28 February, 2011

War minus the Shooting!

In recent years I have become increasingly critical and disillusioned with sport – but especially with football. I should explain that in my youth I lived for the game and even today, on Saturday afternoon at 4.50 I still look expectantly and urgently for the result of my beloved Preston North End – the team that I supported as a child and who played within a few hundred yards of where I grew up in Preston.  But it increasingly seems to me that football at all levels, but especially the Premiership is at best  a charade and certainly no longer a sport.

The reported incident over the weekend that the Chelsea player,  Ashley Cole, took an air rifle into the Chelsea  training ground and then ‘accidentally’ shot a student with the said gun, brings, for me, the Premiership to yet another low. It seems that the young men and managers who inhabit  this world live in some bizarre alternative universe quite removed from  the realities of normal life.

I could blog for England on this subject – none of it good! And over the years have increasingly turned to non league football for my sporting entertainment. Of course there are problems there too – but at least it is still populated by reasonably normal people  - players, managers, and yes, spectators.  One of my pleasures now is writing the various articles for the Arnold Town FC match programme – it gives me an opportunity to ‘vent my footballing spleen’  but also give something back to a sport which I have over the past fifty odd years much enjoyed – but, as I say, not anymore at the highest level.

The antics of the top players today are quite bizarre. They live in cocooned private houses guarded by the tightest security, their every foible is pounced upon by the media as  if it were a pearl of wisdom, with a few notable exceptions they are functionally illiterate and monosyllabic, they are hugely rich and potentially violent young men. They have a life style and 'culture' that frankly gives tackiness a bad name and for some obscure reason (in reality it is money) their every  misdeed is forgiven by their club and manager. When the rest of us would be immediately sacked for even a small portion of the things that 'stars' like Ashley Cole or Joey Barton or Paul Gascoine or Wayne Rooney do they are continually forgiven and even profit by it.  In the latest fiasco with Cole, his manager  Carlo Ancelotti says  "There was never any chance [of Cole being sacked]. He's our player. He's always put in very good behaviour here. When a player says 'sorry, I made a mistake', it's difficult to do different”. He said the defender was  “a role model for all aspiring footballers. He is highly motivated, a very good player and a very good professional. I think everyone who appreciates football should appreciate him because he is also a very fair player. He never shouts at referees or makes bad tackles on opponents. On the pitch he is an example." All that may be true, but, I would then ask, if it is true what is it  that a player at Chelsea (or any other Premiership club) has to do in order to be 'sacked'. I’m pretty sure that as a teacher had I decided one day to take a gun into school and then 'lark about' with it and then fire it so that it injured one of the children in my class I would have been out of the door never to return – and I suspect that is true of virtually every other employee in any walk of life. The fact that I was a good teacher would have been rightly pretty irrelevant.

The fact is, of course, that these young men, high on testosterone, money and adulation have absolutely no sense of reality, nor do they have (usually) much intelligence and certainly little, if any, maturity.  And of course they are mindlessly supported by thousands of other ’blokes’ who like Peter Pan, haven’t grown up and who sport the replica football shirt that they should have left behind as a child. Thousands of  as mindless ‘wannabes’. And the likes of Alex Ferguson, Ancelotti, Mancini, and the rest humour their players' every whim  and make it alright.

It’s a far cry from years ago. As a child in the mid fifties, I often accompanied my mother into Preston on  a Saturday morning while she did her shopping. At lunch time, if mum was feeling flush, we would visit Joe Dunne’s little cafe in a Preston back street where we would tuck into Shepherd’s Pie. Dunne would take our order and a few minutes later bring our lunch and ask 'Are you at the match today?' or 'Are we going to win?'.  And I, tongue tied, would mumble back. And then, a couple of hours later I would be at Deepdale, standing over the players’ tunnel,  smelling the embrocation wafting out of the dressing room and then seeing the teams emerge Finney, Walton, Baxter, Docherty, Thompson, Cunningham, Morrison.......and Joe Dunn ............ . His brylcreamed hair gleaming. And, as he went past Dunne would give me  a little wave. To me, he (and they) were real heroes. And they were  community heroes because they lived in and abided by the rules of  their community – not the bizarre world of the Premiership – and above all they were mature men respected in their own right, not foolishly idolised.

Twenty years ago, when I was still teaching I invited an ex-pupil to come into school to talk in assembly to the kids. Philip Starbuck. I had taught Phil and knew his family well. On leaving school he had, as expected, been snapped up by Nottingham Forest and was just breaking into the first team managed by Brian Clough. Phil still lived with mum and dad and was well know to the local kids. He talked to them about working hard to fulfil their dreams and about his life as a footballer – for 40 minutes 300 children from 5 to 11 sat entranced, hanging onto his every word. As a footballer he commanded huge respect – boy was I envious! It made me realise what huge power these people have as role models and what a responsibility their position gives them – whether they want it or not. Phil was never a super star, he spent his life as a journey man player, but always set the right example – a far cry this from Mr Cole and company. No matter how good Ashley Cole is on the pitch I wonder what the messages coming out of Chelsea are about acceptable behaviour. In a country where every so often we have some terrible unprovoked knife crime or gun incident involving youngsters and gangs  and our politicians wring their hands in horror I wonder what messages the Chelsea  action send out.   “When a player says 'sorry, I made a mistake', it's difficult to do different” says Ancelotti -  well saying sorry is a good thing, no-one can deny that, but I’m afraid in my book it is totally inadequate and indeed offensive.

Some weeks ago I wrote to Sir Alex Ferguson  (didn’t get a reply!) expressing my disapproval at the way Manchester United (and Ferguson in particular)  increasingly behave. I emphasised the way that dreams and sportsmanship epitomised by the era of the Busby Babes had fallen into neglect in the quest for trophies, money and stardom. A small part of what I said I copy below:

Christmas 1955 – I still remember pulling on my new Manchester Utd shirt – the new style, with short sleeves and a 'V' neck – very trendy. I felt the star of the show – so proud as I stepped out into Caroline Street sporting my best ever Christmas  present. It wasn’t shop bought – it wasn’t even the right shade of red – but I felt a million dollars. We weren’t well off, lived in a two up and two down terraced house with an outside loo and no bathroom and mother had brought home a bit of red material from the mill where she worked as a weaver and made the shirt for me. It wasn’t the real thing but I was the envy of my friends. Manchester Utd were not even my team – Preston North End were – but everyone knew that United were the best; the most skilful, a cut above the rest, something to aspire to, a team that represented all that was good in the game. The honest, warm, father like Busby had created a young team  of super heroes to be proud of – and I, like thousands of other ten year olds, wanted to be part of it. I knew that I might never visit Old Trafford – it seemed a world away from the Preston street in which I lived – my only knowledge of the team were black and white pictures on the back of the Daily Mirror, or if I was lucky enough to visit my uncle’s house and watch his tiny black and white TV – but I knew they were the greatest.

A misty teatime in February. I was playing football in the street with Gary Clarkson. A front door opened and then another. Women in aprons stood on their steps talking. 'What’s up?' called Gary. 'There’s been a plane crash' came the reply – 'Manchester Utd.' Like the Kennedy assassination, one of life’s defining moments when people like me would remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news of the Munich disaster and the destruction of the 'Babes' . And three months later, sitting at my uncle’s watching the Cup Final, praying that my heroes would crown that terrible 1958 season by winning the Cup - only to see my dreams dashed by a Lofthouse challenge. Bolton were never forgiven!

