The North has spoken: hear the voice of the North! We’re in the 1930s in this latest series of Michael Portillo’s wonderful railway programme, which I am always so pleased to see in the TV schedules, and we’re in the beautiful North East. We got, packed into the space of half an hour, Newcastle’s bridges, Durham cathedral, greyhound racing, fish and chips and artwork – but the most important part was the first stop, the visit to Jarrow, best-known (with all due respect to the Venerable Bede) for the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. There were a number of hunger marches during the inter-war years, but the Jarrow Crusade – led by a woman from Manchester (had to get that bit in!) – is the one that’s really gone down in history. Strangely, this is the first time that I’ve actually seen one of the famous Jarrow Crusade banners in the flesh, so to speak. Like the banners carried at Peterloo, and on the suffragette marches, it was hand-made, and a lot of work went into it. There’s something fascinating about those banners. The ones carried during the Jarrow Crusade are such iconic images of the Depression.
The banners were in neutral colours, because none of this was partisan. No-one was trying to score political points, to oppose anyone else. Everyone was trying to work together. I wish we saw more of that now. People seem to want to politicise everything now, even something like the Australian wildfire crisis. We so badly need to get back to working together.
The Jarrow Crusaders were refused support by the London-based leadership of all the main political parties, and by the trade unions. There’d been some trouble at some previous hunger marches, and there were concerns about infiltration by communist agitators about whom everyone was paranoid about the time … and the authorities were more concerned about that than about the plight of Jarrow, where, following the closure of the shipyard which had been the town’s main employer, unemployment stood at 80% and child mortality at 11%. There’d been hopes that a steelworks could be opened in the area, but it hadn’t happened – not least because British iron and steel bosses objected to the American investment that was on offer. The BBC mentioned that the Bishop of Jarrow blessed the crusade, but didn’t mention that the Bishop of Durham denounced it.
However, there was heartwarming support at most of the places where the marchers stopped along the way. They were given accommodation, food and clothing, and cobblers worked through the night to repair their shoes. That included local branches of all the political parties, despite what the leadership said, as well as other local organisations. People can be wonderful. Sadly, the Crusade didn’t really bring about any action at the time, and it was, as the local historian whom Michael spoke to said, the war which rescued Jarrow’s economy; but it did do a lot to raise awareness of the issues faced by communities left behind by deindustrialisation. Unfortunately, 84 years later, we’re still not dealing with these issues, and the dismissive attitude of many in the London bubble towards areas affected has got worse rather than better. Long live the spirit of the Jarrow Crusaders, and well done to BBC 2 for highlighting it in this opening episode.
What else? Greyhound racing in Byker. No reference to Byker Grove! A lot of talk about fish and chips – a very important subject! Artwork in Spennymoor – and I’m going to show my age and say that, whilst I associate Byker with Byker Grove, I associate Spennymoor with George Courtney 🙂 . And we saw Michael staying at a lovely railway hotel. So many of the best hotels in the country started off as railway hotels.
There are a lot of railway programmes around at the moment. Michael Buerk’s been talking about Victorian railways. Chris Tarrant’s been talking about the importance of railways during the First World War. There’s something fascinating and romantic about railways. Well, past railways, anyway! I’m so glad to see this back for yet another series, and this was a great start to it.