Friday, 25 November 2011

The Enigma of History

Offa's Dyke and the Clun Valley
You know how it is, a question pops into your head, and you've just got to find the answer. No matter how obscure the issue, or how irrelevant it is to everyday life, you've just got to know.

This happened to me a few days ago when I was studying a map of the area in which I was brought up. I was pin pointing where my relatives lived, and it was as I was looking at Ruabon that the question popped into my mind.

On the west side of the village was a line marked Offa's Dyke, and on the east side, under a mile away, was a line marked Wat's Dyke. The question that wouldn't go away was why were there two earthen Dyke's running so close to each other? And a subsidiary question was, while we'd all heard of Offa's Dyke, why hadn't I heard of Wat's Dyke? It was barely two miles from where I was born. This niggled away at me, and I had to look into it.

Offa's Dyke is Red Line and Wat's Dyke is Brown Line
 I've dipped into about half a dozen archaeological works to find the answer, and there is conflicting views, particularly about Wat's Dyke.

However, digging through the mystery and the speculation, and the view that "nearly everything about Wat's Dyke remains uncertain", I'm hanging on to a consensus view, that makes sense to me. If my reader knows something else, they will no doubt let me know.

Wat's Dyke is up to 60 miles long, running from Basingwerk, Holywell, Flintshire, down to the river Severn at Maesbury in Shropshire. You can read about the Wat's Dyke Way Heritage Trail here.

Offa's Dyke is much longer, and runs from Prestatyn in the north, to Chepstow in the south,  a distance approaching 180 miles. The Dyke roughly follows the existing border between England and Wales. You can see the Offa's Dyke Association web site here.

I still hadn't answered my question of why, but I became captivated by the thought of what. What did the Dyke's look like? And reading about them took me back over 50 years to school drawings of castle escarpments (I hope that's the right word).

The Dyke's were generally, for most of their length made of a ditch, the soil of which was then made to construct a rampart. A bit like planting a row of potatoes, but a lot, lot, lot bigger. The Wat's Dyke varied in size over its length, with the rampart reaching anything from 6.4m to 12.2m in height. At Wrexham General Station, the bank was found to be over 6m wide, and the ditch in many places was at least 1.2m deep. Offa's Dyke was much bigger altogether, and as originally constructed, it was thought to have been about 27m wide, and 8m from the ditch bottom to the bank top. As can be seen from the diagram above, the ditch was always to the west, facing Wales.

The British Isles about 802 AD
So, who built the two Dyke's, when and why? At last I'm coming to answer my question, at least in a way that satisfies me.

The general consensus seems to be that Wat's Dyke was built by Aethelbald, king of Mercia from 716 - 757 AD. Mercia at the time was largely the area that we now call the English Midlands. The name Wat seems to be of uncertain origin.

King Offa was Aethelbald's successor, and reigned from 757 - 796 AD, and was responsible for building Offa's Dyke, which was an improved version, being much stronger and longer. It is thought to have been started in 785 AD and taken many years to build. To understand how and why such an impressive Dyke came to be built, it's perhaps helpful to look briefly at Offa himself.

One historian has summarised him like this. "Offa was King of Mercia from 757 to 796 AD. His kingdom covered the area between the Trent/Mersey rivers in the north to the Thames Valley in the south, and from the Welsh border in the west to the Fens in the east. At the height of his power, however, he also controlled Kent, East Anglia and Lincoln, and had alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, sealed by the marriage of two of his daughters to their Kings, Aethelred and Beorhtic respectively. He was, therefore, effectively an early King of England".

In response to the unrest emanating from the Princes of Powys along the Welsh border, he constructed the Dyke; either as an agreed boundary, defensive structure, or some other reason; historians and archaeologists are uncertain. Speaking as a layman, I think that there would have been easier ways to mark a boundary, and I can only assume that it was built to help keep the Welsh out of his kingdom of Mercia. The ditch facing Wales leads me to this view. He built it west of Wat's Dyke, so extending his own kingdom further into Wales.

It's amazing that after over 1200 years, so much of the Dyke's remain. I think that's testimony to the worker's of the day, and hundreds and thousands of walkers every year are enjoying the fruits of their labour. To another historian, "the origins of the Dyke are shrouded in mystery so that many of its aspects are speculated upon rather than being fully understood". What I've written may well contain some speculation, but I'm content that my questions of why, who and what have been answered. I now await the next question to pop into my head.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part ten

Penycae Reservoir, Keeper's House
I spent the first 21 years of my life in Penycae, and I've written quite a bit about the village. However, over the last few months I've been putting our family tree together, and I came to realise how little I knew about the history of the area.

Before Penycae became an ecclesiastical parish in its own right in the late 1800's, it was part of the ancient parish of Ruabon. In "A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, 1833 & 1849" by Samuel Lewis, he describes Ruabon as "a parish in the Union of Wrexham, containing in 1841, 11,292 inhabitants. The parish is situated in a picturesque part of the county, within three miles of the great Holyhead road, and is bounded on the south by the river Dee. The village seems to have been indebted for its original prosperity to the noble mansion of Wynnstay, in the immediate vicinity, and to owe its present importance chiefly to the mines of ironstone and coal which abound. The parish comprises an important part of the Denbighshire coal tract, of which the principle seam is here nine feet thick; and its mineral wealth in coal and iron ore, which has caused the establishment of numerous works. The whole give employment to from 1400 to 1500 men and boys. Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke both intersect the parish, and in their courses approach within a quarter mile of each other, near the village".

Wynnstay Arms, Ruabon
People have lived in Ruabon for over 3,000 years, and this ancient parish comprised the townships of Belan, Cristionydd Cynrig (or Y Dref Fawr), Coed Cristionydd, Cristionydd Fechan (or Y Dref Fechan or Dynhinlle Uchaf), Dinhinlle Isaf, Hafod (or Hafod y Gallor), Moreton Anglicorum (or Moreton Above), Moreton Wallichorum (or Moreton Below), Rhuddallt and Tref Robert Llwyd. The names Above and Below refer to their proximity to Offa's Dyke. ie, above it or below it.

