Tuesday, 2 July 2013


In early childhood, the outside world only gradually began to seep through the close network of family and neighbours in which we lived. There was the war, of course, shrouding our windows in blackout curtains, and shaking the walls of our terraced house with its nightly cacophonies. Sitting by the fire was my grandfather, born in 1863, a typical Victorian male, authoritarian and dogmatic –“there’ll always be bosses” was one of his favourite sayings. On the other side of the grate sat Catherine, my fiery grandmother, with Irish blood in her veins. She disliked Churchill, the wartime prime minister, because he had once sent troops against striking miners in Tonypandy, and she despised royalty; Queen Mary had once visited the fish house where she toiled – “her face like a porcelain doll’s” and she had brought up her eight children in poverty, with little medical assistance. My grandparents both had a dread, instilled from childhood, of the Dickensian workhouse.

My father and mother never talked about politics. They read the “Daily Express”, a bright and entertaining newspaper owned by Lord Beaverbrook which promulgated a pro-Empire, Tory viewpoint. Dad was very loyal to the monarchy and, after the war, he was skipper or mate on trawlers, a shareman, and I guess he took a free enterprise view of the world, but always cared for any shipmates who were ill or out of work. Most English people had no “ideology” which gave them a fixed view of any role for the state. Privacy was important, the secret ballot supreme, and our neighbours never declared their allegiances, but there was quite a display of political posters in poorer parts of the town for the 1945 election. Voting turnout was over 80 per cent, and party memberships were huge. Even though the people had supported Churchill in the fight against Fascism, they wanted something better for their children, and voted him out as soon as the end of the war was in sight. There was a general sense of approval for the free National Health Service, and my grandparents revelled in the free glasses and dentures to which they were entitled. Before the war, grammar schools had been fee-paying, with a few scholarships for the poor. Now they were filled by a competitive examination called the eleven plus. When I went to a grammar school in 1949, the last year of fee-paying pupils was just finishing.

Politics in the post-war era were very much hands-on. Apart from the press and wireless, candidates had to rely on the public meeting or mass rally in the market place, always well-attended. Children would be cajoled to march in procession carrying posters nailed to wooden poles, there would be speeches, and interminable heckling, most of it good-humoured. Members of Parliament were distant figures, many of whom never held “surgeries”, and they had little contact with their constituents between elections. One of our local MPs was Sir Cyril Osborne, a right-wing Tory, an advocate of capital punishment and whipping, who abominated homosexuals ; his meetings were exciting affairs – he used an ex-Socialist “miner”, who claimed to have been converted by Sir Cyril’s arguments, so often that crowds began to jeer. The other was Kenneth Younger, scion of a brewing family, who was a patrician Socialist. His detractors claimed that he drove his Bentley to a spot just outside town, then changed to a beaten up Ford to endorse his proletarian image, but even Labour people liked a “posh” candidate.  Party loyalties were such that candidates were elected again and again. The sitting MP gained much from the natural deference of his constituents.

There were, of course, many politicians who were manual workers, because of the strength of the trade union movement and its influence upon the Labour Party, so miners, steelworkers and the skilled trades involved in shipbuilding had a good representation in parliament. Local government was also much more independent then, and provided a route into politics for many able people, so there was less sense than nowadays of a “political class”, an elite buffered from normal life patterns. For many people, being involved in politics was not seen as a “career”, and many MPs and councillors had a bigger hinterland of life experience. Although party allegiance was seen as hugely important and remained evidence of the class divide, there was still, until the late ‘fifties, a fair sprinkling of independent or single issue party MPs.

County and Borough Councils gave plenty of powerful patronage to the ambitious local politician, with mayoralties and chairmanship of council committees. Senior ones were granted the old Saxon title of “Alderman”, with an election tenure of six years. These councillors were very powerful, controlling the management of education, censorship of cinemas, the conduct of the police, and planning issues in a way undreamt of nowadays. Local government often became a way of entering parliament. Although the English were proud of the incorruptibility of our political system compared to those of France or Italy, I do recall that my father and mother were once thinking of having a house built. In the austerity conditions after the war caused by the shortage of bricks and wood, this meant that you needed a building licence from the local council. They went to see a local councillor, who told them quite bluntly that he wanted £50, a sizeable sum in those days, “under the counter”,
as a bribe to see the application through. They walked away, somewhat disillusioned, and kept renting.

Although civics never formed part of the school curriculum in my day, we had a strong debating society at the grammar school, and political discussion was encouraged. At every general election, we had a mock hustings in the school, with candidates representing all the political parties. In the sixth form we were encouraged to read a “quality” newspaper or magazine, and we were entered for a general studies paper, which involved wide ranging issues such as the Cold War between Communism and the West. The looming threat of the atomic bomb and the destruction it could cause was always in the background; it was during the 1950s’ that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament took off. I cannot remember how, but to my everlasting shame, the first political party with which I was involved (only for a summer’s length) was the Young Conservatives – probably because lots of pretty girls came to their dances. Very soon, partly through Dad’s increasing poverty, and partly through the attitudes of the minor public schoolboys I met at University, I became a firm supporter of the Labour Party. I once asked Clement Attlee, famous for his laconic brush-offs, a question after a speech; his reply was "I've already answered that"! By then, our local Labour MP was Anthony Crosland, another toff, but an engaging speaker with a fine analytical mind. His book “The Future of Socialism” was a revisionist view of Marxist politics, concentrating on the good life in a mixed economy and opposing the Puritanism embedded in socialist thought.

When I graduated, I joined the Labour Party, attended a torch lit rally in the Freeman St. market place during the 1959 general election, and almost immediately went to America, where political attitudes were very different. After the 1954 McCarthy hearings, America was obsessed by ideas of undercover communism – “reds under the bed” – and capitalist ideology was rampant. Many people saw a war with the Soviet Union as inevitable, and some even welcomed the idea. The American mainland had never been invaded or bombed in recent conflicts, so they were much more gung ho than Europeans, who were directly in the path of the Russian juggernaut. Our fairly tepid welfare state was abhorred, even by poor Americans who could not afford proper medical insurance, and who referred to our National Health Service as “socialised medicine”. At that time British politicians of all parties lauded the “special relationship” we had with the United States, referring to the bonds of wartime alliance, common language and culture, but I saw little sign of this being reciprocated by Americans. The country was so vast and powerful, it was absorbed by itself, and Britain was considered to be a decaying, old-fashioned island, where people spoke English in funny accents.

Back in England, married and teaching at a school in Immingham, I joined the Labour Party and became a parish councillor. Dog control orders were being introduced all over England at that point, and it was our duty to define the areas where they would apply. Until then dogs could roam where they liked, sometimes in packs, and they had become a real traffic hazard. One councillor suggested that we should only apply the dog control order to the busy main road, as they were not a problem on the side streets – until I pointed out to him that dogs cannot read! Belonging to a political party is a cross between being in a tribe or a religion. We took Labour discipline very seriously, and always voted as a block, having decided our position on an issue before the meeting. As we were the majority party, the independents derided us for our machinelike attitudes, although I noticed that they always voted the same way too, contrary to our position, and I started calling them the “Independent Party”. They were in fact Conservatives, but would never have been elected under that label. Once you are hooked into a political party, you are drawn into evenings of leafleting and canvassing, particularly if there is an election in the offing. Most Labour activists are well to the left of the average Labour voter, but I expect this applies to all political parties, where the keenest have the more extreme views.

When I moved job to lecture in a further education college, I  taught “A” Level British Government & Constitution”, and began to take a more systematic and perhaps more objective view of contemporary politics. Each year, I would take my students to visit the House of Commons during Question Time. The 1970s was a period of sharply divided political views, so we often saw some quite violent debates. Once, the Sinn Fein MP Bernadette Devlin rushed across the floor to pull the hair of the then Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. By modern standards there was surprisingly little security and, once inside you could wander around the lobbies at will.

The fishing industry in Grimsby was suffering a rapid decline at this time. There had been two Cod Wars with Iceland, and Tony Crosland, our local MP, who was then Foreign Secretary, had decided that the American radar base at Keflavik was more important to NATO than guaranteeing the livelihoods of Grimsby fisherman. I wrote a play, produced locally, called “The Price of Fish” with a satirical ending about this conflict. Crosland was very suspicious of anyone not obviously working class, although he himself was a public school, Cambridge-educated intellectual. He used to refer to the group of teachers and lecturers who were now prominent in the Grimsby party as the “intelligentsia”, and would habitually attend Grimsby Town Football Club games and socialise with the old Co-op ladies.  His attractive American wife Susan was a newspaper columnist, and used to attitudinise about the authentic proletariat you met in Grimsby. A very able politician, who brought about the revolution into comprehensive education almost single-handedly, with his Circular 10/62, Tony had a strong anti-royalist streak, which I always admired. His family had been Plymouth Brethren, a very strict sect, whilst he had ended up a cigar-smoking hedonist.

In 1977 Tony Crosland died very suddenly, and there was a by election in the Grimsby constituency. I was involved in the selection process for a Labour candidate, and we eventually chose Austin Mitchell, a Calendar TV presenter and ex-academic, as our candidate (he was the overwhelming choice of Co-op ladies, who watched his programme every night). As the by-election was a litmus test for the shaky Labour government, the town was swamped by radio and TV teams.  I invited the candidates to speak at lunchtime meeting of college students, and found myself sitting next to well-known TV interviewers for lunch. Austin had undoubted charisma, was fiercely anti Common Market (as the EU was then known) and absorbed himself in the intricacies of the fishing industry. Even so, he only scraped in with a majority of 520. The next evening, he and his wife Linda came round to a party we were giving, and celebrated their narrow victory.