And over the years since, Manchester Utd have always been an inspiration and a dream to aspire to. I did, in the end, visit Old Trafford - on many occasions, and was never disappointed - even when my team, Preston, went down! And when, as an adult, I moved to Nottingham – 45 years ago now – I watched United again whilst as a ‘half supporter’ of my adopted town – Nottingham. And again, whatever the result was never disappointed.

And then, on a chilly January night in 1993 I sat with my wife as we watched our son lead out the Notts County Youth team and then shake hands with a young ‘unknown’ called Gary Neville as the coin was tossed in the FA Youth Cup at Old Trafford. I could never have dreamed all those years ago when I pulled on my mother’s home made shirt that my own son would walk out onto the hallowed turf of the Theatre of Dreams. What a wonderful night. As expected we were comprehensively beaten 3-1, but that didn’t matter – to be beaten by Manchester Utd is not a dishonour – and in the event, to be beaten by the young lions of the Utd youth team - Scholes, Butt, Beckham, Gillespie et al of the early 90’s was certainly no disgrace. My wife and I drove back to Nottingham that night, stopping for fish and chips in Chesterfield at midnight, and felt a million dollars.

And finally, our daughter lives in Hale, Cheshire and on our many visits to the area in the past 10 years we have become used to  seeing the occasional United 'star' in the pubs and shops of the area. Indeed, when my daughter put her little terraced house up for sale a few years ago one of the prospective buyers that she showed round was Bryan Robson  - 'I’m looking for a property for my portfolio’ he said.  My  son in law was totally speechless and tongue tied for the duration of the visit – imagine once owning the house that was viewed by Bryan ‘Captain Courageous’ Robson  to go in his 'portfolio' – something to tell the grandchildren! And then on New Year’s Day a few years ago I stood at the Hale recycling skip and chatted to Roy Keane as we both got rid of the Christmas empties.  When I heard of the destruction of the 1958 team all those years ago I never dreamed that about half a century later, as a 60 something pensioner I would one day stand and chat to one of the modern United greats or that my daughter might have nearly sold her house to the United captain!
 These may seem small almost pathetic events – indeed they are – but such is the glamour and the charisma of United (and wider professional football) they are the foundations of dreams. Throughout history great events and happenings have been the result dreams and aspirations founded on small, pathetic events. United, from the time of Busby, really have been the 'Theatre of Dreams' for so many.
But, the dreams, ideals and aspirations have all crumbled. I now realise that the once great name of Manchester United has been  sullied. They are not the great club that they were and that represented all the best in the game. True, they still head the table, true they still attract the biggest names, true they are still the richest, the most glamorous. But they have lost their heart, sold their soul. They are no longer the club and dream of Busby.

And so I went on. I ended with a reference to my work in schools:

As a primary school teacher and head teacher for the past 40 years until I retired, I have, on many occasions, read to children the wonderful, funny and inspiring short story by George Layton – 'The Fib'. ['The Fib and other stories' by George Layton]  Apart from being a rattling good yarn that children – and boys especially - can relate to,  it captures exactly the esteem that great footballers and teams are (or were) held in. It’s about sportsmanship and awareness of the feelings of others and 'doing the right thing'. It’s about the pedestal that great sportsmen (in this case, Bobby Charlton and Manchester United) are on and the respect, awe and wonder with which they are looked upon. Sadly, I do not believe that I could, with the same enjoyment, read the story today – people like Ferguson have broken the link, ruined the dream. Nor do I believe that Layton could have written the story – with the obvious exception of Ryan Giggs there has been no player in the teams created by Ferguson who has displayed the sporting mantle expected by Busby and displayed by Charlton and his colleagues of old. This of course is sadly true of most teams and sports today – the stars of today rarely display sporting qualities but rather foul mouthed boorish behaviour. This is the role model they present to the young – not the qualities displayed in Layton’s story. Children would find it difficult to understand that the modern Manchester United would behave in the same sporting way – it is not what they witness day in day out. Instead they see unsporting behaviour, spitefulness and vindictive comments addressed at anyone or anything that contradicts Sir Alex Ferguson’s view of reality. I read in the paper this morning (Monday Jan 3rd 2011) that in an interview over the weekend Ferguson said that 'at Manchester United the manager is the most important person.' Exactly right and as such he has huge responsibilities to act in a professional and sporting manner. He has not and he does not. Sadly he has, whilst creating a winning team for the past quarter century,  broken the dream, destroyed any vestige of sportsmanship which for so long Manchester United stood for. Both he and Manchester United should hold their heads in shame.

George Orwell, In 1945 wrote that sport (and football in particular) was 'war minus the shooting.' [George Orwell: the Sporting Spirit - 1945]. What would he have said today? And  as so often happens, his words have a resonance today in the modern world. What would he have thought of Ashley Coles' actions and Chelsea’s inept response?

21 February, 2011

Touching the Past

Throughout my life I have been a 'list person' – writing lists of jobs to do and then ticking them off as I completed them -  and then writing another list! This policy enabled me to keep on top of my job in a busy  classroom surrounded by 30 or so children all making their demands on me and my time but still today when I am well into my retirement I still find that list making rules my days! My son thinks I’m very sad and he’s probably right! One of the jobs on my list had been there for months or even years and I’ve kept putting it off but in these dark February days it seemed an admirable time to remove it from the list by addressing the task once and for all. 
The first page of grandfather's letter
- double click on picture to increase size!

 Some years ago my parents died and after my father’s death I cleared his house, put it up for sale and gathered together box after box of family photographs, old newspaper cuttings, letters and the like. For the past 5 or 6 years they have lain jumbled up in a wardrobe in our spare room and my task for the next few months is to sort them out. I’ve looked at them many times and marvelled at the family and  social history there is – many of the photographs and objects dating back a century. There are also faded photographs of days out I can remember as a child or people who I do not know, sitting on beaches or gazing into the camera.

Of all the items, however, there are a number relating to my grandfather which I find interesting, poignant emotional and exciting. He died in 1953 when I was eight and I only have vague memories of him. I didn’t have any great feelings about the items but I must admit that as I have become more familiar with them my passing interest in these things from a past age has become something more.  Now, I'm not only moved by the social and family history they tell of but have increasingly felt an urge to find out more and now, somehow it seems to me, I have almost "touched the past" as I have held them in my fingers and looked in detail at their contents.

I grew up in Preston in Lancashire and lived, until I came to Nottingham (to teacher training colleg e) aged about twenty, in a two up two down terraced house. It was a very humble background. My grandfather, Joseph Derbyshire, lived in  a similar house in the next street. He had lived there all his life from when he married in the early years of the century. He spent most of his working life as journeyman property repairer  and builder – never owning his own business and always, I think being strapped for cash. Like many others of his generation he was, of course, a victim of the great depression of the 30s and lived through two wars. Additionally, his wife, my grandmother,  died in childbirth in the early 30s and he struggled to bring up 5 small children – one of them my mother. All this I knew. But when I began rummaging through the boxes I found one or two items that immediately brought me a link with him.

