15 March 2017

Divorcing the Scottish Labour Party

The Labour Party in Scotland should become a wholly independent organisation.

Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the question of a second Scottish independence referendum is utterly muddled, though it is unclear whether he is at fault or the mainstream media. But cutting through the confusion, his opinion seems to be this: Scotland should be allowed to have a referendum if it wants one, but it should not want one. In short, Corbyn has hitched himself to Unionism, and believes that, despite the Scottish rejection of Brexit in the April 2016 referendum, Scotland, as part of the UK, should be taken out of the EU against its will.

In taking that line Corbyn has fallen into step with the fiercely Unionist Scottish Labour Party leadership, the body which has sunk Labour in the last decade from Scotland’s dominant force into a measly third-placed party. Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, is strongly anti-Corbyn, as is Ian Murray, Scotland’s sole Labour MP. They won't help Corbyn to achieve anything.

Of course, it’s not up to Corbyn to tell Scotland that the country should be independent, any more than it is up to him to say that it should not be. That issue is for Scotland alone to decide. But Corbyn could, and should, disassociate himself from the Scottish Labour Party, and declare that Scottish Labour ought to be a wholly independent organisation. But sadly I don’t think Corbyn will take that step.

Brexit: any British pride is misplaced

The arrogance behind British nationalism is not supported by facts

One of the nationalistic-inspired assumptions behind those who support Brexit is that Britain is in some way ‘better’ than its European neighbours, and, for that reason, should not be in a union with them. That assumption is worth probing with a few facts. Let me take Britain’s neighbours to be Ireland, France, Germany, Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and Scandinavia, all democracies since the Second World War. It is worth noting that this group of countries, including Britain, contain a majority of the EU’s population and wealth.

Among these countries, according to the IMF in 2017, Britain is the poorest in GNP per head, with $ 43 500 per year – only marginally below France, but well below Germany on $ 49 800. The smaller countries of Benelux, Ireland and Scandinavia are all considerably richer. For working people, in comparison with their counterparts among the European neighbours, things are even worse: Britain is the most economically unequal, with inequality at an index of 34 – France and Germany both score 29. To understand these figures zero represents complete equality while inequality in the United States stands at 40.

Inequality is linked to a dysfunctional society. In every 100 000 people Germany imprisons 81, France 118, but Britain a staggering 150.

And what will Brexit improve? Trade barriers will impede the economy; the only question is by how much. And, on top of that, Britain’s drift towards a low tax, low regulation regime will increase social inequality still further.

I am not suggesting that everything in Britain is bad and perfect among our neighbours, but merely that reality is very different from what the Tory Brexiteers tell us, and from what the ‘patriotic little men’ of UKIP believe.

Woolmer Hill School, Haslemere 1973-78


Memories of Woolmer Hill Secondary School Haslemere, Surrey 1973-78

In 1973, Woolmer Hill County Secondary School, as it was then called, catered for the eighty percent of children, aged eleven to sixteen, who had failed their eleven plus examination and would not be attending a grammar school. Haslemere, then as now, was a rich town in the outer reaches of London’s commuter belt, so its ‘secondary modern’ school, Woolmer Hill, took in a large middle-class contingent in addition to pupils from the council estates. The school was streamed into A, B and remedial classes.

I was born in 1962 and from the age of one lived in Haslemere. I followed a set course with my cohort of classmates. I was at Derby Road Infant School (1967-69), Chestnut Avenue Junior School (1969-73) and, after failing the eleven plus, attended Woolmer Hill County Secondary School from the age of eleven to sixteen (1973-78).

There are several pieces of writing here. You may wish to scroll down to the section that interests you.
  • Nostalgia: why these memory sketches were written
  • First lessons: September 1973
  • The rituals of school meals
  • The horrors of the playground
  • The dark cloud of discipline
  • Sports’ Day: an annual farce
  • School trips
  • School Reports
  • Rules and Rebellion
  • No Tuck Shop
  • Vista of a classroom
  • The Last Day: the end of an era
  • Mr Anning goes swimming
  • Going home and the Little Chef Cafe

Nostalgia: why these memory sketches were written

In the spring of 2003 a friend told me about the website Friends Reunited, and like thousands of other people I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened to my classmates from school. In those days, before internet social networks, the lives of schoolmates, and others with whom you had lost contact, were unknown, particularly if you had moved away from the area. So the opportunities provided by Friends Reunited were new and exciting.

The site offered a choice of institutions (schools, colleges, universities) to which people could add their name and details. Yet, there was no doubt that the main institution of nostalgic curiosity for the majority was secondary school, with a special attachment to the leaving year. And that applied to me too. I left Woolmer Hill School aged sixteen in 1978, and it was my fellow pupils, who had accompanied me in my journey from child to adolescent, that I felt the greatest need to contact and catch-up with. I had lost contact with them all without ever intending to, but now a new window was opening in cyberspace, which would satisfy my voyeuristic curiosity and would allow me a limited means of self expression on a formative period of my life.

Of course I knew that Friends Reunited was not there primarily to reunite friends, but to make money. You, therefore, had to negotiate your way through the flashing banners for dating agencies and get blocked whenever you want to say something that fell outside their template for nostalgia. In the spring of 2003 there were themed notice boards on which you were invited to post your memories. On each one I decided to take up the theme and compose a written memory sketch, so the topics of the comments below was decided by Friends Reunited, not by me. No sooner had I finished than the notice boards were reserved for subscribing members (£5 and later £7.50 p.a). I never paid Friends Reunited anything, and nor would it seem did many other ex-students, so my posts for a long time retained their first place position on most of the boards.

At the end of decade the experiment which was Friends Reunited had been overtaken by other social networking sites such as Facebook. Friends Reunited abandoned its attempt to charge fees for ordinary members, made its service free and attempted to expand its social networking functions. By this time, however, most people, particularly the young, had lost interest in the site and new postings became fewer. And in January 2016 the site close down for good.

I  abandoned Friends Reunited in the mid 2000s, but occasionally used it thereafter as a source of reference. I did not stop writing, however. In 2006 I composited my existing material and placed the content on what was then a newly created blog, adding a few words of explanation to the texts. Then, as my own memories flowed, and as memories from fellow pupils were communicated to me, I penned other pieces:  Woolmer Hill teachers 1973-77, Corporal Punishment at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, Uniform at Woolmer Hill School in the mid 1970s, Romance and Sex at Woolmer Hill in the 1970s.

While all of the later articles have a clear theme, this collection of memories retains its original character and darts from topic.

First lessons: September 1973

On the first morning at Woolmer Hill the father of a friend, who was being driven to school, picked me up. This is what I wrote about the first day.

Yes, I was frightened on that September morning in 1973. After all, what was there about Woolmer Hill to reassure me? Mr Anning, the school’s headmaster, otherwise known as the ‘the old man,’ ‘pop’ or ‘the cunt,’ designed every part of himself to instil fear: dark suit, the sun glasses, and the pat on the shoulder that could signal mocking sarcasm or a prelude to worse. We had to digest a myriad of rules: which grass you could walk on, which doors you could go through and at what time you could join the lunch queue. We scared ourselves with stories of punishments and found fault with each other’s uniforms. Then in military formation in the hall we were separated from our friends and shunted off with our form teacher. For me it was Miss Savage. We sat there as more rules were rattled out while she constantly blinked her eyes. Things could only get better, and fortunately they did.

The rituals of school meals

The lunch hour was an attempt to drill the satiating of children’s hunger into a choreographed eating routine. A long disorderly queue meandered back from the door of the school hall with a bell periodically permitting yet another year to join the throng.

I never tasted the fodder of boiled-to-death vegetables and meat that was handed out at the end of the line because as a conscientious objector I managed on sandwiches. My alienation from school dinners means that I have no idea of whether the school’s culinary delights were created in the school kitchen behind the stage or imported from elsewhere, nor whether the taste matched the foul odour.

The long lines of tables where the pupils sat gave way two thirds of the way up the room to three blocks of tables where the staff sat. Between them and us (in the first couple of years I ate my sandwiches in the hall too) was the teachers’ serving table. Had they spooned out the food to themselves, the image of this collective eating ritual might not have retained its place in my memory. But as if to reinforce a sense of hierarchy, the girls on a rota system were allocated the dubious privilege of acting as waitresses and maids to their teachers.

