Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Michael Foot : from "Suicide Note" to Salvation?


Gerald Kaufman's claim that Labour's 1983 General Election Manifesto was "the longest suicide note in history" has helped to fuel the impression that Labour's subsequent disastrous election result rested primarily on the shoulders of its policy proposals. To this, is normally added the argument that Michael Foot looked like Worzel Gummidge, which in a television era helped to destroy Labour's popular image.

The above crude analysis conveniently ignores two major alternative explanations for Labour's drubbing.

(1) In 1981, the Labour Party suffered a massive split with the defection of the "Gang of Four" and the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) under the leadership of Roy Jenkins. As it takes two to tango, the blame for Labour's split can not be laid exclusively (or even mainly) on the shoulders of its leftward move. Jenkins and company made the break, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Labour Party Conference decisions. In the 1983 General Election the combined Labour and SPD vote was almost exactly the same as that which an undivided Labour Party had achieved in October 1974 when it won an election under Harold Wilson's leadership. A united Labour Party in 1983 could have achieved something similar.

(2) Prior to the split and then the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, plus Margaret Thatcher's popularist response, Michael Foot had been ahead of her in the public opinion polls. So much so at one time, that Thatcher was seen as being the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history. But the Falkland Factor (added to the split) was played out to her considerable political advantage.

It is also a paradox that Michael Foot was seen to have had a bad television image, for back in the 1950s he had been a popular and regular television performer in discussion programmes. But by the 1980s, television had become an avenue for those with a simplistic style, rather than those with great oratorical skills, passion, intellect and feeling.

See this article by Jon Williams which stresses the contemporary relevance of the much maligned 1983 manifesto. It is likely to turn out to be far more important for the modern Labour Party than anything that is likely to emerge from its current policy reviews.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Iraq In Crisis - Again

In the spring of 2011, Iraq witnessed major protests across the country. See this article, which addresses the causes of these demonstrations. It also discusses the obstacles toward forming a stable government and the nature of sectarianism and government corruption. Finally, it gives its consideration to the implications for U.S. policy.

State Interference With Political Parties : Iraqi Style

See here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Well Written, Well Argued and Correct

There is a fine article on the socio-economic background to this month's riots in England on page ten of today's "Morning Star" by Martin O'Donnell. It has been edited in the version on the Morning Star's Web-Site, but it is still worth reading - see here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Pitmen's Requiem

Perhaps as you get older, your total experience has accumulated to such an extent that your world seems to get more inter-related and condensed. This may be why since I recently reached 75, I have identified so closely with two books I have read. The first of these, I reviewed here. It deals with a book that was first published before I was born. The second book was only published last year and I feel that it was written especially for me - although I may not be alone in this thought. The book is "The Pitmen's Requiem" (Northumbria Press 2010) by Peter Crookson.

The starting point of Crookson's book might not only seem to be of general relevance to myself, as its theme will appeal to many. Crookson sets out to write a biography of Robert Saint who wrote the music for the miners' brass band hymn "Gresford" - which can be listened to via this link. I, like numerous others, feel a special attachment to this music. I recently heard it played at a telling occasion at the cemetery at Easington Colliery on the 60th anniversary of its major pit disaster. I have since heard it played at the Durham Miners' Big Meeting, which still continues a tradition started in 1871.

The tune was composed in memory of 256 men and boys who were killed in a massive explosion at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham in 1934. It is played after all mining disasters,their anniversaries and on most occasions when brass bands play a programme in past or present mining areas.

The tune was not, however, composed by a Welshman, but by a former coal miner in County Durham. Robert Saint was born in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne, in an area which was then part of County Durham. Between the ages of 14 and 27, Saint worked at Hebburn Colliery until it closed in 1932. He then spent two years on the dole in an era of deep economic depression; supplementing his small allowance by being a saxophone player in a local orchestra and also by giving piano lessons. He then moved on to work with the National Equine Defence League showing a special interest in the well-being of pit ponies.

