Towns called malice – the legacy of Thatcher

Darton blog

I WAS born into a middle class Tory voting household and to my eternal shame joined the Conservative Party at age 16.

I guess my father’s right wing doctrines influenced my own, and as a teenager and college student I followed those politics quite radically.

At 21 years old, against a left wing university backwash, I was Yorkshire vice-chairman of the Federation of Conservatives Students. I was a radical Tory, brushed shoulders with Michael Portillo, shared a whisky with former PM Ted Heath and fought hard in Thatcher’s election victory of 1979.

That remains the eternal shame of my youth.

But life is a great leveller and educator, and chalk face experiences over 38 years changed all that… it changed me as a person, socially, spiritually and politically.

In the year Thatcher was first elected, a more socially aware friend of mine warned: “There will be war in three years!”

How right she was!

In 1982 we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, ostensibly to liberate islanders loyal to the British Crown, but in reality because we had discovered huge reserves of oil in the South Atlantic a few years earlier.

And with Thatcher’s ratings in the opinion polls falling, there was a nothing like a bit of jingoism and nationalistic war fervour to boost Tory ratings.

But it was what I discovered years later as a newspaper journalist, which cast the Falklands War in a new light.

Not only was our prized battleship cruiser HMS Sheffield sunk while carrying nuclear depth charges, but against all international treaties to keep the South Atlantic nuclear free, Thatcher had deployed a British nuclear-armed submarine into the area.

The orders were clear: if the Argentines sunk another of our flagships, a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cordoba was to be considered.

Just think for a minute where that might have led in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. Thatcher was prepared to risk a global Armageddon to secure her political ends.

But it was at home, where my opinions of Thatcher and her politics changed me forever.

My real education began in the early 1980s as a secondary school teacher in the South Yorkshire pit village of Darton – the home of Woolley Colliery, where NUM leader Arthur Scargill began his working life.

I lived in the village for four years among miners and their families, and many of my pupils were the sons and daughters of miners. Most of the boys were destined to become miners, and many of the girls would get jobs in businesses dependent on mining.

I played cricket each weekend with miners. My neighbours were miners. I went to football matches at Oakwell with miners. And I bought my first house from a miner.

The sound of the local pit hooter and the rattle of coal trucks woke me early each morning and the coal dust got into my clothes and my life.

But what struck me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was the sense of community and friendship which imbued every aspect of life in that village.

Life was vibrant!

If one of my charges misbehaved at school, I could be sure his or her parents would know about it, and he or she would be disciplined at home.

If I was ever ill in bed, a neighbour would knock at the door and ask if I needed any groceries or would leave a casserole of stew.

If the snow was deep we would all help clear each-others’ drives or pathways.

If anyone had a party in the street, the whole street would be invited, no exceptions. And those parties were real parties with Yorkshire beer, pies, gravy, chips and puddings.

And if my girlfriend had to walk home late at night, I wouldn’t fear for her safety.

It was a time of the greatest friendship and community I have ever known.

I moved away for misled career aspirations in 1983.

One year later, Thatcher’s brutal decision to crush the trade union movement at any cost, laid waste to this community and countless more like them.

They were never to recover.

For those not familiar with this time and place, watch the BBC TV boxed set Our Friends in the North to gain a little perspective.

All that was wonderful was lost forever due to capitalist greed and Thatcher’s need for unbridled power.

We had a nation divided against itself where the rich got richer while the rest fought for the scraps.

A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef

Gets dashed against the Co-op

To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear

It’s a big decision in a town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

My politics changed fast.

In 1988 I was in hospital in Cardiff undergoing surgery for a lung cancer.

It was a time of personal trauma, but also the making of new friendships.

Many of these friends were former miners from the South Wales valleys. Most were suffering from lung cancer due to a lifetime working among coal dust.

But it was their tales of how Thatcher crushed the miners’ strike that will always stay with me.

Some blamed Scargill for getting some of the NUM tactics wrong, but it was Thatcher they blamed for the decimation of their lives and families.

I learned how she used MI5 and the Met Police, and every dirty trick imaginable, to tarnish the personal reputations of the striking miners, even down to the conspiratorial murder of a taxi driver.

When I had fully recovered from the cancer in the mid-1990s, I travelled back to my old village near Barnsley to see how things had changed.

What met me was post-apocalyptic.

All vestiges of coal mining had gone, the shops had steel shutters on their windows, litter blew around the main street and pale youths gathered on corners with eyes that seemed devoid of hope.

The ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track

It’s at the moment bound for nowhere –

Just going round and round

Playground kids and creaking swings –

Lost laughter in the breeze

I could go on for hours and I probably will –

But I’d sooner put some joy back

In this town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

But time passes, and surely with two decades of government promises of better lives and Tony Blair’s “Things Can Only Get Better”, that despair I witnessed in 1997, must have changed.

So last weekend I returned to Darton once again, for the first time in 20 years.

In the distance the old pit heads have been replaced by rolling grassland, trees and green parkland.

To a passer-by it is picturesque… but this is nature’s illusion to mask the reality.

On the main A637 a small single business park is all that has replaced a mining industry that employed thousands in Barnsley alone.

And as I strolled round the decaying remains of the village and community I once loved, everywhere I looked brought tears to my eyes.

Long gone was Steve White the butchers, Broadheads the ironmongers, Henrietta’s dress shop, the local newsagents, the greengrocer and the launderette – a community meeting place for the miners’ wives.

Below uncleaned windows and blackened limestone walls they have been replaced with a Chinese takeaway, a tanning studio, an exotic pet store, a charity shop and boarded-up facades.

Cars and buses pass by quickly, rarely stopping on their way to somewhere else.

Only the elderly trundle along the pavement, past shops where there is nothing left to buy; walking small dogs and faces waxing grey and etched in lines of worry.

It reminded me of scenes I also witnessed in Northumberland (where my paternal grandfather and great grandfather were both miners) where three generations of families have been unemployed since 1984.

Their former pit communities have crumbled into decay, with all manner of social problems: derelict housing, rotting schools, drug dependency, street crime, high rates of teenage suicide and homelessness.

The villages remain, with three buses a day to their nearest towns and any chance of a better life, the lasting memory to Thatcher.

Thatcher’s true legacy lies in the coal dust of the communities she destroyed and the lasting fear of nuclear war.

And 38 years of Tory government (including Tony Blair’s New Labour Toryism) has ensured that the decay and legacy continues.

But the reality is there is an alternative.

That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal.

It the past two years, Jeremy Corbyn has woken us all to that truth and shown that alternative way forward… for the many and not the few.

  • No more forgotten communities
  • No more decay
  • No more unemployment
  • No more homelessness
  • No more scapegoating the poor
  • No more rough sleepers
  • No more fear of war

We can change the future for everyone on 8 June.

This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one.

I am voting Labour.

 

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I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More (Last thoughts on Thatcher)

thatcherGETTING older gives a few new perspectives on life and self.

I was raised in the cosy middle-class environs of Sussex as the only son of a hard working father and loving mother.

I guess my father’s often right wing doctrines influenced my own, and as a teenager and college student I followed those politics quite radically.

At 21 years-old, against a typical 1970’s university backwash of Trotskyism and Marxism, I was regional vice-chairman of the Federation of Conservatives Students. I was a proud radical Tory, brushed shoulders with Michael Portillo, shared a whisky with former PM Ted Heath and fought hard in Thatcher’s election victory of 1979.

That remains the eternal shame of my youth.

But life influences and chalk face experiences over 34 years changed all that… it changed me as a person, socially, spiritually and politically.

I remember the year Thatcher was first elected, a more socially aware friend of mine warned: “There will be war in three years!”

How right she was!

In 1982 we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, ostensibly to liberate islanders loyal to the British Crown, but in reality because we had discovered huge reserves of oil in the South Atlantic a few years earlier!

But it was what I discovered 14 years later as a newspaper journalist, which cast the Falklands War and Thatcher in a new light.

Not only was our prized battleship cruiser HMS Sheffield sunk while carrying nuclear depth charges, but against all international treaties to keep the South Atlantic nuclear free, Thatcher had deployed a British nuclear-armed submarine into the area.

The orders were clear: if the Argentines sunk another of our flagships, a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cordoba was to be considered.
Just think for a minute where that might have led in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. Thatcher was prepared to risk a global Armageddon to secure her political ends.
Thankfully that scenario did not come to pass.

But it was at home where my opinions of Thatcher and her politics changed me forever.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s I lived and worked as a teacher in the small mining village of Darton near Barnsley.

Most of my pupils were the sons and daughters or miners. I played cricket each weekend with miners. My neighbours were miners. I went to football matches at Oakwell with miners. And I bought my first house from a miner.

The sound of the local pit hooter and the rattle of coal trucks woke me each morning and the coal dust got into my clothes and my life.

But what struck me then and has stayed with me ever since was the sense of community and friendship which imbued every aspect of life in that village.

