Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Heritage Hypocrisy


Oh, how we love our stately homes
To stand in awe behind that velvet rope
As from the well-flocked walls
Privilege in oils looks smugly down.

There’s the Duchess and the Earl
But of the serving girl no sign,
No gardener, footman, cook
Yet still we look and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’.

And there hangs gilt-framed equine art 
Of George Stubbs, so accurate and skilled,
But where’s the stable lads, the ostler, groom?
Who pushed brooms and drove the coach?
From what coffers came this finery?
The treasury of slavery, the profit gained
From tortured souls in chains explains
What built this august abode; a gracious greed.

Listen to the guide drop propaganda pearls
About this edifice ‘his Lordship built’
Yet blood was spilt between every chiselled stone
Hewn from the earth with toil and sweat.

For kings did not construct cathedrals
Few barons ever touched a brick
No mortar boards for Lords and Dukes,
They were not Masons; they were thick.

York and Lincoln’s mighty steeples
Were never built by soft rich hands
Nor Chatsworth, Windsor or Westminster
But by the poor, who bore the heavy hod.

Now with no sense of obloquy
They wait in line and pay a fee
To be where tyrants trod,
Around paths and gardens, lofty halls
Built through the fear of God.

Friday, 16 September 2016

To Hellamy and Back

What the ‘Big Society’ did for a ‘Sink’ estate.
Boarded up property on Bellamy Road
Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, in fact most major UK cities still have their sink estates. They exist as media magnets when a dystopian urban narrative is required. They inspire a gritty lexicon of social catastrophe; ASBO-littered landscapes of drug-fuelled misbehaviour, burning cars, broken, urine-smelling lifts, stabbed teenagers and terrified old ladies. For a visiting hack who doesn’t live there, such a bad story is cash in the bank. But what if you do live there?

    Making his first speech as Prime Minister in 1997, as a venue, Tony Blair chose South London’s rundown Aylesbury Estate, where he promised the 7,500 residents he intended to help "the poorest people in our country who have been forgotten by government". This was one of many similar New Labour speeches where hearts bled over the disparities between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ environs. Blair used the term ‘sink estates’. Such worthy sentiments no doubt denoted the plight of those poor condemned souls existing at the very depths of British society; or maybe he was hinting at animals living in overcrowded conditions.
London's Aylesbury Estate: designated a 'Sink' by Tony Blair
Eight years after his ‘sink estates’ speech the Daily Mail recognised in 2005 that nothing had changed, referring to the Aylesbury Estate as ‘like visiting hell’s waiting room’.

However, Blair’s speeches were made in those distant heady days before Chilcot, his Faith Foundation, his erroneous position as Middle East ‘Envoy’ and subsequent globe-trotting millionaire lifestyle as promoter of Louis Vuitton luggage, advising U.S. Banks and dubious dictators. Still, as Tony would probably tell us, if you can’t transform the world, transform yourself.
   On February 25 2010 a BBC film crew arrived on the deeply denigrated Bellamy Road Estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. The estate was built in the 1960s to house an influx of miners from the North East.
Pancake race on Bellamy Road in the 1970s
For the BBC, it had become a reporter’s alliterative dream as the crew immediately dubbed the location as ‘Hellamy’. However, when the 20 minute piece went out that night on BBC East Midlands few people living in the estate’s 700 dwellings recognised it as the place they lived in. The reporter soon found the grim locals he needed; the beleaguered shopkeeper, the frustrated council tenant, an angry councillor. There was also an elusive, juicy back story which remains buried and has never been resolved; money from central government for estate projects had been funnelled through Mansfield District Council into the Bellamy Road office of the Sherwood Community Development Trust, and an alleged £70,000 had gone missing. Whatever was wrong with ‘Hellamy’ Road, it would be featured, including a bellicose exchange between malcontents and Mansfield’s elected Mayor.  Carefully omitted were the innovative unpaid efforts of numerous volunteer tenants and residents on the estate who had been working to improve their community since 2004.