Whilst Crookston writes a telling tale about Saint, he also ran into trouble in seeking to unearth research material. For working class people seldom hold onto written material about their lives. Crookston spells out the problem in a beautiful chapter entitled "No Shoebox in the Wardrobe". So the author then starts to ask a well selected group of people what "Gresford" means to them and then gets them to elaborate about their own experiences of the Durham and Northumberland Coalfields. It is a formula of genius.

I mention five sets of these people below, as I see myself as having some forms of link with them.

(1) I was in the same class as Cecil Peacock in the Infant and Junior Schools at Easington Colliery. After the recent service of remembrance for the 60th anniversary of the Colliery's pit disaster, I reminded him that for a period when we were at school we were taken out of play periods so that he could help me to improve my spelling. Cecil became on expert on brass bands, "Gresford" and music in general; becoming the administrator for musical education for the Durham County Council. He started his working life as an electrician at the local pit and appreciated something which I never knew. He tells us that the explosion at Easington Colliery which killed 81 miners and then two rescue workers, occured at an underground spot almost two miles inland from the beach. I knew that the pit's operations went out under the north sea and had assumed that that was it; even though my own father was in the pit in a safe seam at the time of the explosion. In fact I was so astonished by Cecil's claim that I checked it out. I could find nothing in the official report of the disaster: but Mary Bell, a local historian and writer, tells me the following - "The explosion was inland where Cecil pointed out. I have a record of a rescue worker from Murton. He told me that he was working down the inland pit at Murton at the time and he was very near the disaster area. He felt although he had to go by lorry to Easington he wished he could have gone through the 'wall' and got there much quicker. Also people living up Canada (a district of Easington HB) said that sometimes they could hear when 'firing' was going on down the pit." On a school bus a few hours after the explosion, I passed what was a greyhound track above the point where the explosion took place. It has taken me 60 years to discover the significance of the spot.

(2) I have recently been in phone, postal and email contact with Heather Wood and she is also interviewed for Crookston's book. She chaired the organisation "Save Easington Area Mines" (SEAM) in 1984/5 and provides an important description of the role of women during the miners' strike of those years. She has recently written a book entitled "Fight To The Finish" (Northern Voices Community Projects, 2011) published about her late father, Gordon MacPherson who worked at the pit at Easington. Luckily Heather (and her mother) have kept the equivalent of "a shoebox in the wardrobe" and her book includes poems and stories by her father. He had a keen sense of humour, which he used for serious purposes.

(3) Additionally, I have been in touch by phone and correspondence with Alan Cummings who was Easington Colliery's Lodge Secretary when both the 1984/5 strike took place and the pit was closed in 1993. He still continues with his duties today, covering compensation cases and keeping Easington's mining tradition alive. Easington was as united during the period of the long drawn out conflict as any other colliery in the country. Cumming's gives a gripping account of those tough days.

(4) Tony Benn is also interviewed, for he selected Gresford as a tune when he was on Desert Island Discs and because he is a regular at the Durham Miners' Gala. You can hear him speaking for himself on these matters on the second video shown via this link. My connections with Tony have been substantial. Not only were we members of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons, but the Constituency I represented lapped around Tony's in Chesterfield in a "C" shape. In fact, Chesterfield was our common meeting ground via the Derbyshire Miners' Offices. For the area I represented had a very similar mining tradition to that of the Durham Coalfield.

(5) Crookston also interviews Arthur and Vera Bartholomew from their home in Byron Street at Easington Colliery. Although I know neither of these, I knew Byron Street well. My first girl friend lived there. Her father had been killed in the 1951 pit disaster. Arthur Bartholomew was 92 at the time of the interview and has a memory going back to his starting work in the pit at Dawdon Colliery (two miles north of Easington) at the age of 14. He was fore-overman at Easington at the time of the explosion, which was also the job held by my former girl friend's father.

