Thursday, 15 December 2011

In defence of the young

In 1899 they were accused of blocking the pavement forcing decent people into the road in Derby St, swearing and playing cards on the Pickwood Rec
In 1954 they were accused of intimidating passengers on the Cheddleton Bus, vandalising municipal flowerbeds and engaging in a mass punch up in Haywood St over the Easter weekend.

In 2011 they are accused of laziness, lacking a work ethic, according to local businessman, drunkenness, illiteracy and being ignorant.

In the three instances the accused are young people as portrayed by older people.

Its time for a defence to be launched.

I work with young people; I know of them and in the course of an ordinary day will come in contact with young people. Most I know in these settings are perfectly fine, courteous, hard working, amusing and to use the jargon of the time" customer focused". I am sure that some young people behave badly as I know that there are some old people act outrageously. The old man last summer who swore vilely at a bus driver and thumped the side of the bus in Longsdon is one side of the equation as is the skinhead who helped me with a buggy in which lay my sleeping baby daughter in Lime St the other.

Could it be that young people today, as they were yesterday, are being deliberately misunderstood by politicians and journalists who wish to use them to suit their own ends? Do the young serve a useful function as a scapegoat for the inadequacies of their elders?

I am sure that if we consider the question of the alleged uselessness of the British teenager we can all think of individual acts of kindness carried out by them. I don’t envy the young today in a country which has burdened them with debt and in which over a million find themselves unemployed. And they are being written off. Yet they had nothing to do with this crisis and the young will picking up the bill for a long time.

 This crisis is caused by the uselessness of the old.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The cult of celebrity


The Levenson Inquiry into the British press is daily producing outrageous examples of the brutal intrusiveness of some journalists. The most forceful and excoriating of the celebrities called to give evidence is probably Hugh Grant who gave a grim catalogue of incidents where his family’s privacy had been violated. Grant has been part of the celebrity scene for some time. In fact a friend of mine saw him and the recently deceased director Ken Russell in the Izaac Walton Hotel in Ilam when they were making the film " Lair of the White Worm" in 1988. It’s not Russell’s greatest work it has to be said. Of course Russell himself later achieved a dubious distinction by being in the 2007 Celebrity Big Brother.
I have only occasionally been in the presence of a celebrity. I sat opposite Francis Rossi in a Manchester hotel and saw Joe McGann in "Coffee Beans" in Leek. On both times I gave them a wide berth. I suspect my stance is untypical. The usual response it seems is like that I witnessed on a train on the Wirral when Dean Sullivan aka Jimmy Corkhill of Brookside sat next to me- his after shave smelled nice it has to be said. The attitude of the other travellers on an overcrowded train was if a God from Olympus had descended. I was staggered by how awe-struck people seemed to be.
My apathy towards celebrity is even more amplified when it comes to royalty. In this I wear a plain republican coat. I did not come out in the street when Princess Diana visited Wigan when I worked there. Several years later I saw many paparazzi besiege a restaurant in Soho where she was dining. I cannot help but think that if everyone took my attitude to her then she would have had a happier and longer life. My indifference to the whole cult of celebrity is so marked that I cannot think of anything more hellish than Hello magazine. And I believe that the popular obsession with stars and stardom is corrosive to public life as the Levenson Inquiry is revealing.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Jellybyism- a middle class disorder

Charles Dickens, whose bi-centenary falls next February, created the character Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House a character so obsessed with helping the poor of Africa that she is neglectful of her own family and own community. "Jellybyism" is alive and well in Leek in 2011 as an exchange I witnessed the other day proved

I occasionally attend a Tuesday night discussion held in the Blue Mugge. It’s usually very interesting although on this night the atmosphere was particularly charged. We were discussing "Marxism" and someone mentioning modern poverty said that it did not exist locally. As proof he cited the sale of champagne in a local supermarket as an indicator of affluence. Some one else agreed with him giving as an example of time he had spent in South Africa where real poverty did exist.
But is poverty in Leek easier to bear in 2011 with a welfare state than poverty in Johannesburg? Well, poverty is poverty wherever its experienced. And having no money or support in whatever society is a bitter thing to bear. The only thing that makes it possibly easier to bear is the existence of social support networks and the make do and mend skills needed to survive. If that is the criteria then who is better placed a member of an extended family in a Joburg township or a isolated pensioner shivering and lonely on a wintry council estate? The number of deaths from hypothermia nationally around 25,000 would suggest a problem.

Beside I know that there are people experiencing hardship in Leek now. I witnessed an example the other day when I was on an organised walk in the town centre. A homeless man sleeping in the churchyard approached the group, as he did not want to scare people. He told me of his predicament and that he was grateful to the Church for allowing him to sleep there. So to answer the modern day " Jellyby" the availability of cheap champagne suggests a restricted social awareness and yes poverty and hardship is out there

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thanksgiving Day and what is there to be thankful for?

Its Thanksgiving Day today and a time to say what I am thankful for in living and knowing the communities I have lived and worked in. In Leek it would be the pubs especially the Roebuck, the independent book shop, the charity shops, Pronto, All Saints Church, the Co-operative Emporium, the Sugden houses in Queen St, Foxlowe the Nicholson Institute and War Memorial, the characters and the open spaces and the Market Place. And further afield the walk around Rudyard Lake

For Stoke- on Trent my home town I would say the Mitchell Memorial, Winton Square and Railway Station, staff in the Archive section of the Hanley Library, Webberley bookshop, the greenery esp the reclamation areas such a Forest park, and the pubs of Burslem and the people generally

Monday, 21 November 2011

Leek Community Benefit Society- why the cooperative approach

I have been involved in the Leek Co-operative for the Benefit of All since its inception in February. The driver behind the Leek group has been to develop the Co-operative Emporium the 100th anniversary is celebrated this year. A group was established at the beginning of the year with the aim of developing co-operatives in the town around the umbrella organisation of the Emporium. We opened the ground floor of the three stories building last August and we have held a number of events to inform the business planning process. For instance one event that I was involved in was the Enterprise Day on the 14th October which attracted a number of individuals interested in setting up a business. We are developing the co-operative on a piecemeal basis and we are having a formal opening next year. But why this approach?

The global economic crisis is the most recent and potent factor in changing the bigger picture. And Leek as other towns in North Staffs the impact has been deep. The crisis has resulted in a fundamental change in attitude to the traditional business model of investor ownership. Prior to that, since the collapse of communism, investor ownership had not just been the dominant business model; it really was the only show in town. It was the idea and questioning its validity – or suggesting that it was inherently flawed – was unthinkable. Those doubts have re surfaced with the Occupy movement posing searching questions of "crony" capitalism

Intellectually, the previously unquestioned assumptions are now open for discussion. The old ‘certainties’ have gone. At grass roots level, the change from a general feeling of prosperity and security to a feeling of worrying uncertainty has been dramatic and profound in all communities. More difficult circumstances and anxiety about the future undoubtedly affect how people think and behave. There is a natural tendency to band together, to look for and talk about ways of addressing immediate difficulties, and finding common solutions, which help individuals and others in need. Self-help revives in the face of adversity when other sources of help seem to be failing. The example of the USA in the 1930s is a good historical example

The context today is therefore very different from that of ten or even five years ago. Perhaps it gives rise to a more sober and reflective mood. The resurgence of interest in mutual models of ownership, both in terms of existing and of new organisations, suggest that the self-help business model may have a contemporary relevance which is growing in importance.

The recent economic difficulties have damaged the credibility of investor-ownership. Damage has been caused because of the perception that the loss of thousands of jobs and the collapse in the value of shares – affecting the savings and pensions of many people on modest incomes – are at least in part caused by greed and the pursuit of private interests. The profit motive is not a popular concept at the moment. The pursuit of huge gains by some prominent individuals in the commercial world, and the apparent failure of a significant number of politicians to understand how their behaviour in optimising personal private gain is unacceptable, have made this even worse. And this feeling gained further impetus with the publication of the High Pay Commission this week

So, given the social context, recent developments in mutuality and the prevailing economic circumstances, the self-help model seems to be both relevant and appealing. But how will it meet today’s needs? That is the question we are posing in Leek

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Blanketeers, Leek and the language of dissent.

One Tuesday in March 1817 the horrified people of Leek awoke to find 400 demonstrators had arrived in the town overnight. The group of decent working men had left Manchester to present a petition to Prince Regent protesting against the poverty and unemployment effecting cotton workers. England after the Napoleonic War was in the grip of a severe economic recession. Many radicals thought the Tory Government of aristocrats indifferent to the plight of the common man. As they slept rough, the marchers carried rolled up blankets on their shoulders to keep them warm at night. They were dubbed "The Blanketeers. The protestors marched peacefully passing through Stockport and Macclesfield before arriving in Leek.

