28 May, 2012

"So here hath been dawning........"

Trent Bridge - and a beautiful blue sky.
Only a week ago much of the country was still shivering under some unseasonal May weather. We, like many others, still had the central heating warming our home. This weather was following hard on the heels of one of the wettest springs anyone can remember so the first bit of blue sky was a welcome relief.

Thomas Carlyle
I’m very much not a sun worshipper – usually at the first sign of hot weather I head for the shade. It’s not the dangers posed by the sun’s rays and the potential health damage that worries me – they, I believe, are a much overstated case – but the fact that I just get too hot and bothered! When we go abroad on holiday, I wish I could lie out in the blazing Mediterranean sun, but as soon as I try it I know it’s not for me.

The Trent Bridge Inn, overlooking the
cricket ground and part of the
nation's heritage
Having said that, however, the glorious weather that we have been experiencing in the UK for the past week – and due to end in the next day or so – really has been great. Endless blue skies, a light breeze, a clear warming heat – little humidity to make one feel “sticky” and few clouds to drift across the sun and make everyone rush for a sweater.

Yesterday, Pat and I sat in the garden enjoying a morning cup of coffee. It was glorious and as we sat there I looked up into the cloudless blue sky and the words of one of my favourite school hymns came into my mind –Thomas Carlyle’s wonderful “So here hath been dawning another blue day”. It was a short hymn that I have stood in assembly and sung hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times over the years. We both, coffee cups in hand, sat and sang it - the neighbours must be getting seriously worried about us!

So here hath been dawning 
Another blue day: 
Think, wilt thou let it 
Slip useless away? 
Out of Eternity 
This new day is born: 
In to Eternity 
At night will return. 
Behold it aforetime 
No eye ever did: 
So soon it forever 
From all eyes is hid. 
Here hath been dawning 
Another blue day: 
Think, wilt thou let it 
Slip useless away?

Harold Larwood (left) and Bill Voce
in their England blazers - ready to
cause sporting history in the
 "bodyline" series
Carlyle (1795 – 1881) was primarily a historian and essayist. His father was a small farmer in Scotland, and Thomas was educated at the University of Edinburgh where he showed particular promise in mathematics. Following graduation he worked as a teacher and then returned to University to study law and later, German literature.  In 1834 he and his wife moved to London, where he published a history of the French Revolution, which received both serious acclaim and popular success. He had a very high regard for strength of character combined with a belief in a God-given mission, and regarded Oliver Cromwell as the greatest English example of his ideal man. I think this shines through in the words of his little verse. He produced four volumes of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches and was later installed as rector of Edinburgh University in 1866, His wife died suddenly shortly afterwards, and, sadly, Carlyle never fully recovered from her loss and wrote little in his later years.
Australian Captain Bill Woodfull
 ducks to avoid one of Larwood's
"body line" fast balls. The huge Adelaide
 crowd behind showing their anger at
the English tactics. 

Perhaps the sentiments in Carlyle’s verse sound a bit twee and old fashioned today but I like them. I also love the wonderful words, the sound of them, the feel of them as they roll off the tongue – no concessions here to the awful Plain English Campaign which is simply a euphemism for "couldn't care less English"! What a lovely word is "aforetime"; and "out of eternity this new day is born, into eternity at night will return" - what wonderful use of language, it pinpoints exactly the uniqueness of every hour and  day but says so much more with the choice of words like "eternity", "born" and "return"! As Pat and I sipped our coffee and looked up at the azure sky yesterday morning the words and sentiments seemed just right: another blue day..... a new day that is totally unique and will never again be repeated......when it ends it is gone, forever..... are you going to waste it.....don’t waste it.......... . When I was teaching I often used the words as a prayer when I was leading assembly or as a piece of handwriting for the class. Perhaps some of the children I taught will remember it - I'd like to think so.

And this morning – another beautiful blue day – I went out in my car. The sun shining, the air con on (yes, bad for the environment, I know!) and a lovely morning for a drive. On my way to the local shops I drove past Trent Bridge Cricket Ground here in Nottingham – one of the six great Test Match venues of England: Lords, the Oval, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Headingly and Edgbaston. Although it was early the crowds were already gathering for the fourth day’s play in the England v West Indies Test.  Young men and women, older married couples, gentlemen and ladies with walking sticks and straw sun hats perched on their heads and all carrying their plastic bags or shouldering their rucksacks full of picnic items for a long day at “the test”. The gates were open and as I drove past I caught a glimpse of the greensward which is the outfield and in the middle the twenty two yard strip where the action takes place – the wicket.
The Adelaide Oval -  a beautiful
ground - and a lovely blue sky!

