Eric Barker was a friend of mine. He lived at Eckington in North East Derbyshire. He died six months ago and his funeral service was conducted by the Humanist Association, in line with his wishes.
On 30 July, I placed an item on this blog about the late Kevin Hughes. We had been colleagues as M.P.s and Kevin was also a humanist, but in preparation for his own funeral he opted for a Church Service as a means of saying farewell to his family and friends.
There is sharp contrast in these two approaches, both of which seem to me equally valid. As I am myself a humanist, it has made me consider which of these arrangements I should myself opt for. Hopefully, I will be given some time to give the matter further thought.
An additional connection between Kevin and Eric is that I taught them both politics on Industrial Day Release Classes run for members of the NUM. I first met Eric in a class of Derbyshire Miners in 1972 and Kevin in a class of Yorkshire Miners in 1978 .
Eric's family asked me to speak in his memory at Brimington Crematorium at Chesterfield on 10th February. I give below the tribute, I paid to him.
I first met Eric when he was already 49 - over 33 years ago. Back in 1972, he was in a class of Derbyshire Miners who were on Day-Release. I was a Politics Tutor.
Eric was in his element. He loved to study, read, investigate, write, debate and (above all) argue. Anyone who received one of his lengthy letters will know all about these abilities.
He used to pride himself on being the "old man" of the class, with experience of life to offer to the rest of us. He helped to make our meetings quite exceptional.
Let me quote from my class report of their work.
"I never met a class which worked together so well as an integrated unit. They enjoyed each others company tremendously and worked together keenly. Their enthusiasm was such that they managed perfectly with a minimum amount of formal teaching, but were able to investigate problems amongst themselves and make there own intellectual discoveries.
The class fulfilled many of the ideals of liberal adult education..... A measure of the(ir) enthusiasm.....was I experienced the most intellectually stimulating coffee breaks ever".
Eric's fatherly role in that class was essential to its success.
Eric became active as a delegate to meetings of the Derbyshire NUM and to
the NE Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party. I rubbed shoulders with him at the latter. They were days of heated debate and political turmoil. Eric was in the thick of events and he loved the dialectics of debate.
His great Labour Party success came at the 1977 Labour Party Conference at Brighton. The leadership of the Labour Party were trying to sideline a resolution from our Constituency Party, aimed at defending two teams of rebel Labour Councillors from Clay Cross.
Eric's famous white cap could be seen bobbing about the Conference floor, as he went round getting signatures for a petition to support our resolution. The same went on at a series of fringe meetings which Eric turned up at each lunchtime and evening. His cap was even highlighted on television.
I was with him as a Conference visitor. He finally won the day. The motion was debated and overwhelmingly carried. It all took a lot out of Eric as the opening of his speech indicated.
He said, "Conference, yesterday I was emotionally upset and was in the process of tearing up my card, but Harry Barnes stopped me, and you, the Delegates of Conference have restored my faith in the organisation. The bureaucracy of the machine can be moved".
Eric served actively and effectively on both the Eckington Parish Council and the NE Derbyshire District Council. In 1986 he became Chair of the District Council. This presented him with some challenges.
First, there was the Chair's Charity Appeal. He was determined to be proactive. Although he was now approaching 65, he went on a sponsored walk of the Pennine way from Derbyshire to Scotland. The Youth Service were active in his support.
My wife Ann worked for the Service and assisted. In fact Eric ended up in our native County Durham in my mother-in-law's bed. Not many can say that. She was, however, away on holiday at the time.
Eric's second challenge was what he could do about the Chair's Civic Service which was due to be held at the Eckington Parish Church. For as you see today, Eric was a Humanist and definitely non-religious. So he wrote one of his long letters to the then Bishop of Durham.
This was because the then Bishop was much more of a Humanist himself than he was a Christian fundamentalist. So the Bishop came and gave a talk that was followed by questions and answers. Eric participated. It was more like a political discussion meeting than a Service.
He next wished to go one step further. He refused to place his symbol of office (the Chairman's Chain) around his neck. He wanted to sell it off for Charity. But I think that the District Council had had enough of such independence of thought by then.
For the bulk of the second half of the time I knew Eric, I was the local M.P.
He never inundated me with issues, but he certainly knew how to make the best use of our friendship. He would send missives to the local authorities on blocked rights of way, Japanese Knotweed running wild, the swimming baths losing its water (into his cellar) and many other local issues.
He would mark my name on the letters to show that I had been sent a copy. But I did not have to respond, unless he came back to me to say that his tactic hadn't worked. But with a lot of hard work and the help of some media coverage, he normally moved the bureaucracy once more.
He also knew that an M.P. can often get to someone who can find things out for them.
So he would call into my M.P.s surgeries to set the wheels in motion for a search. When I sent him what had been discovered, I knew that some avenue of officialdom was about to receive a well argued missive and I would get a copy.
On one he added a note saying - "Just to let you know that the old dog (Barker) can still bite a little."
From l973 he served 19 years as a Labour Parish Councillor, but when he finally got round to tearing up his Labour Party Membership Card, he returned to the Eckington Parish Council as an Independent in 2001. But I could never think of him as a political opponent, only as a friend and a socialist.
Thanks to the family for asking me to speak today. The last time I saw Eric was when the Constituency Labour Party gave me a farewell evening on my retirement as an M.P. Although Eric was not in good health, he arranged for Emma to bring him and he spoke. Even though he sent me a last long and treasured letter, just in case he couldn't make it.
On such occasions there are many kind speeches, but none were more telling than Eric's. It won't be forgotten.
We sometimes say about departed friends that there will never be their like again. But the strength of Eric was that he believed that many others (even without his personal characteristics) could be just like him inside. In a world of violence, exploitation and poverty; it is with people in Eric's image that our hopes for the future rests.
Thank you Eric. We will be looking for you in the other people we love and admire.