Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Britain is a country which has lost and says "Farewell" to its scarce 'old' campaigner for the 'Rights of the Disabled', Bert Massie

Bert, who has died at the age of 68, was born Herbert William, the son of Lucy and Herbert Douglas Massie in the Spring of 1949, in the same Liverpool Walton Hospital, where Paul McCartney had been born seven years before. He contracted polio when he was just three months old and growing up as a severely disabled kid in the 1950s and 60s, he found that not much was expected of him : plenty of prejudice was in place and his horizons were strictly limited. His sense of injustice was acute and by the age of 18 he had become a disability rights campaigner, a role he maintained for the rest of his life rising to the positions of Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission and a founding Commissioner of its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

He spent his first five years in Alder Hey Hospital, then the 'Children’s School of Rest and Recovery' and at 11 was packed off to Sandfield Park Special School, which was residential and when asked what was the worst time in his life ? He answered : "Endless operations as a child and boarding school."

It was now that he joined what he called the 'escape committee' when, with his mates, he perfected their Colditz-style escapes from school. With them, he would freewheel down the drive into town to get sweets and and a taste of the outside world and when they were cold or tired, would allow themselves to be picked up by the local police who were sympathetic to their situation. They would then be either bought snacks, taken back to the police station for tea, or given the thrill of being driven around Liverpool in a police car and this, at a time when Z-cars was playing on tv.

His life wasn't universally bleak and as a youngster, Bert enjoyed annual visits to a summer holiday camp in the Wirral for Disabled Boys and he was aware his disability afforded certain advantages and recalled :  “With polio there were no class barriers, middle class people got it, working class people got it; journalists got it, and footballers got it. I joined the British Polio Fellowship at 11 and had my first holiday through them at 11 when my brothers and sisters hadn’t even heard of holidays. I mixed with the middle classes and at last had an aspiration for education; for the first time I was encouraged to ask ‘why don’t you ?"

With no expectations that disabled youngsters would study for 'O', let alone 'A' levels, Bert left school without any formal qualifications. He described it starkly as : "In the 1950s there was a pretty low expectation of what you could achieve in this condition and you were doing well if you were still alive at 16." His interpretation as to why he didn't succeed at school, however, was interesting  : “In those days education was fairly basic. You weren’t pushed. I used to think I left school with no qualifications because of that and that I was disabled, but then I looked at the education of my brothers and sisters and realised it was just because we were working class.”

When he was 16, in 1965, he got his first trike which would ferry him around after he had shown up at an artificial limb appliance centre at a hospital in Liverpool, where the assessor met him with an 'invalid carriage.' He recalled : "The guy who assessed me was an engineer and he said : "Sit in this, I'm going to push you and I want you to push the brake down to see if you can stop." So we did that, I stopped it and he said, "Right, you're quite capable of driving. And that's how I passed my test." He added : "I had a few go on fire on me, so you'd stop and other motorists would drag you out as the thing went up in flames."

At this time the trike was a formative influence in his life. Bert already had "a strong sense of justice and injustice. My drive came from both a personal need and an appreciation of what was wrong. I started off fighting for access to cars when I was a young man because I had been given a Niblet three-wheeler and it one had one seat. Put aside the fact that it kept breaking down, I couldn’t take my girlfriend out in it!  There was a sign on the dash which said you couldn’t take passengers.  Liverpool police ignored it but the minute you got into Lancashire, they were waiting for you. I wanted to try and get a small car and so joined the Disabled Driver’s Association when I was 19, then the National Committee, campaigning that 'the car was an extension of you.' I cut my campaigning teeth on motability issues. But it was always, as much as it was about physical access, about attitudinal barriers we face.”

He next started work at the 'Liverpool Association for the Disabled' where the Director, having been paid a visit by nuns had said : "You’re a'teaching order', you can teach Bert," which they duly did, with Bert receiving private tuition for 'O' levels at the local convent with the nuns and a medieval history course, with him handling and interpreting original documents. As a disabled teenager, in the late 1960s, it was a common occurrence that he'd "go to a restaurant and people would say : "We don’t serve wheelchairs" to which he'd reply :  "Well that’s okay, I don’t eat wheelchairs."

The convent was located on the same site as a Teacher Training College and drinking with the student teachers in the bar, Bert observed : 'They may have A levels but they don’t seem that clever.’ Having resolved to go for 'A' levels himself, he found that there was nowhere physically accessible for him, so he gave up his job and went off to a specialist college for disabled people near Mansfield and then returned to Liverpool to take a degree at Liverpool Polytechnic, followed by a postgraduate 'social work' course at Manchester. He later confessed : "I would have been a lousy social worker" and "I was supposed to talk to people about their problems but once the problem was clear I would rather help put it right. I was accused by one of my lecturers of being task-centred."