I turned down Radcliffe Road at the side of the ground and past the world famous Trent Bridge Inn - a building which is soaked in the history of cricket and with it the history of England and Empire. As I slowed in the traffic I glanced up Fox Road which runs along the back of the cricket ground and I could just see the sign for the Larwood & Voce Tavern. The very name conjures up pictures of mighty deeds and great sportsmen  – Larwood and Voce.  Two of the greatest - and both  sons of Nottinghamshire. Harold Larwood and his partner Bill Voce were the two great fast bowlers, lowly Nottinghamshire coal miners, who tore Australia and the great Don Bradman apart in the infamous bodyline test series of 1932/33. In doing so they almost brought the British Empire to its knees and were instrumental in making the Ashes tests between England and Australia the keenly contested encounters that they always are.

As the traffic again began to move my mind drifted back to a few years ago to when Pat and I were in Australia and I visited the Adelaide Oval with our Australian friend, Gary.  The Adelaide Oval is the great Australian test match ground where Larwood and Voce did so much damage to the Australian batsmen in the third test in 1933. The day we visited was another beautiful, azure day (the norm in South Australia!) and as we toured the ground and looked at the memorabilia, walked on the hallowed turf and gazed at Bradman’s illustrious statue I can remember reflecting on how Adelaide and Nottingham, two places on the opposite side of the planet, will be forever connected because of the deeds of Larwood, Voce, Bradman, Woodfull and the rest on those few days in January 1933. When I was on my tour of the ground we were in a small group of about eight or ten. The gentleman leading the group, proudly sporting his South Australia Cricket Club blazer and tie  asked each of us where we  were from. When I replied "Nottingham", his face lit up and he shook my hand warmly – even though seventy five years earlier the fifty thousand plus Adelaide citizens were baying for the blood of those two sons of Nottinghamshire, Larwood and Voce! As he shook my hand  I'm sure that I heard him mumble something like "Bloody cheating Poms" but I'll forgive him for that! Wonderful man!
Outside the Adelaide Oval with
our guide
In the trophy room looking at
the photographs of the 1933 test

And half an hour later, this morning,  as I drove back from the shops and back past the Trent Bridge ground and saw its world famous outline against the blue sky, the crowds were now thronging in as eleven o’clock approached. It all seemed right: the sun shining, a brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in sight, a test match in progress, the archetypical English summer's day. The problems of the economy and austerity, the shallow celebrity culture that dominates so much of modern Britain, the horrors of terrorism and middle east wars, the awfulness of Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and their News International cronies, the dubious practices and beliefs  of  politicians, bankers, Premiership footballers and the rest, the commercialism, crassness, jingoistic nationalism and tat of the coming Royal Jubilee and Olympics and all the other ills of the world........they all seemed to pale into insignificance against the blue sky and the smiling fans

Robert Browning
And, as I drove the couple of miles on towards my village  another few lines of verse came into my head. Again, like Carlyle’s words, perhaps old fashioned and a bit twee today, but a wonderful use of words and language.  Like Carlyle’s piece I also used to use this in school, in assembly and for handwriting practice or sometimes as an idea for a piece of creative writing or art work..... Robert Browning’s “Pippa’s Song”: In just a few short words it captures the very essence of a lovely morning.

The year's at the spring, 
And day's at the morn; 
Morning's at seven; 
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd; 
The lark's on the wing; 
The snail's on the thorn; 
God's in His heaven-- 
All's right with the world!

Indeed it is, and as I finish this blog, I’ve just heard that England have won the Test Match against the West Indies – Trent Bridge will be emptying, thousands of happy people will be wending their way home through Nottingham's streets. Everything is indeed  “alright with the world”!

25 May, 2012

"I'd love to help, but I haven't got the time, you see"

Maybe I have been unlucky. Maybe I’m just too naive. Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I’m simply wrong. But, whatever, I do sometimes lose a little faith in mankind. This is not the greatest issue on the world – and as I say, perhaps I’m wrong – but just sometimes I do despair.
For many years now I have been involved with a local football club here in the Nottingham area – not one of the great names of football, just a very local side who attract round about a hundred spectators to each of their games. My son played for the team when he was a teenager and since then (about twenty years now) I have been involved in a number of capacities – committee member , club secretary, programme writer, raffle ticket seller, bar man, sandwich maker....... . I made many friends, hopefully helped the club, enjoyed the football and the camaraderie and felt I had put something back into the sport that I have loved all my life and  the club which has given me pleasure and opportunities for my son. Since then he has moved on and played at a number of clubs most recently for Marlow near where he lives in Berkshire.
Elms Athletic- 1982! - the little team where John's football all
 started.John is second from the right on the back row.
When Stuart Litchfield volunteered and began his little team
he didn't know what he had started!
Sadly, after about  twenty years I have told the club here in Nottingham that I am  leaving. For the past few years it has been increasingly difficult to get people to help with the many jobs that have to be done in the running of a club, which has several teams. We recently sent a mail out to club members and other interested parties pleading with them  to attend a meeting  to discuss finance and importantly the filling of a number of important posts. Out of the hundreds who have some direct or indirect link with the club, in the end only about ten people came - and half of these were the existing Committee. No-one volunteered for any of the posts - except existing Committee members, who, perhaps understandably  unwillingly, agreed to take on extra because no one else would offer. To add insult to injury in the fan's newsletter the following day the jobs were described as "not too onerous". Feeling rather aggrieved I challenged the writer of the newsletter - "If the jobs are indeed 'not too onerous'  I asked "why then would people not step forward to fill them. Why was it again left to "the Committee"? It all went down hill from there!  Like others I had offered to do more but in the light of the response from other people I have become very disenchanted. I do not feel that I can (or indeed should) do more when no one else will step forward to fill the spaces and take over when other, perhaps older,  people can no longer continue or feel they have done their share.
This is not, I believe, a thing confined to one football club. I have spoken to other people in other clubs and organisations and they, too, seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to recruit help. Younger people, are it seems, keen to enjoy the facilities that the club or whatever provide but not so willing to help with the administration and back room work that has to happen in order that those facilities can be provided. Indeed, before I retired from teaching I saw it in schools; parents  asked for or demanded that the school provide particular events for their children – a sports day, a disco, a party – but when it came to helping at these events we were usually struggling. Of course many parents did help – but it was the same ones each time. The majority were not available - they didn't have time.

