Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Who is more civilised?

As a former student at Ruskin College (but not at the times of either John Prescott or Dennis Skinner), I recently went to an ex-students’ get-together at the Rookery at Headington, near Oxford. Much to my shame it was the first time I had been to one of these Ruskin Fellowship events for about 40 years. I had even fallen out of membership.

It wasn’t that I had had a fit of conscience. They invited me to speak. But I have re-registered and paid up. It was good to be back, so this is nostalgia time.

There are two sections to Ruskin College. The one at Headington which has further scope for development, and the site near the heart of Oxford at Walton Street. The latter is hemmed in by surrounding developments, including that of Worcester College.

Way back when I was a Ruskin student from 1960 to 1962, most of us studied for the Oxford University Diploma in Economics and Political Science on a two year full-time course. In our first year we studied at the Rookery and then moved on to Walton Street.

We did not make it to Ruskin due to any formal qualifications we held. It drew students mainly from the wider labour movement who were late developers.

To gain entry, I had to submit two essays. One was entitled “Does it make sense to speak of a ‘Welfare State’ in Britain today?”. (It sounds a more relevant question for 2006). The second essay asked “Do you consider yourself more civilised than your grandparents?” (I will put that one to my 17 month old grandson, Joseph , in a few years time.)

My references came from Manny Shinwell my local M.P., my Trade Union Branch Secretary and a former school teacher who was active in our local Labour Party as he was looking for a Headteacher’s job in a Labour dominated area. I, for instance, was a local School Governor.

I was Secretary of both my local Labour Party and of the Local Fabian Society, so my first visit to the Rookery at Headington was to a Fabian Society Summer School. The speakers included Hugh Dalton, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland; whilst Bill Rodgers was in charge as the General Secretary of the Fabian Society. It was at the School that I first discovered that “Ruskin was for people like me.”

The Fabian-do was a bit of a right-wing shin-dig (given that Crosland had written the major work of socialist revisionism and Jenkins and Rodgers would eventually break with Labour to help found the Social Democratic Party). My political schizophrenia is revealed by the fact that although I consorted with such company, I came across the advert calling for applications to Ruskin in the pages of the left-wing Tribune.

Once I was accepted by Ruskin, I was eventually placed on a transformation belt from being a Railway Clerk to an Adult Tutor in Politics and Industrial Relations; numbers of whose students went on to Ruskin and its equivalents.

Over 40 ex-students registered for the week-end at the Rookery. Only half a dozen were from a more modern setting than mine, where the scope of provisions at Ruskin have altered to accommodate for changing educational patterns . Some had been students even before my time. A 1951-53 student having made it to University Lectures addressed by GDH Cole (see my “GDH Cole and the root of the matter”).

I intend to comment on Ruskin College and the changing world of adult education in a future blog. But this is still nostalgia time.

I had just started my talk on Iraq when in walked John and Vi Hughes who were Ruskin College Lecturers back in my days as a student. John was my tutor in Economic Organisation. I eventually attended his tutorials with a friend of mine - Ian Pickard. But first of all, I had listened to him lecture. Vi taught on other courses.

After nearly half a century, the roles were now reversed. In the Lecturer Room, John was now listening to my words of wisdom. In fact he had gone on to be the Principal at Ruskin (1979-89) and I took up a parallel job to an earlier appointment he held at the Sheffield University Extramural Department. The current Principal was also present which all added to my sense of having cracked it , as if I was a novice giving an initial lecture in a time warp!

I told John afterwards that he had written a comment on one of my essays saying it lacked an “analytic framework” and I had then wondered how on earth to find one .

As I later studied Philosophy, I can now come up with analytic frameworks at the drop of a hat. It is the empirical detail to back them up that is now problematic ! But not I hope on the topic of the Iraqi Trade Union Movement.

In fact, my notes for my talk were really the headings for my analysis. I am now padding and polishing to make these into a finished article, which I will at least provide blogging access to in the future.

