Sunday, 27 February 2011

School Life Unmasked

Following my recent blog on Personal Sporting Reflections, I was inundated with a phone call (Note: this is an attempt at humour, rather than an example of my poor grasp of language) which resulted in me exploring my much forgotten youth. The trouble with looking back 50 years is that you're not always sure that your memories are facts. However, I will do my best with what is available to me.

The first thing to note is that I failed my eleven plus examination, so had to attend the nearest Secondary School in Rhosllanerchrugog, which was about three miles away. Then it was called, Grango County Secondary School, but now it is known as Ysgol y Grango (Grango School).

Ysgol y Grango as it is today
The school was established in 1906, and its motto is "A fo Pen, bid Pont". This translates as, "If you want to be a leader, be a bridge". This is taken to mean that to be a leader, you must help others achieve their aims. I have mixed feelings about my time in secondary school from 1959 - 1963. In 2006, the school held centenary celebrations, and I have looked at the many comments from former pupils who by and large eulogised about the school and the time that they spent there. I have no such rose tinted spectacles, for my memory is of being emotionally bullied for at least half my time in the school. This was the result of me being small for my age; I was brought up on a farm; I was part of a one-parent family (my Father had recently died), and I was keen to study. How ridiculous and varied are the reasons for bullying. This was sufficient for the socially, and mentally deficient bullying cowards, who worked in packs, rather than as individuals. The only good thing to come out of it all was that it made me determined that when I left school, I would never allow others to bully me again. To the best of my knowledge, I have kept to that.

My experience was 50 years ago, and I would be at peace about it if bullying was a thing of the past. I know that this is a diversion from the subject of my blog, but I'm so angry about it, that I just have to say something.

When the Coalition government came into power last year, the Department for Children, Schools and Families made it clear that no form of bullying should be tolerated. But anti-bullying policies have been required in all schools since 1999, and it is still going on. In a survey conducted by the British Council, 46% of secondary school pupils think that bullying is a problem in their school. The survey concluded that bullying in secondary schools in the UK is worse than in the rest of Europe.

The Office of National Statistics recorded a horrific 176 cases of suicides of 10 - 14 year olds between 2000 and 2008. The national charity, Beatbullying researched these figures, and thinks that up to 78 (44%) of the total could have been related to bullying. To be honest, I am in despair, and if I don't change the subject, I am likely to explode. So on to happier matters.

Liverpool Daily Post 10th August 1963
There were many pointless subjects at school, and I'm ashamed to say, being born and bred in Wales, that Welsh was one of them. We studied it every week for four years, and I think that it would be true to say that few of us in the class were any the more knowledgeable at the end than we were at the beginning.

However, at the end of my final year I achieved eleven Denbighshire Certificates of Education (DCE's), as shown by the school successes printed in the paper opposite (that's me underlined, even though it's hard to read). Over the years, these proved useless as indicators of academic ability, as most prospective employers had never heard of them, or if they had, dismissed them. I though will not lightly dismiss them, as basically they're nearly all I have. So, sit back and bask in my glorious academic achievements, such as,

English Language, English Literature, Religious Education, History, Geography, Mathematics, Arithmetic, Gardening, Art, Metalwork and Technical Drawing.

The only other painful memory of school life was the constant desire by teachers to get me to hold a pen correctly. "Hold the pen properly boy", could be heard throughout my first two years, and accompanied by the grabbing of my side burns. (Let's not get started on the physicality of teachers in the past). You see, I used to hold my pen between two middle fingers, rather than finger and thumb, and in spite of the crusade to change me, I still hold a pen in the same way today.

I enjoyed sports at school, joining the football team in my third year, and running in the annual sports day.

Selected pages from School Magazine
The only school magazine I have in my possession is one where the pages above highlight my athletic achievements during that year. Join me in savouring that day, where the magazine sets the scene,
"After the preparation of the field the heats for the events took place, and here we found competition very keen. One event in particular was the 100 yards for junior boys, where the number of competitors was nearing the sixty. At last the great day dawned and all was ready; competitors, judges, timekeepers, stewards, recorders, and the weather. Such a glorious day did it turn out that an Ice Cream vendor was called in to pacify a sun-drenched school".