Firstly, I should explain that the older I get the more critical I become of war and all things military.  As the years have passed I have increasingly become irate and now angry by our society’s obsession with battles, killing the enemy, glorifying war through medals and  gold braid, men in silly  uniforms, war films and the like. Increasingly I will have no truck with it. An elderly friend of mine said to me some months ago, as various WW2 anniversary celebrations were making the TV news, 'Why are we still fighting this war 70 years after it ended?' She was exactly right – although I know many might disagree with her. Certainly, in any future conflict I would be a conscientious objector and pacifist. All of this might the basis of a future blog but sufficient to say my beliefs have coloured my views of the little treasure trove I found in the boxes! For that I apologise.

So, what did I find. Well, there were numerous postcards each with a little popular verse  - I’ve seen their like before on the 'Antiques Roadshow' - but these were personal they were from my grandfather to my grandmother and vice versa. They were written during the Great War when  he was in France 'doing his bit.' They are brief but poignant. They mention 'little Albert' – the oldest of his children – just starting to walk, they tell of Janey thinking of her husband every night and praying for his safety and wondering if he has a bed to sleep on. They tell of him 'coming home soon on leave'. Many of his have no message apart from 'To my dear Janey'  - I understand that serving soldiers were often not allowed to write messages in case it gave anything away to the enemy so Janey had to simply look at the picture and at least know that he was still alive.
One of the cards Jane sent to Joe when he was in France
As I looked at them I reflected upon how different things are today – e-mail, mobile phones and the like – and indeed society’s expectations would not tolerate such a position. But in those days families just accepted this and kept a stiff upper lip. I thought, too, about what it must have meant to Joe and Janey (and millions like them) when he went off to France – a place which to them must have seemed as far away as the moon is to us. A completely unknown world for ordinary people who rarely travelled from their home town.

Also in the box were many faded sepia photographs of Joe with Janey and his brother and sister  - all standing proudly posing in their uniforms – ready to march off to war or return to the battle field after leave. There were other photographs too – showing Joe standing with his comrades – all to attention in their camp  at the front. And with these were pictures of him sitting with nurses and other wounded soldiers. And finally a lovely sketch of a rather grand building and scribbled on the back 'the hospital where I was treated for my wounds'. My grandfather was always a quite a good drawer - I can remember as small  boy sitting drawing with him.
At the front. Grandfather stands on the back row extreme left
But the things that pulled all these together and have given me much food for thought were two handwritten letters. One is a page obviously torn from an exercise book and written in green ink – in a beautiful copperplate hand. The other is an exact copy – dated the day afterwards (March 26th 1919). The first letter is a draft and has some  blanks where he has left  spaces  to put in bits of factual information – his army number, a date etc. The second is a final copy which  he obviously copied out the day afterwards. Presumably, there must have been a third copy which he sent. The letter is a begging letter – a plea from a desperate man to the War Commissioners in Chelsea for an increase in his war pension so that he can support his family. His pension had been granted at the beginning of March and he was writing at the end of March so he was obviously anxious to improve his award - perhaps they were desperate for food, perhaps the workhouse beckoned.

I say that it is an exact copy of the first. This is not strictly true. The first draft says that his wife - Janey - is suffering from a 'nervous breakdown' but by the time that he does the copy on the following day he has changed this to a 'serious illness' and he says 'she is not strong'. For whatever reason he felt that it was not appropriate to use the term 'nervous breakdown' - I wonder why? Stigma? 'Serious illness' sounds more dramatic? Perhaps Janey didn't want to admit her condition. In the end it doesn't really matter but I can understand his anxiety. 

Recovering from his wounds. he sits on the front row
second from the right
I have to confess, that although I have no great emotional bond with my grandfather or indeed my family as a whole, whenever I read the letter I get a lump in my throat. He was a very ordinary man of little schooling. By trade a journeyman whitesmith (a worker in tin and pewter). He lived in a tiny house with no hot water or bathroom. He had a beautiful handwriting style and his use of English was impeccable. He was sent off to a far off country to fight in a war that was not of his making, was wounded on two occasions and returned to his country not as a hero (except perhaps to his wife and his neighbours) but had to beg for more money from the government because the injuries he had sustained meant, as he says, that 'I shall be handicapped while ever I live.'

So, what did the letter say? (I copy exactly as he wrote):

I  Joseph Derbyshire of 5 Rigby Street, Preston, Lancashire most humbly petition you to review my pension of eight shillings and threepence (8/3)per week granted to me on the 7/3/19 for twelve months, for the wounds which I received in action during the war.

I don't think this amount satisfactory and I think that you will agree with me when I tell you that I have a Wife (who is suffering from a serious illness and she is not strong) and a Child who is three years old depending on me and I cannot yet follow any employment and particularly my own trade that of a journeyman Black and White smith nor do I think I shall ever be able to do the same at my work as I did before the war.

My Regimental address was 23807 Pte. Joseph Derbyshire, 9th Batt. Loyal North Lancs Regt. and I was wounded through the chest and lungs on the 21st Oct.  1916 and I was in Hospital six months  before I recovered. Shortly after this I was suffering from dysentery and had to be sent home on the 12th Sept. 1917 to recuperate. I was again wounded on the 27th May 1918 and taken prisoner with a broken leg. Through some cause or other this leg is now shorter that the other and as my work demands me to be on my feet most of the time I shall be handicapped while ever I live.

Hoping this will receive your best attention .
I remain,
Yours humbly
Joseph Derbyshire

As I read the letter I pictured him in my mind’s eye sitting, all those years ago, carefully scribing his letter. I remembered that he died at 61 – a remarkably young age and I always remember him looking an old man. Indeed I have a photo of him sitting on his back door step with me – it must have been shortly before he died. He looked far older than his 60 years. He had had a very hard life. And I wonder what it must have 'cost' him – to write a begging letter. Today we would not tolerate a pension for war wounds that was only for 12 months. Today our expectations would quite rightly be so different. Would I have written such a humble, polite letter - I think not! (although I sense in it a bit of  'steel' when he uses phrases like 'I think that you will agree with me'). I also remember that he always walked with a pronounced limp and wore a built up boot to compensate for his shortened leg - his war wound staying with him for the rest of his life.

Joe and Janey just before war broke out
I thought too of my increasing anger at all things military. That ordinary people should be plucked from their everyday life to 'serve King and country'. I thought  of Wilfred Owen’s bitingly critical war poem 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and I thought greatly of Siegfried Sassoon’s  ironic 'Base Details':

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel.
Reading the Roll of Honour. 'Poor young chap,'
I’d say – 'I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in the last scrap.'
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home to die – in bed.

My grandfather did die in bed – but the Great War lived with him all his life. While the officer class, the  wealthy, the politicians and the monarchy came back to England  paraded their medals and glorified the valiant youth who had been sent to their death – and then toddled safely off to bed whilst  the reality was a life time of pain or poverty  for ordinary men. While the rich  lived the life of the glitzy society  of the roaring 20s my grandfather and millions like him were trying to make ends meet on a meagre pension, being the 'humble servants' of the 'War Commissioners in Chelsea.' It was a page straight out of Orwell’s 'Road to Wigan Pier.'