There are many other elements of Crookston's book which I identify with. He takes a walk down the main street at Easington - Seaside lane. The strangers he passes are very friendly. In retirement my father walked down the length of most of Seaside Lane on almost a daily basis, enjoying the banter. But Crookston's is also depressed by the dereliction of closed shops and the abandoned Junior and Infant Schools which has had preservation orders placed on them. One of these schools was the scene of the count for Manny Shinwell's dramatic electoral victory over Ramsay MacDonald in 1935, but even Cecil Peacock now wants it to be demolished. Yet I remember the Seaside Lane of the post-war years with affection. For its main stretch, one side of Seaside Lane was dominated by a row of private shops, with a mix of two cinemas, a club, a pub, a barbers, a billiard hall, the functioning infant and junior schools and the Co-op. Then it reached the block of colliery houses. The other side of the Lane had some of Easington's posher houses, a doctor's surgery, well kept allotments near the waterworks, two Methodist chapels (a third for the Wesleyan's by then being used as a warehouse), churches for the Anglicans and the Pentecostals, an opening leading to the Miners' Welfare and to the Welfare Grounds with its football pitches, bowling greens, tennis courts and a cricket pitch; then at the bottom Walter Wilson's and Byron Street. (There are some enthralling poems by Roy Sanderson and Mary Bell about Easington. These contrast my own past experiences with Crookston's modern ones. I am unable to provide the link to these at the moment, but will add them sometime if I can.)

I was, no doubt. biased. But I felt that Easington was a cut above other Colliery areas. Inland pits often had ugly pit heaps and their coal dust to contend with, but Easington dumped its waste out of immediate sight, into the sea. It ruined the beach, but did not effect daily life. Nowadays the beach has been cleaned up; but the communal provisions have massively declined.

I am mistaken if I am giving the impression that Peter Crookston's book is mainly about Easington. Its central theme is about "Gresford" and its composer who was based in the Tyneside area, which I never even travelled to before I was 12 or so. I have homed in on the bits I relate to. Some of this now takes me into the areas close to Easington.

Peter Lee, an earlier leader of the Durham Miners is dealt with. He became the first Labour Leader of the Durham County Council in 1919 and had a new post-war town near Easington named after him. I knew Peterlee in its early days well. My grandmother, Uncle, Aunt (and her family) were amongst its early occupants. Following on from my becoming Secretary of the Easington Colliery Branch of the Labour Party, I became Secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society. Although our monthly meetings were held in Peterlee, our biggest event was a day school held at Easington Secondary Modern School with 78 people attending.

Crookston takes us to coastal Collieries close to Easington, including Seaham where I started work as a railway clerk. Horden where I next worked at their railway station and Dawdon where as a young teenager I fixed up a football match and John Fickling on our side scored from his own half on a full sized pitch. But above all, Crookston takes us in and out of the inland area of Shotton Colliery, where my wife comes from. Her father was an onsetter at the local pit, with its pit heap almost spilling out onto its Front Street. It was described in J.B. Priestley's "English Journeys" in 1932. Invariably, Crookston has a chapter entitled "The People Priestley Admired" - although the references here are again to Tyneside.

Even when we return to the story of the man who composed "Gresford", I am still sent off to my own recollections. In a chapter entitled "Lament for a Vanished Culture". Crookston writes of his father and Robert Saint in deep conversation about the writings of Robbie Burns in 1948. This leads to a description of miners' home libaries and the self-taught tradition. Numbers of miners in the tradition of the autodidact, built up their own serious libraries. One collection of works stressed by Crookston is the Odhams Press "Home University Library". To this he could have added the Odham's Press "British Encylopedia." Next to my computer, I hold 24 hard book volumes of these two Odham's collections. They were the prize possession of my Uncle Bill (William Gray) who worked from the age of 14 to 65 in the pits; first at Sunniside in the south-west Durham Coalfield, then at Easington.

