Monday, 14 August 2017

Britain is a country and no country for more and more old men banged up in old prisons

The number of men in prison in Britain over the age of 60 in 2016 had risen to a figure of over 4,000 and they made up almost 5% of the entire prison population. Collectively, this is what they would have resembled :

Prison time is harder to bear for old men than it is for younger, fitter men. Many report bullying, abuse, loneliness and isolation. Because they are quieter and less violent than other inmates, they tend to be forgotten. Yet the consequences of an ageing prison population in Britain is becoming impossible to ignore. With limited resources for rehabilitation and very few suitable hostels in the community, the prison system’s new role as provider of residential care for elderly men is creating a new problem : it’s getting harder to let them out.

Dave is a 68 year old recidivist. He was born a post- Second World War baby boomer in 1949. He had a hard childhood and left school without learning to read or write.

Dave was 13 when he got his first custodial sentence. It was 1962, the start of the 'Swinging 60s' and he had been caught stealing from cars. Dave could only look at manual labour to make a living but a back injury on a building site in his 20s meant he couldn’t do heavy work.

In 1974, he was arrested for violent disorder. He was 25; one of the lads. It was his first time in an adult prison. Dave said : “Prison was a place for young men. We were all in it together. There were some older prisoners, but not many. And ‘older’ meant someone in their 50s and 60s then. There were no really old men on the wings. Not like now.”

Dave repeatedly fell foul of the law. He thinks he was sentenced 14 or 15 times. He wasn’t always put away and on at least seven occasions, he was given a suspended sentence. Nevertheless, the crimes he committed escalated in seriousness until he was arrested for possession of a firearm with criminal intent when he was 54 in 2003 and was sentenced to life.

He suffered mentally from the heavy realisation that he had wasted his life in prison, an existence he also found physically brutal. He said younger inmates call older men like him "paedophiles." He was beaten up and had his cell set alight and his possessions burnt. Too weak to manage the stairs and unable to get one of the few cells on the ground floor because there were too many frail, old prisoners vying for them, he would spend day after day on his bed, watching TV. The hour allotted for exercise would be used up in the time it took him to get down the stairs to the yard, so he stopped trying.

Dave was released from prison in March this year after serving 14 years of a life sentence. He has no intention of going back. When he reflected on the way prison has changed since he received his first sentence over 50 years ago he said : “My God, prison has changed since my first time. There are loads of prisoners now who are my age and even older. I use walking sticks myself and have bad health, but there were loads of blokes there in a far worse state than me.”

Dave refers to the fact that the prison population is getting older :

* In the last 15 years, the number of prisoners over the age of 60 has tripled.
* The rate of octogenarians serving time has almost doubled in the last two years.
* There are now a dozen inmates in their 90s.
* There’s even one prisoner of 101.

The consequences of this are that :

* There are inmates with dementia who don’t know either why they are in prison, or how they got there.
* Sick and dying old men are taken to hospital in shackles, chained to prison officers.
* Terminally ill prisoners are kept waiting so long for compassionate release that they die in their cells before they get an answer

What has happened in Britain is that a combination of harsh sentencing policies and an ageing population has produced the startling effect that prisons are now one of the largest providers of residential care for frail, elderly men. Prisons have adjusted to this new role in a disorganised fashion, with inadequately trained officers struggling to cope with limited resources in buildings designed to hold healthy young men.

Most British were built in the Victorian era. These buildings have long corridors, lots of stairs, and bathrooms and doorways too narrow to admit wheelchairs, which means disabled inmates need assistance to get from their cell door to their bed. For those who cannot walk without assistance, or who are at risk of falling, taking a shower can be dangerous.

A 75-year-old, called 'Bill' who was released from prison this year has to use a walking frame. He said : “I couldn’t have showers because I was terrified of slipping. There was a step to get into the shower, which I couldn’t manage, but even if I could have, there was nothing to hold on to inside the shower and I’m just not that stable. I ended up not washing for weeks on end. Towards the end of my sentence, I had started to wet myself a bit, too. I told an officer but he just laughed and said it happens to us all as we age, so I often ended up trapped in my cell, dirty and smelly.”

Another prisoner, 67 year old 'George', who served 30 years of a life sentence and also released this year, has, in recent years used a wheelchair. He rarely left his cell and was dependent on friends to help him in and out of the wheelchair, and to bring him food at mealtimes and said : “It was like being buried alive.” Like many of the older prisoners who couldn’t move around freely, he was unable to attend the classes he needed in order to get parole and this, in turn, stretched out his prison stay even further. The important courses are oversubscribed, and the younger prisoners are better at getting signed up because they’re out and about in the prison. George said : “They know who to talk to to get their names on the list. We older prisoners are too timid and keep to our cells too much to elbow our way on to these courses. We just rot away in there.”

