Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The weather today has been superb – the summer we are so frequently promised has arrived.

Moving around with unaccustomed freedom without a coat or jacket, my wallet tucked into a shirt pocket, taking in the sparkling views as I plied my way back and forth across the city, exchanging words with disappointed football fans ("there'll be a revolution") and greeting an old friend off soon to Africa. Making my rounds, doing chores ... But in weather such as this it's a pleasure.

I looped back towards home carrying shopping just as parents fetched tiny children from nursery school, pushchairs rattling as they passed under the railway bridge in deep shade. School is out so boys on thick wheeled bicycles appeared. Students in shorts earnestly discussing something hurried by. The trees, so recently bare, hung low down under the weight of their own foliage, holding to themselves deep pools of darkness. Then I heard it.

Somewhere ahead high up in a tree beside the railway a bird was calling. Not the beautiful run of trills and pauses of a true 'song bird', more a persistent call sign. It might be saying "pick me up, pick me up" – indeed probably is if one thinks about why birds sing at all. What drew me towards it in the grove of trees which is so much more than a single specimen, more a self enclosed world, was the possibility it might be a Chiff chaff ...

The Chiff chaff is a migrant bird about the size of a sparrow but less bulky, sleek and has a slender bill. It spends the summer here in the north and in the autumn flies south to Africa for the winter months. A bird which weighs less than a few coins and is of a size to fit into a cigarette packet flies thousands of miles.  It took centuries for people to believe that fact.

Where was it? I entered into the wood. At once one is plunged into a world of softness, contrasts and fleeting light. I could see the sky, bluer than even outside and the pattern of leaves against it far above. I craned my head back. It was hardly enough; I had to bend my back as well. The sound was coming from somewhere overhead. By turning on the spot I could try to find the direction, narrow the search.

There is in my book, no certain way to distinguish the call of the Chiff chaff from that of the native Great Tit than by sight. Other people with better hearing can 'pick' them. I cannot. At least, I don't trust myself to do so.

This was beginning to hurt. Dizziness crept in. I inched forward hoping no one would come along the path and see me like this ... Then it moved and I saw a shape against a branch. I moved and lost it. Had it flown off? The song restarted. It was ignoring this animal far below thankfully.  I located it again, lost it again trying to get into a better position. Then I thought I saw a dark head. So it was a Great Tit. But hang on, in that case where was the yellow breast with its highly visible central black marking? I edged forward. My neck and head were getting uncomfortable and I was in danger of falling over. Then I was there, right under the perch and watched as the bird preened and straightened up and sang its brief ring tone call. A Chiff chaff!

By the Ouseburn Community Centre the parents, dad's displaying tattoos were supervising a children's play time, people walked purposefully off along the pathway towards the city centre and a couple of sunbathers took proud possession of the City Stadium. All's well with world, Financial crises come and go. Somethings are still free.

The Chiff chaff. bbc.co.uk

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Where there's muck ...

Oh, dear ...

An artist's impression of the proposed 'Science City'.
Sunshine courtsey of global warming.

Another master plan for what little remains of this historic and, at times and places, beautiful city. Get the 'full' (sic) story here.
I note that one voice remains to be convinced:

"Nick Kemp, who leads Newcastle Council’s regeneration scrutiny panel, welcomed the overall “positive” move, but argued that clarity was needed over some of the developments. 
He questioned the “obsession” with plans for a conference convention centre on Gateshead Quays, saying he had seen “no response still as to what other options were considered since the location is an accessibility nightmare and the infrastructure required will add massively to the cost”. – The Journal Ibid.

I do not see a glittering career ahead for Mr Kemp, somehow. He had better learn to toe the line and quick.

Schemes like this (and there are many, with all the U.K. regions involved in a pitiless battle to make themselves attractive to scarce 'inward investment') make money for professionals – consultants, building conglomerates and planners. Less frequently they pay for themselves and leave something useful behind. Too frequently, they do not. Newcastle is currently awash with three decades worth of unlet office blocks, some brand new.

The announcement in the Journal casually throws in this gem:

" [The scheme] will prioritise efforts to build new business premises on either side of the River Tyne, set up a new home for the cultural sector in the Ouseburn, ..." 

'New' will amuse many. The Smazz Jazz organisation has been putting on national quality performers at the Cluny venue over the years. Recently the Arts Council North turned them down for a measly sum of money. When I last looked, Cluny, set up by arts activist's and paid for chiefly with their own time and money, was in the Lower Ouseburn . The Waygood Affair is a saga in itself – I will not say much except that it does not sit well with these soothing words of a pay off for the arts in these ambitious schemes; surely, people are getting wise to the use of the arts as a fig leaf for rapacious developers? Artist led organisations must be waking up the realities of jumping into bed with developers whose main task is to attract corporate investors? "He who pays the piper" is another saying which still has life in it.

Meanwhile, another round of gimcrack building is being planned as we sleep.

It will all end in tears ...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Dear Sir ..."

Tipped off about an article in today's Newcastle Journal I could not resist writing them a letter. Had to be by e-mail.

I wrote as follows:

"Oh, dear. Arts bosses don't think the arts contribution to the success of the north east's drive to re-make itself in a post-industrial world has been sufficiently acknowledged? Been there, done that.

At a swanky conference held some years ago in the hallowed halls of St James Park, I met with the 're-buff direct' when I gently (or so I thought) pointed out this fact to a V.I.P. with friends in the then government. "How interesting" I said, "that it is artist's whose enterprise has lead the way in inner city re-generation".

This was not what the V.I.P. wanted to hear at all. Having just made a presentation that emphasised the need to lure the corporate names of the British High Street to open yet more factory scale retail outlets on Tyneside, the last thing he wanted to learn was the scruffy and unwashed also had a role in economics. I was treated along with the rest of the table to a tale about an exhibition put on in the city of some whacky Teuton who had sliced up his own guilt-ridden body and photographed the results for public delectation. That was art as far as he was concerned. And me shot down, if not put in my place. He had taxpayers money. Lots and lots of it and he wasn't at all interested in the arts.

It is also a trifle late in the day for the Newcastle city fathers (sic) to wring out their hearts over  the benefits of tourism and culture. Their lasting contribution to both has been acres of ferro concrete, inner urban motor ways and a remarkable 100 per cent record in planning re-development: Everything they have touched is dross. Newcastle has the least good modern architecture of any major city in the U.K. for its size and has demolished plenty of splendid buildings in the pursuit of "progress" a word it might have almost single handedly emptied of significance. The irony is, had they done nothing it would actually have been less damaging to the cities prospects in the 21st century."