The fact that Peter Crookston hits all the right cords with me is that he is a skilled writer from a Great Northern Coalfield's background. It is also deeply significant that we were both born in 1936 and then each left the north-east in 1963. We are both at a time of life when we want to know more about our roots. Not in the sense of "Who Do You Think You Are?", but in the sense of what immediately shaped our early life.






Thursday, August 11, 2011

When Will Labour Get Tough With The Causes Of Crime?

On 10 March Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper (above) said that Labour was still commited to Tony Blair's pledge to be "'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". From yesterday's debates in the Commons, we can see that the Labour Leadership is still fully committed to the first part of this formula, yet has no analysis which is related to the second part - apart from seeking an enquiry which would look at the causes of the riots. This was also Blair's own style of approach.

What evidence would Labour present to the enquiry it is seeking ?

Does Yvette not see that Thatcherism, New Labourism and now the Coalition have facilitated the destruction of the social bond in community after community. There has been the closing of traditional industries, without action being taken to at least temporally preserve what was possible whilst also instigating alternative provisions so that established social relationships could be maintained. Monetarism and then a flight into the arms of the financial institutions, helped to bury what had been achieved following nearly 200 years of struggle which resulted in the high hopes seen in the building of the Welfare State. Instead, commercial values have been allowed to dominate society, so that some can make a quick fortune whilst others are shaped into becoming consumers burdening themselves with debt as they become addicted to sales pitch after sales pitch. Worse still the unemployed and those otherwise deprived, are themselves pushed into accepting these false norms. Education has moved to training people to serve commercial operations, rather than opening up people's minds so that they participate in thoughtful ways to pressing for the building of a better world.

Scawl down here to see what Yvette both said and did not say. I am disappointed that she did not grasp even part of the nettle. The fact that she is probably one of the more caring Labour frontbenchers, just shows the shallow nature of modern Labourism. In today's desperate circumstances we obviously need to be tough on the rioting criminals, but we can't start to eliminate their mind-set unless we tackle far wider and deeper questions. If Labour does not now re-establish its abandoned democratic socialist principles, then it is hard to see if it will ever come up with the necessary responses to our problems. Or has Ed Miliband just dipped his toe into the water by saying that his party had failed to tackle inequality and had not paid enough attention to morality.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Food For Serious Thought

If you wish to give serious thought to our own and the wider world's current social, economic and political problems, the BBC 4 programmes which can be accessed via this link provides a valuable starting point. But beware, the first programme is likely to be removed from the link just after midnight on 14 August.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Lib-Dem Sensation

Vince Cable, Steve Webb and Simon Hughes have all come out in favour of the Government supporting the Robin Hood Tax. (OK, it was 10 years ago and was then known as the Tobin Tax - see here , but now that I have reminded them of their commitment by email we can expect their resignation from their Government links at any time!)

Tackling The Current Economic Crisis

The following quotation is taken from an important item published today by Simon Chouffort on "Left Foot Forward". He advocates the use of the Robin Hood Tax as a means of tackling the current international financial crisis. The Robin Hood Tax is a variant of the Tobin Tax, which I spent a lot of time advocating at one time in parliament, as indicated in the above photo taken when Gordon Brown was at the Treasury. Here is one example. (See also the label in the bottom left hand corner).

"One policy option being discussed in Europe is the idea of a Financial Transaction Tax, known popularly in many countries as a ‘Robin Hood Tax’. A tiny tax would be levied on each stock, bond, derivative or currency transaction. It would target financial institutions’ ‘casino’ style trading that helped precipitate the economic crisis and is capable of raising hundreds of billions of euros a year. It could help support those who have been hardest hit by the financial crisis both in Europe and around the world.

France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Belgium are among the countries to publicly support it. Both the European Parliament and Commission are actively seeking its implementation. Nicolas Sarkozy has made it one of his priority issues for France’s Presidency of the G20. It’s increasingly viewed as the most robust and simple way to ensure that the financial (sector?) pays a fair contribution for its part in the economic crisis. Over 40 have already been implemented around the world and concerns about the feasibility have been shown by the IMF, European Commission and others to be overblown.

