|Posted on November 30, 2017 at 10:25 AM||comments (2)|
Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and since then his name has been indelibly associated with Christmas. This novel is credited by historians with reconstructing Christmas as a family centred festival of generosity.
I have my own childhood memories of Dickens at Christmas that I'd like to share with you, and I'd also like to share with you a tale of the remarkable generosity of a man I've probably never met, Mr J.G. Street. I have no idea what the initials J G stand for.
Every Christmas when I was a kid the Harrods van would turn up at our doorstep on the council estate where we lived in Edmonton. That was unusual, I doubt if any other doorsteps on the estate got such a delivery. On the van there were always three parcels for our family; a Christmas cake and a bottle of whisky for my Mum and Dad and a book, usually a Dickens volume, for me. The book was always inscribed in what is now to me obviously an old person's handwriting:
"To Andrew. from Mr J. G. Street. XMAS - year"
Mr Street was my Dad Charlie's pen friend and they'd been writing to each other for over thirty years by the time I was eleven in 1959. Charlie was then just over fifty, but Mr Street was then in his nineties.
Charlie was a working class boy from Edmonton who worked on an assembly line and Mr Street was a public school and Cambridge educated man who had been a successful barrister. We lived in a London council house, but Mr Street lived in a Surrey mansion that had servants quarters, and he still employed servants up to his death. I have no idea whether he ever married or had children, but I suspect he hadn't.
The original reason My Dad and Mr Street had started to write to each other in the late 1920s was because when Charlie was three he had caught the polio virus which left him disabled in both legs and his left arm. This meant that as an adult, before the birth of the NHS, he had to buy crutches, leg irons and wheelchairs and he - as well as countless others like him - didn't have the money to do so.
The Shaftesbury Society - a Christian charity - used to provide people like Charlie with a list of potential wealthy benefactors to whom they could write and ask for assistance, and Dad was given Mr Street's name. In other words they had to write begging letters. But Mr Street gave him financial support for about twenty years until the birth of the NHS meant that it was no longer needed. But these two men from such different backgrounds had become friends. They now wrote to each other as equals.
When Charlie married Kathy - another polio survivor - in 1945, Mr Street was an honoured wedding guest. His wedding present was an art deco seven day clock by Heal's that sat on the mantelpiece in our living room. When I was born in 1948 he sent me a christening present, and he sent me books every year until he died in the early 1960s. I must have met him when I was very small, but I have no memory of it. I do remember my Dad reading the letters from his pen friend and writing back, and the fact that Charlie's letters always began "Dear Mr Street" while the return letters always began "My Dear Bradford". I suppose that's how you were taught to write a personal letter at public school in the 1890s. I also remember having to write him a thank you letter for his Christmas gifts. It wasn't something that my eleven year-old self did very willingly of course.
I still have seven volumes of the Dickens books that Mr Street gave to me - I could never think of giving them away, but the book I really value most of all is my copy of "Treasure Island". It's probably the book that gave me a lifelong love of literature. It's inscribed "Andrew - from Mr Street -Easter 1955." So he must have thought of us at Easter as well as Christmas and birthdays.
How appropriate that so many of his books were by Dickens. Prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol most families simply celebrated Christmas by going to church. They didn't give gifts to each other, and they didn't see it as a reason for giving to Charity. But by the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novel; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens's Christmas books and vowed to give generously. In America in 1867, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.
So let's remember just how much Charles Dickens has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas, and I'll also remember the way he influenced the remarkable Mr J G Street.
Let's also remember that the period that I'm recalling - the 1950s and 60s - was in some ways a golden age for people whose disabilities meant that they needed to use expensive mobility aids such as wheelchairs and mobility vehicles. Quite simply, these were just supplied by the state - the user never entered into a financial transaction. It is of course true that the equipment the state supplied was very basic; there was little choice and little innovation, but the commitment to supply these products rendered the generosity of people like Mr Street redundant. But his friendship was never redundant, even twenty years later.
Today, the state provides cash to people with disabilities in the form of Personal Independence Payments , and it is out of these cash payments that the users are expected to purchase their own mobility aids. It is true, that this form of support provides users with choices about what aids they purchase and from whom they purchase them, and it is also true that this encourages more innovation. However, for many people PIP payments do not provide sufficient funds to purchase what the user needs; assuming of course that they can jump the significant hurdles to qualify for this assistance in the first place
On Facebook today you can see crowdfunding appeals to provide wheelchairs and other mobility aids. These are the twenty first century's equivalent of the begging letters of the 1930s and they are being responded to by a new generation of Mr Streets.
|Posted on November 13, 2017 at 6:40 PM||comments (0)|
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1994-95
Few cities have such a strong sense of both time and place as Jerusalem. This is not only because of its religious importance, it's also because it has been continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered since the iron age.
More than three thousand years ago Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. King David conquered the city in about 1000BC and made it his capital. Since then it has been conquered and lost by Babylonians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Marmelukes, Ottomans, British, Jordanians; and since 1967 by the Israelis. It is of course the City where Jesus was crucified and Mohammed flew off to the skies. No other city has such a continuous history of settlement, faith, and conflict. Ironically its Hebrew name means 'city of peace'; but Jerusalem has almost never been peaceful.