Local history did not form part of my school curriculum, so most of the above names were unfamiliar to me. Of course, I knew about Offa's Dyke, but I wasn't aware how extensive the name Cristionydd was. In Penycae, I was born into the part of the village called Pentre Cristionydd, and until I left the village, I lived in a council house on a street called Cristionydd. By the middle of the 19th Century things were beginning to change, with new ecclesiastical parishes being formed, resulting in Ruabon parish becoming much smaller.

On the 24th May 1844, Coed Cristionydd and part of Cristionydd Cynrig went to the new parish of Rhosymedre. On the 3rd September 1844, Cristionydd Fechan went to the new parish of Rhosllanerchrugog. On the 28th October 1879, Moreton Above and the remainder of Cristionydd Cynrig went to the new parish of Penycae. So that's when my village became part of the newly formed ecclesiastical parish of Penycae; 28th October 1879.

St Thomas' Parish Church, Penycae
In anticipation of the new parish being formed, the parish church of St Thomas' was consecrated in 1878. However, at this time, most of the population of the parish were non-conformists, and attended their own Chapels.

These were, Salem Welsh Baptist Chapel; Groes (Sion) English Baptist Chapel; Groes Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel; Tainant Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel; Soar Welsh Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, and Copperas English Primitive Methodist Chapel. Baptists and Methodists obviously abounded in my village. In "The Statistics of the Nonconformist Churches for 1905", the aggregate number of adherents for the two Baptist Churches was 449, and for the four Methodist Churches it was 577. Half of these Churches are no longer open, and those that are, do not have anything remotely like the numbers of 100 years ago. It should be said in balance that the 1905 figures were probably inflated by the Welsh Religious revival of 1904.

Groes Welsh Calvinistic Chapel, Penycae
Perhaps a word about non-conformity would not be out of place here. The Welsh have always been of an independent spirit, and have not liked been told what to do by London; be that Parliament or the King. There was also a strongly held view that every man had the right to worship God as he saw fit. An Act was passed in 1662 that required everyone to conform to the Church of England. Those who didn't were called non-conformists. Quakers, Baptists and Independents (later to be called Presbyterians) were the first Welsh non-conformist groups.

Following years of persecution, which began to ease by the middle of the 1700's, non-conformity increased steadily. Researchers say that by 1851, about 75% of the Welsh population belonged to a non-conformist group. Part of the persecution was seen in the act of marriage. Between 1754 and 1837, non-conformists could not legally marry outside the Church of England - except for Quakers and Jews. This exception is for another story. Non-conformity is still very strong in Wales, and it's little wonder, as they had to fight so hard to get their religious freedom. Salem Baptist and Groes Methodist are the only non-conformist Chapels in the village with their own graveyards; adherents of other groups tended to be buried in the parish Church cemetery.

Council Offices Wrexham
Local Government reorganisation in Wales has often fascinated me. The area of Penycae has come under the following Administrative counties.

Pre 1536 it was in Powys Fadog.

1536 - 31st March 1974 it was in Denbighshire.

1st April 1974 to 31st march 1996, it was in Clwyd.

From 1st April 1996 it has been under Wrexham County Borough Council.

For the general population of course, life goes on, irrespective of what Administrative area they are in. The same concerns require the same answers. For the family historians, it also doesn't make a huge difference, as up to now the Records Offices have stayed where they are. The only thing to remember is that Denbighshire and Flintshire will not be the same during the years, as I've found out for myself. So at the present time, the parish of Penycae is in the County Borough of Wrexham. 

Miners at Bersham Colliery
Another thing that I've learnt about the history of my village, is the place of coal over the years. Now don't get me wrong, I was well aware of coal mines such as Hafod, Bersham, and a bit further afield at Gresford, and many of my male relatives were coal miners.

Hafod and Bersham mines became one when they linked the seams together, and one of the seams actually ran under the village of Penycae, which caused some subsidence where we lived at Cristionydd. The mine was closed in 1964.

Gresford was a large coal mine, and suffered one of the worst mining tragedies in British mining history, when in September 1934, at about 2.00am, an explosion rocked the mine killing 266 men, with only 6 men on that shift surviving. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered, and that section of the mine was never re-opened. The whole place was closed in 1973.

We were well aware of the dangers of coal mining, and family after family dealt with either the loss of a loved one in the mine, or watched them suffer for years the effects of dust on their lungs. But what choice did many of them have? There were no alternatives, but stories abound of comradeship and humour between coal miners.

I didn't know anything about the smaller mines in the village, which began I think in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and which were long gone by the time that I was born. A list of Denbighshire coal mines in 1896 didn't have any of them listed. However, another list (see here) said that there were mines at Afoneitha, Bryn-y-Felin, Cristionydd, Fronheulog, Groes, Mill, Mountain Level, Plas Issa and Stryt Issa, with a Zinc mine at Copperas. I have no idea of when they started, or how long they lasted. What a thriving little community it once was.

The above information is probably of interest to a limited audience, but for me, it is another insight into the village in which I was born and brought up.

Bridge Farm, Tainant, Penycae

Monday, 14 November 2011

Memorial Gardens, Nottingham

View of the back of the War Memorial
With no plan in mind on Saturday afternoon, I set off for a walk along the Victoria Embankment. It has become obligatory to begin my walks in this area with a cup of coffee from the Trent Bridge Kiosk. So, suitably refreshed, I began my dander.

I'd only got as far as the Wilford Suspension Bridge, when the familiar sounds of a football match assaulted my ears. Looking to my right, I could see two youth football matches taking place on the Meadows Recreation Ground, and decided that this was for me.

Watching a game of youth football on a Saturday afternoon was something that I hadn't done for years, so I joined the crowd at one of the matches. When I say crowd, I'm assuming that any number over one, not associated with either team is a crowd. There were no budding starlets that I could see, but the goals flooded in, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, which after all is what it's supposed to be about.

I took a shine to one of the full-backs, who reminded me a bit about myself when I played at that age. He was one of the smallest in the team, just like I was, but was energetic, could control the ball, and was a fierce tackler, just like I was. My mind wandered back to the days when I also played youth football, and wished that the pitches then, were half as good as those on the Meadows. Remember also that 50 years ago, football boots weighed a ton (at least the one's I could afford did), and the ball was leather with a laced area where you pumped the ball up. The ball got heavier the muddier it got, and heaven help you if you happened to head the ball directly on the laced area; how our brains are still intact is something of a mystery.

