I’d just clambered up next to the driver of a huge, white UN vehicle when Martin Bell leaned forward from the rear seats ‘If we’re hit you’ll take the first shot.’
I always remember that disconcerting moment from the civil war in Burundi whenever I think of Martin and I always try to conjure up the media professionalism of ‘the man in the white suit’ when I’m about to go on TV.
Unfortunately this rarely works; the demands of a few seconds’ soundbite can leave me bumbling and burbling, squinting into the bright green camera light and frantically trying to keep the earpiece lodged where it’s supposed to be.
I’ve done this many times and I remain determined to get the hang of it. In the meantime I suppose I’ll carry on as I did last week, managing to get the point across but completely lacking that legendary assurance and poise.
Later on I received an email; ‘Personal – BBC’ was the title. Now there’s a worry; I’m always amazed at the power of TV to reach into the most unlikely places but I don’t get a lot of mail after my brief appearances and what does arrive usually launches into a discussion of where I’m going completely wrong without the need for a preamble. On opening, this one was certainly different.
‘I much enjoyed your interview on the Politics Programme yesterday and as an expatriate Northeasterner living in the south it gave me plenty of food for thought.
‘My father used to run a holiday programme for European students in the 1950’s and 60’s and your father Harry was one of a number of very agreeable people we always looked forward to seeing there. I trust I am right about this (though looking at your image on TV I think I am). Were my father still alive I can imagine the pleasure he would have in seeing Harry’s son promote this cause.’
This email moved me beyond measure. My father died when I had just left school and for the last years of his life had to cope with great disability and pain. However, even as a child I was aware of his commitment to the International Camp held annually at Bellingham and I have often wondered how this related to his wartime service in Europe and his commitment to teaching young people about history.
In 1963, when I was 10 my Dad would have spent part of the summer at Bellingham and then joined the rest of us on a holiday to York. I remember this holiday for two reasons; on the first evening I fell head first into an ornamental fish pond and then on a visit to the City Museum I was struck with fascination about old things and about the people who had used them, with a sense of wonder that something of them survived.
Unlike my father I have never become a professional historian but this compelling thought about the way that we encounter the world through the things that remain long after us, the way that meaning and sense of place can be passed down through years and across generations has never left me.
There are echoes of this in the work of Martin Heidegger and some of the great philosophers of our time. However these days I find it closer to home, in a place where someone else recently said to me ‘ It’s uncanny, you look and sound just like your Dad.’
My Dad came to Newbiggin by the Sea from Durham as a small child after the First World War. It’s my Mam’s family who have been rooted there forever and there’s a growing group of us in Newbiggin who are now able to trace a common ancestry back 12 generations rather than one, to great grandparents 10 times over.
All of them humble people, fisher folk and mining families, publicans and assorted trades, the odd school teacher thrown in.
What comes through though is bravery and extraordinary resilience and a thousand stories beginning to be recovered and told.
In recent weeks we’ve started two new initiatives; one, to imagine ourselves back to 1875, trying to get under the skin of our direct ancestors, wondering how they thought and felt but also how they encountered each other’s relatives then living in the town.
Secondly, to begin to create a ‘memory book’ recording the stories that everyone has, keeping our own tales forever, for future generations.
All of this demonstrates that everyone has a story to tell, everyone matters.
However the world’s most overlooked and squandered resource must be the intelligence, insight, humour, wisdom and character of human beings; we who are still alive, or those who have left something of themselves behind.
What’s any of this got to do with politics and appearing on the telly ?
Simply that nothing matters more than people and whether it’s challenging the new feudalism of Baron Henig and his lords of the Combined Authority or that little matter of a General Election next Thursday it is critical that the people turn out and take democratic part.