Reflecting on the 1970s he said : "At that time there were no specific social security benefits for disabled people. After much campaigning they were introduced from the 1970s onwards. 'The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970', improved social care for disabled people and also introduced what the Blue Badge Scheme. It was the first major legislation specifically concerning disabled people since the 1940s. Although it introduced the concept of an accessible buildings in this part of the Act proved ineffective."

Having graduated, he received a phone call from the newly formed 'Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation 'in London (RADAR). It was 1977 and he was 28 years old and, as he recalled the CEO "asked me to come and work for them and it seemed a good idea to get some vocational experience." In his opinion it was the 1980s which "saw the blossoming of the disability movement and a greater determination by disabled to influence the environment in which we lived and to design the services we used." It was in 1980 that he began working on a new taxi made accessible to disabled people : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVTsTDsTSAg&t=0m57s

At the age of 41 he took over as the CEO of RADAR in 1990 and stayed for another ten years and recalled that the landmark : "Disability Discrimination Act 1995, came to fruition during my tenure, from a campaign we had started in 1981. We managed to get reductions in council tax for disabled people and we ran an information service which changed people’s lives." With perfect understatement he said that the campaign for the new Act : "was a tough battle, but we were backed by John Major who was Prime Minister at the time."

In 2000 Bert became Chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, which was set up to promote 'The Human and Civil Rights of Disabled People' and, in the Autumn, having been invited to give a keynote address at a major conference in Scotland had tried to board a plane to Scotland, only to be told that would not be allowed to take his seat because he was in a wheelchair. In Bert, the captain had clearly chosen the wrong passenger and within hours the story : ‘Chair of Disability Rights Commission refused access to airplane’, was bouncing its way around the world.

In 2007, Bert was a Founding Commissioner, when the Disability Rights Commission merged with other civil rights commissions to form the 'Equality and Human Rights Commission.' The following year he was appointed Commissioner for 'The Compact', which had been set up to promote better relationships between the Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector and in that position he served until 2011 and in that year said :

"Many disabled people have been invited to look to the stars, only to find the ground opening beneath them. It is clear, that without action now, the challenges of the coming years will create new patterns of inequality and disadvantage that Britain can ill-afford."

It was in 2007 that Bert received and became, 'Sir Bert', in the New Year Honours for 'Recognition of his work for Disabled People' and said: “I am delighted and while it is the nature of the honours system that awards are given to individuals, in practise the knighthood is also in recognition of the wide range of people it has been my privilege to work with, at the Disability Rights Commission and more generally in helping to bring about rights and justice for disabled people. I look forward to continuing to work with them on this vital task in the years ahead.”

When he was interviewed five years ago, Bert said : "The scale of how much there is still to do is all around us. Too many buildings remain inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. People who are deaf or blind still face communication difficulties and far too little information is available in suitable formats for people with learning disabilities. People with mental health issues receive inadequate support. The rate of unemployment amongst disabled people has increased since 2007."

He made the point that : "Although equality legislation and practise has a role, it is perhaps not a significant as the role of human rights. We should be pressing for all disability services to be based on Human Rights Principles. This would, of course, also apply to any public services that disabled people use such as health and social care."

When asked the question : "If you could give your younger self, advice, what would it be?" He replied :

"Choose battles carefully, plan strategies diligently and pursue them fearlessly and relentlessly. Never underestimate your opponents. Learn their strengths and how you can overcome them."

Bert described himself as :

"An ageing disability activist who fears that the equality successes of the past might be undermined in the future, thus placing disabled people at a further disadvantage."

What better epitaph might an 'Ageing Disability Activist' have than, in his words :

 “Life has been a battle. It’s frustrating, but I don’t do bitterness or hate. I have tried that and it’s exhausting. It’s shattering. I haven’t got the energy for that level of emotion. I’d rather forgive someone.”

A final word from Bert, speaking as a patron of  'Disability and Deaf Arts' at its launch in 2012 :


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Britain is a country which once made, then regected and now reveres an old architect called Neave Brown

It is with supreme irony that the Royal Institute of British Architects has awarded a Gold Medal to Neave, an architect known for some of the most innovative and successful low-cost social housing of the late 20th century. This, to an architect rejected by Britain 50 years ago, is perhaps an elegy, since Neave, now 88, is suffering from terminal lung cancer. He has the distinction of of being the only living architect to have had all his works 'listed', that is, considered to be of 'National Importance' and preserved as such.