And finally, as I read the pages and looked at the creased  sepia photographs, I thought, too, how my grandfather could never in his wildest dreams have imagined that night in March 1919 when he sat down to write his letter that almost a hundred years later his grandson would take his beautiful scribblings which have somehow survived the years and the photos of him standing proudly in his uniform and scan them into a computer (what would he have made of that!). And then 'publish' his words on something called the internet so that they could be instantly read by everyone on the planet – should they choose to look.

How clever we are today! What a very long way we have come with our technology!  But, sadly, we still glorify war, our Royal family still dress up in military costumes wearing medals that they have not won, our Prime Ministers still send young men off to war and then wring their hands when a young soldier is killed. Our morals and ethics lag far behind our technology.

I only have small memories of my grandfather but from what I know of him he was very quietly spoken and gentle and in that respect I often think of John F Kennedy’s comment  'War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.' I don’t think my grandfather ever became a conscientious objector but I know that he deeply regretted what the war had done to him and his family. For me, I have no hesitation in going along with Einstein who famously said 'He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file and sends others to kill has already earned my contempt and sorrow. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.' 
One of the drafts of the letter.

I cannot imagine how this young, gentle whitesmith went off with thousands of his friends to a far off place to fight a war for King and country and should go through what he did both in the war and after it. Even today with the marvels of technology and our great awareness of the rest of the planet it would be daunting but to people of his generation, for whom France was an unknown world, so far removed and cut off from their loved ones it must have felt terribly lonely and frightening in the horrors of the battlefield. But then, to add insult to injury and to return home to poverty his only "reward" a minimal "pension" and two cheap tin medals (which I have)  for his sacrifice is to me incomprehensible and grossly immoral. As I rummaged through the box of old photographs and the rest I came to the conclusion that that as a society we should be utterly ashamed and those responsible for war and conflict - politicians, Kings and  military "brass" should be made to pay for their actions.    

But, personal prejudices aside, in sorting out my box I knew that I had somehow fleetingly touched the past.

06 February, 2011

The Tics and the Lings!

When I worked in a primary school - which I did for about forty years - I lead many assemblies. Like all school assemblies these usually contained a story or poem. Something inspirational from which the children could hopefully learn something about the world or themselves. Sometimes these were religious, sometimes not.

In the years since I retired I have often reflected that I would now be unable to tell some of the stories I once did. Either the children would not understand since it was no longer part of their world and something to which they could relate, or the world has moved on and what was once a 'given' about how people behave or should behave is no longer the case. Sadly, some of the stories I told, which were no more than gentle reminders to the children about how to behave or how to grow into  responsible members of society have, as the years have passed, developed an awful significance and the become self fulfilling prophecies.

The story below which I told many times - with its wonderful punchline - always brought a gasp from the kids. When I told it in school it was a simpler version and it's message was about caring for our planet. Updated for adults and 2011 it seems to me to have a special wider resonance today.

Two small planets hurtled through space, they circled around their sun for millions of years. One of the planets was populated by beings called Lings. The other planet had a population of Tics. At night the Tics would look at the planet of the Lings quite unaware of the existence of life on that planet. On the planet of the Lings, they too would gaze upwards and look at the silver ball in the sky never dreaming it was full of Tics.

The millennia passed.

Then, one day a small space craft set off from the planet of the Lings and powered its way through space .  Three or four days later it landed on the planet of the Tics. Its door opened and out clambered three spacelings. They climbed into their buggy and began to investigate this new world. It was soon apparent to the Lings that the planet was quite uninhabited. There was no sign of life of any kind. No trees, no plants, no insects or animals, no water. Nothing but dust and dirt. There was no sign whatsoever of people of any kind.

The spacelings explored but to no avail. The planet was quite empty and dead. As they made their way back to their spacecraft, however, they came across a cave. They stopped to explore and to their amazement found an old book lying in the dust and at the side of the book a few bones. It had clearly lain there for many thousands of years. They buried the bones and carefully picked  up the book and headed back to the space craft -  anxious to report back to their superiors back home.

Back on board they carefully opened the book and found page after page of neat writing. It told the story of the great Tic civilizations that had lived on the planet.

They read that once the planet had been filled with millions of Tics. Tics of every colour and  every belief. There were yellow Tics, white Tics, red Tics, black Tics. There were Tics who drove buses, Tics who taught in schools, Tics who worked in banks, Tics who worked in hospitals. There were scientics and footballtics and shopkeepertics. Indeed it was just like at home.

But as they read on, they realised that all was not well. The book told them that the different coloured Tics often argued amongst themselves. There was colour prejudice. Some Tics were looked down on by other Tics. There different classes of Tics and the some had special privileges. These upper classtics went to special schools and looked down on the ordinary Tics.  Many Tics  were greedy and took more than their share of the planet’s resources. Many Tics became overweight in some parts of the planet whilst others starved in other Tic countries. The various governments were often corrupt and run by the upper classtics and allowed some Tics to become extremely wealthy whilst ordinary Tics were often unemployed and poor.  

Some Tic countries polluted the atmosphere and said that this was the price you had to pay for progress. Many Tics had polluting cars and the scientics often spoke out and said if we carry on like this our planet will become polluted and die. Many politiciantics and religioustics warned that unless the governments did more to help people, tackle pollution and become more caring then the Tic society was in grave danger.  But those in power wouldn’t listen – they said ‘No this is progress - it makes society rich.’ But it didn’t make Tics in some countries rich, it made them poor for they were forced to labour in sweat shops in order to provide cheap products for the rich Tics of the planet. And these poor Tics became angry and resentful. Many wealthy Tics and Tic companies cheated on the amount of Tic tax for which they were liable and as a result countries and governments had less money to provide for things like schools and healthcare.  There were also, the book said, some Tics who wielded great power. For example, newspaper owners who wielded  influence through  newspapers and TV empires. Tics were encouraged  to live the good life, to buy more TVs and to vote for who the Tic’s the newspapers approved of rather than think for themselves.  And many Tics did. And the great Tic superpower USstic and it’s close friend UKtic brought illegal wars on other Tic nations that they did not like. And no-one stopped them. And it brought great hatred amongst the Tics. There were terrortics who planted bombs. And although many Tics wrote to the newspapers and demonstrated in the streets many other Tics couldn’t be bothered and said, 'We can’t do anything and anyway we are alright'.

And slowly the planet began to die. The weather began to change and great storms and droughts occurred. Crops began to fail. There were more and more terrortics attacks as some Tic countries began to feel the effect of the planet’s climate  changes and their people needed food. And the UStic and the UKtic, who had a special relationship fought more wars to keep these Tic nations in order and to make them do as they were told. And the UStic especially, which was the richest Tic nation and used up more and more of the planet’s resources and exported much of its violent culture in films and the like to other Tic nations. And other Tics watched and copied. And violence and guns and drugs became part of life across the planet.

And the three spacelings finished reading the book and silently looked at each other. Without speaking they fired up the rockets and began their journey back home. Three days later they arrived back. They climbed out of their craft and were quickly taken to see their superiors  to be debriefed.