I love that last sentence. Did we have to pay for the ice cream, or was it a gift from the school? I just can't remember. So, I take my place with hundreds of others on the school playing field. No doubt some were dreading the day, and hated every moment of this activity. They would be in sympathy with Stephen Fry, where in his first autobiography, 'Moab is My Washpot' he describes his hatred of school sports;

"Yeugh! The squeak of rubber soles on sports hall floors, the rank stench of newly leaking testosterone, the crunch of cinder racing tracks, the ugly, dead thump of a rugger ball taking a second later than the ugly, dead sight of it hitting the hard mud as you sullenly watched the match, the clatter of hockey sticks, the scrape of studded boots on pavilion floors, the puke-sweet smell of linseed oil, 'Litesome' jock-straps, shin-guards, disgusting leather caps worn in scrums, boots, shorts, socks, laces, the hiss and steam of the showers".

But for me it was a day to savour. I was obviously no good at throwing things, and jumping on or over things. My throwing the cricket ball, javelin, shot and discuss held no fear for my competitors. Doing the long jump, high jump and hop, skip and jump only brought giggles to those around me. But get me running, and I was a force to be reckoned with.

The school magazine records what I had long forgotten (thank you Mother for keeping so much paraphernalia). That day I ran in four races, with the following results;

  • 100 yards - came 4th
  • 220 yards - came joint 2nd
  • 440 yards - came 2nd
  • 880 yards - came 1st

Twenty years later, and no doubt inspired by my achievement, Sebastian Coe ran the 800 metres in a world record time of 1:41.73. I have no details of my time that school sports day, but it may have taken me a bit longer, though I use the excuse of a hot, long day for possibly a slow time - but I was first.

Though as excuses go, it is hard to beat the report in the school magazine on why the football team failed to be top of the league that year (they came second, and I hadn't joined the team yet). It says, "We were also unfortunate at Acrefair where altitude and weather conditions were against us from the start". Only those who know the respective geographical locations of Rhosllanerchrugog and Acrefair, can fully appreciate the hilarious comment about altitude being an excuse.

So there we are family, friends and fellow bloggers. The final comment on school life, as there really is nothing else to say that is remotely of any interest. Did school play any part in moulding me into the person I became? I guess in part yes, but what is of greater importance is how we deal with everything that comes our way, every day of our lives.

Or you may wish to be humorous.
"Never take life seriously. Nobody gets out alive anyways".

Thursday, 24 February 2011

What's in a Name?

Wandering through the General Cemetery one cold and damp Sunday afternoon; among the many splendid memorials to lives past, I came across this Obelisk.

Trying carefully to read the inscription, for it was nearly worn away - or my eyesight is worse than I thought, I read the name DAFT SMITH CHURCHILL who died in 1838.

I was intrigued by his first name, and carefully looked to see if there was any inverted comma's which would have indicated that this was his nickname (did they use inverted comma's in the 1830's?), but there was none.

Now please try and stay with me for the next few paragraphs, as I will try and make it more interesting later on. Having a passion for trivia, I wondered what the name Daft meant. It was a bit of a fruitless search to be honest, for one of the naming websites said that there was no meaning available, and while omitting to mention Mr Churchill, they said that the only references were to Daft Vader (Star Wars) and a French musical duo called Daft Punk. They did however say that the name Daft is ranked 882 in the list of most common first names - not everyone knows that.

This set my wandering mind to thinking that if Daft was number 882, what was number one? Apparently, civil records began in 1837, and according to who have analysed 134 million birth certificates, the top name of all time for males is John (that's me), and for females it is Elizabeth. However, both names have fallen out of favour in recent times, and according to the Office of National Statistics, in 2009, which is the latest year available for these statistics, the most popular boy's name registered that year was Oliver, and the girl's name Olivia. I do hope that you're still with me.

SS Forfarshire Leaving Hull
It seems to me that Daft Smith Churchill is only really remembered because of the circumstances surrounding his death (though that may be a bit unkind). He ran a firm of lace merchants in Nottingham called. Messrs D.S. Churchill and Co. and lost his life in a shipwreck off the Northumbria coast in 1838. He was also one of the original directors of the General Cemetery, which began burying people the year before.

It is reported that a large monument was erected by his co-directors in memory of Mr Churchill near the Derby Road entrance of the General Cemetery, but that his son had it demolished. (Does anyone know why?). I am now fascinated by the answer to that question. His death is linked forever with the story of GRACE DARLING, and though it it well known, it bears repeating.

The SS Forfarshire sailed from Kingston upon Hull to Dundee in September 1838, carrying iron, cloth and 63 passengers and crew, most of whom, including Daft Smith Churchill perished on the rocks of Big Harcar in the early hours of a terrible storm. Grace was born in 1814 in Northumberland where her father was responsible for two lighthouses. From the upstairs window of the Longstone Lighthouse in the early hours of the 7th September, Grace could see that the ship had been wrecked and that survivors were clinging to the rocks. She and her father decided that it was too rough for the lifeboat to leave from North Sunderland, so they took a rowing boat (21feet long and normally requiring 4 men to man it) across to the survivors. This was approximately a mile in treacherous seas, and Grace kept the boat steady on her own while her father helped four men and a lone surviving women into the boat. They then rowed back to the lighthouse, following which, Grace's father and three of the rescued men went back for the other survivors. Nine people in all were saved. She was aged 24 at the time, and died from tuberculosis at the age of 27.