Neave himself, completely free from rancour, has been delighted by the news and said : “All my work! I got it just by flying blind, I seem to have been flying all my life. The Royal Gold Medal is entirely unexpected and overwhelming. It’s a recognition of the significance of my architecture, its quality and its current urgent social relevance. Marvellous!”

Neave, who was born in 1929 in Utica, upstate New York, to a Minneapolis-born American mother and and Leicester-born English father, Percy, whose grandfather had made a fortune with a string of shops selling boots and shoes in the Midlands. Neave's younger years were dominated by his wild, unpredictable, alcoholic father who set up and dissolved businesses in succession and when Neave was three, moved the family to England.

Neave attended a good local school and then a prep school, but over the nest seven years his father moved the family no less than 12 times. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Neave was evacuated to the States to live with his Aunt and Uncle to live in the rich New York suburb of Brownsville, where he was educated in, as he said "a very good American High School."  Of his Aunt, he said she was a "quasi mother" and he "loved her dearly." She sharpened his critical faculty by asking questions like : "What does that mean ?" and : "What did you mean by that ?"

His mother and sister joined them for the duration of the War and in 1945 they returned to his father in England where he was educated from 16-18 at the prestigious boys public school, Marlborough College, which had been founded in 1843 for the sons of Church of England clergy. It was here that, despite the fact that he was dyslexic with poor spelling and illegible handwriting, he won a scholarship to study English Literature at St.Edmund Hall, Oxford and would take up his place as an undergraduate after his two years National Service. In the Army he was commissioned as a young officer in, as he said, a "cavalry regiment which was an old one and a snob one and all that." 

When he left the Army he went to Paris to see his Aunt, who had set up as a pscycoamalist and with her financial support he began a course of therapy which lasted throughout his next five years as a student and helped him cope with his "internal conflict" which was the result of his having "a very divided, very upset, very confused and very conflict-laden childhood." 

At the age of twenty, while he was in the Army, having toyed with the idea of pursuing a career as an artist when he was at school, he opted for 'architecture' and having secured a scholarship form Middlesex County Council he enrolled at the AA, London’s private architecture school, run by the Architectural Association and the only school in Europe totally dedicated to teaching modern architecture.

Neave speculated that : "It may even be me, on a subtle level, why I wanted to become an architect, because you make bases. You make places. You make events come together in something called a building and I think there's an aspect of that in accordance with the way I wanted to operate with the world." He described the experience at the AA as "a staggering relief, because it was free, relatively, of the class, social and certain kinds of limited cultural associations, that had been waded at me from different sides as a child and it allowed me to feel that they began a degree of independent thought." The School and its contacts was also important to him because he was now completely without a family, his mother having separated from his father and returned to the USA,

Neave said : “Very little had been rebuilt after the war, there was still smog and food rationing, and we were confused schoolboys coming out of the Army with a naive view that we wanted to change everything.” It was only with hindsight that he told Mark Swenarton in 2013, that he recognised the unique set of historical and cultural circumstances within which he had found himself  when he joined the AA in 1950 : "The thing about that independent thought, remembering this was just a few years after the War, it was in the context of the radical thinking of the Modern Movement between the two Wars" and "There was the whole problem of the reorganisation of England, the remaking of it and the idea that you could remake it and improve it." http://www.aaschool.ac.uk/VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=2276&t=12m50s

Having graduated in 1955 at the age of 26 and at a loose end, he flew to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and designed a house for his sister which didn't get built and an up-country hospital for an American Methodist Mission, which did. He later reflected that he was : "Straight out of the AA. Never built anything and in Dar es Salaam writing a brief for a hospital. I don't know how I did it, but we wrote a brief accepted and they agreed the brief, together with their bloke who knew about hospitals."

Back in Britain he now joined 'Lyons, Israel and Ellis', a practice which provided a finishing school for both him, James Stirling and James Gowan. It would be a three year stint and he described it as a "training hotbed" and "You went their in the morning and you worked : drawing, drawing, drawing and you argued and you talked and every now and then you argued with the partners. I can't imagine a better place for learning  what you needed to do. It was like continuing an education."

In addition the working "like a bloody demon" he found that "You learnt what you were doing from the overall building, you adapted the overall building to the technical aesthetic and then you worked the whole kit and caboodle out in accordance with that aesthetic to be as beautiful a you could make it." In accordance with these principles he designed a new workshop building for Hammersmith Hospital before he left the practice and joined Middlesex County Council.