The boys had their turn too: the dragging, dissembling and piling of tables after the event. Strangely one figure, Headmaster Anning, was absent throughout. Did he unwrap his sorry bag of sandwiches alone in his office, or was he provided with room service at lunch?

At the entrance to the main hall at lunchtime there were two queues. The longer one on the left was for school dinners. The shorter line on the other side of the door was for the conscientious objectors who elected sandwiches over for the fodder of boiled food. We were waiting for a space at the one table allocated to us.


Making my sandwiches was a chore. I had be up in time, cut the bread straight, hope the butter was not too hard and divide the pot of paste equally between the sandwiches. In the early years I staved off hunger and didn't break the rules by eating before lunchtime. Once, somewhere near the back of the queue, I was overcome by pangs of hunger so I slyly opened my lunch box and nibbled away. My jaw motion caught the eye of a passing Mr Anning who despite my fears laughed off my misdemeanour.

By 1978, and in my final year, I had long left the sandwich queue behind. My current penchant for eating mid-morning was firmly in place. I was ensconced in the Upper School building, which accommodated the final year pupils, and was munching away and chatting.

The Playground

Arriving at Woolmer Hill in 1973, I found the playground far more dangerous and threatening than the lessons. Sex apartheid was the order of the day: the girls occupied the tennis court next to the main drive into the school; the boy’s tennis court was beside the gym. The fear was pain and bullying. As you entered the playground from the school next to the tall gym wall, there was a row of boys methodically throwing tennis balls at the new arrivals. If you could make your way onto the few pieces of grass permitted to you, the situation was slightly better.

Staying inside was strictly regulated. A board hung near the back exit of the school saying “in,” “out” or “optional” depending on the weather and Mr Anning’s whims. I even swallowed my life-long atheistic beliefs to attend lunchtime Christian Union meetings to keep out of the cold. By the fourth year a gentle liberalisation (even before Mr Anning’s departure) had set in, and we stayed in more.


The dark cloud of discipline

At about the time I was writing on Friends Reunited there was a group of people whose main interest was discussing and relishing in accounts of corporal punishment (real or imaginary) in various schools. Presumably for commercial reasons, or possibly to prevent libel claims against the site, writing about punishment seemed to become restricted to reminiscing about detention. When I tried to add the entry below it was zapped; and this is the only entry not to appear on the site.

In the mid-seventies at Woolmer Hill detention was not a usual instrument of pupil control because, I very much suspect, monitoring students out of hours was felt by the staff to be unduly burdensome. The repertoire of sanctions included a ragbag of measures most of which involved standing somewhere for a specified time.

Corporal punishment (caning, slippering and slapping) had not yet died, but cast their grim and humiliating shadow over the school. Apart from a cohort of working class boys, who may have danced that duet with the handful of abusers who administered it, such choreographed institutional violence was a background menace rather than daily ordeal. On entering the school at eleven the idea of it conjured up a nightmare of terror, but as a youth of sixteen the notion that one could be assaulted was merely an affront.

The high priest of darkness was Mr Anning. He self-designed every part of himself to instil terror believing that only the meek and terrorised child could become an underling and cog in his England. His black suit and penchant for sunglasses combined with his chilling artificial laugh and pat on the shoulders all cultivated the threat of imminent violence. A group of teachers liked to engage with the pupils in that halo of fear, but to be fair the vast majority did not.


Sports’ Day: An annual farce

Sports’ day meant a silly circus. In my second year the school was divided into six houses named after the wives of Henry VIII. Sports day was about the only occasion when these meaningless entities crawled out of the woodwork. Mr Jimpson and his co-believer in his brand pedagogic machismo, Miss Davis (or was she Mrs Morgan by then?), attempted to inject some enthusiasm into the proceedings by an exaggerated cheering of their Aragon House team. School and staff were unimpressed. While Mrs Blewett practised her elocution over the PA system, the strange couple of Mr Anning and his wife sat watching the proceeding bolt upright side by side both wearing dark glasses. Off the field there was another activity going on: the attempt to escape school, which had Mr MacShane driving the roads near the school to spot possible escapees.

Mr Jimpson was a ‘jack of all subjects’ teacher who specialised in rules and discipline. He normally taught the low level classes and, it seemed to me, if his pupils granted him ‘respect’ he handed out slaps on the back. I had little to do with him.
Miss Davis was a young starter whose lessons were extremely boring for those not in her little favoured group. she was often at Jimpson’s side, but I really think their relationship was platonic.
Mrs Blewett was a heavily opinionated English teacher who was head of the fifth form. She prided herself on having the best English language elocution in the school.
Mr MacShane was the ‘third-in-charge’ in the school. He was also a self-styled disciplinarian, but who, unlike Jimpson, was not on an ego trip. In the 1980s he involved himself in an unsuccessful campaign in the town to prevent the showing of the film The Silence of the Lambs.

School trips: a valued experience (1976)

We went on few – maybe once a year. Of course, there was the excitement of the deadening routine of school life being temporarily suspended, a pleasure somewhat diminished by the teacher’s control of you outside the borders of Woolmer Hill School. Most of these excursions were so unremarkable that memories of them have dissipated like dust in the wind.

I do recall, however, a trip in my third year in 1976, organised by Mrs Christopher, our geography teacher who kept two Alsatian dogs in the back of her van. Nominally for the purpose of teaching geography, it involved a walk along a disused railway line where we were supposed to look at the flowers and stones.

As it was an outdoor venture, we received a dispensation in the requirement to wear school uniform. The ability to decide one’s attire was a right rarely granted to us, so we exploited it to the full. I arrived in my 1970s flared jeans and brightly coloured shirt. Just before the coach departed we had the inevitable inspection from Mr Anning who made his wrath known and then stormed off powerless as he could hardly cancel the whole outing. Yet more than that, it was Jacqui B – very much a girl’s girl – who remains at the centre of my memory. In response to one silly boy’s attack on my clothing, she uncharacteristically jumped in to rescue me, “Well, it looks better than yours, you idiot."

How crazy it seems now, but I really valued Jacqui’s intervention. I cared about my appearance for perhaps the first time in my life, and had I received recognition from the usually razor-tongued Jacqui B.


School reports (1977)

School reports, along with parent-teacher evenings, stand apart as being one of the few connectors linking home and school. I never feared reports much; they seemed to say more about the teachers than they did about you. At the bottom Mr Anning scrawled some inane remark, or ‘meaningfully’ underlined something that a teacher had written. You took it home and brought it back – and that was it.

In 1977 I was in Commander Campbell’s registration group. He was a harmless retired naval officer who habitually picked his nose. The blackboards doubled up as cupboards and in Campbell’s maths classroom the right hand part of the board was secured with a combination padlock. For several days after school we had attempted to crack the combination until someone suggested pi = 3.142. It worked. We were able to go through the whole class’s reports, and thought up a plan – never executed – to take bets on people’s grades. I went out of the room leaving the task of replacing the reports and re-locking the cupboard door to others. Half way down the corridor and coming towards me was the black-suited dwarf, Mr McNally, a strict but effective maths teacher. Ignoring his injunction to stop, I tore back to the classroom and urged haste on my co-conspirators. By the time he arrived, McNally found nothing amiss in the room and despite a full repertoire of threats, nobody would reveal our misdemeanour. We knew that even at Woolmer Hill we could not be punished for an unknown crime which might not even have taken place.

Rules and Rebellion

The years 1977-78 were turning point years. For me my intellectual and emotional drives matured rapidly. In the school Mr Anning was replaced with Mrs Hollingdale who hitherto had been the deputy. The administratively able Mrs Hollingdale was no liberal alternative teacher, but she did achieve two things. First she ended the bleak militaristic cult which lay behind the Anning regime, and second, she re-established the relationship between the staff and headteacher.