   With 42 collieries and 40,000 miners Nottinghamshire was once one of Europe’s most successful coalfields. In the region of Mansfield alone in 1987 there were 13 working pits. Today there are none. You’ll still find the odd tattooed ex-miner in Mansfield, but he’s more than likely manning the checkout aisle at Tesco. This is an angry, defiant town looking to punish a system which deprived it of its pride and industry. Thus, Europe was a handy scapegoat; a spiteful 72% of the electorate voted for Brexit.
   Yet at least, giving credit where due, Tony Blair’s ‘Third way’ and New Labour did make faltering attempts to honour that Aylesbury Estate speech. Long before Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and ‘In it together’, Britain’s deprived neighbourhoods received a shot in the arm known as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.  The NRF’s origin was based in Tony Blair’s declaration that no one in future decades should be seriously disadvantaged by where they lived.  The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund cost the Treasury about £500m per year. Poor neighbourhoods also received extra inputs through Sure Start Children’s Centres, Decent Homes, Housing Market Renewal, New Deal for Communities (NDC), Excellence in Cities and other assorted hopeful schemes. In the decade following the NRF’s launch, it all seemed to be working.

    On Mansfield’s Bellamy Road Estate various schemes were set up, projects to improve housing, a more active police presence, two neighbourhood wardens were employed. The NRF’s estate committee held lively monthly meetings. In January 2005 the team launched their own quarterly 8 page estate newsletter, the colourful Bellamy Bugle, which is still going strong after 55 editions. Old properties were bulldozed, new housing built, an award-winning community charity shop opened, and through the input of the YMCA, an internet café, the only one in the Mansfield area, was opened. Both District and County Councillors got on board, and funds became available for various seasonal events on the estate, a Christmas  pantomime in the Community Centre, and street parties throughout the summer. The dedicated Tenants and Residents’ Association organised days out for residents, and opened the small community centre on Saturdays for people to meet, have a cup of tea and a chat. A decent plot of local land was made available for a Community Allotment, which remains a highly a successful project. Bellamy Road school children also had the advantage of the Homework Club, a project which provides a tranquil, safe, learning environment for children between the ages of 5-11 to seek help with their homework. On their way home from school, they could complete their homework on the computers in the Y5 Internet Café and receive a meal and a drink. Crime and vandalism began to fall. New Labour’s investments appeared to represent value for money.

   All this progress hit the buffers in May 2010 as the Cameron/Clegg Coalition came to power. The Tory obsession with reducing the size of the central state could not accommodate the altruistic notion of ‘regeneration’ or ‘renewal’ of deprived neighbourhoods. Since 2010 any stream of funding which supported regeneration has been scrapped. Labour’s work in establishing area agreements between central and local government, regional spatial strategies, Government Offices for the regions and Regional Development Agencies was consigned to the waste basket. In its place,  never forgetting to link  it’s ideas with the Coalition’s deficit reduction policy,  the Department for Communities and Local Government took a virtually cost-free leap of faith, ostensibly to ‘give greater power and responsibility to local communities’ aligned with stimulating growth to encourage regeneration, with central government in a ‘strategic and supportive role’. According to CASE, the London School of Economics’ Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, the ‘Big Society’ goal replacing Neighbourhood Renewal was that “local economies prosper, parts of the country previously over-reliant on public funding see a resurgence in private sector enterprise and employment, and that everyone gets to share in the resulting growth … mechanisms include the Regional Growth Fund, New Homes Bonus, reforms of the planning system and investments in infrastructure projects such as the high speed rail network, Crossrail and the Olympic legacy..” Under the oppressive umbrella of continuing austerity and Brexit, this was all expected to inspire community and voluntary organisations as part of the ‘Big Society’.

   For Mansfield, the advent of the Coalition in 2010 had all the effect of a social bulldozer. Other deprived areas of the town Pleasley, Ravensdale and Oak Tree Lane would all lose their NRF support.  Cameron’s ‘We’re all in it together’ was simply cynical salt in the wound of slashed funding. Under the new, post-Brexit administration, there’s no place neighbourhood renewal, but a hefty £30 billion for  the exclusive HS2 project, a train service which is expected to carry 26,000 people per hour, which will mean nothing in Mansfield; the nearest planned HS2 station at Toton is 25 miles away.

After 2013 David Cameron never used the term ‘Big Society’ again. In 2014 after much criticism of Cameron’s involvement, the ‘Big Society Network’ collapsed, followed in 2015 by a critical final ‘Big Society Audit’ published by Civil Exchange. It made depressing reading.

