The Final Day: Bread-making, beating the IRA, Geordies buying a slave’s freedom and revisiting the 60s!

Timing is everything! There was a period early in lockdown when it seemed everybody was baking sourdough. Nobody knew that there was going to be a pandemic, however if some entrepreneurs were psychic they would have not only invested in PPE, but also in bread-making instruction books.

Of course, lock-down is not merely a physical health challenge, we all now know that it has mental health implications too. Enter Pauline Beaumont, a Mum of six living in the Scottish Borders, clutching an ‘oven-ready’ (Ed.: I told you not to mention Brexit!) bread-making book entitled Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread which not only provides recipes, but also shows that making bread can be more than just producing nourishing loaves.

Mindfulness is about ‘being in the moment’, rejecting worrying thoughts and being true to one’s self. Humanity’s emotional connection to bread, the staple of every household, makes its production a perfect escape from lockdown stress.

Pauline talked about over-coming what she called ‘the tyranny of perfection’. “Bread has taught me things”, she says, most importantly “about things not turning out correctly”. The modern woman apparently is confronted with a choice of role models, viz. Simone de Beauvoir or one of the Stepford wives. Pauline is now aware that baking bread and freedom of choice are compatible. Just get baking and see what happens!

Pauline argues in her book (that now has both a British and an American publisher), that bread-making can provide us with insights into ourselves and show us life lessons that help us to keep well, both physically and mentally. In transforming flour, water and salt into delicious bread, Pauline reminds us that we too are capable of transformation. Her book has attracted rave reviews, most notably from the bread-making high priest himself, viz. Dan Lepard.

According to Pauline and Jackie, her superb interviewer, there has been a ‘sourdough explosion’. Bread-making, they argue, unites us with “the world and our ancestors”. Zooming has its advantages but I’m sure that Pauline would have shared bread with us if it were not for that pesky virus!

We then turned to another type of explosion, when we were taken by Harry McCallion (not his real name) back to the dark days of terrorism in Ireland and on the streets of England. Harry served with the Parachute Regiment, underwent selection for 14 Intelligence Company and completed six years with the SAS, including two tours with their anti-terrorism team. He received two commendations for bravery during service with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Thus, he is uniquely placed to tell us the astonishing story of the thirty-year secret war Britain’s Special Forces waged against a ruthless and implacable enemy. Given the continuing terrorist threat even now it seemed appropriate that a technical problem distorted Harry’s Glaswegian voice during the session.

Harry was not an officer and historically the SAS did not approve of the ‘other ranks’ publishing memoirs. The success of Bravo Two Zero transformed that context. Harry, who joined the army to escape from a dysfunctional Glasgow family background and is now a successful lawyer, seized the opportunity to write books from a NCO’s perspective. At our festival he discussed with Lt Colonel Keith Montgomery, his latest work, viz. Undercover War in Northern Ireland – Britain’s Special Forces and their battle against the IRA. This, like his earlier book, was vetted by the SAS before publication.

Immediately he wanted to dispel what he said was one myth, i.e. that the SAS had a ‘shoot-to-kill policy’. There was, he said, one exception and that was during the siege at the Libyan embassy after the death of Yvonne Fletcher. That the British army is ‘the best in the world’ is not, he argues, a myth since it is indeed the best. That exalted status derives from the exceptional teamwork which its effectiveness relies on.

Harry did not shy away from the political implications of the Irish conflict. He argues that the Provisional IRA could have obtained the advantages that they obtained from the Good Friday Agreement if they had accepted the conditions enshrined in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. Then, however, most of their leaders still believed they could win the war. Harry argues that the activities of the SAS convinced the terrorists that they could not win and their leaders finally destroyed their weapons in 1998. Harry, like many soldiers, at that time was furious that IRA murderers walked free as one of the conditions of the agreement, but he now accepts that that outcome was necessary to achieve peace in the troubled province.

He better than most is aware how fragile that peace is and he believes that a failure to find a solution to the Irish border issue within the Brexit negotiations (Ed.: there you go again!) will lead to a return to violent conflict, A sobering thought at the end of an interesting discussion, expertly chaired by Keith, which provided many insights regarding the reality of the battle against terrorism.

I thought I was at the wrong talk when Brian Ward began with a slide showing Jimi Hendrix, but in fact he was merely illustrating the welcome that Geordies have nearly always offered to black American visitors. The focus of his talk was in fact Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement, noted for his oratory and incisive anti-slavery writings. He advised President Lincoln on the issue and was the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States. Ward stated that Douglass’s high profile in Britain and America was no accident as Douglass in fact “curated his own image”.