The regime put in place by Mr Anning, and still holding on in the mid-seventies, was a myriad of mind-numbing rules. Nothing escaped their grip: the doors you could go through, the type of shoes you could wear and the pieces of grass you could sit on all fell within their grip. Most of these rules were easy to assimilate having become ingrained through several decades of enforcement. Some were undoubtedly functional like the walking on the right in the corridors and stairways, but others served mainly to reflect hierarchy, to humble and to humiliate. What sense lay behind little boys in their sweat saturated shirts being told to put their ties straight, or little girls freezing in winter but denied the right to wear trousers?

Anning’s rule-ridden world invited rebellion. The eternal protest of youth met up in the seventies with the disintegration of the certainties of post-war Britain. A tide was turning that not even Anning’s morning assembly rant against the Grunwick picket line could reverse. The post-war generation of ex-servicemen teachers was being replaced by a more liberal breed. His authority was eroding. In the three-day week and amid power cuts, pupils marched into town to demand the right of the girls to wear trousers. A barrage of graffiti, stink bombs, parent protests and Anning’s overreaction to everything all took their toll. Rules were to remain, but they had to be shifted down a gear and Anning was not the man for the job. In 1977 he said good-bye, characteristically with his black three-piece suit, dark glasses and shaking hands wearing a glove.


No Tuck Shop

During my years of incarceration, 1973-78, there was no tuck shop at Woolmer Hill School. If you forgot your packed lunch, or ate it too early, you went hungry. Water from the drinking fountain was the only refreshment.

The only exception was the small bar open at lunch times in the Upper School Building. It was staffed by fifth formers exclusively for the benefit of fifth formers; it constituted one of the few privileges that were deemed suitable for senior pupils. Its fare was meagre: instant coffee, tea and oxo and several types of chocolate bar. I am not sure whether this refreshment facility was an established institution or whether it was one of the concessions that coincided with Mr Anning’s retirement in 1977. (The other was the relaxation in uniform: the monotone black and grey clothing requirement expanded to encompass dark blue – except for jeans).

The main effect of this bar was positive; it created a temporary zone of comfort in an otherwise uncomfortable institution. My main memory, apart from drinking my five pence cup of oxo, was the opportunity it gave Jill and me to become acquainted just that little bit better.


Vista of a classroom (1978)

Thinking back twenty-five years to 1978 and to my final year lessons at Woolmer Hill, it is not so much reminiscences akin to moving film that retain a place in my memory, but voluble photo stills. The most clearly focused is one of sitting in Mrs Blewett’s English lesson in the Upper School Building. Mrs Blewett distinguished herself in her profession not simply by engaging you in her subject, but by taking on the role of someone who wanted to chisel into your teenage lack of confidence and uncertainties. She claimed for herself the role of gatekeeper who told the secrets of, and set the rules for, entering the adult world.

The architecture of her room with a central block of seats surrounded by a horseshoe has allowed me to retain a vista of the class. In the central block sat Darryl B, Tracey C, Jacqui B, Susan B, Christopher E and Jonathan B. The horseshoe contained Judith M, Diana B, Rosemary W, Frances O, David R, Martin S, John C, Brian B, Me, Una S, Sue T. I know I have forgotten people, so the picture is not complete.

Despite or because of Mrs Blewett, it is that configuration of people and the relations I had with them - sometimes through personal friendship or with others through mere observation – that form an enduring memory in my mind.


The End of an Era: the last day

If the events of the last day at Woolmer Hill were meant to add up to a rite de passage, then they failed miserably. Mrs Hollingdale and Mr Jimpson had made much of the need to turn up for that last rainy day in July 1978, but after the routine-breaking comings and goings caused by the O–level exams in June, the last day was little more than an over-delayed good-bye.

In one sense we were bidding farewell to an era. I’d joined the school as a prepubescent boy of eleven nervously jumping around to the rhythms of school rules. Now as a youth of sixteen, the magic of school authority had vanished. The teachers had already distanced themselves from us, as we had now slipped through their hands. Those, such as Jimpson, who had based their authority on the height of the horse they sat on, fared worst. With their authority now expired, they withered in front of us to become indistinguishable from other late middle-aged people in the supermarket checkout queue.

Yet on that day I remember not looking back, but forward. Much of my Woolmer Hill life would continue into the future. Most of my cohort of friends were transferring to Godalming College. In this new establishment we would leave behind the monotone drabness of school uniform and the daily humiliation of arbitrary rules. But what we were leaving behind was memories, the full meaning of which were not apparent until several years later. My only fear at the time was my daily loss of contact with Jill who had been by my side in my final year and would be no longer.


Mr Anning goes swimming


Whenever former pupils share memories of Woolmer Hill School in the 1970s, either in person or online, one topic more than any other is soon thrown into the conversation: the summer day in 1975 when Headmaster Leslie Anning was pushed into the swimming pool. Let us start by establishing the context of this incident.

The open-air school swimming pool consisted of a raised tank with corrugated metal sides, perhaps some fifteen metres long and three wide. A few metres away, and running parallel along the pool’s length, was the then modern Upper School Building. On the opposite long side was a small grass lawn, normally out-of-bonds, and beyond that a fenced off tennis court used as the boys’ playground. The shallow end of the pool was a few metres from the tall windowless brick wall of the school gym and the entrance to the changing rooms. The deep end faced a sloping field used as a play area for boys on dry summer days.

Most of the year, the swimming pool stood unused with green algae discolouring the water. The pool entered our lives only negatively, as a place that was out-of-bounds and forbidden, one of the several locations in the school grounds that could only be approached tentatively when daring to retrieve a stray ball. Only on rare occasions during the summer term were we able to go swimming, and once a year there was an annual swimming gala.

The swimming gala was an absurd event. Between the long edge of the swimming pool and the concrete path alongside the Upper School Building was a gentle grassy slope of no more than a couple of metres. Perched on this slope were two or three rows of chairs for the school staff to feign interest in their pupils, as they clumsily propelled themselves through the water. In the middle of the front row of teachers sat a suited portly Headmaster Anning and next to him his shrivelled wife, both wearing dark sunglasses and sombre expressions. Their fixed forward gaze was disrupted only by their occasional restrained applause in response to some swimming feat. Around them, the PE staff were busy lining up pupils to get into the water, while other kids, shivering with cold, made their way back to changing rooms.

At the other side of the swimming tank, directly opposite the rows of sitting teachers, was the lawn, normally out-of-bounds, but which, during the swimming gala, served as an enclosure for the non-swimming pupils. It was from here that I, then aged thirteen, had my vantage point on the events of the day. My memories of thirty-seven years ago are disconnected images which, coupled with information acquired afterwards, make up a reasonably coherent narrative of the incident.

At the deep end of the swimming pool, there was a raised concrete platform at the same height as the tank. I think under it were the pumps and heaters for the pool. The gala was over. Anning had come onto the platform to give a formal congratulatory speech to the swimmers. I was bored and conscious of having to stop a conversation with Peter M. who was standing next to me. I did not witness the push itself, but I do recall Anning moving forward with small dance-like steps and then going over the edge, feet first, into the water. At that moment, not knowing the cause, my initial thought was that he had gone mad. It was only a few seconds later that I learnt that he had been pushed.

Although I didn’t see it, Anning must have been pushed from behind. The shove was not powerful enough to propel him head first into the water, but sufficient to cause him to lose his balance. To steady himself in a hopeless attempt to bring his legs under his forward moving body, he made those miniature – and humiliatingly ridiculous - steps forward, hoping with each one to regain his balance. But it was not to be. He faced the stark choice of attempting to stand still before the edge and plunging into the water head first, or else walking over the rim into the pool. He chose the latter.

There must have been a split second when Anning was in mid air awaiting his plunge, a moment no longer than when a hanged man feels the trap door opening beneath him but before the rope breaks his neck. What thoughts would have flashed through Anning’s mind: the physical pain of the cold water awaiting him, unpleasant but probably not more so than the average slippering he administered. More likely, he would ponder his complete humiliation: degraded publicly in front of his wife, his staff and the whole assembled pupils of his school. Or, perhaps, thoughts of revenge against the sixteen year old girl who had pushed him in occupied his mind. We will never know.