Notts. County Youth Team from the early 1990's John, my son,
is fourth from the  right on the back row. Most of the team, like John, began by
playing in small local clubs run by volunteers. And it impacted on the rest
of their lives. For example, the boy on the extreme left of the back row -
Paul Smith - later took a sports scholarship at an American University and
now teaches sport in Carolina. The boy fourth from the left on the back row
- Micky Galloway - stayed near to home and is now the manager of a local club
- Long Eaton United .The last time I saw him a few weeks ago he was busy
coaching youngsters just as he had been coached all those years before. 
Of course, people have to be selective - they cannot play an active role in  everything. The football club is only one call on the time of busy people but, that said, I am of the firm belief that far too many people want others to provide so that they can enjoy. Equally, I recognise that  there are many millions of people who are involved in volunteering to assist good causes. One only needs to watch something like the London Marathon to see how many people will involve themselves in this type of  sponsored event to raise much needed funds or publicise good causes. Similarly, many thousands  - or indeed millions – are involved on a daily basis providing unpaid care for sick or aged loved ones. Often this is with little support and at a great cost to themselves and their own lives.
But, I would argue, these latter examples are a little different from the situation that I am describing. For someone to train for and run a marathon to raise much needed money for a much cherished charity or to care for a loved one over many months or years are very personal undertakings. They are about them doing something for a cause or person about which they feel passionately. What I am describing are more the ordinary, small things of life – helping at the local football club, helping at the village nursery group, assisting at the school disco, volunteering for something needed at your church or within your local community. These are not life and death things or things that will carry  great glory - maybe they are amongst life's luxuries. They are probably not the great issues of life and will  probably be largely unrecognised but will be done in the background, week in week out in order that some organisation or group can quietly get on with its task and that others can enjoy the benefit. When I was secretary of the football club, I often used to say that in order for a game to take place on a Saturday afternoon a huge amount of work had been done by unknown people during the previous week – teams and players contacted, match venue and details arranged with all concerned, kit washed and arranged and available, match officials sorted out, balls pumped up, pitch marked out, programme written and printed, refreshments made, opposition informed.......the list is endless. On the day of the game, the spectators got the pleasure, the players perhaps got the glory – but both of these only occurred because others, unpaid and unrecognised in the background had worked very hard - for the love of it! 
It started as Elms Athletic and moved up
 to Old Trafford and David Beckham and co.
These  everyday events like helping at the nursery or the football club, compared with the big charity donations and so on, are perhaps small – but, I would argue strongly  they are, in their way, equally or more important.  They are the things that bind a society - certainly at a local level - together week in week out. And this is important. Most of us live our lives "at the local level" - what happens in our street, in our village, in our area of the town is what matters most to us in the short term. And of course in its turn what happens at a local level is reflected in the national picture. And the voluntary groups, the sports teams, the nursery group, the village band etc. are part of what we  live with every day.  Whether or not we actually use them - they are part of our real world.  In my village alone we have cricket and football teams, a choir, Scout and Guide groups, a local history museum, various groups that meet to support old people by providing a lunch or a meeting point......... and the list goes on. 
Local groups, clubs and organisations are vital because they not only provide opportunities for involvement and personal fulfilment they more often than not set people off with a new life interest which can often develop into a skill. This has certainly been true for me in the various things I have been involved in. For example, in writing newsletters and the like for clubs I have slowly developed skills in the use of my computer and word processing - the task  had focused my attention and gave a point to using the computer rather than just playing with it! But perhaps more important the opportunity to be involved in say a local  club can often set in motion interests that will be life long interests. This morning, for example, I read in my newspaper an article about the ex-England cricketer Andrew Flintoff. I knew that he had been born on the same town as myself and had attended the same school as me (although many years separated us!). The article explained that his first experience of cricket was playing as a young boy for the Dutton-Forshaw club in Preston. I know Dutton-Forshaw well and the club gave him his first chance to shine - probably because lots of volunteers played their part. The rest, as they say is history -    playing for Lancashire, England, captaining England, winning the Ashes, international superstar...... -  all because a few volunteers had a small inconsequential club that gave him a chance to play and shine. 
Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff in full
flow for England - but it all began
with a little local club and volunteers
who gave him his chance!
I have a similar story - not as illustrious as Flintoff's tale but equally telling - in relation to my son, John. When my son was about seven his first experience of football in a team was playing for the village team of youngsters - it was the start of thirty years of playing the game. It lead to representing his school, his county, to having a trial for England school boys, playing for a professional club (Notts. County), turning out at Old Trafford against the young David Beckham and other Manchester United greats in the FA Youth Cup and, in the intervening years, playing for other clubs where he has gained friendship, sport and respect. And it all began because a guy in the village decided to start up a little team for kids  - Elms Athletic - named after the park near which all the kids lived. He (Stuart) would squash what seemed like hundreds of youngsters into the back of his little car to take them to the playing  field, he would make sure he brought orange for them to drink and that they all medals at the end of the season. In doing all this Stuart unknowingly started a life time interest and love.  My wife and I still have horrors about all the kids squashed into the back of the car (this  was before seat belts and children's car seats!) but it has become part of our life and memories. We still laugh about it  - especially when we see a much older and tubbier Stuart walking though the village! And only a couple of weeks ago when we were down at my son's house he turned out for what he says is his last game - his body can no longer take it!  Pat and I stood and watched him and remembered all those years that were made possible because people like Stuart who started that first little team, bothered to get involved and provide the framework and the opportunity for him to play.  And over the years I too became more and more involved - starting with Stuart's  team of little  kids but leading up to bigger situations and indeed now to being secretary of a whole league running football for the under 19s throughout the East Midlands - it was  to put something back.