The end of my talk was as pleasing as events at the start, for I sold all my six copies of the TUC book “Hadi Never Died : Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Union Movement.” I have now ordered ten more, as I “Have Speech, Will Travel”.

The next two stops are Exeter Labour Students and the Sheffield Fabians. I have also fixed for Sue Rodgers (Chair of the TUC’s Iraq Solidarity Committee) to address a discussion meeting of my local Labour Party at Dronfield. Whilst I am looking to help launch a North Derbyshire Fabian Society around the topic.

Organising and participating in political/adult education meetings is where I came in and this gives some sense to that Kierkegaard quote which is above this item.

Friday, September 22, 2006

House for Home

This article appeared in issue 10 of the magazine Dronfield Eye in August 2006. It is reproduced with their kind permission. The magazine is impressively produced and is delivered free to 15,000 homes in the Dronfield area where I live.

Someone once said there is nothing as ‘ex’ as an ex-MP. Harry Barnes left Parliament last year but now has a new political interest, Mike Firth reports.

After spending 18 years as the Dronfield area’s Member of Parliament, Harry Barnes was never going to settle down for a quiet retirement with pipe and slippers.

Indeed, now he is no longer tied to the House of Commons he has found himself welcomed to a whole new political field - in Iraq.

“I was determined to keep out of local politicking and, with expert timing, our first grandchild Joseph was born just four days after the dissolution of Parliament” said Harry.

“My wife Ann and I spent a great deal of time in London where our son Stephen lives with his wife Rebecca who is from Tasmania. Becoming grandparents was beautiful and it helped us adjust very quickly to the real world away from Parliament.”

Now, however, Harry travels the country in his role as joint president of the Labour Friends of Iraq movement and he recently visited trade union officials in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The group was founded about 18 months after the invasion,” explained Harry. “I felt that once the invasion had taken place that we had to look towards the reconstruction of Iraq which is now a country striving for a civic society.”

After being quashed by Saddam’s regime for year after year, trade union membership is now flourishing as Iraq tries to rebuild. The dictator had banned all unions in the public sector and in the private sector they were state run under the control of ‘Chemical’ Ali.

“On the visit to Iraq we met trade unionists from all over the country. They represented more than a million workers who need our active support. We also met community groups and workers in the factories with their families.”

One of the reasons Harry is particularly interested in the well-being of Iraq is that he served his National Service there in 1955-56.

Looking back on his decision to stand down as MP for North East Derbyshire, Harry says it was perfect timing for both himself and his wife Ann who had worked alongside him in a constituency role throughout his Westminster career.

“I just thought there was no reason for me to continue. I am now almost 70 and I had done 18 years service. When it is time to go some MPs are demob happy and others just hate to go. At 5 p.m. on April 11th 2005 I ceased to be an MP and my computer system went down.”

“Looking back, I think things went fairly ok over the years. Hopefully I didn’t make too many disastrous mistakes.”

“Being an MP is a continuous activity and there are two sides to it, working in the
constituency and the Parliamentary job. Often they are interconnected. It is tiring and the ‘rest’ you get is provided by the change between Parliament and constituency.”

“Ann worked for me in the constituency and she retired when I retired. In fact I suppose she was actually made redundant because her job had gone!”

The couple spent the first year of retirement adjusting their house which is now a home once more instead of mainly being an office. “Now we have a dining room table and six chairs,” smiled Harry.

Holidays were always restricted to August and perhaps a weekend away at Easter. Now the pair are free to decide and they like to visit their daughter, Joanne, who previously worked in Majorca but is now based at the Crawley head office of a travel

“I don’t really miss being an MP but occasionally if I watch the Parliament Channel I look to see who is in ‘my’ seat. Then if it is empty I wonder why no-one is sitting there!”

“A lot of it had become tedious and routine and I don’t miss that aspect. I remember regularly sitting for hours in the House hoping to get up to make a ten-minute speech. But then if there is high drama I suppose I miss that.”

“Now Natascha Engel is the MP for this area and I would never interfere in constituency matters. We get on well with each other and if she wants to talk to me about anything I am here to help.”