And then Anning was in the water. Curiously enough, his head appeared to remain above the surface. And though he fell into the deep end, the top of his suit did not seem to be wet; his jacket rode up like a skirt to his shoulders and floated on the water around him. I have no recollection of how he got out of the pool. But by that time we were laughing too much to take in the details: his pain, his humiliation, but our joy.

Around the pool the reaction from staff and pupils became progressively more animated. Headmaster Anning had been ceremonially degraded and incapacitated, and momentarily authority ceased, as if the cage door had been suddenly and unexpectedly left open for a few moments. Laughing and cheering among the pupil intensified. The teachers for the most part looked stunned, though I remember the pupil-friendly former navy commander, Mr Trench, smiling broadly. He might not have been the only one. Only one more memory has stayed with me: a fifth-form girl - who I later learnt was Gayle W., the culprit - was rushing up the bank to the side of the Upper School Building. She was physically stopped by the near retirement age technical drawing teacher, Mr Pavey. He held her and appeared to be appealing to other teachers, for an answer to the question, What shall I do with her? Adding to the tension in the vicinity were a group of older boys, who seemed to be helping her, at least verbally. And at that point my personal memories of the events finish.

After thirty-seven years some of my memories of the incident may be lost, faded or distorted. And, of course, my memories from that 1975 summer’s day are incomplete; others will recall details which I either never knew or else have forgotten. Yet, the veracity of the essential sequence of events is not in doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of others who observed the incident.

So why is the incident so important that, along with recollections of corporal punishment and other humiliations, it retains a privileged place in the memory of so many? And why at the same time is it so unimportant that it changed nothing – either in terms of the structure of the school or for the persons involved?

Quite obviously, the incident is important, if only because it is remembered and talked about by those who witnessed it. Traces of any number of events stay in the conscious mind, such as an embarrassing moment on a bus, but few are articulated and shared with others – and even fewer are retained and talked about three decades later, especially when, as in this case, none of those reminiscing was either materially or personally affected by the incident..

One key aspect of this event, which served to propel it into a topic of reminiscence, is that it was unusual, unique in fact. By contrast, few ex-pupils would single out memories of events for reminiscing, which were repetitive and mundane, such as the paths that pupils were permitted to use or the smells in the toilets, even though these things had a far greater influence on the daily life of pupils than watching Anning tumbling into a swimming pool. It is the abnormal, something picked out of the daily flow of routine events, which is remembered and remarked on, not what is happening all the time. And that is a perversity of the human condition.

Yet, Anning plunging into the swimming pool is remembered not just because it was out of the ordinary in the sense that one might remember an eclipse, but because it was embedded with symbolism. Most obviously, it was represented the humiliation of man whose raison d’etre almost seemed to be the parading of his arrogance and domination over a school of teenagers. His authority was never negotiated; it was imposed and, therefore, to a greater or lesser degree resented. Thus the puncturing of that authority - however momentarily - was a cause for celebration.

The manner of Anning’s humiliation was important for two reasons. First, it was highly symbolic that it was female who pushed him in. Within limits female violence against males, especially more powerful ones, is always given a degree of licence: the slap across the face or the thrown glass of wine down the suit front. One writer on Friends Reunited expressed the idea thus: Remember the Gayle W. the only one with the balls to...” Had Annings attacker been male the whole ambience of the incident would have been different. Second, the way in which Anning was humiliated played a role. Clearly, that Anning was degraded without being injured in any way was vital; had he been pushed down the stairs nobody would be laughing. Water has always been a tool of non-injurious humiliation from the intention behind the ducking stool to the bucket thrown over drunks and young lovers.

All of this then helped propel the incident into topic of collective reminiscence, even decades later, for those who witnessed it. Yet, in so many ways the incident was merely an amusing blip on the daily routines of school life at Woolmer Hill. One is reminded of the aphorism, einmal ist keinmal - that which happens once never happened at all.

Funny perhaps, but pushing Anning into the swimming pool held out no model for the future. Authority could be ridiculed and dented, but then again it was easily restored. In the winter of 1974 a large group of pupils had marched into the centre of Haslemere demanding the right of girls to wear trousers, a demand particularly pressing given the power cuts and minimal heating. They won the right. By contrast, Gayle W.’s push achieved nothing.

Anning recovered quickly: practically, all he needed was a new set of clothes. Perhaps there was some embarrassment in the assembly the following morning, but if there was, I didn’t notice it. But what of Gayle W? As a school leaver, she was pretty much untouchable: expulsion was an irrelevance. I did hear rumour that Anning’s solicitors demanded the cost of a new suit. But in the years to follow, according to information she put onto social network sites, she made a career for herself at British Airways and now resides in a prosperous Sussex village.

And what of the swimming pool? In the Christmas holidays of 2003 - the last Christmas I spent in Haslemere, I wandered up to Woolmer Hill School and looked around the deserted school site. The swimming pool had gone.

Going home and the Little Chef Cafe


School rules were supposed to grip all pupil behaviour between the home and school gates, a point about which Headmaster Anning never tired of reminding us in morning assemblies. The most severe injunction was against cycling down the undeniably steep Woolmer Hill; cyclists were required to detour on the roads though a small housing settlement. Peddling up Woolmer Hill was never discussed, as it was almost impossible. From time to time, issues arose over rowdy behaviour on the 13B bus, which ran the few kilometres from Woolmer Hill through the centre of the town and on to High Lane, the housing estate which provided much of the school intake. Occasionally, issues of smoking and disorder raised their head, but leaving school did, for most practical purposes, signal an end to Mr Anning’s authority; and, of course, the further from the school one went, the weaker that authority became.

Even today it surprises me that no regulations were in place for the Little Chef restaurant. It was never discussed; and until I was fifteen I didn’t even know of its existence. Its obscurity lay in its location. Most of the pupils going home by bus, on foot or by bike made their way eastwards into the town. Leaving the school and travelling west on the small road that gave access to Woolmer Hill School, one came to a junction after a few hundred metres. One arm ran downhill to the small settlement of Hammer, which lay in the adjacent county of West Sussex. Another, taken by a few students with bikes, headed north and met the main road, the A3, running to Hindhead and then on to Guildford and London. The remaining option was to continue straight ahead for a few hundred metres along a little used piece of road with heathland on either side before intersecting with the A3 a little further south. It was at this junction that one found the Little Chef restaurant.

In the 1970s roadside restaurants were dire: tea, biscuits, chocolate, cheap coffee and fried breakfasts served on formica tables. Little would have attracted me to such a place had it not been a warm refuge. It was a solution to a geographical problem.

I lived in the centre of Haslemere. When I first started at the school, I had made use of the crowded 13B bus, then for a short period I had cycled and finally, after I was about fourteen, I saved my bus fare by walking home. In my last year at school - we remained at Woolmer Hill until we were sixteen - Rosemary, whom I wanted to be with as much as possible, lived in Hindhead and cycled to school. That gave rise to a major difficulty: the further I walked home with her after school - our intimacy always impeded by the need to push a bike - the greater the distance I had to walk home myself. Occasionally, I did walk all the way to Hindhead and then home, which was a journey of some six or seven kilometres. Such is young love.

In the autumn of 1977, Rosemary and I could wander onto the heathland, but as the nights drew in and the cold encroached, our options decreased. And that was how the Little Chef restaurant became important to us. Earning at that time around around three pounds a week from delivering morning newspapers, I had a hole burnt in my pocket from purchasing even our two cups of low quality coffee, but it was worth it. Nobody could disturb us; we were our own masters; and we could stay as long as we wished. Why no other other couple from school found this peaceful hideaway remains a mystery. And, in so much as it mattered, we were breaking no school rule.

From the spring of 1978 the Little Chef restaurant became less relevant, except perhaps when it rained. In June we left school, so Woolmer Hill, its environs and the Little Chef were forgotten. My affair with Rosemary, upset by lack of routine daily contact, took me on an emotional helter skelter journey throughout the long summer of 1978 before withering in the autumn. Times moved on.