They told their superiors what had happened and what they had read. They took out the book and held it up.  'It is just like our planet’ they said. We Earthlings fight amongst ourselves. We pollute. Our governments are corrupt. We face environmental disaster if we continue to pollute. The scientists tell us so. We fight illegal wars and we cause people to hate us. Half our world starves while the other half is overweight. Our young are unemployed and our governments do nothing about it but tell us that is how it has to be. Our bankers get rich at the expense of the poor. Our major companies do not pay the tax they should and so those in greatest need suffer. We must do something about it’ said the spacelings'.

'Well that’s all very interesting said their superiors. But so what?'

'Well', said the spacelings. 'Read the last page.' They opened the book and looked at the  spidery script.

'Beware,'  said the writing, 'I am the last surviving Tic. My planet has died. Pollution, wars, violence, prejudice,  greed, market forces, corruption has killed the  planet and killed society. We didn’t listen. The planet Luna is no more. I am the last of the Lunatics.'

03 February, 2011

I say, I say, I say........have you heard the one about.........!

It seems  every day now, that  when I switch in the computer in the morning,   the e-mail in box rapidly fills with mails from a multitude of friends and friends of friends each relating the latest jokes or humorous videos or amazing photos that are circulating round the web. Perhaps it’s a natural response to these times of austerity, job insecurity, banker bashing and the like and a way of keeping the national morale up! They brighten the start of the day, however,  and we, in turn, forward them on to other friends and acquaintances. Within seconds of a joke arriving in our inbox in Nottingham it can be in Adelaide in south Australia or the south of France or the south east of England or Manchester. Of course, when forwarding on there is an important decision to be made – would the recipient find this funny? Is this joke perhaps a bit risqué for a maiden aunt!  The speed of internet communication is breath taking. Occasionally we get one back that we recognise as one we forwarded a few days previously – it has presumably travelled the world before the cyber links that now join us all find a pathway back to us.
We have all come to accept this as the norm – and our children even more so I suppose - for they have not lived without the benefits of computer technology. How things have changed in such a few years. Booking a holiday, ordering shopping or theatre tickets, communicating with relatives on the other side of the world, accessing information, following sporting events – the list is endless – they are all part of our normal everyday life.
I have just finished reading a book I first read almost 40 years ago – 'Deschooling Society' by Ivan Illich. A seminal work. Subversive  in its day and to a degree no less so today. Illich, writing on 1971 only briefly mentions the word computer – and when he does it is more in the context of a rather grand complex abacus. Even his great intellect could not have foreseen the way that the technology would develop. As I read the book I often scribbled in the margin  comments like 'today’s internet would make this easier.' The deschooled society that Illich envisaged all those years ago has in many ways come to be as people access information, knowledge and skill from so many sources other than schools and other formal educational institutions. It is perhaps sobering to consider that when Illich wrote his book it caused uproar, was considered subversive and branded as 'way out' clap trap. In the event it now looks more and more prophetic.
Another thought that has crossed my mind is that although the internet and the technology has allowed us to access information, communicate more easily, shop on line, and the like it has increasingly disadvantaged those who do not have access. The jokes that arrive in our e-mail each morning can only be forwarded to those with computers and internet access. We cannot, for example, bring a smile to the faces of our relations who do not have access to that facility. Jokes of course are inconsequential, but increasingly as companies and governments provide their services and base their costs on the internet, those without the internet are at a disadvantage. The double whammy to this is, of course that certain groups – the old and the poor are less likely to have access – and these are the very groups that might benefit most. We have just booked a holiday on the internet – and saved significantly by doing so. Had we not had that facility the same holiday would cost much more when booked through a travel agent.
There are, of course, other more insidious and worrying aspects of the technological world in which we live. Presumably it is now much easier for governments or other agencies to track our every move and communication every time we 'log on' – 1984 is with us. But equally, as we have seen with student demonstrations and the like the speed of communication means that things can be organised much more easily than previously and so therefore make it more difficult to police.
But, whatever the good and bad, the genie  is now out of the bottle and has to be lived with and managed. Until then I’ll keep enjoying the jokes! Here are a few that brightened recent mornings!

An Italian Mother
 Mrs. Ravioli comes to visit her son Anthony for dinner . He  lives with a female roommate Maria . During the course of the meal, his mother couldn't help but notice how pretty Anthony's roommate was. She had long been suspicious of a relationship between the two, and this had only made her more curious. Over the course of the evening, while watching the two interact, she started to wonder if there was more between Anthony and his roommate than met the eye. Reading his mother's thoughts, Anthony volunteered, 'I know what you must be thinking, but I assure you, Maria and I are just roommates'.
About a week later, Maria came to Anthony saying, 'Ever since your mother came to dinner, I've been unable to find the silver sugar bowl . You don't suppose she took it, do you?'
'Well, I doubt it, but I'll email her, just to be sure.' replied Anthony. So he sat down and wrote:
Dear Mama,
I'm not saying that you 'did' take the sugar bowl from my house; I'm not saying that you 'did not' take it. But the fact remains that it has been missing ever since you were here for dinner.
Love, Anthony
Several days later, Anthony received a response email from his Mama which read:
Dear Son,
I'm not saying that you 'do' sleep with Maria, and I'm not saying that you 'do not' sleep with her. But the fact remains that if she was sleeping in her OWN bed, she would have found the sugar bowl by now.
Love, Mama
Moral: Never lie to your Mama . . . especially if she's Italian

The Bacon Tree
Two illegal Mexicans are stuck in the desert after crossing into the United States.  Wandering aimlessly and starving, they are about to just lie down and wait for death, when all of a sudden Pedro says......... "Hey Pepe, do you smell what I smell. Ees bacon, I theenk."
"Si, Pedro, eet sure smells like bacon. " 

With renewed hope they struggle up the next sand dune, & there, in the distance, is a tree loaded with bacon.  There's raw bacon, there's fried bacon, back bacon, smoked bacon ... every imaginable kind of cured pork.  "Pepe, Pepe, we ees saved. Ees a bacon tree." 
"Pedro, maybe ees a meerage? We ees in the desert don't forget." 
"Pepe, since when deed you ever hear of a meerage that smell like bacon...ees no meerage, ees a bacon tree." 

And with that, Pedro staggers towards the tree. He gets to within 5 metres with Pepe crawling close behind,when suddenly a machine gun opens up, and Pedro drops like  a wet sock. Mortally wounded, he warns Pepe with his dying breath, 

"Pepe... go back man, you was right, ees not a bacon tree!" 
"Pedro, Pedro mi amigo... what ees it? "
"Pepe.. ees not a bacon tree. Ees 
Ees,  Ees, Ees, 

 a ham bush...." 

The Rabbit
  A rabbit walks into a pub and says to the barman, 'Can I have a pint of
 beer, and a Ham and Cheese Toastie?’ The barman is amazed, but gives the rabbit a pint of beer and a ham and cheese toastie. The rabbit drinks the beer and eats the toastie. He then leaves.

