Tuesday, 18 October 2016



We live in a strange, inexplicable world. Take this blog, for instance. Before the internet and the PC, those of us who sought to express something about our daily lives would have kept a diary. In that little book the seasons would roll and turn, our fortunes go up and down, and no-one else would read about it all perhaps until after our death. Now, with a blog, we are exposing ourselves to the wider world. With a few people we may be making ourselves popular; “Oh, that Roy, have you seen what he’s written now?” But as this self-exposure becomes addictive, we can also fuel hatred and misunderstanding. Blogging is the cyber equivalent of the mad bloke on the bus, sitting on the seat no-one else wants to sit on, ranting away in a loud voice. For a writer like myself, of course, blogging is a semantic gymnasium, somewhere we go every few days to exercise our keyboard skills. And unless we delete these pages for all time, they will remain in cyberspace as a shadow of who we were for eternity. Inevitably, this is all pointless, but it keeps us occupied, and that’s the whole idea. Why talk to people or write letters with pens on paper when you can sit here in stony, silent isolation.      

Man of frightening vision: Adam Curtis

Watching Adam Curtis’s epic documentary Hypernormalisation on Sunday night on BBC I-Player was both a depressing yet enlightening experience. We’re all victims of a creepy system which dupes us into distracted inactivity. I have always maintained that organisations such as the Occupy Movement were well-meaning yet directionless. The fact that you wave a placard and erect a tent on Wall Street or outside St. Paul’s cathedral may well signify to a wider world that some of us are unhappy with the greed and inequality of the system, but what happens when you all pack up and go home? The answer is nothing, because there is no cohesive plan to follow once the chanting and the marching’s over.
I’ve done a fair bit of ranting and marching in my 73 years, and were it not for my arthritic knees I’d probably still give it a try. But at least back then we were more than angry; there was a plan, a manifesto, and parts of it were actually realised. I sign most on-line petitions run by organisations such as 38 Degrees and others because of the rare occasions (and they are rare) that they actually have any effect. I support the work of Amnesty International because they make me realise that I am privileged in my still existing British freedom to sit here by this screen without a death squad r some political thug police arriving at my door to put me in shackles. But as for the greater social injustice of this current corrupt and proto-fascist UK government, one has to wonder if the on-line bleating of us angry ‘oiks’ is ever noticed, except for being logged ready for that big round-up in the future. Since the abject failure of the Stop the War protest prior to the criminal Bush/Blair war on Iraq, all that’s happened is that Westminster veers further and further to the right. I’ve mentioned him before, but the spirit of Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels stalks the corridors of media and political power with a renewed vengeance. We live in the Age of Lies.

So perhaps the only distant light at the end of this long dark tunnel is Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement, yet even then I’m clutching at straws. The bulk of the Labour Party and the whole media circus are determined to bring him down, and most of the time they succeed. If a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, it’ll be reported as Jermy Corbyn’s fault. Socialism is a very dirty word indeed. It might never pass through the lips of the massed rear guard of Blairites, as they consider the Parliamentary Labour Party to be their own fiefdom. It has nothing to do with the electorate who put them there. After all, if you’re a member of such an exclusive club, you don’t want to invite the car park attendant or the janitor in for a drink. The only time you need to speak with them is during an election.

All a disgruntled old lefty can do is imagine. Imagine if Corybyn’s main policies became the battering ram to drive a wedge through the nasty, xenophobic right wing greed and lies on the opposite benches. Imagine if the re-nationalisation of the railways and the taking back of Royal Mail, the restoration of the NHS and other such ideas suddenly saw the PLP rallying behind such policies, ideas which Keir Hardie, Bevan and Atlee would have recognised as fair and just. Imagine all those self-centred carping harpies who sit behind the Labour Leader suddenly decided to actually fight the Tories rather than ape them. But it’ll never happen. The only way forward is for the grass roots new Labour membership which grew so dramatically during the leadership election campaign to find a common voice, get out on the streets, cause a ruckus. That groundswell needs to break through the dead air between elections. Meanwhile, everyone’s back to staring at their I-Phones, tuning in to see the execrable Ed Balls on Strictly Come Prancing, and worrying about what’s happening to Bake-Off.

