The work of our hands


It can be hard to get your bearings in Newcastle’s Motel One. It’s run by a German company, so the language on the website is German by default and the login for wifi automatically talks you through the process in German. Some of the staff have German accents and write their numerals in that particularly flowing European way. Others have strong Newcastle accents, and all are helpful and friendly. Much of the decor is an attempt to root the place in Newcastle’s traditions, so there are pictures of the Tyne Bridge and the High Level Bridge on the walls, and signposts to different landmarks in the city.

My visit coincided with an emerging awareness that I need to – and am beginning to – engage with the world around me as I come out of what has felt like a very long period of disconnection and disembodied-ness. On the train from London I listened to an interview with Matthew Crawford whose book The World Beyond Your Head I mentioned recently and he talked a great deal about the need to connect with the material world because that’s how we know ourselves.

It’s easy, in this hotel, to resonate with that desire for something that is grounded, solid and authentic. In the same way that it is the friendly staff who ultimately ground you in the Motel, it is the connection I felt with people whose company I really appreciate that has had the greatest impact during my stay in Newcastle. But I also feel a draw towards something beyond myself, bigger than myself, yet when I think about engaging with the world around me it seems, like the world of steel and bridge building, ideas about work and labour seem to evoke the muscular and masculine.

At Land for What? one of the workshops during the third week of Hidden Civil War, we looked at issues that were to do with land, ownership and, ultimately, the trauma at the root of our disconnection from it. As we were listening to Ian Hepburn talk about Community Land Scotland, I found myself wondering where women fit in. I didn’t get much further than that, just a sense that there were issues about gender to look at.

As this was also a time when politicians like the Home Secretary Amber Rudd feel able to raise the possibility of ‘naming and shaming’ foreign workers, when in America, Donald Trump is appealing to muscular, masculine and white sentiment to boost his vote, it seems important that we find ways of connecting to land, and engaging with the world around us, without defaulting to old tropes that ‘other’ all those who don’t fit the bill.

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