I've been there twice. My second visit was in the spring of 1995, when Marilyn and I and our two only just teenage children went as tourists. We saw all the famous sights - the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - as well as the Church of the Nativity in occupied Bethlehem. I'll never forget the sights of the Dome of the Rock and the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalen as we stepped out of the coach. These are the buildings that gives Jerusalem its soubriquet " The Golden City".
My first visit, was almost exactly a year earlier. It was more memorable even though I didn't see any of these iconic sites. I was working for a software company and was part of a team that responded to an enquiry for one of our products from an Israeli bank. I was accompanied on this visit by Murali, a colleague from our New York Office, and Murali and I met at Heathrow for our flight to Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Murali is an American who was born in Bombay, and like me, he had never visited Israel before.
Both of us expected that the security on our BA flight would be intense, but both the departure and the arrival security was just like any other flight. When we reached our hotel at about seven pm there was a message from Ari, our client - who we had never met - that he and five others would like to meet us for breakfast at the hotel the following morning at 7.30.
The Street names of Tel Aviv - King George Avenue, Balfour Street and Allenby Street - remind you that Palestine, as it then was, was once part of the British Empire. Breakfast over, the eight of us walked a short distance along Allenby Street to the bank's art deco offices for discussions that carried on until well after ten o'clock that evening. When the bank closed its doors at about six thirty we continued the discussion at the home of one of the participants. Somebody ordered a Chinese takeaway. Murali works in New York, and I work in London; and in both these cities high value business meetings can be very intense and pressured, but this is the only time that either of us had been in a fifteen hour meeting. We retired to bed exhausted. The following day was a Thursday and the meetings only went on for six hours. That evening Murali had to return to New York. My flight was the following evening and Friday is not a working day in Israel. Ari asked me what I would be doing tomorrow. When I said I would just write up my notes and when finished I would just stroll around Tel Aviv he replied "But you can't come all this way and not visit Jerusalem".
I asked him about buses. "Ach!, I'll take you" he replied. "Meet me outside your hotel at seven." I had hoped for a lie-in.
The following morning Ari and I had breakfast in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv - a kind of Camden Lock/ Borough Market-like labyrinth started in the 1920s by Yemeni and Russian Jewish immigrants. Ari mentioned that his father had walked to Tel Aviv from the Yemen at about the same time. We then set out on the ninety minute drive through the desert to the gates of Jerusalem. On the way he asked me what sights I wanted to see. This phased me, as I had not given it any thought, so I replied with the first place that came into my head "What about the Dome of The Rock?
Ari winced."It's the Muslim day of prayer, there may be violence. Not a good idea, my wife would never forgive me if anything happened to you."
After a pause. "I know what we'll do. We'll go the Mea Sharim". He explained that the Mea Sharim was the ultra orthodox quarter and asked If I knew Stamford Hill. I said I did, and he told that it would be like Stamford Hill on a much larger scale.
The Oslo accord, which was supposed to end fifty years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been signed a few months earlier. As we drove into occupied East Jerusalem we saw the black white and green Palestinian tricolor flying. Ari was clearly shocked. He said that he never thought he would live to see that sight. He was fifty, and was still a reservist inthe Israeli Army. He didn't want his children to still be serving soldiers when they were his age. This was a short-lived time of optimism in the region, which is why we went as tourists the following year. I don't know whether I would want to go now.
The Mea Sharim is one of Israel's most deprived communities. The poverty is visible when you look at the food on sale. Like most Mediterranean countries the rest of Israel has wonderful, colourful food markets - the most famous being the Carmel Market. But the fruit and vegetables on sale here were poor in quality, sparse in quantity. According to Ari the reasons for the deprivation include large families, lack of women in the workforce, the fact that most men prefer to devote their time to studying the Talmud rather than earning money, as well as strict adherence to purchasing food from growers who observe Jewish dietary laws to an extent that makes it difficult to provide modern wholesome food.
Ari 's opinion of the ultra-orthodox residents was scathing. He openly detested these men in their frock coats and fur hats, and the women with shaven heads, wigs and headscarves. He was still a serving soldier prepared to die for his country, but these "ants" as he called them were exempt from military service. They didn't recongnise the state of Israel which gave them security. This was not his Israel, it was just as alien to him as the Arab West Bank.
He took me into one of the many shops that sold nothing but objects of devotion, or as Ari put it "They don't sell anything that's been invented inthe last three hundred years". Inside, an elderly man, who was in a state of some distress, was complaining to the shopkeeper about something they were looking hard at. Ari was listening intently to a language he didn't know well, because Hassidic Jews speak Yiddish, not Hebrew - which is reserved for religious observance. He made me buy something for one shekel, the cheapest thing the shop sold. Once outside he told me what he had understood. The man had bought a mezuzah from the shop. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific verses from the Torah which is fixed to the doorpost of Hassidic homes. The complaint was that there was an error in the calligraphy, which had brought pestilence to the family, fulfilling a biblical prophecy. The two of them were searching for the error. "Superstitious garbage!" in Ari's opinion.
I looked at my watch. I had a plane to catch. We decided it was time to drive to the airport. I thanked Ari for his hospitality; I had had a once in a lifetime experience on so many levels. Then I encountered Israeli security. Before I could board I was questioned by an extremely polite, extremely insistent security officer. The interview took forty five minutes. Quite simply he asked me to account for every second that I had spent in Israel, to give him the name and job title of every bank employee who I had met, and to explain where my hold luggage was when it was not with me for the whole three days. Had I intended to deceive, I would have failed, he would have picked up any inconsistency.
