Victim of Prejudice

The town of Blyth has a long history, going back at least as far as the 12th century. Finds from the Neolithic era have been found nearby, though that in itself is no evidence of a settlement.  All the same it should be exactly the sort of place that appeals to me, especially when you add in the fact that it’s located on the beautiful Northumbrian coast.  Yet whenever I’ve been on that coast I’ve always felt it best to keep heading north away from Blyth.

The town was quite prosperous from the 18th century onwards with a range of trade and industry that included shipbuilding, coal mining, fishing, salt and railways.  And there you see the first hint of a problem.  Though these have all been vital contributors to the economy in their time, that time is firmly in the past, at least as far as the UK is concerned.  Shipbuilding and coal were both casualties of the Thatcher years, fishing has been hit by dwindling stocks resulting in EU quotas (watch this space one Brexit kicks in), we’re all trying to cut back on our salt intake, and if there were ever two words guaranteed to lead to a joke in the 70’s and 80’s it was British Rail.  In short, Blyth has long seen economic decline, and for many years was known for having one of the worst drug problems in the UK.

The town’s tourist website has little more to offer than the facts in the previous couple of paragraphs, so when I had to visit to collect an eBay purchase I had no real subject in mind.  That meant I had to play safe and head for the coast where some long exposure photography was bound to bring results.

The multiple groynes that prevent the erosion of the beautiful sandy beach were one option, the long shot down towards St Mary’s to the south gave another, but that’s a lighthouse that we’ve already covered here so best look north where there’s a new lighthouse to add to the collection at the end of a pretty intriguing pier whose latticework topping gives it a unique aspect.  This is the East Pier, a continuation of a spit of land that runs from north of the River Blyth’s mouth and provides the protection that made this such a busy port.

There’s another lighthouse in town, one of a pair of “high/low lights” similar to those at North Shields, though there’s no light left, just the tower.

Which makes it very frustrating that any references I can find to Blyth lighthouse always take me to that structure rather than the one in these pictures which was built in 1907.

Looks like I’ll have to overcome my prejudice and come back to find out more for myself!


Putting Down New Roots

Thank Marco Polo for bringing noodles back from China and inspiring all those wonderful pasta variations.

Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.
Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.

Or maybe not.

In a recent programme for the BBC, ancient historian Michael Scott suggested that Arabs brought strips of semolina similar to tagliatelle to Sicily a century earlier.

With only a 100 miles or so of the Mediterranean separating Sicily from North Africa it’s not surprising that Italy becomes the route of choice for many wanting to migrate to Europe, and as far back as the 11th century BCE there were Phoenician settlements on the island.  Centuries later, another Phoenician colony, Carthage, was to become the greatest enemy of Ancient Rome.  Cue Hannibal and elephants.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in from the north, but they were resisted in the south by Islamic armies drawn from southern and eastern Mediterranean states.  In the same decade that England feel to William of Normandy, another Norman invasion took Sicily.  It’s hardly surprising that Italy didn’t really unite as a country until Garibaldi.  Too many historic differences and interests in the mix.

Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico
Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico

For many that eventual unification was a disaster.  (Remember that line in my last post about how Southern Italians distrust their Northern compatriots?)  In the early years of the new nation, resources were allocated to industrial rather than agricultural areas, industry being seen as the key to future prosperity.  Unfortunately this policy favoured the northern cities, and attempts at greater agricultural productivity were thwarted by damage to the soil.  Soon the threat of poverty forced many to see abandoning their new country as a means of survival, and so began what became the largest voluntary migration the world had witnessed.

Genoa of course, being in the prosperous north, wasn’t so badly affected by the social and political unrest, but as Italy’s largest port it had a vital part to play in that mass migration.  Naples and Palermo were the ports of choice, being based in the south, but with 13 million Italians leaving over a 35 year period between 1880 and 1915 it was a case of any port in a storm, and vessels such as Ferruccio, Konig Albert, and St Michele loaded up with passengers in Genoa.  Some went further afield and sailed from France.  Roughly one in three of those who left were headed for America.