One of Dave’s friends in prison had, like him, a bad heart. When the man was dying, he was refused compassionate release. He was judged a security risk, even at the point of death. Prison doctors got a special bed moved into his cell, and his friends were allowed to sit with him and help turn him, or give him water. “He died a few days later,” Dave recalled. “He was past caring where he was, but we all felt it was brutal, dying in your cell. Like an animal. I’ve seen it happen a few times now, and I never got used to it.”

In Russia, the courts will not issue a life sentence to anyone over 60. Spanish prisons release inmates as a matter of course when they reach 80. The state of Louisiana recently passed a law to make it easier for non-violent prisoners over 60 to obtain parole hearings. Britain, by contrast, is a country where more and more old men are locked up, some of them dying. Here punishing cuts to social care for elderly people and to health and education, have meant there is little enthusiasm for spending scarce resources on older prisoners. At the same time, the right wing press is vigilant for any sign of leniency towards men convicted of appalling crimes, whatever the offender’s state of health let alone their age.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Britain is a country which fails to bid "Farewell" and pay tribute to the life's work of its old virologist, Geoffrey Schild

Geoffrey, who has died at the age of 81, has joined that pantheon of unsung old heroes of Britain whose passing has gone unremarked and whose achievements have been uncelebrated. There, he will rub shoulders with myrmecologist Cedric Collingwood, Royal Opera House Director, Paul Findlay and TV presenter, Michael Dean.

What Britain should revere is his lifetime spent in pursuit of increasing our armoury in the fight against infectious disease.

In his work on disease and in public health he had a special interest in virology research, vaccines and the standardization and control of biologicals. He was an inspiration to his many colleagues and to the young scientists he mentored, was enthusiastic about their interests, encouraged their research and displayed an eager commitment to communicate his profound interest in combating infectious disease and, in particular, influenza.

Flu jabs for the old and vulnerable and other 'at risk' groups are now taken for granted and we have completely forgotten that the three flu pandemics of the twentieth century killed millions of people world wide. Geoffrey did not forget and much of his work was directed towards creating effective flu vaccines against this potential killer.


Geoffrey was born in Sheffield four years before the outbreak of the Second World War in the Autumn of 1935, the son of Christopher and Georgina Schild. After leaving school at 18 he served his two years National Service in the Armed Forces he enrolled as a Science undergraduate at the University of Reading in 1958. He followed his graduation with his MSc and doctorate at the University of Sheffield. In 1961, at the age of 26, he married Norwegian, Tora Madland. The following year he began the first of his 5 year tenure at the University and a 'Lecturer in Virology' working under the remarkable Charles Stuart-Harris, who had been appointed as the first full time Professor of Medicine at Sheffield University and became and international authority on influenza and other virus infections. It is no surprise that Geoffrey started his own research career concentrating on influenza, polio and rhinoviruses. At the age of 41 he also collaborated with Charles in 1976 to publish 'Inluenza : The Viruses and the Disease,'

In the first months of 1957 Asian flu pandemic, the virus spread throughout China and surrounding regions. By midsummer it had reached the United States, where it appears to have initially infected relatively few people. Several months later, however, numerous cases of infection were reported, especially in young children, the elderly, and pregnant women. This upsurge in cases was the result of a second pandemic wave of illness that struck the Northern Hemisphere in November 1957. At that time the pandemic was also already widespread in the United Kingdom. By December a total of some 3,550 deaths had been reported in England and Wales. The second wave was particularly devastating, and by March 1958 an estimated 69,800 deaths had occurred in the United States. In fact, the 1957-58 pandemic was responsible for one million deaths around the world and 33,000 in Britain. Earlier in the 20th century the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu, seventeen years before Geoffrey was born, killed 50 million around the globe and 250,000 in Britain.

By the time of the outbreak of Hong Kong flu in 1968-69 killed 30,000 people in Britain, Geoffrey, who was 33 at the time, had been working for a year as 'Staff Scientist at the National Institute Medical Research,' London, a position he would continue to occupy until 1975.

He served as the 'Director World Influenza Centre,' based at Mill Hill, from 1970-1975, where he and his colleagues pioneered work to develop a unified system of nomenclature for influenza viruses and the development of an 'influenza vaccine potency assay' which remains the international gold standard to this day. In 1972 he said : "At one time, vaccines were really bad. They just weren't potent enough." By this time they were offering protection rates of between 50 to 70%.

In 1981 at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, which he directed from 1985-2002, he said that he was optimistic that a second generation of polio vaccines could be made, which might be safer than traditional drugs. Working with colleagues he was separating the nucleotide building blocks which made up the genetic material of the polio virus after first cutting it up with enzymes.