Grace's achievement was celebrated in her lifetime, and even more so after her death. She was remembered primarily in Paintings, Portraits and Poems (though there have been songs, and a musical as late as 2010).

Many famous artists were taken with the heroic story, and brought their own interpretation to the paintings.

Grace was inundated with requests to sit for portraits, and it does seem that she was happy for a while to do so. However, it seems that her father felt that this was getting out of hand, and asked all future artists to go to the seven portrait painters who had already completed the task.

William Wordsworth wrote his 98 line poem called "Grace Darling" in 1843. Here are a few lines from the poem.

"To launch the boat; and with her blessing cheered,
And inwardly sustained by silent prayer,
Together they put forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar, and struggling on they go-
Rivals in effort; and, alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty's will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman's fortitude - so tried, so proved-
May brighten more and more!"

William Topaz McGonagall
In contrast to Wordsworth, we have a 76 line poem, written by William Topaz McGonagall, who even a web site dedicated to him describes him as "the writer of the worst poetry in the English language". He wrote his affectionate poem, "Grace Darling, or The Wreck of the Forfarshire". Near the end of the poem he wrote,

"Grace Darling was a comely lass, with long, fair floating hair,
With soft blue eyes, and shy, and modest rare;
And her countenance was full of sense and genuine kindliness,
With a noble heart, and ready to help suffering creatures in distress.

But, alas! three years after her famous exploit,
Which, to the end of time, will never be forgot,
Consumption, that fell destroyer, carried her away
To heaven, I hope, to be an angel for ever and aye".

McGonagall may delight or appall you, but his writings have been doing that since 1877. Grace's life and heroism touched many, many lives. In the world that we now live in, the word 'celebrity' is given to anyone with 15 minutes of fame, who have done nothing to enhance or improve the lives of others. By all accounts Grace was extremely modest, and though faced with requests to appear in theatres and a circus, for huge sums of money, she refused all such requests. Large sums of money were raised in her honour, but she never touched a penny of it.

We should not just remember her heroics from that September night, but also how she dealt with 'fame'. I can't help feeling that life would be better for many, if there was a little bit more of the strength and modesty of Grace Horsley Darling.

Memorial to Grace Darling
It's been a bit of a journey from Daft Smith Churchill to Grace Horsley Darling, but I for one have enjoyed it, and I hope that for you, unlike the fate of the SS Forfarshire, the journey hasn't floundered on the rocks.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Feargus O'Connor and our Radical Heritage

My sympathies lie with radical socialism. In particular, I align myself with the radical reformers of the 18th and 19th Century who fought against poverty, injustice and political inequality, which fight, formed the bedrock of even further reforms over the last 150 years that have given us the priviledges and opportunities that we can all enjoy today. Without these reforms, people like me, from a poor, working class background, would be still stuck in a world with no hope, no promise, and no future. We should never lose sight of the achievements of, and costs to, great men and women of the past.

Take a walk through the beautiful Arboretum in Nottingham, and just before the tunnel under Addison Street, you come across this statue with the words,

Feargus O'Conner Esq MP
This statue was erected
By his admirers

Feargus O'Connor was a Chartist leader, and became a Nottingham MP in 1847. Born around 1796, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and became a lawyer. He inherited an estate in Cork, and during Irish agitation for reform in the early 1830's, he emerged as an advocate of Irish rights and democratic political reform. He became MP for Cork in 1832 but lost his seat in 1835. He turned his attention to English radicalism and toured the country campaigning for political reform. He was described as "a superb orator, powerful, defiant, humorous". (What would I give to be described as such?). In 1840 he was arrested and imprisoned in York Castle for 15 months. As his behaviour, apparently became increasingly irrational, he was declared insane in 1852, and was sent to an asylum in Chiswick, where he died in 1855. It was reported that 40,000 people attended his funeral.

What was it that so drove this man to be a leader among men? It was a belief in the need for political and social reform in the United Kingdom, which resulted in the movement called Chartism. It takes its name from the 'People's Charter' of 1838. This stipulated the demand for six reforms, which were;

1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.

2. The secret ballot - to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.

3. No property qualification for members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.

4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.

5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount or representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.