But I had it easy. The following Monday I was at my desk when Murali rang. He asked whether I was questioned at the airport and I told him what had happened.
"Hmm." he said. "
Was that all?" I could hear the indignation in his voice.
"Yes, what did they ask you?"
" He asked 'Where were you born?' I answered Bombay. His next question was 'What happened next?' "
|Posted on May 12, 2017 at 10:40 AM||comments (1)|
Two days in Cape Town
At the end of March Marilyn and I visited Cape Town. One Monday morning we took the ferry to Robben Island, the bleak outpost in the Indian Ocean where the Apartheid regime, like the British Empire and Dutch empires before it incarcerated its political prisoners.
The Robben Island Prison Entrance
Each group of tourists is given a talk by a former prisoner. Given that the political prison closed over twenty five years ago, I was surprised how young our allocated prisoner seemed. In a bleak dormitory with grey walls, grey ceilings, barred windows and a grey floor covering, our prisoner told us that he arrived there as an eighteen year old in 1986. He had been sentenced to seven years for sabotage.
He never told us his name, but he did tell us that his offence had been to set fire to a rent office in a township one night. The people who lived in the Township were on rent strike. They had all been resettled there against their will when their former homes had been demolished to make way for white people, and they considered the rents changed by the regime to be excessive. By burning the rent office down, the regime would no longer have any records showing the rent arrears.
He talked about the Island's most famous prisoners - the "Rivonia Six" - Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi , Raymond Mhalaba and Ahmed Kathrada - who were convicted of treason in 1964, and, in Mandela's case, not released until 1990. Our prisoner said what an inspiration these men had been to him during the period he shared their place of internment.
Five of these six prisoners were classed by the regime as "Bantus", while Kathrada was classed as an "Asiatic". In the complex hierarchy of racial groups that was a cornerstone of Apartheid, Asiatics were considered to be superior to Bantus; which meant that only Kathrada was allowed to wear long trousers and eat meat, and he also had a larger bread ration than the others.
Poster at Robben Island showing the ration rules
The purpose of not allowing Bantus to wear long trousers was to infantilise them. If they were treated as children they wouldn't be a threat. And this absurdity is one of the reasons that the system collapsed. The founding fathers of the Apartheid regime could see no reason why they should educate the majority of the population to become anything than gardeners, labourers or maids, but a modern economy needs engineers, scientists and doctors. This contradiction was one of the reasons why the system collapsed in the 1990s. It was no longer sustainable.
That night, Ahmed Kathrada, who , like his friend Mandela, had spent eighteen years in custody, died aged eighty nine. His funeral was held the following day, and all the South African TV stations gave it blanket coverage. The country's controversial president, Jacob Zuma, another Robben Island alumnus, was told by Kathrada's family to stay away as he was not welcome.
On the day that Kathrada was buried, Marilyn and I went on a tour of the Cape Peninsula. We'd hired a taxi for a day, and Abdenir, our driver, stopped his immaculate Nissan saloon over twenty times to show us spectacular sights. We saw long sandy beaches with great white breakers, green mountains, rugged cliffs and wide blue skies. I remember one inspiring view of both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as we headed back from the Cape of Good Hope. He stopped the car so that we could admire a herd of Ostriches walking along an Atlantic beach, the three of us laughed at three young German tourists who decided that the best way to avoid the attention of the baboons is to run away from them, and Marilyn and I walked the length of Boulders Beach, home to a large colony of Penguins.
Abdenir is both a good host and an interesting travelling companion. He is a refugee, a legal immigrant from Somalia. He is one of over a million South African residents who are refugees from war zones. His father was killed in the civil war, and he and his wife, who are bringing up four children of their own, have adopted another child, the daughter of friends who both lost their lives when the little girl was only eight months old . Some of the conversation between the three of us touched the subject of human rights. Abdenir is both an optimist and an Anglophile. He looks forward to the day when it will be safe for him to return to Somalia and thinks that many young people who have been part of refugee families in the United Kingdom, and have benefited from its education system will return and make great contributions to Somali civic society. He was full of praise for David Cameron and William Hague - who are hardly my political heroes - who he told us had given significant amounts of time, as well as funding, in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict in his country.
We said goodbye to Abdenir almost eight hours after we had got into his car, went back to our hotel and turned the TV on. the local stations were still covering Ahmed Kathrada's funeral. We watched as former president Kgalema Motlanthe received a standing ovation and loud cheers as he read out parts of an open letter that Kathrada has sent to Jacob Zuma asking him to resign less than twelve months earlier.
Abdenir and I
Ostrich on an Atlantic beach near Cape Point
Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula
|Posted on March 9, 2017 at 10:15 AM||comments (0)|
The first thing that Elliott Roosevelt did when he arrived at the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in 1932 was to make sure that the curtains were fully drawn across the front of the stage. He had to ensure that the audience of thousands were not in a position to sneak a view of what he had to do in thirty minutes time.
Satisfied that his actions would not be visible, the twenty-two year old son of the former governor of New York then introduced himself to the sound engineer and made sure that the recording would be played as soon as the curtains opened, and hurried back to the stage door where his father was waiting in the car. He lifted his father's wheelchair out of the trunk, pushed it to the front passenger door and opened it.
