Archive for the 'By-the-byline' Category

Remembering Mary Stott

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Way back when the SDP was a proper party fighting a General Election, I met Mary Stott who arrived at our HQ in an old off-licence in deepest South East London and rolled up her sleeves and stuffed envelopes for our candidate, who was her friend Polly Toynbee, and made tea and talked deep good sense.

I actually at that time had no idea who she was other than the person I sat with on the routine chores of election. Grey haired and calm Mary and I chatted as we packed. I can’t recall really what we talked about. I suspect if I had realized then that Mary was one of the most respected and loved journalists of her day, founding editor of Guardian Women I would have been too overawed to talk about anything, It was only later that I found that out. And when I did it it made sense of something that happened one afternoon.

A woman came in and started to talk to us in a rather general way – “what’s this party about then”, “what are you going to do for me”, “you’re not going to get in are you.” Her accent seemed educated but her manner was distracted. Mary replied in measured tones, answering the questions without patronizing, but kept focused on the envelopes. Then the woman said “I lost my husband you know”.

Mary immediately stopped working, stood up, moved to the woman and took her hands. I clearly remember that all she said was “oh, my dear”. She stood in front of our visitor, just holding both her hands in hers, while the tears fell.

Although I thought I could recognize distress I had not seen what Mary had; the directionless despair of loss. Later I read her autobiography “Forgetting’s no Excuse” when she writes of her life and of her marriage to Kenneth Stott and of how she learned to live alone after he died. I have always remembered (and passed on) her advice to married women, “keep your own bank account”. I’ve just looked at my copy, unread for many years and think I must re-visit. Our visitor, incidentally came back quite often after that, drawn to Mary’s company, never quite as distracted as that first visit, and she even helped from time to time.

Later, I would often see her in Blackheath Village. As The Guardian inaugurated a prize in her name and I see that this year’s winner writes about widowhood. Mary Stott would have understood.

Well, you never know

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

I really am surprisingly rubbish at politics. I learnt to read using newspapers, I ran committee rooms for Margaret Thatcher’s first Minister of Health when I was 16, I wrote filler pieces for the Young Conservative newsletter before I’d even left school, before I got out a bit more into the wider world and began to reassess my political standpoint. You might think that under these circumstances I’d worked it out a bit but no. Circumstances, conviction and loyalty meant that I even went with the doomed rump of the SDP, the party I joined, as a Founder member and where I spent 10 years of my life. I was at the bedside when the life support was turned off and it died at Woolwich town hall in 1992.

I used my mastery of politics to bet that Gordon Brown would never be Prime Minister. I decided in 1997, when it was suggested that Tony had promised Gordon that he could have the next go, that is was nonsense. The idea that the Prime Ministership was somehow in the gift of the incumbent and Tony and Gordon could just arrange it between them was, to me, literally unbelievable. It also seemed (and still does to some degree) just as unbelievable that a PM would willingly stand down and say that it was “someone else’s turn” or that there would be no ambitious, smart (and not so smart) members who wouldn’t use the opportunity to take what would possibly be their only chance to be leader of their party and PM too. Luck is a huge element in politics and the chances for the top job don’t come about that often. In the event, we know that I was wrong. Apparently there was no-one else who felt either the desire or capability to stand for the post. No members strong enough or brave enough to challenge Brown. That the Labour members allowed this to happen is, in my opinion, to their discredit and has done Gordon Brown no favours.

Three weeks ago I decided that there would be no PR for the Westminster Parliament in my lifetime. Obviously I’d be ill advised to predict my lifetime so I don’t but look, here is a resurgent movement for change (which of course I signed up to this morning).

I can only hope that my legendary political instincts are working as well as always, in which case be prepared for PR by the next election!

Still at it

Monday, November 10th, 2008
Letter home

Letter home

It’s the time for remembrance. 90 years since the end of the first war – The Great War as my grandparents and great aunts called it. And they had been through it. I watched the remembrance service and it becomes more poignant each year. The story of the mother and sister of a 20 year old soldier, dead in Afghanistan haunts me. My own sons are of the same age as the youngsters dying there and in Iraq. I found it unbearably sad when she told of the visit from the police and army officer – “please tell me it isn’t Joe.”

My father was a prisoner of war having been picked up by a German patrol in the Libyan desert where he and his navigator had spent days after they were shot down. He was transported up through Alabania and eventually to Stalag Luft VIIB prison camp. That was in 1942 – he had been too young to join up at the start. He spent his 21st birthday shackled to the next prisoner on their way to Silesia. His cards home to his great aunt, censored of course, arrived each month and each says mostly the same thing – “we are pretty A1 here”, “we are getting on well” and always, always, “I expect to be home soon”, “not long now”. All through ’42, ’43 and ’44 – the last card I have was sent in December ‘44. Shortly afterwards he was part of a famous death march out of the camp when many of his friends died. He told my brothers and I of the pathetic effort to take everything they had and he gave us the mental picture of his saxophone lying in the snow when he jettisoned anything which wasn’t absolutely necessary.