Standing beside this flat Meadows pitch reminded me for some reason or other about a pitch I used to play on in Penygelli, Coedpoeth near Wrexham. If memory serves me right, the pitch belonged to Penygelli School and was on a horrendous slope (nothing in Penygelli was flat). None of us could ever run up the full length of that slope with the ball, as by the time we would have got to the top, we'd be too knackered to do anything with it. At least you knew that for one half, you'd be running down hill. The changing room was a converted cattle shed, with minimal conversion taking place. No showers or wash basins of course, so you just had to put your clothes back on at the end of the game over your body that was caked with mud, and get home as fast as you could to have a bath. I'm sure that it wouldn't have seemed so bad if you'd won, but as I don't think we ever won a match at Penygelli, that luxury wasn't afforded me. It was all great fun though; ah happy days.

Memorial Gardens Water Feature
When the Meadows football match was over, I noticed a small gate in the hedge, and went through it. I found myself in the Memorial Gardens, which I'd never been in before. It had been closed off for many months due to the new flood defence scheme being put in place, but now it was open.

I didn't have my camera with me, so I whispered to myself those immortal words of Arnie, "I'll be back". And today I was, with camera ready to capture the moment.

The Memorial Gardens was built on land donated to the Corporation of Nottingham (forerunner of the City Council) in 1920 by Sir Jesse Boot, the founder of Boots the Chemist. This was to provide open space and a memorial site in memory of those who lost their lives in the First World War. This complemented the Recreation Ground which was opened in 1906, with the Memorial Gardens finally opening on the 11th November 1927.

At this time of year you don't see the gardens at their best, but I loved the place. There are plenty of benches, and your walk takes you through a mixture of natural and cultivated areas.

The water feature sits at the centre of the garden, and as the top picture shows, you can look down from the far end of it to the backdrop of the back of the Memorial.

The autumn trees had few leaves remaining on them, which afforded a brightly covered carpet to walk on. This wouldn't last for long as the gardeners were beginning to sweep those leaves up while I was there. It felt quite cold walking along the side of the River Trent, but somehow, inside the gardens, sitting among the trees and bushes, it seemed warmer.

Statue of Queen Victoria
By the water feature, standing on a huge plinth (hope that's the right word) is a very large statue of Queen Victoria.

It somehow gives the gardens an air of grandeur, but I couldn't help wishing that someone had been a bit more creative with her pose, as it seems identical to every statue of her that I've ever seen. Perhaps like superstores or Barrett homes there's just one template.

It also seems a shame that the statue is surrounded by a high metal fence, which prevents the public from getting close to it. Apparently, this had to be erected because of previous vandalism to the plinth. While perhaps understandable, it is none the less a shame.

Another area fenced off is the old toilet block and maintenance store, both of which were under the War Memorial. I read a proposal from about 2007 to the City Council to change the use of this area, and provide a cafe. I've no idea what happened to that proposal, but nothing has been done, and that again is a shame.

Still, in spite of the fenced areas, I think that the Memorial Gardens is a beautiful place, and I was glad to have visited it. I shall be back next Spring and Summer, when I hope that the camera will capture the place in glorious colour.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Does God Intervene in the Affairs of Men?

It's been an emotional Remembrance weekend. Actually, with the BBC programmes leading up to it, it has been an emotional week, as I found it all very moving.

The clue is in the word Remembrance. Those killed and injured from 1914 to 2011 have been remembered, culminating in Sunday's event at the Cenotaph in London.

One serviceman was interviewed in London on Sunday at the Cenotaph, and was asked what he felt the mood was like in the country. I liked his answer. He said that it wasn't so much support for war, but support for the troops. I think he's right.

Many in the country like myself, abhor war, but are realistic enough to know that just as there has always been wars, so there will be wars in the future.  The Royal British Legion, and scores of subsequent service charities, are not in existence to glorify war, but to remember those who died, and support those who suffer. I was watching the remembrance event from Whitehall on Sunday, and it brings home to you the far-reaching effect of war. There was one poignant moment when names scrolled across the screen of those British service personnel killed since the last Remembrance Sunday; I counted 44 names. I think that it is right to remember the casualties of war; not through the eyes of narrow parochialism though, but to take a truly world perspective.

In World War One there were 886,342 UK fatalities; in World War Two the figure was 383,667, and since 1945 there has been 17 different areas of British military conflict with 3,473 fatalities. The country was told after the Second World War never to forget the horror of it, so that it might never happen again. This was a dream never to be realised. Apart from Britain itself becoming involved in 17 conflicts since 1945, according to the Peace Pledge Union, since that year, there have been over 250 major wars in which over 23 million people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved. The Imperial War Museum says that there has been "fighting somewhere in the world almost every day since 1945". Other researchers are more specific, stating that there has only been 26 days of peace across the world since 1945. That's 66 years, or 24,090 days, with only 26 days of peace - makes you think doesn't it? Remembrance Sunday is about casualties among service personnel, but what about civilians? According to the New Internationalist - Issue 311 'Peace', "In armed conflicts since 1945, 90% of casualties have been civilians, compared to 50% in the Second World War and 10% in the First World War". These are people generally who are remembered by no-one, except their families. I don't give these figures as an anti-war statement, but simply to show how many we are remembering. The numbers are staggering, horrifying and incalculable. By all means let's remember and support those within our nation affected by conflict, lest we become immune to the smell of it all.

While watching the Remembrance Day event, the familiar strains of the hymn, "O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come" could be heard. In countless services up and down the country over the years, thanks has been given to God for victory. When I was in the Church, and following some tragedy, I was often asked, "Why does God allow such and such to happen?" I had my answers, which over time became more and more unsatisfactory. Let's assume for arguments sake that there is a God. This is not the time or place to discuss the opposing views of the likes of Richard Dawkins or the Theistic philosophers. There is a greater question than the Why, and it is, "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?"

German World War One Belt Buckle
On Saturday night, while searching the Internet for some answers to the identification of my Grandfathers World War One uniform, I stumbled across a German military memorabilia site.