Right now, in various locations in the world, people who have written much lighter polemics than this are festering in dark cells, awaiting their next round of torture. The people of Aleppo are being cruelly bombed to a bloody pulp, and thousands of displaced refugees are either drowning or rotting in makeshift camps wondering what happened to dreams of a better life. And I’m sitting here with my apparent crocodile tears in comfort.

So Adam Curtis is right; we are living in a sinisterly constructed capitalist cyber world, where protest is simply a visual vehicle, something to be either denigrated or, should it become too dangerous, manipulated, as we’ve seen with the huge success of Vladimir Putin’s political alchemist, Sarkov. Another drone strike, another suicide bomb, another beheading. As long as it’s loud and colourful, it’ll make for good TV. Then we can get back to Gogglebox and our Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Elderly fogeys like me are simply little specks of crumbling rock poking through the sea of sewage. We’re deemed to be out of touch, our old ideas representations of failure. Post Brexit, in the era of Trump, the ultimate spectre of capitalism can reach an unashamed new peak as the new fascism. Close the borders. Shut down the state. Abandon welfare. Let them drown, let them starve. Kill off compassion. Pull up the drawbridge. Dump the disabled.  The only thing which matters now is more and more money; not for us at the bottom of the festering heap, but those at the top, cajoled and massaged by their parliamentary lapdogs whose salaries are just pocket money, taxi fares to get them to their other occupations in banking, business, PR and the law.

People are angry, but they are not collectively angry. This individualist rage simply flickers on and off like mayflies in the summer grass. We need our anger to be like a swarm of locusts to strip the heavy-laden trees of the arrogant, greedy rich bare. But never mind; that’s just colourful imagery - it would make a good movie.    

Wednesday, 5 October 2016



The world does not owe me a living. I can’t cry in my beer and condemn those declining principles of my chosen profession and blame their dissolution for my own lack of fortune. The world changes; sometimes it improves, but unfortunately, in the main, it gets worse. What has happened to bring me to my current state of mind could have been avoided had I decided to abandon some of my own haplessly proclaimed paradigms. Therein lies the trouble with my fading generation: we always imagined that the behaviour and social interaction we grew up with would become the norm. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Modern society takes its behavioural cue from those who lead the pack. Today that means the burgeoning rich, the celebrities and the vacuous pillars of fashion. They underpin humanity’s basest emotions; greed, ignorance and selfishness, and today’s social climate, rotting with inequality and gormless diversion, is replete with all these faults.

When I was a kid in junior school I had conflicting ideas about what I’d like to be when I grew up. I’d dismissed the notion that I could ever be a scientist or an astronaut as the mathematics gene was certainly never part of my make-up. For one short summer in 1952 I took an interest in sport. First it was golf (we lived at the time next to a golf course) and then, at my school, Wold Road Juniors in Hull, I volunteered to play in the junior football team. I soon realised what a huge mistake that was. I knew nothing about the rules of golf or football, nor was I prepared to learn. I had all the gear, thanks to my parents; decent boots, the school kit in green, hefty shin pads. I even had my own football. Then, in the first real match we played on a Saturday morning, I scored a goal; not for our team, but an own goal, which led to our opponents winning 3-nil. The nastiness this engendered in the school changing room sent me home in tearful dismay. I never played football again, and have hated the game (and most other sports) ever since. Cricket was a baffling mystery, and my one appearance behind the wicket in 1954 resulted in my being knocked unconscious with a bat by a diminutive over-zealous batsman. The scar this left on the back of my skull is still there.

But there was something else I could do better than anyone else at school. I could write. I got a genuine buzz when my compositions were selected by the teacher to pin on the wall. There was something thrilling and engrossing about the process of filling pages with your own words. I knew how it all worked because even from a young age I read a lot. Admitted, it was mainly comics like The Eagle, Lion and the loftier, public-school flavoured Wizard and Hotspur. I loved the stories, the corny dialogue; all Germans seemed to yell was ‘Achtung!’ and ‘Himmel!’ and Red Indians bit the dust shouting ‘Aieee!’. There were smaller comics, graphic A5 sized stories of brave commando raids where men throwing grenades said things such as ‘Crikey, Smiffy - this’ll teach the German swine!’.