The response of authority was a panicky one. They called out the local Yeomanry under the command of Lieutenant Copeland fearful of the possibility of violence. The vicar of Leek and magistrate Edward Powys ordered the detention of the Blanketeers and many were arrested. Local newspapers reported on the marchers describing them as " subservient to the all too evident design of disorganising society and destroying the constitution. They were dismissed as " gaping gulls who surround the altar of sedition made dupes by artful and wilful men".

What struck me about the accounts was the condescending language used about the Blanketeers is now used about the anti capitalist protestors at St Paul’s. Melanie Phillips wrote "The idea that this supremely self-indulgent exercise is a spontaneous protest by ordinary people is wide of the mark. The similarity of these worldwide tent cities suggests that a high degree of co-ordination is involved".

That comment tells me that the St Paul protestors are regarded as the Blanketeers were as "gaping gulls made dupes by the artful", unable to make their own analysis or come up with solutions. Something should not be forgotten that the Blanketeers were the beginning of a long campaign that ultimately achieved much of what they wanted. The right to vote, a welfare state, work reform and the ability to hold governments to account were all gained. We should recall this when today’s St Paul protestors are mocked.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Population reaches 7 billion

I was in conversation with local historian Bud Abbot last week who told me that in his research he had found a woman who lived in Ball Haye Green at the end of the 19th century had given birth to 17 children. The question of population is currently in mind as the human population has passed 7 billion according to the UN. It is estimated that the population of the world reached one billion for the first time in 1805. It would be another 122 years before it reached two billion in 1927, but it took only 33 years to rise by another billion people, reaching three billion in 1960. Thereafter, the global population reached four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, and six billion in 1999.
It has a bearing on competition on scant resources with some suggestion that we will run out of fresh water by the middle of the century. This all looks bleak, but it should be recorded that gloomy prophecies about population growth have been around since the 18th century
One aspect of the changes in population as far as the UK is concerned especially in the UK in the last 100 years is the rapid fall in the rate of infant mortality. From 1900 to 1930 the number of deaths fell from 140 to 63 per thousand births. This trend accelerated with the establishment of the NHS and improved prosperity after the war and the rate is in single figures. And family size is half it was in 1900. A family the size that Bud discovered is now a rarity.
The answer must lie in education and there is evidence that its can have a spectacular impact on population growth. There is a view that the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring people are able to make real choices about childbearing. That means access to family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It also means empowering women through education and employment opportunities.
A stumbling block is culture and religion where aspects of Islam and Christianity are in fierce opposition to birth control, but the pressure on the world’s resources demands a solution.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Black History Month- My contribution- Garth Crooks 1976

In April 1976 the 18-year-old Garth Crooks played his first match as a Stoke City player barely one month from becoming a professional player at the club. Garth’s rise in the club was memorable for a number of reasons. He was one of the first black players at the club although Stoke City had recruited from the ethnic minorities in the past Frankie Soo of Chinese origin- the first ethnic minority to play for England and Roy Brown who played for the club in the past. Garth was one of the first Ladsanddads players a local initiative which meant to foster family and community relations during the 70s. Roy Brown’s brother Doug, himself the first black mayor of Stoke on Trent played a leading role in developing the organisation. Although Stoke lost Garth’s first game 1-0 to Coventry by the end of the season he had established himself in the team. He scored his first goal for the senior squad a few weeks later for the senior squad against Birmingham City.
As a family we have always taken an interest in Garth’s career. In fact it is part of Cawley legend that Garth substituted my brother Andrew when Andrew left the field with an eye injury when they were in Stoke St Peter’s Junior School team in the mid 60s. Later after we moved to Abbey Hulton Garth would often play in impromptu matches on a muddy piece of ground in Eaveswood Rd or on the pitches by the Suburban Club. Even at an early age he showed great talent, a friend of mine at St Teresa’s had the unenviable job of trying to mark him along with another player they failed miserably as Garth scored five goals that day. I was not surprised that Garth along with Russell Pointon, another regular at Eaveswood, went on into professional football clubs.

The preconceptions around black footballers in the mid 70s sounds from the vantage point of 2011 to be absurd. In the view of the Sentinel of April 76

" so many coloured footballers seem to lack the physical aggression in their make up for the English game".
Over the decades many black players have proved their capacity in getting stuck in such as Paul Ince, Patrick Vieira and in the case of Stoke City George Berry or more recently Abdoulaye Faye. I doubt particularly in the last named that he could be described as a " shrinking violet"

As for Garth Crooks, he scored 48 goals in 147 appearances for Stoke City. He became most famous following a high-profile transfer to Spurs in 1980. With Crooks leading the line, Spurs won two FA Cups. Garth is frequently credited as the first black player score in a FA Cup final for his equalising goal in a 3-2 win over Manchester City in the 1981 final.

He is now a very well known television pundit on BBC Sport.

Where Garth led in the 1970s followed others followed, but this was at a price. During his career, racist chants and banners were commonplace in the stands, and sometimes made monkey noises. In one instance at Anfield a spectator ran on to the pitch and handed him a bunch of bananas. By the end of the decade more black players were being introduced in the game including Neville Chamberlain at Port Vale. However the problem of racism in football was not fully eradicated until the 1990s.
A major political dilemma that faced Stoke City in the 70s was their relationship with teams in South Africa. Stanley Matthews had formed strong relationships with teams in the black townships of Cape Town and Johannesburg some years earlier. In 1975 Matthews organised a trip to Brazil for some of his black township team - dubbed Stan's Men.

Most of them had never left their Soweto home, but Matthews took them to train with the top Brazilian teams. They even got the chance to meet Pele. And prior to the 1975-6 season the club had undergone a tour of the apartheid-ravaged country. For many any contact with such a racist regime was beyond the pale.
The region was engaged in a fierce conflict between the supporters of apartheid regimes in South Africa and the then Rhodesia. Two men with Staffordshire connections were caught up in the violence. Andrew McKenzie whose brother was a farmer near Eccleshall was executed by firing squad in July 1976 following a show trial in the Angolan capital Luanda. McKenzie had been part of a group of mercenaries engaged in a particularly vicious civil war in the country. After his death his brother was concerned that the Angolan government demanded £1,900 for the return of the body. Leek born Mr N Tatton was killed in a land mine explosion in November 1976 whilst on duty with the South African security forces near Kanyemba.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Arnold Mountford, Director of the City Museum Stoke on Trent 1922-1990

The recent article on Arnold Mountford bought back a number of fond memories of a local man who really put Stoke on the cultural map in terms of museum provision.

I was Vice Chairman of the City Museum for a brief period in 1986 and the whole story in the Sentinel particularly bought to mind a very enjoyable few days I spent in Arnold’s company in July 1986. I was a fellow delegate to the Association of Museums conference in Aberdeen. I shared the long train journey with Arnold. He was a font of great stories and a few still stick in my mind.

The article touched on his war record and I can recall a story he told me of accompanying Churchill on a Middle East conference during the war. Arnold was a young army officer and it must be have been a daunting experience. It might have been the Casablanca conference in 1943. Arnold had to keep the great man amused. His job was to show Churchill films every evening. A favourite of the Prime Minster was " Lady Hamilton" starring Vivienne Leigh and Laurence Oliver as Nelson. He played the film every evening and Churchill invaribaly sipping a brandy was word perfect in the film by the time the destroyer got to its destination. He also told me that Churchill breakfasted on white wine and chicken legs. It makes you think that we were lead to victory by a great eccentric.

Arnold’s great ally in developing the Museum was Alderman Horace Barks who I was a little in awe of. He is also in need of greater comment. Horace was a great wag and Arnold told me a story of him informing the Mexican Ambassador that his flies were open at the opening of a major exhibition involving a Mexican artist.
The article concentrated on the reopening of the City Museum after a major overhaul in May 1981 by Prince Charles. The then Lord Mayor Les Sillitoe was fussing over his speech of welcome and thought that he would mention the "muriels" outside the Museum. Arnold corrected him " The word is mural, Lord Mayor. The day of the great event arrived and the day was a great success. It was helped in a major part by the soon to happen Royal Wedding and the crowds outside Bethesda St were calling for " Lady Di". The atmosphere got too much for Les as they walked down the ramp to the cheering crowds plucked on the sleeve of the Prince and blurted out " Have you seen out Muriel?"