While he was at Middlesex he designed 5 schools, two of which were built and also taught evening classes at Regent Street Polytechnic and after a relatively brief stay at the Council he left and gained his first experience of urban housing designing a couple of houses and extensions and a small terrace of houses. This served as a prelude to his design, in 1963, for a small terrace of 5 modernist houses for himself and friends in Winscombe Street, in London’s Highgate. They applied for, and received a 100% loan form Middlesex Borough Council and he later reflected : "Not only did they pay for my scholarship at the AA, they loaned the money for the construction of those houses. It seems incredible.”

At the age of 34 with his design of 22-32 Winscombe Street in Dartmouth Park, North London and their completion two years later, Neave showed the world what he could do. Children’s bedrooms were placed on the ground floor, with big barn doors opening on to a communal garden; the parents’ bedroom and living room were at the top, while the family zone was in the middle, the whole connected by spiral stairs. “It was built as a community, an extended family,” he said, When you heard children’s laughter downstairs, you were never quite sure if they were your kids or someone else’s.”

It was towards the end of the building period that he crossed the Atlantic and did a semester teaching at the University Cornell University in Ithaca, New York at the invitation of Colin Rowe who became the Professor of Architecture in 1962 and went on to be acknowledged as a major intellectual influence on world architecture and urbanism in the second half of the twentieth century. Neave, however, rejected the idea of becoming an academic saying that : "I think I would have been a bad academic because, if you're teaching and you have attitude, you teach with that attitude,"

Following the Local Government Act of 1963, the London Borough of Camden had been created in 1965 and its new Architects' Department was placed in charge of Sydney Cook who recruited a talented team of young architects, including Neave, who joined in 1966. In Sydney's eight year tenure, he oversaw 47 social housing projects of a quality, scale and ambition that has, arguably, not been surpassed in Britain.

Neave's first project for Camden involved 71 units at Fleet Road, near the Free Hospital in Gospel Oak, which was to be Britain's first high density low-rise scheme. It was here that he reinvented the traditional Victorian London terrace as two and three-storey blocks that ran in parallel rows with a central pedestrian walkway. He created light-filled homes, each with their own private terrace and a shared garden. In addition, it contained the features Neave would incorporate into his Alexander Road project : car parking located beneath, a variety of types of accommodation, a mixture of rendered facades, clunky, black-stained timber windows, balcony fronts, external staircases and a public realm above the car parks.

After this, Neave recalled, that he "went to see Sidney Cook one day and he said he would like me to do Alexander Road. It was a typical planning brief. Camden had got a 16 acre site. The minute they started it, people popped up from Camden, they said : "We need a site for a school. It's going to need a community centre, school, extra parking, the integration of the existing estate." It became an incredibly elaborate brief. In order that they lose housing density, the planners then realised that two acres of that four acre site would be taken for housing. Can you imagine, in your thirties getting a brief like that ? Just dumbfounding. So I started it, in complete confusion."

The result of this confusion was his masterpiece with, most strikingly, Neave breaking away from the Modernist tower template to create low-rise ziggurat-like terraces where, inside, light streamed into the duplexes, with open-plan kitchen-living rooms and bedrooms above. “It was a piece of city,” he said, "all integrated : 520 new homes, shops, community centres, a school, youth club, play centre and it wasn’t hierarchical but continuous."

Neave is poetic in his description of his craft as an architect in relation to Alexander Road :
"It comes to a moment or so, when the thing becomes secure in your mind as to the overall strategy and it needs endless development and that development is what you see as the architecture in the end. It's not just the overall form which produces a continuous environment which fits the overall site, but then in the process of doing this. there is the enormous struggle in the detail to arrive at something that in the end looks inevitable, almost as if it hasn't been the product of struggle."

Ironically, Neave's greatest achievement would also prove to be his undoing as an architect in Britain and bring his career here to an abrupt end. As Neave said in 2013 : "Though we began Alexander Road with the full support of the Housing Committee, the Director of Housing changed and took against it. The political system took against it. We ended with a history of constant conflict which still makes me shudder. As we got through to the end of the building it became, also, highly political and the politicians instigated a Public Inquiry as to what went wrong with Alexander Road before it was even finished. To their surprise, people longed to live there, but the consequence of that was it would be very difficult for me to find work in England, after all, you don't do to an architect whose work has been put up for a Public Inquiry to see what's gone wrong." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJ_6UuAFJdQ&t=1h40m22s

Neave resigned from Camden in "confusion and despair" and he didn't work in Britain again.
It is however, important to remember that his type of housing was expensive and sometimes complicated to build. It had its growing pains and the heated walls at Alexandra Road initially made the residents boil and it was often poorly maintained by the Borough, leading to a degraded public face. Mainly, however, Neave was a casualty of a powerful swing against 'Modernism' that ended his run of great London housing and a swing that came as much from the 'left' as from the 'right'.

