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.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Lost Pubs of Burslem by Arthur Berry Part 2

I remember the Rose, the Shamrock and the Thistle, which had a three-cornered taproom. I once saw a pot woman dance an impromptu fertility dance in there. There was low life pubs with shilling women standing, holding hold pints in dark passages. And there were respectable pubs where publicans would sit with wing collared Councillors. And there were pubs where wing coloured publicans would meet the shilling women sometimes-disastrous results for hearth and home. The Jig Post was such a place. Just think of the name the Jig Post! What the sound conjures up I dare not think. " I met my lady in the Jig Post" man three parts drunk said to me, his cap pulled down over his eyes. He had difficulty focusing and repeated it again and again. " I met my lady in the Jig Post". The woman sitting next to him had knees the size of hams and drank a case of bottled beer as she sat there. I should have thought he would have been better off leaving her in the Jig Post but there is no accounting for taste.

In the world of the public house, there are many mansions and many hovels, and many and varied are the customers who attend these temples from the ordinary husband and father that can manage a couple of pints at a weekend, to men that are sodden in it, men who are waiting for the opening time every day, who leave only when the ashtrays are emptied every night.

Then there are the princes of boozers- men held high in the hierarchy of booze, popes of the taproom. There are not many of these men of quality. Do not confuse them with characters; they are more than that. Every pub hasn’t got one; some pubs would not recognise one if they saw him. But when a pub has a drinking man of this calibre, they’ll soon know for where he sits other men will come. Soon a drinking club is set up. These high Mafiosi have usually reared their families and finished work long ago, if they ever did any work in the first place.

It is below the dignity of these men to be employed, and somehow or other they manage to live and live with style: to smoke and drink and back horses without ever seemingly to concern themselves with money. These men have attended the University of the Street Corner and are Professors in the life of the street. They sit steady and watch all and say nothing. But then they judge and their judgement of a man or a publican is deadly and final. Other more ordinary men who cannot make ends meet and are under the rule of women look on these paragons with wonder. These popes of the taproom are rarely seen the worst for drink, but that is understandable as they have had a lifetime’s practice and have become immune. As one of them said to me once "When I can’t drink anymore I told them pour it over me and let it soak in". To watch a man of this quality come in at the tap room door and watch him survey the scene at a glance, watch him order his drink, pay his coins for it and watch him make his way to his usual seat, nod his greeting to the company, Good evening Colonel, they’ll greet him. And he’ll nod at this and smile and salute in a daft way 2 Good evening adjutant, he’ll reply to watch this is to be present at a moment that will live in the memory, and to savour the full richness of the working class who can live without work
It is no wonder that lesser men who are pestered by women and children, whopping cough and rashes of one sort or another, sit agog with at the doings of these cardinals of the tap room who look and listen and have seen it all before and have learned the proper value to place on things. Troubles that seem baffling and hopeless and endless, troubles that reduce an honest man to a worrying machine have no account with them. They can dismiss them without a moment’s attention. All the belly aching and mither and half pint scrimping never bothers them. They will have none of it. They have seen it all before, down the street they have lived in- the poverty and the poverty of just having enough, just being able to make ends meet. They have found a way of escaping this. These drinking popes have always understood that they must keep their dignity at all costs- and bosses and women and children pull men down from their dignity and they would not be pulled down in this way.

They are gentlemen and treat themselves as such and the first need of gentlemen is to be independent and somehow they manage it. I have known such men rear big families on the dole and strut up the street with a rose in their buttonhole. They have defeated their circumstance by wit and character. And understand it is not for all men. Other men could not manage it. They are the centres of their own world. Publicans become worried if they are absent for a single night. What if they have found another pub? It is unthinkable. When such men die there should be a moment silence. There should be an extension the same night and the President of the Licensed Victuallers should read a funeral oration in the smoke room and the taproom should be decorated with garlands made with empty fag packets and wet beer mats because, make no mistake, this is a serious thing, a holy time when a man of such quality passes on.

I once remember the death of such a man, powerful in the world of drinking. He was sitting in his usual place, surrounded by his convivial and admiring friends when he got up to answer a call of nature and took himself off to the urinal. And the night went on in the usual way. The noise of the arguments of the card players mingled with the fall of dominoes and the idle banter of the bar. Half an hour had passed and one man mentioned Percy had been gone a long time- he must have got stuck. No one thought about it until it was getting close to closing time. Then someone thought that they better go look for him. And they found him sitting there straight up, as large as life with his cap on and his trousers down- dead on the lavatory as dead as he will ever be. What a way for a man to go! In the full flesh of his drinking life. No better death could be wished for a drinking man. The fates had given Percy his proper due- perhaps a little short on dignity at the very end, but what of it. He’ll never know.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Milburn, Hutton and the rest. How's the lobbying going?