As Europe moves ahead and grapples once again with the might of the financial sector, the UK Government should deliver on its claim that ‘we are all in this together’, support their efforts and prove that it is capable of bringing the financial sector back under control."

Ed Milband and Ed Balls should take note.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

In Jack's Shadow

Photo of the 1945 Labour Cabinet. Jack Lawson of the War Office is fourth from the right in the back row. The following (highly personal) review of his autobiography is over 3,000 words long.

Jack Lawson
lived from 1881 to 1965 and wrote his autobiography entitled "A Man's Life" in 1932, adding a fresh chapter covering the intervening events in 1944. Although he achieved far more in his life than I have and he experienced infinitely harsher circumstances, a surprising number of events occurred to him which I can identify with. The biggest differences between us is that he was born more than half a century before me and worked for 30 years in the pits, starting at the age of 12. These are huge differences between us. They should always be borne in mind in what I say below.

Jack was born in the mining Village of Kells near Whitehaven on the western coast of Cumberland, whilst I was born at Easington Colliery on the opposing eastern coast in County Durham. My paternal grandfather was, however, born only ten years before Jack in a Cumberland mining community, but it was 30 miles inland from Kells. Both Jack and my grandfather later moved with their parents to the Durham Coalfield, where they both started work at 12.

Jack started work at Boldon Colliery, which was situated less than four miles north west of Monkwearmouth Colliery in Sunderland where my grandfather's own dad suffered a fatal accident from a fall of stone in 1907. Sunderland's football ground is now built on top of the former Monkwearmouth pit and at one time my wife worked for a firm situated just a couple of streets away from that colliery. My grandfather also lived in differing houses in the vicinity of what was then Sunderland's ground at Roker Park, with my father being born in one of these houses (next to a pawnbrokers) in 1909.

Reflecting upon the many mining families who settled in the Durham Coalfield and who had come from far and wide to settle in County Durham, Jack states that there " is only one dialect now, and only Durham people. The melting pot process is complete" (p 43). This description solidly applied to Easington Colliery where my grandparents and their established family finally settled permanently in 1912, just a year after the pit went into full production.

Jack also says that at Boldon, he "lived in the isolation of a colliery" (p51). This was before the days of public transport and also describes early life at Easington. My father was brought into that community when he was two years old and remained solidly part of it for the next 84 years of his life.

Jack adds that most "miners have had experiences which makes one feel that it is only by a 'miracle' that they are alive" (p 61). My own father's miracle occurred in 1951 when he was working in the local pit when 81 men (and then two rescue workers) were killed. His miracle being that he was working in a different seam from the explosion. Yet at home we did not know he was safe until he returned.

Jack became a Methodist lay preacher and he provides a telling description of what he saw as the impact of Methodism in the Durham Coalfield in the early years of the 19th Century. "Their hymns and sermons may have been of another world, but the first fighters and speakers for unions, Co-op Societies, political freedom and improved conditions, were Methodist preachers" (p 69). I also listened to Methodist sermons at least twice (then over three times) a week between the ages of 12 and 18. My mother had been brought up as a Methodist in the mining community of Sunniside in South West Durham and initially sent me to the Sunday School at the Easington Bourne Methodist Chapel. She continued to attend the Methodist services until prevented by dementia in her old age, whilst I deviated during my National Service and came to reject notions of the "other world". But I sort to retain the moral and political prescriptions which Jack highlights. In a chapter entitled "Little Bethel" (pp 67-74), he gives a classical exposition of the claim that British Socialism was shaped by Methodism rather than Marxism. It was not for several years after I had lost my links with Methodism that I first seriously examined any of Marx's writings.