On Maundy Thursday 1945, aged 23 he closed his eyes in the camp where they had marched to. Wracked with dysentery he knew he would die and thought only that he would have liked to see his parents and aunt and uncle again and he would have liked to have studied medicine. Oh well.

On Good Friday the Americans arrived, hosed them down, put him and others onto the hospital trains and sent him home to spend 8 months in hospital. He was discharged just before Christmas to go home to his uncomprehending parents in Croydon. On Christmas afternoon he went into bleak, bombed Croydon centre and came across two German prisoners of war waiting for repatriation. He took them home for tea because, as he explained, they were the only people he had met that would really understand what he felt. He left that example, he and my mother employed a German au-pair for us children less than 10 years after the war and he told us “never, ever, forget that what happened in Germany could happen here if we aren’t vigilant.”

Oh, and he did study medicine too.

Statistically speaking

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

My maths is no good – and I’m not proud of it. I failed at O level (twice) and continue to fail to understand mathematical concepts. I scraped a pass in my economics papers and had to be gently taken through my statistics by a patient and gifted medical statistician who I was working with who probably found it light relief after crunching big numbers and many variables in proper, serious work.

However, despite my admitted weaknesses on the maths front, the combined efforts of my tutor, my colleague and my professorial statistician friend (who has breathing difficulties when coming down to my level of ineptness) have meant that I do, at least, take an enquiring approach to statistics. Journalists are often very bad at stats – or possibly willfully negligent. Given how often statistical findings are used as the centre of a story it really isn’t good enough. And anyway there are plenty of people around to help out and to interpret. If a researcher says that the results aren’t statistically significant, really that should mean the story doesn’t run – or at least not as a stats based story.

In 1995 a report on deep vein thrombosis risk associated with the contraceptive pill indictated that there was twice the risk with a certain pill. Which there was. But as the risk was still lower than deep vein thrombosis in pregnancy, the scare that led to unwanted pregnancies and an increase in abortion, actually also increased the risk to women – to say nothing of the long-term effects of pregnancy!

There was once an advertisement for Goodyear tyres which claimed, if I recall (but it was aeons ago) 4 times the holding power and 6 times the strength – a claim that led the front man, a former chief constable to claim “I’m convinced they’re a major contribution to road safety” A comic in a TV programme of the time said that he’d found a tyre that was 145 times stronger and had 750 times the holding power but that as his test piece was a bit of banana skin he doubted the relevance. A pre-stats lesson to ask “times more than what.”

I’m only posting this because I have just found an excellent piece in the BBC magazine, part of a series of six. In an effort to continue to approach news stories with the right level of enquiry I shall certainly be reading all the series.

For heaven’s sake

Monday, September 1st, 2008

Currently having rather more time to sit in front of my computer than normal, I picked up this piece on Sarah Palin, the woman who could be one of the most powerful people on the planet should McCain keel over.

Despite my previous post on women in power vis a vis Hillary and Margaret Thatcher, I thought the adoption of Palin as vice-presidential candidate was bizarre. Whatever I thought about Thatcher, there was no doubting her competence. Apparently, the women who supported Hillary Clinton, a woman who has certainly served her time in the cauldron of politics and a hugely experienced politician with clear views, are so one-dimensional that as long as there’s a woman, any woman, on the ticket they’ll vote for her.

Still, it’s caught me on the hop a bit. I couldn’t vote for this woman under any circumstances (which will never of course be offered) and so I suppose I’ve had to think a bit more about those women who opposed Hillary. Presumably some of them did so on her policies and some were more fired up by Obama and all that he represents.

I was in the US in 2004 not long before the presidential election and was asked by acquaintances of my hosts, who were driving us back to our hotel, what I thought of it all. I stepped with care, have good manners when commenting on another country’s politics, especially when I’m no expert and especially when I’m relying on the questioner not to abandon me in the middle of New York state. I replied that many Europeans were somewhat surprised that Bush had been voted in last time, especially with the questions over the election procedures. My new acquaintance barked a response “you know what’s worse – they’re going to do it again”

The swift boat campaign trashing John Kerry’s Vietnam war record was running at the time. My new friend was outraged that people who had done everything possible to evade service should attack a man who hadn’t ducked the call. His tirade lasted about 12 miles. I was appalled by what seemed such a crude attack, but as we know, it worked.