The other reason to celebrate Arnold is the great list of achivement including a seminal work on English Saltglaze- the standard text on the subject. He was well known and respected throughout the national museum movement as the conference in Aberdeen proved.

The article in the Sentinel pointed out that Arnold was a working class man who was dedicated to the Potteries.In a time when Directors of City Councils departments who seem to adopt a here today, gone tomorrow approach this is as refreshing as it is rare.

Friday, 7 October 2011

A Gory Stoke Childhood

I can still recall what she looked like after a gap of over 50 years. She was about 60 but looked older. I supposed she was to use an old fashioned word a crone. She always wore a red mac, given as a gift by my Mother, and bootees with a zip down the middle of them. Leastways that is my memory of her. It was a very lined face with slate grey drab looking hair and a long nose. It was an intense face of constant toil and hardship. I don’t think that she was a frequent dealer in merriment or smiles. I think that I remembered a wart at the corner of the mouth but I may be wrong. It was a face and a personality that most children would have run away from screaming "witch" but I did not see it like that. I guess that she had stories and memories to pass on and I was a willing recipient. I was, as a child , very respectful to older people

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Ernie Bevin and a Leek Roundabout

On 4th June 1944 Churchill asked the Minister of Labour Ernie Bevin to say farewell to the troops who were setting off to take part in the Normandy landings. One of the soldiers called out " When we do this job for you Ernie are we going back on the dole". Both Churchill and Bevin replied " No you are not"
Unemployment in the country reached a high of 2.5 million in the 1930s. In 1932 20% of the work force in Leek were without work. Townspeople pulled together to fund a centre in Shoobridge St for the unemployed many veterans of the First War

Unemployment dogged North Staffordshire right up to the outbreak of the Second World War. The soldiers who embarked for Europe, my father amongst them, had reason to fear the poverty of the 1930s and wanted to ensure that there families never had to endure it again. That postwar consensus has been betrayed by politicians.

September 2011 and unemployment is again at 2.5 million. This figure overlooks those who want to work, which pushes the figure up to 4.5 million. Locally 1200 people are workless. There are about 450,000 vacancies nationally. In other words 10 jobless people chasing every job. The number of young people without work is around 1 million. We see evidence of the desperate search for work in Leek when 200 people apply for 2 vacancies in Argos or over 700 for work at Pointons.

In short the world that the Normandy veterans fought to escape from has returned and is now handicapping the lives of many in the town.

I have been following the argument that has raged in the Post and Times about the roundabout. I was struck by one comment that the removal of a piece of traffic management would be an insult to the war dead. In my opinion this is wrong. The greater insult is to see a return to the world of poverty and unemployment they expended their blood and sweat to escape. Cllr Hart poised the question whether it was to be jobs or roundabout. The veterans of both world wars given their experiences would not hesitate to give an answer.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Miners- a family memory

The deaths of the South Wales miners were poignant reminder of how dangerous the industry is. Of course although it is hard to realise now the Staffordshire Moorlands had a number of pits and many local men and women have worked in the past in the mining industry. The last working pits closed in the 60s and the only trace of the industry are in pubs name.

I was thinking of the sad fate of the miners recently on a visit to Caverswall. In the churchyard lie the bones of three distant ancestors killed in the Mossfield Mining disaster in 1889. Mossfield Colliery- long gone- was situated at Adderley Green. Charles, Thomas and Samuel Sherwin three brothers who were to pay with their lives because profit motives, a s the inquiry later revealed, outweighed safety considerations. The youngest Sam was 13 his body was recovered from under his dead pit pony. In the disaster, caused by an explosion, 64 men and boys were killed, as were 16 ponies. It is said that the family used the compensation money to start up a bakery in Werrington. Another story states that a pair of the dead brother’s clogs was attached to the grave in Caverswall. They were not the first or last Sherwin's- my mothers maiden name- to die in a pit.

My great, great, great grandfather Thomas Sherwin was killed in a gunpowder explosion in one of the pits that existed on Wetley Moor in October 1840. And the last was a relative killed nearly a hundred years later at Hanley Deep Pit.

A local newspaper reported on the community response.
"bodies were laid side by side on fresh straw to be identified and claimed by relatives. Day wore on into night but the crowd still remained and miners from other collieries were now standing by. A religious service was held near the mouth of the shaft. Mothers, fathers, wives, friends, neighbours, spectators and sightseers all stood bareheaded."

A similar scene was played out outside Gleision Colliery last week to tragically restore the poetic judgement that there is blood on the coal.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

9/11 Thoughts

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 has just passed. It’s one of those days in history when people can recall what they were doing. I certainly can. It was a beautiful early autumn day. I spent the morning carrying out my Councillor duties in Stafford and then working for a conflict resolution organisation at Longton High School. The news, which I listened to on the way back to Leek, was unbelievable. I initially thought it was a radio play, but the voices of the presenters and the terrible events they were describing were proof. I later spoke to a friend with whom I had visited New York in 1999. New York, it goes without saying, is a great place. I loved Central Park, the museums, China Town and Greenwich Village. It is a place of charm, vitality and diversity. It was as much these characteristic of the place that was brutally attacked a decade ago.
You may ask what is this to do with Leek? I would answer everything because we have all been changed by 9/11. Locals who have fought in the subsequent wars. I was recently talking to a mother who son was badly injured in a mine explosion in Helmand province. There were the polarising debates over Iraq in 2003. Many people, myself included, went to the largest rally in London that February. Other consequences have been an increase in distrust of Muslims. Stoke has seen an arson attack on a mosque and a general feeling of uncertainty has increased.

What is to be done? At the time I recalled a quote from the American monk Thomas Merton. Ten years after it serves as the only response to fanaticism.

"The desire to kill is like the desire to attack another with a red hot iron. I have to pick up the incandescent metal and burn my own hand while burning the other person. Hate itself is the seed of death in my own heart while it seeks death of another. Love is the seed of life in my own heart while it seeks the good of another.".

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The age of plastic

I was in the north of Scotland for my holiday and spent a day visiting an Iron Age site on the coast. My 7-year-old nephew Henry volunteered that we lived in the age of plastic when we discussed the various ages of man. I think he was spot on, as a look on the beach was proof enough of this insight. On the beach were plastic bottles, netting, boxes, rope, cartons, bags and crates.

Plastic as a substance has been around for about a hundred years and the qualities that have made it so successful its durability and versatility also makes it deadly for wildlife.

Tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year in the marine environment as they often mistake plastic bags for food. Its also been known to damage farm animals.

Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut. Plastic in an animal's gut can prevent food digestion and can lead to a very slow and painful death.

Plastic does not biodegrade because it is a combination of elements extracted from crude oil then re mixed up by men in white coats. Because these combinations are man made they are unknown to nature.
Plastic never really disappears. In effect it lasts forever.

A number of countries are taking measures to restrict the use of plastic bags.
Ireland has instituted a steep tax on plastics. According to the country’s Ministry of Environment, use fell by 90 percent as a result, and the tax money that was generated funded a greatly expanded recycling program throughout the country.

Larger economies have joined the cause. French and Italian legislators imposed a ban on all non-biodegradable plastic bags, to go into effect in 2010.

I feel that the UK should equally move in the direction of a ban.

At the current rate of environmental depredation it is likely that humankind will become extinct in the next few hundred years. It would be pathetic if the plastic bag is the proof for any future custodians of the planet of our existence.


Monday, 29 August 2011

The Labour Party and I- the end of a 47 year relationship

I got back from holiday to discover a letter from the Labour party rejecting my readmission. I had attended an appeal a few weeks ago and the tenor of the meeting was such that it suggested to me that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. I really regret allowing myself to be gulled into re applying and allowing myself to be angered by the attitude of some people in the Staffordshire Moorlands Labour party who used this process to discredit me. No one likes words and phrases like " unstable", "not a team player" or "untrustworthy" banded around but they were. I disliked it because I don’t believe it to be true.

 I do regard myself, as being a good team player as I hope my colleagues on the Leek Co-operative Emporium will testify. I am particularly good at coming up with ideas. This might be a problem for the Labour party. The whole exercise of the appeal was bizarre and perhaps the apogee or nadir, dependent on your position, was reached when I was asked whether it was on my "conscious" to have worked and stood against the Labour party. I obviously led the more spineless and weak willed into voting green and depriving them of their chance to be part of the Socialist Commonwealth offered by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. I was asked the question on conscious with a straight face. For a second I thought it was a joke but obviously it wasn’t and I said "no".

