Tuesday 13 September 2011

Counting my blessings in the best place on the planet

I have never been in any doubt that Northumberland is the finest county in the greatest country on the planet, and therefore the world’s best possible place to live.

Though when I formed that judgement the county stretched, as in my mind it still does, from Tweed to Tyne. One of the saddest acts of vandalism in the benighted 1970s was surely the removal of those white LNER signs in the middle of the King Edward Bridge that marked the boundary between Northumberland and Durham, following the creation of the bogus “Metropolitan County of Tyne and Wear”.

On the King Edward Bridge heading south: usually a mistake

People south of the river are different, as Gateshead proved again yesterday by snatching the uncoveted title of obesity capital of Britain. Perhaps a brave attempt to fall in with David Cameron’s enthusiasm for the big society, but hardly what he had in mind.

Gateshead's "Slimmer of the Year" 2011

Meanwhile the ties between Newcastle and the rest of Northumberland are age-old and enduring. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to be rushed from the north of the county to the Wansbeck Hospital, or the proposed new emergency unit in Cramlington, when there are much better transport links to the RVI just down the road?

Particularly when the facilities and services on offer in Newcastle are so outstanding. Two weeks ago I kept an appointment at the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the Freeman Hospital. Up to then I had no idea that any such thing existed. Nuclear fission, bombs and power stations, yes. Medicine, no.

What struck me above all was the cleanliness and efficiency of the place. The equipment was clearly state-of-the-art, the staff charming, their timekeeping spot on. But the biggest difference from the hospitals in the North West, of which I have seen rather too much during my wife’s pregnancies, was the ready availability of clean and functioning lavatories.

Over there they have an abundance of “out of order” signs and the few working conveniences appear to have been recently visited by an orang utan after an exceptionally boisterous beer and curry night.

The only depressing thing was struggling to make it back to the car park past a trio of incredibly fat people, all drawing on fags as though their lives depended on it, despite the abundance of “no smoking on site” signs. Visitors from Gateshead, I now assume.

I filled the time by trying to remember what the Freeman reminded me of. And I realised: a private hospital, where those who have paid through the nose for health insurance can admire the quality of their surroundings and feel that they have got their money’s worth. As an NHS patient, I felt truly blessed.

I felt a similar glow of contentment on Thursday, when I stood with other donors on the stage of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the curtain raised on its newly refurbished auditorium.

Looking good: the curtain rises

What a gem this is. And, having walked all the way up to the gods for the first time since the 1970s, I can report that there are some outstanding bargains to be had in its upper reaches, offering high levels of comfort and still splendid views of the stage.

The view from on high
A modest tribute in the Grand Circle
Still waiting for that booking for my one man show

Though I noticed that there were, amongst those shovelling down canapĂ©s on the stage, one or two who would never fit into one of the theatre’s comfortable new seats, or make it above stalls level without the assistance of a hydraulic crane.

More day trippers from Gateshead, I expect.

So let Newcastle and Northumberland advance hand in hand, marrying the greatest city and the finest countryside on Earth, and let all of us north of the Tyne reflect on how outstandingly fortunate we are to be living here.

And maybe join me in dusting off a diet sheet to maintain our point of difference from the folk across the water?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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