And that’s what is so worrying. It’s entirely possible that it will happen again and I shall have absolutely no understanding of how it could. It’s not just Sarah Palin’s inexperience that disturbs. It’s the creationism and Christian fundamentalism. I read that she thinks fossils are God’s way of testing faith. Hmm, well I won’t second guess God but apart from the fossils, it’s possible that this woman will be testing my faith in the sense of the voting public of the US

Someone to watch over EU

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

I’m quite a keen European and I’m sorry that the Irish referendum has turned down the Lisbon Treaty. I’m not for a second denying that the EU has many, many faults, one of which I would suggest is their failure to make clear what the Treaty involved.

I used to accompany a group of journalists to Brussels on an annual visit for briefings by the Commission, MEPs and journalists based in Brussels. The last time I was there the big issue was communications between Brussels and the citizens of the EU, several of whom had cut up rough about the Constitution and enlargement. Doesn’t seem to have done a particularly good job in the case of Ireland, and probably elsewhere. But I am still wedded to the ideal of Europe and keep in my mind all its huge potential and dread the idea of the UK leaving the community. It’s a pity we don’t hear more about the positives – although I heard David Milliband some weeks ago giving a robust and clear defence on the Today Programme. Meanwhile, Will Hutton has said it very well in today’s Observer. Buy that man a drink.

..still hanging on

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Alright, now I am quite interested in the US elections. And Hillary is hanging on in there. Strangely enough, I can understand this apparently odd response to Barak Obama’s win. Hillary has been in this for the long haul and giving up on the dream, acknowledging it is over is almost unbelievably difficult.

The night of the General Election in 1992 was one of the most emotional of my life. Just before midnight on 9 April I had been at Woolwich Town Hall for the count, supporting Rosie Barnes, the SDP MP for Greenwich. We all of us knew that this was the end whether Rosie won or otherwise. There were only two people from the SDP defending seats, David Owen was not standing, the party was truly over. My head knew it but my heart had much difficulty in actually understanding that the cause that I had devoted most of my free time to for over 10 years had gone.

I was at the Town Hall to oversee the vote counting. And of course one began to get a feel for the way the vote was going. The atmosphere was almost volatile with supporters of the other parties hustling, spitting and swearing at us and as it became more apparent that our woman had lost we became more obdurate in response. When Rosie arrived we gathered round her, she looked at us and asked how it was going. We just shook our heads slightly and I remember her saying “oh well, never mind”. After the announcement, she gave a terrific speech, brave and gracious against a background of belligerent noise. A Conservative swore aggressively at a female colleague of mine. We cheered and screamed wildly and until my throat was raw.

After the count, we went back to our HQ in an old shop where all the supporters were gathered having watched the count on TV. I got back a bit before Rosie and her agent. We determined we would give her the most rousing welcome home. She had told her agent she would not cry. She walked in, we cheered, she started to speak and got as far as “well everyone” before she choked to a halt.

I have never experienced an evening like it. The wild, friable mood swinging from tears to laughter in seconds, and the desperate need to hang on to the community we’d built up over years, people who spoke the same language and had shared the disappointments and kept on going. Over the years we’d all seen our friends’ bemusement at our passion for politics which took us out on miserable Sundays to walk around the council estates, our descent into dullness as we obsessed about electoral systems and national insurance reform.

You don’t give that up easy. I bet there’ll be a few tears at Hillary’s party this weekend. And if they have the same sort of hangover that I had all those years ago, it will, at least be one thing they remember.

Hanging up her dancing shoes?

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

So, it looks like Hillary’s going to be handing in her pass after today’s primaries.

Politically minded friends keep saying how absolutely riveting the competition for the Democratic nomination has been. Which it has of course but which I’ve found very unsettling. I don’t have a deep enough knowledge of the US political scene to really comment but on a visceral level I really, really wanted them to choose a woman as a Presidential candidate. And I’ve found, perhaps because I have looked, a faint sour taste of misanthropy in some of the reports I’ve read from both the US and less so in the UK press.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic to the Clinton’s very close relationship with the Saudis. I remember a fair amount of the early White House problems when Bill was first in post as President when Vincent Foster committed suicide and the whole Arkansas old boys business. I also can remember wanting change from the tired and cynical established politics of Nixon and I know that if I were in my 20s I’d be looking for Obama, with hope, to bring about a better world.

Whether it’s just age or wisdom I couldn’t say but now I think that the mess that the new President will take over needs experienced hands – as Hillary emphasized, she can hit the ground running on taking office. But the truth is that I’m just partisan. I want to see a woman President and I hate the way that Hillary has been labelled (and often by women of course) as only succeeding because she was the President’s wife.