How could I not stand against a party that supported the 90 day detention, was keen on ID cards and most heinous of all for a left wing party carried out the 10p tax fiasco in June 2008. What was going through the heads of people to tax the lowest paid workers at a higher rate. Such a policy seems to me a lack of a moral compass, if one existed in the first place.

Now I know many good people in the Labour party. I also know or have been told of a fair number of crooks, lechers and thoroughly disreputable types who are or have been Labour party members. Some have flourished as well. I was told by a fellow Councillor that one other Councillor was the most corrupt politician operating in North Staffs. The person was returned to an authority last spring. I presume that his loyalty and unthinking commitment to the Labour Party overweighed the lesser virtues of integrity, honesty and public service.

No I think that "conscience" is not an issue there.

I suspect what doomed me in some quarters was that I have an independent streak and I’m not easily controlled. Being thought of as intelligent also does not help. And I have the proof. Somewhere I have in my possession two copies of applications that were made for a chairmanship in the County Council. The documents are about a decade old. I filled in my application seriously as if I was applying for a job giving many examples of my interest in cultural and conservation issues. My form was densely written. My opponent submitted the same form leaving large areas blank. Reader, who won the contest? Well, it was not I. In any other walk of life the winning application would have been just tossed in the bin but because this particular Councillor was highly thought of by the leadership then there will prevailed. Independence and probably having a little intelligence have always been a barrier as far as my relationship with the Labour party is concerned.

I had thought that with the emergence of Ed Milliband then all that would have changed and that a welcoming hand was being proffered to former members of the party, but this was illusionary. There are elements in the Labour party who cannot help themselves. I read of the recent vote taken of the Bentilee community facility where pressure was applied to difficult councillors who represented the area. I recognised the scenario as the same had happened to me in 1999/2000 over the closure of a local nursery. I ended up being disciplined by the County Group for my apparent failing in standing up for a community interest in the ward I was representing. The sane response would be to let the ward representatives speak out and let them vote the way that their constituents would want them rather than applying group discipline.

Again I reiterate there are some good people in the Labour party, but there are others where meeting the electorate especially the disadvantaged is an exotic experience. I can recall an occasion on Election Day 2010 when I was in the back of a candidate’s car when another party member and subsequent Councillor openly mocked the poorly dressed people of Stoke as we drove down London Road. I was open mouthed at the sheer arrogance of this woman. I hope that in the intervening time she has acquired empathy because the display of snobbery I witnessed does not sit comfortably with the "peoples party".

It is my intention never to have anything to do with the party. I will recognise positive policies when they come out with them as well as criticising them if they are in error but I cannot get away from the thought that politics is changing, the old certainties are breaking down, as are the old voting loyalties. A Labour Party that is closed to ideas and demand unquestioning loyalty is doomed.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The plight of Brett Taylor and the unemployed of Leek

I have every sympathy with the plight of Brett Taylor reported as having applied for over 100 jobs without success. Many thousands of people in North Staffordshire will recognise that experience. It is important that people are not reliant on welfare and that they spend their time in useful endeavour, but the present Government policy of "welfare to work" which attempts to address the dependency culture is deeply flawed and deserves closer scrutiny.

Firstly, long term full time jobs are as rare as hen’s teeth. I will go further any permanent job is a rarity that is if you believe the Job Centre Plus which advertised just three jobs in Leek last week and they were all temporary and part time. Even jobs, which are historically associated with North Staffordshire no longer, exist - leastways on government websites. Out of curiosity I sought to see if there were any pottery worker posts available and the only one I could see was for a worker needed in Warwickshire.

The jobs that many people in North Staffordshire would have done years ago have all but disappeared. It has been calculated that since the 1960s we have lost in excess of 100,000 in the staple industries of pottery, textiles, mining and steel that loss of many long term and stable jobs has not adequately been replaced.

As an experiment I looked at what sorts of jobs were advertised in the local Leek papers during the two big recessions of the last 30 years. I researched those jobs advertised in the autumn of 1981 and 1992. In the first recession of Mrs Thatcher’s government between 1980-6 over 3 million people lost their jobs and North Staffs was especially badly hit. Yet even in the months of rapid increase of worklessness jobs in the staple industries of textiles and potteries jobs were still being advertised. The mills of Leek still wanted machinists, winders, over lockers and fitters.

There were also jobs in engineering going in the many small companies often looking for young and willing staff to learn a trade in a "hands on " way. Potbanks were still recruiting.
In the early 80s we still made things and that was still true albeit in a reduced way at the time of the next recession in 1992 where again 3 million people were without work. In a full-page advert in August Halle Models, for example, were undergoing an expansion and were looking for workers. It was true that there were job losses at the time most notably at Britannia Building Society and at Peri Lusta in Mill St.

The local newspaper reported in 1992 that there were 2,300 people of working age who were unemployed and around 160 vacancies. These seemed varied and there was even a job as a trainee journalist which required 2 A levels and 5 O levels from likely candidates. I would imagine that the basic requirement now as far as entry qualification is now a post graduate journalism qualification.

In the Post and Times last week there were a number of jobs advertised; but many were part time, temporary and agency based work. Jobs existed in retail, cleaning, catering, security and nursing and also in the public sector including the local schools and universities usually requiring a degree. There was one job advertised in engineering. This was the only job that actually resulted in something being made- the decline of the manufacturing sectors is one consequence of government policy over the last 17 years.

The growth of employment agencies is the most marked change from previous recessions and it is now to these organisations that the long term unemployed are directed to find them work. Such work is not guaranteed and usually temporary. As someone remarked leaving the security of the benefit system for such posts is like stepping on thin ice.

In such circumstances the present benefit system has failed to move with the times because it is programmed to expect claimants to move into steady jobs instead of the reality of the insecurity of "zero hours contracts" or commission based work that face the unskilled. The system is designed for predictability when work patterns are anything but. Individuals who return to benefit after their short-term contract has ended often face weeks of waiting before benefits are re activated and in that time they build up rent arrears and debts.
The poor bear no responsibility for the present economic crisis, the blame for that lies at the feet of bankers and politicians, yet as elsewhere the most vulnerable have to bear the brunt of the hardship while those who are guilty get away scot-free feather bedded by taxpayers money. The reliance of financiers on state handouts is one form of dependency culture that is rarely spoken of.

The answer? Well, to take up Brett’s point more could be done by the big employers in the area including Councils to employ local people through " community benefit " clauses in contracts rather than exporting work to Derbyshire might be a start. We should reflect how the community can create work in Leek especially for the young and how morally justifiable to the comfortably off is the increase of unemployment and the poverty that inevitably follows.

However, what is probably required is a root and branch reform of the welfare system if the future of employment for the poorest in society continues to be so vulnerable and doubtful. The idea of a basic liveable income, which everyone receives, has been kicking around now for 200 years- perhaps its time has come.


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Frankie Howerd at Blackshaw Moor- Titter Ye Not

The contestant who won the semi final of the Mastermind programme that I appeared in earlier this year went on to take Frankie Howerd as his final subject Ah Frankie, the double entendres, the verbal tics, the pout and rolling eye. Growing up in the 70s Frankie along with Benny Hill, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson were part of my TV experience. They had in common a craft acquired following long years of struggle in smokey clubs and draughty halls.

I was somewhat surprised to read that things were not always easy for him. I was carrying out some research and came across an advert promoting Howerd’s appearance at the Three Horseshoes on Blackshaw Moor in March 1969. Titter ye not! I have nothing against that pub or Blackshaw Moor, but the combination of these factors suggests to me that the comic must have been hard pressed .It seems his career was not a smooth one.

In fact one biographer described Howerd’s career as series of comebacks. After he left the army he was a regular feature on radio and TV but his career took a nosedive. He had begun to lose self-esteem, which culminated in a nervous breakdown. He entered into a lengthy period of psychoanalysis aided by taking LSD
A revival of interest lead to the appearance at the Three Horseshoes in 1969.

His greatest achievement was just around the corner. Someone had the brainwave of setting a comedy in the days of Ancient Rome. Frankie was a natural for the lead role of the slave Lucio. The pilot was first broadcast in September 1969. Up Pompeii re-established Howerd’s celebrity a position that never left him
His great secret only revealed after his death was his long-term relationship with Dennis Heymer. Being gay in the 1950s carried with it a possible criminal conviction. Heymer stayed loyal to the memory of Howerd’s who died in 1993 and on his own death 2 years ago was buried in a replica of Tutankhamun's sarcophagus, taking with him 18 personal items belonging to Howerd - including his chestnut-brown toupee.