It is not surprising that, in 1987, Geoffrey became the 'Director Medical Research Council Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Research Programme'. AIDS had been highlighted as the new killer disease of the 1980s and in 1987 he stated : "We should underestimate the scientific implications of a vaccine against HIV. There is no cast-iron evidence that antibodies to the envelope are helpful and we have to cope with virus variation." The following year he announced that trials would take place to evaluate vaccines. He said : "This might be seen as clinical research to see how human beings respond to HIV antigens and generating critical information vital for further development of vaccines."

By the time Geoffrey gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology's meeting on 'Vaccines' as the 'Director National Institute Biological Standards and Control', in 1998. In relation to his work on AIDS, he and his colleagues had worked on the evaluation of vaccines for Britain and he told the Committee that the prospects for further vaccines over the long term were good. He said that advances in gene sequencing, molecular biology and immunology and the production of monoclonal antibodies were opening up new possibilities. He was able to report, in relation to HIV : "We know an enormous amount about the organism itself, but we still have no effective design for a vaccine. There are however a number of candidate vaccines under investigation"


7Geoffrey worked against a background where 'vaccination' had been one of the great medical successes of the 20th century. Britain had all but eliminated diphtheria, tetanus and measles and reduced TB, mumps, Rubella and whooping cough. The new 'Hib' vaccine is was highly effective against Haemophilus influenzae type B, formerly one of the chief causes of meningitis. Most spectacularly, vaccination had apparently eradicated smallpox worldwide and had almost eradicated polio. He was upbeat about the future and said : "The United Kingdom is in an excellent position to take an international lead in vaccine development. We have a very comfortable way of working with industry, which does not create conflicts of interest."

His achievements received peer recognition in the form of Fellowships of the :

- UK Academy of Medical Sciences,
- Royal College of Physicians in London
- Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh
- Royal College of Pathologists
- UK Institute of Biology
and by an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Sheffield

In 1993 he was awarded the honour of CBE for 'Services to Science.'

Ever the realist, Geoffrey knew that medical research depended on money and the main source of money came from the pharmaceutical companies that had an interest in producing vaccines. Twenty-nine years ago speaking about the programme he led at the Medical Research Council, directed at research into AIDS he said, referring to the contract with Wellcome and Celltech and another with the pharmaceuticals company, Glaxo, to develop antiviral drugs :
"We have signed eight collaborative agreements with industry and are having discussions on a further nine."

Geoffrey may have been born in the first half of the 20th century, but he had his feet securely anchored in the world that funded and drove the fight against infection in the late 20th and early 21st century.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Britain is a country where far fewer young men in the North of England can expect to become old men compared to those in the South

Published in the 'Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health' by Iain Buchan, Professor in Public Health Informatics at the University of Manchester and his colleagues is a study of population data which tells a Tale of Two Englands.

It showed that once factors, including age, population size and sex were taken into account, in 1965, of the young men and women in England who were between the ages of 25 and 34, those that lived in the North, comprising the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands and West Midlands, 8% more of them died than their counterparts in the South, consisting of the East, South East, South West and London. These were the young men and women born between 1931 and 1940, who had spent their formative years in the Second World War. If they are still alive today, they would be in their late 70s to early 80s and so there would be proportionately less of these old men and women in the North compared to the South.

However, thirty years later, by 1995, the situation had improved for those aged 25-34 and at that time the number of deaths for those in the North was only 2.2% above the those in the South. These young men and women were the Post-Second World War baby boomers who had been born between 1951 and 1960 and grew up in the more affluent late 50's and 60's at a time when both political parties, Labour and Conservative, without question, embraced the Welfare State.

By 2015, the picture was dramatically different and of the 25-34 year olds, 29,3% more of those in the North died compared to their counterparts in the South. They spent their formative years in the last decade of the twentieth century. When this cohort embrace old age in their sixties and seventies in the 2040s - 2050s, those who began their lives in Britain in the North will be much thinner on the ground than those in the South.

For the 35-44 cohort the differences are even more startling with he number of deaths almost 21% higher in the North in 1965, falling to just 3.3% higher in 1995 before rising to almost 50% higher than the South in 2015.

In total, since 1965, about 1.2 million more people have died before the age of 75 in the North of England than in the South, taking into account differences in population.


Professor Buchan has said : "A new approach is required, one that must address the economic and social factors that underpin early deaths, especially in younger populations and one that focuses on rebalancing the wider economy to help drive investment in Norther towns and cities."