 I was also secretary, then chairman of my union branch of ATTI, which later became NATFHE, and so became involved with lobbying politicians over salaries. This was a time of great inflation, when salaries could lose over a tenth of their value within a year. I remember Tony Crosland telling me that it was our wage demands
which were causing this. The MP for Louth was Jeffrey Archer, who also met us in the House of Commons, but became rapidly bored with us when Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the ex prime minister, entered the Strangers’ Bar. Under the leadership of Ted Heath, some Tories were already beginning to move towards monetarism, using control of the money supply to stifle demand, but both parties still strove towards a agreed prices and income policy. Trade Union leaders, such as Arthur Scargill, were very powerful figures, dominating the media landscape and having ready access to Downing Street. As Secretary of my Labour Ward, I once invited Scargill to speak at an evening meeting, where he spoke very engagingly to a packed room. About this time, I was given a political column in the “Grimsby News”, a local freebee weekly newspaper, and paid the princely sum of £5 an article to comment on political events. This part-time trade as a “journalist” gave me the opportunity to interview local politicians and, during the 1979 election, to look at the inner workings of their party machines, which were all unsurprisingly similar. The Tories had the most professional machine, with a paid agent; Labour relied on masses of volunteers to canvass and literally drive the voters into the polling booths, whilst the Liberals were more geared up by local issues. I met their leader, David Steele, on a visit to the Grimsby HQ; he was much shrewder than most of his party and was looking for an eventual coalition.

The 1979 general election delivered an uncompromising Conservative government, with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, and I can remember the all-pervading gloom in the college staff room on the next morning. I had been up half the night at the Grimsby constituency polling count; these are always interesting events, as political tribalism intensifies during the evening. Things began to change very rapidly after this election. By 1980, I was a head of department at North Lindsey College in Scunthorpe just as the steel industry was allowed to collapse. The college was filled with swarms of disoriented steel workers who had been made redundant, people who had highly specialised skills which were now brutally discarded, and we used grants from the European Union to try and help them rebuild their lives. All over the north of England, there was massive deindustrialisation as old industries were asset stripped with no government support – steel, shipbuilding, textiles. Two million manufacturing jobs were lost during the 1979–1981 recession. As unemployment soared, the rules on disability benefit were eased in order to massage the statistics.

The last on the list was coal mining. Mrs Thatcher prepared the ground carefully, and was much helped by the intransigent Marxism of Arthur Scargill, who lacked the cunning to compromise. She had gradually reduced the subsidies to coal mining, and  in 1984 the National Coal Board announced a programme of pit closures, mainly in Yorkshire and Scotland. Without taking a national ballot, Scargill engineered his coal mining strike for March, which was a bad time, as the demand for coal fell at the end of winter. That year I became principal of Beverley College, and commuted across the Humber Bridge, which was always guarded by the sinister presence of heavily armoured police vans checking on “unauthorised” movements. During the year long strike, the police became heavily politicised, earning huge amounts of money in overtime, as they broke the pickets of miners at the coal depots. They would wave wads of money insultingly at the now desperate pitmen, who finally trooped back to work, defeated, but with their union banners flying and brass bands playing.

The philosophy of Thatcherism was neo-liberal monetarism, with an immediate relaxation of capital controls and a loathing of all forms of state control, especially local government. Competing organisations were set up to fund education and training, like the Manpower Services Commission, and I had to bid for resources to educate my students alongside private organisations. In Hitler’s Germany, the SS and Gestapo performed a similar rivalry with the conventional army, the Wermacht and the police. The ideology of the free market and the bidding process governed everything. Alderman Roberts, Mrs Thatcher’s father had been a grocer, so small businesses were idolised. I sat on one committee where we allocated start up money for small businesses, usually window cleaners operating out of the deprived areas of Hull; we may have been developing thriving burglary concerns for all I knew. When I started my career in further education, the biggest department in any college had been engineering. By the time I finished, the biggest was usually business studies, closely followed by social services. Huge swathes of British manufacturing capacity had simply disappeared, to be replaced by financial services and chronic unemployment.

I remember very clearly the moment when Mrs Thatcher’s downfall began. I was driving down the autoroute towards Paris, on my way to establish a town twinning with Nogent-sur-Oise, when the radio announced that she was being forced to stand for re-election as leader of the Conservative Party. I was so excited that I missed my exit, and had to be re-directed to the town by the local fire brigade! Her surprise replacement, John Major was an almost unknown apparatchik who soon faced the wrath of the unappeasable, fanatic anti- Europeans, who made his life hell. The two major achievements of his time in office were “Black Monday”, the collapse of the pound, which had been tracking the Deutschmark, due to currency speculation, and the disastrous privatisation of British Rail, turning it into the most expensive and badly-run rail system in Europe. He was remarkable only for his utter banality.

The Tories had only stayed in power for so long because the Labour Party had been riven with disputes between right and left. Gradually, first Kinnock, then Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown began to refashion the old Labour Party of nationalised industries and class solidarity, turning it into a confection called “New Labour”, which was much more capitalist – friendly and electable.  After eighteen years of brutally irresponsive Tory rule, the whole country was seething with discontent. After years of disillusionment,  I rejoined the Labour Party and began to go out canvassing for the 1997 general election. At the time I was partly retired but still working for the further education college inspectorate. On the night of polling we were inspecting Barnsley College, and I can remember the euphoria in the hotel late that evening as the results swept in indicating a Labour landslide, particularly when Michael Portillo lost his seat. Ah, we thought, bliss it was in that new dawn to be alive!

It is certainly true that the New Labour government began well, although they had tied themselves to the previous government’s spending plans in order to appear “respectable”. Education and health received immediate boosts, and the whole government appeared more modern and accessible than the previous administrations. Tony Blair himself was certainly the most able politician in the country, presenting himself as young and idealistic and surrounded by a more gender-friendly team -“Blair’s Babes”- than either Thatcher’s or Major’s. Devolution and regional government were high on the agenda, and it did genuinely seem as if more democracy was going to be infused into peoples’ lives. However, the cracks in the image soon began to appear. The outward message to party loyalists was about openness and engagement; the reality was much darker – a closely-knit elite (at least at the beginning) ran a show where everyone was supposed to be “on message”, literally so in the case of MPs, who were issued with pagers, which bleeped them messages about the latest orthodoxy. This was a far-reaching change from the angry and tumultuous debating of the old Labour party.

The change became apparent to me when I was elected chairman of the Beverley and Holderness constituency party and was also given the role of political education officer. I used to attend regional policy forums, where we were led into carefully scripted discussions which led us down the path down which the leadership had already decided to go. There would always be a centrally appointed “facilitator” who took the spirit of the meeting in the Quaker sense, but there was never a vote or a clearly defined ideological issue. Once at the Leeds forum, we had a spirited debate about the House of Lords, and it was clear that most activists wanted to see it either abolished or elected. I remember one Muslim councillor saying that he didn’t want bishops in the House of Lords, and he certainly didn’t want the addition of imams!
Later, I found out that many local forums had expressed these opinions, but they never came out in the final policy document. Eventually, the rights of constituencies to group together motions for the Annual Conference (called “composites” in Labour jargon) was withdrawn, and the Conference became a showpiece for the increasingly dominant leadership, whom delegates were required to hysterically applaud. The general view from Labour Party HQ was that the local parties should not bother themselves too much about policy, but concentrate on “campaigning”, usually on some non-contentious local issue. No wonder that Labour Party membership, which had swollen before the election of New Labour, began to shrink rapidly, and it became harder to canvass and distribute leaflets.
What was forming under our eyes was a permanent governing class, usually equipped with a PPE from Oxbridge, then having served time as a political adviser in the increasingly politicised civil service. It seemed to matter little which party they belonged to, as they passed through the revolving doors between lobbying firms, business interests and parliament. Often now they were “parachuted” into constituencies, especially at by-elections, and the old democratic right of constituents to choose their own candidates, however awkward to the leadership, was withdrawn.
A few of the old working class style politicians were retained by New Labour to dress up the party image, provided they remained on message. One of these was a Hull MP, John Prescott, who was given the role of Deputy Prime Minister, but little real ministerial duty. I was once partly responsible for organising a workshop in Hull Guildhall, where he was a guest speaker. He was one of the rudest, most boorish people I have ever met, demanding that we pull off the speaker on stage, as his time was more important and, anyway, people had come to hear him. Mounted on the rostrum, he was all anodyne smiles and simpering, telling the audience that PPF (public/private funding) was the way forward for capital spending – “just like paying your mortgage”. Devised by Chancellor Gordon Brown to keep capital expenditure off the government accounts, it proved one of the greater financial disasters of his reign, as I was later to find out with Bridlington schools.

Looking back, I suppose that the absence of ideology was the biggest change I noticed in Labour politics, as they adopted the values of neo-liberal capitalism and triangulated themselves towards middle England. The Tories, on the other hand, attracted more swivel-eyed anti-Europeans, anti-gays, choleric retired military persons and fixated monetarists. Consequently, they gave Blair, with his “feel good” factor, an easy run for his money at subsequent elections. As a school governor, and chair of the East Riding Schools Forum, I became very aware of the improvements which were made to teachers’ salaries and school buildings. The curriculum became ever more directive, as New Labour tried to prove its credentials as a tough, no nonsense government, but teachers generally went along with this as the price they had to pay for the improvement in material conditions. However, the burgeoning overspend on the Bridlington schools PPF soon made me realise that Gordon Brown’s much vaunted economic competence might be merely academic.

After the 2001 election, my involvement in the Labour Party became minimal. One of the main reasons for this was the invasion of Iraq, when the very sight of Blair posturing alongside the moronic US president George W Bush made me feel queasy. The New Labour cabinet, with the honourable exception of Robin Cook, meekly agreed to the confected intelligence reports and spin doctoring which eased us into a disastrous war where thousands of innocents were slaughtered. The other reason, which was the last time I spoke at a constituency party meeting, was the imposition of student fees. As the first member of my family to have a university education, and coming from an impoverished home, I felt that this was a betrayal of what the Labour Party was about. Then came the invasion of Afghanistan, when Secretary of Defence John Reid speculated that “maybe a shot will never be fired” – to date, 444 British service personnel have died there, and thousands maimed, to no apparent purpose. Looking back, it seems to me that the Labour Party had become a hollow shell, mouthing a rhetoric its leaders no longer believed in.

