represented escape. His tanned, slow-voweled nieces and nephews, who introduced us to McDonalds and M and Ms before they first came to England, said we were “the perfect family”, not knowing about the all night arguments, slammed doors and the raised fists. America seemed to want it’s story to be read by it’s citizens and visitors. Even a six year old from Bradford picked up key elements from adult conversations and T.V- the Founding Fathers, babyboomers, the space race, the American dream.

Back home, the parts of grey concreted Britain’s story on show to someone only just born into it seemed to consist of two things. The wars followed by Margaret Thatcher. The rest were silences when you walked into a room and history books as mysteriously blank as the father’s space on my birth certificate. Margaret Thatcher was like the Mum of the nation and she was also like my Mum who ran a business and had a boy and a girl twin like me and my brother and dressed smartly and told us what to do. She was admired by my adoptive Dad who believed in business and the survival of the fittest and in going into battle with anyone who disagreed with him. So “Mrs Thatcher” (the idea) got mixed up with the story of my family and I felt guilty when I came home from sleeping at Nan’s with her words about our PrimeMinister ringing in my ears; “Under that woman, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” and believed them until being relieved when Mum or Dad mentioned “Bloody Arthur Scargill” or “Loony lefty councils” or “Your teachers going on strike yet abloodygain”. It turned out there were other ways of telling even that story, ones I wasn’t supposed to hear.

Into one of the gaps where there could have been a story about my country, Dr Who travelled through space and drew a timeline from 1989 when he was axed, to 2005 when he returned. I hadn’t seen my family for sixteen years, after everything exploded, but the series reminded me of what had endured about Englishness from my childhood to my thirties. Vague, eccentric geniuses and jelly babies, bow ties and wobbly sets, fighting for the underdog and ramshackle invention. In 2005, the Doctor even had a Northern accent like the one I was now conscious of having. An accent which isn’t heard telling public stories as often as others. By then I’d learned something about what it is to know you’re in a margin not a centre. He battles baddies and the loneliness of being the last time lord. He can never die, just regenerates more times than a Northern city’s Quayside.

I grew up to have a job writing and reading news stories in a region where Thatcher wasn’t just someone who had woven in and out of the backdrop of people’s personal stories the way most governments do most of the time, the way she had in mine. She’d had a direct impact on people’s lives- taking away livelihoods, jobs and communities. Her battle against them, a battle that often felt so personal, saw some become bent down with a defeat and anger that weighs them down even now. Ever since I moved to the North East I’ve been hearing about Thatcher’s future death. The glee of stamping the dirt down, spitting on the grave, pissing on it. Many a flat gig in a pub room would get an instant shot of energy if Maggie’s future death was anticipated. A burst of joy, as if it would bring the story that had been so painfully true to an end at last.

My adoptive father had had two heart attacks when I still lived at home. After I left and he made it clear to my Mother and siblings that anyone with me must be against him, I waited for him to die so I could get my family back. I knew I would need to be patient. It was 1991. It might take twenty years I thought. I knew there would never be apologies from him, or forgiveness of me – so death was the only end to the story I could possibly imagine. He died a month ago and it soon became clear that this would not after all lead to the spell being lifted and the wasteland growing again. My twin brother is too damaged by the intervening years and my Mother is too used to doing everything on her own. My leaving home to get away from it all when I was sixteen has damaged the fragile ties of trust that exist in a family where member is pitted against member. My sister and I though, have cried and laughed together on the phone since he went and she sent me the first childhood pictures I’ve seen since I left home. Backdrops of palm trees and Christmas trees. A long forgotten nativity angel’s dress, a Rubicks Cube and mine and my brother’s matching pump bags.