A quarter of a century later in 2003, I spent my last Christmas in Haslemere. An urge took me to walk to Woolmer Hill School, quiet and abandoned in the winter holiday. I headed onwards to the Little Chef restaurant which was then still in existence. How strange it was to go in alone and order a coffee; I think I had a latte. The girl who served me would not even have been born, when Rosemary and I had last sat there. Yet, something else impressed itself upon me on this sentimental re-visitation: the sufferer of nostalgia feigns homesickness and desires to return to a place, but it is not a place that he really seeks, it is a time - and that can never be revisited.

At some point towards the end of decade, the Little Chef restaurant was abandoned and then pulled down to make way for the widening of the A3.

12 March 2017

Aspects of Haslemere: memories from the 1970s

You can read here some memory sketches about Haslemere in the 1970s.

Scroll down to find the piece of writing that interests you.
  • Haslemere: a sense of place
  • Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress
  • Three hours in Haslemere in 2015

Haslemere: a sense of place

In 1974, aged twelve, I was in the one-room newsagents on the High Pavement in Haslemere, then owned by the kindly couple Rodney and Margaret Raggett. Their son-in-law, Robert Cantan, had become a teacher at Woolmer Hill the previous year; and spouting her personal and local gossip in conversation with a customer, Margaret Raggett boasted, “...and he’s head of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.” The remark struck me as odd because as far as I could see, Mr Cantan was not head of anything, certainly not of the science department, which was led by the eccentric Mr Williams. But there again, there was only one chemistry teacher in the school, so I supposed you could say, in a certain sense, that Mr Cantan was indeed head of chemistry.

But why “up” at Woolmer Hill? In fact, Margaret Raggett used the word perfectly correctly in every sense. “Up” in its base meaning signifies above or higher; and of course Woolmer Hill stood at the top of a very steep hill - so steep indeed that cycling down it was forbidden by Headmaster Anning. In another sense “up” is often used in conversation to refer to places further north, so one went up to Guildford or London; and though Margaret Raggett probably didn’t intend this usage, Woolmer Hill School does lie to the north-west of Haslemere. But “up” can also refer to social elevation, and at Woolmer Hill there was the Upper School building to house the final year pupils. In the eyes of a proud mother-in-law Robert Cantan had indeed gone up in the world by becoming “head” of chemistry up at Woolmer Hill.

Going “up” nevertheless implies a starting point or centre which one goes up from; for Mrs Raggett that centre point was Margaret Raggett, a newsagent on the High Pavement in Haslemere. But on most printed maps of the day Haslemere, lying at the borders of three counties, tended to be found in the corner. Living in Haslemere, I too did not experience the world as it appeared on maps. For me Longdene Road, which led uphill from Haslemere railway station, was the centre of the world in which I lived - at least from the age of seven when my maternal grandparents’ house in Edgware, north London was no more. In Haslemere, I knew the neighbours in my street without exception, but as I moved further away from Longdene Road, my ability to recognise people lessened. Longdene Road had its own mental topography: it is a hill, so one could go either up or down. There were two post boxes, one at the top and one at the bottom of the road - so if you said you were going to post a letter, you’d be asked simply “up” or “down.”

In family language prepositions governed my understanding of the areas around home. Haslemere town centre, about a kilometre away, was conceptualised as a container: we went into town, either through town meadow or along the High Pavement walking past Raggett’s newsagents. If however we went shopping in Wey Hill, it was simply referred to as going down the “other end.” Wey Hill, which we could see from our back windows was considered as under us, so we went down going there. And it was the “other end” because it was a “centre” which was not the town centre. Wey Hill was also seen as lying at the end of a continuum at which Haslemere town centre marked the other end. Beyond the “ends” you were going beyond or out of town. And in this way space was marked out for me as a child.

When I was eleven, in my last year of Chestnut Avenue middle school, Woolmer Hill was unidentified in my mental conception of space. I didn’t know where it was. I knew the Hindhead Road, which the 19 Bus used to take on its way to Farnham. I also knew the junction for Critchmere Hill, so Michael W. was able to tell me that you went down Critchmere Hill and just kept on going until you arrived at Woolmer Hill School. Within days of starting at Woolmer Hill in September 1973, the school and its environs become a clear mental location which you went to or from. For access, there was the route that the 13B Bus took, which I initially used to travel on back and forth. Or you could walk down Woolmer Hill and up Critchmere Hill to catch the 19 Bus into Haslemere - an option chosen by Robert Cantan to avoid the vulgar crush on the 13B which parked only a hundred metres or so from the school. And finally there was the option of walking down to Critchmere Lane and catching the 13A bus from Bordon at the junction with the Liphook Road. New places, mostly roads, made themselves known to me and became familiar.

Where do I come from? Haslemere is a town I was neither born in, nor where I live now. Yet, as the sole location of my childhood, it remains the place about which I have the greatest intimate knowledge of geography and the fullest chest of memory. I am from Haslemere, even though I now hardly know anyone who lives there today. Haslemere is, to use the German word, my Heimat, a place towards which I have a strong feeling of belonging, and a deep-rooted fondness. But could I ever live there again with every street replete with childhood memory? Should one be attracted to return to the locations of nostalgia?

Nostalgia, a yearning which verges on sickness, has two axes: time and place. Time is ephemeral; we live in it, experience events that occur in it, and then the moment in time passes and all that remains is a memory, selective, subjective and fragile. We can yearn for a time in the past and a situation occurring in it, but we can never return to it; it is gone for ever. Places, in contrast, tend to remain. Yes, buildings can be renovated or even demolished and the land itself can be landscaped, like the Little Chef cafe on the A3 Highway a few hundred metres from Woolmer Hill School that disappeared under the Hindhead road tunnel in the 2000s, but that is unusual. In 2015 I can watch a video on YouTube featuring Woolmer Hill School, and despite the repaintings, renewals and rebrandings, I can recognise the same buildings and corridors. Places are fickle; they allow themselves to be possessed by others without a fight. In 1978 I could have wandered around Woolmer Hill School and have recognised scores of people, teachers and pupils, and have been recognised by them. Today, I could still go there but I would know nobody and nobody would know me. I would be merely an impostor.

Haslemere Railway Station: a fortress

Haslemere, where I spent my childhood and adolescence, is not large with a little over ten thousand residents. Growing up in a non-car owning household in the 1970s meant that major shopping expeditions, excursions, and going to college all started and ended at Haslemere Railway Station. Family visitors arrived and departed through the station. Occasionally, we might take the bus to the neighbouring towns of Farnham, Midhurst or Petworth, but the London, Guildford, Portsmouth train route was the main channel of escape and return.

Heavy use by commuters, its three-track facility and being equidistant between Guildford and Havant means that nearly every train stops at the station, both then and now. There is nothing architecturally beautiful about the station: a turn of the century station-house, three lines and two platforms, joined until 2008 by a single wooden footbridge. Arriving in 2009, the visitor would see that the essential geography of the station is fundamentally unchanged; the old buildings are still standing, even if different coloured paint covers the beams. The psychology of the station, though, is utterly transformed.

In the 1970s the station was the property of British Rail. The men who worked there dressed in shabby blue uniforms and we knew them all; a job with British Rail was low paid but it was for life. In theory if you wanted to go onto the platform to meet or say good-bye to granny you needed to put a penny into a machine for a platform ticket, but it was much easier to tell one of the men in shabby uniforms what you wanted to do; and generally they would only be too pleased to do you a favour. I suppose the train spotters who stood at the end of the platforms recording the registration numbers of passing trains bought platform tickets; they weren't threatened with arrest under anti-terrorist legislation in those days.

Then came privatisation in 1993. The men in shabby blue uniforms either got new ones, or more likely they lost their jobs. Ticket control was done on trains and you could walk freely in and out of the station. Fare dodging became easier, but the losses were presumably covered by the reduced salary bill. And that is how things stood for a decade and a half.

I arrived in Haslemere Station in 2009 after not having visited the station for some time, but this time only to change trains. There was an impressive new footbridge with a lift, though through habit I used the old wooden one, still smelling of the tar on the steps. But what was new was the realisation that I was totally imprisoned. Around the station was a two-to-three metre steel fence consisting of connected metal stakes with splayed spikes on the top. At the ends of the platforms a fence topped with barbed wire ran along either side of the tracks. Electronic gates overseen by a single operator allowed entry and exit to the platforms, all of which was surveyed by several CCTV cameras. And every few minutes a recorded voice sounded over the nearly empty platforms ordering passengers not to leave bags unattended in the station. (Strangely you can leave them unattended on the trains in the luggage racks!)