"You ready Dad?" he asked. Franklin D Roosevelt nodded his approval.
By this time Franklin already knew that he had the won the nomination to be the party's presidential candidate by a landslide, but this was to be the first time that the successful candidate had appeared at the convention to accept the nomination in person. The Roosevelt family had flown to Chicago from Buffalo that morning in a cramped Ford Trimotor plane. Passenger air transport was in its infancy, and the journey through thunderstorms had been arduous. Several members of the family were sick, but their father seemed to relish this new experience. Elliott and his brothers had had great difficulty in carrying their six foot three inch father to his seat, and it was even more difficult to get him off the plane without revealing the full extent of his disability to the waiting press. Elliott and his father were relieved that there were no newsreel cameras at the airport.
As Franklin reached for the top of the car door for support, Elliot reached into the bottom of the footwell and grabbed his father's surgical boots to swing him through ninety degrees so that he was facing him. He then felt for the locking mechanisms on both his father's leg irons, straightened his legs and lifted him out of the car into an upright position. His brother James then brought the wheelchair nearer and Elliott swung his father through one hundred and eighty degrees so that he was in contact with the wheelchair. As Elliott found the locking mechanism on his father's leg irons to put him in a sitting position, James lifted him by the armpits to make sure he was correctly seated.
Elliott began to push his father toward the stage door when his father cried out "My cane, Son". They had forgotten that soon to be president's walking cane was still in the trunk.
Once Franklin and his cane were reunited, Elliott continued the journey. It was still difficult; the corridors were narrow and there were six steps up to the rear of the stage. Elliott, James and a couple of stagehands had to the nominee in his wheelchair onto the stage.
Today would be the first day of a frenetic campaign in which Franklin would visit over twenty states, travelling by car, plane and train. At each stop his sons would have to manhandle him in the same way that they were doing today, and each time they did so aides would be deployed to make sure that no press photographers were around to see the full extent of the candidate's physical impairment. In the FDR presidential library at Hyde Park, New York there are over 35,000 photos of Franklin D Roosevelt. Only one of them shows him in his wheelchair. He was concerned that if the full extent of his disability became public knowledge, he would be unelectable. Before 1932 presidential candidates did not campaign on the road, they stayed at home and wrote articles for newspapers. FDR would change campaigning for ever because he wanted to be seen as a man of action. Firstly he needed to convince the American public that despite surviving Polio eleven years earlier he was physically capable of doing the job, but secondly he just loved campaigning.
When they reached the podium James straightened his father's legs and lifted him out of his wheelchair into an upright position. FDR grabbed the podium to support himself and the wheelchair was taken out of sight. Elliott signalled to the stage manager, and the as the curtains opened the recording of "Happy Days Are Here Again" began to play to the audience, but was drowned out by applause.
FDR lifted one arm from the podium to quell the cheers and began his speech with the words "Let us now and here resolve to resume the country's interrupted march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small."
The new deal had begun. A few months later FDR won the presidency by a landslide.
After the convention was over the Roosevelt family went to their hotel. In the hotel bedroom it was Elliott and James who helped their father undress, taking the leg irons off one by one, standing them in the corner and lifting their father onto the bed.
This photograph is reproduced by courtesy of the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York
|Posted on February 15, 2017 at 5:55 AM||comments (3)|
In March 1942 George Orwell wrote in his diary: " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth". In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared "post-truth" to be the word of the year. Here are some examples of Post-truth:
• Obama founded ISIS
• George Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks
I wonder what Orwell would have had to say about this subject?
Since Donald Trump's election as President of the United States, sales of Orwell's "1984" have rocketed to the top of the best seller list in the United States. 1984 gave birth to a number of memes that have entered our consciousness, including of course "Big Brother", "Room 101" as well as "doublethink" - where a person can accept two contradicting beliefs as both being correct. The phrase "Orwellian" is used to describe an idea or action that is destructive to a free and open society.
Much of Orwell's writing is concerned with distortions of the truth that were made for political reasons. In his own lifetime he witnessed Stalin's Russia, where political opponents were put on trial, and at those trials the victims falsely confessed to heinous crimes, usually as a result of torture, or in response to threats of actions against loved ones.
Also in the USSR, the famine of 1932–33 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to millions of deaths in those areas and severe food shortage throughout the USSR. While this was going on, official soviet sources denied that the famine was taking place, so any discourse on this issue was classified as criminal "anti-Soviet propaganda". The results of the 1937 census were kept secret as they revealed the demographic losses attributable to the Great Famine. Official statistics showed continually improving crop yields. Both of these events were parodied by Orwell in "Animal Farm".
A few years after Orwell's death, exactly the same events were replayed almost identically in China, during the "Great Leap Forward" famine of the 1950s, where it is believed that as many as thirty million people starved to death, and Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, where millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, suffering a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property.
What seems to be the most worrying difference between our time and Orwell's time, is that the offences against the truth that Orwell satirised were committed by totalitarian states which could not remotely be considered democracies; while today's offences are being committed by individuals and political parties who claim to be democrats, in societies with a long history of democracy.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of underestimating the size of the crowds for President Trump's inaugural ceremony. Spicer claimed that the ceremony had drawn the "largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe." But as many sources immediately pointed out, that claim was false. Spicer then falsely accused the press of altering images of the event to minimize the size of the crowds. He said floor coverings over the grass were to blame for a visual effect that made the audience look smaller, and stated they had never been used before; however, they had been used in 2013 for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Spicer took no questions after his statement. Later, he defended his previous statements by saying "sometimes we can disagree with the facts". He was then defended by Kellyanne Conway, another Trump mouthpiece, who told NBC's Chuck Todd that Trump's inauguration crowd numbers could not be proved nor quantified and that the press secretary was simply giving "alternative facts". Todd responded by saying "Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods."