Britain's loss was to the gain of the Netherlands and his design of the Zwolestraat Development, Schreviningen, The Hague, which consisted of 500 apartments, hotel, school hostel, landscape and the largest underground car park in the Netherlands and 'Smalle Haven' in Eindhoven in 2002 with terraced apartments shopping and office space.

Speaking this summer and reflecting on his work in the 1960s and his own mortality Neave said :

“We thought these buildings would be the beginning of a new continuity, but instead they were closed away in the architectural cupboard. What has astonished me is that people are looking at these buildings again. Perhaps after the Grenfell Tower fire it seems relevant again. Perhaps it could be the beginning of a new rethinking of architecture . . . What a way to end.”

And, as a parting shot he has said :

 “I’m an old, old man, so my answer is probably not the right one, but I think we need a new national agency to govern standards and fund the construction of housing for properly mixed communities – crucially with maintenance costs financed for the whole life of the building.”

His aim as a architect, which he achieved in his work, was to create something :

"as beautiful as you could make it" 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Britain is once more a country for old men who are now acquitted and found "Not Guilty" of Brexit

New research from the University of Warwick finds that many popular theories about Brexit are wrong and it was caused by 'feelings' and that the old men and women who voted are not to blame.

Using new data, the researchers have shown that it was people’s feelings about their own finances that led to Brexit. In fact :

* There was little difference in the voting views of 35 year olds, 55 year olds, and 75 year olds and only the very young were heavily 'Remain.'

* The 'Leave' vote did not happen because of generalised unhappiness in the country.

* There were no particularly large voting differences between ‘white British’ and other citizens.

* There was no statistically significant influence from either being unemployed, being married, having children, or living in a rural area.

The key predictor of someone’s Brexit vote was : their deep-down feelings about their own finances - whether they felt they were :

* managing comfortably
* doing OK
* just about getting by
* having some - or extreme - difficulty

Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick’s 'Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economic', one of the study’s authors, said : “People’s feelings about how their own wallet had been performing, determined how they voted. I am not sure Brexit was greatly about principle. It was more a cry of financial pain.”

All over Britain old men can heave a sigh of relief. They are off the hook because the new Warwick research adds to a small but growing academic literature on the probable reasons for Brexit and whereas previous work has emphasised the role of regional and educational influences, it hasn't examined citizens’ psychology or deep feelings. 

The Paper : http://ftp.iza.org/dp11059.pdf

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Britain is a country which once made and has now lost and says "Goodbye" to an old giant of the Trade Union Movement called Rodney Bickerstaff

Rodney, who has died at the age of 72, was in the last quarter of the 20th century, one of the best known faces of the British Trades Union Movement. “Bick,” as he was almost universally known, was immediately recognisable by his dark, heavy-framed NHS spectacles and a shock of hair that had many comparing him, fifty years ago, with Buddy Holly. This helped disguise the fact that behind the glasses was a  thoughtful, pragmatic union leader who could be mixing it with Arthur Scargill, the Coal Miners' leader one day and Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, the next.

Rodney's mother, Elizabeth Pearl Bickerstaff, came from a family with a long history rooted in poverty, from the time when, back in the economically depressed 1830s, they migrated from the village that once bore their name near Ormskirk in Lancashire and settled in the mining country of South Yorkshire, where the living was also hard. His great-grandmother, Elizabeth, died in the Doncaster Workhouse as late as 1925 just twenty years before he was born and when his mother was five years old.

Born in 1920, Elizabeth was the eldest of 10 children and no stranger herself to poverty, with the family living, at one time, in a disused railway carriage in a traveller's field. Having left school, almost certainly at the age of 14 in order to work and contribute towards the family budget, she was a resourceful young woman who worked her way through high school and was training as a nurse when, at the age of 19, the Second World War broke out. In the two years previous to this she was working as a children's nurse in South Yorkshire and at the age of 17, was clearly politicised, since she kept a scrapbook relating to events in the Spanish Civil War.