Richard Wilkinson, co-founder of the 'Equality Trust' and Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, said he was not surprised by the results, pointing out that inequalities rose during the 1980s. He said that austerity was making the North-South divide worse and : “The main cuts are to the cities, the labour areas, which need money most.” 

The parents of children in the North today should fear not for their future life chances as the young men and women of tomorrow since a Government spokeswoman has said : “The causes of health inequalities are highly complex but we are taking action by addressing the root social causes, promoting healthier lifestyles and improving the consistency of National Health Services etc. This Government is committed to creating a society where everybody gets the opportunity to make a success of their hard work - regardless of where they are from.”


That should help them sleep easier in their beds.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Thank you and Farewell" to a fearless, old spitfire pilot called Ken Wilkinson

Ken, who has died at the age of 99, was one of the 3,000 young men who fought seventy-seven years ago in the 'Battle of Britain' in the Second World War, of whom 544 were killed in 1940 and another 814 in the course of the War.


Two years ago he was photographed, glass in hand, at the RAF Northolt celebration for 'Battle of Britain Veterans' alongside the other four survivors. Since then Squadron Leader Tony Pickering, seated next to him, died last year. Only Sergeant Stan Harthill, Wing Commander Paul Farnes and Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum survive.

He was born Kenneth Astill Wilkinson in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. His father had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the conflict and after the War Ken recalled : 'My parents moved to Cheltenham (Gloucestershire) when my father got a job at the Gloster Aircraft Company. That’s when I first became interested in planes. Dad would bring me with him to watch aircraft tests at Farnborough, and by the time I left school I wanted to be a pilot.'

In 1929 Ken started to attend Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys and it was while he was still at school that : 'To test my mettle, though, Dad arranged for me to go up in a Hawker Hartebeest, which is a light bomber aircraft. He told the pilot to spin me around a bit, so he did. But I still loved it, so Dad knew I wasn’t going to give up.' 

In fact, it was after his 17th birthday in 1935 that his announced his ambition was to fly in the RAF, but because he was too young to join in Volunteer Reserve and having to wait another 9 months, in the meantime, he recalled he 'had flights in an aircraft of Alan Cobham's Flying Circus, which cost five shillings, but that wasn't really an indication of my suitability, just involving a take-off, straight and level flying and a landing.'

He then flew in a Hawker Hartebeest, a light day bomber and remembered that he was 'in the rear gunner's seat facing backwards. The flight was certainly thrilling- even looking backwards.'

The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in Cheltenham which had been set up in 1936 to supplement the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and provide a reserve of aircrew - pilots, observers and wireless operators in the event of war and in March 1939 Ken was called for an interview and medical at the Cheltenham where he was 'surrounded by big, beefy fellows who positively exuded fitness - whilst I had been out dancing the previous night ! Strangely, I passed, they didn't.' He was now officially an 'Airman (under/training) Pilot.' The very next morning he then went to Staverton Airfield and made himself 'known to the instructors and had my first flight in a Tiger Moth thus properly starting my flying career.'

After successfully applying for the vacancy for a couple of weeks full-time training, he gave up his job in Cheltenham and as a result 'went solo fairly quickly.' He now got another job with the test flight department at Rotol at Staverton working for the test pilot. At the time had intended to become a curate and work in the RAF for 4-6 years to raise money to study in theological college having married his sweetheart. In the event she ditched him for 'a chap who worked on Cheltenham Council' which meant he ditched the idea of joining the Church and could concentrate on flying training and ground school. He was now 21 years old and 'got quite a few hours flying time, including odd things like ferrying new aircraft to RAF aerodromes- where the sight of a pilot in 'civvies' was rare.'

After the outbreak of the Second War in September 1939 and during the lull, which became known as 'The Phoney War' he went to the Initial Training Wing on the sea front at Hastings he declared 'my RAF career had finally began.' He stayed with the other recruits in requisitioned luxury flats on the sea front at Marine Court where they 'were treated very well and a lot of famous people came to see us' and included Light Weight boxing champion Len Harvey, Billy Bishop, a Canadian VC and Great War fighter pilot and were entertained by movie star Marlene Dietrich. All this indicated the awareness of the sacrifice these young men would be required to make.

Ken himself said : "On 1st September '39 I wrote myself off. I thought 'you've got no chance of lasting through whatever it's going to be' because it was quite obvious that the Germans were moving. They were going to make a hell of a war out of it. So I was ready for War."

In March 1940 Ken, who was now married to Josephine, was moved to Haworth and was flying again, but because he hadn't passed his ground exams, had to start flying training all over again and said : 'It was not an auspicious start.' He was posted, with other recruits, to Montrose in Scotland for 'advanced flying training' in June 1940 and they stopped overnight at King's Cross Station. He recalled : 'Until then the War had been something we read about in the papers, but at King's Cross we had to stand aside and give priority to soldiers returning from Dunkirk. Seeing their expressions and the state of their uniforms showed us just what war entailed. It was a necessary experience for us.'