During this time, Margaret and I had formed the Beverley Anglo-French Society, and we became involved in the town twinning process with Nogent–sur–Oise, a town about 40km north of Paris, and this gave me a good opportunity to observe French local government and politics at ground level. The maire, M. Claude Brunet, A UPM loyalist, somewhat of a right-wing martinet, ran the town like a rod of iron. He had real power: control over the local police, highways, primary school capital spending, cultural activities (on which they spent a lot of money) and industrial/commercial redevelopment. He was nonplussed by our mayoral system, an annually changing figurehead dressed in colourful clothes, rather like the monarch. During the time we were trying to get our reluctant council to agree to a twinning, our local government system changed yet again, by central government decree, and we were left with a Beverley Town Council with the same powers as a parish. Nevertheless we did have our first ever socialist mayor, Norman Dickinson, who delighted our French hosts in the Place de la Concorde by saying he thought that they had made a good decision in guillotining their monarch in 1793! The current French maire, M. Dardenne, is by contrast a left wing socialist, who has made Nogent-sur-Oise a decidedly multi-cultural town.

More French people vote during local and regional elections than in national ones, but the opposite is true in contemporary Britain. In recent years, I have been involved in schools financing, so I have seen the rapid deterioration of our local government system. Local councillors have no control over school budgets and capital finance, only taking an interest in schools when they are threatened with closure. Local government powers over housing, highways and strategic planning have gradually shrunk into passporting government finance, collecting government-controlled council tax and meeting government-set targets. The only exception has been devolution which has given the Scots and, to a lesser extent, the Welsh, some control over their own affairs and has seen the development of distinctive national policies in education and welfare. Whether the Scots, by nature a canny people, will ever vote for full independence as a nation state, in my opinion remains doubtful. In England, the only bright spot has been the increasing role of school governors, whose spokesman I often have been. They form the largest volunteer workforce in the UK, with around 370,000 governor places nationally. Praise for their work is largely unsung, but the sturdiness of any democracy depends on people like these, giving their time and energy to building a better future for our children.

Unless we are careful, we shall bequeath a future where multinational corporations dominate the politics of individual states, avoiding national taxation by switching their money around tax havens, lobbying powerfully for legislation in their own interests, whilst allowing politicians and civil servants profitable after-lives through the revolving doors between business and government. Added to this is the uncertainty over our membership of  the European Union, a bloc vital to our trading interests, but showing signs of a huge democratic deficit and bureaucratic sclerosis. Meanwhile, our government, reduced in actual sovereignty to something like a county council, increasingly micro-manages the political process from the perspective of a Westminster elite. Political parties, as we know them, were a nineteenth century invention, based on the increasing size of electorate, mass newspapers and more reliable communications. They now seem not quite fit for purpose: their membership is rapidly eroding – the Tories are becoming ever older and Labour has seen the trade union role diminish; the opportunities for meaningful participation and power sharing are quite low; young people increasingly use social networks like Facebook to organise political protest, but the protests themselves, like Occupy, seem fitful and soon die out. Democracy seems to function best when there is widespread participation in decision-making, where people can somehow learn the role of governing themselves without just being passive recipients.

In my classroom at primary school hung a large map of the world, about one third of it coloured red to show the extent of the mighty British Empire. In fact, although we did not know this as children, it was already a myth; the Empire had long been in decline and the Second World War destroyed it. We were living in an impoverished and indebted country, bolstered by memories of world greatness. An American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, once said, “Britain has lost an Empire, and is searching for a role.” This is still true. Politicians cling to our permanent seat in the UN Security Council, talk about us “punching above our weight”, build huge aircraft carriers, with no planes to fly off them, and cling to the pound sterling. We are only uneasily part of Europe, cherishing the freedom of travel and shared health benefits, but reluctant to commit to any larger vision. London has become a world class financial centre, behaving increasingly like a city state, with an economy different from its hinterland, and governed by an elite who are out of touch with the rest of the country. The House of Commons, “the Mother of Parliaments”, our proud touchstone of democracy, had become a body of professional politicians, whipped into obedience by the lures of office and the threats of de-selection.

We find constitutional reform difficult; most of it has been higgledy piggledy and without any guiding principles. Bishops still sprawl on the benches of the House of Lords, as do some hereditary peers. Just looking at the Queen’s State Opening of Parliament makes you realise how little anything has really changed. The much enlarged Royal Family still occupy more press attention than a host of serious issues. If anything, the sycophancy and snivelling adulation of  the monarchy has increased during this Queen’s reign. It may be that  a few years of good King Charles III will alter people’s perceptions, but I have no real hope that the institution will disappear in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes. The huge elephants in the room, climate change and population explosion, are largely ignored. Indeed, in any modern democracy, pushing people towards lowering their personal consumption would mean electoral disaster, so politicians tend to shy away from it, except on formal occasions like the G8 conference when they can unite in a welter of acceptable platitudes.

I remain hopeful. The English are a tolerant and pragmatic people, at their best when engaged in the wider world. They have always valued freedom of choice and speech over tiresome declarations of  rights. In my lifetime, we have become a multi-cultural society with surprisingly little trouble and we have shown great adaptability to technological change, but all societies have their limits of passivity, and sudden discontent is always unpredictable. Once in every few generations, the placid English temperament explodes at the stupidity of their rulers. Sadly, I am not likely to be around to see it.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Sea

Living on an island, you are never very far from the sea. When I was a child I lived a few hundred yards away from the Humber estuary, seven miles wide at that point, where two rusty forts guarded the entrance into the turbulent North Sea. During the war there was no access, the beaches were mined and wired, so all that we could hear were the sounds which emanated from the sea: the crash of waves during a storm, the sound of ships’ sirens in a fog, seagulls shrieking overhead. The seaside resort was no longer a playground, but a place of menace, from which the invader might come; our pier was sawn in two to hinder any German attack, and concrete bunkers nestled in the sand dunes.

My family’s life was bound up intimately with the sea. Dad was a trawler skipper, and his life was bounded by the rhythms of ebb and flow:  taxi rides for the early morning tides, the long fretful absences, and his return every three weeks or so. Most fishing families had a trawler waveband fitted to their wireless sets, and on an evening we listened to the skippers boasting about the size of their catches, whilst artfully hiding their exact position; sometimes, we heard Dad talking, and he would speak to us, knowing that we were tuned in, a thousand miles away; on special occasions, our birthdays, their wedding anniversary, Christmas, he would send a special congratulatory telegram which came in a coloured envelope.

It was the other sort of telegram which fishing families dreaded, because the winter seas off the west coast of Iceland were atrocious, and towns like Grimsby and Hull regularly lost a couple of trawlers every year. When Dad was younger, a mate on the trawler “Mars”, he was shipwrecked in fearful weather on the rock bound coast of Iceland, and rescued by the bravery of the islanders. Older, I would stand by the lock pits and watch his ship return, one of a long procession of trawlers, their fo’csles scoured to bare metal by the fierce Arctic seas. Dad would have a russet beard, and red-rimmed eyes caused by the twenty four hour watches on the bridge. His cabin reeked of condensation; he would step ashore with a rolling gait, and our mother would tutt over the damp clothes in his kitbag. Curiously, if he had more than one trip off, when his trawler was undergoing a refit, he would become increasingly restless, and a faraway look would come into his eyes….the sea had become a cruel mistress.

After the war, the beaches near our home became our summer play area; we watched the busy traffic of ships plying the estuary, and the dog chased seagulls along the mudflats whilst we dug up lugworms and learned how to fish for eels and flatfish. We paddled in the brown, turgid waters, built sand castles and dams. Walking along the grimy tide line, we turned over flotsam and jetsam: gloves, cans, shreds of nets, dead seabirds, once a seal. In winter, we had great fun dodging the crashing waves flung by storms over the sea wall. In 1953, there were bad floods along the east coast, and I saw wooden huts smashed to matchwood on the beach, and rivers of water course through the low-lying streets. We learned to swim in the town’s open air bathing pool, dog-paddling in the heart-stopping cold water. Young fishermen wore distinctive drape suits and spent their earnings when ashore like three day millionaires, so there were times when a life at sea looked romantic – Dad knew better. Find something else to do, he said.

I realised what he meant later in life, when I came into contact with the great oceans. In 1959 I crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary in November. Half way across, we were struck by a westerly gale, and from the upper decks you could watch the huge riveted leviathan wallowing in the troughs of waves bigger than houses, smoke belching from its three funnels. Sleeping in steerage, in a six berth cabin, I was seasick for the only time in my life. In California, I swam in the Pacific, if I ever managed to fight my way through the crashing surf. The beaches were sultry, but these seas were bone-chilling currents from Japan. Using the tide-tables, you could motor down the coast and watch the abalone lay their eggs on the spring tide, regular as clockwork, and people would collect bucketfuls of these delicacies.

 When I came back to England, I took a five week trip on a Blue Star Line freighter from Stockton. There was room on board for twelve passengers, and we sailed down the Stockton Canal, past the long lines of  mothballed ships in the US Reserve Navy, under the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco, and into the Pacific Ocean. We followed the coast south to the Panama Canal, where we moored at Balboa harbour, to have yellow fever injections, and await transit. At night we would throw meat scraps into the harbour and watch the sharks bang their heads together in a feeding frenzy. Then the ship glided through the narrow locks, the jungle pressing close on either side, until we reached Colon, a sleazy waterfront town, where it was dangerous to wander past the street lights after dark. We had a strange captain, who rarely appeared on the bridge, even when the engines broke down at the tail end of a hurricane; we were off the coast of Cuba and drifted ever shoreward until the engineers worked their magic. Then it was the deep ocean, the Atlantic, vast horizons of endless sea for weeks on end. Over seventy per cent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and it took a voyage like this to make me realise it. In one storm, lightning called St Elmo’s Fire played an ethereal dance around the mastheads, just as in Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner”; whales and sharks abounded in these deeps, while dolphins piloted our ship for days. One day, a shoal of flying fish crashed on to our decks as we rolled in some doldrums. At nights, I would stand for hours on the bridge gazing at the matchless, star-studded skies. When we neared the Channel ( our wartime skipper steered us firmly in the middle, still afraid of U-boats), the weather grew blustery. There was a gay couple on board, who must have quarrelled, because I came on deck to find the younger man trying to throw himself overboard. With a struggle, and some persuasion, I got him back, and the next day he cut my hair. When we chugged up the Thames to Tilbury, there was a dockers’ strike…back to the sixties!