 During my coming-of-age years in the Merchant Navy, between 1959-65, I was a voracious reader of science fiction, horror and fantasy. Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, H. P. Lovecraft. I carried my tattered copy of Melville’s Moby-Dick from ship to ship.
Robert Sheckley
I read history, became utterly fascinated with 19th century America. I knew all about the Lakota Sioux and the American Civil War. Then, in my 20s, after deciding that I too would be a writer, I took the plunge and wrote something for our local paper, The Hull Daily Mail. They printed two features, even including my pen and ink sketches as illustrations. By my late 20s I’d made it onto radio, with regular appearances
H. P. Lovecraft
on the BBC. Other newspapers and magazines bought my efforts. My boyhood dreams appeared to be coming true: I had seen my name in print and heard it on the radio and it felt good.

But all this kitchen-table typing was a long way from the ultimate dream of writing full-time. That branch of creativity for a builder’s labourer (which I was back in the 70s) remained an exclusive club. I remember the resentful atmosphere I experienced at an NUJ meeting in Hull. Because he thought I showed ‘promise’, an editor, Anthony Bambridge at the Sunday Observer supported my application to join the Hull branch of  the NUJ as a freelance on a six month probationary basis. I knew the gathered hacks of the Hull Daily Mail were far from happy with this untutored usurper trying to get into the profession by the back door. My membership lasted six months and ended. I knew that ‘proper’ writers wrote books. My next project was to write the history of the Hull to Withernsea railway line, which had been shut by Beeching in 1966. The helpful David St. John Thomas of the publishers David & Charles, after perusing my trial chapters, dismissed my prose as ‘too flowery’. I didn’t understand what he meant back then. But I do now.
The kindly and communicative David St. John Thomas

   Dispirited, I was overcome with grim reality. What success I’d had seemed to be just a fluke. I had two children to provide for and bring up, so the typewriter gathered dust and I abandoned my muse. It wasn’t until the 1980s when I began writing reviews and small items for the music press, The New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Sounds and others, that the bug bit me again.

I felt I could do it. By 1994I was back on the radio, and even managed three major features for the New Statesman. My first book came out; a history of British Rhythm and Blues, and I had made some valuable contacts. In 1997 I was working as a travelling salesman for a major cartography company whilst supplementing my income with writing. As the writing time ate into my selling time, my employers had no choice but to fire me. I wasn’t performing well; my targets were missed. So in September 1997 my boss called me into the boardroom and, although I knew I was facing disaster and possible penury, he gave me a pleasant surprise. He agreed that I was a ‘good writer’ and that this was what I should be doing. So he agreed that I should end my employment that day, but that he would continue paying my salary for three months, and that I could keep the car for three months and the company fax machine and mobile phone. He said “Go home and start your writing career.” As an example of corporate munificence and understanding, I doubt it has been matched anywhere in British industry. That man’s name was Paul Treadwell, and without his understanding, artistic nature and generosity, I would have struggled to survive those first 12 weeks. But I did, because he gave me a breathing space, and as a writer, I have survived ever since.

And now, as I approach 74, after faltering attempts at various genres, with numerous magazine features and several published books to my name (and a new one out in a month’s time), the nature of the 21st century publishing and writing world has convinced me that the end has come. What interests an inquisitive writer with a penchant for research does not always interest publishers or their customers. Three decades ago there existed certain channels of communication between creative souls and those who provided their market. Those channels, which in many ways represented open minds and good manners, have been closed. After all my efforts to interest readers I only have one contact left, fortunately my editor at my current publisher, Constable & Robinson, who are now owned by Little, Brown Ltd., part of the huge Hachette Group. I have tried self-publishing with scant success. Without marketing, copy editors, bona fide proof reading and corporate support, self-publishing can only serve to seriously damage one’s reputation. It’s been fine for the four slim volumes of poetry I’ve issued, but anything more ambitious stands out as a badge of rank amateurism and therefore can be disastrous.

