David Banks: Dinner was great - but a fully functional kitchen would have been even better

Journal columnist David Banks commends an initiative in his Northumberland village - but says it should have gone further

Journal columnist David Banks
Journal columnist David Banks

The sockets fused just as Valerie and Kath were dishing up 40 plates of Northumberland beef in beer casserole and three veg from the pair of tinny, last-century electric ovens donated from kitchen makeovers.

Gemma and Eileen abandoned their half-filled trays and sallied into the gloom of the fuse cupboard to rectify the fault; only temporarily as it turned out.

Beyond the kitchen, in the main hall, 40 guests chattered excitedly, 40 tummies rumbled in anticipation of the charity lunch-cum-launch party. No one knew.

The sockets fused again as Heather and Doreen portioned up their delicious home-made apple crumble and cream, this time taking down not just the ovens but the tea urn, too. Beyond the ancient kitchen 40 well-fed diners were awaiting the sweets before the speeches, again unaware of the drama without.

Why would they? There was no mention of the breakdown in the plethora of speeches that followed, during which the well-fed top brass from Northern Gas Networks, Community Action Northumberland (CAN) and British Gas all had their say; after all, to the ladies providing the home-made feast it was unremarkable in a century-old village hall kitchen where the power rarely stays loyal past the pudding.

Sadly, for an old scribe like me, you wouldn’t have read about it in the local press, either. Strangely, although invited “journalists” were present, their accounts read astonishingly like the glowing PR handouts that were distributed to launch the charitable “warm hub lunches for the fuel-poor and vulnerable”.

No nosy newsperson discovered that the (admittedly glorious) food had to be cooked in the homes of village volunteers, transported along the icy street and reheated in the sole kitchen in Crookham that is fit only for washing up.

They were far too enthralled by the occasion, attended by representatives of the likes of Age Concern, the NHS and National Energy Action, at which well-meaning sponsors Northern Gas Networks and their CAN facilitators unveiled a plan to provide regular lunches in warm surroundings at similar sites across the county.

Don’t get me wrong: I applaud the initiative shown by Northern Gas Networks. No doubt there’s a need for such an offering in a county in which, by their PR reckoning, 40% of people live in far-flung rural Godzone, 20% of them over-65s and many of them, young as well as old, underpaid and hard-up.

But vulnerable? There were no more than two people at that lunch who could be legitimately described that way. And if fuel poverty exists then it must partly be due, ironically, to a lack of mains gas, which leaves the low-paid at the mercy of oil and electricity price wars.

Northern Gas Networks and CAN have the right idea, but they weren’t the first: Crookham’s ladies suggested to the village hall committee a regular, subsidised weekday lunch for the elderly months ago; all that stopped them was the dilapidation – a leaking roof, no proper disabled access, unheated toilets with no hot water and THAT kitchen!

I’m proud of my village; proud of my neighbours, im­­pressed by the folk from neighbouring farms and villages who put in effort as well as regular appearances at a hall which truly is already the “warm hub” of our community.

The Ladies Who (cooked the) Lunch are too polite to gainsay their sponsors but this sometimes belligerent columnist, well aware of George Bernard Shaw’s view of the profession (“Being a columnist is like standing under a windmill. As soon as you’ve dodged one blade...”) will take that risk. If a kindly company like Northern Gas Networks wanted to spread its charitable influence really wisely it could do worse than help fix a roof, install a disabled ramp and kit out the cooking arrangements of the well-used hall it chose to launch its much-valued venture.

A usually friendly BT executive wrote to The Journal this week correcting my claim of three weeks ago that only BT Broadband appeared able to access the superfast optical fibre network so recently installed up here, at the expense of their rival internet providers.

He’s right: I was wrong. Three weeks later, even we BT customers who more than a month ago booked first place in the superfast race are still waiting for any sign of installation!



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