Not long after coming home, I began sailing as a hobby, crewing for someone who owned an Albacore, a seagoing largish dinghy, and we used to sail across the River Humber to Sunk Island, where an isolated farmhouse sold splendid cream teas for half-a-crown. You had to plan your trips carefully, using wind and tides. Later, I crewed in Enterprise races in Alexandra Dock, throwing myself from one gunwale to the other in order to roll-tack, and coming home with bruised thighs. Then I began sailing in the Humber with a schoolteacher colleague, Ron Starks, who had built a small eleven foot dinghy in the woodwork room. We used to cross the Humber without life jackets, sometimes drifting with the ebb tide until near dusk, when the flood swept us back up river – this caused some anxiety for our wives. Contemplating sunsets over the water, I learnt what Homer meant when he wrote about the “wine dark sea”, and a stiff on-shore breeze added resonance to James Joyce’s “scrotum-tightening sea”.

Ron and I were both so interested in sailing that we enrolled on the RYA Yatchmasters course, learning about navigation and the rules of the road at sea. Two RAF officers invited us to come as crew on an RAF racing yacht, and we left the Hamble intending to sail down the Dorset coast. Mooring in a perfect calm, we rowed ashore in the dinghy to a pub near Portland Bill. Early next morning I could hear the anchor chain rattling in the focs’le locker where I was sleeping. A great westerly gale had sprung up, and we had no choice but to run before it on a storm jib. Most of the crew were seasick, but I managed to stay at the helm all night, watching huge waves pushing us from astern, while Harry Capp, our skipper, plotted our course and took the radio beacon fixes. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, but we were all pleased to see the grey walls of the rade at Cherbourg, where we were harbour-bound for three days. Finally, short of time, we were forced to cross back to England in a pea-souper of a fog, an eerie and anxious journey, just a forty metre circle of greyness we moved through, and the sound of ships’ engines all around as the crossed the Channel’s main shipping lanes. We were all pleased to sight the English coast, and berth at Weymouth. The next day we sailed back to the Hamble hugging the coast, still wreathed in mist, and as we passed the tank range near Lulworth Cove, shell began to whistle overhead…that was when we moved out to sea. The next year, Ron, Bill Boyce and I charted a boat to sail in the Solent and circumnavigate the Isle of Wight. We spent a night in Cowes, negotiated the complex tidal waters (there are four tides a day)..and managed to hit a buoy in the middle of the fairway. Cold and sodden, sleeping in tiny bunks, we took one day off to cross by ferry over to Portsmouth and visit HMS Victory to see how real sailors had coped far longer with much worse hardships.

The next stage was to own a boat, so I bought a small dinghy off a work colleague. It had sails, and an underpowered Seagull outboard engine to bring us back against the tide, a task it struggled to do. I took son Richard on fishing trips (once including our retriever Fred, who proved to be a surprisingly relaxed sailor), but the boat was too small to be really safe for fishing on the estuary, so we moved up to a bigger vessel. My friend Mike and I bought a GRP pebble (a smaller version of the sturdy coble) called “The Two Toms”. It was equipped with  powerful twin Evinrude outboards, and we went to the chandlers to set ourselves up with the proper tackle for line fishing: buoys with black flags, hundreds of yards of creosoted line, thousands of hooks which had to be inserted into the lines. We acquired bait-diggers’ licences from the council, so that before each trip we could dig deep holes all over the beach in search of fat, juicy lugworms. The set lines were baited with lugworms before the trip, and the technique was to drop the buoys with line attached on a rising tide across the current, then anchor some way off to fish with rods until slack water before hauling in the wet and slippery catch. By trial and error, and watching other boats, we found the better places to fish, sometimes fishing on the edge of the river mouth, by Spurn Point. We had to watch the estuary shipping, because vessels would sometimes take short cuts outside the shipping lanes at spring tides, and would come bearing down on us without warning.

Catches varied, but it was always a pleasure to haul in the line of hooks and see gleaming codlings come flapping on the deck. Winter was the best time for these voracious feeders, but we also caught whiting and occasional eels. Once, we saw seals bobbing around our haul, and soon found out why – they had eaten most of our catch, and just left the heads on the hooks! Sorting out the tangle of line and hooks after the trip always took us some time, but we had some excellent fish suppers, putting the rest into our freezers. In summer, we would occasionally make trips to fish with rods for flatfish, soles and plaice, but this was a much more passive affair. After a couple of years, four of us went into partnership to buy a bigger vessel, the “SalEmma”, a converted pastiche of a boat with a cabin and a bridge which raised the centre of gravity too high (as we found out in rough seas). It was powered by an old diesel engine which was temperamental, to say the least, and gave us some worrying moments when it stopped some way off shore. Nevertheless, it gave us some fun, ploughing ever further outside the estuary, crossing the choppy maelstrom of the Binks (old sunken Spurn spits)  as we turned around Spurn Point. We moored the boat in the Marina, so we had to make sure of the tides to get in and out of the lock gates in time. Having acquired an otter beam trawl, we partnered with another boat and tried pair fishing, one trawl hawser fastened to each boat as we tried to power up the tide. It nearly ended in disaster for us as our unwieldy top hamper threatened to pull us over, and our muddy trawl net had more archaeological finds than fish. We persisted with line fishing however, and once caught so many fish that we were able to sell a full kit on Grimsby Docks. Eventually, we tired of the maintenance problems and the progressive deterioration of the boat, and sold it on. Owning a boat is the equivalent of setting £20 notes on fire.

Since then, my own involvement with the sea has been much more spasmodic and passive: the occasional holiday trip on a boat, swimming off some beach in a warm holiday ocean, walking along a winter beach as great breakers crash in to demolish the clay cliffs. The power and immensity of the sea still draws me, and I do not like to be away from it too long, just to watch the interplay of light on waves, to sense the dreadful strength which lurks in those depths. Sometimes, in an aeroplane, you can look down from enormous height at the wrinkled blue surface of the ocean for hour after hour, and see the occasional tiny wake of a ship. . Snorkelling off the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland was a revelation and a privilege, but it also made you realise how fragile the ocean environment is. Sargasso seas of plastic bottles have collected in the Pacific, over-fishing is diluting species everywhere, whilst sea water is becoming more and more acidic as carbon dioxide levels increase. Four generations ago, the Dogger Bank fishing grounds in the North Sea were called the “Silver Pits” because of the proliferation of fish, now they are completely depleted, and gas platforms occupy much of the area. The great oceans sustain us with the variety of life forms, but they are steadily being polluted and sterilised by mankind.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013


c'est la même chose!

Extract from my journal:
Thursday, November 20, 1997
A meeting at County Hall with councillors and union representatives, which I ended up chairing. We were discussing the Government's White Paper "Excellence in Education", but were forced to reflect that New Labour, with its absence of ideology and rampant proclamation of managerialism, leaves us with very few "clear blue water" issues dividing us from our political opponents. There remains, maybe, a preference to assist those worse off, but the farmers and the pigs are going to look increasingly alike.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


France only very slowly impinged on my imagination as a child. An uncle had soldiered there during the First World War and had learned certain rude phrases in pidgin French; neither of my parents showed much interest in or knowledge of the place and its people, although they were aware that they ate strange things: snails, frogs’ legs and garlic, generally messing about with food. The country had been occupied by the Germans during the last war, and there was a vague sense that they had “let us down” during the débacle of Dunkirk (although I subsequently realised that the French reciprocated this, probably with more reason). Nobody we knew had ever been there on holiday, but there were French stereotypes readily available such as Maurice Chevalier, who sang of “Paree” and “amour” in a syrupy Gallic accent; indeed, Paris and the glamorous background of the Moulin Rouge were used to create an erotic atmosphere in variety shows, where girls in a froth of lacy undergarments and garters danced the can-can. The only real-life Frenchman we ever actually saw was the Breton onion seller, who cycled the streets every spring, over-burdened with huge stringed bunches; these were especially prized for their flavour.

When I arrived at the grammar school, there was one dead language on the curriculum, Latin, and one modern one, French, which were taught as grammar lessons, with long vocabulary lists to learn as homework. The advantage of the French language was that it was not inflected, but it had gendered nouns, and devilishly difficult verb forms, like the subjunctive. We learned a special phonetic alphabet so that we could make some attempt at pronouncing the precise vowels and weird nasal sounds of French, but we were often mocked by the masters at our clumsy attempts to get our Northern tongues and palates into any semblance of true accents. I don’t remember, in the early stages, any of us demonstrating any enthusiasm for this new parlance; French, like Maths, was on the curriculum, and you just did it. The textbooks had little black and white drawings of solemn boys in berets buying baguettes, or sitting with their parents in a café – life looked even grimmer over there than it was here. Although we were found pen friends, there were no school trips organised to France, but my wife Margaret, at the girls’ grammar school, did take part twice in the Yorkshire Exchange, where she stayed in a pen friend’s house for three weeks, and Marie-Françoise came back for similar periods –total language immersion, unlike modern schoolchildren, with their skiing and battleground trips.