There were belt buckles for sale from both world wars. The one shown opposite was from the First World War, and on the Second World War buckles, the crown had been replaced by the eagle and swastika. However, the words, "Gott Mit Uns" were on both war buckles.

Using the Internet translator, the words turned out to mean, "God (is) with us". I hope that I'm not being naive, but it seems to me that here we have people on opposite sides of the conflict believing that God was with them, and believing that God would give them victory. But only one side won; does that mean that God had deserted those who believed in him from the other side? Britain of course has always believed that God is on her side; from the Crusades, through battles with Irish Catholics or Scottish Dissenters. But, "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?"

Did God bring victory against Germany by directly intervening in the war? Or was the war won because Britain and her allies were just eventually better than Germany? If God does intervene, then some might like to ask, why didn't he do it sooner, and save the lives of millions? For some, questioning the Almighty is out of place, as who can know his will. Quite frankly, this is a cop-out. If God doesn't intervene in the affairs of men, then perhaps he is just allowing his created beings to work out their own path to what is good and right. That makes a bit more sense than saying that he supports some of his followers more than others. I am asking the question simply because I don't have the answer,  but I believe that it is a right question to ask.

You see, it's not just a question for matters of war, as it crops up in other areas of life.

I remember last year in a Golden League meeting, the 100 metre race. There were the top sprinters of the day involved in the race (the money on offer ensured that!!), and two of them in particular caught my attention.

Both were separately interviewed before the race and spoke of their Christianity, and that God would be with them. One of them won, and obviously the other didn't. The winner gave thanks to God for the victory, but the loser wasn't asked for his views. Two Christians battling it out for a top athletic prize believed that God was with them, but for one he obviously wasn't. (The often quoted phrase is that God always answers prayer, it's just that sometimes he says no). "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?" Does an omnipotent, omniscient Being, who has the world before him, care to intervene in a race, and choose one of his followers over another? Could it not be that on the day, the winner was just quicker than the loser, and there's no more to it than that?

This post is not meant to question the morality of war, or the existence of God. I've simply asked a question that I don't know the answer to. If anyone out there feels that they have an answer to the question, I'll be glad to hear it.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Human Cost of Education Cuts

I've spoken before about 'austerity measures' to reduce national debt. As my loyal reader will know, my special interest is the field of social care, but I've spoken enough about that for now.

Education has come to my attention, both in Ireland and England. In picking up on austerity measures in both countries, I've realised how much I've missed out on the education debate, and the human cost to education cuts.

The situation in Ireland is different to that of England, in that the cuts to services are being driven by the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, even though there are many who believe that the savage cuts across the board are unnecessary. For many years the Irish Government has been a coalition, and currently this is Fine Gael, as the largest party, and Labour, who came second in the last election. It's sad to say that Labour has had little impact on Fine Gael's plans for cuts, particularly in the area of education.

For many months, there have been protests about the Irish Government's plans to cuts Special Needs Assistant's (SNA's) posts from over 200 schools. The role of SNA's in Ireland has been important, as the very individualised support to children with special needs has enabled them to remain in mainstream education, and this has enabled them to have a 'normal' education. From the Government we hear about the necessity for cuts to reduce the national debt, but from parents, we hear about the human cost of these cuts on their children. There is no finer example of this than a mother's powerful piece on 'The Anti Room' web site, which you can read here. Do read some of the comments as well if you have the time.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland has said, "When children with special needs are denied early educational and therapeutic intervention, not only do the children themselves suffer major setbacks in terms of reaching their potential, but their entire families also suffer directly in terms of stress and exhaustion. And in simple economic terms, wider society suffers too, as it costs the taxpayer much, much more to intervene later on in the life of a person with special needs than it does to provide appropriate early intervention". This view is supported by Richard Boyd Barrett, TD (member of the Irish parliament), who said, "It is utterly obscene, that children, and particularly our most vulnerable children should be asked to pay the price for the gambling and greed of banks and speculators. The removal of these vital supports is not only grossly unfair - it is utterly short-sighted and economically stupid". He went on to say, "High quality early education is the single most important building block if we are to lay the basis for economic recovery and avoid social breakdown. To persist with these cuts is a recipe for disaster".

These comments could easily have been said about the situation in Britain, in relation to cuts in our educational system. Short-termism again dominates the agenda, as saving today, just stores up other problems for tomorrow.

According to researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) last month, they estimate that total public spending on education in the UK will fall by over 13% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15, and that "this represents the largest cut in education spending over any four-year period since at least the 1950's". The Government of course disagree, saying that "the schools budget is actually increasing by £3.6 billion in cash over the next four years". They are being disingenuous here, as there is a difference between funding for local authority schools, and the greater educational budget. Education cuts seem to be hitting the following the hardest.
  1. Capital spending on school buildings
  2. Higher education
  3. Education for 16 - 19 year olds
  4. Early years learning
Voice, the union for educational professionals, commenting on the IFS report said, "It could be argued that the areas facing the deepest cuts should be seeing increased funding. It is crucial that there is investment in education now and for the future".

On the subject of school buildings, Ian Toone from Voice said, "Many school buildings require urgent repair. Government estimates are that 75% of all UK schools have buildings that comprise asbestos-containing materials. The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) has called for a national audit of asbestos in school buildings after figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that of the small number of academies inspected, approximately 60% had enforcement action taken against them for failing to adequately manage the asbestos in their buildings". The Chair of the JUAC said that "we simply do not know the true extent of the problem; this could just be the tip of the iceberg". As possibly serious as asbestos is, it is but one part of the condition of school buildings. Lack of action now is simply storing up problems for the future.

Higher education, in which Britain is a world leader, is crucial for the future of research and economic development. According to estimates produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funding to universities has been cut by 40%, but that some of that shortfall will be recouped with increased tuition fees. However, though the deadline for application to most courses is next January, it should be some cause for concern that according to Ucas applications at the moment are 9% down on the same period last year. This means that about 7,000 fewer students have applied so far. If you take out overseas applications, there is a drop so far of 12% for UK students. All of this may well pick up before the end of January of course, but the rise in tuition fees and subsequent student debt, is causing many people to think more carefully before applying to university. More mature students seem to be definitely re-considering their future, as people over the age of 25 have fallen by more than 25%, and among those in their forties, the drop is 28%. The Chair of the Million+ group of new universities has warned of the importance of mature students not being put off university. "Studying for the degree people need to get the job they want in the future will be particularly important for those seeking to re-enter the labour market after losing their jobs". This policy of cuts is again possibly storing up future problems, as the people the country will need, are not there.

