Ken Robinson's seventh-floor office overlooks the heart of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the 900-year-old capital city of northeast England. On his wall is a map of the surrounding area (known since a 1974 reorganization as Tyne and Wear County) dotted with colored spots. Some of them, the map legend says, indicate museums, golf courses, and "panoramic views." Others mark "prominent overhead wires," "unsightly developments," and "major eyesores."
The four-county area of 3.25 million people that looks to Newcastle as its center is, in fact, an uneasy mixture of the panoramic and the unsightly. It stretches from Scotland down to the Yorkshire border and slopes eastward from the Pennines to the North Sea. The panorama (when the weather is good) is abundant. The outlying and mainly agricultural reaches of Northumbria, the northern- most county of the four, are said to have more castles per acre than any other English county, and they boast the beauties of Kielder Forest, the Cheviot Hills, and miles of sandy beaches. Durham, perched on a crook of the wear, is a city of steep cobbled streets crowned by a Norman cathedral, an 11 th-century castle, and a university of 4,200 students -- a city for walkers (cars are restricted) where the local fish-fowl-and-game merchant still hangs strings of rabbits outside his shop front.
But the unsightly is also in evidence.Tucked under bridge piers along the Tyne are the desolate warehouses of a grander past, windows punched out and doors caked with grime. Down in Durham County, the rural town of Consett (population 35,000) has labored for years under a fine coating of red dust sifting from the stacks of its steel mill -- small price to pay, some think, for the 4,000 jobs that are to vanish when British Steel shuts down its losing operation there later this year. And at the heart of southernmost Cleveland County -- billed as the United Kingdom's most highly concentrated area of capital-intensive, high-technology industry -- the Teesside area wears its petrochemical affluence with all the bustle of an American Midwestern boomtown. A solidly industrial upstart (150 years ago there was only a farm where Middlesbrough stands today), it hums with a giant Imperial Chemical Industries complex and one of the world's largest blast furnaces. It is a thriving, unprepossessing place, a county of half a million people where North Sea oil and gas come ashore into Britain's third-busiest port.
For Mr. Robinson, however, the area is simply a challenge. A longtime newspaperman, he is now the press officer for Tyne and Wear County Council -- "very much," as he says, "a poacher turned gamekeeper." His job: to present to the public the best face of an area struggling to keep its head above water, as he works to attract business to the northeast and particularly to the Newcastle area. He and the councilors he represents are primarily blight-fighters. "The overriding priority," he says, is "economic development -- to rejuvenate and revitalize a declining economy."
The currents running against him are strong. Beyond England, most people know Newcastle only as a place to which, proverbially, one does not bring coals. The reason: a landscape that in the 19th century was so peppered with collieries (and with ironworks and shipyards) that it became known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. In this area, say most Englishmen whose name is not Edison, the light bulb was invented by Joseph Swan. Here, too, lived the men behind the steam turbine, the kitchen match, and the world's first passenger railway. Here economies of scale were practiced: The Jarrow shipyard took in coal and ore at one end and turned out finished vessels at the other.
But Jarrow, with its ribbon houses clustered as thought for warmth around smoking factories, was not immune from the world's economic forces. In 1936, with shipbuilding adrift and 9 in 10 men jobless, the unemployed of Jarrow took to the roads in the famous 275- mile march to the houses of Parliament at Westminster. And although the economy improved with the war and roared through the 1950s with only about 2 percent unemployment, the signs of eventual collapse were there. Coal petered out in the 1950s -- the first of the three mammoth, linchpin industries of the north to do so. The two others, steel and shipbuilding, held on awhile longer and helped absorb retreaded miners. But even these industries, mildewed by the stagflation of the 1970s, could not hold up against foreign competition and domestic management difficulties.
Markets shrank, plants cut back or closed, Thermoses and lunch pails sat idle in the row houses and council flats of Wallsend and Hartlepool.
Unemployment crept upward again -- to 8.5 percent (October, 1979) in the north generally, but running up to 11.7 percent along the Wear -- more than double the nationwide figure of 5.5 percent.
Even more telling are the local variations. Although on North Tyneside, for example, there are 9.7 persons unemployed for every outstanding job vacancy, the figure for South Tyneside -- one tunnel and five bridges away -- is an astounding 20 persons.
That these numbers will not level out is one of the curiosities of the region. The labor force throughout the United Kingdom tends to be low in mobility. And the northeast, in this and other ways, in Britain writ large. The grandsons of the men who marched hundreds of miles to Westminster will not, it seems, drive 10 miles to work. True, only 1 in 8 families (in Tyne and Wear) has access to a car. True, the sleek new 34-mile, L178 million ($390 million) rapid-transit system in and around Newcastle will not be opened until later this year. But these are symptoms, not causes. The fact is that 150 years of walking to work -- to the shipyard at the end of the block or the pithead just up the hill -- has left its mark.
In many ways, the northeast seems almost proud of its insularity. Community ties are potent here, where the description of Britain as "a nation of shopkeepers" justifies itself at every street corner. Houses built to last for centuries (which, unfortunately, some do) often stay in the family. Housing, except in the handful of tightly planned "new towns" that have mushroomed up since World War II, is in short supply. To move to another home is to tag onto the end of someone else's housing queue.
Life moves as it always has, framed by the four walls of work, house, workingmen's club, and football team. If the first of these walls should be knocked flat by the swinging steel ball of world events -- a change of government in Iran, for example, and the subsequent cancellation of orders for 1 ,350 tanks -- the three other walls are still there. The hole can be plastered up by welfare payments -- the ubiquitous dole.
Still, there are encouraging signs of progress in the north: a vigorous effort to raze derelict factories, to attract new industries (domestic and overseas), to encourage local initiative in creating new businesses, and (hardest of all) to deindustrialize the mental landscape.