By the fifth form, I was enjoying the subject more, and chose French as one of my “A” Level subjects in the sixth form. The curriculum was largely based on literature, but we did have chunks of French history and political institutions to broaden the diet. It began to dawn on us that the English had felt inferior to French civilisation for much of their history. After all, the Normans had conquered us in 1066 and beaten that notion into our thick Saxon skulls; we have a Germanic base to our language, but a vocabulary which contains thousands of words of French derivation. Originally, some of these words indicated the class structure of early English society: peasants looked after cows, pigs and sheep (Germanic), whilst their Norman masters ate beef, pork and mutton (French). Then there are the false cognates, or “faux amis” we were taught to avoid: “demander” in French means “ask”, in English to “demand” (a mistranslation of this once had serious diplomatic consequences); “gentil” is not the English “gentle”, but “nice” or “kind”; “habit” does not have our familiar meaning, but “clothes” or “dress” in French. There are scores of these, and each French class would provide a minefield of opportunities for the master to blow you away with gales of laughter.
Not only was our language riddled through and through with  quasi-French strata, but through the centuries we had tried to impress one another with our superior acquisition of French culture. Hence we call a dead end street, not an “impasse” but a “cul de sac” – a rather rude anatomical expression in French; “double entendre”, a double meaning, grammatically incorrect in French, where the phrase is “double sens”. For centuries, this desperate imitation fuelled styles in our literature, painting, cooking and dress. France was the biggest, most sophisticated power in Europe, and it was our nearest neighbour, only 22 miles away at the nearest Channel crossing. French was the language of the Royal Court until the time of Chaucer, of the law until the late 17th century, and the language of diplomacy until well into the 20th century. English was the hybrid language of a group of islanders on the fringe of Europe. No wonder that at least a smattering of French was regarded as an essential part of an English education.

Although geographically we were close, it could not be said that our relationships had been very neighbourly over the centuries. After the Norman domination, English kings asserted their feudal claims to various parts of France in centuries of messy, protracted warfare, culminating in the Hundred Years’ War, when the stake was the kingdom of France itself. Once we were holidaying in Poitou and we saw a burned out church, still unrepaired. "Was that done in World War II?" I asked an old man. He shook his head. "No, monsieur, it was the English!" The Channel port of Calais remained English until the reign of Queen Mary, then later we harboured thousands of Huguenots, French protestants fleeing persecution. Rivalry and warfare grew worse in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the growing British power challenged France for world domination. The French were ousted from India and Canada, but took their revenge by assisting the infant USA obtain its independence. Trafalgar sealed Britain’s domination of the seas, and Waterloo put a final stop to the French hegemony of Europe. From now on, English was the language to learn, and the Industrial Revolution had made us the workshop of the world. Nevertheless, the deference to French culture was rooted in English life.

What really impressed me, studying their history, was the French Revolution, a conceptually explosive event in Europe. Not only did they guillotine a king and institute a reign of terror to cleanse the body politic, but they adopted alarming symbols of modernity: a Declaration of the Rights of Man, universal suffrage (for males), a secular Republic where all were regarded as equal (in theory), and the concept of being a “citizen” rather than a “subject”. Their armies, the “levée en masse”, the conscript army poured across Europe, destroying the “ancien régime”. It is hard to write about France without mentioning Napoleon, the Corsican tyrant who codified the laws of many European states, and imposed his iron will on the European land mass, shutting us out from vital markets.  Since then, our instinctive foreign policy has always been “the balance of power” which is why we tend to view any attempts at European union askance. As De Gaulle said: “France has no friends, only interests.” During my secondary education the French and Germans achieved a difficult rapprochement after nigh on a century of bloody slaughter; the European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951 to make, in the words of the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schumann, “war not only unthinkable but materially impossible” by integrating the economies of six European countries. Britain stayed aloof, cherishing the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere.

In the sixth form we gradually became aware of some of the giants of French Literature: Molière, Flaubert, Maupassant, and the soldier poet De Vigny. Later on in life, I enjoyed reading Montaigne, Balzac, Victor Hugo and Albert Camus. French has a much smaller vocabulary than English, so may manifest less nuance, but it possesses greater precision in its grammar, and a clarity of expression which owes much to the French preoccupation with the logic of philosophy. Dickens, for all his genius in depicting characters and places, seems morbidly sentimental alongside the icy gaze of Flaubert or Balzac. Apart from Molière, I have found French drama much more difficult. Racine and Corneille were so bound up with the classical unities of time and place, the rigidities of verse structure and symbolic posturing of emotions that they appeared alien to a young Englishman; yet the French themselves have always appreciated Shakespeare in spite of his untidy plotting and lumpy blank verse. Perhaps nations are favoured by different muses, in which case ours is drama, whilst the French undoubtedly excel at painting. The explosion of French art which began with Impressionism astounded the world, filling galleries with the most stunning and revelatory art which had ever been seen. To stand where Cézanne had his easel and look at Mont St Victoire in the sharp winter sunlight of Provence made me realise how much a great artist makes you see. Nevertheless, there are times when Paris, with its vistas of radiating boulevards, its aesthetic chic, seems like one great carefully tended museum, all its troubles carefully swept out of sight by the enceinte of the boulevard péripherique, whilst London, a jostling multi-ethnic city, untidily planned and inharmonious, pulsates with life.

I never actually visited France until I was twenty four, when we crossed the Channel to visit Margaret’s pen friend, Marie Françoise, who was working as a pharmacist in a grimy industrial village, Auchy Les Mines. The first thing which struck me on arrival was the smell of the drains. In 1963, French plumbing was still fairly primitive, and the northern towns, ravaged by two world wars, were stark: raw red brick, cobbled streets and dilapidated shops. We managed to find a job in some depot which packaged pharmaceutical products, and went for a drink each evening in the village café, leaning on the zinc bar and watching the miners come in, still covered in pit dirt, to drink glasses of rouge…it was like a Zola novel. Over the years, as our children grew up, we spent every summer holiday camping in France, driving along the poplar lined routes nationales, getting to know local people and exploring every corner of the vast hexagon. During this time, France had joined the Common Market and was becoming more and more prosperous, whilst Britain was beset by industrial decline. As time progressed, we became more determinedly Francophile, and followed all sorts of language courses to improve our spoken French. I ended up taking the Institute of Linguists Advanced Course then, on retirement, we both took a year’s course at Hull University.

Pottering around France every summer gave us a great insight into the regional varieties of French cuisine. “How can anyone govern a nation which produces two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese?” De Gaulle once asked. Wandering around any French market is a delight: the varieties of fruit and vegetables on offer, stalls selling olives, cheeses, sausages, a rotisserie slowly turning whole chickens on spits. Their culinary repertoire is world-renowned, and most small towns can boast at least one good restaurant which will offer a table d’hôte of local dishes: andouillete in the north, choucroute in Alsace, tripes in Normandy, crêpes in Brittany, coq au vin in Burgundy, cassoulet at Toulouse, bouillabaisse in Marseilles – the list could go on and on, with multiple variations. The limited English stock of dishes had been curtailed by the industrial revolution; it lacked the range of ingredients and the skills found in its French counterpart. The French have always found it hard to disguise their incomprehension and distaste for our cooking – the over-boiled vegetables, bland sauces and undressed salads….but, things are now changing. The English have discovered a passion for gastronomy; television is dominated by celebrity cooks – we even export some of them to France;  most pubs offer food, and some of it is of very high quality. It is not uncommon to find pubs with Michelin gastro stars dotted about the English countryside, often in the most unlikely places. Our later experience has been that, whilst French cooking is still in many respects exemplary, it is now trapped in a tradition which no longer innovates, repeating the same patterns year after year. True, there have been styles, like cuisine minceur, which was a sort of minimalist cooking that left one feeling hungry, but the flair seems to have passed to less hidebound cultures who are prepared to create fusions of technique and culture – Australia is a good example.

Forty or thirty years ago, whenever we entertained French visitors, they seemed perplexed by our social habit of sitting in pubs, drinking vast quantities of warm beer. Wine drinking was a middle-class phenomenon in England, and on special occasions we bought bottles labelled “Hirondelle” or “Spanish Burgundy” (this latter label forbidden when we joined the Common Market). I used to buy wine making kits from Boots the Chemists, inexpertly converting canned grape juice into acidic vin très ordinaire. Apart from the occasional dry sherry, the favourite of academics, aperitif drinking was rare in this country. The ceremonious pre-prandial ritual of French households only caught on as more of us travelled and became prosperous enough to stock the drinks cupboard with gin, Martini, Pernod and other aperitifs. Now pubs, which used to be the social centre of neighbourhoods, are in rapid decline, thousands closing every year. The reasons for this are various: ale dispensed in a pub is now relatively very expensive – you can buy cases of beer in a supermarket much cheaper; the breathalysing of motorists has killed off much of the country pub trade; television and central heating act as inducements to stay at home. Pubs now survive by turning themselves into restaurants, and English consumption of wine has soared to record levels.

The French, although most of them are too polite to say it, are amazed by the sheer amount of wine the English now consume at meals. In a French home, you may be offered one or two smallish servings of a very good wine during a meal, whilst the English will happily knock back the equivalent of a bottle or more per person. Along with many other European nations, they are also astonished by the binge culture which now pervades Britain. The centres of even quite small market towns such as Beverley can be disconcerting places to strangers on a weekend evening, with gangs of young people, dressed in minimal clothing even on the coldest night, roaming from one pub to another. The price of pub drinks means that they often tank up with bottles of cheap vodka before leaving the house. This excess drinking, plus the drug culture associated with clubs, means that the police are frequently overstretched on Friday and Saturday nights, dealing with drunken affrays, alcohol related insensibility and public disorder. Hospital accident and emergency units and the ambulance service can be overwhelmed, as if in a war zone. We are often exhorted to “drink sensibly”, develop a café culture, like the French, and drink in moderation, but the surprising fact is that rates of alcoholism are, and always have been, much higher in France than in England. Steady consumption of alcohol has always been much more embedded in the French way of life: the café-cognac you so often see consumed as breakfast, the ritual of the aperitif, while the English are more taken with the North European culture of the massive binge. The alcohol limit for driving is lower in France than here, and now you are forced to carry two breathalysers in your car. Surprisingly, the teenage binge culture now appears to be catching on in France.