So this Saturday’s Dr Who already felt resonant.The Doctor and new companion Clara had to defeat a badly CGI’d orange planetary being who had been parasitically feeding on the hopes and dreams of inhabitants nearby for years. They placated it with songs and the sacrifice of some of their young people. Then the Doctor tries to overwhelm the being with his hundreds of years of memories. But it’s Clara who defeats it by simply presenting it with a pressed leaf she’s kept (bear with me), the leaf which had caused her dead parents to meet. She says; “It’s full of stories, full of history. Full of a future that never got lived, days that should have been but never were. This leaf isn’t just the past, it’s a whole future that never happened. There are millions and millions of unlived days but every day we live an infinity. All the days that never came”.

My adoptive father didn’t want a funeral that not enough people would come to, though bizarrely, his ashes will be buried with their dog when it dies. I wrote to him when he was dying and he wrote back, almost apologising for the way he had tried to destroy the sixteen year old me because I threatened the life he had managed to claw out of his chaos. He said he wanted to come and see me, though there would be no need to talk about the past and “bring all that up again”. I said no. He died in a French hospital on a snowy day a month ago. I didn’t like him, I won’t miss him and I hadn’t seen him for twenty years- but I’ve been feeling a dragging in the chest and an edginess to my emotions since that feels suspiciously like grief.

For many, Thatcher was someone who caused real destruction they still suffer every day. Her death might feel like an end, but it brings a renewed mourning for the infinity of days that were lost- the lives that could have been. This divided country is now living out several stories at once in the absence of a strong narrative we could all buy into (like the one we glimpsed during the Olympics opening ceremony). A cacophony of other voices are also telling their versions of Thatcher and our history. Those (like me) who were unaware children when she led, those who benefitted from and reveled in the culture of greed she encouraged, those who have a vested interest in perpetuating her brand of conservatism. For some Thatcher was a good story, for some she was a horror story. But until those who suffered the real damage of her rule get to speak without being shouted down or pilloried, then the damage is just being reinforced. Saying that there’s no need to “bring all that up again” is like saying that it didn’t matter in the first place.

Not that they would ever have been able to hear it-the ones who couldn’t bear disagreement- and they certainly never will now they’re dead. But someone has to be willing to listen, to witness what happened, for there to be the healing that might lead to a new beginning. It’s more urgent than social proprieties about not speaking ill of the dead or respect for mourning- it’s the thing that allows real mourning for what’s been lost to happen, for the energy tied up in regret and anger to be released and for a better future to be imagined and built.

We’re all stories in the end, let’s just make them good ones, eh?

Tribute to Lee Halpin-who died while making homeless film



Some people are so alive it is particularly hard to believe they can die.

I’ve written columns recently about how Newcastle’s future is in it’s young people.

Often it was Lee Halpin who I was picturing. For me he exemplified the can-do optimism of a hard pressed city still ready to reach beyond it’s own limits. A digital native with his feet firmly planted in Newcastle soil. I think he’d both appreciate that statement and take the mickey out of it for it’s pretentiousness.

I met him because I performed a lot with his Dad, the poet Aidan Halpin. Their love of words and belief in fiercely honest speech both illuminate the way Newcastle’s cultural past still burns brightly while morphing into a future that it’s citizens could have more power to create if they seize it the way that Lee did. Geordie beat poetry’s rhythms blended into Lee’s love of Newcastle’s speech melodies, via hip hop, Gonzo journalism, literature with a capital L and everything in between.

He came to many of our poetry gigs and would sit at the front, encouraging, enthusing. He was the person who brought the phrase “He lit up the room with his smile” to life for me. I thought it was just a meaningless cliche until I met him. He could somehow raise the energy in a gathering several notches with the sheer warmth of his personality.

The magazine he co-founded, Novel, was about great design, good writing and shining a light on Newcastle’s arts and culture from the street up. He called it a great opportunity for portfolio building and wanted North East creatives to have a platform to help start their careers.