In 1904 a Branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded at Boldon and Jack became an activist, undertaking equivalent tasks to those he undertook as a Lay Preacher around the area's Chapels, now using a soap box to supplement the pulpit. He was 22 when the ILP Branch was founded. Labour did not set up an individual membership structure until 1918. My equivalent was to join the Labour Party in Easington Colliery at the age of 21, after returning from my period of National Service. I was no speaker, so instead I became Secretary of the Local Branch of the Labour Party, where I persuaded them to invite speakers - for now that I was an atheist I missed listening to socialist sermons. It was to be a further 17 years before I also joined the ILP, although it had just changed its name and some of its practices by becoming a publications organisation - Independent Labour Publications. I have retained links with them ever since then.

At an early stage, Jack became an avid reader and collector of serious works of literature. In Jonathan Rose's fine book "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class" (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), Jack is recognised as being a leading example of the autodidactic tradition. Jack had a depth and commitment to books which went way beyond my own, but I stumbled forward. Up to 12, I had got by reading comics, the local football papers, the Daily Herald and my maternal Grandmother's News Chronicle. But then our teacher at the Secondary Modern School took us into the school library and told us to borrow a book and read it, I choose "Mr. Standfast" by John Buchan and was hooked. I still hold 16 of Buchan's books, most of which were purchased in the Everyman Edition at 4s 6d (now 22 and a half pence). I am, therefore, pleased to see that a quote from Buchan is used on a cover of an edition of Jack's book saying that " 'A Man's Life' should be read by everyone". When I moved beyond Buchan, I came to purchase the Penguin editions of the plays of George Bernard Shaw with their long prefaces as well as a random selection of easier-to-read books by authors such as Conan Doyle. I was slowly moving forth, but none of this matched the depth and scope of Jack's reading as a young man. He tells us how he used "orange- boxes painted, with brown paper covering, tastefully cut at the edges" (p 81) to hold his many books. Having failed my eleven plus, then fluffed the key "O" levels of Maths and English Language and even having dropped-out of the piano lessons my mother sent me to (although she had bought a second-hand upright piano), she became keen to encourage my gradual interest in books. She was determined that I would do things that meant I would not need to go down the pit. So she bought me a bookcase and I then succeeded in upsetting the wife of the Methodist Sunday School Superintendent by placing a photo of GBS on top of it. It was the shape of things to come. A ready-made bookcase would have indeed been a luxury for Jack. Our four roomed colliery house met the needs of my father, mother and myself as an only child. A similar four room house had to be shared by Jack's parents and their ten children. Orange boxes full of classical literature are something which impress me in such a crowded environment.

Jack also "discovered a certain booksellers in Newcastle" (p 74) where he met "kindred souls from other parts of Northumberland and Durham" (p 75). I found the equivalent (or perhaps the same bookseller) in a Newcastle indoor market when I adopted the habit of visiting the town's Theatre Royal. On my 17th birthday, I bought a copy of "The Webbs and their Work" edited by Margaret Cole (London: Frederick Muller Ltd. 1949) which contains an article by Jack himself entitled "The Discovery of Sidney Webb". Jack tells us that in his efforts to find literature about Trade Unions a "steady, thoughtful, elderly miner said he thought a man called Sidney Webb had written a 'History of Trade Unionism'. There was not one to be found in the colliery, so it was ordered off of a bookseller in Newcastle" (p 187-8 of Margaret Cole's book). This was how how Jack discovered Sidney Webb, who was to become a fellow Durham County Labour MP and a fellow Government Minister in the First Minority Labour Government of 1924. Indeed Jack was to stand unsuccessfully for the Seaham Parliamentary Constituency (encompassing Easington) in 1918, which Sidney went on to win and to serve as their MP from 1922 to 1929.