Harry, who suffered a stroke eight years ago and was in hospital for two weeks with Ann taking care of matters, is political education officer for Dronfield Labour Party and he is currently setting up a NE Derbyshire Branch of the Fabian Society.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Sport Infested Week

In writing about my sport infested week, I won’t concentrate upon match reports. Instead I will seek to reflect upon the events’ atmospheres and implications. But first I need to give a brief synopsis of what I have been absorbed in.

On Saturday, 26 August I went to the Rugby League Cup Final at Twickenham.
On the following Bank Holiday Monday I sat and watched my soccer team on TV, finally winning a game. I support Sunderland. That evening, Roy Keane signed as our Manager and in the next 24 hours I read his recent biography by Frank Worrell. By that time Keane was left with only two days to sign up fresh players before the transfer dead line. He achieved the signings of a six pack in a last minute rush.

Finally, on Saturday 2 September I went to see my local team, Sheffield FC slog out a goalless draw in an FA Cup Preliminary Round Tie against fellow Northern Counties East Team; Retford United.


It was a great day out at the Rugby League Cup Final. We went to a pub initially to soak up some atmosphere and beer. Outside there was a mass overflow of a friendly gathering of the tribes. Those wearing the shirts of the finalists were outnumbered by groups from far and wide. We had Hull FC mothers and sisters, Wigan home and away strips and soccer shirts, including those from Huddersfield Town whose Rugby League equivalents were one of the contestants.

Others clans were dressed as little Green Giants, Zapata Mexicans and Tyrolean Dancers. My contribution was limited to purchasing a Huddersfield Giants cap, although I had never seen them play before. But they were the underdogs and were to be beaten 42-12.

It is my son, Stephen (the inventor of this blog) who organises me to see occasional Rugby games. This is the fourth ground that I have visited. First, we went to Brentford to see London Bronchos play. When the club was transformed into Harlequins RL, I was then taken to see them play on the ground that is still dominated by the Rugby Union team who originally owned that sole identification. We have also watched Great Britain get slaughtered by New Zealand at QPR’s ground.

Rebecca, my daughter in law often manages to make these trips as my wife (and this time my daughter Joanne) baby sit with young Joseph. . Steve, my son’s friend from Holland came over to see his team, Huddersfield Giants.

In spite of a crowd of 65,000, Steve and I bumped into Barry Sherman who is Huddersfield’s M.P. and a former colleague of mine. Stephen had gone for the beers and Rebecca for some food. There was only one political matter which arose. I am soon to visit Ruskin College to meet fellow ex-students and the Principal. As Barry is Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education, I will keep him informed about the funding problems they face.

A civilised feature of Rugby is that you can take your pint with you whilst watching the match. We were sat near the back of the middle level of seats, opposite the 30 yards line and had a fine view - even of the replays on the large TV screen. Huddersfield set off in great style and took a well deserved early lead. They did not fall behind until a few minutes before half-time, but in the second half St Helens took over.

There is a bigger tendency in Rugby than in soccer for a dominant team to crash home its advantage. When England defeated Albania 5-0 they had 80% of the possession and their goalkeeper only touched the ball once. St Helen’s, however, had as big a margin scoring 7 tries to Huddersfield’s 2; but in terms of territory it was something of a 60-40 game. It is just that an attacking side has a significantly longer scoring line to raid..

The festive nature of the day was illustrated by the “neutral” who sat near me. She shouted for whoever was attacking , starting out with Huddersfield and ending up with St. Helens.

Sunderland Irish

Out shopping before the Sunderland v West Brom match was shown on the telly, I picked up a cheap copy of “Roy Keane: Red Man Walking” (Mainstream Publishing, 2006) by Frank Worrell. Its published price is £11.99, but the stickers showed it had gone down to £6.99 then to the £4.99 I paid. Why such a fall in value for a new book?

Well, apart from the fact that it is padded out with drab match reporting, it had fallen between two markets.