 Please yourselves!!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Only $2 trillion out!

Is a strange world when the Chinese Communist party lectures the Americans that they need to run Capitalism better. Even the Philippines has its say on the failings of the Americans. Strange world in deed.
Some 30 years ago I recall the opprobrium that attached its self to organised Labour in the UK that they were running the country. Barely a week went by where the Daily Telegraph or Mail would trumpet who runs the country. Well it’s taken over a quarter of a century to resoundingly answer it seems that the credit agencies do. And not only that they probably had a hand in developing the crisis in the first place.
Moody's Corp and Standard and Poor's triggered the worst financial crisis in decades when they were forced to downgrade the inflated ratings they slapped on complex mortgage-backed securities, a U.S. congressional report concluded earlier this year.

In one of the most stark condemnations of the credit rating agencies, a Senate investigations panel said the agencies continued to give top ratings to mortgage-backed securities months after the housing market started to collapse.

The agencies then unleashed on the financial system a flood of downgrades in July 2007, the panel said.

``Perhaps more than any other single event, the sudden mass downgrades of (residential mortgage-backed securities) and (collateralized debt obligation) ratings were the immediate trigger for the financial crisis,'' the staff for Senators Carl Levin and Tom Coburn wrote in their report.
It also seems that the agency that down rated the triple AAA rating of the US economy according the Americans was $2 trillion out in their analysis of the state of the US economy.

If anyone rails against the trade union movement I shall ram the role of the undemocratic, unaccountable than I will ram this point down their throat

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Creation and Evolution- does it have to be this way

The main claim to fame of the 19th century biologist Alfred Russel Wallace was the part he played in the writing of perhaps the most influential book ever published
. Wallace, a friend of Leek architect Larner Sugden, was studying the fauna of Malaysia in the 1850s when he came up with the idea of natural selection. His insight was independently arrived at. He wrote to Charles Darwin with an idea that closely matched Darwin’s own. Darwin’s friends urged him to quickly write up his own conclusions on evolution which lead to him completing his book " Origin of Species" which was published to instant success in 1859.
The debate around creation and evolution has raged ever since and even in the last few weeks the controversy has continued with Texas State Board of Education unanimously rejecting a creationist supplements to textbooks, instead voting to endorse science-based ones.
Perhaps we expect the clash between the creationists and the supporters of evolution to be at its most intense in the US although from personal experience believers of a biblical interpretation of the history of the Earth remains strong locally. Earlier this year I went to a public meeting at the Salvation Army. The meeting was well attended and lengthy: it went on for three hours. The 3 principle speakers railed against the secular conspiracy that threatened their belief in creationism imposing, in their opinion, the questionable theory of evolution. I spoke, as I believe that there is no incompatibility between science and religion on evolution. I also pointed out the great contribution that clergymen have made to scientific enquiry. I was the only person in a room of 50 who spoke this way.
In retrospect I found the view expressed in the room that Christians believe that they are being persecuted difficult to square with reality. Certainly since Tony Blair’s premiership faith groups have more participation in social care and educational provision and a higher government profile
And persecution seems a rather objectionable conclusion to arrive at when compared with the suffering of believers in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Working at Shelton Bar Steel Works

It is over 30 years since I had a temporary job working at the steel works at Shelton Bar. I was working for cleaning contractors that was based in Birches Head. The experience was like something from Boys and the Blackstuff and for many of the men employed I guess that it was a last hurrah, as I could not see many of them surviving the mass unemployment of the following decade.

Some of my colleagues sort to avoid work by hiding in the shed, which was close to an old furnace. Sometimes a splash of hot metal would send a shower of sparks on to the roof. Inside the building was a scene of indescribable squalor filled with many months of accumulated debris

A number of people who worked with the contractors had problems and some of them tried to flush their troubles away with drink. One, I was told, drank ten pints a night in a pub in Cobridge He did not say anything and sat slumped in a chair everything morning holding his head. Another rather haunted figure was illiterate and it was said that his wife died because he did not know how to use a phone to summon an ambulance.

One was so detested by the others that they got their revenge by substituting his filling in his sandwich with the contents of a mouldy something found in the back of a sofa in the shed. It reminded me of the line in the "Odd Couple" of it being either old meat or young cheese. There was a rumour that he was the son of a very wealthy businessman who despairing of his congenital idiot of a son had paid him off by buying him a house in Stoke. One of his few friends said that he had called around to see him and had been stunned by the state of decoration. It would seem that he covered the walls of the house with the contents of a wallpaper sampler. The root of the dislike that he provoked was the belief that he had made a pass at one of the men.
Another a young worker with a harelip would earn extra money by running a disco each weekend on a local estate. He would often clash with people and would turn up on a Sunday morning with a fresh cut or bruise gained after a brawl on the dance floor.

I worked outside helping to clear up an oil leak into a nearby brook. I worked in an enclosed culvert in which there were heated pipes. The oil was a foot deep. I filled buckets of the sand and oil mix, which was hauled off in a dumper. It was August and it was hot. I gained some satisfaction when it was all cleared up. I was working with a very cheerful Irishman who had the unnerving habit of tossing the butts of his cigarettes into the fuming oil. He always apologised afterwards. I was filthy and there was nowhere to wash. I would travel back home on the bus to Abbey Hulton looking like tar baby. No one would sit beside me. It took several hours to clear the mess off as it had stained the skin.
One aspect of my time with the cleaning company was a friendship that has now lasted 30 years. I was reading history at York and as I had a few essays to write decided that I should try to catch up with some reading. I was reading the "Social History of the Third Reich" when I met up with Greg. He assumed that I was a Nazi. It was only over the sausage and chips in the canteen that the misunderstanding was cleared up and I found out that he was going to York that October. We have remained friends since; in fact he reminded me that it has been 30 years this month

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Was Mozart a racist or Bach an antisemite?

I remember many years ago watching the Bergman film of "Magic Flute". There is a scene in the Mozart opera where there is a Turkish dance. Turks and Turkey were very much in vogue in the 18th century. A friend I watched it with muttered "racist" at this scene. I winced with annoyance. This incident came back to me when I read a facebook entry describing Henry VIII and Cromwell as " fascists". How wise is it inscribe figures like Mozart, Cromwell or Shakespeare with modern day ideologies such as fascism? Not very in my opinion. In the case of Cromwell I realise that during the Second World War there was an attempt to label him a proto-fascist but from my reading of the man I doubt it. I appreciate that people will point to the Irish campaign and the massacres at Wexford and Drogheda. I have always thought that the killings at both these places are an aspect of a long bloody civil war rather than a 20th century example of ethnic cleansing. I imagine the Cromwellian soldiers were probably also driven by the reports of atrocities carried out in the 1641 rebellion against Protestant settlers in Ulster. And the character of Cromwell has to be fixed in the religious nature of the times. Cromwell as a devout Protestant wanted to bring the Rule of the Saints. His willingness to see the readmission of the Jews to Britain in 1656 also has to be seen in this light. It is less an example religious toleration and more religious necessity as the conversion of the Jews was a natural stage to the rule of the saints. As I said on Face book Cromwell was no liberal but neither was he a fascist.

What about other great figures of the past? Bach has been accused as an anti Semitic because of disparaging references to the Jews in his music especially in the St John Passion.. Bach has come down to us as a good man and fabulous organist and composer who struggled to make a living for his 20 children - a number of whom became composers in their own right - by playing in churches and writing music for sacred services and the occasional noble patron.

It has been pointed out that far from being an innocent who knew only music, Bach was a learned man who had a vast library of theological works and was a devout follower of Lutheranism. And let us not forget that Luther also penned anti-Jewish rants that would resonate centuries later with both Wagner and Hitler. There is no way of knowing whether or not Bach was an anti-Semite, but he was still a product of his time, his country and his church.

Finally it occurs to me by judging the figures of the past we lay ourselves open to similar charges of humbug from the people of the future. What will they make of our war mongering or consumerism with the tremendous waste of finite resources.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

On the death of Clare Bromley July 2011

I was saddened to hear of the death of Clare Bromley reported in the Post and Times last week. I had read of her plight. And I saw her shortly after Christmas. It had been snowing and the temperature was below freezing that morning by the Nicholson Memorial. Clare was poorly dressed for the Arctic conditions. A thin coat, misshapen tracksuit bottoms and very dilapidated pair of trainers were no protection against the intense cold. She was shivering violently. She asked me for change and I gave her what I had. Clare said that she intended using it to buy a coffee in a warm café by the bus station.

