Friday, 31 December 2010

Leek and the 1918 flu pandemic

The last hundred years has seen 4 major flu pandemics, the 2009 outbreak follows pandemics in 1968, 1957 and 1918.The present swine flu outbreak has dominated the news media with increasingly hysterical reports of the potential impact of the disease. There are dreadful forecasts of the potential death rates from the disease. Local have responded to the crisis as well and are full of information on what to do if you are feeling unwell and where to collect the tamiflu drug should you or your family require it. Conjecture and rumour are flying. I heard a woman on Macclesfield railway station confidently assert when reports of the intial Mexican outbreak began circulating in April that it would not affect her as it was only poor people who were susceptible to the illness. As I walked through Leek yesterday I saw a poster outside a health food store in town advertising an herbal preparation which it assured readers could combat the virus.
As a consequence of this interest I thought I would carry out a little historical research into the major flu epidemic of 1918 - the Spanish Flu outbreak which proved so devastating to communities all around the world to see if there were any lessons to be learned. The pandemic of 90 years ago was caused by a deadly virus H1N1. Unusually most of its victims were healthy young adults; usually flu affects the very young or the elderly. It lasted from March 1918 to the summer of 1920 although the outbreak in the context of Leek was at its severest between October 1918 to January 1919. It was truly global killing people in remote communities in the Arctic and remote Pacific islands. It is thought anywhere between 50 to 100 million died and that a third of the worlds population- around 500 million- became infected. It was described as the "greatest medical holocaust in history" and may have killed more people than the medieval Black Death. In the UK it killed 300,000 people and in the US 750,000.
The illness was especially devastating in Africa and India where 17 million died. Entire villages were wiped out in Greenland and Alaska and 1 in 4 of the populations of South Pacific islands perished.
It was called "Spanish flu" because it was thought to have originated from that country. The disease is actually thought to have started in China, mutated in the US and arrived in Europe via the French ports. The main spreaders were Allied troops who were engaged in the last battles of the First World War. It is within that conflict that the virulence of the pandemic can perhaps be explained. Massive troop movements and close proximity and poor hygiene helped to increase transmission, this coupled with the privations of 4 years of war suffered by soldiers and civilians fatally weakened immune systems. Some historians have argued that the flu helped to tip the balance in favour of the Allied Armies as the illness hit the German and Austrian Armies first and the death rates in Germany were higher than in Britain and France.
Another factor that increased the occurrence of the illness was travel. Shipping made it easier for travellers to spread the illness to even the most remote communities and this, of course, is before the advent of global air travel. Those countries that escaped the worst of the pandemic were those such as Japan which put in place the most strict quarantine laws.
There are some similarities with the present Swine flu outbreak in that the first outbreak during the spring of 1918 was a mild "herald" form of the disease. The deadly second wave began in August in the United States and France and at this stage the virus mutated and spread helped on by very sick soldiers being sent on crowded trains to field hospitals. The scene was set by the autumn of 1918 for the H1N1 virus to begin its deadly work.
The space in the Leek Times for October 1918 are largely taken up with reports of the coming victory in the Great War but what is noticeable is that the reports of soldiers dying in the war increasingly mention influenza and not German bullets or shells.
Gunner Brunt of Upper Hulme dies of the illness, the report of his death tells rather tragically that he had served on the Western Front for 4 years and at the end of the war he had hoped to resume life as a farm labourer. Privates Ralph Vernon of 39 Broad St and Percy Osbourne of 10 Fountain St succumbed to the virus as does Sergeant Vigrass.
As the autumn progressed the Chief Medical Officer Dr McClew informed a local council meeting that more people had died of flu in the last month than the previous three months combined and that the illness had killed over 20 people in Leek. It is noted that Norton and Brown Edge are particularly badly hit. As a precaution all local schools are closed and remained closed for several weeks.
 By November the Leek Times offers its readers helpful advice in a 6 point plan
  • Go to bed on first appearance of the symptoms
  • Stop in bed until all aches are gone and if attacked don’t be alarmed.
  • Keep cheerful and don’t worry
  • Take best food you can
  • Ventilate room well
  • Avoid all excesses.
However by the middle of the month all reports of the progress of the epidemic are swept aside by news of victory as the German Army agrees to a laying down of weapons. The news is ecstatically received in Leek. Churches put on special services to thank God for deliverance and for the final victory. An editorial in the Leek Times opined on the conclusion of the war to end all wars.
"Right has vanquished might, civilisation has conquered barbarism and outraged humanity may now hope to see the day dawn when man shall no longer hate his brother man"
But there is always room for more prosaic considerations a correspondent from South Portland Street complains that reduced street lighting has lead to gloomy streets in the town.
More deaths are later reported in the paper such as Sergeant Oultram of Broad St sometime superintendent of Leek Public Baths.
The newspaper also carries adverts for various cures for the disease such as Blades Pine Cure at a shilling a bottle. It advisers purchasers to avoid the flu by inhaling the concoction from a hand kerchief. Those who wish to avoid the illness are advised to take Peps Preventative medicine- it seems to cure everything.
The early years of the 20th century also see a growing appreciation of the role of women and the Leek Times reflects this trend with its own women’s page. It is written by Margaret Osbourne who clearly finds the pandemic trying.
" It is rather hard luck that the influence epidemic should have broken out just now and that we have a torrent of good advice from doctors on how to avoid influenza and at the same time very little opportunity to take that advice".
She cites the problems that the modern woman of 1918 has in following such advice
"rationed food, rationed fuel and trains and omnibuses full to bursting, we may as well ask for the moon".
But still deaths are reported that edition reports that the epidemic has killed a well respected employee of Brough, Hall and Nicholson George Howarth of 75 Shirburn Rd who leaves a wife and family. Mr Howarth was 38.Howarth’s death is typical of the age that many citizens of the town were dying. The ages of the dead were often in the 20s and 30s.
 Modern day research carried out on the bodies of the 1918 epidemic preserved in the permafrost of the Arctic have concluded that the H1N1 virus killed as a consequence of an over reaction of the body’s immune system which explains its virulence and the predominance of young adult victims. The strong immune systems of people in their 20s ravage the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of babies and older people cause fewer deaths. Another theory is that older people may have had some immunity developed from surviving an earlier influenza pandemic of 1889- the Russian flu outbreak.
December 1918 saw another 24 deaths in the town caused by the virus but at this stage the aggressiveness of the plague seemed to be running its course. One explanation for the reduction in the death rate is that doctors got better at treating the illness while another view is that the virus changed again into a less lethal strain.
  Other news in the town was equally grim; a warehouseman named Bratt who lived in Picton Street ran amok and attacked his wife and children with a hammer before cutting his throat with a razor.
On a lighter note town magistrates heard a case of disorderly conduct involving 6 youths in Derby Street who were arrested for signing "Auld Lang Syne" and forcing pedestrians into the road. Rev Parker who at on the bench aid that 5 of the youths belonged to the Boy Scouts Movement and he asked his colleagues on the bench to leave punishment to him as their Scoutmaster.
What lessons can we draw from the modern outbreak and the one 90 years ago? Well certainly today we have many advantages. In modern Britain we have an NHS, information systems such as the Internet, better diet and up to date drugs to fight the present H1N1 virus.
In 1918 however Britain had been at war for 4 years, civilians were used to putting up with hardships such as rationing, the experience of being surrounded by death and also to obeying orders. This meant that when doctors said stay at home, patients listened and were not likely to panic. People in 1918, and this is born out by the low key reporting in the Leek Times of the influenza epidemic, displayed a understated stoicism. They gritted their teeth and got on with it. Is this true of today when government help lines are besieged by the "worried well" and websites crash overwhelmed by queries? And when there is a fear of loosing your job how many people will ignore the advice to "isolate" themselves to reduce the risk of spreading the disease if they feel that an absence might result in an individual making themselves a likely candidate for redundancy?
As happened in 2000 over the petrol shortage panic is as infectious as any virus and how will people react if the pandemic does result in shortages? How will the "I want it now" generation "respond to rationing and restrictions? Perhaps the old fashioned virtues of stoicism and community spirit need to rediscovered, but whether we have time is of course another matter.