With his training complete, Ken joined the tail-end of the Battle of Britain as a Spitfire fighter pilot in the Autumn of 1940. He was 22 years old. "I was assigned to 616 and 19 Squadrons in East Anglia, where our job was to protect the industrial Midlands and north from the German bombers. I didn’t carry any lucky charms, but I did wear a pair of my wife’s knickers around my neck."

After reporting to No 19 Squadron RAF on October 1940 at RAF Fowlmere and calling himself "the odds-and-sods bloke" Ken befriended Sgt Bernard J "Jimmy" Jennings, with whom he practised formation flying and aerial combat. The 'Duxford Wing' Ken had joined had been in existence for several weeks before his arrival and he considered its creation to have been calculated to have had a psychological effect on an enemy who had been led to believe the RAF were almost finished.

He was now under the command of the legendary RAF ace, Douglas Bader, who had lost both legs in a crash and recalled : ''He was a leader. I was very junior at the time, so apart from gawping a little bit and calling him 'Sir', naturally I didn't speak to him much. Even with my own legs I couldn't fly like him."

Ken was in absolute admiration of the Spitfire. When, for example, he compared its throttle to a training aircraft he said : "You just push the ting forward and you've got all the power you've never had before. Oh Boy. Tremendous. And of course you get into the sky and you do what you've been taught to do : turn left and go round the aerodrome and then start climbing, then you realise what a lady you're flying. Oh, wonderful aircraft. Very, very responsive to all the controls."
At the same time : “You see you think of the Spitfire because of the beauty of its design. But we didn’t think of the beauty of its design at all, we thought – there’s a bloody good way of getting eight guns into the sky. Which is what it was. Nothing more. It was an instrument of war.” 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv8rFPLN_Fg&t=7m55s

It was now that Ken got his first taste of war.  "Every day we were up at 4am to wait for our flight commander to tell us that German planes were on their way. We would then run like hell to our planes." Ken said that the first time he saw a large flight of German aircraft heading towards him it did put a lump in his throat. It also made him think: "what on earth are we going to about that lot?"

As a Spitfire pilot his job was to keep the German fighters occupied while the 3 squadrons of Hurricanes below attacked the bombers. He later said : "If you kept the German fighters up above the Hurricanes, we were doing a good job and of course if you could on the way manage to shoot some Germans down, so much the better." and "You're driving a single seater aircraft, there's nobody to help you to do anything. You still remember the first time you see that enormous gaggle of bombers and the fighters over it as you're coming down south. There was an almighty lot of them.You think to yourself, 'Mother, you didn't prepare me for this'. But you get stuck into them because you've got to. That's what you're there for. I think being aware that you might get the chop, that was part of it, really."

Ken had no doubt the justice of the cause and said that he could not allow the "untidy creatures" coming from the other side of the Channel to attack "his country." He later reflected : "Animosity, that was great. That's an interesting thing because in the early days, at Squadron 19, we had voice-operated microphones. When you're in combat what are you doing ? You're doing yourself up and to do yourself up you use the filthiest words you can and so you'd be flying in an describing the German pilot and his lack of decent parentage and his lack of anything decent at all and all that was happening was the WAAFs, dear little souls in the ops room, were hearing were hearing all these words and so the voice operated microphone was stopped."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P8uFPLsdRM&t=0m05s

"I was one of the lucky ones. I saw friends fall out of the sky, aircraft go up in flames... terrible things. I’m not sure younger generations really appreciate how close we came to being a suburb of Berlin”

"It was a war and you went off and whatever awaited you, well that was it. We were at war it was not a picnic, and people were killed and people were not killed. So when you went off you did not know whether you were going to live or not."


"You had to get into an attitude and to make sure that, basically, you're as cold as a fish and once somebody has failed to return, that's it. Dame Fortune smiled on me and not on some of the others.

"I can only say that whoever it was that pooped off at me wasn't a very good marksman." 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK0cw048iRg&t=0m07s

Despite the losses, morale remained high : 'We were cocky. Stupidly cocky, if you like. We just didn't envisage defeat. Some people may have been killed, but we knew we were going to win.'
"Some people may have been killed, but we knew we were going to win." In the years to come, when meeting an ex-Spitfire pilot, he would refer to the special bond which existed between them.