I’m tired of writing to editors with ideas and receiving no response, not even the courtesy of a dismissive, one-line e-mail. I’m weary of the massive efforts over the past five years trying to convince some TV producers and directors that I have valid ideas for a stunning documentary. In effect, I am disgusted by my sincere, well-mannered and repeated efforts to communicate with the writing world being ignored. Perhaps my meagre talent has run its course. Maybe my bank of ideas was nothing more than a Colt .45 revolver; six bullets in the chamber, all expended. Perhaps also my kind of writer is a creature of the past, a scribe of his time. Even the BBC, with whom I once enjoyed a good relationship, has also erected a wall around its commissioning editors. The only portal open these days to a writer is the ludicrously titled ‘BBC Writers Room’  which only accepts submissions for two short periods every year. Can one expect a critical rejection slip from such a source? Of course not. Those days of artistic interaction are long gone.

So like the unknown Bohemian painter in his attic, possessing no yardstick with which to measure his talent, I shall now put an end to the frustration and close the door. I count myself lucky that at least during my creative existence there have been people along the path who offered me a chance. I did get into print. I did broadcast, I even wrote for TV. I never expected fame, nor sought it, so the fact it remained elusive is of no consequence. I had a boyhood dream of becoming a writer and I fulfilled it. It’s been good, and evidence of my effort will remain on shelves long after I’m gone. So to all those who allowed that to happen, those decent souls who took the time to read, to listen and respond to communications, I raise my hat. My writing life is over, and I shall now devote what time I have left to music and gardening and the odd unpublished poem. At least those subjects do not require me to write to anyone, and what a blessed relief that will be.   
Sitting outside the old British Embassy
in St. Petersburg 2005, dreaming of a
never t be made WW1 TV documentary.

is published on November 20 2016 by
Constable & Robinson / Little Brown, Ltd.

Sunday, 2 October 2016


Image result for Images Trump
Here's an idea, Donald; why not build a wall all around America?

Half a century ago, as a young, newly married man with a baby daughter, like many of my generation I felt that my youthful energy could be instrumental in changing the world. There was something about humanity which still offered hope; men and women could surely see that the world was unfair, and common sense, with a little political lubrication, might propel us all towards a new sense of that old French dream of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Those three words today are meaningless; as indecipherable as Inca hieroglyphics.  