Monday, 27 December 2010

We're All In This Together

Having a 6-year-old daughter gives you an insight into childish tastes and fads. Top of the list as far as she is concerned is the films and characters in the "High School Musical" series. One of her favourite songs from High School Musical 1 is sung as the finale "Were all in this together" which coincidentally is the slogan of the Conservative led Government.

By this they mean that the hardships that many people are enduring at the moment are being equally shared between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor. But are they? 2011 will see the rise in VAT, cuts in services on which people on low incomes are most heavily dependent and job losses, which will swell the numbers of the unemployed of Leek.

I was talking to a couple in a local supermarket before Christmas. The husband was self-employed. His wife had a job with the local council, which was under threat. His business was failing and despite his best efforts he had not earned anything for months. The bad weather had not helped. He had tried leafleting in the affluent parts of Cheshire to try to drum up some business but to no avail.

He and his wife had tried everything and they were running out of possibilities.

I felt very sorry for them, as they both looked tired. He told me that they had little sleep and they discussed little else. They had tried to keep the enormity of the situation away from their children. Their greatest fear was that they would lose their house. They felt very guilty.

I’m pretty sure that this story could be replicated elsewhere in the area.

The notion that the rich are bearing equally all the harshness that the present cutbacks are causing ordinary people is patent nonsense. For example high-rolling bankers many of whom are due to collect multi-million pound payouts, have brought forward pay day to the end of December rather than wait until March as usual in order to avoid new government and European legislation.

And at the other end of the social scale?

Just before Christmas the independent organisation the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated that the Governments plans to slash spending would push nearly 1 million more people into poverty. It will also lead to an increase for the first time in 15 years to a rise absolute poverty for 200,000 children nationally. Cuts in housing benefit alone will force many people further into hardship. A crude extrapolation of these figures to Leek’s population means that 2012/3 will mean that around 300 Leek residents and their children will find themselves destitute.

All in this together?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Leek pubs- is time about to be called?

"When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves for you will have lost the last of England" Hillarie Belloc. 
I am delighted that the Roebuck in Derby St has opened its doors after being closed for a number of months. It used to be often said, and I haven’t checked this that there existed at one time 52 pubs in Leek. One for every week of the year. Sadly over recent years the number of boozers in Leek has been reduced so the return of an old stalwart like the Roebuck is to be welcomed. I think a moment’s pause is called for as I reflect on those Leek pubs that have gone to that great brewery in the sky. The Sea Lion with its very pleasant character, the vast Talbot –, surely something could be done with such a magnificent building and gothic clock tower, the quirky Earl Grey very much a throwback to the past in its ambience. And the list goes on the White Lion, Bulls Head, the Park and others have all had time called in recent years.

You see I have a long-term interest in the pubs of North Staffordshire. I owe my existence to a beer shortage in my father’s favourite pub in 1948, which led him to meeting my mother in the pub she frequented with her parents- the Glass Barrel in Copeland Street in Stoke (long gone). All the pubs that my grandfather was a regular such as the Globe, Rose and the Phoenix in Liverpool Road in Stoke no longer exist. As a child I remember going into the Red Lion in Glebe Street to collect a programme for the Stoke v Real Madrid centenarian friendly in 1963. The Red Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the Tram Museum at Crich in Derbyshire. I was used to pubs from an early age. I was weaned on the publican’s apron.

The situation in Leek and Stoke for that matter is reflected nationally in truth the pub was in the long slow decline from its late Victorian peak. In 1900 there were over 99,000 licensed pubs a figure that had fallen to 75,000 by 1950. That figure is around 40,000 although it also including clubs. Nationally 53 pubs close every week many of them country pubs.

Pubs face a battle for their existence a combination of alternative social activities, cheapness of alcohol from supermarkets; smoking ban, high rents and the recession have reduced their numbers greatly. Is the end nigh?
Of course one should not be too gloomy and efforts have been made by local publicans to make their beer houses welcoming. The "Blue Mugge" hosts the very popular Tuesday night discussion group; the Wilkes’s Head has regular music sessions, and the occasional happening such as the long remembered night of the 14 Elvis Presley impersonators. The Swan is the meeting place of the local writing group and active Comedy Club. The Cock has proved very popular with blues enthusiasts. The Cock and the Roebuck now have on tap Joule’s beer the taste of which sets off a remembrance of things past and rumour has it that a Titanic Brewery outlet is to open in the town.

Perhaps it is too early to sound the death knell for the pub but when a pub closes consequences inevitably follow. The people who would have worked there will have lost their jobs. Locals who will have lost a favoured bolt hole. The choice of local people will have been diminished because there is nothing like a well used pub. The community will loose out and everyone will feel it.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Love on the Dole

One of the aspects of using the public computers in Moorlands House in Leek is that you are right by the information point for people who are looking for work. Overhearing conversations from claimants and staff is regrettably all too easy. For instance there was a woman from Waterhouse who was looking for a work as a Carer in a Nursing Home, but faced insurmountable problems with her childcare. A man who did not want to go to Hanley because he did not like the Potteries and was of the opinion that a service ought to be provided in Leek. Incidentally the staff at Moorlands House thought the man’s objections amusing, so much for confidentiality in your dealings with staff on the Job Centre desk. In time in the next few months there will be others visiting the job centres in Hanley or using Moorlands House perhaps never having had to apply for benefit before. In a local supermarket I spoke to a local man employed by the City Council who was accepting his fate in the New Year with resignation. A woman who worked for the cash strapped SMDC whose husband had lost her job last year was less sanguine and angry at the senior management.
Currently there was a slight rise locally in the number of people claiming the main unemployment benefit- Job Seekers Allowance. The figure stands at just over 1100. Of course this only part of the story as there are many others in the area of working age on some form of benefits. It is a laudable aim of Government to get people into work, but there are two problems with this approach. Firstly are there enough jobs for people to apply for? Recent research indicates that 5 unemployed people are chasing 1 jobs . I would hazard a guess and say that the proportion is far higher in North Staffs A search for Leek jobs on the job centre plus and those in a 10 mile radius in mid December reveals just 7 jobs mainly cleaners or labourers on minimum wage. Some of the vacancies advertised are miles from North Staffs with curiously jobs in Peterborough and Cambridge cited as being local jobs. Many of the jobs are part time as well which brings me to the second problem. None of the jobs on offer indicate anything like a Living wage and therein lies the central problem. It is not primarily an issue about benefits being too high, the problem is wages are too low. Over 6 million people are in work poverty- myself amongst them
As proof of my view that benefits are not too high consider the value of Job Seekers Allowance at £65.45 a week. The value of unemployment benefit/ job seekers allowance has fallen in relation to average wages since the late 70s- then it was 22% of average earnings and now it is 10%. It is hardly living a life of Riley on £65 quid !!

The late Robert Freeman

I used to know the father of Robert Freeman the man whose murder was reported in the Sentinel with the result of the trial. Two men were found guilty of his death and are currently awaiting sentence; a third was found guilty of manslaughter. This terrible case is compounded by the killing four years earlier of Robert Freeman’s sister Julie. Both deaths were drug related.

I last saw David Freeman, Robert and Julie’s father nearly 40 years ago. We were both pupils at Carmountside High School on the Abbey Hulton estate in Stoke from 1966-71. We were also members of a group of lads " The Birchfield Mob that included David and his brother Robert, the Reeves brother’s, Eric Robinson, "Danny" Kaye, myself and others whose names whose names now elude me.

We used to be activity that might have led to an ASBO now although in reality in did not stretch further than trespassing, apple scrumping, annoying adults and kicking a football around an oval in Eaveswood Road. Typical laddish things. David and I were in the same class and I tended to hang around with him and the others. David was very good with his hands in metalwork and woodwork. He was industrious a good sportsman and from memory thoughtful and quite considered. He could stick up for himself.

The Freeman family were like many others on the Abbey Hulton estate. Hard working, companionable, family centred. This was the Abbey Hulton that I knew in the years before DC- Drugs came.

I can probably date when hard drugs made its first appearance on the streets of Abbey Hulton. I was working on the Abbey as an Education Welfare Officer in late 1981. The first heroin -related death was of a young man named Harvey who was found dead in a shed. He probably died of hypothermia as temperatures that winter were frequently below zero.

I think heroin appearing on the streets and the massive growth of unemployment during 1980-1 is no coincidence. You destroy a set pattern of how people are expected to lead their lives on a council estate like Abbey Hulton or Chell Heath or Bentilee or anywhere else and something came to occupy that vacuum. We have been playing the price ever since.