By 1945, after six years of duty as a pilot Ken recalled : "I was doing a very, very humdrum job. I was flying Hurricanes in a bomber operational training unit and the idea was to give the bomber crews experience of being attacked" and "was listening to the BBC and the news came on that the War was over-VE and so I did a great big barrel roll around the Wellington bomber, landed back at Honeybourne, got a lift into Cheltenham where my wife and daughter were and went to the nearest boozer that was selling beer and had a few and so did my wife and a funny thing about is : we had that beer that night, because it was VE Night and it was the daughter that had the hiccups."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhcMSs40xTQ


Ken was released as a Flying Officer from the RAF in November 1945, but continued to serve in the RAFVR from 1947. After a War in which Ken had devoted himself whole-heartedly to the destruction of the enemy, Ken became a quantity surveyor whose purpose was construction and 'settled down to normality.' One of his projects was the rebuiding of Birmingham New Street Station in the 1960s,

Ken was well aware of his role in History : "After us, there was nothing. Just think; it was three thousand or so fighter pilots over the total period. And that was it. We just had to carry on and carry on, you see. Had we failed and the Germans succeeded, then the state of Britain would be very powerless indeed. We would have carried on, carried on all the way as long as we had aeroplanes and materials."

Ken said :

"I miss the many friends I’ve lost, including the ones that never came home in the summer of 1940. None of us should ever forget them."



Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Britain is a country which, at first rejected, then revered and now says "Farewell" to a scarce 'old' furniture designer called Mark Wilkinson

Mark, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 66 and was the designer who gave Britain its 'English Country Kitchen', joins that pantheon of old Brits who have triumphed over initial adversity, in his case undiagnosed dyslexia. He now sits alongside the conductor, Jeffery Tate, who died earlier this summer at the age of 73 and suffered from congenital spina bifida.

He was born in 1950 into a family of cabinet makers, was brought up in a council house and, as a youngster, spent his evenings and weekends helping to make furniture with his father, who made scenery for television productions. Given the fact that his dyslexia was unrecognised when he as at school in the 1950s and early 60s, it is not surprising that, when he left school in 1965, after 10 years in education, he was barely able to either read or write.

Having said that and although, apparently there was an occasion when a teacher had told him to go and stand in a bin because "that’s where you belong," school it was not an entirely fruitless experience : he had been encouraged to sing by a music teacher and by the age of 13 he was good enough to be offered a place at the London School of Music. Unfortunately, his family thought he would be unable to cope and he was forced to turn it down. He was also taken under the wing of the crafts master who persuaded his teachers to let him work alone at the back of his class making stained-glass windows and carving things from wood while other lessons went on around him.

Mark himself said : "When I left school unable to spell and without any qualifications, I was a competent craftsman. I had learned everything I needed to know from my father and grandfather who were cabinet makers" and "By the age of sixteen I could make tables, chairs, windows and doors - not many youngsters could do that. I knew I had a talent and could make a living."

Having left school he continued to help his father and moved with his parents to Somerset, but it was not until he was 27 that he got his big break as a designer when he was working in a  furniture workshop with a couple of friends and was asked to create a kitchen in "old pine" for the wife of the record producer, Chris Wright, owner of Chrysalis Records. The success of this commission saw him swamped with new orders and in 1978 he and his friends founded the 'Smallbone' Company and soon developed a strong following. Four years later he left to go it alone and set up 'Mark Wilkinson Furniture', based in Bromham, Wiltshire, which he ran with his wife Cynthia for more than 20 years.

Mark brought fresh air into kitchens when he incorporated Gothic architecture into his designs. and was the first to attach flush-fitted panels to kitchen appliances, the first to use tiles, marble and stone on worktops and the first to incorporate large appliances, such as American freezers and range cookers, into his designs. He once said : “Design has to say quality, lifestyle and, for me, England” and “It has to reflect the romantic idea that I have of what life is all about. ” 

Reflecting on his success he said, with perfect understatement : "People say I started the English country kitchen genre and I’ve been called the 'Mozart of Design.' ( Mark was referring Eliot Nusbaum, writing in the Sunday Times, who described him as the 'Mozart of Kitchen Cabinet Makers'). I find that all very flattering, but the truth is my expertise and my abilities are quite simple: I make things look pretty, and that’s almost as a result of a kind of neurotic compulsion. I can’t leave things alone until they aesthetically please me."

Mark's success as a designer was recognised in 2010 when he was awarded an OBE for his 'Services to the Furniture Industry' and he said at the time : "I am very proud to have been presented with this award by the Queen, it shows what a great country this is, when a child, of humble beginnings, who left school unable to read or write, can be awarded a Queen's Honour for his services to his chosen line of work. I am particularly proud that my furniture is recognised for its traditional British values of classic quality".