Of course, around four million French citizens belong to a religion, Islam, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Although the French Republic forbids the collection of religious or ethnic data by census, there are estimates made, compounded by the problem of the numbers of sans-papiers, the illegal immigrants who manage to subsist on French territory, and Muslims now form the second largest religious group in the country after Catholicism. The vast majority of these come from the North African littoral: Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, countries which were colonised by France. France has a particular problem with Algeria; not only was there a bloody war of independence, but about 800,000 pieds-noir ( French inhabitants of Algeria) were returned to France in 1962, and there has been large scale immigration of the Muslim population since. The French Constitution is founded on laïcité, the separation of religion and state, and so symbols of faith are forbidden in public buildings, such as schools and hospitals, so veils are banned for Muslim women, as are crosses for Christians. French policy has always been that immigrants should accept the values of the Republic and integrate into the French way of life; In England, there has been much more tolerance of multi-culturism, with respect for different cultures and languages, although there are signs that this is about to change.

Although the French Constitution treats everyone as equal before the law, there is no policy of positive discrimination in France, and it is rare to see government ministers, members of the National Assembly or television presenters who are not ethnically French by origin. There is widespread de facto segregation by housing and school district, and a number of mosques have been desecrated in recent years, probably by  Français de souche, the ethnically French, who object to the widespread immigration. Conversely, there have been anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues by Islamists as well as targeted killings. In August 2012, there were widespread riots by North African immigrants in Amiens. Although in England there is a constant alert against Islamist terrorism since the 2005 co-ordinated suicide attacks in London, there does not seem to be the same widespread community tension. Here, in the high-visibility worlds of the establishment, entertainment and sport, there are signs of progress: there are more than four times as many black and ethnic minority MPs in Parliament as there were in 1993. An African-born man is in charge of a FTSE 100 company. Black and Asian actors regularly take leading roles in prime-time TV series.

When I taught “A” level Politics and Government, it was a given that there were two scales to politics: right to left, and hard to soft i.e. a communist was hard-left, and a socialist soft-left. The English were found more on the first scale and the French, where parties like Communists and National Front were strong forces, to the second.
This is still true to some extent, although the Communist Party in France has suffered a spectacular decline. However, since Thatcher, the two main British parties have fought increasingly for the centre ground, and New Labour has become merely a softer version of the neo-liberal tendency of Conservatism. The demolition of capital exchange controls and dominance of the City has meant that Britain has become an open market free for all, with everything up for sale, and manufacturing industry left in the clutches of rapacious private equity, whose main concern is shareholder profitability and asset-stripping – only Scotland has resisted this process. One ironic consequence has been that the French, who have kept a much tighter grip on their public utilities, have gained control of many of ours, so the French electricity giant EDF now controls electricity generation and supply in much of southern England, the nuclear power station operator, British Energy was sold to EDF in 2008, and BAA, which owns six British airports, is now owned by Spanish operator Ferrovial…the list goes on and on. France, by contrast, operates a much more protectionist policy, designed to protect French interests and jobs. French politicians, wherever they lie on the political spectrum, are much more conscious of “solidarity” and are much more suspicious of Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism. Bureaucracy is more solidly entrenched there, and trade unions have not been decimated in the same way as in this country. I know that the revolutionary tradition means that French people are much more likely to take to the streets and demonstrate, to tip tons of rotting fruit or block the autoroute with tractors, than the English, who are conditioned by centuries of deference to monarchy and thus placidly amenable to authority. Recent arbitrary changes to schools in England would have closed the system down in France in mayhem; our teachers meekly go along, accepting structures they know are wrong.

In spite of recent moves towards greater regionalism, the concept of the state remains much stronger in France than in England, where waves of post-Thatcherite privatisation have taken place. The natural monopolies, gas, electricity and water have been sold off; the railway has been chaotically split into track and operating companies, making it the most expensively inefficient system in Europe; prisons, police, schools, the health service and welfare services are all being gradually dismantled into saleable elements; above all, private enterprise is vaunted as being immeasurably superior to any form of state control – “planning” by bureaucrats is regarded as interference with the natural wisdom of the market. By contrast, France runs “grenelles de l’environnment” – open multi-party debates which bring together representatives of national and local government, plus industrialists and trade unions to discuss planning for future change and all its consequences. They discuss topics such as building and housing, transport, energy, health and agriculture. Hence France has built for itself a secure energy supply (admittedly based on nuclear power), the best railway network in Europe, with ultra-high speed trains, a widespread toll motorway network, and a contributory health system which seems to work with more efficiency than our own. There are problems in France too: a very high rate of unemployment, particularly among the young, partly caused by the high costs of employment and embedding of workers’ rights; a tax system which seems to discourage enterprise, so much so that an estimated 100,000 French people have emigrated to London; also strikes are much more frequent in the public sector, so the magnificent trains are not stopped by chaos, as in England, but by worker power.

The United Kingdom is a curious concept, three and a third countries (Southern Ireland quit in 1922), historic enemies united mainly by the monarchy and mangled pronunciations of the same language, a federation which is becoming steadily looser. France took a long time to establish French as a common language: there was Flemish and German to the north, Breton to the west and Occitan to the south, plus numerous dialects in between. Since Napoleon the state has been a strongly centralising force, excluding other languages from the education system, and insisting on uniformity to French culture. This has slackened somewhat in recent years, but I cannot conceive that French people would tolerate any secession from the hexagon; after all, they fought bloody wars over Alsace-Lorraine and Flanders. As Britain’s imperial role has disappeared, and the European Union provides the same protections as the United Kingdom used to do, there has been a distinct waning of Britishness in my lifetime, and a revival of English nationalism. This is a pattern you can see in other parts of Europe: Spain, Italy and Belgium, where ethnic irredentism seems to thrive in an age of internationalism. The universal adoption of English as the lingua franca of our time means that we are less defensive of our culture than the French, although we insensibly become more American in vocabulary and pronunciation. One by-product of French protectionism of their language and culture has been the emergence of a great film industry whose directors rank among the world’s best.

At the height of the 1940 débacle, Churchill offered the French government a sort of condominium, with joint French and British citizenship, if they continued to fight in the war. I don’t think this would really have worked for very long. Although both countries share much in common: world empires which have disappeared, long-standing traditions of liberty and democracy, some common culture and even bits of vocabulary, they exist as mutually exclusive nations with such a long-standing tradition of rivalry that true partnership is elusive. In recent decades there has been a good deal of military co-operation, also co-ordinated foreign policy, as befits two middle-ranking powers, and we have even built a Channel Tunnel together, but the English look across the Atlantic, still seeking a ‘special relationship’ with their imperial cousins, with whom the most intimate sharing of intelligence takes place, greatly to France’s jealousy. Personally, I greatly esteem the French and, if re-incarnation were to be on offer, would consider coming back for a try at being one, but I think the relationship between the two countries will persist as a mixture of mutual admiration and irritation.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


To the Portobello Road to visit the Electric Cinema; this is reputedly the oldest cinema in England, dating from 1911. The interior, now lovingly preserved, is truly magical - deep armchairs in Moroccan leather, with a pouffé to put your feet on, glass tables with individual lamps, and a bar at the back! Coming here was experience enough, but the film, Stephen Spielberg's "Lincoln" was good too. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays his subtle agonising over the American Civil War to perfection. Apart from a brutal beginning, the war is seen obliquely, as the struggle in Congress to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. This required not only high idealism, but compromise and even chicanery, and Lincoln's wry, profound humour. Some critics find it too wordy, but it deals with the intricacies and morality of politics in a totally arresting way. It perhaps over-idealises Lincoln's commitment to black equality (he wanted to ship freed slaves to Liberia), but gives a great insight into the mind of the greatest democratic politician who ever lived. 

Thursday, 17 January 2013


I was born in 1938, a home delivery, and of course I don't remember that, but looking at the photographs, I think that I must have been a somewhat pampered child. My mother was hyper-anxious after my hospitalisation at six weeks with pyloric stenosis, which caused projectile vomiting and gradual starvation. Saved by the surgical skills of our own GP., Dr McKerchar, I was regarded as fragile, fed up on expensive Cow & Gate powdered milk and dressed in luxury infant clothes which must have been the envy of all the other mothers on our terraced street. My father, a mate and shareman on a Grimsby trawler, earned good money, but we only saw him every three weeks or so. Mother's grandfather and grandmother lived with us, so I guessed that I was doubly fussed over.

My first real memory must date from early 1940, when workmen were digging a large hole in the sandy soil of our back garden to erect the corrugated iron air raid shelter, which was called an “Anderson” after the then Home Secretary. This dark hole contained four wire frame bunks, candles and a paraffin lamp; it was to be our hiding place on many a night in the next three years. By then my father was a naval officer, based in Dover and later in Lowestoft, coming home even less frequently than before. We used to meet him at the railway station, and he always looked tanned and glamorous in his navy uniform with the gold rings on his sleeves; there was always a present for me – once a scale model of a Lancaster bomber, made by one of his crew. Food was now rationed, but my father was friendly with the Lowestoft Co-op manager, and brought lots of “black market” food home, including a huge leg of pork carried on his shoulder!

As the war intensified, even an infant noticed the changes: huge barrage balloons were tethered over the docks; we were all issued with gas masks (mine was a Mickey Mouse one); cars gradually disappeared from the streets and were replaced by army lorries, bren gun carriers and tanks; every house had black - out curtains, and it was an offence to show a light; each neighbourhood had its volunteer air raid wardens, firemen and police; after dark there were no street lights, but the sky was festooned with searchlights sweeping for enemy raiders. In 1941 the air raids began in earnest. As the sirens wailed, I would be pulled from the warm blankets and rushed downstairs into the Anderson shelter, where we lay shivering on the uncomfortable bunks, waiting for the drone of German bombers as they headed for the docks. Poor old grandfather was too fragile to move by this stage, so he was left upstairs in the back bedroom to stare out at the twinkling pyrotechnics of the anti-aircraft guns and the interlocking beams of the searchlights. These air raids would last for hours; sometimes it was a false alarm, and you heard nothing, but occasionally bombs would burst nearby, and the shock would send rivulets of sand seeping through the roof of the shelter. Usually towards dawn the “All Clear” would sound, and we could all stagger bleary-eyed back to our beds.