There are indirect spin offs too. My daughter Kate was never a great sportswoman but as a young teenager did a bit of rowing and kayak paddling at a local club here in Nottingham. She wasn't interested in becoming and Olympic champion or the like but just enjoyed the fun and friendship of it. When she went off to university she joined the kayak club there - it gave her an immediate circle of friends of similar interests and a good pastime. But, as many of the club were also computer scientists (a pure coincidence) she also got sucked into that circle as well. The result, she is now has a well established and rewarding career in IT - not what she went to university to study and something which we (or she!) would never ever have envisaged when she was a teenager - all, indirectly, because of a local club!
No, local clubs and organisations might not be filled with glory or be life and death passions but they do important work and provide a focus for local life, often provide important services and contacts for people. And, I think, equally importantly,  provide a framework for ordinary people to be involved and to feel worthwhile. They also perhaps provide the “extras” that would make the local society a very different and perhaps a lesser place if they were not there. It is these sorts of groups that, sadly I believe, are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit people – people are simply too busy, or don’t see it as their responsibility.
Marlow FC's programme - my son played for Marlow
for several years until quite recently. A lovely club where
 we are alwaysmade very welcome. I try to go each time we
 are in the Reading area. It's a very old club (1870)
 - run for all those years by willing volunteers!
There is another dimension to this - and that is the criticism that one gets - usually from those who do little. When things go wrong or don’t meet expectations it’s the “committee’s fault” or “they (those who run the organisation) should have thought about that.....” Everyone is good at giving advice and criticising but not so good at actually putting their shoulder to the wheel and helping.  When a committee has been criticised for failing to provide what is required or when the organisation is struggling I have occasionally said to people – “well join in and you change things......”. That has usually been met with a look of disdain. Of course, when put on the spot and when asked “Will you take on this role?” We too often hear the plea “Oh, I’d love to but I just haven’t got time......” Or occasionally I’ve heard “Oh, I don’t do committees”. Or another old favourite response is “I don’t have the skills or you’re so much better at it than me”.
There is, however an important point here. It is my view that Committees and their like should, indeed must, change their composition on  a regular basis – not simply to share out the work load and to involve others – important though that is – but to make the organisation a vibrant and living thing  and responsive to the needs of  those availing themselves of whatever the organisation offers.  I have often thought, and said, that, for example, as my football club (and other organisations with which I have been associated) are increasingly run by older people (because new blood will not step forward) then the organisation must increasingly move away from the needs of those actually using  it. It becomes calcified and stagnant too closely linked with the ambitions and prejudices of people who “had their day” many years ago. I know that this is true of my role at the  football club from which I have just resigned – my aspirations, beliefs and ambitions for the club and football are very, very different from those of the players and the young members of the club. In short, I am increasingly a footballing dinosaur  out of touch and yet I was helping to run the organisation! No wonder committees are criticised!
A final point on committees – and this is true I think at all levels of sport, from top to bottom. In this country there is an almost healthy (or maybe unhealthy) scepticism of committees – or rather those “in charge”. In football the committee or the organisers are often scathingly referred to as “the men in blazers”. In rugby, players and fans often refer to them as the “old farts”!  And yet, the people on these committees are almost universally people who have given their life to the sport in some way or another. They may be old – but again, that comes back to the fact that younger people often won’t devote the time to being involved and view those on “the committee” with some disdain. For me, I can’t understand this attitude. When, twenty years ago I was invited to join the committee of my football club and asked “what can you do for us” I was over the moon and felt it a great honour – I don’t understand why other don’t feel the same! The surprising thing, however, is that I’m not aware of there being the same disdain and scepticism of committees and those in charge in non-sports organisations such as choirs. Maybe I'm wrong on that one!
At the end of what is allegedly my son's
 last game two weeks ago (for Hambleden FC).
His football began when when he
wasn't much older than his own son, Sam,
who came to watch his dad's last game!
Of course, as is always the case – especially in the modern world – money, too,  raises its head. Many of the situations that I am describing revolve around the availability of cash. My football club is desperately short of cash and on a weekly basis is in danger of closing. When people raise money for us that is a real boost. The other side of that coin, however, is that I believe that too often people will give cash – make a donation – rather than give their time. Money is an easy salver of conscience!  I believe this is especially true in the modern world where money is often seen as the panacea for everything. Indeed, football is a good example of this. Occasionally a football club will find a wealthy sponsor who will pour money into the club. This is, in some respects, great – it solves many immediate problems. It doesn’t necessarily, however, solve everything. For, example, a club that I know well was “bought” by a local business man. He has poured money into the club and has created a wonderful sporting environment, attracted  good players, excellent facilities and a very happy set of supporters. Staff at the ground are paid (as opposed to unpaid volunteers which is the norm) and provide an excellent service. But in doing that the opportunities for committed volunteers are limited; and what happens if the business man leaves  and there is no  framework for the involvement of others. It is not uncommon in this situation for a club to close after being bought out by a “sugar daddy” and he subsequently withdraws his cash support – almost as if people have forgotten how to play a part!  Money doesn’t always solve everything. This doesn’t mean I’m against it – but it is only one part of the picture. For me, it is people that matter – a healthy support of lots of involved, hard working people is more important than lots of cash for the long term future of the organisation.
"Ask not what your club can do for you
but what you can do for your club" -
pretty close to what JFK said
all those years ago!
This apparent unwillingness of many to play their part or  put something back in is, for me, saddening. I don’t know if it is a peculiarly English phenomena or whether it is more universal. I wonder if people in other parts of the world find this problem or is it true only of my experience in my bit of England?  Perhaps half a century ago in the USA John Kennedy had observed something akin to it. In his Presidential inaugural address in 1961  Kennedy famously said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. In trying to drum up support and involvement I  recently re-stated Kennedy’s great “sound bite” –  “Ask not what your club can do for you but what you can do for your club” – it went down like the proverbial  lead balloon. Those present were not amused. 