It was in the same year that he was awarded the 'Medal of the Order of the League of Mercy' for his support of the teaching charity, 'Dyslexia Action.' With his wife he also formed the 'Mark Wilkinson Foundation for Innovation and Employment,' a charity specifically designed to help people with dyslexia and together they were patrons of the 'Rowdeford Charity Trust', which raises money for projects to help children with special needs.

Cynthia, who was married to Mark for 37 years, paid tribute to him when she said : “In his death Mark has left a cavern that cannot be filled. There will never be another Mark Wilkinson. He was a true individualist with an enquiring mind, delicate soul and a wicked sense of humour. He was so inventive and there was nothing he couldn’t do. His dyslexia meant he really had to make his own way in the world so he invented and created whatever he needed."

Ingrid Sidmouth, Headteacher of Rowdeford Special Needs School, also paid tribute when she said : “Mark has been a very enthusiastic and generous supporter of the school over many years and whenever he visited Rowdeford he was always so deeply interested in the children, the staff and our work. He will be a very great loss to Rowdeford Charity Trust and the School."


Mark once said :

“Dyslexia brings more gifts than glitches. If you have it, flaunt it. When you stumble hold out a hand. Help will come. When you achieve, stand proud and then lend a hand with humility.”

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Britain in 2017 : a country for old men in an English district called East Dorset, but not one for those in a Scottish city called Glasgow

Take two old men, both of them post-Second World War baby boomers and each 70 years of age. One of them, called Thomas, lives in the prosperous countryside of East Dorset and, by the law of averages, can expect to live another 12.9 years and approach the age of 83. Assuming the state pension stays at £159.95 a week, he can expect to receive another £108.000 and will certainly get good value from the national insurance payments he made when he was working. On top of that he will receive his Winter Fuel Payments which will consist of several thousand pounds and when he is 75 he will get his TV Licence free of charge, which will save him almost £150 a year.

The second old man called Angus, also 70 years old, by contrast lives in Glasgow, Scotland, a city with the worst longevity figures. He can expect to live an average of another 2.6 years and will net another £21,000 in pension, his total Winter Fuel Payment, more needed than Thomas, in clement Dorset, will be vastly reduced and he won't ever become eligible for a free TV licence.

Undoubtedly, a thousand years ago the old Saxons who lived, worked and died in rural East Dorset, lived longer lives than their Celtic counterparts in the small village of Glasgow.

Saxon England in 1017 : country where the longevity of old men depended on who they were and where they lived. 

Britain in 2017 : a country where the longevity of old men depends on who they are and where they live. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its Grandfather of Toymakers, Ron Fuller

Ron Fuller, who has died aged 80, worked up to his death and over a period of 45 years to produce toys, automata and other eccentricities which delighted children and, more often than not, adults with memories of the wooden toys of their youth. They also enjoyed Ron’s quirky sense of humour which is accentuated by the toys themselves.

He was born in Liskeard, Cornwall, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1937, the son of Ada, a seamstress and Purnell, a wheelwright, who let Ron play in his workshop from an early age. Ron was conscious that he came, as he said : "from a long line of wood and metal workers, radio repairers, train drivers, milliners and miners."

His love affair with toys began during the War which he referred to as his "formative years" when he "naturally made toy guns and became chief toy armourer for the whole town." As a teenager, in austerity-wracked Post-War Britain, he said his early teenage years were "mis-spent taking old radio sets to bits to see how they worked, consequently giving myself shocks and a taste for electricity; but at the same time, a keen interest in mechanical things and a sense of ‘make-do and mend."

When he was 73 he recalled : "My dad was a carpenter, so I grew up using his tools. I had a friend who went onto be an engineer and he introduced me to mechanics at a young age and we were always taking things to bits. I remember he and I raiding old car dumps, taking magnetos out and wire and making little motors. It started very early on and I’ve never lost the enjoyment of making things move. It’s continued all my life.”

Twenty years later, when he decided to take up toymaking for a living too get his business ‘off the ground’ he thought "it would be a good idea to make the toys that were my favourites when I was a kid – they were the chicken that lays five eggs, ship and submarine, horse racing game and pop-pop boat – I was not wrong."
At the age of 17 in 1954 and for two years he attended the Falmouth School of Art and followed this with two years National Service which he served as an Army Recruiting Sergeant. He then took himself off to London having been accepted to study for a degree in 'Art and Theatre Design' at the Royal College of Art in 1958. It was here he met his future wife, Rosamund, 'Moss' Steed, who he married in 1962, having graduated and while working in his first job as a technician at the Royal College.