6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

It is of interest to note that these were not new demands. Major John Cartwright, Nottinghamshire born, and a Major in the Nottinghamshire Militia, produced a pamphlet in 1776 called "Take your Choice", which was enlarged and re-published in 1777 under the heading, "Legislative Rights". He was an outspoken campaigner for parliamentary reform.

John Cartwright Memorial Stone
He fought for the rights of the people, and was a military man with heart and principle. He despised the corrupt proceedings of, and elections to the House of Commons. His pamphlet and memorial stone show that he fought for Universal Suffrage, Equal Representation, Vote by Ballot and Annual Parliaments.

He had a huge influence on others, for in 1780, in the City of Westminster a large public meeting was held for the purpose of promoting a Reform of the House of Commons. A committee was formed, and in April of that year, they recommended:

1. Annual Parliaments 2. Universal Suffrage 3. Voting by Ballot 4. Equal Polling Districts 5. No Money Qualification of Members 6. Payment of Members for their Attendance.

The People's Charter of 1838 was basically the same as that produced by the people of Westminster, 57 years earlier. People were now becoming frustrated at the pace of change. The anger over the 1832 Reform Act, and fury over the new Poor Law which established the workhouse system, found an outlet in Chartism. People were tired of what one letter writer in 1847 described as "do-nothing, kid-glove reformers". It was time for action.

Kensington Chartist Rally
Chartism was not an organisation in itself, but was essentially an umbrella movement which drew together many strands of radical grievance, and gave working class people a focus, and a voice.

There were two main strands to Chartism. One advocated physical force, while the other argued for moderation. Feargus O'Connor definitely seemed to advocate 'direct action' and the threat of violence to achieve his aims.

Perhaps this is why he was so welcome in Nottingham, as the town has a long history of riotous behaviour. A local man said in 1799 that "he had lived 17 years in Nottingham, and during that period there had been 17 riots". However, though there was armed rebellion, strikes and clashes with soldiers, the main weapon of the Chartists was the mass demonstrations and signatures to petitions.

Support for Chartism in Nottingham is hardly surprising, and in September 1838, James Woodhouse, a local Chartist told a meeting of 2000 loom operators that political reform was "the means by which they could furnish their houses, clothe their backs and educate their children". This is what the poor and disenfranchised people wanted to hear. The first major Chartist meeting held in Nottingham was on the 5th November 1838 at the Forest where 3000 met on "a wet and uncomfortable day". There were further meetings held in Nottingham during 1839, and in July of that year the first national petition was presented to Parliament. It is said that of 1.3 million signatures, 17,000 came from Nottingham. The House of Commons threw out the petition, provoking a wave of unrest across the country.

Fergus O'Connor had first spoken in Nottingham in 1836, when he urged radicals to form a party for themselves. The winter of 1841-42 produced harsh economic conditions which fuelled the flames of discontent again, and as a result of this, O'Connor received a "tumultuous welcome" when he came to speak in the town in February 1842. A second petition with over 3 million signatories was presented to Parliament in May 1842 which was yet again rejected.

Feargus O'Connor had set up The Northern Star as a Chartist newspaper in 1837, and following the rejection of the 1842 petition (there was to be another rejection in 1848), The Northern Star wrote,

"Three and a half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the 'House' has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free". [Am I the only one to see echoes of this in Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech?].

There was further national and local unrest that year, culminating in the battle of Mapperley Hills in August, when around 5,000 Chartist supporters assembled. The Riot Act was read, and despite the fact that the people were "quietly sitting down to eat their dinner", troops arrested 400 men, who were handcuffed, tied with ropes and marched four abreast to the House of Correction. Needless to say, this insensitive treatment provoked a riot. Because of his popularity with the people of Nottingham, there was no surprise when he was elected their MP in 1847, but by the early 1850's, Chartism was beginning to decline.

So, did Feargus O'Connor and the other Chartists fail? Certainly most of them did not see the People's Charter reforms happen in their lifetime, but all except one of the six points in  the Charter is now law - the one exception being the call for annual parliaments. Who knows where we would be today if it had not been for the Charter Movement. Chartism is important because it gave birth to the first ever mass working class political party; it created a political culture that endured for decades, and it paved the way, in terms of ideas and the training it gave to young working class radicals, for the ultimately successful campaigns for a universal right to vote. Chartism created a long-term political culture in which later left-wing ideas flourished.