If one of my charges misbehaved at school you could be sure his or her parents would know about it and he or she would be disciplined at home.
If I was ever ill in bed, a neighbour would knock at the door and ask if I needed any groceries or would leave a casserole of stew.
If the snow was deep we would all help clear each-others’ drives or pathways.
If anyone had a party in the street, the whole street would be invited, no exceptions.  And those parties were real parties with Yorkshire beer, pies, gravy and puddings.
And if my girlfriend had to walk home late at night, I wouldn’t fear for her safety.
It was a time of the greatest friendship and community I have ever known.

I moved away for misled career aspirations in 1983.

One year later, Thatcher’s brutal decision to crush the trade union movement at any cost laid waste to this community and countless more like them.
It was never to recover.

For those not familiar with this time and place, watch the movie Billy Elliot or the BBC TV series Our Friends in the North to gain a little perspective.

All that was wonderful had been lost forever due to Tory greed and Thatcher’s need for unbridled power.

We had a nation divided against itself where the rich got richer while the rest fought for the scraps.

A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef
Gets dashed against the Co-op
To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear
It’s a big decision in a town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

My politics were changing fast.

In 1987 and 1988 I was in hospital in Cardiff undergoing surgery for a malignant cancer in the right shoulder and right lung.

It was a time of personal trauma, but also the making of new and lasting friendships.
Many of my new friends were former miners from the South Wales valleys. Many were suffering from lung cancer due to a lifetime working among coal dust.
But it was their tales of how Thatcher crushed the miners’ strike that will always stay with me.
Sure they blamed Scargill for getting some of the NUM tactics wrong. But it was Thatcher whom they blamed for the decimation of their lives and families.
I learned how she used MI5 and the Met Police and every dirty trick imaginable to tarnish the personal reputations of the striking miners, even down to the conspiratorial murder of a taxi driver.

When I had fully recovered from the cancer in the mid-1990s, I was prompted to travel back to my old village near Barnsley to see how things had changed.
What met me was post-apocalyptic!

All vestiges of the coal mining past had gone, the shops had steal shutters on their windows, litter blew around the main street and grey youths gathered on corners with eyes that seemed devoid of hope.

The ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track
It’s at the moment bound for nowhere –
Just going round and round
Playground kids and creaking swings –
Lost laughter in the breeze
I could go on for hours and I probably will –
But I’d sooner put some joy back
In this town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

It was a scene I later witnessed in Northumberland and County Durham where three generations of families had been unemployed since 1984.

Their former pit communities had crumbled into decay, with all manner of social problems: derelict housing, crumbling schools, drug dependency, street crime, high rates of teenage suicide and homelessness.
These villages remain, with three buses a day to their nearest towns and any chance of a better life, the lasting memory to Thatcher.

I could also ramble on about the abuse of power I discovered as a journalist with Thatcher’s henchmen… personal battles with the liars Jonathan Aitken and Jeffery Archer, the criminal ruination of anyone who stood against her, the machinations of the Duke of Argyll and Lord Willie Whitelaw and much, much more.
But then my brief story would become a book… and maybe one day it will!

For me Thatcher’s memory lies in the coal dust of the communities she destroyed.

I hold no emotion over her passing earlier this year, but I do fear that in the current Prime Minister David Cameron we are seeing Thatcher revisited.

But sadly my personal politics have moved so far to the left, that there is not one political party I feel able to vote for anymore… not even the Labour Party, whose socialist credentials were surrendered by Tony Blair almost 20 years ago.

I now feel massive empathy with Russell Brand when he recently wrote: The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don’t think it does. I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right…

“The US government gave a trillion dollars to bail out the big five banks over the past year. Banks that have grown by 30% since the crisis and are experiencing record profits and giving their execs record bonuses. How about, hang on to your hats because here comes a naïve suggestion, don’t give them that money, use it to create one million jobs at fifty grand a year for people who teach, nurse or protect…

“If we all collude and collaborate together we can design a new system that makes the current one obsolete.

The reality is there are alternatives. That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal.

I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws.

This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.”

A system so far from the evil of Thatcherism that I would join Brand’s journey and enjoy spending my latter years fighting for it.

Come the revolution!

Poem: Red or White

Herbert Asquith

Watched bullets flail

I will not wear red

Neville Chamberlain

Moved from hail to heil

I will not wear red

Clement Atlee

Tied to a US coat tail

I will not wear red

Harold Wilson

Allowed peace to fail

I will not wear red

Margaret Thatcher

Let a nuclear armada sail

I will not wear red

John Major

Fell for the Kuwait tale

I will not wear red

John Major

Hit Bosnia’s coffin nail

I will not wear red

Tony Blair

Bombs went off the Richter scale

I will not wear red

Tony Blair

He should have gone to jail

I will not wear red

142 million murdered civilians

Can you hear the dead wail?