I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask – but those who were not of a mind to give us a bit of their time and gave me short shrift. I find that very sad.

13 May, 2012

A Saturday Afternoon Walk Through History

Last weekend Pat and visited our son and daughter in law who live near Reading – about one hundred and twenty miles away from where we live here in Nottingham. On Saturday afternoon we all went out together to visit Cliveden – the great house overlooking the Thames. It is one of the great buildings of England with a history that is closely interlinked with some of the great politicians, leaders, celebrities and events of the past two or three centuries.
Perhaps Cliveden’s most famous period was in the 1920s and 30s when the Astor family – the wealthy American millionaires - made it the social, intellectual and perhaps even political centre of Britain. In those days house guests included, amongst many others, various members of the Royal Family, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Amy Johnson, F.D. Roosevelt, H.H. Asquith, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and the writers Henry James, Rudyard Kipling. Nancy Astor, the wife of Waldorf, was the hostess at the glittering house parties that took place at Cliveden. She was also the first woman MP in the English Parliament.
Nancy Astor

Before the Astors took ownership of the property it had been one of the centres of political and social life in this country for two or more centuries. From the mid seventeenth century when it was owned by the Duke of Buckingham through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the house was closely linked with the great people and events of the nation. In 1740 when the house was owned by Frederick, the Prince of Wales, the great English patriotic aria “Rule, Britannia” was first performed there. On a more sombre note it is believed that it was at Cliveden in 1751 that the Prince received a blow to the chest from a cricket ball while playing in the grounds; the resulting infection proved fatal. The house is in a stunning position overlooking the Thames and the Thames Valley. As I looked down on the river from the grounds I thought how the river was a kind of symbol - flowing past Cliveden and then on to London and past Westminster - connecting this great house with the decisions that would be made in Parliament and by successive governments through the ages. What happened in Cliveden's drawing rooms (and bedrooms!) was carried down the river to Westminster  and perhaps shaped government policy!