I for one salute those radical reformers (whose names are too numerous to mention), and in particular Feargus O'Connor, who fought long and hard for those privileges that we so enjoy today. Let's not ever forget them.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Public Art in Nottingham

Those who know Nottingham well, will be familiar with the images below. However, those who are unfamiliar with the City will get a glimpse of what is on offer. The Nottingham sculptor, Robert Stubley, is all for more public art, and says, "I worked on the continent and it's everywhere. It's just fantastic. It just makes the place different somehow". This blog in not unique; it follows in the footsteps of many others that have shown these images of Nottingham, but I just wanted to show some of the public art that meant something to me. Some of the photos were taken with my phone camera, and the quality is not that great; others have been legitimately copied off other sites. I know that technically, some of the images may not be public art, but hey, I'm not a professional, and I enjoy them, so look, enjoy and explore for yourself when you get the chance.

This steel dragon is seven feet high, with a wing span of fifteen feet, and was the work of Robert Stubley. It was unveiled at the corner of Manvers Street and Sneinton Hermitage in November 2006. The choice of a dragon was the result of history. In 1914, Robert Mellors wrote about Sneinton in its poverty ridden years.

"For more than half a century there has existed in certain parts of Nottingham a monster who has devoured in the first year of their lives a large number of infants, and, what is worse, probably an equal number who have survived have dragged out a pitiable existence in weakness, small in stature, deformed, or anaemic, with diseases, lack of energy, unable to maintain themselves, and therefore dependent on others or the public charge; and, worse still, some have had a natural tendency to vice or crime. Who is this monster, and what is his name? His name is SLUM".

The Sky Mirror was designed by the world famous sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and was unveiled in 2000. It is made of stainless steel, and sits outside The Nottingham Playhouse. To give an idea of the size, it is 5.75 x 5.75 x 1.08 metres, and is designed to reflect the sky and surroundings.

This piece of art on Maid Marian Way is a directional sign to the Nottingham Playhouse to the left, and the Royal Centre to the right. I can find very little information about it, so if you know who designed and made it, as well as when, please let me know. It's a bit weird, but I like it.

This collection of stone can be found outside an office block called City Gate by the roundabout at the Derby Road end of Upper Parliament Street. I see it as a beautiful piece of art.

Now who could this be in Nottingham? This sculpture by James Woodford, sits in a square outside the walls of Nottingham Castle, and was unveiled in 1952. As a passionate follower of Robin Hood, and over the years a possessor of many things green (yep! I know. I know), the statue sums up for me the story of the man.

To football supporters in Nottingham, Brian Clough was/is a god. He turned a mediocre team into one that won the European Cup twice in successive seasons. This eight foot high bronze statue, cost £60,000 and was unveiled in November 2008. He was charismatic and controversial, and was known as Old Big 'Ed, and could always be relied upon for a quote. Example: "I wouldn't say that I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm certainly in the top one".

This statue of shoppers was originally sited by the Old Market Square in 1986, but had to be re-sited when the tram system was installed. Sculpted by Richard Perry, it was moved to the top of Chapel Bar which is the site of one of the original fortified gateways into the medieval City of Nottingham.

The Lace Market is an historic quarter-mile square area of central Nottingham. Once the heart of the world's lace industry, it has in recent years undergone a renaissance. Nearly all of the old warehouses that were once run down during the recession years have been cleaned and renovated, and have found new uses such as luxury apartments, high-spec offices and academic buildings. During the area's renovation, the Lace Market Square was created, and three very fine metal trees were erected to represent lace.

This statue of miners and workers stands against the wall of Nottinghamshire County Council in West Bridgford, and is the work of Nottingham artist Robert Kiddey. Someone, unkindly in my view, dubbed it "The Davy Lamp of love". Others have seen it more like a former soviet workers statue. Whatever, it is a fine piece of sculpture.

This Heron marks the entrance to the Lady Bay area of West Bridgford, at the start of Trent Boulevard.

For those of you who are new to Nottingham, I hope that these pictures have given you a flavour of the City's public art. Those who live here, will no doubt have their own favourites from right across the City. Feel free to let me know what those are.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Beveridge Legacy

On the 10th December 1948 in Paris, The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved. Article 25 (1) says, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control". Article 26 (1) says, "Everyone has the right to education ...". The UN was saying what many individuals and countries had been saying for generations.

Cyrus Cylinder 539 BC
As far as we can tell, the first recorded declaration of human rights was written by Cyrus the Great, King of Persia around 539 BC. The declaration was written on a clay cylinder which became known as the Cyrus Cylinder.

The 1940's in the United Kingdom was a period when great decisions were made that should affect every individual living in the country. But for at least a hundred years prior to that, the plight of the poor was gaining public and political profile. Steve Schifferes, BBC News economics reporter said in an article in 2005, "By the early 1900's all political parties had concluded that the state would have to play a bigger role in providing welfare for the poor".