The following night the rabbit returns and again asks for a pint of beer, and a Ham and Cheese Toastie. The barman, now intrigued by the rabbit and the extra drinkers inthe pub, (because word gets round), gives the rabbit the pint and the Toastie. The rabbit consumes them and leaves.
The next night, the pub is packed.  In walks the rabbit and says, 'A pint of beer and a Ham and Cheese Toastie, please barman.' The crowd is hushed as the barman gives the rabbit his pint and toastie, and then burst into applause as the rabbit wolfs them down.
The next night there is standing room only in the pub.  Coaches have been laid on for the crowds of patrons attending. The barman is making more money in one week than he did all last year.  In walks the rabbit and says, 'A pint of beer and a Ham and Cheese Toastie, please barman,’
The barman says, 'I'm sorry rabbit, old mate, old mucker, but we are
 right out of them Ham and Cheese Toasties...' The rabbit looks aghast.

 The crowd has quietened to almost a whisper, when the barman clears his throat nervously and says, 'We do have a very nice Cheese and
 Onion Toastie.' The rabbit looks him in the eye and says, 'Are you sure I will like it.'

The masses' bated breath is ear shatteringly silent.  The barman, with a roguish smile says, 'Do you think that I would
 let  down one of my best friends. I know you'll love it.'
 'Ok,' says the rabbit, 'I'll have a pint of beer and a Cheese and
 Onion Toastie.' The pub erupts with glee as the rabbit quaffs the beer and guzzles the toastie. He then waves to the crowd and leaves..........NEVER TO RETURN!!!!!!

 One year later, in the now impoverished public house, the barman, (who
 has only served 4 drinks tonight, 3 of which were his), calls time. When he is cleaning down the now empty bar, he sees a small white form, floating above the bar. The barman says, 'Who are you?', To which he is answered,
 'I am the ghost of the rabbit that used to frequent your public
 The barman says, 'I remember you. You made me famous. You would come in every night and have a pint of beer and a Ham and Cheese Toastie. Masses came to see you and this place was famous.'
 The rabbit says, 'Yes I know.'
 The barman said, 'I remember, on your last night we didn't have any  Ham and Cheese Toasties. You had a Cheese and Onion one instead.'
 The rabbit said, 'Yes, you promised me that I would love it.
 The barman said, 'You never came back, what happened?'
 'I DIED', said the rabbit. 'NO!' said the barman. 'What from?'

 After a short pause, the rabbit said... 'Mixin-me-toasties.'


A man is stuck in traffic. He asks a police officer about the hold-up and he replies: "A banker is so depressed about the economy he's stopped his car and is threatening to douse himself with petrol and set himself on fire. We're having a collection for him." The man asks: "How much have you got so far?" The policeman replies: "About 40 gallons, but a lot of people are still siphoning."

02 February, 2011

Historical Facts!

Bradgate Park, Leicestershire
My wife has just been reading the Village Newsletter, produced by the Parish Council. It mentions that the long retired village blacksmith, Oliver Blood, is 85. The Bloods are a family with long historical connections with the village and indeed the family have documentation recording a 'trip' to America (I suppose it was called the colonies then) in 1648. I’m not sure the word 'trip' would rightly describe such an adventure in those days – it must have felt like they were stepping off the edge of the world! Thinking of the long association that the Bloods have in our village it makes me realise that Oliver’s long ago ancestors  probably knew James Peacock, one of the subjects of my blog yesterday.

This set me thinking. A week or two ago, our esteemed Secretary for Education – Michael Gove – announced that children need to learn 'more facts' in schools. They should study 'history' in an ordered narrative of historical facts. The educational world in England has been here many times before over recent years, as each successive Education Secretary has had another dream and the following morning made it education policy. I have no problem with Mr Gove liking his facts but I do object to him foisting them on the rest of us and on schools in particular. The problem is, of course, what are the facts we should know? Who selects them? What is a useful fact to know and what not? Judging from Mr Gove’s other utterings we can probably safely assume that his facts are to do with dates of battles won, Kings crowned and the like. This is all jolly exciting – cavaliers and roundheads, knights in shining armour and the like. But exciting and glamorous though it might be I’m not sure it is as important as the things that actually impinge on people’s lives or that have formed the world in which everyday people live. Don’t get me wrong – I love facts, I love the great canvas and pageant of history. But there are other meaningful things for children to study in schools and better ways to approach their learning of these facts.

The ruins of Bradgate House
- birthplace of lady Jane Grey
Oliver Blood’s family history explains much of why our village is like it is. James Peacock’s life (see yesterday’s bog) still affects the village today three centuries after his death. Jesse Boot and William  Booth (see yesterday’s blog) have greater permanence and resonance in Nottingham than 'the great fire of London' or analysing the causes of the first world war. Of course the two areas – local and national history are inextricably linked, but it seems to me that good history teaching starts (as all good teaching starts) with what you know or are aware of and not something abstract and far removed. The stone photographed in yesterday’s blog is a good example – commemorating James Peacock’s endowment to the village but at the same time recording by default the great 1870 Education Act which ultimately meant education for all.

When Pat and I got up this morning there was a weak winter sun, but the promise of a chilly but bright day (as it happens it hasn’t worked out, as I write this it is cheerless and bleak!). A trip out in the car and then  a walk seemed a good option and Bradgate Park on the outskirts of Leicester was the venue. By 10.15 we were parking the  car on one of the many car parks.

We have spent many, many happy hours at Bradgate over the years – summer picnics with the kids, dog walking, winter sledging, rock climbing – it’s a lovely place to visit. Mile after mile of open countryside, heathland, streams, deer, dry stone walls, rocky outcrops, forest land. It is beautifully maintained  by Leicester County Council and the National Trust.

Sheltering form a biting wind!
The Park has much history associated with it. In the 11th century the area was given by William the Conqueror to one Hugh de Grandmesnil as a reward for his assistance at the Battle of Hastings. Eventually it passed to the Grey family in the late 15th century and it stayed in their hands till 1928 when it eventually passed into the care of the Leicestershire community 'to be kept in perpetuity  and preserved in its natural state for the people of Leicestershire'. When the Grey family took over the land they built a house – Bradgate House – and it was there that Jane Grey was born. The famous 'Lady Jane Grey' known as the 'Nine Days’ Queen' was a grand-daughter of Henry VII and a cousin of Edward VI. When Edward died, aged only 15, in 1553 he nominated Jane as his successor in opposition to Edward’s half sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Four days later, she was proclaimed Queen but within days Mary had gathered an army and Jane was soon locked up in the Tower of London awaiting execution in February 1654 aged 16. Jane was no fool despite her early demise. She was regarded, perhaps as the most learned woman of her day and was skilled in several languages. And her execution was widely recorded as one of the great events of British history because of the bravery and demeanour she displayed right to the end. But, the rest, as they say, is history!

As Pat and I set off for our walk, we fought the elements – a breathtaking chill wind to struggle against – but eventually a mile or so down the path we reached the ruins of the Grey’s old house. Then it was back to the car, this time the wind behind us so easier. Despite the weather the Park was busy with other hardy souls – one couple in shorts! But in that short walk we had almost stepped back in time – links with William the Conqueror, with Henry VII, with Mary and ultimately Elizabeth 1st.   There were many other links. For example, when  William awarded the land to Hugh de Grandmesnil it was a hunting park – not just for pleasure. This was a training ground for Norman knights to  ride on horseback as they hunted and so practice  similar skills of balance, using their swords and spears etc. that they would need in battle. The same use was made of the New Forest in Hampshire.