Whilst the death of such a vibrant young man is surreal to start with, his final video about the project he was undertaking, rings with dramatic irony. He was applying for an investigative journalism apprenticeship on Channel Four’s Dispatches programme and wanted to demonstrate a “fearless approach” to journalism by investigating rising homelessness in the city, particularly in the light of the hard winter and the effects of the bedroom tax forcing people onto the streets. As he said  “it certainly feels brave from where I’m sat right now and has caused a huge amount of trepidation among my family and friends”. It killed him. Small comfort that his death does indeed shine a light on the plight of the homeless- he had so much else to say, to do, to live. As well as being devastating to his friends and family, his death is a real loss to the North East’s vibrant cultural scene. He said, modestly in an interview that he didn’t have outstanding talent, just “a lot of get-up and go”.  We’re entering a time when the fearlessness of people like him is needed more than ever and- rarely is this so true- he will be missed.

Some of his close friends are continuing his work on the film. Follow or donate here:

Sunderland FC’s Di Canio Own Goal


I don’t think they usually interview footballers for clubs, or issue job briefs. If they did then they could add “Being a bit of a tit is okay” to the person spec. It’s sort of expected. The ones who aren’t stand out. Everything from domestic abuse to GBH and racism litter many of their personal CVs. We seem to tolerate this. But football managers are different. They are figureheads for their clubs. They often become father figures for their teams and embody a club’s values. In my limited knowledge of football, managers come in two basic models; the Salt of the Earth camel coat type who would be managing a garage if they weren’t managing a football team. They have old fashioned hair and views. Your Harry Redknapps and your Alec Fergusons. Then there’s the Egomaniac Armani jacket type. You know you’ve got one of these if they refer to themselves in the third person and give themselves a nickname encapsulating how brilliantly narcissistic they are- the Special One, the Unique One, the Most Mint One (in reserve for when Gazza becomes a manager). Paolo di Canio would unproblematically fall into this latter category if it wasn’t for his fascist past. If he was coming to the North East to manage a pub, then this would be annoying and worrying, but it would only be the pub chain that suffered. It wouldn’t reflect on the whole region in the way that a football club’s choices reflect on the region.

Hooray for David Miliband for taking a stand and resigning as Vice Chair of the board, for the fans who say they won’t go to games while he’s in place, for those who set up a “Sunderland Fans Against Facebook” page and got banned from the club’s official Facebook site for their comments, for the journalists who keep on asking awkward questions rather than toe the PR line.

No hoorays for the club for deciding to employ him, for the club’s PR team who are staggeringly incompetent in their crisis management, for the fans who say “But at least he might help us stay up”. It’s easy to be drawn into hyperbolic comparisons, but that does remind me of the “At least Hitler got the trains to run on time” argument.

The Dean of Durham Cathedral and Durham Miner’s Association also spoke out but seem to have been quickly mollified by his cursory “I don’t support fascist ideology, now I’ll only talk about football”. That won’t stop the circulation of the images of his one armed salute, or him at a fascist bomber friend’s funeral, which could act as a lightning rod for some disaffected football fans looking for a justification and conduit for the right wing extremism these things symbolise- in the same way as it did for former club Lazio’s notorious hooligan fans the Ultras (Photos have emerged of him wearing their T shirt).

Football clubs are no longer just about the activities of eleven men on a field. The Black Cats values are exemplified in their outreach work with youngsters in the region with the Foundation of Light charity and in Africa with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It’s the positive flipside of the corporate focus which means fans pay more for matches and merchandise. It sees their power being used to make a positive difference. Paolo di Canio may say he’s not a politician- but he IS now, like it or not, a public representative of the North East. A region which has long fought against racism and in these difficult times is battling growing support for groups like the BNP.

It seems that the language of money is the only one that some football clubs understand. So fans should withhold their money from the club until he is gone. They should let the club’s sponsors know that they will be withholding their money from them too. (Simple emails would suffice- “Dear Adidas, I’m buying Nike until Di Canio’s gone from Sunderland” etc). They would still be supporting the team, but not the club. A club which now needs to conjure up some genuine humility to counterbalance the breathtaking arrogance displayed by Di Canio in his first ill-fated meeting with the press. I know, breathtaking arrogance and football in the same sentence- who’d have thought it? But in this instance they’ve crossed the line, scored an own goal and are in danger of making their game of two halves over before it’s even begun.