The irony is that areas like Abbey Hulton were quite socially conservative areas and my peers at High School were very disdainful of the drug culture in the early 70s. I bought a copy of a Stones album into the 5th year common room once and some made dismissive comments about Mick Jagger's cannabis habits.

All that began to change scarcely a decade later and drugs have wrecked havoc destroying lives and undermining communities ever since.

I witnessed the desolation that that involvement in drugs can cause on Wednesday 6th September 2000.

I remember the date very well. I was working in Tameside for the mental health organisation Mind and in the late morning a youth called at the office to say that there was something wrong with his friend who lived opposite the offices in Ashton
Another worker and I went over the road and entered a very run down flat. On the stairs there was rubble and in a first floor room we found his friend slumped on a settee.

The TV was on and a can of beer on a small table beside him. The man was dead, very grey and purple in the face. A small syringe was sticking in the back of his right hand.

On the walls of the decaying room were an England Football scarf, a poster of the film "Trainspotting" and pictures of the dead man whose name was Terry McGuire and a small child, his daughter.

McGuire was in his late 30s. Evidently McGuire who had been out of Strangeways Prison a few months. He had died from a toxic batch of heroin that had killed many users in the North West that autumn.
It seems that the dealers mix the heroin with all sorts of rubbish including brick dust.

Currently we have a situation where it is the dealer who chooses price, purity, cutting agents as well as business location and operating hours. And these dealers certainly are not asking minors for ID, nor are they encouraging their customers to moderate or abstain from drug use.

Sooner or later national politician will have to grasp the nettle of decriminalisation and legalising drugs. I'm of the opinion like former Labour minister Bob Ainsworth drug addiction is a public health issue rather than a criminal one. Mr Ainsworth deserves credit for starting that debate. Because unless we realise that we need a new strategy to tackle drugs fundamentally decent families like the Freeman’s will continually be burying their children

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Closing Leek's Tourism Centre would be folly

Leek is in a very fortunate position for a town of 20,000 in terms of media coverage. How many towns of a comparable size can boast the positive publicity that Leek has received in the last 12 months from the national media? The Times opined last February that "Leek, known to the locals as the Queen of the Moorlands, might be the ideal base from which to explore this beautiful part of England, but it is also a town that you will be glad to return in time for tea". About the same time the Guardian journalist drawn by the Sir Gawain legend remarked "Leek is quite everyday – pleasant, with a strange touch of the northern mill town about it for one so south. Yet even here there's a flash of magic: around the summer solstice" and many visitors to the town have remarked to me the attractiveness and charm of the town. The folksinger Johnny Coppin at the Christmas event at All Saints last weekend called the place a " little bit of Old England".

And yet the District Council is about to make the foolishly short-sighted proposal to review with the intention to remove the Tourist Information Centre from the Market Square and house it in the council offices. This in enacted would be a very ill judged suggestion.

Leek stands on the edge of a national park. I cannot think it conceivable that other towns of the same population that stand on the edge of an area of outstanding national beauty would consider such a proposal. In my view Leek should be increasing its efforts to attract visitors to the town to those unique qualities that make Leek an interesting place to come to. Its history, its association with people like Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Tolkein and John Betjeman. It’s good food and great pubs. Its buildings and character remarked upon by many writers. Its location between the white and dark peak landscape.

 The potential for development with the Staffordshire Hoard being based partly in Stoke, the matter of the James Brindley the great canal builder tercentenary in 2016 and the Churnet Valley railway developments. All these and more could a great springboard to attract people into the town. But all we get is retrenchment, retreat and resignation when what is wanted is renewal..

In praise of the local eccentric

One of the qualities that the English take pride in as being an integral aspect of the race is eccentricity, if not in oneself at least admiring eccentricity in others. Dottiness, I think, many of us would say, is the salt and pepper of national life. Everyone likes a character, fortunately I think Leek is the sort of place where in the past the idiosyncratic are at least tolerated and at best embraced by the local community. But first what do we mean by the eccentric?

In the 1930s the Derbyshire born writer Edith Sitwell wrote a book on English Eccentrics and in her view the eccentric was someone who was unafraid of what others may think of them. A sort of innocence surrounds the true eccentric. The first rule in being an oddball is that they do not recognise their actions as being strange. It follows that the person who calls themselves eccentric cannot truly be so called, the eccentric believes what they do as being perfectly normal.

Lord Bath perfectly articulates this perception in a recent comment to a French journalist,
 Eccentrics have often been found amongst the ranks of the aristocracy. The reason for this is simple, the aristocracy had enough money to hide a quirky member of the family on the estate and allow them to potter about harmlessly, the oddball poor especially in the past were simply locked away in the county asylum.
English Eccentrics continues a number of examples of the odd behaviour of the landed gentry such as Jack Mytton a squire in the neighbouring County of Shropshire who set himself alight with brandy in order to cure a bout of hiccups, or Lord Berners who painted doves’ different colours on his Cotswold estate.

And we faced up to our greatest danger in 1940 when the fate of the nation was in the hands of an eccentric in the form of Winston Churchill. The Historian A J P Taylor wrote "We were led to victory by a sardonic old fellow who wore funny clothes and drank wine at breakfast".

Perhaps the eccentric label is often applied loosely and too frequently. It is easy now to view with amusement the babblings of erratic pseudo scientists and flat-earthers, as well as those we have dubbed UFO obsessed, but that was the same fate suffered in their respective days by Galileo, Freud and Charles Darwin. It would be easy to classify the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford as eccentric because they all held to some wild-eyed theories or suffered from bizarre conduct or belief, but their serious accomplishments far outweigh their peccadilloes. In fact, their touches of madness may have sparked their genius.
Recent medical research which questioned a number of people whose behaviour could be thought as unconventional came up with a number of conclusions. Eccentrics tend to be longer living and healthier than everyone else as they suffer less from stress. They tend to visit their GP less than the normal. They are more curious about the world and of a higher intelligence. The unconventional have a good mischievous sense of humour and have little regard for themselves often being strangely dressed and untidy; there spelling has a tendency of being highly individualistic. They also are very talkative and are frequently opinionated.

 Eccentrics are also greater hoarders and collectors and they tend to be fixated once they stick on something.
I was thinking on this when I saw a picture of Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd dressed as a Druid in Wetton during the 1920s. There was also a picture of him with a large sword in the Hall in Winchester wherein is kept the Round Table. Sneyd is holding the broadsword reverentially. He bought the sword down with him on the train- try to attempt a similar feat now and see how far on the Rail network you would get. When Sneyd died the local paper carried a tribute to a man who was regarded as being generally odd.

In religion he was eclectic. He was a devout Catholic…he was a Theosophist and a follower of the remarkable woman Madame Blavatsky... a true Buddhist… A reverent Druid… he spoke seriously about the lost word.
Sneyd’s belief system seems to be all encompassing

As I said at the onset the area warms to its characters and perhaps over the years there has been a democratisation as far as the eccentric is concerned and the type is no longer simply confined to landed estates and stately homes.

My favourite eccentric in Leek in recent years was Mr Sydney Smith who I first met a few years before he died in 2004. I made the error of getting caught up in a long conversation with him. It involved him quoting from memory large sections from a PG Wodehouse novel and a conviction that one of his cats had returned from the dead. He also had rather strange opinions on radio waves. It took me a long time to get away, but I did not begrudge him his ability, to use a beloved Wodehouse phrase, of "collaring a conversation". Mr Smith certainly did wear the mantle of eccentricity as indeed did the aforementioned Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd, and it is to the poet and collector of Onecote I return.

I was drawn by the sheer strangeness of Sneyd’s actions take for example his Druidic ceremonies held in Wetton during the 1920s. Sneyd wanted to establish an English equivalent of the Gorsedd in Wales- a meeting of priests and druids. The interest in alleged ancient religious practices had attracted people for centuries previous to Sneyd’s interest.

The druid first starts to appear as a stock literary figure, an ancient British priest and philosopher-seer, in the sixteenth century. Inigo Jones the artist included in one of his masques a druid portrayed as a bare legged, long-haired, bearded figure in a shaggy tunic, wearing an oak garland and carrying a phial and dagger. This was apparently based on a contemporary description of ancient German statues thought wrongly to represent druids.

