Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

To do, or not to do? What is the answer?

Reading the 18th/19th-century charge sheets at the Magistrates Court during the recent Berwick Heritage Open Days, I was struck by how many misdemeanours then are the same as those perpetrated today. Drunk and disorderly, brawling, illegal parking (carts left in Tweed Street too long!), fly-tipping, petty theft. The punishments were perhaps rather more barbaric – public floggings, workhouses, hard labour.  But overall history does seem to repeat itself. Or, as the French would say – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Berwick Magistrates Court (Image (c) Jim Herbert)

Another thing that stays the same is the amount of missed appointments. Skipped NHS appointments cost shedloads and increase waiting times. A report I read a while back (based on research by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine) suggests that posters telling people how many patients keep their appointments (rather than how many miss them) are more effective in reducing DNAs (Did Not Attend). Combine that with getting patients to write down their own appointment time and date, or asking them to repeat details back over the phone, and no-shows were cut by 31% in the surgeries where trials were run. So why isn’t this common practice? Now, if I were in charge…

Moaning. Everyone loves a good moan. It gives us a feel-good frisson of self-righteousness. Moaning is a mono-activity. You download about a subject and then sit back. And when no one does anything about your moan, you moan again.

In-fighting, back-biting, bullying, jostling for supremacy. These are endlessly repeated in playgrounds and meeting rooms around the world.

Parallel to the repeating worlds of petty crime, missed appointments, power-play and moaning, is a world where people keep appointments, work together and do life-enhancing things. I am endlessly impressed by people who get stuff done. They are not overcome by the possibility of failure or ridicule or humiliation.

There are people in Berwick who win Portas bids, set up pop-up shops, open cafés, devise and organise festivals. Sometimes, when I think of all the amazing things that people make happen in Berwick, I feel the need for a duvet day on their behalf. We’ve had the Food & Beer Festival, Film & Media Arts Festival, Heritage Open Days, Mouth of the Tweed, Frontier Music Festival,boat trips on the Tweed, and much more besides. Could these things have been better? Probably. Will they get better? Possibly. Will there be in-fighting in committees and organising bodies? Indubitably. Will some people have a good moan about them? Certainly.

A festival season in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Worth celebrating.

A festival season in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Worth celebrating.

Of course, most of us criss-cross between the world of celebrating and pursuing the positives and the world of getting bogged down in negatives. The truly amazing thing is that anything ever really gets done at all. But somehow events committees, town councils, town teams dust themselves down after body blows, criticisms, dead-ends and they plod on –  or pass the baton on to others, sometimes graciously and sometimes less so.

And maybe this is the painful and repeating dynamic of getting things done. Reading reports about the Berwick Town Team, the Town Council, County Council and the Portas Pilot monies, I certainly hope so. A glance at feedback on other Portas Pilot towns indicates that most are experiencing similar issues to Berwick – and presumably everyone wants the funds spent effectively and judiciously. But interpretations of ‘efficient and judicious’ vary. It’s hard to please everyone.

Mary Portas – many Portas Pilot towns have faced struggles.

Despite the French proverb, history isn’t all same-old, same-old. Just as attitudes to punishment have changed, the line between things we applaud and things we deplore also shifts with time. The research into NHS missed appointments demonstrates – and any parent will tell you – that highlighting positives rather than moaning about negatives will usually produce more positive outcomes. If only we could simply consign moaning to history and focus on trumpeting the successes of the here and now. Who knows where it might take us.

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser, October 2013)

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