Slums and Abbeys
A Traveller's Tale #21
By the time this episode of A Traveller's Tale reaches publication I imagine global tensions, natural disasters, political unrest, and the pandemic will have worsened. Being forced to leave home and homeland kith and kin must be one of the most desolating experiences in life. Remembering one's roots and ancestry is both fashionable, if one has the security and financial means to research, and necessary if one is forced to become a refugee. The Cape family name I believe originated in a small barony in Gaul (France) and was carried by men under arms to England during the Norman conquests and the battle of Hastings in 1066. My father Peter's parents were both English and I note my father's somewhat derogatory comments in his diary regarding the English and their attitude. He also had Irish ancestry and red hair which probably counts for something too, but that's just background information at this point. Travelling, as we were, the four of us, my parents, my sister and I, through the British Isles in a 1948 ford Anglia with nine white mice, we had left Whitby and were heading for Penrith and the Lake District. En route we were to visit relatives on the Cape side of the family tree in Willington. I'll let my father's diary account take up the story.
August 26th 1962 Sunday
Up latish : car doesn't want to start ( battery dry – English servicing! ) pushed to road : then started with starter. Rain starts as we drive across country to Bishop Auckland. Get lost: find road to Willington. Meet Molly, Ethel, and Aunt Norah. Stay night. Bath and wash hair.
August 27th 1962 Monday
Drove to Newcastle on Tyne ( photographed river and rail arches). See chief probation officer in Guildhall: crime increasing. Saw 1632 court and lovely carving in Merchant Adventurers room. Had lunch in Binns : saw COI (Central Office of Information). Had camera case handsewen (5/-). Home by six, by way of Durham (photographed cathedral and market square).
August 28th 1962 Tuesday
Left children and drove to Gateshead (near Newcastle) by way of Durham: bought trousers. Met Mayor of G. (Gateshead) and press: photographs. Lunch in Civic cafeteria, then to see slum clearances. Slum flat costs 15/6 wk (per week). No water or electricity. New Maisonette costs 35/- wk (per week)
Home by 5 – to mend shoes and clean seal windows.
August 29th 1962 Wednesday
Up at 7.30. Packed, and (ph) Molly and Ethel – collected rock souvenirs and off.
Ph ( photograph ) Willington mine and cornfields : on to Durham. Saw cathedral, S (Saint) Cuthbert's grave and pectoral cross, vestments etc. Ph C12 (12th Century) painting of St. C (Cuthbert ). Out thru. N'castle (Newcastle) for last time. Warm day: sleepy. Thru Alnwych (ANNIK) (Alnwick) and to coast. Photographed Farne Islands from Seahouses, and camped inland from Bamburgh.
( Also ph boats at Seahouses )
August 30th 1962 Thursday
Early start from camp by trees ( B. ph ) (Barbara photographed). Ph Bamburgh Castle. On to Lindisfarne, ph castle and 2 shots of abbey : also causeway. Saw mead factory. On to Berwick : ph Royal Tweed bridge and town hall then gate in Elizabethan wall. Saw bathing ponds (concrete walls in sea) and played "Gadget Golf ". On to Flodden Field (ph monument – 1563 ) met nuns of la Sagesse order – gave children models. On thru cornfields, across Tweed into Scotland. Decide to see Dawn Hinton at hotel in Longformacus.
Lovely moorland drive. Camped in hotel grounds. Spent evening in bar. Place a pis for painters – called: "The Gallery in the Hills " lovely moorland surrounding it.
( We obviously did more than "see" the mead factory. My parents probably sampled the products. I still have a keepsake from Holy Island: a small brown, now empty, pottery barrel labeled with the inscription "This liqueur is compounded from 100% Scottish Highland Malt Whiskies, Honey and Northumbrian Herbs. 50% Proof Spirit. The Lindisfarne Mead Co. Limited Holy Island.")
August 31st 1962 Friday
Up and away early after looking at paintings in pub – 10.30. To Earlston where I bought milk from first real Scot. ("Ken", "Wullie", "Aboon" "Awa" were all in his vocabulary). Lunch at S. Boswells ( St. Boswells ) and on to Selkirk to meet a Mr Robson who runs in Halliwell's house in Selkirk Close (ph).
(Halliwell = Holy well . Keeper of H/well) a museum of old ironmongery. Fantastic edition of good early ironware (runs iron mongers shop and much is ancient stock).
Has two or three single room houses to restore: runs craft shop with old woodcarver (Mr Wright) who carves and dressers wonderful horses and equipage. On to Peebles, shopped, and up to Edinburgh. Missed COI ( Central Office of Information) man by 5 minutes. Saw some of E'burgh then 12 miles back to camp.
Looking at my father's photos of the depressingly rundown brick and cobblestone dwellings, reminiscent of Coronation Street, which were the target of the 1962 slum clearances, I can well imagine the sense of progress and relief felt seeing the new, albeit soulless, high rise concrete and glass tower blocks being built to replace them. Rehousing the socially needy is a basic human right and perennial government responsibility. Not a new problem, it is often fraught with controversy and often cyclic in nature. Take for instance the New York tower blocks that folksinger activist Pete Seeger sang about on "God Bless the Grass". "The faucets are dripping in old New York city… they're building new link in centres, it's sure working hell with the low income renters, jammed into rooms with the rat and the fly", wet floors and leaking taps. So much for progress. I heard that those multi story ghettos were being replaced with single story bungalows, a healthier option.
The New Zealand housing crisis is worsening and having been through the Christchurch earthquakes and lived in some dilapidated rentals I am acutely aware of liveable accommodation and the apparently slow response by government to the need. I wrote to Hon. Dr Megan Woods, Housing Minister, on the issue. If the Labour government under Michael Joseph Savage could fund and build hundreds of state houses in the 1930s what is stopping it now? Why were dozens of prefabricated houses kept, unused, behind security fences, in Christchurch after the 2010 quakes when the need was critical? Why is there a lack of willingness to place quick build, low cost modular housing in communities? Why is this government paying thousands in motel fees to house those in need? There seems to be a balancing act (I hesitate to use the term conspiracy) between the politicians and the property conglomerates which smacks of betrayal of Labour's leftist welfare roots. Woods indicated in her reply to me that modular prefabrication of housing components was taking place offsite, which was streamlining the building process and cutting costs. This is, admittedly, a sensible move, but I'm skeptical. Government could do better. The Savage government moved with determination to house New Zealand. The Ardern government could be more resolute, but it appears to behave like an old print of an original master, too blued out and more right of centre than left.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh. The Covid pandemic has disrupted supply chains, be it building supplies or cat food, and the New Zealand government, like every government is doing its best: wrangling a virus that slides like a serpent through every nook and cranny on the world stage putting every aspect of life under strain. This is a major learning curve. Basics like housing are essential. Improvements can be made if there is a willingness to do so. We, humanity, stand at the precipice. Refugees know the stupidity of conflict, and the cost of destruction. It is easy to destroy. The cost to build, and restore, takes intelligent mindfulness and timely resolve. If we choose well we live. If not we die.
I hope our leadership will be resolute and embrace wisdom.