Jarrow Crusade 1936
In 1915 the government were forced to introduce rent control following strikes by munitions workers, and in 1918 the Coalition Prime Minister, Lloyd George pledged to provide "homes built for heroes" for returning was veterans, and eventually two million were built.

We may all have our favourite emotional moment in history when the poor made a point. Mine is the Jarrow Crusade in October 1936. About 200 miners, ship workers and supporters walked nearly 300 miles from the North East of England to Westminster. This march was to protest against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in the North East of England. Unfortunately, little benefit was immediately gained by the marchers. After walking for a month, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin refused to meet with them, because it would create a "precedent". The marchers were each given £1 to cover their train fare home.

Soon after this the Second World War began, and by now the pressures for social reform were mounting. Early in the war, the coalition government began planning for post-war reconstruction.

William Beveridge
The government asked William Beveridge, a Liberal social reformer, Oxford don and one time head of the London School of Economics to write a report on the best ways of helping people on low incomes. He was described as "overbearing, vain but brilliant", and probably as a result of this, in the words of Nicholas Timmins, "He so bent his terms of reference that his report proved to be the prince's kiss, which brought to life the outline of pre-existing plans to create a national health service and secondary education for all, while providing the stimulus for the coalition government to accept responsibility for ensuring a high and stable level of employment".

So his work began with a committee of about a dozen civil servants, and these were reduced to mere "advisers or assessors" following his refusal to water down his assumptions as requested to do so by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kinsley Wood. As a result of this, Beveridge's signature was the only one on the final report. Do you know, he may have been overbearing and vain, but I like him.

The Beveridge Report
The report called "Social Insurance and Allied Services" was presented to the government on the 1st December 1942. Queues formed all night outside the Stationary Office to buy it, and it became incredibly popular with the British people. Sales of the full report topped 100,000 within a month, and reached 600,000 after a shortened summary was produced. To put this in context, no official report outsold it until the Denning report into the Profumo scandal 20 years later.

It was translated into 22 languages, sold to the United States, circulated to the troops, and dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. Also, and this I find fascinating, at the end of the war, a summary of it was found in Hitler's bunker, a commentary noting that it was "no botch-up ... superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points".

At the time when the war was destroying landmarks of every kind, Beveridge said it was a "revolutionary moment in the world's history, a time for revolutions, not for patching". Unfortunately, the wartime coalition, under Winston Churchill agreed to postpone planning for its implementation until after the war. During a Commons debate on the report two months after publication, labour came out strongly in favour of all the recommendations made in the report, and it was probably this that cost Churchill victory in the 1945 election.

The report was extensive, but the main points were as follows.
  1. The appointment of a minister to control all the insurance schemes
  2. A standard weekly payment by people in work as a contribution to the insurance fund
  3. The right to payments for an indefinite period of time for the unemployed
  4. Old age pensions, maternity grants, funeral grants, pensions for widows and for people injured at work
  5. Payments at a standard rate, the same for all citizens whatever private means they had, paid without a means test
  6. The introduction of family allowances
  7. A new national health service to be established
 The coalition government was unveiling plans for a welfare state offering care to all "from the cradle to the grave" as the Daily Mirror described it. To Beveridge, the report was a clarion call for an attack on what he saw as the "five giant evils" of WANT, DISEASE, IGNORANCE, SQUALOR and IDLENESS.

In 1945, Labour won a landslide victory at the General Election. It seems as if the British public believed that a Labour government would be more likely to pursue a vigorous programme of social reform. It began to tackle the five giants identified by Beveridge.

WANT - Poverty was seen as the key social problem which affected all others. We had the National Insurance Act and Industrial Injuries Act in 1946, followed by the National Assistance Act in 1948 for those not covered by the National Insurance Act.

DISEASE - In 1946 the National Health Service Act was passed, which meant that every British citizen could receive free medical, dental and optical services. GP treatment and hospital treatment was also free.

SQUALOR - After the war, Britain still had slum areas, and overcrowding was a serious problem. The government aimed to build 200,000 homes a year, and many were prefabricated houses which were assembled quickly on site. My home village in North Wales still has some of these prefabricated houses in use.

IGNORANCE - William Beveridge said, "Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens". Though the Coalition government of 1944 passed the Education Act, it was the Labour Government after the general election that implemented it.

IDLENESS - Full employment was the key, and after the war, there seemed to be work for everyone as Britain rebuilt itself. The plans of Beveridge seemed dependent on people being in work, so that money came in to pay for the benefits of a welfare state. Following the principles of economist John Maynard Keynes, the government took control (nationalised) of certain industries such as iron and steel. This meant that they could use tax money to keep an industry afloat even if it faced economic difficulties.

