Review by Ashleigh Walker
It might have been anticipated that From Durham to D.C. would fixate on what Fiona Hill has been up to since moving away from County Durham. She comes from a family of coal miners in Bishop Auckland and Roddymoor, and became an expert on post-communist Russia, a member of the US National Security Council, and adviser to several US presidents on the complications of post-communist Russia. Throughout the event she repeatedly rooted her social trajectory in her regional affiliations in the north east of England.
Whilst there is much to be proud of in County Durham’s illustrious history, Hill argues that even at the height of its success there has been an enduring lack of agency in the region, stating that County Durham had been “always in the thick of things” whilst having “not a lot of agency over it”. Hill experienced Durham’s industrial reign first-hand and is an advocate for remembering its legacy. Speaking to the event’s chair, Anne McElvoy, she said, “Anyone from County Durham, especially our vintage and older, was very much shaped by […] centuries of coal-mining”, adding, “it’s what built the county”. Hill went on to explain how the heavy manual industries were “instrumental by attracting people from all around Britain to work in the steel works, shipyards and coal mines”, as well as referring to the Durham Light Infantry and the county’s First World War efforts.
However, she also experienced the subsequent aftermath of its decline; she hinted that in the present day, this memory has faded and become irreverent. What stands in place is a county which has struggled to redefine itself since, and a lack of confidence from the young people who reside in the area today.
Reflecting upon Hill’s exercising of agency in ways she could have never imagined to be possible, it became apparent that Anne McElvoy is also from County Durham. The two happened to have met during a language exchange in the late 1970s. A passion for languages was born, namely German and Russian, which then allowed them to expand their horizons beyond the locality of County Durham. This exit from the county felt bittersweet during their discussion, with Hill notably expressing how the title of her memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here, speaks directly to Durham being a region that has suffered socio-economic fatalities. As a result, her family told her “there is nothing for you here”, and they encouraged Hill to utilise her passion for languages and find opportunity elsewhere.
The lack of agency and confidence that Hill argued to be characteristic of County Durham caused her to reflect upon the gratitude she feels for being given a place at the table as an expert and adviser on post-communist Russia. Rather than being “products of somebody handing things to us,” Hill said: “We’re the products of people saying, ‘Here’s an opportunity. You can take it.’”
Of course, the opportunities need to be there for people to take, which is part of the battle that Hill illustrated when it comes to the prospects of young people growing up in parts of County Durham today. Both Hill and McElvoy recognised that they were able to take advantage of a time in the post-war era where a focus had been given to studying languages and public education more generally. They felt they were given the chance to identify passions and build upon their potential. It was left ambiguous as to whether that is the case in the present.
From Durham to D.C. was a brilliant showcase of someone who has achieved vast global success, without undermining the role that County Durham has played in shaping their sense of identity. This was heightened by the mutual locality of origin between Anne McElvoy and Fiona Hill. As someone who is from and grew up in County Durham myself, I think that it was a wonderful choice to bring the two together for this event. It meant that the history and culture of County Durham characterised their conversation in a way that felt organic. I can imagine both the event and Hill’s memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, being utilised as a resource for the empowerment of young people across County Durham.
The event provided an invaluable opportunity to witness someone from the county who has descended from its industrial past, identified their passions, and savoured opportunities. At the same time, Hill advocates that before you can chase opportunities, you must feel empowered and have the opportunity to exercise agency first. If there had been more time, I would have liked to have heard more from Hill on how equality of opportunity and agency could be generated. I got the impression that she had more to say on the topic too.