Kellyanne Conway went on to invent a series of so called facts so egregious and so dishonest that the USSR and Chairman Mao would have been proud of her. In a television news interview where she was attempting to justify President Trump's immigration ban, she referenced an event allegedly perpetrated by Iraqi terrorists which she termed the "Bowling Green massacre". She described it as an attack carried out within the United States by terrorists who had been admitted as refugees. These are the words Conway said:
"I bet, there was very little coverage—I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized—and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."
The reason that it didn't get any press coverage was, of course, it never happened. Just like the huge increases on food production during the famines of Stalin and Chairman Mao never happened. This is pure fiction dressed up as history.
Is it happening in our country? To some extent. My own view is that the EU referendum campaign included lots of alternative facts, mostly but far from exclusively on the "out" side and most notably the claims that 1): sixty million Turks would become eligible to come to the UK, and 2): £350 million would be able to be invested in the National Health Service each week.
If claims like this are not challenged, our democracy is in danger. There is nothing unique about our society that means that totalitarianism cannot succeed. Challenge false claims when we hear or see them. Remember, as Orwell said, " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth".
|Posted on January 12, 2017 at 8:55 AM||comments (0)|
Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.
Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wallington wears its literary associations lightly. I discovered Wallington by accident, while walking the Icknield Way footpath from Baldock to Royston. The national trail skirts the village, but Orwell's House is only a few hundred yards off of the trail. There is no souvenir shop, no cafe, no pub and no National Trust sign.
The house where Orwell moved to in April 1936 was known as the Stores, and had been the village store until the owner went bankrupt in the 1920s. It was a very basic dwelling, this is how Miss Esther Brooks, one of its later occupants, describes it:
"The medieval Lords of the Manor built their barns in composite units of eleven feet since that was the space needed for a yoke of oxen. They built the cottages to match....They were constructed of lath and plaster on a timber frame with thatched roofs. The materials were local beechwood, chalk and wheat straw."
By the time that Orwell lived there, the thatch had rotted, and a corrugated iron roof had been erected over the thatch. Miss Brooks continues:
"Each cottage has two room up and two rooms down, with a lean-to at the west end. This cottage was special in that while the downstairs rooms were the usual height of six foot three inches (the same height as Orwell) the upper rooms rose to that height before sloping to a very pitched roof. Downstairs, the floor is now sixteen inches below ground level. Two steps rise to the sill. The height of the door was three foot nine inches....A ladder gave access to the upper storey, smoke curled up through a hole in the roof. Hams hung from hooks embedded in the centre beams. Water was fetched from the Church Well."
As well as no water, the house had no electricity or gas, Calor gas cylinders provided fuel for cooking and heating, and The Road to Wigan Pier was written under a the light of a Tilley lamp. Orwell re-opened the shop. He sold a few groceries and sweets as well as eggs laid by the hens that Orwell kept, together with goats, on a piece of rough ground that he rented opposite the cottage. At the time Orwell was a struggling writer and the reason that he moved into the cottage was that it was cheap - the weekly rent was only seven shillings and six pence - and he made about thirty shillings a week from the shop. He had to invest in a bacon slicer, and his letters to his friend Jack Common show that he took the role of shopkeeper quite seriously.
Or at least one member of the family did, because he was too busy - writing The Road to Wigan Pier during 1936, fighting as a volunteer in Spain from December 1936 to July 1937 and in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis for six months during 1938. So the shopkeeper was probably Orwell's wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, an Oxford psychology graduate whom he had met at a party in Hampstead the previous year and whom he married at Wallington Parish Church in June 1936. A villager recalled:
"The occasion was very simple. Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together. George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door; having plainly got his folklore muddled."
After the wedding there was a lunch at The Plough, which was next door to the cottage. Eileen later recalled Orwell's mother's advice to her daughter-in-law on that day:
"Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, & Avril the sister said I obviously didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there."
Both the Orwells chain smoked. Imagine the atmosphere in that cottage. Rotting thatch, Calor gas, paraffin lamps and hand-rolled shag tobacco. This very basic environment must have contributed to Orwell's TB which would kill him at the age of forty-six, at the height of his literary powers. Eileen would die even younger, in March 1945 when she was only thirty nine. Her death certificate reads "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus." In June 1944 she and Orwell had adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. After Orwell's death in 1950 Richard was brought up by Orwell's sister.
But did Wallington actually become Willingdon? There is a competing claim from the village of Willingdon in East Sussex, but there's no evidence from the Orwell archives that he'd ever been there or even heard of it. Wallington is a much more likely explanation. The biggest farm in Wallington is Manor Farm, and one of Manor Farm's most historic buildings is a medieval barn called the Great Barn. Every time that Orwell went to the village well to fetch water he would have passed the great barn, and he almost certainly used that building on that farm as the setting for the big barn at Manor Farm in Animal Farm. The Plough at Wallington has become the Red Lion at Willingdon, which is where Farmer Jones got so drunk one night that he forgot to shut the pop-holes on the barn. The rest of the story is Orwell's. Willingdon East Sussex does actually have a Red Lion though, and the pub's owners are careful to make the Orwell connection on their website.