A blog can only pick at some of the key points in any report, and for those who wish to delve deaper into the subject, you should read Nicholas Timmins history of the welfare state since Beveridge, called The Five Giants. It is published by Harper Collins, and I believe is available through Amazon.

I do not necessarily endorse everything he says though.

The world has changed so much in the last near 70 years hasn't it? Beveridge's Five Giant problems are still there to be slain though. Successive governments of whatever persuasion, are forever seeking ways to address the issues of providing a fair and equitable welfare state. One of the guiding principles in Beveridge's report is that "proposals for the future should not be limited by sectional interests". Unfortunately the opposite is often true. In the area of welfare benefits, it often seems to me that government policy is one of punishing the poor, whereas to Beveridge, the state "should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family". There is still much to be done.

In the 1997 general election, Tony Blair said, "Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you Education, Education, Education". Beveridge would be impressed, and certainly huge amounts of money have been poured into the education system, so much so that by 2007, the government was spending almost £1.2 billion on education every week. So where has the money gone, and where do we stand in relation to others? Sean Coughlan, BBC News education reporter, writing in 2007 said, "By the end of the decade, education will be receiving 5.6% of GDP - which compares to the 5.5% that is the current average of education in industrialised countries. It means a huge amount of cash has been spent to push us all the way up to average". There is still much to be done.

Just after the war, unemployment was about 2.5%, and on the 16th February 2011 it was 7.9% with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development forecasting a further increase throughout 2011.

It's a different and difficult world now. How can "idleness" be addressed? Previously I'd lived and worked in Hastings on the south coast. The town has poor transport links, and now few big employers (though SAGA call centre are about to employ 800 people). Being a seaside town, any work has usually been seasonal, part time and low paid - often this is only of benefit to second earners in a family, not the main wage earner. My organisation did help many unemployed people to identify training, with particular emphasis at one time on gaining a Construction Industry Certificate. But to what end? Huge building programmes had taken place, but contractors often brought their own work force with them. What chance was there for our unemployed?

A positive example I have is from over 20 years ago when I lived and worked in Belfast. Debenhams were looking to move into Northern Ireland for the first time, and to open a store in the heart of Belfast. Out of a proposed 800 work force, they agreed that 25% would come from those who had been unemployed for more than six months. I was part of a group that helped to identify these 200 people, and it worked well. This can be done again to address the giant problem of unemployment. It would also help if government departments worked together more, rather than engage in "sectional interests". There is still much to be done.

I don't want to quibble about the progress made over the years, which has been quite staggering, but 70 years after Beveridge, we're still fighting the Five Giants. Perhaps one day we will succeed.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Passion v's Cold Decision Making

Old habits die hard. For 25 years prior to retirement, I led two voluntary sector organisations in the field of social welfare in Belfast and Hastings. Both were heavily dependent on Government funding to provide contracted services, and so national and local budget setting was of huge interest to me. Though now living in Nottingham, my interest in budgets and social welfare remains. Last October, in the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, it outlined what Council's could expect over the next few years, and during this month of February 2011, Council's throughout the country are finalising their own individual budgets.

Nottinghamshire County Council says that it expects to have to make savings of around £150 million over four years, and East Sussex County Council around £100 million. A large chunk of this will be in the first year, as the Government has "front-loaded" the cuts to Council funding. Through Council conversations with local residents and at various Council meetings, the debate has been hot and heavy.

East Sussex County Hall
East Sussex County Council stream all of their meetings by webcast. On the 8th February I watched the debate on the proposed budget. If we take out the party political point scoring, the debate showed how much many of the speakers cared about issues and programmes that were under threat. It was unfortunate though that after about two hours, and with about eleven Councillors still to speak, someone moved a motion to curtail the debate, which was carried.

I found this to be unacceptable in a democracy, and with so much at stake. The Labour group, who are in the minority were apoplectic, and were not slow in showing it. Following statutory procedures, the Chairperson asked the lead Councillor who had presented the budget report to sum up and respond to the points raised in the debate.

He questioned the sincerity of those presenting two amendments, and though acknowledging the passion of many members, stuck to the original budget proposal. In commenting about passion, and I confess to paraphrasing him here, he said that setting budgets does not have passion at its heart, but cold decision making does. On hearing this I was near apoplectic myself.

Passion is a Greek verb (also a Latin verb) that means to suffer or endure. Wikipedia says, "Passion can be expressed as a feeling of unusual excitement, enthusiasm or compelling emotion towards a subject, idea, person, or object".