In 1846 Douglass toured Britain on a hugely successful speaking tour and stayed in Newcastle upon Tyne with Anna Richardson and her sister-in-law Ellen. Newcastle had long been a key British centre of the abolitionist movement, in fact the first provincial abolition society was established in the Geordie capital. Key factors in that development were the prevalence of non-conformism and the high level of literacy on Tyneside. Interestingly women were highly active in the abolitionist cause.

The two Quaker women were active campaigners for a number of social causes. In 1846 they raised £150 and instructed a lawyer in America to buy Frederick’s freedom. In due course they received confirmation from Douglass’s owner who told them that his ‘slave Frederick Bailey, alias Douglass’ was now ‘entirely and legally free’. This good deed was controversial as such a payment represented a reward to a slave owner and made the Richardsons, some argued, complicit in slavery. Douglass was however delighted as the Quakers had given him “a present of himself”.

Ward provided a number of other examples of important Black visitors to Tyneside who also enjoyed a warm Geordie welcome. Not content with just being a visitor Mary Ann Macham stayed and married a local man who lived on Howard Street in North Shields. When she died at 91 years of age she was buried beside her husband. Many Geordies did welcome black people, but racism also existed on Tyneside and her grave was not marked. Sadly, racism still exists but happily her grave is now marked.

President Trump apparently believes that Douglass is also still with us. Fortunately, Biden is aware of Douglass’s historical status and has often referred to him as the slogan Black Lives Matter has echoed around the world this year.

Another black celebrity visitor to Tyneside was ‘the greatest’, Muhammad Ali. He was mobbed everywhere he went. An open-top bus tour drew thousands on to the streets as it made its way to South Shields with a police escort. Ali was impressed by the warmth of his reception in the North East and was moved to say: “I’ve never been so honoured – not in America itself by government officials and authority”. He did not know that he was echoing the similar response of Dr King when he had received an honorary degree from Newcastle University a few years earlier.

The unlikely episode had come about after Johnny Walker, a painter and decorator from Whitburn in South Tyneside, invited Ali to travel from the United States to South Shields to help raise money for his boxing club. Incredibly, the champion agreed to come.

Stuart Cosgrove’s talk was on Ali’s earlier manifestation as Cassius Clay and the extraordinary social and political flux of 1963. This brought back memories for me of getting up in the middle of the night to watch Clay fight Liston on a black and white TV.

Clay was as aware as Douglass of the need to curate a personal image and Stuart began his conversation with the excellent Gerry Foley by relating a fascinating story of how a young Clay managed to get on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That was wonderful publicity for the boxer, but this success was undermined by negative publicity as he was then also undergoing the process of conversion to Islam. Part of this process was the obliteration of his slave name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, which in fact was a highly respected name within the black community. Being called ‘X’ was a transitional stage in this process, thus he was then Cassius X. Not surprisingly his parents were not delighted about this change.

Famously the only fighter to knock Cassius down in this period was our own Henry Cooper. Clay’s arrival in our capital attracted massive attention from Fleet Street. The hacks were especially interested in his views about the Profumo affair and whether he preferred Mandy to Christine!

The fighter was a key figure linking political and cultural trends. His huge celebrity status made him an especially attractive recruit for the black power movement which was at this stage splitting into competing factions, both of which wanted this important young boxer who therefore found himself at the centre of this conflict. His association with this movement of course threatened the very celebrity these factions wished to benefit from.

When Clay beat Liston many people wanted to join him in the ring, but it was important to the boxer’s management that Malcolm X, Cassius’s then mentor, was excluded. Later Malcolm X, the American footballer Jim Brown and the singer Sam Cooke joined the boxer to celebrate by eating vanilla ice cream. Clay’s brother, also a convert to Islam, was excluded from the iconic photo of the group, since only the famous men interested the photographer. Clay and Cooke were long term friends and they were useful to each other career-wise, but a few years later Ali was to cruelly snub Cooke as he was no longer important to the then massively successful Ali.

Stuart likes to challenge the conventional view of people. He even finds positive aspects in the character of the famously mafia-backed Liston. Liston was continually called dumb by Clay although he was by far the cleverer of the two men. Clay even visited Liston’s home with friends and humiliated Liston in front of his family. Hugely talented, the extremely ambitious man from Louisville would do almost anything to be famous.

We were very grateful that our festival ended with such an enthralling tale!  I wonder if my bread is ready?

Buy the books from a local bookshop! Click here!

Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread by Pauline Beaumont 

Undercover War: Britain’s Special Forces and their secret battle against the IRA by Harry McCallion 

Martin Luther King: In Newcastle Upon Tyne: The African American Freedom Struggle and Race Relations in the North East of England  by Brian Ward  

Cassius X: A Legend in the Making by Stuart Cosgrove |

Mike Fraser