The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has said, "Despite the Government's claim to have protected school funding, most schools will see real terms cuts. Sixth form colleges and school sixth forms will be hit by the particularly savage cuts of up to 20% to 16 - 19 year olds education". Further education (16-19) plays a key role in providing training for businesses and jobs and in preparation for higher education. I've come across too many people who became educationally alive, only at the age of 16, and it would be tragic to think that similar future generations would lose out on this opportunity.

Someone said about working with the under five's, "The early years are crucial for children's social and behavioural development and in laying the foundation for lifelong learning. The early years set the course for the rest of a child's life". Cuts in this area makes it more difficult for the next one, and the next one after that, and so on. But the Government are adamant that the spending cuts will not have an adverse affect on education.

As the NUT says, "Education cuts don't heal - they cause massive social and economic costs". The social costs can be equated to the human costs of education cuts. We're not just talking about institutions or establishments losing out, but children, young people and adults, as well as those who teach them. Cuts to education will not bring long term economic recovery, but investment in education to give us the skills we need for economic recovery will.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Happy Birthday Franz Liszt

Lang Lang
Liszt wouldn't know it was his birthday of course, as he's been dead for 125 years. The 22nd October 2011 was the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Now jazz might be my favourite music genre, but I've also had a great love for classical music as well. I may not know as much about it as I do jazz, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it to the full.

I'd appreciated Liszt's piano concertos for years, but knew little of his other works, and even less about the man. What brought me to look closer at the man and his music? The answer to that is simple; it was the Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

I'd not heard much about him either to be fair, until I saw him play at this years BBC Last Night of the Proms. He played Liszt's Piano Concerto No 1, and I was captivated by the beauty and passion of his playing. Lang Lang has made a speciality of playing Liszt, calling him "My Piano Hero". When did this love affair begin? Lang Lang traces it back to when he was two years old, and was watching an eight minute film on Chinese television, produced by Metro, Goldwyn, Mayer. It was a Tom & Jerry cartoon, made in 1947, and called "The Cat Concerto". This was Lang's first encounter with Liszt's music, as he later found out that the piece being played was Hungarian Rhapsody No 2. Lang describes it thus. "Tom, the cat, is a concert pianist in this episode. He performs in a dinner jacket and bows to the public. Then he starts to play - and plays superbly. A cat in a dinner jacket playing the piano! I thought it was hysterically funny". I don't think that I've seen this cartoon for over 40 years, and I include it below, if only because it's so funny still.

I don't believe in fate, but if I did, I would say that it guided me to the Classical CD Music shop in Goose Gate, for there was a new CD by Lang Lang, with specially chosen pieces of Liszt's music to celebrate the 200th anniversary. Lang Lang obviously had a vivid imagination, for it is said that while he sat practising at the piano, "his thoughts often took flight". He said on one occasion, "When I saw Elvis Presley on TV, I was inescapably reminded of Franz Liszt. Liszt was a rock star - he was wild, and women idolised him. In my imagination he rode a motorbike at breakneck speed and flew jet planes that were faster than light. In contrast to most other composers, Liszt did not die young. He found a way of living and keeping his story going while he bounded from one exciting adventure to the next".

Franz Liszt 1811 - 1886
Liszt was born in Hungary on the 22nd October 1811, and moved to Paris with his family at the age of twelve, where he soon became the darling of Europe. I don't propose to give a history of his life, as fascinating as that is; you can find a web site dedicated to him here. Instead, I'll focus on three areas that contributed to his unique position as pianist and composer. 

In one sense, it could be said that Liszt "invented the profession of the international pianist". His amount of travel in those days was almost unimaginable, as he cris crossed the Europe of his day. During an eight year period between 1839 - 1847 he played over 1000 concerts, sometimes performing three or four times a week. These were not short distances you understand, as he went from St Petersburg to Lisbon, from Glasgow to Constantinople. Most journey's overland had to be by coach, which led him in 1840 to acquire his own coach. This could only have been done with great organisation, and a strong constitution. His reputation meant that more and more people wanted to hear him, and it has been said, "he played for Kings, Princes and Counts, for the Queen of England, the Sultan of Constantinople and the Tsar of Russia". A truly international pianist.

He was an innovator in where the piano was placed on stage, as well as in a way, being the inventor of the piano evening. Previously, pianists had to share the stage with others, but Liszt made solo appearances, and the stage was his. In addition, he had the piano moved to the position that we see today, that is at right angles to the rows in the auditorium, so that the pianist could be seen. Before this, the piano had been lined up with the audience, which meant that the pianist was partly hidden from view. He also learnt all the music by heart, which meant that he was one of the first pianists to play with no sheet music propped up on the piano. Speaking of these innovations, Oliver Hilmes said, "The pianist's profile, expressions and gestures, his posture - all of this was placed at the centre of attention. In a word, Franz Liszt was the first concert pianist in the modern manner".

His compositions also proved key to the manufacture of better pianos. This came to a head with his composition, Paganini Etudes. Liszt had heard Nicolo Paganini play his violin in Paris in 1832, and thought of him in a sense to have reinvented the playing of the violin; "such virtuosity, elevated to the realm of ecstasy, overwhelmed Liszt". (How I would have loved to have heard Paganini play). In 1851, Liszt published his Paganini Etudes, the aim of which was to transfer to the piano, Paganini's mastery of the violin. Hilmes said, "Like a juggler, Liszt whirls the notes all ways up and sets off a firework display of pianistic effects; trills, cascading chords, thundering octaves for both hands, madcap leaps, pizzicato effects and more besides". To Lang Lang, "With pieces like this, Liszt had a material influence on the development of piano making, as his sensational technique required better and better pianos. The spirit of invention and musical progress really went hand in hand here".