We had a wireless, and Mam and Grandma would huddle round it to hear the news – in the early days, a string of defeats, or oblique announcements: “an East Coast town was bombed last night”, but never any details. My Grandma had a particular dislike of Winston Churchill, whom she remembered as a brutal Home Secretary, who ordered up machine guns to quell a miners' strike at Tonypandy, so she was not as impressed as some by his stirring wartime broadcasts to the nation, but even a child could sense her anxiety as the raids began to worsen. Once, I wandered off on a summer's evening with a kid the same age as me, and we stood next to the railway line as the anti-aircraft guns started up on a lone raider, studding the twilight with tracer shells; needless to say, our parents were near hysterical when they found us. When Hull was almost destroyed in a terrible incendiary raid, I can remember being held up to see the whole sky on the other side of the Humber red with fire. Increasingly, gaps began to appear in the neighbouring streets; burnt shells of building with tatters of curtains still flapping, and beds hanging crazily on sagging beams. We were warned specifically as children that the Luftwaffe were dropping an anti-personnel bomb targeted at us – the “butterfly bomb”, a little toy-like structure which floated down on a parachute. There was only one such raid in Grimsby, but several children died, or lost a limb. A favourite game, on the mornings after a raid, was to collect shrapnel, the fragments of casing from the ack ack shells which had been bursting over our heads in the night.

The climactic raid for us came one night in 1943, when the Luftwaffe used the railway line to drop sticks of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the nearby docks. We could hear the bombs whistling down on nearby houses, and the whole shelter shook with the blasts. Ma and grandma cowered over me, reciting prayers on their rosary beads. As the explosions subsided my Dad, who was home on leave, stepped out of the door (strictly against ARP regulations) to look at the damage. There were houses on fire in all the streets around us; two doors down, an incendiary bomb was lodged in the roof, and an auxiliary fireman was trying to put it out with a stirrup pump and a bucket of water. When the All Clear sounded, and we re-entered the house, all the windows had been shattered by the bomb blasts and glass was hanging from the obligatory criss-cross sticky tape. My poor old granddad was still lying in bed, delirious with fear, covered in ceiling plaster and shards of glass; he thought that he had seen Germans firing at him through the window. The whole house was covered in brick dust, windowless and temporarily uninhabitable.

That settled it. My mother's sister May lived on the west side of the country in Fleetwood, where there was no air raid activity, so a few days later we all boarded a crowded wartime train and made our way over to Lancashire, where we lived with my Aunt May in a crowded terrace house containing my aunt and uncle, cousin Gladys and her three daughters, a lodger, and then the four of us – eleven of us – but at least our nights were not disturbed by constant air raids. I remember that my mother used to get fed up living in such  crowded surroundings and would sometimes take me on the tram to Blackpool, a big seaside resort, where there were still restaurants, and shows at the Winter Gardens and the Tower Ballroom. The place seethed with Americans enjoying themselves before the rigours of combat, taking rides in the horse-drawn landaus and filling the pubs. The food rationing became stricter, but luckily my uncle worked in a fish house, so we always seemed to have plenty of haddock and cod, plus kippers for breakfast. Two pigeons were in the habit of eating grains which spilled from our rabbit cage near the door, until the lodger grabbed them and wrung their necks, so we could eat pigeon pie.

When I was five, it was time to start school. My mother's side of the family was Catholic, so I was enrolled at St Mary's RC Primary School in Fleetwood. This establishment was run, very strictly, by nuns, frightening apparitions swathed from top to toe in black robes, their pale, otherworldly faces encased in white wimples of starched linen. There were forty of us in a class, and the teaching methods were primitive: due to wartime restrictions, there was little paper, so all our early attempts at writing and numbers were scratched on slates; the nuns taught by rote and everything was instilled in you by fear and repetition – I once failed to recite the Lord's Prayer by heart, and was made to stand behind the blackboard for the rest of the lesson; sometimes the parish priest would come and harangue us about the catechism – Q. “Who made you?” A .“God made me.” Q. “Why did he make you?” A. “To know him, love him and serve him for ever.” - this used to go on for an hour or more. At least it gave me a retentive memory, but we all used to slink home in relief.

Greater relief came when we returned to Cleethorpes as the tide of war turned in our favour, and I was sent to Barcroft St. School. I can remember being in class when the teacher turned the wireless on, and we heard that the war with Germany was over. Mr Fisher, our head teacher gave us all a half-day holiday, and there was general rejoicing in the streets. The teaching here was much better; there was more interest and pace in the lessons, but the discipline was strict – teachers routinely hit you over the open hand with bunched rulers, and the only time that my mother came to the school was to complain because I had been temporarily deafened by a blow on the ear from the music teacher (I had been mouthing silently instead of singing in the choir). I always remember with great affection Mr Saddington, our teacher in the scholarship class (which would now be Year 6). Near retirement, a 1st World War veteran, he nevertheless was an inspiring and imaginative teacher, who harnessed our enthusiasm for learning early on in life. Two of the boys recruited from the back streets of an obscure town later became professors. Passing the scholarship, the 11+, was the great hurdle in our lives - if you passed, you went to the Grammar School, with the possibility of a white collar job, maybe a training college or university, - if you failed then you went to the Secondary Modern School, to become one of the hewers of wood and drawers of water. When our results were announced, there was a heart-stopping moment when Mr Saddington did not read out my name – my result had come earlier, and he had forgotten – but then he remembered. Those of who passed were allowed to rush home and tell our parents, who might reward us with a brand-new bike as a reward; the rest of the class sat there, doomed and disconsolate. Year later, when I was a teacher myself, I discovered that the IQ pass required for grammar school entry was set lower for boys than girls, who were not expected to benefit as much from higher education as males. My sister, who was a bright girl, suffered from this.

During the time I was at primary school, my brother and sister were born, David when I was seven, and Kathleen when I was ten. This often happened to wartime families as parents were reluctant to bring children into the world during the horrors of war. When I look at the bevy of  information and entertainment devices which our grandchildren have enjoyed, our sources of knowledge and amusement look meagre. There were two books in our house: a Douai version of the Catholic New Testament and a copy of Walter Scott's “Ivanhoe” which my mother had won as a school prize. Later on, I acquired a Victorian edition of the “Tales of Robin Hood” and I read comics endlessly; there was “Dandy” and “Beano” for younger children, the “Wizard” and “Hotspur” for older boys, but the ultimate space-age comic arrived in the '50s, the ”Eagle”, an all-colour magazine-style comic for boys with exploded diagrams showing you how trains, radios or planes worked. I joined the public library, and soon became an avid borrower of books. Houses were much colder then, with heating only in the living room, so it was much harder to retreat to your bedroom in winter. There was the wireless to listen to on an evening, although this often annoyed the old folk, and the cinema, to which we often went two or three times a week. A man in a neighbouring street used to rig up a cinematograph  on a Sunday evening and charge us sixpence to see the great silent films: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. We had no sense of deprivation, because this was the age into which we had been born; we knew no better.

Compared to modern children, I would hazard a guess that we played a lot more, engaged in handicraft hobbies more and were left much more to our own devices: “children should be seen and not heard”. Life was not child-centred, and most adults had no compunction about dealing out slaps and abuse to children who stepped out of line, although this often caused neighbourhood rows.  We could wander off to the beach, or play out in the street until dusk, and no one bothered. I was only once made aware of one case of child abuse, involving an old man in the neighbourhood, but we were allowed to roam at will for quite long distances from a very early age – no one ever took you to school, or waited for you at the gates. You could play football, much to the annoyance of the neighbours, in the largely traffic-free streets, or shin up lamp posts to switch the gaslight out. Spinning tops, playing marbles or jacks on the pavements, rolling hoops, smashing each others' conkers – all these games seemed to have their due season. Kids would cycle out to an old chalk quarry at Ravendale and steal fledgling jackdaws to bring up as pets, and collecting birds' eggs was a common hobby, as was fishing for eels and flatfish along the coal blackened shores of the Humber. Many of us had an air pistol or rifle for shooting at birds. Gangs would fight one another, armed with wooden swords and dustbin lids for shields, and a certain amount of bullying was common. There was a rough family of kids living near us we soon learned to avoid. A favourite present for boys was a model aeroplane, chemistry set or crystal radio kit, and we would spend hours trying to build these things. Board and card games were very popular, and you could play these with adults. Our Dad was very good at draughts, Crown & Anchor and pontoon, but never allowed children to win unless he could possibly help it.

One of the annoyances of childhood was being constantly sent on errands. There were no supermarkets then, and most houses did not have refrigerators, so most shopping was done on a daily basis. There was a grocer's shop, Bratleys, on the corner of our terrace block, and a small bakery a street away, which sold the most delicious hot cakes, which we had for breakfast in winter. Children were expected to fetch meat from the butchers, medicines from the chemist and stamps from the post office – whatever the family needed that day. Coal was delivered in a filthy old lorry by men black with coal-dust, and a horse and cart brought milk from an outlying farm, selling it from a pint measure into the open jugs you brought out. The main cooked meal of the day was dinner, which nowadays would be lunch-time, and we always came home from school for that. “Tea” was at five – o - clock, usually sandwiches and cakes, sometimes Welsh rarebit, and often we had tea or cocoa, plus biscuits for supper. Modern children would find some of the food we ate somewhat bizarre: bread and beef dripping, raw tripe with vinegar, all sorts of offal and whole crabs. Although meals were much more calorific than today's, with piles of potatoes and sticky puddings, people appeared much slimmer because they needed to eat a lot to make up for the lack of heating in the houses, also there were few labour-saving devices. Monday was wash day, a day of hard physical labour for the woman of the house. The fire under the boiler had to be lit and coaxed into life, then the clothes were soaked, hand washed with a three-legged wooden “posher”, then wrung through a huge mangle before being hung up to dry. Dinner on wash day was always the minced up remains of the Sunday joint of meat. Everything required more effort: the coal scuttle needed constant refilling in winter; enduring the ice-cold outside lavatory, with its spike of torn-up newspaper squares as toilet paper; most people were used to walking or cycling long distances; bath time was a once a week teeth-chattering torture. Fortunately, we never had to walk the dog – we just let him out the back door, where he would run off to join the local pack.