Back then in my early 20s it didn’t seem in anyway outrageous to join the Communist Party. It took a while for me to realise that the CPGB was a Stalinist outfit, and I was soon wooed away by the exotic ‘dark’ force known as IS: the International Socialists. I discovered Trotsky, the way he had been airbrushed out of Soviet history. The Communist Party in the mid-60s in Hull was a peculiar gathering, and as a blue-collar hands-on labourer I fondly imagined that the CP was ‘my’ party. I’d read Lenin and Marx, finding the texts difficult, yet they left me confused over one particular term; ‘the petty bourgeoisie’. Looking this up I arrived at this interpretation, which is still freely available on line:
 ‘A sociologically defined class, especially in contemporary times, referring to people with a certain cultural and financial capital belonging to the middle or upper stratum of the middle class: the upper (haute), middle (moyenne) and petty (petite) bourgeoisie (which are collectively designated "the Bourgeoisie"). An affluent and often opulent stratum of the middle class (capitalist class) who stood opposite the proletariat class.’
The following comical points from my distant past all seem petty, stupid and naïve today. Yet they were small catalysts in the formation of my later beliefs.
Hull’s Communist Party used to meet at a house on James Reckitt Avenue or at a rather smart flat off Pearson Park. It was at a meeting one night at Pearson Park when the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ concept was indelibly etched into my memory. To begin with, the party’s chairman was one of Hull Corporation’s leading Probation Officers. We had firm instructions as comrades never to mention his name to anyone at all, especially outside CP gatherings as this would seriously affect his position in the Probation Department. I always regarded this desire for anonymity as something of a cop-out. Communism was a political belief; if Comrade Chairman was sincere in his desire for a socialist state, what was the point of hiding his flame under a bushel? As Matthew 5:15 has it: ‘Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.’
In my youthful naiveté, therefore, I thought what the hell was the point of being a communist if you were scared of upsetting your boss? They all knew about my politics in Sisson’s Paint works where I laboured throughout the week. It affected everything I did on the shop floor, where I talked everyone into joining a union, a fact which led to so much opprobrium between me and the management that after a year I had to find a new job. Yet it seemed that being bourgeois meant that politics was a hidden hobby. If train spotters had no shame, why should we have any, peripheral dreamers though we were? But it got worse. At Pearson Park the meetings were attended by other closet comrades, at least one academic, and a spindly elderly lady who was always there, I recall her as ‘Miss Ellerby’, stalking among us as we listened to Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism with a large biscuit tin full of her home-made rock buns. “Do take one, comrade; I made them freshly today”. Well, although even revolutionaries have a soft spot for a bit of patisserie, I’d already had my tea and recalled that Trotsky had actually fainted just before the October Revolution because he’d forgotten to eat anything for three whole days. Then the bourgeois spectre raised its head in another way. When the coffee was served, one of the young comrades, the son of a left wing lecturer at Hull University, drained his cup then stared into it, exclaiming:
    “How remarkable - there are no coffee grounds in this cup!” At which point Miss Ellerby, still floating around the room like a pale ghost proffering rock buns, replied
   “Ah, that’s because it’s Nescafe.” The junior academic looked around, wide-eyed.
   “You mean … this is instant coffee?” Rock bun crumbs tumbled from my sagging jaw. Who, in my social sub class, in 1966, knew the luxury of ground coffee? In our house even Nescafe was seen as an aberration - the English working class drank tea, and gallons of it, and even instant coffee was seen as vaguely Bohemian by our elders. Then another happening dented my faith in the Communist Party’s avowed sincerity. One of our senior members had a part-time hobby running a left wing book shop in Hull. He supplemented his income from this with another part time job as a representative of a fruit importer on Hull’s Humber Street Fruit market. A year earlier we had all attended a march protesting at the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the evils of Apartheid in South Africa. My fruit-selling comrade offered to pick me up one night in his Rover 80 car to take me to a meeting. When I climbed into the front passenger seat, I looked back at the rear seats where a selection of colourful posters were laid out. They were advertising South African fruit, Cape Apples. My sense of socialist puritanism was aroused. I challenged him. How does this help Comrade Mandela? He pleaded with me to keep quiet. He said he had ‘no choice’ over the matter, that he simply had to deliver the posters to various greengrocers and fruiterers around Hull, and in any case, he had no responsibility for what was imported into the country. We travelled the rest of the way in silence. Was this the level of commitment to the cause? If so, my faith was being tested. I ended that year, 1966, by speaking at the Communist Party Conference in Leeds on behalf of Hull’s Young Communist League. It was a short but well-received speech, but as I stood at the podium, I could not help but look down at one of the main conference organisers in the front row. He was wearing the most blatant, ill-fitting ginger toupee I had ever seen. Thus was vanity added to my political misgivings.