This was to become the standard visual representation of the druid, right down to the present day. Despite attempts to link them with the monuments such as Stonehenge it seems that they have nothing to do with it representing a religious movement which came into existence 1000 after Stonehenge had been built. Modern Druidism owes its existence to a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, the first Gorsedd was held on Primrose Hill in London in 1792 and it was conducted in English. This reality meant nothing to Sneyd as he believed himself to be a reincarnation of the 7th century Welsh poet Taliesin. Sneyd believed that he in turn would be reincarnated as a goat.

The ceremony was first held on the 14th September 1926 at Wetton when crowds of onlookers, including representatives of the national press saw flags depicting dragons and St George billowing out over the Peak countryside. The bards were clothed in green, but towering over them at 6 feet 4 inches was the imposing figure of Ralph with a shock of white hair dressed in a long red robe and carrying a broadsword.
If an interest in paganism was not enough there was also Ralph’s earlier fascination with Theosophy which lead to an invitation to, as far as I am aware, the only speaker at the Nicholson Institute ever to have a national day proclaimed after him as well as appearing on a national stamp.

The Theosophy Society was founded in New York by Madame Blavatsky a controversial figure together with Henry Steel Olcott an American journalist. The Society developed in response to the interest shown in the Victorian period with spiritualism and Eastern religions .Throughout her involvement with Theosophy Madame Blavatsky had to defend herself against allegations of fraud and of being a charlatan. In 1887 she had to leave India hurriedly after being exposed as a hoaxer during a séance. Sneyd who was fascinated with the occult met Blavatsky in 1889. He fell under the spell of the movement and arranged that Olcott give a talk on Theosophy at the Nicholson Institute in November 1889.

Olcott was a very interesting man who was the only Yankee journalist to attend the execution of John Brown after the failed uprising at Harper’s Ferry- an event which was one of the sparks of the American Civil War. He was also a member of the board of inquiry set up after the assassination of President Lincoln. He later moved to Ceylon or Sri Lanka as it is now known and was one of the instigators of the Buddhist Nationalist revival which fuelled the independence movement. He is commemorated on a Sri Lankan stamp and the death of his death 19th February is honoured by the lighting of candles. Olcott was one of the first people to promote an interest in Buddhism in the west.
Sneyd also passes another test of the eccentric, the fascination with collecting things. It is recorded that he had over 700 Buddha’s at his house at Onecote where we kept in a barn that he had restored around which he built battlements in the First World War "to keep the Germans out". And there were the Egyptian Mummies one reputed to contain the body of Ptolemy Philadelphus II-the grandson of Anthony and Cleopatra. Sneyd’s treatment of these artefacts was unusual annually the mummies were taken outside to be revarnished, a practice which would cause conservationalists apoplexy today.

He went on to see the Second World War end and the return of a Labour Government- an event that as a Tory of the old school he must have loathed. He is regarded with affection with older residents of the area who remembers his strange unworldly ways such as spreading mustard on to teacakes. He died in 1947 and was buried in a monk’s habit. On his coffin was the great sword that he carried up to Thor’s Cave twenty years before.

Another individual who expressed an interest in reincarnation was the Cheddleton born Sybil Leek, the self proclaimed "Queen of the Witches" who was a contentious figure and a colourful one as well: her trademarks were a loose fitting cloak, hoods and a pet jackdaw called Mr Hotfoot Jackson and a snake named Sashima. She claimed to be the reincarnation of the Burslem witch Molly Leigh. Sybil maintained many things in her life for example that she had a friendship as a child with HG Wells. Lawrence of Arabia was also it is alleged a house guest as indeed was the aforementioned Edith Sitwell who must have recognised a fellow eccentric. Even Sybil’s birth date was the subject of some argument. She gave the date as 22nd February 1922, while others now set the date at 5 years earlier
She was interested in paganism and witchcraft from an early age and was on good terms with Aleister Crowley- the supposed most evil man in the World and a great self publicist and fraud. There is a story that Crowley and Leek visited Burslem to seek out Molly Leigh’s grave- a jackdaw perched on Leek’s shoulders. After the war Leek went to the United States and became a media star appearing on TV shows and becoming something of a celebrity. She claimed that she was also guided by the spirit of Madame Blavatsky and therefore made as much an impression in death on Sybil as she had made on Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd in life. She met and married a man named Brian.

During the Second World War she declared that she drew up a horoscope chart that encouraged Rudolf Hess- Hitler’s deputy- to attempt his ill fated flight to Scotland in 1941.
Sybil was also involved with a number of American celebrities including the then Governor Ronald Reagan who maintained an interest in clairvoyance throughout his life. She also had a friendship with the writer Robert Bloch best known for his novel Psycho.
She also believed that she could predict events and scored an undoubted hit with a prediction she made in the early 70s.

"There is one menace to the career and potential of George Wallace"- the candidate for the American presidency in 1972," Leek asserted in her Astrological Guide to the Presidential Candidates.

"The nearer he gets to his goal, the greater the danger of political assassination. Yet he is likely to transform this danger into an asset, for if an unsuccessful attempt is made on his life, he could turn it to winning many thousands of votes throughout the country."

Written in early 1971, these words were of more interest to horoscope buffs than to political ones. But when Arthur Bremer, nearly 18 months later, fulfilled the prophecy and shot Wallace, crippling the former Governor of Alabama some political pundits and poll watchers decided to take a closer look at what is written in the candidates' stars.

Not that Leek's peeks into the future always proved entirely accurate. She once predicted, for example, that in 1970 President Richard Nixon would become embroiled in a saucy sex scandal that would jeopardize his renomination by Republicans, nor did she predict Watergate which really did bring Nixon down.

She died in October 1983 after a long battle against cancer

Are eccentrics such as Sneyd, Leek and the rest under threat in this age of conformity and targets when individuality is frowned on certainly the eccentric behaviour chronicled here? I think it is probably the case. I blame the Government.

The aggressive promotion of conformity at the heart of the government's 'respect' agenda is bad enough in its own terms. It offers no sense of even trying to work out what we are as a society, and where we want to go. The culture of uniformity really means can be summed up in the grim philosophy: 'Be whoever you want to be - but behave, or else'.

When we shut ourselves off from authentically unconventional people, we lose an important way to put conventional wisdom to the test. When we fail to nurture and cherish eccentrics, we rob ourselves of great joy. The "town character" is becoming less of a fixture and wide-spread conformity is allowing fewer and fewer exceptions.
"Me eccentric?" Not in the least, said the noble Lord, I am merely an individualist. In Lord Bath’s eyes, Le Figaro man at Longleat records, "it’s the rest of the world, marching in the opposite direction, that is a bit strange".

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Fat is a class issue

There seems to be a backlash against people who are obese as evidenced by articles that have appeared nationally in national and local on the number of people who are taking stomach-shrinking surgery.
Issued by the NHS Information Centre, new figures show the number of people having stomach shrinking surgery to help them lose weight soared from 480 in 2004 to 4,246 in 2009, costing the state an estimated £29 million.

Matthew Sinclair, research director at the Tax Payers' Alliance, is quoted recently criticising the increase, saying: "So much is being spent on surgery for the obese instead of on treatment for unavoidable diseases."
Alan Kaminski from Abbey Hulton who had the operation is featured in the Sentinel deploring what he considers to be an attack on the obese and indicating that for a number of other health reasons such as diabetes and his weight that exercise and other methods proved unsuccessful

Three years ago, Alan found himself in an appalling position when health bodies haggled about who should carry out his treatment and he found himself having to spend 200 days in the UHNS whilst the arguments were sorted out.

Now I know Alan Kaminski who lived in Eaveswood Road in Abbey Hulton when I was growing up. I don’t want to embarrass him but Alan is a highly intelligent and extremely capable man. For some years he was a worker at Hanley CAB I would think that he would make an excellent Councillor for the Abbey.
But there is an issue over the increase in obesity. You only have to look around the public places of North Staffordshire to prove this claim.