I have no idea whether she did that or whether it went on alcohol. That was the only time I saw her and it proved to be the last. From reading the account of her life in the paper it seemed to be a cheerless life a broken childhood, addiction to alcohol and the depressing carousel of regular court appearances, eviction, homelessness, begging leading to further court appearances. I hope in all this she found some happiness. Realisation that she needed to break out of this hopeless cycle is apparent from the October article but sadly it was not to be. I am sure that the authorities, the Police, Salvation Army and other others did their best but is likely that she was unable to change her situation.

It led to the lonely and unnoticed death reported last week. Of course her fate is not unique.

Excessive alcohol use kills around 20,000 people each year. Liver disease is predicted to be the greatest single killer within the next decade. And the annual bill of £3 billion to the NHS is significantly higher than previous estimates. It would cover more than 170,000 kidney transplants, or the entire cost of the breast cancer drug Herceptin for the next 30 years.

In October Clare asked for the people of Leek not to judge. She is beyond human judgement now.

Vex not her ghost: let it pass but recall her fate and the fate of others like her.

Betjeman and a love for Leek

John Betjeman liked this area and for a period of around ten years made frequent trips to North Staffordshire. He came to Leek often. The minute book of the Arts Club mentions three visits in 1953, 1958 and finally in April 1960. That visit made the front page of the Leek Post and Times.

He is pictured with the officers of the club wearing a trademark hat and beaming at the camera. That visit on the 4th April 1960 is not recorded perhaps it was a courtesy visit. There is no report of a meeting or an address to the club. He liked the town and in a letter to the recently appointed Principal of Keele University, George Barnes written in September 1956 states that "Leek is quite the best town anywhere and the Norman Shaw Church with Lethaby fittings and Hamilton Jackson paintings is finer than its counterpart at Ilkley".

He liked the people of the area as well. Several months earlier when he congratulated Barnes on obtaining his post at Keele he commended the area by saying" I love Stoke on Trent and people of the Trent valley are the nicest in England and the toofer, the naicer".

There were a number of reasons that he was drawn to this area during this decade. He had a friend who lived in Leek DB (Charles) Peace who was the chief planning officer for the County Council who introduced many of the buildings and landscape of the Moorlands to Betjeman. He was very friendly to Peace’s wife and tried to help her literary career. In March 1956 he wrote to Longman’s publisher pressing the case for the publication of a journal that she had written about Leek during the 1950s describing it as a "wonderful record of what life in a provincial town is like. A sort of modern Flora Thompson". Longman’s declined to publish Mrs JM Peace’s work on Leek during this period. I wonder what happened to it? Do any readers know? Betjeman reveals his High Anglicanism distaste and possible snobbery for nonconformity in the letter, "this was the first work by an articulate Congregationalist that I had heard".

He husband was an enthusiast for Staffordshire Churches and wrote the introduction to the county in Collins Guide to the English Parish Church published in 1958 with illustrations by John Piper. I have a battered, well-thumbed copy bought in a second hand bookshop in Stratford on Avon in the 90s. The concluding remarks by Peace in the introduction are apposite and to the point.
"In landscape and architecture Staffordshire is a good average with numerous high spots. There is quite remote country especially in the centre and the north; there is much industrialised building in parts and both in the towns and the countryside there are many churches which deserved to be loved more widely".

They are listed in Betjeman’s book sometimes with gnomic descriptions. Alstonfield "pleasant setting with box pews, Checkley" the best medieval church in North Staffordshire", Cheddleton with its Burne Jones glass and Rushton" a church of rare interest and individuality and Grindon a three word entry "spire, massings, setting". The longest entry however is for All Saints in Leek " a nice contrast between the intimate scale and great arches" and a special mention for the " splendid green marble font"

Another reason for visiting the area was Betjeman’s long-term friendship with George Barnes, which dated back to 1930 when Barnes was Head of the Talks Department at the BBC. Barnes would later become head of the Third Programme and used Betjeman frequently in programmes on heritage and architecture. He discerned in Betjeman a great ability to communicate with a showman’s ability to describe to the public some of the architectural and landscapes on offer in Britain. Barnes played a pivotal role in introducing Betjeman to the British public initially through the radio and as the 50s progressed on the new medium of radio. In 1956 Barnes was appointed to senior academic role at Keele and the poet was a frequent visitor praising the local towns both in the Potteries and beyond. Betjeman passed on the love of church crawling to Barnes’s son Anthony who in later life became the Director of the Redundant Churches Trust. Later Betjeman was regularly visiting an ailing Barnes and in the words of Betjeman’s biographer AN Wilson, whose book was published in 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, thought the letters written to Barnes the most impressive things that he wrote

To Barnes by this time dying of cancer he wrote in August 1960

" Like you, I’ve spent my life avoiding pain, mental and particularly physical. I know enough however to know how awful pain is, I sometimes think that it is the only thing to reconcile me to dying- to get out of pain…I cannot see that pain serves any purpose except to give one joy and thankfulness for not having it".

It was a very appealing side of his character that he was very supportive of friends as well as the anonymous hospital visiting that he carried out meeting and offering support to strangers on regular unpublicised visits to St Bart’s in London

North Staffordshire was very close to Chatsworth House and therein is another reason. Betjeman met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish in memorable circumstances. They met at a dinner party held on the 29th May 1951. The event was auspicious for students of espionage as another of the guests of that night Guy Burgess had fled a few days earlier to Moscow and another guest that evening Anthony Blunt was expected to be arrested at the party by MI5. Elizabeth Cavendish was the daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. She was a sister in law of Kitty Kennedy and friend of her brother JFK. At the party Betjeman fell in love with Elizabeth Cavendish and the feeling was reciprocated. It was a relationship that lasted up to his death in 1984. He had been married for many years to Penelope it was an unhappy relationship. He spent a great deal of time at Elizabeth’s cottage on the Chatsworth estate passing his time " in rest and quietness" in contrast with the rows at his married home in Berkshire. Early in the relationship he wrote a poem "In Willesden churchyard" which describes the illicit affair that the Victorian writer Charles Reade had he uses the poem in an attempt to dissuade the curious.

 AN Wilson records the morbid modern fixation that people have about the private lives of others is illustrated

" Did Laura gently stroke her lover’s head?
And did her Charles look into her eyes
For loyal counsel there? I do not know
Doubtless some pedant for his PhD
Has ascertained the facts".

He was also a regular visitor to Chatsworth from this time onwards so much so that there was a bust of Betjeman placed at the stately home.

Above all, he liked to gad around Britain and from his letters edited by his daughter and the monumental biography written by his literary executor Bevis Hillier he spent a great deal of time during the 50s and early 60s on the move and involved in campaigns to save the towns and cities of the country from the excesses of architects and planners. In 1957 he founded the Victorian society, a period of building and design, which at the time was deeply unfashionable.

In 1960 he supported the doomed campaign to save the Euston Arch. I am sure that older readers will recall the arch outside the station. I first went to London in 1961 and alas to young to be aware of this splendid piece of Victoriana. Locally and later on his support was enlisted in the successful campaign to preserve Cheddleton Railway station reputedly designed by Pugin the celebrated Victorian architect. And probably there is another reason why Betjeman came to Leek frequently and explains why there are few records after 1960. Betjeman was an enthusiast for the railways for steam and for branch lines. And of course Leek’s Railway station closed in 1960 the year that Sir John is seen being welcomed on the front page of the local paper.

At the end of AN Wilson’s book the Duchess of Devonshire uses the phrase " blinding charm" about him. I can see that charm deployed to staff and people that he met in Leek as he got off the railway station with his slouched shoulders, his old coat, his battered hat and that beaming smile.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

WT Stead the father of tabloid journalism- Leek 1899

The crusading editor WT Stead spoke at an anti Boer War rally in Leek in October 1899. It was an unruly affair with taunts and fists flying between pro and anti war protestors. An interesting man Stead. He was a strong supporter of women’s rights and was proud that he was amongst the first employers in the country to pay women the same as men. He also believed that he was a reincarnated Charles II. Stead died on the Titanic so even at the end he had a nose for a good story. But it is in his role as the creator of the New Journalism essentially the pioneer of investigative journalism that he should be recognised.