There are no pubs left in Wallington, though and you can't go in to the barn as its privately owned, as is Orwell's much modernised house. You can't but a coffee or a beer in the village, let alone of Orwell's own books or the many biographies of the man. In St Mary's Church you can leave £2.50 in the honesty box for a facsimile of his marriage certificate, as well as a few local history booklets describing his life there. There are no longer any people alive who remember him. As long ago as 1975 a local historian asked elderly locals of they remembered George Orwell and none could. However one old timer remembered Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) who kept the shop and had a dim recollection that the shopkeeper might have written a book.
The commemorative plaque on Orwell's House
The Great Barn at Manor Farm
|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 9:05 AM||comments (0)|
I am a member of the Boxbourne U3A Creative Writing and Poetry Group, and am dlighted to tell you all that we have just published our second volume of short, stories, poems and memoirs - Tales2Tell.
Tales2Tell costs £4.50 plus postage, and is available here. All proceeds will be donated to Macmillan Cancer Care.
|Posted on July 18, 2016 at 5:30 AM||comments (1)|
Last month, my friend Steve and I walked forty four miles of the Pennine Way, from Bellingham, Northumberland to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. The Pennine Way ends at the Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm, but Steve and I have only walked just over half of the almost 300 mile route. We started five years ago and only spend about three days a year walking this beautiful but arduous national trail. We hope to finish before another five years is out.
We decided to walk Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, and on our first day we set out from near the village of Bellingham (which is apparently pronounced Belling-jam) at about 10.30. Our plan was to walk just over eleven relatively flat - by Pennine Way standards - miles to the hamlet of Byrness that day. It was a warm but windy summer's day with alternate blue skies and grey clouds, and there was no rain. It was ideal weather for hill-walking.
You rarely meet anyone at all on the Pennine Way - on many of our walks we haven't seen a soul all day - and if you do meet other walkers the conversations are usually brief. It was almost lunchtime when we spotted another walker. We were walking a level, single file track that was to end soon. Just in front of us was a steep ascent, the steepest we would encounter that day. An elderly gentlemen, short and relatively round for a hill walker was struggling to get up after resting because he was burdened by a very large rucksack. Steve, who was ahead of me on the single track path, went to his aid and steadied his burden while the stranger pushed himself up using his walking poles.
I'm sixty seven and Steve is sixty nine, so I'm well aware that many people might describe us as "elderly gentlemen"; but Julian was the kind of elderly gentleman that even people who are themselves sometimes referred to as elderly gentlemen would describe as an elderly gentleman. His face was deeply tanned, he had a few days of stubble and spoke in a cut glass accent that implied that he was educated at one of England's more well-known public schools. I thought that he must be in his mid seventies.
Julian told us that he had started out from Edale - the Southern End of the trail - about twenty days ago; he'd lost count of the actual number of days. He just pitched his tent wherever he could find somewhere. He didn't like B&Bs because they were often off the trail, and you couldn't get started before 9.30. As we were in the week of the summer solstice, he liked to get going before 6am, which is the time that he had left Bellingham this morning. This is how slow his progress was - we started at much the same place four and a half hours later and we were about to overtake him.
I said that keen as we were on hill walking, the thought of travelling with our own tent and not sleeping in a bed for day after day was beyond our capabilities, and Julian said that he did miss not being able to shower; and that he had to carry his own food and cooking gear . For several days breakfast had been oatmeal porridge, and lunch was always a snickers bar. If he was lucky, he was able to pitch his tent near a pub, and that's where, some days, he got an evening meal. But now he only had about three days walking to do to finish the trail. Today, his destination, like ours, was Byrness.
Hill walking is gruelling. The idea of doing that, day after day, on so few calories beggars belief. My own preferred lunch when long-distance walking is a pork pie, a cheese roll, several tomatoes, an apple and a cereal bar. How can anybody do this on just a Snickers for heaven's sake?
We then wished each other luck, Steve and I pushed ahead, and as we were walking far faster than Julian, and we didn't expect to see him again as he was walking every day and we were only on the hills every other day. But you never know.
North of Byrness you find some of the most physically taxing parts of the Pennine Way. On Tuesday it took us fifty eight minutes to cover the first mile, so steep was the ascent; and over eight hours to cover the whole sixteen miles. On Thursday, our final day, you reach a height of 815 metres at the summit of The Cheviot, and strenuous activity at that height leaves you seriously short of breath.
It was the middle of a glorious sunny afternoon with minimal wind on our final day's walk from Cocklawfoot (which is possibly a place name but more likely a Scottish expression meaning the middle of nowhere) to Kirk Yetholm when we saw a figure in the distance coming towards us whose distinctive gait and slow pace identified him as Julian, even from a few hundred metres away. He was walking towards the start of the Pennine Way! Surely not! We hadn't thought that very likely.
Julian told us that since we last met four days ago he had spent two days nights on his own in Mountain Refuge Huts - emergency shelters provided by the National Park - one night at a campsite where they provided showers, laundry facilities and breakfast for less than twenty pounds, and for his final night he'd pitched his tent in the churchyard at Kirk Yetholm. He recommended churchyards because they were free, picturesque, nobody bothered you, and often close to a pub or a shop.