I am a fan of the Mitchell and Kenyon series of documentaries of film on lives of people in Edwardian England based on film discovered in Blackburn about a decade ago. I was watching a clip of working people parading around Blackpool in 1904. Not one of the people in the film was overweight. Fat in the context of 1904 was a rich man’s disease characterised by the bulky presence of King Edward VII described by Kipling as a “corpulent voluptuary” which probably explains why Kipling never got a knighthood.
But the film evidence is there. Obviously hard manual work, diet and access to food and skills in cooking are all part of the problem. But it always seems to come down to a culture of blame and the fat are usually labelled as lazy, stupid and lacking control which is why I mention Alan Kaminski who clearly is not stupid or lacking in focus.

A couple of years ago I heard Judith Bell, Public Health Director of North Staffs Primary Care Trust on BBC Radio 4 on a programme in a series on the 60th anniversary of the NHS justifying the conditions imposed on patients who drink, smoke or who are overweight before they can access procedures such as surgery. The radio programme gave examples of the sort of protocols that are currently in place for those patients who for example have a body mass index of over 30.

I would imagine that these policies would have been accepted at board level.

They certainly raised comments from members of the panel who were debating the issue there was talk of “management diktat” and a “black and white approach” adopted by North Staffs PCT. Perhaps the sharpest comment came from a spokeswoman from the Patient Association who was scornful of the consequences of such moralistic decisions on people in poverty and that it was“easy for skinny rich people who make these decisions, much harder if you are having a tough life”.

She was supported by a Rotherham GP on the programme who gave an example of a patient whose knee injury restricted her ability to tackle her obesity which she dearly wanted to do. He regarded the approach as unethical. All the critics of the restricting or denying access approach suggested too much of a “stick” approach, they felt that to make changes requires time, energy and money factors as well as support which can be lacking.

To cite my own experiences of health services in Leek I have found it very difficulty to access the exercise on prescription scheme which eventually proved insurmountable or discovering that the weight control clinic at my practice I use has had funding removed by North Staffs PCT. It therefore seems paradoxical to demand changes by individuals and not provide the opportunities for self help or support within primary care.
But my main objections fall into two main categories. As David Edgar the distinguished playwright suggested that by denying treatments it means that you are denying treatment to people who may have been paying taxes and National Insurance contributions for many years. Where would be the fairness in that as well as being against the ethos of the NHS! Similarly, if it a question of punishing or checking unhealthy behaviour then the logic would also mean that you would also restrict access to services, for example, for those who did not practice safe sex or those individuals who engaged in sports or activities which have high risks of injury.

Secondly, the whole issue smacks of a patrician, top down attitude to health and social care. It invokes the 19th century attitude to the poor and of deserving and undeserving cases. In short, it is more to do with morality than health. It reminded me of a quote by an eminent figure from that century the great philosopher and social reformer JS Mill in his essay “On Liberty” who captured this attitude which has never gone away, “Wherever there is an ascendant class a large part of the morality emanates from its class interests and its class feelings of superiority”. No doubt these feelings of moral censoriousness in authority existed before he was writing in the 1850s, but certainly they exist now as evidenced by North Staffs Primary Care Trust in 2008.

As one Dorset GP explained in the last minutes of the programme the approach being applied by North Staffs PCT was entirely the wrong approach, the impact of social deprivation should be directed upwards towards Government’s whose actions are seeing an increase in poverty rather than in downwards in chivvying the patient to make changes that they will find difficult.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Degrees of uncertainty

I went to University in the mid 70s from a working class background and from a council estate in Stoke. I failed my 11 plus and went to the local Secondary Modern that became a Comprehensive school at least in name half way through my time at Carmountside Junior High. I worked for a few years in a pottery and then went on to University from Further Education College. I did not know any one who had gone to University from the estate I lived on.

On holiday the locals presumed that I was in the Army because that was the only way my lengthy absence could be explained. My brother told me that when he explained one of my subjects to a classmate Economic she exclaimed " What Cooking"!

I find it difficult to settle in to University although I did not face any major debts as grants existed then and I could always get a job in a potbank or somewhere else in Stoke.

I admit I was exceptional although there were some people I knew at York who did come from the same background although many of them had been to Grammar School.

Low aspirations were an issue on the Abbey Hulton estate and a distrust of education. I cannot say I blame people on the Abbey in the late 70s. By and large people’s life followed a pattern. The pattern involved work at 16,with luck and apprenticeship at the Mitch or British Steel, marriage by 19 and starting a family in the early 20s. It involved staying close to the family and friends. It was limited but it followed a smooth and well-known trajectory.

Of course all this changed by the 80s and unemployment, social problems drugs and rising crime took a grip on the area the following decade. For many university and college became an escape route that more began to take.

But it must be harder now to justify this leap. After all in the context of North Staffs acquisition of a degree or even a higher degree no longer guarantees a job. I am proof positive of that as I work part time in a supermarket.

Social mobility has ossified and the top jobs whether they are in politics, media and even in pop music are now dominated by those who followed the public school and then Oxbridge route. A working class lad or wench from the Abbey has even less chance then I had in 1975. Social mobility is worse now than existed in the 1950s and the time of Macmillan.

From understanding of the fees debate and the debts that students will have by the time they finish their degrees of £30,000 to £40,000 will be a huge burden. The model followed by the coalition is unlikely to appeal to low income families. The vote yesterday will inevitably lead to fewer people taking the route from Council estate to University: it can only get worse.

I am in a dilemma because my daughter who is now 6 will probably want to go on to University. Will she be put of as we are from a low income and my path from University to low paid job hardly is the best example to go.

Certainly, I feel nothing but contempt for the politicians who benefited from decent grants and now burden future generations Phoebe included to huge and possibly unpayable debts

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Living Wage Now!

The DWP has recently released data on the impact of the recession on the low waged. It is something that I have deep knowledge as I am in the category of in work poverty.

The number of children in poverty in working households has increased in recent years and now is in the majority. In part, this is the effect of the recession. The employment statistics show a big increase in part-time working up by 45%, and it is such part-working families – where either no one is working full-time or where one adult is staying at home – that are usually the ones who are both in work and in poverty. I suspect that the problem which I recently wrote about is a dilema faced by an increasing number of households in North Staffs.

Of course North Staffs has historically been a low wage economy but there is evidence that even with the existence of the National Miminum Wage poverty in work remains an intracable problem.

The recession, though, is only part of the story here. With the exception of the period 1999-2004, in-work poverty has been on a rising trend since at least as long ago as the late 1970s. It was the return to rising in-work poverty after 2004-05 that destroyed the last Government's objective of halving child poverty by 2010.

The way the DWP reports this statistic, six in every 10 children in poverty now belong to a working household. This proportion is broadly similar for the 7.8 million working-age adults in poverty. The increase in this number over 10 years, of 1.1 million, would be seen as a huge policy failure had the previous government ever shown the slightest interest in adults without children.

And perhaps this in truth is why the DWP has said so little about these figures. For it suits politicians to claim that work is the route out of poverty. But clearly, myself included work, does not necessary end the slipping into poverty.

The truth is very different. Work that does not provide a sufficient income is now much more to blame for poverty than worklessness. One question that has to be addressed is whether wages have been surpressed by the influx of immigrant labour from Eastern Europe.

If the Coalition  is serious about poverty reduction, it will need to direct its reform efforts not just at the world of welfare but at the world of work.

A de regulated economy with a emasculated trade union movement has had a devastating impact upon the working poor of North Staffs.

A Living Wage now!!!

Fat Cats

We have a situation where the Chief Executive of Staffs Moorlands District Council is paid £151,000 a higher rate than does the Prime Minister. I would have thought that there was a considerable difference between the responsibilities between someone who has the key to our nuclear deterrent and a CEO who runs a middling local authority even if you throw High Peak Council in?

But what of fairness? Fairness is a phrase that it banded around nowadays. We live in a town where lack of fairness is evident all around us. I was talking at a local supermarket to a woman who works in catering at the local Council serving refreshments to officers and Councillors and it is likely that her job will go. She bemoaning that it is always this on the lowest incomes who take the bullet when the cuts take place. She told me her husband lost his job last year.

I should note that one of the objectives of the SMDC of which Mr Baker is the head is to secure a strong economy I am not sure a policy of job losses and cuts does anything to achieve that objective. Beside does anyone walking around the streets of our Moorland towns believe that we are going through a boom time?
The truth of the matter that we live in a time where the rate of senior officers pay is escalating and I am unconvinced that we are getting a bang for our buck. The example of Stoke Council illustrates this where the pay of the Chief Executive in the course of a few years has increased from £120,000 to £198,000. I wish I could say that in paying executives a salary that dwarfs the average pay of North Staffordshire that we get quality. The Chief Executive of the local regeneration agency was paid a huge amount and yet the impact of RENEW on the local area has been nothing short of disastrous as anyone who travels through Hanley and Middleport will testify.