Given the high price of rail tickets (the highest in Europe), I suppose making the would-be fare dodgers pay does indeed fund all that steel and electronics. And in a practical sense, the ticket-carrying traveller is little impeded by the fences and surveillance. In fact today in Britain such things are completely normal, but I hadn't seen them yet in Haslemere. In the mid 1970s, however, I would never have imagined that our railway station would be encased in security metal fencing watched over by cameras; such things, I thought, were only experienced in the vicinity of the Berlin Wall.

Three hours in Haslemere: March 2015

On Wednesday 11 March 2015, a cold, blustery, but sunny morning, I undertook a three hour excursion to Haslemere, my home town in which I had lived from the age of one in 1963 until I semi-permanently left the town in 1980 as a university student. My journey back would be an emotional one for I had not set foot in Haslemere itself since the sale of my parental home in 2006, the year after my father's death. The following day, Thursday 12 March 2015, would be my mother's funeral.

From the YMCA hostel in Guildford, where I was staying, it was a mere stone's throw to the railway station. A ticket for £6.70 allowed me an away-day return to Haslemere, the town which I was now visiting for the first time, rather than returning home to. The train sped through the countryside, and the twenty kilometres or so was covered in a matter of minutes.

Before setting off, I had been very much in two minds about making the journey. Pulling me towards Haslemere was a desire to go home, rather like the pressure that propels the dementia sufferer to stubbornly seek out a past that he will never find. Though Haslemere was home no longer, I could still wander the streets with total familiarity, and allow my mind to float back to memories of childhood and youth. I hoped the visit would it be an act of catharsis reconciling me to the loss of my childhood home and Heimat. Yet might this journey be merely a sentimental excess, and the pointless dragging up of memories which could play no part in my current life? Both points of view had weight, but on this occasion the allure of nostalgia trumped everything else.

Arriving at Haslemere railway station, I felt little had changed. In the middle of the morning the barriers controlling passengers entering and leaving the station were open, and I sailed through undisturbed. The small newsagents once run by Les Hailey in the station yard had vanished, and the cafe and shop run by Joyce and Harry Burchett at the bottom of Longdene Road until sometime in the 1980s was, of course, no more. Then, for the first time in nine years, I crossed the main road and made my way up Longdene Road, my heart pounding, with almost the fear that I was now going to somewhere which I no longer had the right to, rather like the former pupil trespassing on the grounds of his old school.

Yet I was hit by a sense of timelessness. Thirty-five years had passed since Longdene Road was my real, as opposed to only my parental, home. Nine years had elapsed since I was last here. But here I was again walking up my street once more as if I were going home. But now I was the only member left from my childhood family of four who could make that nostalgic journey: my parents were both dead, and so was my only sister, four years younger than me, who had succumbed to cancer six years previously.

In a semi-daze of familiarity and alienation, I approached our former home. But first to hit me was our neighbour's house, once occupied by a childless couple who had been close family friends since 1964. They mainly lived in London and visited Haslemere only during some weekends and at holiday times, yet we had been close. We knew them as “uncle” and “aunt.” No Christmas passed without our visiting each other’s houses. In our childhood they took my sister and me on excursions to summer fetes and to the coast. Summer evenings were often spent on their terrace. At the sale of our own family home in 2006, though elderly, they had still partly been living in the Longdene Road house. Yet on that day it only took a glance through the front window, and a glimpse of the new curtains and modern settee, to know that they lived there no more, even if the rest of the property remained tatty and largely unchanged from its 1960s and 1970s renovations. And a little online research later informed me that the wife had died in 2012 and the house had changed hands for the first time in thirty years in 2014.

A couple of steps further and I was standing outside our former family home. I must confess that I had already seen it on Google Street View so there were no big surprises. Still no garage, but a new drive ran onto the old plinth, where a large rickety wooden shed had once stood. Thomas the Tank Engine branded toys were arranged on the window-ledge of the front room. The back garden retained its three levels with a fierce bank running to the lowest level, but now a wooden fence ran along the length of the lawn. A child's toys lay scattered in the garden. My mother would have been pleased that our old home continued to be a family house, rather than become a conversion into flats as had happened to the other part of our semi in the 1970s. This, here before me, was so clearly the same house which I had grown up in. And though in a deeply emotional sense I had come home, nobody living there today - if indeed there was anyone in at that time - would know me. Why should they? I had no rights there, of course. Though part of me wanted to stand, stare and reflect, practical common sense told me not to, and I trundled on up Longdene Road.

As I made my way onto Courts Hill Road, higher up the side of the valley, the houses became detached and richer. And again little had changed. Drives and the narrow road were crammed with large expensive cars, and a few extensions had been built, but otherwise all was how I remembered it. The changes were cosmetic, and, despite the obvious affluence, there was a tattiness–the dirty windows and unkempt gardens and front paths. Just before the junction with Courts Mount Road stood Haughton House with its two 1960s extensions, elongating the building in both directions along the road. Here had been my grandmother's sheltered accommodation from sometime after the sale of her London home in 1969 till her late re-marriage in 1977, five years before her death. Grandmother’s former ground-floor flat, consisting of a bed-sitting room and kitchenette, had new windows, but was now unoccupied.

Turning left, I made my way down Courts Mount Road, unchanged like everywhere else except for the extensions, big cars, and cut-down hedges. Then something hit me, utterly unexpectedly. I crossed the steep street Sandrock and took the path across the common land on the other side of the road. Immediately to the right of me was a steep bank, now heavily overgrown. In the early 1970s, in my childhood, the sandy soil had been been exposed. Kids could then slide or roll from top to bottom, and the roots of several trees had created small caves and steps to help us climb. It had been a fun destination, where kids could mess around on the high sandy bank. And there, suddenly, tears came to my eyes as I recalled my mother forty-five years or so earlier waiting for me at the bottom of the bank, telling me to be careful and, if possible, not to dirty my clothes too much–yet vicariously enjoying my excitement. It seemed now as if children no longer played on the bank.

Drying my eyes, I carried on till I reached the High Pavement, which ran two or three metres above and next to Lower Street, but with shops and houses on one side. Until the late 1970s the Raggett family had run a small newsagents half way along the High Pavement. They had lived on the premises, but had a separate front door behind a small porch set back on the right of the shop. I stood looking at the building which, despite having been turned into a domestic house years earlier, still looked exactly like a converted shop. What struck me was the grubby dust-covered building. Much of Haslemere, a rich town in one the richest commuter counties around London, just looked grimey in places. The wealth of the area was clearly private and concentrated; affluence was far from universal, even in Haslemere.

Within a couple of minutes I had reached the centre of the town and stood at the top of the High Street. Woolworths, in which I had spent so much of my pocket money in my childhood, had gone some years earlier, and, since my childhood, smaller shops had changed hands and functions, But try as I might I could find no major change in the town. Protected architecture has an enduring quality.

I made my way down the High Street to Darnley’s, the cafe at the Grayswood end of the town, situated in a row of shops set back from the road, just before the Georgian Hotel. Forty-five years ago a cafe occupied the same premises, but then it was called The Forge. And it was here that my grandmother had taken her morning or afternoon coffee. The waitress would put down the cup and then two large glass jugs appeared, one with coffee, the other with hot milk. Granny always requested ‘half and half,’ before opening her handbag and taking out a tiny mock gold-plated container with a shiny emerald green lid. Two saccharine tablets – Granny, not a diabetic, always claimed they tasted better than sugar – were dropped into her coffee. Maybe I don’t frequent enough cafes, but having one’s coffee cup filled in this way struck me as rare. And when, in 2015, I was offered my coffee in Darnley’s just like this, I thought I had entered a time warp.