All this from a chilly walk through the countryside – the whole spread of our national history put into a local context. A walk round my village would give another similar spread. No list of facts here. No analysis of cause and effect. But it starts from the known and then travels to the unknown.  Once you ask the question 'who did that ruined house belong to?' other questions and information becomes important. That’s history in context – not Mr Gove’s version of history as an abstraction.

In the Wheatsheaf Inn
But it didn’t end there. Cold and windswept we sought out a warming drink and a little way down the road stumbled on the Wheatsheaf Inn at Woodhouse Eaves. A typical beamed English pub -  a super place to take a foreign visitor. A warming cup of coffee and a sit by a roaring fire soon made us feel better. Of course, a historian would have fun with the pub sign showing the harvest sheaf – it’s an  instant entry to the study of farm labour in years gone and would eventually, perhaps, lead to some of Mr Gove’s facts when we got as far as thinking  about the profound changes that came to the English countryside with the coming of the Enclosure Acts  of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

But, oh dear – we appear to have come full circle as far as the news is concerned. The Enclosure Acts were the brainchild of Mr Gove’s  Tory predecessors . They enclosed the 'common land' and so removed it from the use of ordinary people. Now where have I heard that before............? Got it! In the news over the last few days. The government are planning to sell of great tracts of the nation’s woodland to private individuals – to make a few millions and save them the problem of employing all the people who currently manage the areas. Of course, the concern is that it will also mean large areas will no longer be available for the use of ordinary people – possibly places like Bradgate Park – the enclosure of the forests! Oh, why am I so cynical!

Loughborough Carillon
And so homeward bound.  The car heater on and the clouds gathering.  Not a lot of promise for a pleasant afternoon. On the way we passed through Loughborough. Filled with history, if you care to look.  Difficult to know where to start. But the obvious one is the fine history of bell manufacture. We passed within yards of the bell museum and in the distance I could see the carillon in the centre of the town. Bells have been made in Loughborough since the fourteenth century. Bells made here are used throughout the country and the world – as far as California and the Washington National Cathedral.  The largest bell in the world – 'Great Paul' – made the journey from Loughborough and hangs in Christopher Wren’s St Pauls Cathedral. Again linked with one of our nation’s great events – St Paul’s was built amid the destruction of Great Fire of London.

And, finally, a pleasant lunch at 'The Packe Arms' at Hoton – a pub which has become our 'local' (although it’s a few miles from Ruddington) and is named after the Packe family who lived in the nearby Prestwold Hall. Way back in 1653 Christopher Packe, a London  draper and a follower of Cromwell, purchased the manor of Prestwold and in 1654  he became Lord Mayor of London. This latter day Dick Whittington went to the House of Lords and from then onwards 'made his fortune'. His descendants lived at Prestwold Hall and one of them, Charles James Packe, was closely involved, amongst other things with the growth of the railways in the area. When the first railways were being established in the Loughborough area Packe worked closely with both George Stephenson (he of 'Rocket' fame) and Stephenson’s son Robert. One of the results was the line that passes close to Bradgate Park and which is now part of the Great Central Railway. He also renovated the local pub and in his memory the pub is known today as 'The Packe Arms'- and over the door are the initials 'CJP 1831'
The Packe Arms, Hoton
So a simple pub lunch, a walk in the country, a drive through a  local town generated lots of local history and at the same time so closely intertwined  with the great events and great names of our country – Wren, Fire of London, Henry Tudor, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth 1st,  Stephenson, the Rocket, the Enclosure Acts, William the Conqueror,  the industrialisation of the country, Cromwell.   A far cry this from lists of Kings and Queens, dates of battles,  and the facts so beloved by our Secretary for Education. In fact come to think of it why does he call himself Secretary for Education – what he proposes has nothing to do with education!  So much more sensible to start with the local than with Mr Gove’s shopping list of facts that he decides we should 'know'! But of course using local  starting points is not so easy to teach in the nice order and narrative that the government want. 'This year we’ll do the Tudors and next year we’ll do the Stuarts' doesn’t seem to fit when you’re using context and local history.

Close by Bradgate Park thunders the M1. Thousands daily hurtle along the motorway and pass this area of the east midlands without a thought that it has so many links with the nation’s past and its people and places have had so much impact on the great events of the nation. It doesn’t have the fame or the glamour of London, or Stratford, or Windsor or York or Canterbury. But it’s every bit as rich and important in the history of Britain. It just takes eyes to see and time to explore.
Lady Jane Grey's birthplace

01 February, 2011

Lean and Mean

Tuesday morning. My wife, Pat, has gone off to work. She works one day a week in the office of a local primary school – the William Booth School, named after the founder of the Salvation Army who set up his first 'mission' yards away from where the school now stands. On her way she will pass over Trent Bridge and the site (now a hair dresser’s, I think) of the first chemist shop owned by Jesse Boot's father, John, where the now multinational business Boot’s started life. The school is also only a mile or so away from another primary school named after Jesse Boot – Jesse Boot Primary – to remind local town folk of the generosity and good deeds of the Boot family.

I thought about this over breakfast while I read the Guardian. Following a report yesterday that there had been a demonstration outside the Boot’s Chemist in Oxford Street, London. There were a number of letters from readers in the Guardian. The London demonstrators were highlighting the fact that Boots, a company born and bred in Nottingham, was reducing its tax burden by registering its office in Switzerland. The police broke up the demonstration by using tear gas – the first time, I understand that this method has been used to break up demonstrators in mainland Britain. This is, perhaps, a worrying sign of things to come as the government and big business continue their divisive 'get rich quick policies' that mean the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. The government’s claim that we are 'all in this together' has an increasingly hollow ring as the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' widens in our society. I fear that there will be more demonstrations – and rightly so.

John Ralfe, the former head of corporate finance at Boots has calculated that, "the UK has lost about £100m a year in tax as a result" of the Boot’s tax loophole accountancy. Other national companies have followed and continue to follow the same route.

Last week, Pat and walked around the magnificent grounds of Nottingham University - one of our nation’s premier universities which has its roots firmly in the funding provided by Jesse Boot a century ago. I reflected on this too when I noticed, on my bookshelf at home my M.Ed thesis which I completed on a part time basis Nottingham University. I had, and have much, to be grateful for to Jesse Boot and his father John Boot. So too, have many people in Nottingham and so too have generations of students from all over the world who have come to this city to study.

James Peacock's philanthropy
still in evidence almost 400 years
 after his gift to the village
And, after breakfast, when Pat had gone to work I walked to the village to get the daily shopping. I passed the old school on the village green and noticed the inscribed stone in the brickwork. I read that this 'free school' had been built on the funding of James Peacock, a seventeenth century resident of the village who made his fortune in London but didn’t forget his roots. He provided an endowment so that the boys of the village could be educated. Even today, the endowment still purchases a dictionary and a Bible for all the 11 year olds leaving the school to go on to their secondary education. The school was, of course, taken over by the local school board with the coming of the great 1870 Education Act, but it was building on a foundation already laid in the village due to the generosity of James Peacock. As I continued my walk I passed near to the James Peacock Infant School - I could hear the children playing in the playground. And thinking about these things I began to wonder what is wrong with our society when multi-national companies are not fulfilling their obligations to the communities in which they grew up and operate and are making a fast buck by relocating to tax havens. They are not suffering – but society is.