They moved to Bristol in 1963, where he taught at the West of England College of Art where the future land artist, Richard Long, was one of his students. In the mid 60s they moved to Kent where he taught in Sevenoaks School, a coeducational independent school and it was now that he began making toys in his spare time, setting up a workshop in the living room with a sheet pinned across the room to keep in the dust. When it came to making toys, he was largely self-taught, but received help from his mentor, Jack Gould and was influenced Sam Smith, Youtha Rose, other members of the Toymakers Guild and the old German tinplate toy manufacturers.

In 1972, a letter arrived from his RCA contemporary Gerald Nason, telling of an ancient house with outbuildings going cheap in his village of Laxfield, Suffolk. He took the plunge : "Everything pointed to becoming a toymaker so that’s what I did, doing a bit of teaching now and then to make ends meet."

He was 35 years old and began with his take on mass production and turned out toys which ranged from can-can dancers, a man who put his head in the lion’s mouth, dolls’ houses, rocking horses, sheep-shearing men, sand-powered trapeze artists, everlasting-sausage-makers, submarines and horse-racing games.


He also made folk toys like the 'flipper dinger', which was hand-held and consisted of a metal hoop and stalk attached at a right-angle to a wooden tube and the 'whammydiddle,' a mechanical toy consisting of two wooden sticks where one rubbed on the other caused a propeller to rotate. In his creations his method was, on the face of it, simple :  “The way I go about it, is first decide on what you want to do, work out what you want to happen and then find a way of moving it.”

As Ron's family expanded, he and Moss had three sons and fostered four girls, family income was boosted by regular commissions from the Crafts Council and the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in their Covent Garden premises and some major one-offs such as animated forest animals he made for the Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock and for the Chandos Pub, Trafalgar Square, the model cooper who rolled his barrels on the roof on the hour.

Over the years his toys found their way into permanent collections at the 'Cabaret Mechanical Theatre', London, the V&A, the 'National Museum of Childhood' at Sudbury Hall and he "made a circus for my friend Marvin" and Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Michigan. In addition, he was proud to "have designed English Postage Stamps for the Royal Mail which can be bought from stamp shops." They commemorated the role of the circus in British life.


For the automaton he made for the children in their ward in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, they turned the handle and a tin moth took off from marigolds; a lion watched cross-eyed as the moth landed on his nose; he sneezed, and tried to catch the moth as it flitted back to the flowers.

Ron's toys reflected changes in technology, so that he was able to produce a hopping frog powered by a solar cell and collected machine parts rescued from computer printers and laser copiers destined for the waste tip. He said : "Copying machines are the best. You get lots of cogs and wheels out of those. Computers are always disappointing – there’s nothing in those.”

In 2010 he said : “At the moment I am making one of a girl sunbathing on a beach. When the sun comes out she takes her top off and when it goes in again, she puts it back on. A simple toy, powered by a solar cell but it raises a smile.”

Ron demonstrated his virtuosity as a toymaker when he said, with perfect self-deprecation, : “It’s something out of the ordinary, something they are not necessarily expecting. I did a piece for Norwich Castle Museum. They had an old chest there with a big lock on it. It was an early portable bank. So I made an effigy of a Norman knight – very similar to the kind you get on tombs, lying down, but when you put the money in, the dog lying at his feet wakes up, seemingly because he hears the money go in and starts barking and that wakes the knight up, so he sits up and salutes the person who has made the donation. I had great fun playing with that. When you are doing something that complicated there’s no point in showing the mechanism because you don’t want to distract from what’s going on in front of you.”

He said that his original 'Sheep Shearing Man' toy was created for a friend who kept sheep. “I just liked the idea of a sheep shearing a man. I then started to fiddle with it and the bit with the sheep cutting the head off was an after thought – that came later. It started off just shearing all the time; then I added a slow motion cog – so the main mechanism drives all of the main parts, then the slow motion cog is clicked on a notch each time it turns, until the man is forced up and has his head chopped off.” He said that he has a habit of sometimes going too far and making things too complicated : “You’ve got to know when to stop.”

Ron referred to himself as a "village toymaker" and the 25th December would find him, Father Christmas-like, delivering toys around the village of Laxfield, where he had painted the stage set he had designed for the village pantomime.

Ron's secret to success is that he never stopped being a child himself. He once said : "When I'm not in the workshop, I'm playing with my toys. There's a model boating pond in Southwold. People bring three-masted schooners, clippers, yachts and racing boats. It's marvellous."

He admitted that it was the work itself that drove him and "the money didn’t come into it at all."

In 2011 he said :

'I like wearing bright colours. My trousers are from Gallyons countrywear shop in Norwich, and my beret is from the UN peacekeeping force. Being a toymaker is quite a romantic notion. I play with cars and trains and boats and planes all day – it's a substitute for real life. I don't want to look drab. I live in a world of make-believe.'

Tim Rowett of 'Grand Illusions', tribute to Ron :