 Similarly both the Vice Chancellors of the local Universities get salaries of over £240,000 despite the difference in size.

Pay in the public sector is now in the spotlight following the recent publication of a report by economist Will Hutton recommends a ratio of 20:1 between the highest paid and the lowest paid in a local authority.
So why choose 20:1? According to Hutton, because that’s the ratio that David Cameron suggested to him which might explain why, while appearing to do something about the obscenely excessive pay at the top, it actually achieves little. The national minimum wage is currently £5.93 an hour, so assuming a 37-hour week a 20:1 ratio works out at £228,186 or £4,388 a week, as opposed to bottom pay at £219 a week. If public sector top pay is widely resented as already much too high, we should lower the bar substantially below current excesses.

A reasonable compromise might be 12:1. That would still give a top executive £136,912 a year, or £2,633 a week, which most people would think more than adequate.

Any advances?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Why cannot we be more like the French?

Why cannot we be more like the French? The reason I say this is because of an incident that occured a few evenings ago when I was waiting at a snowy Hanley Bus Station for the 18 bus back to Leek. The 6 o'clock service was cancelled and a group of around 20 waited for the next bus that was supposed to turn up at 6.20.

 I have to say this is a regular event.

Of course it did not and the next bus was due at 7.10.

I knew what was to happen because I had been caught out by First in October. When I was waiting nearly two hours for a bus then and eventually a bus turned up at 7.10 but not before a heated exchange between a bus driver and a group of passengers. First did not help the situation and the member of staff only escalated the situation and eventually threatened to call the Police after a certain amount of swearing from some angry youths.

On this occasion the passengers were so accepting of the situation. I was saying to them that they ought to complain, but was met with the comment that it was pointless and nothing would come of it. Amongst the passengers was a young couple with a very small baby which by now was wailing with the cold. Eventually I went up to the staff area overlooking the bus station and spoke via an intercom persuading an inspector to come down to explain the situation to the frozen passengers.

He did and after ten minutes re-appeared and organised a special bus to take the passengers to Leek and places in between.

You see I told them complaining in an assertive and polite way can work

However I was struck by how defeatist the passengers were and unwilling to challenge the situation. They were good at moaning, but not very good at trying to resolve the situation. In short many people are bovine.

Why cannot we be more French in the way we challenge authority?

 Over recent years we have seen the activities of Joseph Bove the French farmer and his anti Mcdonalds campaign, the occupation of closed factories, riots in major cities and the rise of an Anti Capitalists party which has challenged the orthodoxy of the French Socialist Party with an eclectic mixture of traditional communists and members with more contemporary motivations ranging from feminism to climate change.

The example of Bove is especially relevant in the case of Leek as recent months have seen planning applications for large supermarket complexes much to the irritation of the independent shop owners of the town

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The pursuit of happiness

I am a worker in the great hive of modern consumption- the supermarket. I worked on the checkouts most of the day today and one observation that I have to make is how miserable many of the shoppers are in the day to day task of shopping. I remarked that many looked more miserable than the 18th century illustrations of people about to be hanged at Tyburn
I experienced it myself yesterday shopping in the supermarket where I work yesterday with my daughter. The woman in front of me looked very angry when the queue was delayed for several minutes and turned to me as a likely ally on which to vent her anger about the unfairness of it all. I mean the check out operator by his incompetence was delaying her from, I guess, finishing her string quartet or discovering a cure for cancer.
On most faces today there were grim glassy-eyed expressions and I reminded of, I think, a PG Wodehouse comment about people who looked if ice was forming on their upper slopes.

It is a question worth contemplating how is it at a time when most people have never been healthier, wealthier and safer we becoming more mistrustful, insular and forlorn. In 2010 is pursuit of happiness a worthy goal for politicians to aim for? Mr Cameron seems to think so. And if so how can it be achieved. Certainly it’s claimed that we live in stressed times. I over heard two young women in the supermarket opine that their grandparents did not know what stress was. At such moments I wish I had access to a time machine to transport a ancestor from the Somme to a supermarket queue, whilst their descendant’s could experience what it was like to walk slowly carrying a 60lb pack over a muddy field towards German machine guns as a measure of a stressful situation.

We do kid ourselves if we think that we are the only society that thinks it suffers from increasing stress. I came across a quote by the Victorian Frances Cobbe writing about the 1860s and comparing it with the earlier generation of 30 years earlier.

“ That constant sense of being driven – not precisely like dumb cattle. But cattle who must read, write and talk than 24 hours will permit, can never be known to them”

But still the epidemic of stress and the over blown language that’s used to describe every day occurrences. A friend of mine is annoyed by the inflated use of the words “nightmare” and “misery” to describe being caught in a traffic jam. Rightly he feels use words should be restricted to events like the Haiti earthquake but such hyperbole constantly manifests itself.

Recently  a man came up cheerfully to me and said “There was nothing worse than queuing”. I disagreed with him and pointed out lengthy list starting with death and illness of things that were worse than queuing. He did however add thoughtfully “drowning” to my list of calamities.

I read in a national newspaper a review of a book by two Canadian economics professor’s Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran, which suggests that greater affluence and widening disparity of wealth can be very damaging to a country’s health. They argue that once an individual reaches a reasonable standard of living than there is no great benefit from increasing the wealth of the population. It might even make them even worse off. It is argued that as consumption shifts to buying status symbols of no intrinsic value such as luxury cars it has a detrimental effect “ they satisfy the owner, making them seem wealthier, but every one else is worse off”.

Their work owes much to the economist Thorstein Veblen, who in 1899 coined the term "conspicuous consumption" in his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen argued that people seek status through conspicuous consumption, which derives its value not from the intrinsic worth of what is consumed but from the fact that it permits people to attempt to set themselves apart from others. As the economy grows, people increasingly choose status symbols or "Veblen goods" over other goods.

"Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness," the authors write. "But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as 'Veblen competition'. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier.

Its thought to explain those study that indicate that we live in an unhappy age. As more and more rush to acquire then they have less time or desire to help others. This has a corrosive effect on community and trust and the well being of society.

All this fits into a debate within economics about how to measure a nation's true wealth. Many economists believe they need to focus more on measuring happiness. The belief that a focus on individual wealth creation at the exclusion of everything else can be divisive has spread around the worlds of politics, psychology and science. Clinical psychologist Oliver James has argued that there is an epidemic of "affluenza" throughout the developed world, with attempts "to keep up with the Joneses" triggering huge increases in depression and anxiety.

Last year a best-selling book by two epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, called The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, argued that Britain and America were the countries with the widest gulfs between rich and poor in the developed world, and as a result had the most health and social problems.

Perhaps an answer does lie in re engaging with other people through community and voluntary work. Interestingly the happiest person I met today was organising a meal  in Leek as a fundraiser for a cancer charity

Monday, 6 December 2010

Tristram Hunt is wrong

There is a report that  that Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt has signed a cross party letter attacking the change to a voting system- the alternative vote- as a " alternative that nobody wants". As someone who worked for him in the General Election here is one person who dearly wants to see the end to the fundamentally undemocratic "first past the post system" we have now.

As a historian perhaps Tristram in defending the present constitutional arrangements might know the following quote from our past

"I am fully convinced that the country possess, at the present moment, a legislature which answers all the good purposes of legislation, —and this to a greater degree than any legislature ever has answered, in any country whatever. I will go further, and say that the legislature and system of representation possess the full and entire confidence of the country".

I am unaware of whether Tristram likes being compared to the ultra reactionary Duke of Wellington speaking against 19th century parliamentary reform, but the same sense of complacency resonates across the centuries. Like the 1830s we have a rotten political system where votes do not count equally.. Like the 1830s power effectively lies in the hands of an out of touch political establishment- the "thing"- as one of the Duke’s contemporaries William Cobbett called it; and like the 1830s we have a situation where political seats can be bought and sold by the grandees of the country.