Conditions on the transportation ships varied according to the wealth of the passenger, but considering most of this migration was driven by poverty, most faced very cramped accommodation – if you’ve seen the film Titanic you have a reasonable idea.

For most of those leaving it was the right decision – Italians have done well in many of the countries that received them, including the UK.  Given our current phase of xenophobic politics I wonder if we’d be so welcoming now, and now is important because migration is once again a hot topic for Italians.

In Maddalena young African men beg with caps
In Maddalena young African men beg with caps

That narrow gap between Africa and Italy is still there, and the tiny island of Lampedusa, once a popular holiday destination, has seen itself transformed into a holding destination for those seeking a better life in Europe as Italians actively rescue thousands trying to make the crossing in all manner of unsuitable craft.  Sadly many don’t make it to this new Ellis Island.

As European politicians argue over how to handle the challenge (and Britain chooses to close her eyes and ears while shouting “Brexit” above all else) it was gratifying to hear the Mayor of Palermo, who having seen 400,000 migrants arrive in Sicily (which includes Lampedusa) over 2 years, go on to say:

Welcome, is the best guarantee for safety


Proms in the Dark

In 2013 Darlington held its first Proms in the Park concert; an event aimed at bringing the people of Darlington together and promoting a sense of civic pride in the town.  This weekend saw the fourth of these events and brought me back to the town’s South Park.

The local newspaper’s headline from the 2015 event spoke volumes “Best of British on Display” for indeed this is a quintessentially British event; deckchairs and picnic blankets, champagne and ice cream, the gentle jingoism of a military band proclaiming that

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force have made old England’s name

Our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen have always played the game

They’re steady, they’re true and always ready

They fight for you and me

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force leading us to victory.

The irony of British  service men singing of what they have done for England went over the heads of most, but this weekend it had a particular irony.  We are no longer a united kingdom.  We have endured a bitterly divisive political campaign over our membership of the European Union, a campaign marked by lies, distortions and utter disrespect on both sides of the argument and we face an uncertain future.  Both of our main political parties are now riven by in-fighting, and politicians who have long know that the public lacked confidence and respect in them have behaved in ways likely to see their standing eroded further.  I fear this will result in greater division within the population too as more extremism gains a voice.  I may seem needlessly pessimistic – but Michael White, a political journalist who I have always respected if not always agreed with puts it well here.

The regional splits in how the country voted mean that Scotland has a justifiable reason to demand a second independence vote; they voted to remain in the EU.  Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, will pursue this vigorously, but she may not be alone in wanting to break away from the UK.  _PW_1681Across the Irish Sea, a majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain too, giving Sinn Féin grounds to pursue their agenda of a united Ireland once more, the Republic of Ireland being the only part of the EU where we have a shared border.

_PW_1664The band leader who fronted the performance explained that in choosing his programme he had opted for the theme of “music from around the world”, yet we have just turned our back on internationalism in favour of division and subdivision.

I have no idea how most of the audience around me may have voted (though there were some obvious indications), but it already seems that those who desired a Britain apart may well have a Britain torn apart.  Those who wanted to reject a European flag in favour of the “Union Jack” had better enjoy their victory while it lasts.  That flag may soon be missing the blue and white of Scotland very soon.

All of that seemed far from the minds of those celebrating Armed Forces Weekend and enjoying the music.

Or maybe we were just fiddling while Rome burns.


A place to rest (Venezia 25)

Most people who go on holiday spend little time considering the laws and customs of the countries they visit, assuming, often wrongly, that there won’t be much difference between their small patch of civilisation and any other, and of course as the European Courts continue to standardise laws across the European Union this isn’t perhaps such an unreasonable assumption.

Places like Venice are so different however that they are bound to require a different approach; how many people know that they could be heavily fined for feeding the pigeons for example?  Or for having a picnic?

Among the lesser known customs it is expected that you should negotiate narrow alleys by walking on the right, avoid stopping to rest on bridges, and before pausing to gaze in wonder at some newly discovered piece of art/history/architecture/designer-wear/restaurant ensure that you leave space for the less interested to pass around you.

Arsenale seems a quiet spot to avoid such issues…