But despite its glorious history Cliveden is still today perhaps most remembered for the rather less salubrious events that occurred there in the early 1960s – the Profumo affair – an event that rocked the country, was instrumental in a change of government and spawned films, books and perhaps a change in the way we view our political and social leaders.

The Beales bring a touch of class
to Cliveden. Would Nancy Astor
 have allowed us in? 
In 1942, the Astors had given Cliveden to the National Trust with the proviso that the family could continue to live in the house for as long as they wished. With the gift of Cliveden, the National Trust also received from the Astors one of their largest endowments (£250,000 in 1942 which is equivalent to about £8,637,518 today). The Astors ceased to live at Cliveden in 1968, shortly after the Profumo Affair.

In the early 1960s, John Profumo was the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government. In 1961 he met Christine Keeler, a London call girl at a house party at Cliveden. The relationship with Keeler lasted only a few weeks before Profumo ended it. However, rumours about the affair became public in 1962, as did the allegation that Keeler was also having a relationship with a drug dealer, Johnny Edgecombe, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attachĂ© at the Soviet embassy in London. Given Profumo's position in the government and with the Cold War at its height, the potential ramifications in terms of national security were grave, and this, along with the adulterous nature of Profumo's relationship with Keeler, quickly elevated the affair into a public scandal. As newspaper report followed newspaper report an increasingly complex and tangled web of intrigue and innuendo became the talk of the country – society osteopaths, call girls, government ministers, spies, drug dealers and attempted murder – and ordinary people began to look rather differently at those in power. Profumo was found to have lied about his role to Parliament and an official enquiry into the matter was undertaken. Within a few weeks of its report the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, resigned on the grounds of “ill health”. He was replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home but within the year the Conservatives were defeated and the country had a Labour government lead by Harold Wilson.
John Profumo

I can still remember as a teenager following the story of the Profumo scandal in the newspapers and reading of the alleged “goings on” at this great house near the Thames. I never dreamed that one day I would walk around its grounds with my grandchildren! Today the house is still in the hands of the National Trust, open to the public and is used as a great hotel.
The Christine Keeler photograph
that went round the world in 1963
Whatever “goings on” are part of its history, as you walk around its grounds, high over the Thames and look down on the river and out over the Thames Valley one can’t help feeling a sense of history when you consider the great names and great events that are its heritage . It is also stunningly impressive and imposing; Sir Harold Nicolson – the English diplomat, author, diarist and politician and the husband of writer Vita Sackville-West said in 1936 “There is a ghastly unreality about it all ... I enjoy seeing it. But to own it, to live here, would be like living on the stage of the Scala theatre in Milan”. Perhaps more kindly, in 1863, when the property was owned by allegedly the richest man in England – the Duke of Westminster – the Duke’s wife wrote: “When one lives in Paradise, how hard it must be to ascend in heart and mind to Heaven”. Having visited Cliveden on a number of occasions over the past few years I think both comments have equal worth!
Looking down on
the Thames - linking
Cliveden with Westminster!

I’ve thought about our visit a good deal in the past week as we have listened and watched further exposures at the Leveson Inquiry into the phone hacking affair involving Rupert Murdoch, the News of the World and powerful people in high places. In its way, it is not too different from the Profumo scandal of half a century ago. As we have heard of the relationships that allegedly developed between government ministers, Prime Ministers and powerful people like Rupert Murdoch one can imagine that in days gone by over the past centuries “deals were done”, influence was bought and sold, governments were influenced – all over a glass of sherry or a pleasant meal or on a stroll around the magnificent grounds at Cliveden. I suspect that had Murdoch and others of his ilk been around at the time of Nancy Astor’s glittering house parties he would have undoubtedly been a guest and broke bread with the Prime Minister of the day – tacit understandings, nods and winks and “gentlemen’s agreements” would have been the accepted norm! Perhaps the Murdoch exposures don’t indicate that political morality has “gone to the dogs” in modern Britain – perhaps (in fact probably) it has always been thus!
There is, however, a possible difference. In the days of Nancy Astor those invited to a Cliveden House party would have undoubtedly been those at the very top of the social tree – by their aristocratic birth (Prince Edward – later King Edward VIII?) or their great wealth (Joseph Kennedy?), their international prominence (Ghandi or Roosevelt ?) or their intellectual or literary accomplishments (Shaw or Kipling?). They were exclusive gatherings of the very great and good. It’s highly unlikely that the local school teacher or refuse collector or even vicar would have been invited! By the time of the Profumo scandal, however, the world had changed and Nancy Astor was long gone. Cliveden house parties were much more representative of a wider society – albeit the top end of the London social scene – osteopaths, diplomats, relatively minor politicians like Profumo – and call girls! Maybe this is where Murdoch might have better fitted in, together with his News International cronies – Rebekah Brooks and her kind! Probably understandings and agreements were still made over a glass of wine or a meal but perhaps more mundane or pragmatic nods and winks – a business deal, a job offer, an introduction to some powerful body, a liaison with an upper class call girl! Yes, that sounds more like Murdoch’s sort of house party – I don’t have to try very hard to imagine our present  Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, meeting someone from Murdoch’s empire in the grounds at Cliveden and, over a coffee or a whisky or glass of wine agreeing to nod through the BSky B deal so desired by Rupert Murdoch! All very grubby! I’d like to believe, however, (and I think that there is probably some substance to it) that in Nancy Astor’s day nothing so grubby as money or commerce would have been discussed – rather the great decisions of Empire and nations, stimulating intellectual discourse, literary and fashionable debate would have filled the lounges and been heard over the dining tables. As an addendum to this I might add (and this is pure, unashamed prejudice on my part!) the truly awful title and concept of a Secretary of State for Culture would, I think, have been an anathema to the guests at Nancy Astor's house parties!   Yes, I think perhaps things have changed!
The great and the good walked around
this fountain - and then there was us!