I will not wear red… I will wear white

Poem: 1981

The hooter booms

The day awakes

Coal trucks rattle past my door

Ice traces faces on the window pane

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Rats scurry empty

Miners hurry silently

The dawn breaks past my door

Hot tea poured in an old tin mug

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Cash machine spitting

Newspapers selling

The sun rises past my door

The pit wheel turns and children run

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

The day grinds on

The miners crawl in

Coal dust settles past my door

Rag man yells and old wives polish

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Dinner-time snap

The kids full o’ spice

Laughter lingers past my door

Coal cutters cutting and babies crying

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

No one really knows

But many more fear

Rumours circulate past my door

The milk snatcher she is snatching

The memories of what went before.

(I lived in the mining village of Darton near Barnsley from 1978 to 1982. It was a thriving, happy and hard-working community. But by the end of 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government had destroyed the mining industry. Darton and many other villages like it have never recovered.)

 

Precious memories, how they linger

dadTODAY rings with remembrance… it is five full years since my beloved father died.

My dad was part of me and I part of him in every way. He is never far from my thoughts and often inhabits my dreams.

He was not the perfect father, but he was my father and the best there ever was. He taught me so much about optimism, overcoming setbacks and being myself… and much more about living.

His own life was full of obstacles. At four years old, he was knocked down by a car – one of only a few on the road in 1934 – suffered severe head injuries and had his left ear sewn back on. After three months in hospital he had to learn to eat, read, write and talk again.

Later in life, he ruptured a kidney in a motorbike accident, came close to death with hepatitis in Egypt, was rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy while working in Munich and suffered osteoarthritis, glaucoma, temporal arteritis, cancer and a series of mini strokes. His later years were plagued by health problems… but he never complained, even when he was dying with Parkinson’s Disease.

On the counter-side, he enjoyed so many successes. He was one of the junior designers of Concorde, helped design many other aeroplanes too; he rebuilt windmills, worked on the earliest electronics for rechargeable batteries and later the development of ground-breaking microwave engineering.

At home, he made several small fortunes renovating houses and lost small fortunes with his obsession with buying and selling some perverse motorcars.

He took risks, made mistakes, won and lost and won again… he never gave up.

But more than that he was my dad and full of love, which he often found difficult to show.

As an adult, I had to wait until I was battling cancer at the age of 31 to really understand my dad more fully. Over those months, we bonded as father and son and shared many emotions. He was always there for me.

I will never forget the day, about eight years later, when I won my first major press award. At the awards dinner in Edinburgh, dad and mum shared a table with me. After I received my award I returned to our table and dad was the first to stand and hug me and say “well done, son”. That moment always stays with me.

Ironically, I could only repay him after he had passed away. The proudest moment of my life was conducting his funeral service in front of our family and friends.

Some of the words from my eulogy to him I recall now:

“When I think of Dad I think of a man of no compromise yet someone who would do anything and compromise for anyone. And if ever there were regrets in his life, he rarely if ever voiced them.

He always had time to live, laugh, love and work so incredibly hard for his home and his family, whom he adored.

Dad was, at times, the most annoyingly anti-social man you could meet.

With a vengeance he hated Bob Monkhouse, Bruce Forsyth, Margaret Thatcher, the man across the road with a twitch, those bloody long-haired pop singers, the guy with the beer belly who had more hair than him, the happy next door neighbour who would ask after his health, David Beckham, Eastenders, Terry Wogan, Prince Charles… the list could go on and on.

But he also had heroes, golfer Jack Nicklaus, Nat King Cole and Doris Day, and probably his biggest hero heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali – so it is sadly ironic that this magnificent sportsman too is fading with the same disease that took Dad.

Ain’t life a great leveller.

But despite dad’s pretence at anti-social behaviour, he was the most sociable and likeable man anyone could ever meet. In fact anyone who met him was immediately touched by him and loved him.

Count how many thousands of times we caught him happily chatting at the garden fence with a complete stranger, or the times he made a bird table for a neighbour or helped someone decorate or do their garden, or the dozens of times he helped us kids move house, knock down a chimney, lay a carpet, fix a roof, mend a car, drive us to a date, cover for our indiscretions … again the list goes on and on.

And now dad…. as we say goodbye, we will always remember you with love and so much affection… love and affection which we tried to bestow on you whenever we could.”

And we played out his coffin with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”

He is gone and I miss him.

But he left his mark on this Earth and, yes, he lived.