One simple fact that may have escaped the political class represented by John Prescott, David Blunkett, Bill Cash and John Redwood and it seems Tristram Hunt is that the proportion of people who vote for the two main parties has fallen from around 90% in the 1960s to 65% in the 2010 election. The general public have turned away from the old politics and have been doing so for years. I am a member of the Green Party which at its annual conference, despite some misgivings ,democratically voted to support the Yes to AV campaign as a small step to the wider reforms that we need.

Britain is no longer a two party system; it is time to upgrade our electoral system to match.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

People do not choose poverty

I went to a conference in Manchester yesterday organised by the Church Action on Poverty. It was a worthy affair but as someone in work poverty I have a feeling that some people do not just get it. Take the assertion that poverty is more than just lack of money. Excuse me? Poverty is primarily about the lack of money. Lack of gelt, spondolies, brick, dosh whatever you want to call is central to the issue of poverty. For without money a person is excluded from the main functions of life. Life is always a series of choices, do I spend a fiver on the gas or do I use it to buy one or two provisions. But I was struck by the five words that one of the delegate uttered which should be seared on the brain of every legislator that wishes to tackle the issue of poverty who think that being poor is a deliberate act. "People do not choose poverty"

Some years ago I wrote a piece based on an essay that the 19th century writer William Hazlitt wrote called on the Want of Money. I have now updated it because my particular circumstances have not changed since I originally wrote it in March 2007.

Hazlitt wrote

It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport - you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniencesHazlitt’s image of being in a foreign country is exactly right and probably magnified nearly 200 years on. Hazlitt could not have imagined the consumerist society where your social status is determined by the latest fashion you wear or the last gizmo you have acquired. I was thinking of this during a conversation I had at a Party I was invited to when one of the middle class guests made a presumptive comment about everyone being able to access the Internet; I believe that they are 13 million Britons who do not. I suspect the majority of them will be on low incomes. He was also correct about the being made to look ridiculous comment as well. A few months ago I saw a young man pay in copper at the checkout of the Coop in Picton St in Leek. He paid in the coin of the realm but it was a protracted affair. After he left he was subject to mockery by the women in the queue as well as the shop assistant.

The intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap, this unwelcome interval constantly recurring, however shabbily got over, is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description. I may attempt (this Essay is not a fanciful speculation) to enlarge upon a few of them.

I fall into the category of working poor. There are many of us in Britain today. Research published recently by IPPR points to more than 6 million people- over a fifth of all employees were paid less than £6.67 an hour in April 2009, this is the equivalent of £12,000 a year for 35 hour working week.

What a luxury, what a God's-send in such a dilemma, to find a half-crown which has slipped through a hole in the lining of your waistcoat, a crumpled bank-note in your breeches-pocket
Again, I know what Hazlitt means here. I found a five pound note in a coat pocket the other day. It made my day! Not as good a day as finding a tenner on the floor of Gents in a craft centre on the Wirral a few years ago or another blowing down a street in Leek.. I am of the opinion that the divide that Disraeli, writing about 20 years after Hazlitt, illustrated in the novel Sybil, of two nations the rich and the poor is as palpable today and is widening. However he made be wrong in one regard, now there exists as wide a gulf between the poor white population and the poor ethnic minority population, there may be present more than two nations. The paradox is that there is a school of thought articulated by the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party John Prescott "that we are middle class now".

It is among the miseries of the want of money, not to be able to pay your reckoning at an inn - or, if you have just enough to do that, to have nothing left for the waiter; - to be stopped at a turnpike gate, and forced to turn back.
I had to go to the Dentist earlier in the year. It was a NHS dentist but the bill came to £46. I had nothing in my account. I mumbled an apology to the Polish receptionist and presented her with a post-dated cheque. The real misery of being in want of money is not doing the things I enjoyed in the past

I like going to the Theatre. I have not managed it this year. I love orchestral music but the only concert that I have seen was a free concert that the RLPO gave in September. I have been to two Stoke City matches only because a friend could not use his season ticket. The holiday I have are usually down to a relative financing them.

And when things they are very difficult to replace. When the washing machine broke down and I do not have the resources to fix it although it is compensated by the regular trip down to the laundrette and it can be a lively social gathering down there. I had a chat with an old codger about watching the antics of the Sunderland footballer Len Shackelton at Old Trafford at a memorable post war match. It is probably sounder as far as the environment is concerned as well.

Oh! it is wretched to have to confront a just and oft-repeated demand, and to be without the means to satisfy it; to deceive the confidence that has been placed in you; to forfeit your credit; to be placed at the power of another, to be indebted to his lenity; to stand convicted of having played the knave or the fool; and to have no way left to escape contempt but by incurring pity.
The greatest bugbear of my own position is to feel under siege and to live in a perpetual state of apprehension that the phone call or the knock at the door will be a bailiff or a collector. I have stopped answering the phone. I dial 1471 after it had rang to discover whether it is a debt collector’s number. Sometimes I answer the phone and politely inform the person that I am absolutely skint and that I am seeing the local CAB and it is all in their hands.

God bless the CAB and damn the eyes of the local District Council who want to resort to the use of bailiffs at the earliest opportunity. I have never met them as all negotiations have been through the agency of the advice bureau. I feel a sense of burning rage at the regressive nature of the Council Tax and if I had the nerve feel like burning down the offices of the Council Tax Collectors- a la Captain Swing rioters

To feel poverty is bad; but to feel it with the additional sense of our incapacity to shake it off, and that we have not merit enough to retrieve our circumstances - and, instead of being held up to admiration, are exposed to persecution and insult - it is the last stage of human infirmity.
Getting out of this situation dominates my waking hours. I work part time and earn £6.12 an hour working flexible hours and try to eke out a living by writing the occasional article on history for the local newspaper. It takes me 3 to 4 hours to write a 1500 word article, I get paid £70 I do some part time teaching and hopefully that might develop. I have a ghost walk in Leek which is sporadic. I apply for other jobs. I am in my 50s and lose out each time to younger people. I went for an interview where there was one other candidate and lost out. I am always told that my interview technique is excellent, which is extremely galling. It cost me £50 to catch the train down to Oxfordshire to chase up a potential franchise with a company of biography writers. They treated me to a meal in a country pub but nothing was gained. I apply for grants for start up companies for the over 50s to be informed that they have run out of money. Fortunately by inclination I am a stoic and I battle on.

I am not the only one and I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a local café who is in the same predicament. Winning a tenner on the Lottery was the cause of celebration in her house the other week.

To be in want of it, is to pass through life with little credit or pleasure; it is to live out of the world, or to be despised if you come into it; it is not to be sent for to court, or asked out to dinner, or noticed in the street; it is not to have your opinion consulted or else rejected with contempt, to have your acquirements carped at and doubted, your good things disparaged, and at last to lose the wit and the spirit to say them; it is to be scrutinized by strangers, and neglected by friends; it is to be a thrall to circumstances, an exile in one's own country.
Hazlitt is as true now as when he penned the essay in 1827. The poor are generally despised and mocked in Britain today. How else can you account for the success of Little Britain an opportunity for two public school types’ two rich kids to make themselves rich by mocking the poor and the vulnerable? The saddest thing is that the poor often join in the laughter that is so purposely directed at them. I say that we need to fight back and at the centre of any campaign is to address the low pay culture of the area. We need to work , for example, for a Living Wage. As I see it the problem is not too high benefits it is low wages that have bedevilled North Staffordshire.


Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Valley of Phantoms

Through a nineteenth century town, Leek has made a great effort to be beautiful. The Leek mills are not just factories; they take all sorts of eccentric and pleasing shapes. One is capped by a Gothic turret; another possesses glittering bay windows and a massive Norman archway of grey stone. Yet another built no doubt when taste reverted from the Gothic to the classic, endeavours to be a close copy of the pantheon. Down at the bottom of the town, on the road to the north, lies another immense building, which now somewhat dingy with age, proudly rears a high Venetian campanile as water tower, Against the sunset sky this mill is oddly attractive.

I remained in this land of stone wall, high rocks, and drifting snow for three years. There is a type of Moorland face, which one sees occasionally among the softer types industrialism has brought to this little town, and recognise as the true Moorland- features that seem cut out of granite, implacable. It reminds one the Moorlands would not have been a pleasant place for a stranger to have lived in, say two hundred years ago- here in this land of winter, where the wind cuts more keener than elsewhere, and the very features of the people are stern and forbidding. But I was happy there and soon found friends.