   Despite all this doom and gloom, if that 2010 BBC film crew should return to Bellamy Road today, expecting to make more dystopian hay with grainy images of ASBO gangs of drug-dealing hoodies and burning cars, they may well be in for disappointment. The so-called ‘Big Society’ which Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and others thought they’d ‘invented’ was already in place long before they came to power. Certainly, the end of NRF funding has been a kick in the teeth for such estates, but on Bellamy Road, volunteers rose up and strove to keep community progress in motion. In tandem with dedicated councillors from the town’s District Council and County Council, the Bellamy Road Tenants and Residents’ Association constantly scours every available source of charitable funding. They’ve found it with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the Big Lottery Fund, the Nottinghamshire Community Foundation, and from the commercial sector, Tesco and N-Power’s Renewable Energy Wind Farm at nearby Rainworth. Even with its financial wings severely clipped, the Sure Start Children’s Centre struggles on to provide a service. The Bellamy Bugle, the estate’s quarterly newsletter is now printed for free by local print giants Linney plc. One disaster was the closure of the Y5 Internet Café, but the YMCA bounced back to keep the premises available for the continuing homework club. The summertime events and street parties remain, as do the popular coffee mornings and other events at the community centre. Various awards have been won by community volunteers, and all this has been in defiance of an austerity-fixated government whose mealy-mouthed proclamations on community and social structure have proved to be nothing but sardonic sound bites.
   However, Bellamy Road’s past reputation still precludes it from any positive mention in local media. Press releases about positive community events on the estate are generally ignored, unlike a burning car, a drugs bust or a spot of fly-tipping.
In the final analysis, perhaps there is such a thing as ‘people power’. It simply needs more ordinary people to realise this. It could be that both Tony Blair’s and Cameron’s notion of society ultimately meant the same thing; the people they recognised as being ‘in it together’ certainly weren’t the people of Bellamy Road Estate in Mansfield. They were the rich.
For God's sake you two, CHEER UP: you're RICH!
As Blair told Jeremy Paxman on
Newsnight in 2005: “It’s not a burning ambition of mine to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”  It would be nice to imagine Becks and Posh sparing a few quid for Bellamy Road. Any bets the BBC would turn out for that event.


http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8531000/8531338.stm BBC Nottingham Fall of Mansfield's Bellamy Road estate 25.2.2010

LSE SOCIAL POLICY IN A COLD CLIMATE Working Paper 6   July 201 Labour’s Record on Neighbourhood Renewal in England: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010  WP05   Labour’s record on Neighbourhood Renewal in England   http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/WP05.pdf  Ruth Lupton, Alex Fenton and Amanda Fitzgerald

Thursday, 15 September 2016

De Profundis


Among the hundreds of great writers, poets and literary minds we all admire a few stand out because their work is so quotable in every paragraph; for example, everyone can quote a little bit of Shakespeare. Yet in this heartfelt letter by Oscar Wilde, almost every sentence seems like an emotional gem. This superb performance by Stephen Rea, (click on the photo) was recorded in the actual cell at Reading where Wilde wrote it. It frequently brought me to tears, and I am unashamed by the fact.


Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Ice Bell

Image result for Images Hull Trawler St. Romanus
St. Romanus

Image result for Images Kingston Peridot
Kingston Peridot


I was born and raised in the port of Hull, where going into the fishing industry for a school leaver was the equivalent of having to go down the pit. Luckily I avoided having to sail on trawlers, because I joined the Merchant Navy on my 16th birthday and spent seven comparatively safe years at sea.

However, we ‘Big Boat men’ had it easy compared to fishermen. The triple trawler tragedy of 1968 when 60 men lost their lives was an illustration of just how dangerous deep sea fishing was.

