Tuesday 26 November 2013

John Hughes, an appreciation of a fine man

I have just discovered that John Hughes, the Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, during my time there from 1983-85 has died at the good age of 84. His wife Violet, known to everyone as Vi died two weeks before him, which may suggest that he just gave up the ghost when she went. On the other hand, such was their obvious devotion to each other that the romantic in me prefers to think that Vi left John in the house whilst she went on to get things ready for both of them. You can read John's obituary at this link and the one for Vi is here. I don't want to repeat what others have already written so what follows is my personal appreciation of a fine man.

Ruskin College, Oxford, when I went there had strong links with the Trades' Union movement and most of the forty of fifty students who started there every year had links to that movement and many got into their college via union sponsorship and back scratching. On the first night of our two year courses, all the new intake were invited to attend a rather inedible dinner which was followed by a speech from John.

He welcomed us in that gentle voice of his to our new home and then in a very quiet, sad voice told us that since the college was founded in 1899 a ritual had taken place at that dinner at which each new Ruskin man or woman had been invited to stand up, to give their name and  their union to the rest. John said that it was like a roll call of British working class pride as miners, engineers, dockers and the rest all got to their feet one by one. As the roll call went on the voices became more and more defiant as the union names were given out.

I remember John saying that by 1981 it had all got too much to bear because by that year the students were saying which union they had formerly belonged to before going on the dole. John told us that he had dropped the ritual, and he did not say if it was ever going to start again. Most of use assumed that it would, but I suspect that the prescient John Hughes knew that the days of working class pride were over for many years to come.

Jumping forward almost two years to Trinity Term 1985 and I remember taking a rather lovely girl on to the river in a Ruskin College punt. I cannot remember her name but she had delightful Pre-Raphaelite hair and even more delightful breasts that moved of their own accord under her dress. I was supposed to be studying for finals, but the day was as lovely as the girl so I spent that afternoon on the river.

The next morning I was wandering back to my own college when I met John on a staircase and we paused to chat about that gorgeous weather. John told me that when he was studying for his finals he decided that if the weather was bad then he would dedicate the whole day to his books, but if the sun was shining he would go on the river. Looking me up and down, still wearing the same clothes that he had seen me in the day before, he then remarked blithely: "That strategy is not recommended, by the way."

It was during that time, Trinity Term 1985, that a Ruskin don  named David Selbourne decided to break the college apart if he could. Selbourne had been the great Marxist poster boy who decided to break with his past during the Wapping print workers strike by writing a piece lambasting the strikers and selling it to one of the Murdoch titles that was on strike. Needless to say all hell broke loose in the college.

John used all his skills as a negotiator as well as letting his basic humanity shine forth to ensure that the students agreed to sit finals. How he did it I have no idea, but at least one tutor told me that only John Hughes could have got everyone to agree to everything just long enough to ensure that we all sat our exams and got our diplomas.

To John Denis Hughes, 1927-2013, thank you for everything.

Friday 22 November 2013

Staffordshire School Threatens Parents

This is, as the tabloids say, an outrage. The letter was sent by one Lynn Small, headmistress of a Staffordshire primary school to the parents of her charges. The letter informs the parents that their offspring are expected to attend an Islamic awareness event run by academics at Staffordshire University, that centre of academic excellence formerly known as North Staffordshire Polytechnic.

The letter also contains the threat that if a parent does not allow his child to attend, said child will have a "Racial Discrimination note" placed on his file. Note the capital letters there folks, and reflect that this bloody woman seems to think that capital letters are used to show that something is very, very important. The letter goes on to add that only a doctor's sick note will be accepted as valid for absence. In texts that were then sent out, the school demanded a fiver from all the parents to pay for this jaunt. That must have seemed like the piss in the shit sarnie to all recipients.

What was going on here? Probably the parents had been complaining about this proposed trip, so the school decided to show them who was boss. We need to remember that teachers, like social workers, are recruited from the crappier end of the lower middle class, and they often think that they are in some way superior to the parents of their pupils. The school may have felt that the parents were racist to the core and only a bit of stick would get them into a nice liberal line.  However, the parents went to the press and gave Lynn Small a nice dose of utter humiliation, with the local education authority then forcing her to back down.

The parents have won a battle, but must not think that they have won the war. While they are toasting their victory down the pub, the people involved in this nonsense will be doing what middle class types always do at times like this: having meetings to plan their comeback and then some weeks down the road, starting the whole thing all over again.

The parents should get involved in running the school, by becoming governors of it and by acting through their local councillors to ensure that stupidity like this never happens again. Alas, that is not how working class people behave, with the result that this insult to both them and their children will be repeated sooner rather than later.

What were you doing when you heard that Kennedy had been shot?