Jack's love life was to have certain similarities with my own. In describing his first meeting with his future wife, he outlines an event at Boldon where "I met 'Her'. She lived in Sunderland, and was visiting friends in the colliery when I met her with a girl friend whom I knew" (pp 82-3). I first met Ann who became my wife in Sunderland itself where we both worked. A mother of a lad I worked with as a railway clerk worked in the office of a neighbouring store, with Ann. This led to my meeting "Her". Ann was herself from a mining background. her father was an onsetter at Shotton Colliery which is closer to Easington than either places are to Sunderland.

Methodist meetings and political meetings helped Jack and then myself to develop interests in speeches, discussions and adult education. Jack took the high road via Methodist pulpits, political platforms and then "a group of us ...started an adult school...long before the Workers' Educational Classes" (p 77). I took the low road of being an honorary secretary, first fixing up speakers for the Christian Endeavour at the Chapel, then when I dropped religion there were secular equivalents through which I undertook similar tasks - the local Labour Party and the Peterlee and District Fabian Society. Speakers I arranged for the later included Mannie Shinwell MP and Sam Watson the Secretary of the Durham Miners Association, people whom Jack worked with closely. Sam being his protege. It must be remembered that Sam initially had a much more left-wing reputation than the one he later acquired.

Although he was 25 and married and faced major financial difficulties, Jack undertook two years full-time study in politics and economics at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1907. After selling their furniture, his wife found work in Oxford and he did some domestic work at the college (p 99). 53 years later at the age of 24, I also went to study at Ruskin College. But I had the great advantage of receiving funding from the Durham County Council on which Jack had served. I also had no marriage commitments, it being only between my first and second years at Ruskin when I met Ann. Jack discovered about the existence of Ruskin College when he talked about books and art to his marra, Jack Woodhead. When Jack mentioned John Ruskin, his mate told him about the College which bore Ruskin's name and encouraged Jack to contact them (pp 93-5). Jack undertook the College's correspondence course and then went into full-time study with them. Whilst my discovery of Ruskin College arose from my attending a Fabian Society School held there during an Easter vacation.

Although it wasn't preplanned, I came to use Ruskin College as a stepping stone into university. Jack's youngest brother Will did the same when he followed in Jack's footsteps. But Jack himself turned down the Principal Dennis Hird's offer to help him do the same. Jack returned to the pit at the close of his course and pursued his political and trade union commitments. He acted as voluntary election agent for Labour and for a miner at Jarrow in the 1910 elections. My equivalent was in North East Derbyshire in 1983, when I was agent to Ray Ellis who was President of the Derbyshire Miners. Jack was next elected as checkweighman at Alma Colliery in North West Durham. He tells us that "I soon discovered that my work as check-weighman was a mere detail and by no means my real work. I was their business man, watching closely and attending to every detail effecting their wages and conditions. I was adviser on domestic questions, lawyer and executor. So are all checkweighmen. Pit-craft first, spokesman in the office, much tested guide in meetings..." (p 114). It was the era in which Beatrice Webb came to call the Parliamentary Labour Party "the Party of Checkweighmen" (p 250, "Master and Servants" by Huw Beynon and Terry Austrin. London: River Oram Press, 1994).

Unlike me, Jack fought in a war, volunteering in 1916 and becoming a lead driver of mules in France; finally being demobbed in 1918. My own two years in the forces were mainly served in Basra in Iraq when I was called up for National Service. I was part of a Movements Unit where in contrast to the recent history of Iraq, I was lucky enough only once to hear a shot fired in anger when a prisoner escaped from a neighbouring Iraqi Army camp, but they missed him as he dived into the river. Jack's brother Will was, however, killed in France during the First World War. Will once having wrote home to say "This is not war: it is a permanent industry of death" (p 145).

Jack moved on to become the Labour MP for Chester-le-Street from 1919 to late 1949. My equivalent was to be the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire from 1987 to 2005. But there were some major differences between us. He spoke from Labour's front benches during the minority Labour Governments of Ramsay MacDonald and then served in the Attlee Government from 1945 to 1946. At the end of 1949 he moved on to the Lords. I never rose to such dizzy heights. Jack's autobiography, however, skates over his parliamentary and governmental experiences. His focus is on his mining and mining family background.

