Challenging events often reveal the very best in people. I would like to pay tribute to all those local heroes who have been clearing roads and digging out stranded cars, visiting older neighbours and delivering groceries to the housebound. Volunteers, good neighbours and public servants in our local councils, NHS and police have kept out communities going this week in the heavy snow. The Beast from the East is no match for the community spirit of the North East.
We’re known around the country as the friendly region of England and the Geordie welcome and sense of humour are unparalleled. But our region is also internationally recognised for our innovation, imagination and creativity. We have a long history of leading technological change. The North East makes claim to such inventions as Joseph Swan’s lightbulb, Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, Walker’s friction matches and in more recent times Sir Jonathan Ive, the visionary behind the iPod, who trained as a designer at Northumbria University. We’re also home to so many award-winning artists, writers and musicians.
So, I’m delighted that this week, as we look ahead to warmer days, more has been revealed about the Great Exhibition of the North. For the first time ever, a great exhibition will bring the world to the North East and it is set to be the biggest event in England this year. The three-month celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit – our inventors, artists and designers – will demonstrate how our region has shaped the world and is building the economy of the future.
Over 80 days Gateshead and Newcastle will become the national showcase for dozens of amazing exhibits, live musical performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and magical experiences – and it will be free. Tourists can follow three walking trails around Tyneside towards The Baltic, Sage Gateshead and the Great North Museum. The BBC have also partnered up, so expect to see plenty of coverage of our beautiful region on the telly. This year will truly be one to remember as people “#GETNorth” for the celebrations.
On to another big beast from the North East – Red Ellen Wilkinson. Last week I was delighted to attend a talk about the pioneering Jarrow MP at the Brewery Tap in Dunston, the home of “Red Ellen” ale. In this centenary year, when we celebrate womens’ suffrage, there is much we can learn from Ellen Wilkinson.
As a Jarrow marcher, trade union organiser and later the Education Minister in the post-war Atlee government, she was instrumental in the fight for jobs, reducing working hours for hard-pressed industrial workers, increasing the school leavers age, introducing school milk and she was scorned by the Nazis for her opposition to their brutality. My good friend from North West Durham, Laura Pidcock MP joined me as we both shared our own experiences as women in Parliament and lessons we can learn from the fierce Labour MP known as “The Fiery Particle”.
We are celebrating another anniversary this year. Our angel has turned twenty. I am so proud that the Angel of the North keeps watch over my constituency. Many of you will have seen the interview with Sid Henderson, the former Gateshead Councillor who led the way, against much criticism, to build the angel in 1998. Sid reminded us of the challenge that Gateshead’s Labour councillors faced in convincing the public that the angel would bring tourism and prosperity and put the region on the world map.
Just along the road in Birtley is another great home of art. I visited the Thought Foundation earlier this month and was deeply impressed by this hidden gem. The arts centre and cafe is based on the values of human kindness and thoughtfulness. Their exhibitions exploring issues around Brexit and the environment are quite spectacular. With so much media attention on the plastic waste contaminating our oceans, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to see their installation highlighting the issue using thousands of disused plastic cups. There’s plenty to see, do and think about in this family friendly space.