The idea that passion and business decisions are mutually exclusive is anathema to me. We are not cold automatons, but beings with feelings that affect the decisions that we make. I've set and controlled enough budgets over 25 years to know that the process is not easy. I understand that budgets have to be affordable and achievable. What I don't accept is that passion should not be a driver in the decisions that are made. For me, passion is business.

David Lloyd George
There is a political example of this. In 1909, David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer forced through Parliament what he called 'The Peoples' Budget'. At the time he said, "This is a war budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests".

Poverty in a different form may still be with us, but this does not change the driver behind the budget of Lloyd George. His passion was to eradicate poverty, and that passion guided his budget. For him, passion and business decisions were not mutually exclusive, so why should they be today?

Budget setting without the driver of passion is merely 'bean counting'. I want politics that does not accept passion as merely acceptable in the periphery of debate, but that accepts it at the very heart of decision making. TAKE YOUR PASSION AND MAKE IT HAPPEN.

How do you feel about passion in political life and decision making?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Invocation to India

Last week I went to see a photographic exhibition by the Indian photographer and photojournalist Raghu Rai at the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green.

While I've always enjoyed photos of the family, I've never really appreciated photography as an art form, and as a consequence, have taken little notice of it. It was time I felt to address that deficiency in my education, and to try and grow in knowledge, understanding and appreciation.

New Art Exchange, Hyson Green
In September 2003, The New Art Exchange was formed as a new organisation to steer and manage the development of Nottingham's first dedicated cultural facility for Black contemporary arts. Following the successful award of capital funding, a new building was created and opened in September 2008 at a cost of £3.1 million.

The New Art Exchange is described as "an award winning contemporary art gallery based in the heart of Nottingham. It is the largest facility of its kind outside of London, with a focus on African, African Caribbean and South Asian art. Designed by Hawkins Brown, the striking new building is based in Hyson Green - a multi-cultural city heartland that is home to many artists".

Raghu Rai
Raghu Rai was born in the small village of Jhhang in 1942. He is an Indian photographer and photojournalist, who began his photography career in 1965, and a year later joined the staff of The Statesman, a New Delhi publication. In 1976, he left the paper and became a freelance photographer. From 1982 up until 1992, Rai was the Director of photography for India Today.

He has specialised in extensive coverage of India, and produced more than 18 books. His photo essays have appeared in many of the world's leading magazines and newspapers. His 1984 in-depth documentary for Greenpeace on the Bhopal chemical disaster resulted in a book and three exhibitions that has been touring Europe, America, India and southeast Asia since 2004. In 1971 Rai was awarded one of India's highest civilian accolades - the Padma Shri. He lives in Delhi with his family.

Skinder Hundal, Chief Executive of The New Art Exchange says that "Rai's practice ostensibly focuses on India and its many hues, as we see it in a raw, luminous and beautiful light through Invocation to India".

This is the first time that Rai's photographs have been exhibited in a public gallery in the UK, which includes new work from 2010.

To try and understand where Rai is coming from, I was intrigued by his own words. "Over the centuries, so much has melded into India that it's not really one country, and it's not one culture. It is crowded with crosscurrents of many religions, beliefs, cultures and their practices that may appear incongruous. But India keeps alive the inner spirit of her own civilisation with all its contradictions. Here, several centuries have learnt to live side by side at the same time. And a good photograph is a lasting witness to that: being a multi-lingual, multi-cultured and multi-religious society, the images must speak these complexities through a multi-layered experience".

It is the view of many who have a much better grasp of this art form than I do, that Rai captures the ways in which the past co-exists with the present in India, and on a more subtle level, the visual rhymes and congruities between the different components in his works. They say that his works attest to a multi-layered reality, where people, objects, animals and buildings jostle with each other, where people's own personal space is overlaid and invaded by each other's space.

So, what was the result of my visit to the exhibition? Have I grown in knowledge, understanding and appreciation? Well, I would certainly recommend coffee and cakes in The Art Exchange cafe. As for the exhibition, I would certainly want to strip away the "arty" descriptive prose, as that's just not me, no matter how hard I try. I certainly enjoyed the visit, and fully appreciated the beautiful photographs, and understood through them how "people's own personal space is overlaid and invaded by each other's space". Am I a convert to this art form? I think so, and will definitely attend other photographic exhibitions in the City. I'm conscious of the Chinese proverb that says, "One step at a time is good walking".

[End note: The above photographs have been scanned from the exhibition brochure, but to fully appreciate them you need to see them full size in The New Art Exchange]