Keane’s career at Manchester United ended in November 2005 and he then signed for Celtic. The book was, therefore, targeted in part at a Glasgow market. So the blurb says “Will the relationship (with Gordon Strachen, the Celtic Manager) end in tears…?”

Just after the book appeared, Keane’s short lived Celtic career ended in injury and he had disappeared from the radar screen. But whilst I was reading the book, he was back as Sunderland’s Manager. A new blurb can now say “Will the relationship (with Neill Quinn, Sunderland’s Chairman ) end in tears…?” For in “Neill Quinn: The Autobiography” (Headline 2002) Quinn’s bitter conclusion about Roy Keane leaving the Irish Squad in the 2002 World Cup is “We all talk about how we’d do anything to play for our country, for the honour, the privilege and the glory, we’d die for the green jersey. Well, we wouldn’t, not all of us. We know that now.” (p.175.)

Here is a writer who certainly knows how to meet a deadline. Keane appears on over 50 of the 300 pages of Quinn’s book, just after that world cup fraca . Then he pulls Keane out of his hat when all seemed lost at Sunderland and suddenly they are getting more publicity than Chelsea and Rooney rolled into one. Both Quinn and Keane know that there is no such thing as bad publicity for the beautiful game.

Keane’s signing of six players in a day are all of people he has worked with at Manchester United, Celtic and Ireland. So he hasn’t put the frighteners on everyone!

We beat West Brom 2-0 with most of the old guard and played well. But Keane and the long suffering Sunderland supporters know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. But we are now dreaming that our new Irish Eyes (and ownership) will soon be smiling.

From the Sublime…

Twickenham and Sunderland meant that I missed two homes games at Sheffield FC and my season ticket went to waste. The game I saw them play was a cup tie, so it was pay time at the gate. I was wearing my Huddersfield Giants hat and my Sheffield FC shirt, plus my red and black striped Sheffield tie which makes me look like Dennis the Menace.

The crowd looked to be the biggest of the season, but did not match the number that was outside that pub at Twickenham. Yet at my local “Stadium of Bright”, numbers could have been deceptive as it was raining strongly throughout the match and we were crammed into the limited covered areas.

It was a grim 0-0 draw with numbers of near misses, but few shots on target. It was a contrast to my earlier fun.

Worse still, the pub owned by the Club hasn’t yet installed the promised Guinness tap. How can we drink to Sunderland Irish without it? For we Black Cats are also now looking for some wonderful drab goalless draws to show that our long run of defeats are finally over.

Howay the lads; be they Huddersfield Giants, Sheffield FC or Sunderland Irish.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Three in One

If I was asked to pick (a) a favourite radio programme, (b) a favourite author and (c) a favourite weekly journal, I would plump for Little Atoms, George Orwell and Tribune.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when I found all three of these recently rolled into one. On the Little Atoms radio programme, Paul Anderson a former editor of Tribune was interviewed about a book he has edited, entitled Orwell in Tribune. It will consist of a collection of Orwell’s writings from Tribune and is due to be published shortly by Politicos.

Paul Anderson still writes for Tribune. He will be known to some as the joint author (with Nyta Mann) of "Safety First: The Making of New Labour" (Granta Books, 1997). In responding to questions about Orwell and Tribune he was articulate, relevant and highly informative.

If you wish to listen to the programme, click here. Let me first give some more information about the favourites I opted for above.

Little Atoms

Little Atoms is a fortnightly radio programme which can be heard upon Resonance 104.4 FM on Fridays from 16.30 to 17.30. It is a live discussion show with an agenda which is Rationalist, Pro-Science, Atheist, Humanist and for the Progressive Left. So it appeals to all my prejudices; except it has the good sense to see these as being commitments to common sense.

In the programme, Neil Denny and Padraig Reidy (who is deputising for Richard Sanderson) interview guests from the worlds of science, politics, philosophy, journalism and the arts on subjects as diverse as conspiracy theories, cosmology, human rights and the state of the left.

What could be more appealing to a former left (but not nutty) Labour M.P. with a background in studying and teaching politics and philosophy - whose readings nowadays include a greater emphasis on the philosophy of science.