I’m so pleased that Jesse Boot did not adopt the same position as his multinational successors. I’m so glad that James Peacock didn’t – doubly so, for I spent my first years of teaching in the school on the green – it paid my mortgage and kept my family. And when my own children went to the school they too benefitted from James Peacock’s community spirit, altruism, generosity and integrity.

I am not naive. Businessmen are in business to make a profit. That, I am, sure was just as true in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is now. But there are differences. Politicians now call for accountability – for example in schools or in the health service – and yet in the face of what is allegedly the worst recession in living memory they are unable or unwilling to clamp down on this massive tax evasion and make companies like Boot’s 'accountable'. It is the same with the pay and bonuses of bankers. Politicians are unwilling to bring them 'to account'. 'But', I hear Michael Gove say, 'we have many people queuing up to show their philanthropic zeal and fund academies.' Correction, to fund academies in order that they get a place in the House of Lords and thus gain privileged access to those in power. And the circle is squared when the politicians and those in power – Hoon, Blair, Mandelson, Smith et al leave politics for plush jobs in, or consultants to, the boardrooms of the multinationals. No, gone are the days when honest philanthropy was just that – it came with no strings attached. Gone are the days of ethical action. Gone are the days of altruism.

We are a rich country – but could be a little richer if those with the money and the power fulfilled their financial, moral and social responsibilities. If Boot’s and other companies paid their tax and if politicians ensured that they did then the national conscience would be a little easier. The straits would not be quite so dire if the billions of pounds given to the banks had been put directly into the economy to increase purchasing power rather than provide bonuses and bulging balance sheets for the banks.

Sadly, I do not completely blame the bankers or Boot’s or other similar companies. Given a similar situation most of us might have taken the same route – it’s called greed and is a fundamental part of the human condition. No, the blame lies with the inherent integrity and ethics of government and those in power who are unwilling to address the issue – why bite off the hand that feeds you? Our politicians are no longer the honourable people that we expect – they swim with the sharks. It lends a horrible truth to the latest ‘banker’ joke I heard: 'Why don’t sharks attack bankers? Answer: Professional courtesy!' We mock the Italians and Berlusconi – we are no different. Our prime minister, until last weekend, employed a man as his media advisor of undeniably questionable background and sees no reason to distance himself from the highly questionable people on the Oxfordshire Set (see previous blog!). Tony Blair, and even the virtuous Gordon Brown moved regularly in these circles. Peter Mandelson loved it – he had no shame in praising what he called ‘the filthy rich’. Our present government appoints a man to advise on cost cutting, (Philip Green) who gives barrow boys a bad name, a man who openly directs £1.2 billion into his wife’s bank account to save him from paying the due tax. The list is endless – the use by government (and within government) of people who you would never, in your right mind, buy a used car from, people who, in years past, would have been regarded with suspicion and called 'spivs' - is both breathtaking and depressing.

The old Endowed Boys' School
on Ruddington village green.
Thanks to James Peacock
No, we have sunk a long way in these early years of the 21st century. Jesse Boot’s and James Peacock’s altruism (and of others like – Joseph Rowntree or Robert Owen) laid the basis of the society we have today. It allowed people like me to 'make good'. To play a part in that society. To hopefully contribute to the future wealth and well being of that society. What we have in 2011 in our country is a wealthy and political class of mean minded sharp operators – plying their trade just within the boundaries of the law and with two life ambitions – to increase their bank balance and promote their advancement. And they do this with the blessing of those in power – of whatever political persuasion.

Of course, people like Boot, Owen, Rowntree and the like were just as interested in making a profit as the business leaders of today. But they went about it differently – and for a very good reason – they were the owners of their companies. They had a vested interest in its future and its continuing success, it was their company and their life’s work. So, they invested in the work force because they knew that happy, well fed, enthusiastic employees were also productive employees and that meant profits. It also meant, by default, that communities benefitted. In Nottingham, until a few years ago it was accepted that working for Boot’s was a definite 'plus'. Apart from any remuneration, security of job etc. there were perks. One of the most often quoted was that the company would fund night school class attendance for employees – it didn’t matter too much what they were studying, but they were studying. I can remember attending classes on car mechanics and hi-fi where a number of the other participants were funded by Boot’s. Jesse Boot knew that employees who want to improve themselves will also want to improve their work place and their company – and for Jesse Boot that equalled increasing profits for him. Joseph Rowntree and Robert Owen had the same philosophy - and they helped generate the wealth of the nation that we still enjoy today.

But now we have different business leaders. Our companies are not run by the men who own them and built them up. They are run by accountants and 'entrepreneurs' like Philip Green or Stuart Rose whose raison d’être is to make the business 'lean and mean'. To maximise immediate profit rather than ensure long term success. All that matters is the next balance sheet so that share prices will rise, the shareholders and stock market speculators will be happy as they cash in their 'chips' and they, the CEOs and the like will get their next bonus. After a year or so they move on or the company is gobbled up by someone bigger – but everyone is happy if that happens – bonuses all round and further rising share prices. Everyone’s a winner – except the ordinary worker, the local community. And in this culture, philanthropy and altruism have no place. There will be no legacy for future generations from Stuart Rose’s 'M & S' or Philip Green’s 'Top Shop'. It's a kind of quick fix, here today gone tomorrow capitalism and economics where long term development and the greater good has no place.

In his book '23 Things They Don’t tell You About Capitalism' (Chapter 2) Ha-Joon Chang makes this point well. He calls these people who now run businesses 'professional managers' and their incentive is increasingly the maximisation of profits by cutting costs – wages, development, job security measures and the like. In the very short term it works – in the longer term it doesn’t – but by that time the professional manager has moved on with his stock option bonus in his pocket. He had no long term allegiance to the company, its employees, its history, its community. And, of course, neither did its shareholders – they too have moved on. Against this background Boot’s decision to relocate to Switzerland to avoid paying tax makes absolute sense. Who wouldn’t do it? But as a nation we are the poorer. Tax is not paid and the nation and local communities miss out. Companies like Boot’s are indeed very lean and very, very mean.

Jesse Boot and James Peacock were men of Nottingham. We have a third famous son – Robin Hood. He allegedly proudly boasted that he robbed the rich to help the poor – I’m afraid he would have got short shrift in modern Britain. The likes of Philip Green, Michael Gove, David Cameron, Geoff Hoon, Jacqui Smith, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Vince Cable – the list is endless – would, together with the bankers and the CEOs of companies like Boot’s, like so many latter day Sheriffs of Nottingham,  advise Robin of the error of his ways – 'No, no, no', they would proclaim, 'you’ve got it wrong - it’s rob the poor to help the rich!

And now – it’s mid afternoon. Pat will soon be home from work at William Booth Primary School. It’s just occurred to me that the awful irony of the whole situation is that if the descendents of Jesse Boot’s Trent Bridge Chemist shop, the modern Boot’s, and the CEOs of other tax evading companies, continue to get their way and walk away from their responsibilities towards the exchequer and ultimately the community then we will all be needing the support and ministrations of the descendents of William Booth – the Salvation Army to meet our daily needs for food and succour!