This may have been Staffordshire on the map, but to my ears it was North Country, where the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree grow, in the words of the old song. As in the North, the children spoke authentic Biblical English " hast put candles out?" they would chant in their lilting dialect. "Dost know? It’s thine". They spoke with a curious kind of sing song accent, the sentences rising to the last syllable but one, and then the sinking away to a half tone. The effect was rather pretty; also it was indescribably pathetic and pastoral- the sort of accent little birds would use if they could speak. They have not the paleness of the children of the Birmingham slums, but they were also healthy looking that in some cases their cheeks seemed to have been painted with red ink
With a band of them I climbed Morridge – the green ridge which bounds the valley like a wall upon the eastern side, over hanging the little town. We climbed it by a stony road, lifting always within the high walls of crumbling stone on either side. They are like the bastions of a fallen castle, these Morridge walls, built by masons long dead, crumbling and neglected. If the world were flat, now, I reflected built upon a different plan, one might think that this near the precipice which ends the world, the very Back of Beyond. Nothing grew here save long grass; there was nothing but silence and the melancholy calling of the curlews. A grey sky suited this desolate place- grey sky, grey limestone, and the green grass.

Leek lay hidden in the mist and woods in the middle distance, and one of the older boys tried to convince me that it was invisible from the air. Leek will never be bombed, said he, and quoted with assurance the prophecy that there would come a time when " there will be no safety in the land save ‘twixt Mow Cop and Morridge. that is to say , in Leek.

This was my first introduction to the superstitions of Leek, but I soon found more. This valley and the moors around it swarmed with ghosts and bogies and the people still believed them. There was the Headless Horseman who in the imagination of the townsfolk rode Morridge- " a man on a ‘oss without a yed on, an awful gory sight", as one of them described to me. There was the Black Dog, the Moorland Anibus, atrocious spectres who guard the graves of those who died by violence. And she who was the queen of the Leek Demons, as the Horseman was their king, the Mermaid of the Black Mere on Morridge, which, later, the coloured American soldiers were forbidden to visit. There was Ball haye Jack, who could be observed- an omen of bad luck- standing on the wall in front of one of the mills in the form of a little grey man. For this was Leek, where phantoms gibber in front of factories. Then there was the factory girls would touch the railings when they met me, a gesture they often made when encountering a clergyman, for touching iron is the age-old safeguard against the power of the sorcerer.

I was astonished by these superstitions. If the place were some village lost in the meadows of the West Country, I thought, but Leek was a modern industrial town. Leek, if not the hub of the modern world, was one of the indispensable cogs. It exported and imported to and from the corners of the earth, and the slumps never seemed to touch it.

I realised, with surprise, that these Moors were the place where modern industrialism began. The first power loom was set up at Cromford, over in Derbyshire. Leek, and its sister towns were the mothers of the modern world. And I think that it is just because these people invented the modern mechanised world that it has no effect whatsoever on their souls. The machines have not exorcised the ghosts and demons of the Leek countryside, as they have done elsewhere. The Leek demons saw the birth of the machine, so to speak. After all what is a machine? An instrument to speed up production. And the machines, according to my theory, had their real psychological origin in the spells these people of the moors used to write on bits of paper and fasten to their scythes and ploughs to make them to do more work, to speed up production. "Bees" they used to call them. It seems obvious that in these "bees" lies the origin of the machine. A handloom with a spell fastened on it is the equivalent of a power driven machine. They have tried to put the destructive power of the poltergeist to work, too, these magicians and legends abound of "hobs" or nature spirits who work on Moorland farms. Later they discovered that the far more docile demons of steam could speed up production for them, and so they abandoned their "bees" and their "hobs".

Like all who come to leek, I fell under the spell of its mythology, and investigated the matter thoroughly- " rooting into t’spooks" as the townspeople called my hobby. Leek is not the kind of industrial town one finds in the south, whose industries have been transported from elsewhere, where factories have arisen in the fields as if by the waving of a magic wand. Its industrialism is the logical culmination of its history, and has not disturbed in the least the spirit of the place. The machines used by its people are merely the equivalent of their forefathers’ "bees". The Leek demons look down from the moors upon the smoking mill-chimneys of the little town in the valley with perfect equanimity. They know well that the substitution of the power looms for handlooms has not altered the attitude of the Leek people towards them one whit. The Horseman, the Mermaid and the various Black Dogs still thrive in the imagination of the people of the town. And the fairies have not departed, but simply changed their named. No doubt they have grown tired of the nonsense talked of them by poets, and have reappeared in their original crudity as poltergeists. And the witches of Leek have changed their methods. They now deal in crystal globes instead of incantations.

The result of this investigation on my part was a great modification of my anti industrial bias. I had discovered that industrialism was a natural development, the logical outcome of the history of a town like Leek. The whole point about mechanisation is that it burst upon the world totally unconnected with the cultural apparatus which had gone before, and seemed to create a new kind of barbarism wherever it spread. The reason was that it had long been incubating in these Pennine districts such as Leek and the very similar valleys of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which had lain outside the main current of history. In Leek one saw mechanisation in its proper cultural setting. Elsewhere the machine came as an invader, am enemy to the old cultural upon which it burst. But here one saw the machine in the land of its birth, and the point was that it belonged to the same world as the witches and the phantom dogs. That was its cultural background; that was the set of ideas out of which it arose. It belonged to the same complex, and in its origin too was a spell.
The cobbled street, the clatter of clogs, the whine of the machine, the harsh voices of the north, the Pennine witch in her stone cottage- they all belong to the same world. The machine came from underneath, the top strata of society did not invent it. It belonged to the people who believed in witches, not to the educated schoolmasters and gentleman of the Enlightenment.

But it was a natural development; it had only wrecked and ruined the countryside because we were unprepared for it. It was something that leek sprang on us. In another century or so the machine will be part of that tradition and absorbed. Even as it is now often a thing of beauty, so is its dwelling places will become beautiful. as the Leek Mills have tried to be. And we shall learn how to control it so that it will be our slave and not our master.

Hans Zehrer says that the guilt of the modern world, which is destroying mankind, consists in the completely rational attitude which man has towards nature as something non living to be conquered and bent to his will. I feel that, if we could get into focus, the naïve attitude which theses people who actually first used the machines still retain toward the world of Nature bears the seed of the attitude we should have towards the unseen forces from which man derives his technical power. We should not be so careless about dropping atomic bombs or even driving fast cars and adding to the slaughter on the roads if we had an inkling of what faces us on the other side of things seen, the world whence comes atomic power, electricity, the power of petrol and steam. They who first fastened "bees" to their handlooms knew what they were about, that they were tinkering with something of a terrifying power. We have lost that

Why I am against referendum's

I have always had problems with the notion of referendums. I recall writing something in opposition to the concept many years at University, which is why I voted against the notion at the meeting, held at the Central Club on the Sainsbury’s road development for Leek. For one thing as one speaker pointed out fundamentally they are a lazy way of people coming to a decision. I felt very uncomfortable with the information that was put forward at the meeting last week. I am sure that the Councillor’s present did their best, but how do you inform people of such a complex matter in a simple sentence?

All too often voters in a referendum are more likely driven by transient whims than careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues. Also, voters might be swayed by strong personalities which I am sure will be the case with the Leek vote. The early American President James Madison argued that direct democracy that Referendum represents is the "tyranny of the majority." And the way that one Councillor who was brave enough to argue a contrary view at the meeting at the Central Club was treated offers further proof of this tendency.

I am writing on Worlds Aids Day and the use of community involvement in choosing health preferences was bought into focus in the American State of Oregon. In the early 90s Oregon reduced over 10 000 medical procedures to a list of 709 medical conditions and their related treatments. Through a process of community meetings, public opinion surveys Oregon then ranked these treatments. These rankings were intended to reflect community priorities regarding different medical conditions and services, physicians' opinions on the value of clinical procedures and objective data on the effectiveness of various treatment outcomes. Treatments for HIV patients and "sexual dysfunction’s" came bottom of the poll; treatments for children came towards the top. This example rather proves the point that prejudice rather than a serious consideration of the issues will be the driver when the referendum vote is taken.

Beside writing as a historian, Referendum were the favourite tool of Hitler and Mussolini