George Orwell

I have been reading the works of George Orwell (and works about him) for nearly 50 years. It wasn’t one of his novels which first grabbed me, but the book in which he describes and assesses his experiences whilst fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War: "Homage to Catalonia."

The Spanish Civil War broke out five days before I was born and it came to have a special fascination for me, probably because I was brought up during the 2nd World War against Fascism.

The Chapters in his book alternate between his experiences as a militiaman (leading to him being wounded) and the political and then military infighting on the Republican side; which was amongst the Communist UGT, the Anarchists and the independent Marxist force - the POUM. Orwell had joined the latter through links with the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain.

It was perhaps inevitable that I would come to involve myself with the work of the ILP’s successor organisation - Independent Labour Publications.

The best work about Orwell still seems to me to be Bernard Crick’s biography; "George Orwell: A Life" (Penguin 1980). Crick brings together a fine blend of empathy and intellectual rigour in explaining and analysing Orwell’s life and writings.

I only wish that his academic assessment of Orwell’s work had appeared at the conclusion of the book and not as an introduction. For it really flows from the biographical output and could be off-putting to some as a starter.

In a collection of Orwell’s essays, entitled "Orwell and Politics" (editor Peter Davison, Penguin 2001), Timothy Garton Ash states "it was after Spain that he really became Orwell" (rather than retaining his original traits which can be associated with his proper name, Eric Blair). "Every line of his writings now have a political purpose. Imperialism and Fascism would remain major targets of his generous anger".

Although we now face Imperialism and Fascism in modern dress, this even handed and morally significant anger is something we need to nourish to avoid us becoming friends to either side.


Tribune (known initially as “The Tribune”) was first published in January 1937 and it still survives. Its heyday was its earlier years up to (and covering) its period of Bevanism. In fact Aneurin Bevan was himself a wartime editor and Michael Foot (his friend and great biographer) had two spells as editor prior to 1959.

Something of the special nature of Bevanism and how it offered a different universe to that now given by New Labour’s Third Way is seen in the following quotation from Bevan’s "In Place of Fear" (1952, MacGibbon & Kee.)

"Democratic Socialism is not a middle way between capitalism and Communism. If it were merely that, it would be doomed to failure from the start. It can not live by borrowed vitality. Its driving power must derive from its own principles and the energy released by them. It is based on the conviction that free men can use free institutions to solve the social and economic problems of the day, if they are given a chance to do so".

The driving power Bevan wished to unleash is seen nowhere better than in Orwell’s writings for Tribune. He wrote some two dozen articles for Tribune from 1940 to 1943 and then became a regular contributor until 1947. For a key period, he was their literary editor and had a personal column entitled "As I Please" to which he made 80 separate contributions.

On Tribune’s 10th Anniversary he wrote that Tribune was "the only existing weekly paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane - that is to combine a radical socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilised attitude towards literature and the arts". As Bernard Crick claimed in his autobiography of Orwell, "there was less a Tribune line than a Tribune style of argument, which suited Orwell perfectly".

I look forward to reading Paul Anderson’s selection of Orwell’s writings taken from Tribune. Especially as Anderson was first attracted to work for Tribune as its literary editor so that he could follow in the footsteps of Orwell whose work he was 'hooked' upon.

Anderson found a similar satisfaction in that work to that felt by Orwell.

I first ever heard about Tribune when listening to the BBC Overseas Service broadcasting "What the Papers Say" when undertaking my National Service in 1955 and 1956. I wasn’t able to purchase copies until I returned home to be demobbed. These was the heady days of the Suez and Hungarian crises, followed quickly by the marches to "Ban the Bomb".

Today’s Tribune only occasionally reaches the heights of those days. But I subscribe to it still out of past loyalties and in the hope that the Labour Left can flourish again whilst avoiding the twin entrapments of Chomskyism and a fresh Brownite version of New Labourism. As Bevan saw, Democratic Socialists have their own vitality.

Perhaps reflections on Orwell’s Tribune could fruitfully help us to rediscover this.