When I was eleven, ready to start at the grammar school, I was laid low by an attack of scarlet fever. Bed-ridden for three weeks, I hallucinated and sweated it out. When I was pronounced well again, the room was fumigated. This was the pattern of most of the childhood illnesses we were expected to endure: mumps, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox. There was no programme of vaccination, so you had to submit to the ordeal to gain immunity. Polio, the dreaded crippling disease which could lame you or put you inside an iron lung for the rest of your life, was especially dreaded, and outbreaks often occurred in summer at swimming pools. Eventually, the Salk vaccine was produced, and we were all given sugar lumps coated with this bitter remedy. Antibiotics were just becoming available, but blood-poisoning could still be fatal, caused by wound infection. My grandmother developed breast cancer, and after crude radium treatment came home with dreadful burns on her breast. She lay in bed moaning with pain with an inadequate supply of morphine until she eventually died. The National Health Service was in its infancy, but older people delighted in the free spectacles and dentures they were now able to obtain; very few of them had their own teeth, it being considered prudent pre-war to have all your teeth extracted to save you future pain!

Grammar school was very different from the primary school; it was much further away, a good two mile cycle ride in all weathers, and the expectations were very different too. Our grammar school preferred to be called Humberstone Foundation School, and had only recently stopped being a fee-paying school. The 1944 Education Act had opened the doors into institutions like this for working class children, but we were kept strictly in line: not wearing the school cap on the way to and from school was a detention offence, and we quickly learned the school song by heart. Punishments were usually writing lines, copying out some sentence hundreds of times, but masters would playfully throw the board rubber at someone who was inattentive, or tweak ears if you didn't answer quickly. Prefects were allowed to give lines, but only the head master, Lt Colonel S F Thomas DSO, used the cane. He was a forbidding character, a 1st World War veteran who stalked the corridors in mortar board and gown ( all the masters wore gowns). When he took an Assembly you could hear a pin drop; he did not cane very often, but when he did, even the toughest boys dreaded it. Teaching was a hit or miss affair: most teachers regurgitated their notes, or wrote screeds on the chalk board without bothering to check too much on whether you had understood it, but occasionally you met a master who loved his subject and was determined to share his enjoyment with you. Every pupil was expected to box; there was an annual school boxing tournament, and we were encouraged to pummel one another in the ring. There were absurd mismatches of height and weight, so bloody noses and black eyes were routine. I soon managed to evade this bloody ritual by becoming a sought-after second, whispering ineffectual advice in the cauliflower ear of some tough as I wiped his cut eye with stinging iodine.

At least there were clubs and societies at the grammar school, and I joined the Chess Club and the Debating Society as lunchtime or after school activities. There was the annual occasion of the school play or comic opera, where rather androgynous boys took the part of girls. I was never talented enough to take part, but it all seemed very glamorous to me. A bachelor English teacher used to project films at his house on a Sunday night; nowadays it would be regarded as somewhat paedophilic, but we were all sublimely innocent. Lots of boys joined the cubs, scouts or St John's Ambulance Brigade. I tried all three, but invariably drifted away after a few weeks, as I found them fairly boring. I was dragooned into joining the Catholic youth club, where there was at least a good billiard table, but we were always under the watchful eye of the parish priest. Masses of homework seemed to fill every weekday evening but, as adolescence appeared, the need to escape the confines of home grew, so we joined ballroom dancing classes, where at least you had the opportunity to meet some girls.

In 1953, sweet rationing ended, and there was an orgy of sugar fixation, as people queued outside sweet shops to buy confections they had not seen for many years: bull's eyes, gob stoppers, liquorice all sorts, hundreds and thousands, boxes of chocolates. Before that we had made do with cinnamon sticks or liquorice roots bought at the chemists, although Dad was good at making treacle toffee, which you had to break with a hammer. After all those years, tooth decay started to mount again. An even more pernicious habit was tobacco. Almost everyone seemed to smoke, and the atmosphere on the top deck of a bus was sometimes unbreathable. You were allowed to smoke on the top deck, and the bottom deck always had a sign which read “No smoking or spitting.” My father could import (smuggle?) cigarettes at rock bottom prices, and we always had a back bedroom full of cigarette cartons. Consequently, I soon became addicted to the habit myself, and it took a long time to shake off. No one at that stage had established the connection between smoking and lung cancer; Dad, who used to roll his own cigarettes, would smoke up to fifty a day, even smoking in bed when he went up for his afternoon nap – he was to die of lung cancer, aged fifty four. Pubs had very strict licensing hours, closing at 10.00pm, and were frequently patrolled by police, but beer was relatively cheap, and very few people drank spirits. The neighbourhood pub was a sort of social centre, where people met on a regular basis. Women were allowed in, but there were men-only rooms. My grandmother would send me down as a child to the Clee Park Hotel, where I would tap on the bar room door and ask for “Bob”- he was the illegal bookie (all off-course gambling was forbidden), and I would hand him a half-crown wrapped in a piece of paper which had grandmother's bet on it.

There were cinemas everywhere, most of them long since disappeared. At the top of the market were chains like ABC and Rank, with cinemas named “Ritz”, “Regal” or “Savoy”. Entering their plush carpeted foyers was a step up into art deco luxury. You would be led to your seat by usherettes with torches, and a cinema organ aglitter with lights would rise from the bowels of the pit to entertain customers before the show, or during the interval. They showed the latest Hollywood blockbuster or Ealing Studios comedy, and always had the most advanced sound and Technicolor. Most children belonged to a Saturday Club like the ABC minors, a rowdy audience for Abbot & Costello or Hopalong Cassidy films. A step below these chains were the privately owned cinemas, much shabbier, and showing “B” list features or mainstream films the second time round. One of these, the Plaza, was owned by Charlie Clow, who used to let grammar school boys in on Wednesdays (our afternoons off) for half-price; only later, when he was convicted of indecency with minors, did we discover his motives! There was even one cinema, The Queen's, which showed art films, very avant garde for those days. Our fifth form went there to see Orson Wells' “Macbeth”, a play we were supposed to be studying for “O” level, and I remember the screen being steadily stained as boys threw their apple cores in disapproval. The lowest level of back street cinema was called a “flea pit”; they were very cheap, but you did risk something scuttling across your feet during the performance, and you felt distinctly itchy when you came out.

Television came to our household in 1953, the year of the Queen's coronation, in the form of a twelve inch black and white set encased in a walnut cabinet. We were the first family in our street to own a television, and our small living room was filled with neighbours who sat all day, watching the dismal spectacle. Football matches, especially cup ties, attracted crowds of relatives, but there was only one station, broadcasting from five to eleven – o – clock, and ending with the national anthem. Announcers were invariably posh and wore evening dress. Plays and quiz shows were live, as there was no recording equipment, so mistakes were frequent and more amusing than most of the programmes; if a car or motor bike passed in the street outside, the screen was suffused in snow-like interference, as most vehicles had not yet been fitted with suppressors, and the set needed constant fiddling to keep horizontal and vertical holds in tune with the distant transmitter. Nevertheless, this provided us with a real window on the world.

Most men went to the football match on a Saturday afternoon, which was the only leisure time in the 45 hour working week. The grounds were jam-packed to bursting and every time there was an exciting moment or a goal you would see thousands of cigarettes glow in sympathy in the stand opposite. The grammar school had lessons on a Saturday morning, and we would go to the match at half-time, when the gates were opened and you could enter for nothing. Very few people took holidays in the modern sense; our next door neighbours had a little car, and might go for a spin in the country on a Sunday, but most people stuck to the trolley buses and, in summer, would take their children to join the thousands of day-trippers on the beach, or in the amusement park. Our parents would actually take us to the cemetery for a Sunday afternoon out, and we would place flowers on our grandmother's grave, fetch the watering can, and dolefully look around the recently interred. We did make one trip away, when Dad had a trip ashore, to Countesthorpe near Leicester, to see our uncle and family; most people would go and stay with family members rather than pay for boarding houses in some expensive seaside resort, where you had to take your ration books. My mother sent me, by lorry, to Countesthorpe when my sister was born, so I got to see Stratford and Warwick. The grammar school did organise a coach trip and took us down to London to see the 1951 Festival of Britain. We stayed in old air raid shelters, next to tramps, and had a great time, whizzing endlessly round the Tube on the Circle Line. There was an embryo computer at the Festival, as big as a warehouse, all winking valves, and it could manage to play noughts and crosses! Cycling was a child's best method of getting away from it all, and we could range along fairly traffic-free roads far into the countryside. Towards dusk, as we returned, we could see villagers lighting their oil lamps in the cottages, as many places had not yet been connected to the National Grid, nor did they have mains water supply, relying on pumps.

Modern children seem better off in many ways: the child-centred learning in schools has improved beyond recognition; they travel to places undreamed of in our day, by means which would have seemed magical to us; their homes are immeasurably warmer, and provided with more entertainment; they have more private space, incredibly more access to information, and they are safeguarded to an extent which would have seemed incomprehensible to our parents..... and yet, there was a locus of freedom in our lives which seems missing today. To put it simply, no one bothered too much about us; they trusted in our common sense and street-awareness; the school curriculum was not as stultifying as it is today; we could experiment and find out things without supervision. Of one thing I am sure, there is no such thing as an ideal childhood, and today's children will find their grand-children’s lives as different from theirs, as I do mine.