Image result for Images Ross Cleveland
Ross Cleveland

Today, Hull’s fishing industry is dead and gone, but at the Star and Garter Pub (known to all trawler men as ‘Rayner’s’) on Hull’s Hessle Road, the landlady there runs a charity for ex-fishermen and a small museum of fishing memorabilia. I wanted to contribute something in my own way in respect for those brave men, and as a writer, I thought a framed poem reminding people of the tragedy of 1968, which resulted in a massive campaign for new health and safety regulations, would make some small contribution. Well, sad to say my idea remains unclaimed, nicely framed and in the attic. But here's the poem anyway, for anyone interested.

the Ice Bell
Hello, Goodbye’ the Beatles sang
In the days before the ice bell rang.
Warm and safe, ashore seemed heaven
Oh, what a Christmas, sixty-seven.
Yet that joyful Yuletide memory,
Was crushed forever by the sea.
What sickness filled Poseidon’s mind
What rage could make a sea-god blind
To joy on shore where children sang
Their carols for a fisherman?
Did Neptune envy shore-side days
In Rayners or the old Broadway,
A deckie learner’s wages, spent,
Whatever could the fates resent?
The tides they rose, the tides they fell,
But none could hear the shrill ice bell.
Beyond the cliffs of Holderness
The grey sea beckoned, merciless,
Its bounty, haddock, plaice and cod
A prize for those who challenge God.
In January, sixty-eight,
The crews all gathered, Skippers, Mates,
Deckie learners, engineers,
Galley boys and cooks who feared
Nothing of the ocean’s rage
As they signed up to earn a wage.
As anxious families watched the clock
Their men, bound for St. Andrew’s dock
With kitbags in their taxis sped
To join the hunt their skippers led.
Hull Brewery bitter, pints of mild
Still on the breath of those who filed
On board Ross Cleveland, St. Romanus,
The Kingston Peridot, abuzz
With how this trip might stuff the hatch
To settle with a record catch.

Upon each cold departure date
Some gathered by the old lock gates
As out into the muddy Humber
Slipped those fated, fading numbers;
H61, H223, H591, bound for a sea
Where balmy summer was long past,
Replaced by winter’s wicked blast.
They’d let go for’ard, let go aft,
And listening to the radio, laughed,
As Tom Jones sang ‘I’m coming home’
Whilst steel bows cut through wind-lashed foam
And like all Hull sailors always yearn
They felt that pull of home at Spurn.

Cook got busy, stove fired up,
Sweet tea in pint mugs duly supped
Up on the bridge the Skipper paced
As they sped northwards, making haste
Un-worried by the rising swell,
For fishing grounds all known so well
By countless Captains, gone before,
Who’d heard the ice bell at death’s door.
On land, in Hull, away from harm,
The children slept in peaceful calm
Whilst many hundred miles away
The sun refused to start the day
Beneath that heavy, snow-filled sky
Not even greedy gulls could cry
Against the towering, icy waves
Mere mortal men were forced to brave

The patron saint of choirs and song
Saint Romanus did not last long
For now the ship which bore his name
Was swallowed in the raging main
A squall which peaked around force ten
Snuffed out the lives of twenty men
And whilst unknowing, families slept,
Across the North Sea silence crept.

Kingston Peridot, H591
Soon heard the ice bell’s mournful song
Off Iceland’s shores she’d dropped her trawl
Yet none could heed her tragic call
As ice piled up on masts and decks
She soon would join those tragic wrecks
Deep down upon the black sea’s floor
Where countless souls had gone before.
As throughout Hull the dark fear spread
For husbands, fathers, sons feared dead
Their anxious families tried to cope
And prayed that silence promised hope
That in the stillness all was well
Yet still more men would hear the bell.
Bold Ross Cleveland, H61
Through icy hell had struggled on
And from her Skipper, brave Phil Gay,
Came one last call that fateful day
From his doomed crew he sent their love
Whilst towering, wicked wild waves shoved
The ice-bound ship beneath the swell,
The final victory for the bell.
Neptune had swallowed 58
Yet left one man, the Cleveland’s Mate,
Washed ashore in bitter gales,
And only he could tell the tale.
Then as the cruel sea still rolled,
In Hull another bell would toll
A painful peal which spoke of fear,
As those bereaved shed bitter tears.

In mansions magnates counted costs
Of tonnage sunk and harvests lost
But as the sad hymns died away
A rising anger seized the day.
Enraged and fearless in their pain
Wives and mothers fought to gain
Safety for their fishing fleets,
Demands Westminster had to meet.
Six thousand bereft children, wives,
One hundred years, six thousand lives,
Surrendered to their masters’ wish,
How bitter, steep, the price of fish.
Yet still men brave the freezing swell,
Whilst listening for the grim Ice Bell.

Image result for Stormy Sea