For Lang Lang, "Liszt is my hero", because "he changed classical music completely. As a performer he revolutionised piano playing, and as a composer he opened the door to modern music". Happy birthday Franz Liszt.

It seems right to finish with music by Liszt. While my favourite piece I think is his Piano Concerto No.1, I've chosen Grandes Etudes de Paganini. Happy listening.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Personal Memories of a Special Place - Three

Southwater Centre, St Leonards on Sea
I left the story last time saying that the Seaview Project came to the conclusion that it was time to stop sharing with a local Church, and to find a building of their own.

This was in the latter part of 1988, and links were formed with a local social enterprise called The Robert Tressell Workshops. The building shown opposite was identified by the Workshops as being suitable for multi-purpose use. It was in the heart of St Leonards on Sea, one minute from the Warrior Square train station, and a short walk from the sea front. It was smack bang in the middle of a residential area, which was to prove 'interesting' over the coming years.

It was owned by the Eversfield Estates, who for many years before this time had owned large amounts of properties in St Leonards on Sea. By the late 1980's their portfolio had dwindled considerably. For the previous eight years, the building had been leased to the Post Office, and acted as the local sorting office, but they now wished to re-locate. Robert Tressell Workshops came in and agreed to take over the lease, and they set about to create a unique establishment in the town, calling the building, The Southwater Centre.

Robert Tressell (Noonan)
Many will recognise the name Robert Tressell, particularly those interested in socialist, working class writings. He is best known for his one and only novel: "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists".

Robert Tressell was the pseudonym of Robert Noonan, an Irish house painter, who came to England from South Africa at the start of the 20th Century. He settled in Hastings with his daughter and sister, where he worked as a sign writer for various building firms.

In Hastings he became immersed in local politics, and joined the Social Democratic Federation, which was one of the forerunners of the Labour Party. He was often seen with his soapbox on Hastings beach, expounding his socialist ideas. His experience of working in Hastings, and the plight and treatment of his fellow workers caused him to write his great novel, which to him was to be seen as a "socialist documentary", based on real people, and real events. In the novel, Hastings was called Mugsborough.

He was never to see it published; the manuscript was rejected by several publishers, and disillusioned, Robert decided to emigrate to Canada in 1910, but he fell ill on reaching Liverpool, where he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Infirmary Workhouse. He died from TB on the 3rd February 1911, aged 40. I find it very sad that he was buried in a mass grave with twelve other paupers, and the location of his grave was not discovered until 1970. His novel was published three years after his death.  The Southwater Centre was built around the same time that Robert Noonan moved to Hastings, and was a Territorial Army Drill Hall. There were a couple of extensions added over the coming years, which gave it a rather unusual sky line. It was however large, bright and airy; ideal for the Workshops purpose.

It comes as no surprise to know that Robert Tressell Workshops was named after the great man, because their purpose in Hastings was to improve the lot of those in the town who were disadvantaged and impoverished. The Southwater Centre opened in 1989 as a multi-purpose building housing the Seaview Project Day Centre; a sheltered employment workshop for those with long term mental health problems; a housing advice project; a drug and alcohol advisory agency, and an area for local artists to work. In theory, this was an exciting opportunity for co-operative working, but in practise, it didn't quite work. More of this next time.

An empty Seaview Project
Seaview Project moved into the Southwater Centre on the 2nd October 1989, and I arrived as Manager a week later on the 9th October. Perhaps it's worth saying something about how I got the job.

I'd arrived in Hastings with no work, so I was keen to find something. It turned out that as well as moving premises, Seaview was looking for a new Manager. After sending in my application, I was short listed for interview, and turned up at the designated day and time.

I only remember the first interview question, which was something like, "Tell us what you know about mental health". I felt like I'd been hit with a boulder, as I knew nothing about mental health, and I was only on question one. Shall I try my best to answer it, or shall I be honest? I chose the latter, explaining that the job description didn't mention mental health (which it didn't), and that the additional sheet outlining Seaview's role in mental health was not sent to me (which it wasn't). So my answer to the question can best be summed up in the words, "Bugger All". I felt, well that's it then, I've miserably failed question one, so there's no chance of getting this job. This somehow relaxed me, as I went through to the end of the interview. Imagine my surprise when the following day I was offered the job - god knows what the other candidates must have been like (no disrespect intended of course).

So here I was, day one of my new employment, at 10.00am opening the doors to the public. As they filed in, I thought, "What have I let myself in for?" The answer to that will begin to unfold next time.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Carriers of Wonderment

Arboretum 6th November 2011
In a recent blog, attention was drawn to the new President of Ireland, who commented on his primary school teacher, William Clune, saying that he saw every child who came into his class as a "carrier of wonderment". I haven't been able to get this wonderful phrase out of my mind, and it set me thinking.

A friend of mine has taken a break from work, and is spending a few months travelling in America. A few days ago, they sent me an email saying that they were in the State of Wyoming. Sad people like me, with a great fondness for old Western films will remember that many of them were shot in Wyoming - not at all relevant to my story, but it gives another insight into my character. My friend, on viewing the scale and beauty of the area in which they were staying, said that it was awesome. They were full of wonder.

In a similar vein, but much closer to home, a young lady approached me as I sat on my favourite seat in the Nottingham Arboretum. She asked could she sit down and talk to me. Now I've mentioned before the usual people who sit down next to me, who are a mixed bunch. A young lady was something new, so of course I said yes. She was from Korea, and was spending a year in Nottingham doing a Masters degree in journalism at Nottingham Trent University. All she wanted was to share her evident excitement for Nottingham. She was thrilled with the houses, the space and the parks. In her home city she said, everyone was crammed together, living in high rise blocks, with very little space. She was awestruck by the comparison, and then she was off to continue her jog - full of wonder.

Viewing nature with a sense of wonderment is one thing, but seeing people as carriers of wonderment is totally different. This is about viewing people in a positive light; it's about seeing potential, and not negativity. It is sometimes the difference between people succeeding or not. William Clune was an example of someone who believed that every child was capable of achieving something positive in life. The world would be a much better place if there were more people that showed the same attitude. I think that it's worth exploring what we mean by this.