Time was getting on. Not wanting to return to Haslemere Railway Station the way I had come, I set off along West Street, stopping to buy some take-away food at the supermarket that had once been Somerfields. I still took a delight eating in the street, something my mother had disapproved of. Munching a steak pie, I headed up Chestnut Avenue to the site of the Junior School I had attended 1969-73. In 2015 one part of the building was a nursery, and everything else of the former school looked so much smaller than how I remembered at the age of seven, when my mother had taken me there for the first time. The boys’ playground in front of the school had become a car park. I crossed the tarmac and headed into what had once been the girls playground. A fenced-off area ran along the side of the school building, behind which heavily supervised kindergarten kids were now playing. From there I saw the windows of my third-year classroom, once presided over by the eccentric and sadistic Mr Clark, whose bizarre antics are engraved on my mind–even though I personally suffered little at his hands. I did not know then, but seven months later, my former teacher John Clark, aged eighty, would be sentenced to two decades in prison for sexual offences committed against young boys. Justice took a long time in coming.

So there were bad memories from the past, too. And I could spend for ever, meandering around the town, reflecting on the past, but I had to limit my time in Haslemere. I could not wander everywhere rekindling memories and raking up past experiences. On that day I was like a ghost walking among those who were moving with some practical purpose. Yes, I would have liked to visit the Recreation Ground, the family destination on many a summer’s day - or Wey Hill, the other centre of the town where we usually shopped. And, of course, I was drawn to Woolmer Hill, the part of the town where I had spent my early teenage years at school. But it would have been too much walking, too tiring and an excess of nostalgia. I belonged in Haslemere no longer and I needed to leave to live my life in the present, not the past.

My stroll back to the railway station retraced my daily way home from primary school. From the town fire station, I used the footpath to Town Meadow, the path running beside the small stream which my schoolmate Gavin and I had found so alluring for play. The main changes to the stream and path, such as the canalisation of the stream behind two parallel breeze block walls, or the tarmacing of the path, had all happened in my own childhood. Everything there just looked shabbier and was covered in more moss. The old telephone exchange, rendered obsolete by technical development, still stood, apparently abandoned. How could it be that in the centre of Haslemere, with house prices that reached the sky, brownfield land was left unused?

My last surprise was on Lower Street, just before Haslemere Station. A long lay-by, which earlier had provided the stop for the 268 Guildford bus, no longer displayed a ‘bus stop’ sign, probably because the smaller and less frequent busses could be accommodated in the station yard. Yet, parked in the lay-by, seemingly broken down, was an elderly double-decker bus. Was that the vehicle used in 2015 to transport some of those not fortunate enough to own their own cars? My visit had taught me that inequality in Haslemere was rampant, almost certainly diminishing the town’s unity as a community. And here was further evidence. Of course, inequality had also disfigured the town in the 1970s, the pompous London commuters and the the dwellers on High Lane Estate, yet a larger civic-minded middle had held the town together through a multitude of of societies and clubs. So in the 1970s the extremes seemed not so extreme. But how deep was the change? In 2015 one only had to strip away the house extensions, four-wheel drives and electronic gadgets to see that so little had changed, socially it no doubt had, but in appearance hardly at all. Haslemere was essentially the same in 2015, as it had been in, say, the boiling summer of 1976 four decades earlier. And that led to a sense of betrayal: how could Haslemere remain unaltered when my family had either died, or, in my case, when I had left the town?

Once again the control gates at Haslemere Station were open. This time I used the new footbridge, instead of the old. I was just in time for a fast train to take me back to Guildford. Gazing out of the train window, as Haslemere was left behind, I thought I might have regretted my three-hour visit, but I didn’t. The nostalgia sufferer wants to return to a place and I had done that, but it is really an earlier time he seeks–and, of course, outside the realms of memory, that is impossible. I understood that.

Brexit: Corbyn Screwed Up

Jeremy Corbyn steered Labour into unconditionally supporting Brexit. In so doing he stained progressive politics and sunk the Left.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the Labour leadership in 2015, my hopes were rekindled that for the first time in decades a progressive force had emerged in British politics. But Corbyn’s decision to whip the PLP into voting unconditionally for the May Government’s hard Brexit finally dashed any such optimism. There are some mistakes in politics which are survivable, and some which are not. Corbyn’s Brexit stance, I believe, falls into the latter category.

Let us add up the damage.

1. Corbyn aligned Labour alongside the xenophobia which is the cause and effect of Brexit. Many right-wing Labour MPs are seemingly happy to accommodate themselves to the wave of anti-liberal, foreigner-hating nationalism now sweeping England, but the tragedy for the progressive left is that Corbyn joined them. His commitment to Freedom of Movement is dead, even if he continues to plead the case of the three million or so non-British EU nationals resident in the UK.

2. Seventy percent of Labour voters, and an even larger majority of Labour members, voted for Remain. The vast bulk of the young left that joined to support Corbyn’s leadership campaigns saw Britain’s future in the EU. Many will now be seeking new political homes, or abandoning politics altogether. The future for the left in the party without them is bleak.

3. Corbyn threw away the chance of building any kind of progressive alliance with other centre and left-leaning parties: the Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Greens. A key element of any working arrangement would have been opposing Brexit and the consequences of Brexit. The official Labour position, namely, that it will win the 2020 General Election single handed is highly improbable.

4. Brexit will impede trade and drive away investment. And, as the economic negatives become apparent, Labour will lack any credibility in blaming Theresa May’s hard Brexit on the Tories. Corbyn led Labour through the Tory lobbies and thus willed the consequences.

Following the House of Commons vote to endorse a hard Brexit backed by Corbyn, the Labour leader tweeted,"Real fight starts now. Over next two years Labour will use every opportunity to ensure Brexit protects jobs, living standards & the economy." This must rank among the most pathetic utterances in modern political history, as he vouched to fight the consequences of his own actions. Corbyn hopelessly mis-analysed the situation, lost friends without finding new ones, damaged the left, and stained Labour as a progressive movement.

It is hard not to agree with Martin Kettle writing in The Guardian (02-March-2017), "There is nothing socialist about this, nothing social democratic, nothing liberal, nothing progressive, nothing moral, nothing with any optimism or imagination.”

7 March 2017

Socialism and nationalism are not compatible

You can be a nationalist or a socialist, but you can’t be both.

A nationalist is someone who prioritises allegiance to a national group ahead of other political considerations. Thus those Labour politicians who talk about 'the will of the British people' as a trump card in politics are nationalists – just like the fascists who shout out "Britain First." Of course, there are many different varieties of nationalists. Politicians and parties combine their nationalism with other political objectives; and some varieties are far less odorous than others. Yet whatever the type, there are two reasons why socialists do not embrace nationalism.

First, the nationalist, by virtue of making the national group the most important factor of identification, creates a dichotomy between those who are members of the defined national group and those who are not. People are divided, favoured and discriminated against by characteristics that they cannot, or at least cannot easily, change. Socialists, in contrast, are universalists, whose politics embrace people irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. Nationalism and socialism cannot be combined because one negates the other.

Second, the nationalists’ construction of the concept of a nation is a historical undertaking, which involves looking backwards to find historical customs, myths, language usage, etc. which supposedly bind the people of the nation. By looking backwards, nationalism tends to be conservative and finds its ideals in the past. Socialists, in contrast, believe in freeing people from historical oppressions and see the ideal world as something to be created by human beings in the future. And that future is based on what is progressive from a combination of all human history, not that of one nation.

Internationalism is not the opposite of nationalism. Internationalism involves the recognition of different nationalisms and works for them to coexist on a friendly and cooperative basis. The opposite of nationalism is anationalism (or cosmopolitanism), which seeks the unity of people irrespective of nationality or ethnicity.

One thing should be made clear. Someone who calls for autonomy or independence for a territory, is not for that reason alone, a nationalist. For instance, the demand for an independent Scotland can be less nationalistic than those wielding the unionist rhetoric of the 'integrity of the British nation.'

In England Brexit has fuelled nationalism, and socialists need to confront it.

1 March 2017

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Musings by a well-off 'Blairite' on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003

The book, all set on one Saturday in the lead up to the Iraq war, is an internal portrait on one man. Henry is a typical Blair bourgeois middle-Englander in every sense, who is married with children in their early twenties. McEwan carefully constructs through Henry's internal musings the background and influences of one man and by extension the whole era of Blair's Britain.