Steve's voice must have sounded incredulous when he asked him whether he was walking all the way back to Edale. "Oh No," replied Julian. "Just as far as Alston for a family reunion, then it's the London train. This is far too punishing, much harder than the Appalachian Trail".
Alston is 102 miles from Kirk Yetholm, at least six days walking the way Steve and I do it. Probably six days for Julian as well. it's just that his daily walk takes him about twice as long. And It turns out that Julian has walked over five hundred miles of the most famous trail in America. I've walked one mile, from a car park to a viewpoint in Tennessee. That's probably all I'll ever do.
We said our farewells. On the bar at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm there is a Pennine Way visitor book, where people who've completed some or all of the trail sign their names and write a paragraph or two about their experience. I found Julian's entry. It was written in the most immaculate italic hand. Part of it was in Latin, which I don't read. He'd signed his full name, and his distinctive surname will be known to anybody who has studied British history. I Googled him. He's eighty, educated at Stowe and if his nephew dies before him he'll inherit the baronetcy.
You rarely meet anyone on the Pennine Way. It's usually a solitary pursuit.
The view from the Mountain Refuge Hut at Schil, where Julian spent a night.
|Posted on February 18, 2016 at 5:05 AM||comments (0)|
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an American gospel singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. Born on a cotton plantation in 1915, she became gospel music's first great recording star. Known as "the godmother of rock and roll" She was an early influence on, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Her career peaked in the 1940s.
By the 1964 her career was in decline, she was broke, and in poor health. But when Mick Jagger cited her as a seminal influence, Granada TV decided to bring her to Manchester to record a TV show. As far as I know, Sister Rosetta never kept a diary, but if she had, this is how she might have recollected that trip:
Didn't it Rain
Oh my dear lord I never thought I would go to England. But Granada said they would pay all the expenses and organise the flights. But first of all I had to get a passport. That was harder than you think, because to get a passport you need a birth certificate, and like lots of children who were born on plantations at that time, my Mom never got around to getting me one. But the church intervened with the state department, and they persuaded Johnny Cash to write a letter of support to State. Johnny's from Arkansas like me, and his mom and dad were dirt poor too; he knows how fortunate he's been and likes to give others a helping hand. God bless him.
So my passport arrived and my agent got in touch with Granada. Thy advanced me the money to buy a new Gibson guitar, and a few days later we flew to overnight from Idlewild to Manchester. I say Idlewild but it's been renamed John F Kennedy, did you know that? His poor family. I still miss him and I'm sure you do. I'd never been on such a long flight before, and I was worried that the change of time zones would cause my diabetes to flare up. But I was fine, if a little tired for the first few days.
In Manchester the immigration people, the hotel staff and all the people we met at Granada were so polite and welcoming, we were treated quite differently to the way that colored folks are spoken to by officials here. But the accents! Some of them were so hard to understand! But I got used to it, you have to don't you?
Manchester is a big city, about the size of Chicago. All the buildings there are jet black. Covered in soot from the mill chimneys. This place is where all the cotton that my Mom and Dad picked was sent to be processed. To spin cotton you need a damp climate and oh my lord they found the right place there. It didn't stop raining from the day we arrived until the day we left. And it was supposed to be Spring!
And I was told that I'd be singing in the open air, in a disused railway station can you believe it? The audience would be sitting on one platform and we would be performing on the other one, that had been done up like a sharecropper shack. Or perhaps I should say that it had been done up like what a scene builder in Manchester thinks a sharecropper shack looks like. There sure were no wanted posters next to the front door of our shack in Arkansas but there were here.
So I had no decision to make about what my opening number should be. I've been singing "Didn't it Rain" in Church since I was six years old, and this must have been the place that the old negro spiritual singers had in mind:
Oh it rained forty days
And it rained forty nights
There was no land nowhere in sight
God send the angel to spread the news
He haste his wings and away he flew
To the East to the West
To the North to the South
All day all night how it rained how it rained
Cousin Joe Pleasence and I arrived on the platform in an open-top carriage pulled by a black and white horse. I was wearing a thick woollen overcoat that I'd bought the day before. The audience was nearly all young white folks - can you believe that? - and they were huddled together wearing raincoats. The applause as Cousin Joe helped me down from the carriage was so loud that it could have come from a much larger crowd. When I watched the film recording I released that as I stepped down I said "This is the most wonderful time of my life." It sure was. I'm too ill to travel now, and I'll probably only ever get that one stamp in my passport, but I'd love to go back to Manchester if I get well enough.
See and hear Sister Rosetta Tharp sing "Didn't it Rain" at Wilbraham Road Station, Manchester here:
|Posted on October 8, 2015 at 9:30 AM||comments (3)|
Before there were supermarkets there were corner shops and counter-service grocery chains.
When I was a kid we lived just across the road from Mrs Scott's corner shop that sold all manner of tinned and packeted foods and household items, as well as butter, cheese and ham, fresh vegetables, a little fruit, sacks of firewood and Coalite ( a kind of smokeless coal I think, but it wouldn't meet today's definition of "smokeless"). The shop was a converted terraced house, and the fruit and veg was kept outside the shop on a market stall in what would have been the front garden. To get the coal and firewood you had to go round the back to the shed. The shop kept three people employed six and a half days a week; from dawn to dusk every day except Sunday when she shut the shop at 1pm. Mrs Scott was a woman in her sixties or perhaps her seventies when I was a teenager. She did not have a first name as far as I know. She was just Mrs Scott, a respected figure to the whole neighbourhood.