Elizabeth had access to and was cutting from papers across the political spectrum from the Communist Party's 'Daily Worker' on the extreme left, through the 'News Chronicle,' 'Tribune,' the 'Daily Sketch,' and 'Picture Post' to the 'Telegraph' on the right,as well, as, her local, 'Doncaster Gazette.'  She homed in on the extent of human suffering in the war in Spain  and likewise in China, in which civilians were the main casualties and the vain efforts in Britain and by the International Brigade volunteers in Spain itself to prevent this latest triumph for the fascist powers in Europe. She also cut out details of the actions of British workers, members of the International Brigade, engineers, miners, dockers and others in support of the Spanish Republic including the London engineers who had walked out of work in 1939 and marched to Downing Street to demand arms for Spain.

Rodney acknowledged the part played both by the events in Spain and his mother's scrapbook in shaping his political values in the forward he wrote for the scrapbook when it was published in 2015.

Elizabeth was finishing her training in Whipps Cross Hospital, East London, during the 1940 London Blitz and had joined the trade union, NUPE, in the same year. She was working in 'Casualty' four years later when she met a handsome, charming, young Irish carpenter called Tommy Simpson, complaining of stomach pains. He was working in London with his father and, as a result of their romance, Rodney was conceived that summer and born the following spring. By that time Tommy had returned to Dublin with no intention of having any contact with mother and son.

These were the unenlightened 1940s and after Elizabeth gave birth to the son she named Rodney Kevan Bickerstaff, who was given a fatherless birth certificate, she was forced to live, initially, with him in an East London home for unmarried mothers before moving to the 'University Settlement' in Bethnal, East London, where she worked as nurse to a professor. She moved back to Doncaster with Rodney to live with her accommodating parents, when he was two, in a bedroom they shared in the rented Victorian semi occupied by sometimes as many as 10 of the Bickerstaff clan.

It was not a propitious start for a little boy who would one day lead a union of over a million members, but he had and support of his extended family to see him on his way and the love of his clever and resourceful mother who was determined to build a new life for herself. She took a job as a nurse in the local day nursery, eventually rising to the rank of 'matron' and it was here that the little, bespectacled Rodney, learnt the rudiments of the three Rs there. In his primary school playground he fought with boys who taunted him about not having a father and later admitted : "I think I gave one of them a bit of a thrashing, even though he was bigger than me."

In 1956, having passed the 11+ exam, he began his education at Doncaster Grammar School for Boys and in the same year his mother married Norman Topham, a local man whose marriage had ended in divorce and who in Rodney's opinion : "My new dad was as good as gold. He was a wonderful guy."

His school, founded in 1350, carried the motto : 'Confort et liesse', 'Welfare and Jubilation' and would have followed the standard grammar school curriculum, with its dry diet of Latin and Upper class-dominated, Britain-centred world history, devoid of any mention of the rise of trade unions and certainly no analysis of the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Studious young Rodney, no doubt put the hours in the school library, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and built in 1869 as part of Victorian Gothic Revival and featuring a large Hammerbeam roof decorated with flowers cut into the massive oak beams.

At the age of 18 in 1963, he took himself off to start life as a sociology undergraduate at Rutherford College of Technology in Newcastle and after graduation in 1966, Elizabeth, herself still only 46, recruited her student son into the union movement and his rise was meteoric : a National Union of Public Employees (Nupe) official in his late 20s, he moved, as an 'Area Officer,' from Yorkshire to Newcastle and later to London. At the age of 36 he was the Union's General Secretary and twelve years later he was the General Secretary of Unison, one of Britain’s largest unions, with 1.3 million members. It was Rodney who had engineered the first major trade union merger between Nupe, the white-collar union Nalgo and the health workers’ union Cohse. He believed that Nupe’s overwhelmingly low paid, blue collar membership could only benefit by coming together with the other more powerful unions.

A fine orator, he took every opportunity to denounce inequality and poverty wages, It was he, more than anyone else, who took up the cudgels for a basic minimum wage for all workers following the winter of discontent of 1978-79, when public sector workers went on strike against the Labour Government’s 'Social Contract'. Two decades later his National Minimum Wage was introduced in 1999 by Tony Blair, a Labour Prime Minister with whom Rodney had little in common, yet for entirely practical and pragmatic reasons, maintained a good-natured working relationship. 

In 2009 Rodney said :
"I've been involved with the campaign for the national minimal wage all my working life. I came from a union, originally Nupe. It has always argued way back, into the 20s and 30s that there should be a statutory level of wages below which nobody, young or old, black or white, man or woman should fall and be exploited."

In 2010, while extolling the benefits of the Tolpuddle Festival he said : 

"I'm sick and tired of the histories of kings and queens and dukes and duchesses, but nothing about us and our people."