Today, of course, although Cliveden’s magnificent buildings and grounds are still there and beautifully kept by the National Trust and the hotel company that runs the exclusive hotel there are no more great house parties. It is only exclusive now in the sense that you can enter only if you pay the £8 per person entry at the gate or the several hundred pounds a night tariff to sleep and dine in the hotel. We all enjoyed a cup of tea and piece of cake in the tea room, we looked down on the Thames, we peered through the windows into the exclusive hotel and we spent a pleasant few minutes wandering around the wonderful maze – first built by Lord Astor in the late nineteenth century -and got stickers to prove we had reached its centre!

We got stickers when we got
 to the middle of the maze -  I
wonder if Nancy Astor gave a
sticker to Ghandi or Roosevelt
when they found the centre?
And as we did so it was easy to catch a moment of history – to imagine what stories the walls and the gardens and the maze and the dining tables and the bed pillows could tell if they could speak. Secrets whispered, agreements and trysts’ made, great decisions that would affect nations discussed, glittering wit and high politics mixed. It might seem all rather twee or old fashioned today in an age where money is king and increasingly used to define a person's worth and standing (rather than intellect, breeding or political or social prominence). But for me that was an extra joy of walking around Cliveden – not only was it a pleasant afternoon out but it was also a time when one could reflect on our history and the great events and people which have moulded us both as individuals as a nation - a real walk through history.

02 May, 2012

“Hear the Dew Falling..........” Thoughts on the passing of a quiet and gentle man.

Earlier this week I attended the funeral of fellow blogger John Evans. Although John and I live only a couple of miles apart we have met only once when we spent a pleasant three hours enjoying a pub lunch and a walk along the side of the River Trent here in Nottinghamshire. John recorded the day in his blog: (http://raycharlesblues.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/farndon-friendship-and-favourites.html). Although we met only once we had plans to repeat our trip.  We did, however, meet many times over the internet via our respective blogs – John often making kind comments to things that I had written and vice versa.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail from John’s son, Roy, letting me know that John had suddenly passed away (he had a cardiac arrest whilst in hospital suffering from a chest infection) to say that I was shocked and unprepared was a gross understatement. Only that day I had been reading John’s latest blog on humour posted only a day or so previously (http://raycharlesblues.blogspot.co.uk/). Once the initial shock had died down my immediate thought was of what a fine thread we all hang by and how easily this can be broken.

John’s cremation at our local cemetery, Wilford Hill, was a sincere, quiet, dignified, understated and yet joyous reflection and celebration of his life. I felt privileged to be there amongst the thirty or forty family, friends and work colleagues. We heard about John from his two sons - Chris and Roy - both making quietly moving and dignified personal tributes to their dad. I’m sure that if John was watching us as we sat in the Chapel and listened he must have been immensely proud of his sons and the words they spoke. And as these two young men spoke it brought home to me how little we know of each other and how so many people – John Evans especially – have much to be proud of and which they hide from public view.

We live in an age of “transparency” where the private lives of the celebrities fills our media and newspapers. We hear of the good works and the grand ambitions of the great and the good but forget that across the world ordinary people are quietly getting on with it and making a real difference to those around them. Only this week we have heard of the terrible slaughter of the aid worker- Khalil Dale - in Pakistan – a man few of us have heard of until this week - but who has given much of his life to quietly helping others in far off places. And at a more local level we all know neighbours, friends and work colleagues who, in their way, quietly get on with making the world a better place – all unrecognised and unacknowledged and most probably unrewarded. In a society increasingly dependent upon the balance sheet and the accountants unrelenting eye, where everything has a cost, people like these are perhaps a beacon of hope for society.