It is not surprising that people have little regard for politicians- a feeling magnified by the news that Alan Milburn’s recent comments criticising the lack of zeal in the NHS reforms neglecting to mention his capacity an adviser and lobbyist for a private health concern. Milburn joins other former Labour Cabinet Ministers such as John Hutton who have taken advisor positions within the new coalition Government. In truth Blair was equally willing to embrace Tories into the New Labour camp. Shortly after the 97 General election David Mellor was invited to take part in a commission on football. This lead to a yelp of outrage, I recall, from a Cheddleton Councillor Malcolm Ward who disapproved. The dog might have barked but in this example the caravan rumbled on.

It is the sense in my mind that politics and politician are inter changeable and that do not have a belief system or a sense of ideology. A good example is shown by Lord Freud who ceased being an adviser on Welfare Reform under Labour and became advisor on Welfare Reform for the Tories two years ago. However, my detestation of this type of action is probably heightened by a loathing I have for some of the characters involved and how far they have moved politically.

I have no time for Hutton since I came across him in the early 90s and even then his main desire seemed to be anything that furthered his own career. I recall the blog of the Welsh Labour MP Paul Flynn
"I have criticised John Hutton as a shallow politician who has never been accused of having an original thought. He has trained himself to be a Blair clone. He dressed like Blair and abided by the Ten Commandments of Blairism. He even started to imitate the way that Tony Blair speaks, starting every other sentence with 'Look!’ In all his many jobs he has parroted the usually bad ideas that lobbyists have crammed into his head"

Milburn has also come a long way from a Trotskyist past and running a left wing book shop in the North East " Days of Hope" in the late 70s renamed by locals as Haze of Dope. He joined the Labour Party in 1983 and underwent a rapid trajectory into Parliament and eventually became the Health Secretary. In Government he was regarded as an arch Blairite.

While in 2007 as Secretary of State for Health Milburn stated

"We plan to remove the Secretary of State's powers of direction over NHS Foundation Trusts. Instead of being line managed by the Department of Health, they will be held to account through agreements and cash for performance contracts... The expectation must be that the greater freedoms that NHS Foundation Trusts will enjoy will help them exceeding national performance targets but that will be a matter for local not national negotiation. Those that perform well will benefit from the system of payment by results and patient choice that we announced in Delivering the NHS Plan."

Milburn is currently on the advisory board of Bridgeport Capital. He appears to have joined them in January 2007. Bridgepoint is a venture capital firm heavily involved in financing private health care firms moving into the NHS.

Milburn, Hutton, Hewitt, Hoon, Flint, Smith, Blears and Byers! They all seemed appalling and in the case of Hewitt, Hoon and Byers foolishly caught out in a lobbyist scam pulled by a TV programme in the weeks before the election
Caroline Flint seems to be a particular example of a half-wit who has been raised beyond the level of her competence. There was her complaint that she was not being treated seriously when she flaunted herself for a national newspaper. Then her ineptitude at carrying briefing notes open to view and showing that "we know that the government are predicting "sizeable falls in (house) prices later this year - at best down 5-10% year-on year", remember that the next time a Labour minister claims prices are just steadying and bear this in mind when the government try to increase the shared ownership scheme - would you want shared ownership of a depreciating asset?

I would say that the quality of cabinet minister in the Labour Government was on the whole very poor and does stand comparison with the Harold Wilson cabinets of the 1960s and 70s.

The first Wilson Cabinet of 1964 contained more first class Oxbridge degrees than any other cabinet prior to that date. Wilson himself, Crossman, Healey, Jenkins, Crosland. Other members of the Cabinet who had solid experience in the Trade Union Movement such as Frank Cousin’s Jim Callaghan and the mercurial Deputy Leader of the Labour Party George Brown. Later of course Castle, Judith Hart, Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Tony Benn, Shirley Williams and Roy Hattersley.

Now Milburn, Hutton and Frank Field have joined in the big tent of coalition government. I wondered say in 1984 what Dennis Healey might have responded if invited by the Thatcher Government in the admittedly highly unlikely event of chairing a Commission on Social Inequality?

I suggest the response would have pithy and salty