In 1885 and acting with the Salvation Army, he uncovered a trade in child prostitution in the London underworld. He was shocked to find that the government knew of the problem but turned a blind eye to protect the trade's wealthy clientele. Stead’s crusading journalism led to an unprecedented outcry and the government forced to legislate to raise the female age of consent from 13 to 16.

Good journalism according to Stead "to be used on behalf of the poor, the outcast and the oppressed." Since his time there have been many examples of investigative journalism that has spoke truth to power. The Sunday Times campaign on behalf of thalidomide victims which involved Stoke South MP Jack Ashley in the 70s. Veronica Guerin who combined her accounting and journalism skills to expose Dublin drug dealers who murdered her. The Telegraph and MP expenses scandal.

Such journalism has a role to play and I fear that in the understandable panic over the hacking scandal this might be lost sight of.

Stead wrote "Society...outwardly, indeed, appears white and glistening, but within is full of dead men's bones and rottenness".

The media whether old or new has a role in rooting out corruption, but the problem over recent years is not too investigation but not enough. By investigation, I mean the dogged extraction of facts that those with power would wish to conceal. Investigative journalism has for years been in decline perhaps it needs a reincarnated Stead.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Disraeli and North Staffordshire

Benjamin Disraeli was one of the great figures of the 19th century and credited with one of the founders creators of Britain’s imperial power. Born in London in 1804 to Jewish parents he was always a detached observer of British life and society. His rise to power was difficult, as he did not come from the great houses of the country, which were the traditional breeding ground for the grandees of the Tory Party.

Staffordshire made its impact upon him throughout his career. The clash with the Staffordshire based leader of the Tory Party in the 1840s Sir Robert Peel of Drayton Park and MP for Tamworth made his career. Early attempts to establish himself foundered perhaps because Disraeli because of his religion and his foppish personality was regarded with suspicion. Disraeli established his reputation through his journalism and his writing. He wrote his first novel when he was 23 and followed this up with a series of political novels of which Sybil published in the 1840s is the best known. He was interested and sympathetic to the demands of the working class and in his early years in Parliament called for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and working people against the rising power of industrialists.

In 1841 Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister and his action in repealing the Corn Laws- a tax on bread, which benefited the Tory gentry, split the party five years later. During the debate on repeal Peel was goaded by Disraeli who felt that the landed interests were being betrayed. The resultant divide had the greatest implications for Disraeli as most of the Government sided with Peel and Disraeli was left with a small group of landowners leading the surviving rump of the Conservative party into many years of opposition. Disraeli first opportunity to become Prime Minister came in 1868. As he remarked, "I had climbed the top of the greasy pole". It was a difficult and lengthy ascent. The administration was short lived and within 10 months the Liberals lead by Disraeli’s great parliamentary rival Gladstone was returned to power.

It was a considerable achievement by Disraeli in an admittedly more relaxed age to write a major novel- Lothair. A novel by a former Prime Minister was a unique event. The book is the life of a young nobleman who is rootless, well connected and very wealthy. Lothair becomes a target for conversion by the Catholic hierarchy. He joins the fight for Italian independence against the armies of the Pope and his experience counters any desire to convert. It is an unflattering portrayal of a manipulating Catholic Church as well as an attack on an aristocracy, which is in danger of degenerating into a useless caste

Lothair has strong connections with North Staffordshire as two of the houses mentioned in the novel are Brentham and Muriel Towers a thinly disguised Trentham Park and Alton Towers. Trentham was the home of the Duke of Sutherland and Alton Towers that of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The eighteenth and nineteenth earl served in Tory administrations that Disraeli was a member and Sutherland was equally a well-known local Tory MP. Alton Towers was built 1811-1820s and the great early Victorian architect Augustus Pugin made substantial alterations in the 1830s. Pugin would later work closely with the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury and was much interested in medieval art. He used his associations with Alton to visit medieval churches in the area and the remains of monasteries such as Croxden to inspire him to design one of the great buildings of the gothic revival- the Roman Catholic Church at Cheadle. Another great figure of Victorian design was less convinced. William Morris on a day trip from Leek described Alton Towers as a "gim-crack palace of Pugin’s"

Disraeli however was enchanted by the setting, "Muriel Towers crowned a wooden steep, part of a wild and winding and sylvan valley at the bottom was a rushing stream. A vast park spread in all directions beyond the limit of the eye ornate and choicely timbered"

The first Duke of Sutherland had married into wealth having inherited vast areas of land in the Highlands of Scotland. The family’s name is blemished, as they are held responsible for the Clearances in which Scots were evicted from the land and forced to move to the industrial towns or emigrate to North America. This compulsory movement of people was done with great cruelty. A huge corroding statue of the Duke on which much blame was directed stands on hills above the Trentham estate another one is at Golspie in the Highland.

Trentham Hall and Gardens were created in the late 18th century. The house was extended and improved in the 1830s by Charles Barry later to be the architect of the Houses of Parliament. New bedrooms were added, a sculpture gallery and a 100-foot clock tower, a grand entrance with portico supported by stone sculptors of beasts. Trentham or Brentham in the novel is described as " agreeable" of long walks into forested ways of " thick and fragrant scrubs and a dell of high trees and gothic shrines". Trentham then as now is admired for its gardens; huge bushes of honeysuckle and bowers of sweet pea and sweet briars, and jessamine clustering over the walls". Disraeli visited Trentham frequently staying with the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland following the death of his wife. He spent Christmas1873 at the house.

The following year he became Prime Minister for a second time he was assisted by a swing away from the Liberals in towns like Leek. His Government was a reforming one and was able to push through a series of acts, which would help to improve the position of the working class. He was to die in 1881. His main biographer believes that his sceptical outlook makes him of all the Victorian figures the least dated. There is a champagne sparkle about Disraeli. Another goes so far as to describe him as " lovable". At the end one has to admire his wit: on his deathbed he was asked whether he would like a visit from Queen Victoria. " No it is better not. She would only ask me to take a message to Albert"

Monday, 18 July 2011

With apologies to Pastor Niemoller

First they came for the bankers and their bonuses and they were venal and incompetent
And it didn’t involve me, as I’m not venal and incompetent
Then they came for the politicians and their expenses
And it didn’t involve me, as I’m not venal and incompetent
Then they went for the press and their spying
And it didn’t involve me, as I’m not venal and incompetent
Then they went for the police and their bungs
And it didn’t involve me, as I’m not venal and incompetent
So how come I end up paying?

1816- the year of zero summer as reported in Staffordshire

We have just passed St Swithin’s Day and as it rained that day the tradition has held and we have had a few wet days. We might grumble about the weather but imagine a year without summer. It did happen in 1816. The year previously there had been a calamitous explosion when the top of Tambora a volcano in Indonesia blew off.. Large amounts of ash and debris were thrown 140,000 feet into the upper atmosphere.

This coincided with low solar activity rapidly cooling the planet. In Britain heavy snow fell in May. And in the summer rain fell continuously for 60 days.

The local paper the Staffordshire Advertiser reported on the 29th June on a " Tremendous thunderstorm accompanied with heavy rain for several hours visited the county, at Leek the hailstones were of uncommon size and measuring 3 inches across and lying in such qualities on the ground for several hours. Lightening killed a cow belonging to Mr Collier of Caverswall. In Stone the streets were under 4 feet of water"
It eventually dawned on the journalists that the weather experienced in Staffordshire was being experienced elsewhere. It snowed in Quebec and New York in July. In France the River Seine had risen 8 feet in a matter of days. The Rhine broke its banks.

In Britain, there were near-total crop failures in some areas. In Staffordshire haymakers found themselves out of work in large numbers "depressing to see many seeking shelter under hedges", and added to the soldiers who had been demobbed after the end of the Napleonic Wars. Rioting broke out in Sheffield, East Anglia and Nottinghamshire. It was the worst famine of the 19th century.

There was an important cultural by product. In Switzerland the "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley and her friends to stay indoors. They decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein.

Will global warming will increase the frequency of extreme weather? It seems likely and the trends are clear. Climate change makes exceptional weather more likely.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Rosseau- Fear and Loathing in the Staffordshire Moorlands

Jean Jacques Rousseau the father of the French Revolution, inspirer of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the creator of the first autobiography and pioneer conservationist spent over 12 months in the remoteness of the Staffordshire Moorlands countryside. How this internationally known author who encouraged writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Lord Byron and Wordsworth came to live in the Staffordshire Moorlands during 1766-7 is told in "Rousseau’s Dog" by David Edmonds and John Eidinow published by Faber and Faber the book chronicles the spectacular falling out that he had with the equally famous historian and philosopher the Scots born David Hume.