She is immensely skilled, knowledgeable and talented. I imagine she is also cunning, devious, manipulative and ruthless. That’s right. It tends to come with the territory and just being youthfully untouched by long-term politics doesn’t make you right or necessary capable, although it probably does make you more attractive.

When Margaret Thatcher was first Prime Minister, the late Jill Tweedie, a wonderful journalist wrote that although she was against much of what the new PM stood for, she couldn’t help but be thrilled when she heard the commentators refer to the PM as she who would be selecting her cabinet.

Me too.

My 10 pence worth

Monday, May 5th, 2008

I don’t normally do politics on the blog – there are just too many commentators out there and to keep up seems to mean spending a lot of time at the computer – and I am basically a bit lazy about that. But this week has been a real treat for everyone, not only anoraks like me.

There’s been a mass of comment about the implications for the PM, the government, London and the renascent Conservatives. Out of the swirl of opinion, fact, graphs, comment, observation and so on I want to pick a couple of thoughts.

A comment I heard on Radio 4 that the abolishing of the 10p rate of tax for lower earners thus increasing their tax burden is “a poll tax moment” for the Government. In other words, whatever is said to defend the measure, it will always be seen as unfair and that won’t recede from the public consciousness. Gordon Brown had been told what would happen to the tax of the lower paid – indeed, he must have realized himself – but because of the other measures he had put in place for poorer people he refused to budge on it.

Part of the problem is that it affects such a wide range of people. Even if his plan of reimbursement through cold weather payments or family credits were acceptable – and the family tax credit has been bungled horribly so many people wouldn’t think of risking it again – it means that working people are put in the position of petitioning the state for money rather than being able to earn and keep their own.

As well as the impoverished working families, retired people between the ages of 60 – 64 are affected, part-timers (like me) and young people. Many of the so-called “early” retirees are women who retired at the age of 60 as they are entitled and in some cases obliged to do, would be appalled at having to seek out state aid to make up for what they see as a tax raid on their pensions.

Many of the young people, like my son who is a recent graduate starting on the ladder, earn modest salaries but are already bowed down with student debt. They are told to save for a pension and are wondering if they will ever own a property or have enough money for family life. So they aren’t too happy with the Labour government, and nor are their families.

Secondly, if this is a poll tax moment and ends like the real one, then given the pattern of Government over the past couple of decades – long terms in Government with the opposition having to refigure itself – the Labour party is likely to be in opposition for about 10 years. I wonder what goes through the minds of the ambitious and talented younger politicians who have achieved high levels of office at a relatively young age – David Milliband, becoming a very respected Foreign Secretary, Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper, both in cabinet. It must be a difficult call. Wait in opposition (assuming you hang on to your seat) and hope for high office down the line or risk the next generation eclipsing you when the time comes. That’s politics. I don’t worry unduly about them though – I suspect they will be able to find suitable and well remunerated alternative employment should the worse come to the worst.

90 years on

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

The English department at Oxford University is running a project archiving WWI memorabilia and it’s stirred me into doing something I should have started a long while ago.

My great aunt, Bessie Marks who trained as a nurse in 1908 was a WWI nurse posted to Whalley Bridge Military Hospital near Manchester and after her death (well into her ’90s) I inherited her autograph book from that time as well as her many photographs of hospitals she had worked in and nurses she knew from the early part of the 20th century. I also inherited her Queen Alexander nursing cape, torn at the shoulders where her epaulettes held it to her uniform and, delightfully, a little black woollen doll pinned to the inside.

So each day I scan in a few more pages. Many of the entries are in pencil and fading fast so I’m glad to have the impetus to record them. Some entries are angry, some poignant, several are upbeat and humorous. My great uncle, a trained artist, was one of her patients and has drawn a beautiful picture of Arab children.

There is also a note ‘Only a word of grateful thanks to one of the very best from a patients mother Amy Harwood’ and on the opposite page a note that has resonances.

When War is raging and danger is nigh
God and the soldiers the civilians cry
But when war is over and the wrongs are righted
God is forgotten and the soldiers slighted

It’s a wonderful collection and when I first came across it I was constantly surprised and thrilled by discovery. And not least by this drawing. It illustrates a little poem called “Tea Time, K1 ward”

I’ve never tasted tea so fine
The bread and butter is divine
The cake is topping, so you bet
KI I never will forget.

So lively and humorous, drawn by Alfred L Pike of the 17th Royal Fusiliers on January 15, 1917. Evidently Alfred had been taught ‘the line’. I’m glad to share him.

At your service


Since I posted my story about Rita Marshall I have found out that she died on 17 February. Two people have kindly left a message and Magnus Linklater wrote about her in his column in the Times. I can only say that I’m glad to have met her, sorry not to have known her.