Working alongside here were her forty-something daughter and son-in-law, Annie and Ronnie. As late as 1980 Annie still had the most enormous beehive hairstyle that was fashionable in the early sixties. She hadn't noticed that fashion had moved on, probably because she worked such long hours in the shop that she never had time to observe. Ronnie's hairstyle was a Bobby Charlton style comb-over.
Lots of people who lived near us in Upper Edmonton would do all their shopping at Mrs Scott's, probably on tick. She would get anything anyone wanted; I've seen people carrying out TVs and Radios from that little shop. Mrs Scott didn't sell booze though, because the kind of affluent working class people who had a padded vinyl cocktail cabinet in their front room got it the Off-licence counter at the Rising Sun; and she didn't sell milk because everyone got it from the milkman.
We only used Mrs Scott's shop for top-ups. My Mum would have been appalled at the idea of buying food on tick, the shop was a little expensive, but most of all it wasn't accessible to my Mum's hand-propelled invalid chair. She needed to shop somewhere where she could see what she was buying, and on the main street, Fore Street Edmonton, there were the counter-service chains - The Home and Colonial Stores, The Maypole Dairy and Caters. Edmonton wasn't posh enough for Sainsbury's.
In the early sixties The Maypole didn't even have a fridge, When I used to walk past it on the way to school when I was eleven, there was a huge lorry outside delivering great big blocks of ice. They must have weighed tons. I will always remember the ice company's name on the side of the truck, which was:
The United Carlo Gatti, Stevenson, Slaters & Co. Ice Merchants
Yes, it was a very long truck, and apparently the London Canal Museum is now housed in what was Carlo Gatti's ice house in Islington.
Caters was the biggest grocery shop on Fore Street, and I worked there as a Saturday boy for about three years until I left school in 1966. I earned twenty five shillings a week. Cater Brothers was an old established family -run chain of stores with its roots in the East End that had, by the 1960s expanded northwards towards Enfield and beyond. The branch where I worked in Fore Street had seven counters. There were three wooden ones for tinned and packeted groceries, another wooden one for biscuits, which were sold loose and weighed out for each purchase. On the other side of the shop were three marble counters; one each for bacon and sausages (Caters were very proud of their bacon that they used to cure and smoke themselves), one for ham and cooked meats, and finally, by the back door, one for eggs butter and cheese.
Each new Saturday boy or Saturday girl started by filling the shelves behind the dry goods counter. If you were any good you got promoted to the biscuit counter where you would handle a till and scales for the first time, then to the dry goods tills, and then to one of the other counters where you would learn how to cut cheese, ham, and if you were a boy and if you mastered all those skills you would be taught how to operate a bacon slicer. Girls weren't allowed to do that, of course, as they couldn't be expected to lift a whole side of bacon. At least, that's what the firm said. I did learn how to operate this machine, and I'm actually quite proud that I acquired that manual skill - and it really is a skill - when I was about fifteen or sixteen.
To my disgust, when I was seventeen, health and safety legislation was passed. You had to be eighteen or older to operate the slicer. I had to go and work on the cheese counter for my final year at Caters.
The range of food we sold was, by today's standards very restricted. Before the UK joined what was then called the European Common Market, most fresh food was imported from the Commonwealth. We sold five types of cheddar; Australian (tasted like soap), New Zealand (mild), English (strong), Scottish (stronger still) and Canadian ( strong enough to clear your sinuses); as well as just three "continental" cheeses, Edam, Gorgonzola and Danish Blue. New Zealand cheddar was our biggest seller by a mile; I seem to remember that it cost three shillings and four pence (about 17p) per pound but I could be wrong. People used to shop little and often, the biggest selling items were a quarter pound block of cheddar and a quarter of gammon ham. Half a pound was a rarity, a whole pound was unheard of.
My cheese counter working day started half an hour before the shop opened, when I would get a fifty pound bock of Scottish cheddar out of a walk-in fridge at the back of the shop, put it on a marble bench and cut it into 20 half pound blocks and the remainder into quarters. I can still cut exactly one quarter pound of cheese by eye today. The day ended with putting the unsold food back into the fridges, spreading sawdust on the floor and sweeping it, before queuing up at the cash office for a brown envelope containing twenty-five shillings less a deduction of a few pennies for National Insurance. As I walked the few hundred yards home I must have reeked of cheese. The smell was so strong that I couldn't eat anything, let alone go out for a Saturday night without having a bath beforehand.
I worked at Caters full-time in many of my school holidays; I would get over Five pounds a week for that. If I was working in the week then one of my jobs would be to answer the doorbell at the goods entrance. Every Monday at about 11am John Knight & Sons would ring the bell to collect a week's supply of discarded bacon bones, skin and gristle that had been thrown into a huge metal bin at the far end of the warehouse. In summer time, the vat was hot and fermenting by the time it was collected.
So, who were John Knight & Sons and why did they want our bacon bones?
John Knight's were the makers of Knight's Castille soap. And a traditional soap making recipe just needs animal fats, wood-ash and something else that smells a lot nicer than wood ash and animal fats.
This is Caters branch on Edmonton Green. I haven't been able to find a picture of the Fore Street branch