And so with John – who spent much of his life in occupations helping others. Up to his retirement he worked for a charity (“The Seaview Project”) on the south coast of England – its primary function being the provision of housing support health programmes to those in need. The project, however, is particularly aimed those who feel that they are living on the edge of society, and are often struggling with life. Earlier in his life, his sons told us, he worked in Northern Ireland during the sectarian troubles that blighted that part of these islands for much of the second half of the twentieth century. John worked for a charity which crossed sectarian divides and he regularly crossed the “battle lines” in order to bring aid to the vulnerable whatever their religion or political affiliation. And finally, in his personal life, too, John cared – if you read his blogs of a few months ago where he recorded caring for his terminally ill sister you would be hard pressed indeed not to empathise or perhaps, even, shed a tear at this words.
The Order of Service

If you read a selection of John’s blogs you will find these common themes of helping, social justice and caring running through many of them. He never boasted about his work nor indeed ranted about the unfairness of society (as I  am prone to do!) – he simply and quietly stated his case in a caring and authoritative way. We all smiled in the Service when his son Chris reminded us that John was thrilled to come and live in Nottingham on his retirement – because Nottingham is the fabled home of John’s hero Robin Hood – the great fighter against oppression and unfairness. I felt very guilty as I sat in the Chapel and for some inexplicable reason pictured John in Lincoln green, feather in his cap, sporting a bow and arrow and wearing Errol Flynn type tights! I’m sure that if John was looking into my mind at that point he will forgive me!  He never boasted about his life or his work – as we were told, two words characterised the man – humble and humanitarian. Exactly right – no grand gestures or pontificating just quietly getting on with the job. And the job was caring and “living” a life reflecting his social conscience .

But, of course, John had another side – and again not things he boasted of. I learned that despite his quiet demeanour he could speak at length to a large audience and hold them engaged. He was no mean singer – as one would expect from a proud Welshman. He was in his youth a better than average football player and as he grew to adulthood developed a lasting love of Jazz music. We all grinned when we learned from his son Roy of John’s little secrets and luxuries – he could easily have developed (perhaps even did have!) an addiction for ice cream – and, his son told us during the last couple of years he had discovered blogging – which is where, of course, I met him!

And it was through blogging that I discovered something else about John. I came across John’s blogs almost by accident and it was an even bigger surprise when I discovered that he lived just a mile or so from where I live. I discovered John when I was doing a Google search about Nottingham and found that John Evans was worth reading. He could write widely, sensitively and knowledgeably on almost any subject. He was meticulous in his research and attention to detail and at the same time presented it in a readable, interesting and enjoyable way. Although social justice and humanity were common themes, John could write (and did) on anything – topical matters, personal interests and observations, people and events, local and national history – and he wrote it all with equal flair and sensitivity. His social conscience and championing of those less fortunate shone through, but so did  his inquiring mind.  I was fascinated by his researches into his new home, Nottingham. I have lived here for almost half a century but within weeks of reading John I was discovering things about the local area and the people that I knew nothing of. And I also loved the little comments that, as someone about the same age as John, I could relate to – he had a favourite bench in Nottingham that he enjoyed sitting on while he watched the world go by (whilst probably enjoying an ice cream as he did so!) – and (and I could relate to this) he got grumpy if he discovered someone else sitting on his bench! Just like I would! Yes, John Evans was human – and that came through in all he wrote.

And finally. John and I despite meeting only once had another love – again one I didn’t know about until his funeral. One of his favourite books was the wonderful Welsh classic by Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” and we heard the opening lines of that wonderful play. And as I sat there listening I was taken back to my years in the classroom – this exact extract was one I used over and over again. As the words were repeated in the Chapel I found myself quietly mouthing them while Chris, John’s son, read – I knew them so well.......

“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black. The cobble streets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisibly down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat bobbing sea.

The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives.

Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organ playing wood.

The boys are dreaming wicked thoughts or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea.

And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.

Only you can hear the dew falling and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town, fast and slow asleep........”

John with his beloved ice cream
Thomas’ words were a wonderful stimulus to get children to write – to picture someone – ordinary people that children can relate to - lying asleep and to get inside their mind, their day to day lives and their fears, hopes and dreams. What was the farmer dreaming of? What thoughts were running through the mind of the resting policeman? What flickered through the sleeping dog’s mind as he snored? What wicked thoughts did the school boys harbour? As I sat and listened I thought back to the pieces of work that so many children had written for me over the years and which I had praised, ticked and pinned on the classroom wall.

As I listened to those words I felt a small link with John. I will miss his blogs and the occasional comment he sent to me through cyberspace. He was, in the best sense of the word, a gentleman – with the emphasis on gentle. He was not, I think, one of the world’s loud noises. He wrote, like Dylan Thomas, about the ordinary and the everyday and he did it with an attention to detail, a lightness of touch - to use Thomas' words "like dew falling" - and this combined with a humanitarian eye and a concern for others. A year or two ago we were all being told by the great and good of our government that the “Big Society” was the thing. It all seems to be slipping into history now as another political sound bite bites the dust. But from what I know John Evans was a walking, talking example of the best of a  society at work – a humble, hard working humanitarian who, through his everyday life and work,  made quiet, perhaps often unrecognised, contributions - like dew falling - and they made the world a better place.

I will miss him.