On one occasion, nearing his retirement, Rodney and his wife, Pat, were invited to Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, for lunch. After the meal, an intermediary quietly informed him that Blair wished to offer him a peerage. He immediately and politely declined.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Britain is no country for old men living in Unhappy Hertsmere, but is one for those living in Happy Skipton

According to the 'Annual Study of the Nation’s Wellbeing', carried out by the Office of National Statistcs, the residents of Hertsmere in Hertfordshire, on the northern edge of London’s suburban sprawl and by implication, its old men, are Britain’s unhappiest. By contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, the old men in Craven, a district council which includes the market town of Skipton and the edges of the Forest of Bowland in the South Yorkshire Dales, are the happiest in the country.

Whitehall statisticians began measuring happiness on the instigation of former Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2011, as he looked for other measures, besides Gross Domestic Product, to measure how the country was doing.

The ONS asked about 150,000 people over the age of 16 four questions :

* How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
* To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
* How happy did you feel yesterday?
* How anxious did you feel yesterday?

People were asked to respond on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 was “not at all” and 10 was “completely”.

Donald Graham, the Chief Executive of Hertsmere Borough Council, said he was “surprised” by the findings, adding : “Our last 'Independent Residents’ Survey' found that, when asked about the area as a place to live, 90% of residents were 'satisfied', of which 53% were 'very satisfied'." He also said : “Hertsmere is a diverse borough with easy links to London. We have a strong sense of community with committed local partners and engaged residents, alongside a dedicated borough council.”

The league table of Places with the 'Lowest Happiness Ratings' revealed Hertsmere at 6.87, behind Brentwood at 7.01 followed by Glasgow City at 7.02.

Craven District Council Chief Executive, Paul Shevlin said : “As you might expect, I’m very happy to hear this. We’re often recognised as one of the best places to live and this is hardly surprising when you look at our beautiful countryside, brilliant schools, amazing communities and our warm and friendly people.”

The league table of Places with the 'Highest Happiness Ratings' revealed Craven at 8.45,
in front of North Warwickshire at 8.36 and the Orkney Islands at 8.25.

In the corner of 'The Albion,' Skipton's Victorian pub, with his friend Alan, 69-year-old Michael, a retired metallurgical chemist who has lived in Craven all his life, said : “I don’t know whether we consider ourselves to be happier than anywhere else really, but it’s a nice place and we are happy. We might just be simple, I don’t know” to which Alan rejoined : “Well, it’s not because the bloody sun shines, is it ?” 

This is not the first time the area has been singled out for its high quality of life because in 2008 the High Street in Skipton beat Portobello Road for the title of the 'Best High Street in Britain' and in 2014 'The Sunday Times' named Skipton as 'The Best Place to Live in Britain'. In addition, in 2016 the 'National Campaign for Courtesy' named the town 'The Country’s Politest Place.'

Simon Myers, a Craven District Councillor and self-described "member or good news", partly ascribed the area’s happiness levels to its self-reliant communities. Sitting in the Bean Loved Cafe in Skipton he said : "They tend to get together and do their own thing" and added : “I wonder what impact the landscape has on us? I mean, there’s a great difference between living surrounded by all this massive, grand openness and living in Hampshire with little farms and hedges and no trespassing signs.”

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Britain is no country for old men with a respect for the Ronald Ridout rules of English grammar

Old men in Britain, regardless of their school and social class would have all learned the rules of English grammar, thanks to the books of Ronald Ridout who died at the age of 78 in 1994 and whose 500 books sold 91 million copies world wide. In the late 1950's and the early 1960's his textbooks were on school desks across the length and breadth of Britain and many an English lesson began with the teacher instructing the class with : "Take out your Ridouts."

Born in 1916 Ronald always considered himself a socialist and at the beginning of his teaching career, had to move from job to job as headteachers objected to him discussing Marxism in the classroom. Educated at a grammar school in Surrey, he gained an Oxford degree, entered teaching and became 'Head of English' at a Portsmouth secondary school.

Initially he produced his own worksheets, which he submitted to the publisher 'Ginn,' whose editor wrote back saying : 'Mr Ridout, we think that this is the book we have been waiting 25 years for.' Which Ronald, no doubt, would have corrected to : 'for what we have been waiting.' As a result he had his books turned into the 5-part 'English Today' and the course which directed English teaching in secondary schools for 20 years.

Apparently, when his books began to sell overseas, he set off to learn about Africa and walked across Nigeria and Sierra Leone in baggy shorts and sandals, carrying a huge basket of his books. He realised how inappropriate some parts of his books seemed and produced new ones without references to 'snowball fights' and 'skating.' A dapper, bronzed man who could be puritanical, he was described as 'neither proud, nor arrogant.'