This excellent book has a side plot of a psychopath who breaks into Henry's family life and humiliates him and his family. Though extremely well described and written I felt that this typical McEwan theme could have been dispensed with.

McEWAN Ian, Saturday, Vintage 2005

7 February 2017

Brexit: a sense of foreboding

Britain voted for Brexit in June 2016: eight months later we are still in the phoney war.

As a kid my grandmother and I often took the 113 bus home. I loved travelling on the upper deck of the red London bus. As we turned into Edgwarebury Lane, Granny and I had to prepare to get off, and she warned me, “Don’t stand up before we’ve turned the corner. You’ll fall.” Doubting the wisdom of Granny’s words, I stood up without holding on saying, “See, I didn’t fall.” “Yes,” said Granny, “but we haven’t turned the corner yet.”

Something like that is very much how I feel today about Brexit, the almost mindless amputation of the UK from the EU and the EFTA single market. Britain is going to a very lonely place, and while it is true that very little has happened in the phoney war so far - except for a rise in fear and a drop in the value of sterling - the gathering dark clouds are ominous.

Business will gravitate out of the UK to EU countries simply because it makes more sense to have easy access to hundreds of millions of workers and consumers than to sixty-five millions. The UK will respond by becoming an economic dependent on the US and accelerating towards a low-regulation, low-wage economy.

Who loses? Higher unemployment, lower pay, worse working conditions and poorer social provision will affect all working people. But non-British EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in other EU countries will face the brunt. At worst it means expulsion, creating the worst ethnic cleansing in Europe, Yugoslavia aside, since World War Two. At best four million people will experience discrimination and insecurity in their adopted homelands.

If the future beholds a toxic mix of ascendant xenophobic nationalism and economic dislocation, we have much to fear. Reassuring White Papers and statements by Tory ministers tell us what government wants and what they hope will happen. They might tell us, “Get over it,” but it hasn’t happened yet, and the pain is likely to be bigger and more long-lasting than we think.

1 February 2017

Charlie Kunz: a personal reflection


Charlie Kunz (1896-1958) was the greatest popular piano medley player of all time.

A taste for Charlie Kunz was one of the few things that my father (born 1908) and my maternal grandmother (born 1904) shared. And though as a child I professed to prefer pop music, I always hung around on the stairs to listen to Charlie’s medleys when they were played on the gramophone in the sitting-room.

Before the Second World War Kunz featured in several ball-room bands, but it was in the more egalitarian atmosphere of post-war Britain that Kunz rose to superstar status, apparently, being the first music performer to need police protection to keep him unmolested from his fans.

Anyone interested in hearing Kunz today only has to go to You Tube to get the flavour, but I will describe how his music seems to me. His piano playing has a light up-beat bounce and flow which is entirely distinctive to him; attempts to reproduce it have failed miserably.

Piano and light music, taken mostly from popular songs, musicals and operetta, acquired status for me in my childhood, precisely because such music was held up to be something meaningful by my parents and grandmother. In their view (or at least for my mother and grandmother), the music of Charlie Kunz represented the “old world” - an indeterminate past which ran from the the 1930s through war-time Britain before collapsing at the end of the 1950s. That world was held up in contrast to the “nowadays” of the 1970s when loud disrespectful drugged-up pop stars held sway.

Though I became attached to some 1970s pop music in my teenage years, and then became a follower of the pop charts, I never rejected the senior members of my family’s predilection for Kunz and his medleys. Too much of his influence was embedded in my life.

In the 1970s an odd feature of our family was that we did not have a television set. However, once a month there was a showing of old silent films in a scout hut at the other end of the town. My father, mother, sister and I walked there on winter evenings to meet up with the other ten to fifteen regulars to see the old films projected onto a screen. There was a small charge but money was also raised by a sales table and a raffle, which inevitably the same people always won.

The late middle-aged bachelor, Laurie, who organised the event with his spinster sister, also had an interest in Kunz, so invariably we would watch the old reels of film with a tape-recorder playing his medleys. Though Laurie possessed several cassettes, we tended to hear the same Kunz medleys over and over again. I began to anticipate the tunes.

In 1975 in the latter weeks of August my parents booked a week in a guest house in Bognor Regis, a seaside town on the southern English coast. My mother’s intention was that the whole family should spend the day together, almost irrespective of the weather, huddled up on the beach near a wave-breaker. As a thirteen-year-old boy I was keen to wander off and explore. One port of call in the later afternoon was the park where an organ player gave a rendition of Gershwin and other popular songs - not Kunz, but very much the same thing.

At university and in early adult life Charlie Kunz disappeared from my life. I never went out myself to purchase Kunz, but I did once in the 1980s pick up a second-hand cassette, which is still with me today. Then, with the advent of the net, I was able to re-discover him with a few clicks and could bring back the music of my childhood.

The ready availability of music on You Tube and elsewhere on the net has enabled me not just to re-acquaint myself with Kunz, but to hear him against the background of his contemporaries in Britain, the US and Germany. Though I am largely ignorant of music, the ability to follow links on You Tube has enriched my understanding and enjoyment of Kunz.

In 2009 my younger sister, aged forty-three, died of breast cancer. Some months before her death, I put together some scanned old photos of our family and set it to the music of Charlie Kunz. She could cope with the pictures and enjoyed them, but the Kunz’s music was too overwhelming for her. I switched it off.

I do not think Kunz is outdated in the way that Winifred Atwell’s or Mrs Mills’ honky-tonk knees-up piano certainly is; those popular pianists are firmly tied to an era of post-war Britain. Kunz’ music, by contrast, has a certain timeless gentle sophistication which will keep it going.

Historio de la Esperanto-Movado by Nikola Aleksiev

A Bulgarian Esperantist, Nikola Aleksiev, then in his eighties, expressed his ambitious hopes for the language.

This is a remarkable little book written man an elderly man (born 1909) in a distant corner of Europe. Aleksiev was Bulgaria’s leading Esperantist during the socialist years, and before that a left-wing activist in inter-war Bulgaria. After the change in regime in 1989 his mind remained sharp, and his ability to grasp the realities of US domination in his country is clearly illustrated.

The book begins with a historical overview of the Esperanto movement first internationally, and then in his home country of Bulgaria. The book concludes with two essays; first an analysis of language imperialism (particularly English) in Bulgaria, and second a critique of Mark Fettes essay ‘The future of the European Babylon.’ Aleksiev takes issue with Fettes claim that a generation would be required to introduce Esperanto as a lingua franca in Europe, arguing instead that, if the political will were there, teaching Esperanto in schools across Europe could be accomplished within a few years.

Throughout the book is written in clear, easy-to-understand Esperanto, and demonstrates the potential power of the international language.

ALEKSIEV,Nikola Historio de la Esperanto Movoado Pres-Esperanto, Sofia 1992

Pri Nikola Aleksiev el Vikipedio: Nikola Aleksiev, naskiĝis la 29-an de junio 1909; mortis la 19-an de julio 2002, estis bulgara esperantisto kaj honora membro de UEA kaj MEM. Li estis la unua eksterlandano, kiu ricevis honoran membrecon de ĈEA.

Li estis filo de malriĉa ŝuista familio, li estis kunfondinto kaj sekretario Bulgara Laborista Esperanto-Asocio (fondita en 1930).

Kiel ĵurnalisto kunorganizanta strikojn li pasigis 7 jarojn en karceroj de la faŝisma Bulgario. Post la dua mondmilito li ĉefredaktoris la centran organon de bulgaraj sindikatoj Trud (1946-1952) kaj estis membro de Tutmonda Packonsilantaro.

Li apartenis al plej aktivaj esperantistoj en Bulgario. Li estis la prezidanto de la Loka Kongresa Komitato de la 48-a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto en 1963. De 1964 ĝis 1976 Nikola Aleksiev estis prezidanto de Bulgara Esperanto-Asocio. Li dediĉis multajn fortojn al la komunisma Mondpaca Esperantista Movado (MEM), kies prezidanto li estis. Lingvan majstrecon li pruvis en siaj tradukoj (ekz. Apostolo de Libereco pri bulgara nacia heroo Vasil Levski, Mia vivo de Trifon Ĥristovski k.a.)