While the phrase, "carrier of wonderment" is new to me, the idea behind it is not. It can be used to describe our view of children ,young people and adults. Unfortunately, far too many people view others as a problem; they see people through the eyes of fear, or disgust; such people to them are an 'underclass', and something should be done to "protect decent people". Little wonder that people turn out feeling alienated from society, with no hope or aspiration.

My view is not pie-eyed, but has been forged in the furnace of over thirty years working with those who have been looked down upon in Belfast and Hastings. My experience has not been with children, but with those generally over the age of eighteen, who were the products of failed families, school and care system. Seeing anyone, whatever their age, as a "carrier of wonderment" is the same to me as getting people to believe in what they can do, rather than in what they can't do.

There's the apocryphal story of the young man who grew up thinking that his name was No, as all he ever heard was, "NO, don't do that". Let me give you two examples of people who turned from believing that there was nothing that they could do, to seeing what they could do. I'm not using these examples as an act of self-aggrandisement, but to show that philosophical principles are best explained with practical examples.

There was a couple of young men in Belfast who belonged to the youth wing of a paramilitary group. Let me digress slightly by saying that I used to get into a bit of bother from time to time with paramilitary groups from both sides, because of encouraging young men in particular to see that there was more to life for them than violence and murder. In exploring options with these young men - and it took some time, as they didn't initially believe that there were any options, it finally transpired that they thought they'd like to do sandwich making, and deliver to local shops, offices and homes. This was a start; they were thinking in positive terms. To cut a long story short, I arranged for a grant to cover their start-up costs, including equipment, and allowed them to use one of our project rooms, rent free for a year. They didn't earn a fortune, but it was more than they received on benefits, and they worked really hard. You could not put a price on the increased sense of self-worth. All this because someone saw in them a "carrier of wonderment". Or to put it another way; allowing people to see what they can do, can bring huge rewards.

When I went to work in Hastings, I found the place full of angry and disillusioned men and women. Just as in Belfast, they spent a lifetime being told what they couldn't do, and the message they received was that they were good for nothing. They were seen as "low-life" and "layabouts" - these were quotations from the local press, and comments from the local community. To clients, nobody seemed to bother or care about them. But my project did. When you have a 'can-do' philosophy, you can expect to see changes, even in the most hardened of individuals. Though so many people were really poor at reading and writing, we decided that we'd have a poetry competition, for people to express what they felt within themselves. Everyone was encouraged to take part, and those who couldn't write, were encouraged to get staff or volunteers to help them. The results were remarkable, and we published them in a book. The spelling and grammar was atrocious, and was an example of a failed educational system, that was supposed to prepare people for life. The raw material though was something special, and most of the people were really proud of what they had achieved. This may not seem like much to some, but it was a small step forward (actually, for a few it was a massive step forward). They did something that they didn't know they had in them, and it was wonderment. In the end they proved to be 'carriers of wonderment'.

Some may think that is this another case of Evans hyperbole, but if you can see potential in every child, why can't you see it in every adult? I know the way that I'd prefer to live.

"Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!
Anne Frank

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Rising From Humble Beginnings

Michael D Higgins and his Wife Sabina
On the 29th October 2011, Michael Daniel Higgins was elected as the 9th President of Ireland. In a remarkable election, he gained nearly 40% of first preference votes, and at the final count, won with 61.6% of the vote, seeing off six other challenges, and was nearly 380,000 votes ahead of his nearest challenger.

You can read a warm and appreciative blog here from my Son, Chris. Michael D (as he is always referred to) is a remarkable man, and his rise to the high office of President, caused me to reflect on how possible was it in Britain today for someone with a similar background to rise to the top. I propose to look at Michael D; examine some figures from Britain's past, and consider the position in Britain today.

Michael D was born in Limerick, but raised in County Clare by a family who paid a huge price during the tumultuous events surrounding the foundation of the Irish state. His was a humble, and relatively poor background, but as the link above mentions, he saw education as his means of escape, and has written powerfully about its ability to lift people from one life into another. He said, "What happens in education is crucial to the life of the person, and it defines the values of the society". I was particularly struck by what he said of his primary school teacher, William Clune. "There was not one person who came into his school yard, from any background, with shoes or without, who wasn't respected as a carrier of wonderment". Isn't this the heart of teaching? You have to question today, irrespective of the desires of teachers, in a country full of tests, results and league tables, whether the teacher is allowed the time to see every single child as "a carrier of wonderment".

After working for a number of years as a clerk with the Electricity Supply Board, he became the first member of his family to go to university. It was here that he began to articulate the deep sense of social justice and hunger for equality that he had developed as a young man. In a website dedicated to him here, (and by the way, do try and listen to his acceptance speech found on the site's home page, it is wonderful. Don't be put off by his speaking in Gaelic to begin with, as after a few moments he speaks in English),  it describes Michael D as a young academic, striving to ensure that people of a similar background to himself had the opportunity to access education, and travelled with colleagues to towns and villages throughout the West of Ireland providing outreach courses. "The social exclusion, emigration and poverty that he experienced and witnessed led him to more direct political involvement, where he could argue and advocate for real change, both social and economic".

Michael D is a strong Republican and Socialist, and has never been afraid to challenge anyone, including the Leadership of his own Labour Party, when he felt that injustice, equality and poverty were not being addressed. He is a powerful and intellectual speaker who stands up bravely for what he believes. In his life he has shown his passion for politics, the Arts and sport. The link above gives more details about his achievements, which have been considerable. But it's his fight for the elimination of poverty in Ireland that is the one area that I am particularly drawn to. He talks about a "citizenship floor" or a "social floor", which is the line below which nobody should be allowed to fall. Having listened to all of the clips on You Tube relating to Michael D, I've chosen the following one on his opposing the Irish Governments proposal to reduce the minimum wage. It is powerful, passionate and shows the true heart of the man.

So this is Michael D Higgins, the 9th President of Ireland. The presidency is of course largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The President however, does seem to me to represent the face of Ireland, both at home, and abroad. Though the President, traditionally does not criticise the Government, I cannot see Michael D keeping quiet when proposals are brought forward to reduce even further the level of the "social floor". My Son in his blog said, "When President Higgins moves into the Aras an Uachtarain, the Presidential Palace in Dublin's Phoenix Park, he will have a considerable task in transforming the view currently taken of Ireland as a broken country. I believe he will succeed". And so do I. Michael D Higgins rose from humble beginnings, to one of the highest positions in the land; his time as President will certainly not lack excitement.