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His mother died in childbirth and he had a very difficult child hood of brutality and poverty. He came to writing late and achieved fame in an essay that promoted the notion of the "noble savage" and the belief that education was based on natural environment and kindness.

Their relationship was born of the persecution that the Swiss born writer was suffering following publication of his books Social Contract and his novel Emile. One of his principle targets was the Catholic Church, which he accused of fostering a spirit of dependency and of supporting tyranny. He particularly criticised the role that religion had in educating the young. These sentiments bought the wrath of the Church and the State down on his head in his adopted country France and in his autobiography "Confessions" he give a vivid account of the rage that his name induced in many during that time

"I was an infidel, an atheist, a lunatic a madman, a wild beast a wolf"

His house was attacked and stoned by an angry mob and he had no choice but to become a refugee in England. The agent for achieving this rescue was David Hume who met Rousseau in Paris when the Scot worked at the British embassy. At first the relationship was extremely cordial with compliments and displays of mutual admiration passing between them. Hume made the arrangements for Rousseau’s move to Britain where he arrived in January 1766. The journey to Britain was not without incident, foolishly he allowed his mistress the sexually insatiable Madame Levasser to travel later with the philanderer biographer James Boswell. An exhausted Boswell wrote" I was seduced in coach and inn 13 times between Paris and London. I drank to sustain my fading virility. How can Rousseau be so besotted to think her many children his"?
The cuckold he may have been but he was relieved to be in Britain and full of praise for a tolerant and open place contrasting it with the tyranny of France. He was lauded in London society for his celebrity status and his reputation as the foremost writer in Europe much to Hume’s annoyance. Everywhere his favourite dog Sultan which would keep his master company in his Staffordshire sojourn accompanied him.
Hume’s friends tried to warn the Scot of the neurotic character of Rousseau which began to show itself in the detestation that he felt for London with its hectic pace and squalor. An eventual solution was found when a Mr Davenport a businessman and MP offered him the use of Wotton Hall near Ellastone in the Peak District, which offered Rousseau the rural tranquillity that he sought. He paid £30 a year rent.

Philosopher, mistress and dog all arrived in Staffordshire in late March 1766. They had abandoned their children to an orphanage in Paris. He instantly fell in love with the area. Rousseau is also considered one of the first to take seriously environmental concerns very evident in his sentiments expressed in his writings.
"I feel indescribable ecstasy, delirium in melting, as it were, in identifying myself with the whole of nature… a landscape of meadow, trees and scattered farms and the whole bordered by rising land of each side".

The early spring was exceptionally cold and shortly after the arrival a heavy snowfall isolated the area for several days. However as the year progressed Rousseau began to relish his surroundings and began to explore the countryside. He would follow the course of the River Dove and as he had a keen interest in botany he would add to his collection of plants. There is a suggestion that he met with the lead miners at Stanton over the border in Derbyshire. His wandering figure was something of a strange sight for Moorlanders.
 Many years later William Howitt in "Visits to Remarkable Places" published in 1841 reported him dressed in Armenian cloak, a furred cap and long stripped robe with a belt. He spent time enjoying the quiet and solitude of the countryside away from the harassment of society. The locals still recall his memory 80 years on recalling the strange figure that some thought was an exiled potentate Howitt wrote down one old man’s comments in dialect

" What owd Ross Hall? Ay know him I did, well enough ah’ve seen him monny a tarm, every dee comin and gooin ins hays comical cap and ploddy gown an gathering hays yarbs. Thar were a lady hay cawd Madame Zell but war hays wife ah dunna know. Folks say shay wanna."

Another story has Erasmus Darwin scientist and inventor (and grandfather of Charles) wanting to engage with the philosopher attempted to ambush the Swiss when he was due to wander down a particular path and recognising that it was no accidental encounter was so distrustful that Darwin never attempted another meeting. One excursion took Rousseau through Leek on his way to visit Davenport in Cheshire. He also wrote much of his autobiography " Confessions" while living in Staffordshire.

However by the summer of1766 a storm was about to break that was to shatter this rural idyll. Rousseau mental state- based on a fear of being hounded and under threat of assassination by agents of the French Government- was perilous and he was on the verge of madness. Ironically the seclusion of the Staffordshire countryside exacerbated his fears.
A satirical letter mocking him for affecting suffering was in circulation. Rousseau believed that he was at the centre of an international conspiracy being created by Hume and wrote to the Scot with a detailed indictment of his alleged plotting. Their relationship deteriorated quickly and ended in recrimination and loathing.
Meanwhile his mistress was complaining about the remoteness and in the manner of a modern day WAG found the shops of Ashbourne unworthy of her custom.

Eventually having to endure another cold and wet spring at Wotton Rousseau whose sense of paranoia had heightened exacerbated by the sour feelings that his mistress had for the area. They hurriedly left in May 1767 staying for a short period in the Lincolnshire town of Spalding before he left he distributed his clothes among the poor of Ellastone. He continued to correspond with his Staffordshire friends for a number of years. He died in 1778. In 1794 at the height of the Revolution his body was exhumed and he lies in the Pantheon in Paris, a city which he despised in life. And yet in a curious way he lives on in a book that was published 38 years after his death

There is a strange footnote to Rousseau’s story in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein published in 1816. Frankenstein draws on many contemporary fears such as developments in science partly fuelled by the work on electricity by the Lichfield based Erasmus Darwin and yet perhaps there is another Staffordshire aspect to this greatest of Gothic novels. Mary Shelley was fascinated and horrified by the personality of Rousseau whose writings on education and the care of children are central to" Frankenstein". Some writers have claimed that there are many similarities in the story of the creature and the life of Rousseau. The Swiss writer suffered abandonment in his childhood as he in turn dumped his own children, was attacked by an outraged mob whipped up into a hysteria by priests denouncing him as an Anti Christ and like the creature was constantly on the move fearful of society and longing for peace and seclusion

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Future of Stoke on Trent

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Federation of the towns that became Stoke on Trent. In this centenary year some of us who write for Pits n Pots are asking question s about the future direction of the City. The changes in the last 50 years of the City have been more profound than the first fifty even with the involvement of this country in two World Wars. Since 1960 there has been 100,000 job looses in the traditional industries of pottery, steel and mining. There has been in the influx of immigrants from the New Commonwealth, the changes of population as the city has suffered from middle class flight and the weakening of many of the communities, which face unemployment, poverty and the rise in anti social disorder. There has been something in the region of 19 national government initiative to arrest the decline of the City and there have been new industries emerging from the ruins of de industrialisation.

After 100 years it is about time to take stock of Stoke.

On the subject of anniversaries it is also the 10th anniversary of the report that Lord Rodgers wrote on urban renewal and what he envisaged the typical city to look at reflecting on the organic nature of the City.

Stress the importance of good design

Residents should be more directly in making the key decisions about priorities for services and how they should be delivered within local areas.

Agree a vision for growth areas based on strengthening
Existing urban areas, the retention of neighbourhood
communities and the provision of good public transport.
Exploit all opportunities for an urban renaissance by
taking a brownfield first approach, including in growth
areas, and recognise the continuing substantial role of
windfall sites in contributing to land supply and of urban
capacity studies in identifying future opportunities.
Increase the share of new building on brownfield sites
across the country by establishing a new target for an
average 75% of residential development across all
England’s regions to be on previously developed land by
2010, supported by varying targets for brownfield use in
Regional Spatial Strategies to reflect regional differences
in supply and demand.
Draw on local community views by making characte
assessments of historic and landscape value compulsory
and integral to regional and sub-regional planning and
the development of growth areas.
 • Raise the minimum density standard for new residential
development to 40 dwellings per hectare, subject to
exceptional circumstances, and extend the "density
direction", which requires all lower density housing
development to be notified to the Government Regional
Office for possible call-in, from three to all English
• Increase investment in the creation and long term
management of green infrastructure and open spaces
in growth areas and areas of existing deficiency.
• Ensure sustainability not only lies at the root of original
design concepts, but is followed as a philosophy through
to deconstruction.
• Support innovation and investment in environmental
infrastructure – including zero waste, combined heat
and power and sustainable urban drainage schemes.
• Place an energy efficiency obligation on developers that
matches the obligation placed on utilities.
• Recognise the huge energy and recycling potential
embodied by our 22 million existing homes, the vast
majority of which are structurally sound and potentially
Some of us are wondering how the agenda for the renewal of Stoke in its second century of existence can be carried forward and how an agenda for the development of the area can be progressed.