The world is divided up into those of us who remember exactly what we were doing when we got the news that John Kennedy had been shot and those who were not born at the time.

I was just seven at the time and the 22 November 1963 was the day that Father Christmas arrived at one of the main stores in Manchester. It was probably Lewis's, which in those days was one of the major stores in the city. Today the building is used by Primark to sell cheap clothes, but fifty years ago Lewis's dominated the city centre and the arrival of Father Christmas, and the switching on of the Christmas lights in that part of the city was something that we all anticipated.

Father Christmas would have arrived at about 6.00pm, and I have no idea if the store remained open after that time to allow for late shopping on the night. It probably didn't, as that was the way things were in those days. Anyway, my parents would have left Manchester city centre with me at about 6.30pm which funnily enough was the exact time that half a world away, President Kennedy's motorcade was passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, past the building where Lee Harvey Oswald was waiting with his rifle.

We got home and my father switched on the small, 19" black and white television that sat in a corner next to the fireplace. Britain only had two channels in those days and our set was usually tuned to the BBC, but whatever channel it was still took forever to come on as the valves that powered the set first of all had to get warmed up.

After about thirty seconds or so the sound came on, but the picture would always take another few moments to join it. Given what had happened in Dallas normal programmes had been cancelled, and the disembodied voice that was coming through the speaker was clearly talking about something important. Probably that was why my parents stopped doing whatever it was they had planned to do and gather around the set as the picture slowly came to life.

I can remember them sitting very quietly, ignoring me as I sat on the floor, and when I asked them what was happening I was told that Kennedy had been shot and injured.

At some point later in the evening in became clear that he was dead, but I do not remember when that news came through. I just remember the stillness in the house, with my mother who was normally bustling in the kitchen sat with her hands in her lap transfixed by the black and white images on the television. My father sat close to her, for once without his Manchester Evening News in hand, silently watching the events from across the Atlantic as they unfolded.

Gradually the house got back to normal and my mother went off to the kitchen whilst my father sat at the table reading his paper. Normality, of a very quiet kind, was restored.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Why are the Tories in terminal decline in Northern England?

There is a lot of Tory angst at the moment about the party's decline in Northern England. Following on the heels of their death in Scotland they have good reason to be worried. There is nothing strange about the death of the Tory Party in Northern England and they have only themselves to blame for the death rattle that began a generation ago. The first time that either of my parents voted Labour was 1983. I used to tease my dad that he was the only man in the 8th Army who voted for Churchill in 1945, so why did both of them choose Labour in '83? 
Partly it was because I was in the party and had introduced them to Michael Meacher, the local MP for Oldham West, and they liked him. However the main reason is that they regarded Thatcher, Tebbit and the like as scum.

My dad was a labourer at the Mather & Platts engineering factory in Manchester. He was a strong union man and if the Transport and General Workers' Union went on strike he was the first one out the gates. Funnily enough, he always told me that Sir William Mather was a "proper gentleman" and it was obvious that he had a great respect for Sir William as well as Mr Platt. He also had an atavistic loathing for the "jumped up little Hitlers" who were the foremen and charge hands at the factory. Funnily enough, he also had the same respect for his officers in the army that he held for Sir William Mather and the same loathing for the NCOs that he had for the factory foremen.

A lot of this may have been due to the fact that dad won a scholarship to the Manchester Art School in the 1920s and the fee-paying middle class types who were his classmates made his life a misery owing to the fact that he was from Hulme, which was an even bigger slum then than it is today. I once asked him why he did not just stick the nut on one of them as the middle class are essentially nothing more than gob on legs, but that wasn't the way he was wired up. Anyway, he left after a few months and returned to his old school and then did an apprenticeship only to be caught up in the Great Depression. He spent that on the dole interspersed with spells as a barman until the war broke out. Many years later his brother told me that there were two scholarship boys a year at that art school and the other one went on to help design the Festival of Britain in 1951. However, he was a type, not a working class lad from Hulme.

In the army my dad was treated with respect by his officers and the same respect was accorded him by the senior management at work after the war. All the earache he got came from the same type of people who had made his life a misery at the art school. It makes perfect sense that my parents voted Tory because the Tory Party under Churchill, Eden, MacMillan and Hulme were the type of men who genuinely respected working men.

The Tories that my parents voted for believed that every man had his place and that the place should be respected by all other men. My parents felt that way also. Thus It also makes perfect sense for Mr and Mrs Bell to have voted Labour for the first time ever in 1983. Thatcher did not respect the working class. That creature hated us and wanted to reduce us to penury and servitude.

Until the Tories relearn the way to appeal to working class people as working class people, and not putative middle class rabble, then they will continue to decline in Northern England.
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