He took the title of Baron Lawson of Beamish and also became Lord Lieutenant of Durham. These were unpaid positions and he was obliged to live on income support. But his title turned out to be an appropriate one, for after his death Beamish acquired a substantial Mining Museum, preserving memories of the Durham Mining tradition in a former coalfield where no pits have remained since the closure of Monkwearmouth Colliery in 1993.

Jack knew the Easington Colliery area well (its pit also closed in 1993). As mentioned previously, he was the unsuccessful Labour Candidate for the Seaham Constituency in 1918, when he perceptively (but unhelpfully in electoral terms) campaigned against reparations being placed upon Germany (p 154). In 1944 he addressed the St. John's Methodist Chapel on "My Travels to China" (p 13, "Methodism in Easington Colliery 1913-1963", a Jubilee Brochure). Unfortunately, I missed out on his talk as I was only eight at the time and went to a different local Methodist chapel. But his Methodist, socialist and Durham Mining Association commitments are likely to have drawn him into Easington on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Jack's autobiographical coverage mainly peters out once he becomes a MP. The 1944 edition is 191 pages long, but the years between 1919 and 1944 are crammed into the last 31 pages. There is nothing at all on the 1926 General Strike nor on the 1931 economic collapse. And there is little on his electoral politics, nor on where his victories took him to. Yet if you wish to find out what Durham Big Meeting was like in its heyday, what a bitter fight between two miners was like when surrounded by fellow gamblers and (above all) what life was like for a closely knit mining family, then this is the book for you. For instance; after his brother is killed during the first world his mother searches out a treasured baby's toy and hands it to Jack for his six year old daughter, saying "Take this home for your babby hinny. My babby's gone." (p 150). Then Jack's own eleven year old son Clive is killed following a bombing raid in 1941 (pp 184-7).

The appeal to me of Jack's book is not just that I also originate from a Durham mining community, but that I worked closely with miners from South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire for 21 years. Furthermore, I did this in a capacity which links in with one of Jack's commitments - working class adult education. I was a tutor on day-release classes for trade unionists run by the Sheffield University Extramural Department/Division of Continuing Education. The persistent core of these classes were for members of the Yorkshire and Derbyshire NUMs. Their interests were grounded (like Jacks') on their lives in their mining communities. Numbers moved on to study full-time in adult education colleges such as Ruskin. Many became, like Jack, avid readers of serious books. My big regret is that I never placed a copy of "A Man's Life" in the book boxes we took to these classes. It was crafted for exactly such a readership.

When I moved into the Commons after the joy of teaching as an equal in adult education, I became on MP for a Constituency with a similar tradition to Jack's Chester-le-Street. For 67 of the years between 1907 and 1987 my seat of North East Derbyshire had been represented by coal miners, the pattern was only cut into when the seat fell briefly to opposing Liberals or Conservatives. Three deep mined pits and a drift mine still remained in existence when I went to Westminster. Only the drift mine now survives, but I am thankful to have participated in three campaigns to prevent its closer. The consequences of the end of deep coal mining in North Derbyshire became a key concern on my agenda. I always tried to be accepted as something of a substitute miner.

But Jack outmatched me as a Labour MP also. He represented Chester-le-Street from 1919 to December 1949, when he went to the Lords. It was later replaced by the North Durham seat. Chester-le-Street went Labour in 1906 and (then as North Durham) has continously been Labour ever since.

For me, Jack's book strikes all the key cords. The thin coverage of his non-mining years does not really matter, as there are plenty of alternative works to turn to by professional historians. It is Jack at the coal-face which matters; whether down the pit, in the community or with his family.

Note : as second hand copies of Jack's small book cost £25, potential readers may wish to borrow it via the inter-library loan system. I did this for £1.50p.