Over the next three decades I went through all the socialist ranks; IS, the Socialist Worker’s Party, I had a short and pointless dalliance with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and as Thatcher tightened her evil grip on the land, I had a brief but dispiriting relationship with the Militant Tendency, even travelling at one time as far as Newcastle to hear Derek Hatton speak. During the final lost battle for the working class, the Miners’ Strike, I was as active on benefit events as I could be, mainly strumming a guitar with an agitprop skiffle group. (Ah, that showed them, eh, Comrade Lenin?)
And here we are in the Brave New World of the 21st Century. Everything thought to be remotely possible all those decades ago has been flushed down time’s swirling drain. There is one small sliver of driftwood still floating in the sewage; Jeremy Corbyn. But whatever he believes in has a snowball’s chance in hell of being made reality. The whole political and diplomatic world, each and every nation, has abandoned any notion of international law, decency or dialogue. This new world is divided into camps, each one a bastion of dismissive hatred. The United Nations has become an empty shell; a political corpse. Bigotry, racism and spite have supplanted hope and are now  my country’s new lingua franca. In Syria, thanks to the past money-grabbing gluttony of men like Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, hospitals are being deliberately bombed, and even selfless humanitarian aid workers are being murdered from the skies. The power behind a Tornado jet fighter is the same force which drives ISIS: death, and death is the new cult of our age.
Historically, no matter which side of any political fence humanity found itself on, there was still a residue of justice and outrage which could be brought to bear against those who crossed the moral boundary In the gaps between each outrage countries bared their conscience until the next criminal period. We were appalled at the Holocaust and the Third Reich, and although 90% of the SS got away with their genocide, at least the truth of their actions was widely publicised and became a yardstick of horror. We were appalled at Vietnam, the Mai Lai massacre, napalm. We punished the military criminals of the Balkan Wars. We were aghast at Nixon’s support of Pinochet in Chile and Reagan’s Contras in South America. The list of what shocked us and what reminded us of something elusive called ‘decency’ is endless. But the tree of morality and integrity has shed its leaves; it is a rotting stump.
From New York to London, from Madrid to Moscow, 2016 has been the dawn of the Era of Lies, Lies and more Lies. Politicians can utter any untruth that comes into their heads, because such behaviour is no longer attended by shame. The UK’s departure from the EU has given international bigotry the green light for a new fascism. The western world has a new Goebbels: News International and Rupert Murdoch. His SS are those other hangers-on, the mealy-mouthed Murdoch tribute acts, the Daily Mail, the Express, and many other outlets in the long dark shadow of Fox News. Vladimir Putin’s megalomania is matched only by President-in-waiting Donald Trump’s crass, inhuman ignorance. Britain gives a clown, a professional buffoon, the role of Foreign Secretary. And as this new Rome burns all around us, the British Government offers a facile palliative; Grammar Schools. The rich get richer. And richer. And richer still. Tony Blair walks away from the spineless Chilcot Inquiry and continues to earn his dubious millions, grinning back at us over his shoulder. Black is white and white is black. Lies are truth and truth is lies. No-one can stop the tragedy of the Middle East, because no-one can point to any form of moral compass; that was crushed under the tank tracks a decade ago. Millions of desperate, hapless refugees wander the globe looking for something which no longer exists; compassion.
Could I, half a century ago, with my raised little fist and rusty hammer and sickle have ever imagined such a world as this? Is there any consolation for such depth of lost hope? Yes; it is this: I may only have, if I’m unlucky enough, another decade of life left. I will not have to see or experience the world to come; a dark, evil place, where a portal in time has opened in certain parts of the globe and through that ragged door the cruel warriors of the fourth century are storming through, oblivious to all the social progress we imagined we had made in the past 1600 years. So for all my beliefs and incinerated hope, what have I got?
Three fragile truths: Ground coffee, rock buns and conscience-free South African fruit.   


FOR SARAH 1966-2012


Today would have been a carnival
But you know this; I see your lovely face
Smiling in your frame upon the wall.
Today would be your birthday;
The half century you stringently opposed;
“I never want to be an old woman”.
And I would laugh at your words.
Yet you got your wish. But it wasn’t mine.
I wanted to sit with you today; a father
With his daughter, fifty, yet looking thirty;
I wanted to pour a glass for us all,
To raise a toast, to laugh, to celebrate.
Now the only option is observance;
Commemoration, held-back tears
In honour of a bright but vanished life.
But then I am reminded by the memory
Of your unbridled joy.
That same elation even in your final hours;
How you smiled from your pillow, asking
“Why are you looking so sad, Dad?”
And those terminal smiles have seen us through
The grief of parting, the emptiness,
For in this void I still know what you might want;
For you, Sarah, yes. Never an old woman,
Always the bright-eyed girl;
So for you, dear daughter, yes, yes, yes;
We shall make this a festive day,
Light candles, smile through tears;
We shall drink and eat and your memory
As ever, will light the room.

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