Most old men in meritocratic Britain would find it laudable that 37 year old Angela Rayner, who left school without qualifications as a pregnant teenager, became the Member of Parliament Ashton-under-Lyne in 2015. They would also find dispiriting the fact that, as the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, who aspires to hold Government office where she would be responsible for upholding standards of literacy within the education system has, herself, a tenuous grip on the rules of English grammar.

Interviewed by Mishal Hussein on the BBC Radio 4 'Today Programme' yesterday and questioned about the Bombardier Aerospace Company, threatened by President Trump with punitive import tariffs she said :

"The Bombardier situation is quite a crucial one because these are UK jobs that we depend on -  thousands and actually the Government were in that contract process and were robust and I think that we have to defend the fact that the contract was awarded and we followed the rules"......"That contract, in particular, what we was talking about, the fact is, that we followed the rules, we won that contract fair and square. You can't turn round and say you don't like it now, well that was the rules and we followed the contract in terms of that and the Government need to be robust in their defence of that."

Ronald, if he was still with us, would have suggested :

"The Bombardier situation is quite a crucial one because these are UK jobs upon which we depend 
(thus following the rule that sentences do not end on a proposition)
-  thousands and actually the Government was involved in that contract process and was robust
(it is permissible to treat 'Government' as either a plural or singular noun, in this case it strengthens her argument if she treats at a singular)
and I think that we have to defend the fact that that contract was awarded and we followed the rules"......" That contract, in particular, which we were talking about,
(self obviously 'were' instead of 'was')
the fact is that we followed the rules, we won that contract fair and square and the Government must ensure that we protect. You can't turn round and say you don't like it now. The fact is that, they were the rules 
(the plural 'rules' demands 'were' and not the singular 'was') 
and we followed the contract in terms of that and the Government needs to be robust in their defence of that."

One might argue that the standard of Angela's grammar as Shadow Secretary of State for Education who will become Secretary of State, if the Labour Party win the next general election, really doesn't matter. Just as it doesn't seem to matter that school teachers no longer need a good command of English grammar. I am reminded of a young trainee secondary school teacher whose lesson I was observing asked the class : "What was them books we was using last week ?"

Old men also jibe the change in pronunciation of the young in London and the South East, known as 'Estuary English' over their 'Received Pronounciation' which grates on their ears which includes the use of :

* the broad A and pronouncing words such as 'fast' as 'farst' and 'path' as 'parth'

* the glottal stop and not pronouncing the letter 't' in most words, so that 'water' is pronounced 'war'er.'

* th-fronting and prouncing words, which start with a 'th', with an 'f,' so that 'three' becomes 'free,' 'think' becomes 'fink' and 'north' becomes 'norf'. At the same time, if 'th' is in the middle of a word, it is usually replaced with a 'v,' so for example, 'other' becomes 'ovver' and 'southern' becomes 'sovvern.'

* l-vocalisation, which is not pronouncing the letter 'l' in certain words and using a 'w' sound instead, for example, 'fall' becomes 'faw' and 'milk' becomes 'miwk'

* h-dropping : not pronouncing the letter 'h' at the start of most words, so that 'here' becomes 'ere' and 'hate' becomes 'ate'

* g's being dropped at the end of words so that 'swimming' becomes 'swimmin'

Phonological change in pronunciation might initially take place only in one particular geographic location and remain local, so Estuary English may be confined to the South East or, it may over time, spread nationally and thus affect all varieties of English. 

Of course, Britain, being such an old country and English an even older  language, we have been here before. During the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift and many other influential figures, felt the English language was in a state of serious decline and that a national institution, such as existed in France and Italy, should be created to establish rules and prevent further decay. Old men in Britain today may deride new words and expressions, innovative pronunciations and changes in grammar which they consider to be inferior. Ultimately, however, they should fear not. English, because of its adaptability and durability, will survive.

Ronald wrote in English Today in 1947 :

'What we must do is to steer between these two extremes and develop a way of speaking that most effectively expresses what we want to say. We want a speech that will do its job well. Everything that does its job well has a beauty of its own. Hence we talk of a beautiful runner, a beautiful dancer, a beautiful engine. They all have functional beauty, the beauty of functioning perfectly, the beauty of being perfectly suited to the job they have to do. So with speech: we want an instrument that is beautiful, not because it puts on decorative airs, but because it does its work beautifully, perfectly.'