Ernest Bevin
In thinking about the new President, my thoughts turned to stalwarts in British political life, who similarly rose from humble beginnings to achieve positions of power in the post Second World War Government of Clement Attlee.

One such was Ernest Bevin.  He was born in the village of Winsford in Somerset in 1881. His father was unknown, and he was orphaned at the age of eight due to his mother's death, and went to live with his half-sister in Devon. He only ever had about two years of formal education, and at the age of eleven, he became a farm labourer.

At age 18 he moved to Bristol and became a van driver. During this period he became interested in Non-conformist religion, and for a while was a Baptist lay preacher, where his oratorical skills came to the fore. He began work at Bristol Docks, and joined the Dockers' Union, and by the age of 30 was one of its paid officials. He was also a member of the Labour Party.

The following year, he gained a nationwide reputation by making a speech before the Transport Workers' Court of Inquiry that resulted in a standard minimum wage for British dockworkers. A year later he was responsible for merging 32 smaller unions into the Transport and General Workers' Union, and became general secretary for nearly 20 years. In 1940 he joined Winston Churchill's coalition government as Minister of Labour and National Service. After the war, he became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Clement Attlee's government, and although controversial, he gained a deserved reputation across the world. Not bad for a child from a poor single mother, orphaned at eight, having two years of formal education, and starting his working life at 11. Rising from humble beginnings indeed.

Herbert Morrison
Herbert Morrison was born in Lambeth, London in 1888. His father was a police constable. As a baby, he lost the sight in his right eye due to infection.

He had little formal education, and left school at the age of 14, and became an errand boy at a local grocer's shop.

His early politics has been described as radical, and he briefly flirted with the Social Democratic Federation, before becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party.

In World War One he was a conscientious objector, and was involved with a pacifist movement. During the war he worked in a market garden in Letchworth.

In Attlee's post Second World War Government, he held a number of senior cabinet positions, such as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Deputy Prime Minister.

Again, not bad for someone from humble beginnings and little education, who would rise to the top.

Aneurin Bevan
One of the giants of 20th Century politics. Aneurin Bevan was born in 1897 in Tradegar, South Wales. His father was a coal miner, and life was hard for any mining family, and the Bevan's, with ten children, were no exception.

Bevan left school aged 13, and like his father, went to work in the mines. He was an activist from an early age, and through the trade union, at the age of 19 he became the head of his local Miners' Lodge.

Management at the pit saw him as a troublemaker, because of his activism, and at one point sacked him, only to have to much later give him his job back. He was a strong socialist, who fought for the rights of the working man. In the lead up to the 1945 General Election he said, "We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders. We enter this campaign at this general election, not merely to get rid of the Tory majority. We want the complete political extinction of the Tory Party".

After the election victory, Clement Attlee made Bevan Minister of Health. In spite of strong opposition from the British Medical Association and others, he steered through the Bill that resulted in the National Health Service coming into being on the 5th July 1948. The NHS along with the Welfare State was one of the most important developments in post-war Britain, as it helped those who could least afford to help themselves. As someone said, "The whole ideology behind the NHS clearly fitted in with what Bevan believed in - helping the working class". Not bad for someone from such humble beginnings.

So Higgins, Bevin, Morrison and Bevan all came from humble beginnings; their early path into politics may have been slightly different, but they all rose up from those humble beginnings because they wanted to make a difference in the world for everyone, but in particular, a difference to those who felt disenfranchised - the working class.

My question to finish with is this, "Can people from humble beginnings in Britain today, rise to the top in politics?". In my view the nature of politics has changed. Where once it was seen as service, now it is seen as a career path. Yes there are still people in Parliament from "the old school", but they've been there for years, and no long carry much weight even within their own party.

Over the years, the route into politics for many from humble beginnings was the trade union movement or local government. With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, we began to see the beginning of real de-industrialisation with the closing of coal mines, ship yards and the car industry. Along with this came the centralisation and gradual decimation of local government.

With millions out of work, the power and place of the trade union was diminished, and fewer opportunities existed in local government. The opportunities for those with little formal education became less, and a more "professional" class of politician came to the fore. This subject deserves more time given to it that I can give here, so I recommend you read the finest book on the subject I've come across, which was published earlier this year, and which I've just finished reading. It's by Owen Jones, called, "Chavs: The Demonization of the working class".

The whole system is stacked against those from humble beginnings rising to position of power and influence. Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone regrets the "abolition of the traditional council structure where working class people got elected, learned via committees how things are run, and then went to Parliament. That's gone ... There's a lot of people that used to be on Lambeth Council or Camden Council who weren't terribly good in terms of literacy and numeracy, but loved representing their area, and could work the machine and the council. They didn't have to have bloody A-levels or degrees to do it. In that sense the barriers against the working class are stronger now, not because an aristocratic elite is keeping them out, but because a sort of middle-class layer has introduced too many qualifications, rules and regulations".

Following the 2010 election, 1 in 20 MP's came from blue-collar backgrounds; 1 in 10 MP's had a background in financial services; 1 in 5 MP's had already worked in politics before taking the Parliamentary oath. This was mostly in the role of unpaid research assistants, which you can only do if you have money behind you to cover your costs. Perhaps the last MP in the modern era who rose from humble beginnings to near the top was John Prescott. He was the son of a railway signalman, who failed his 11 plus, and joined the Merchant Navy as a waiter. We all know of the scorn that was constantly directed at him within Parliament and within the right-wing press, and this has continued since his elevation to the House of Lords. The class war is alive and well, and is directed against those from a humble, working class background.

I am thrilled to see Ireland appoint Michael D Higgins as its 9th President, but I fear that Britain will never again see the calibre of such men as Bevin, Morrison or Bevan.

I started this blog with Michael D Higgins, so let me finish on a lighter note, and show you something of another side to him - that of poet. Perhaps the clip below will give you a flavour of his work, as he reads a poem about his Father, then talks about it.