Monday, 27 June 2011

Roots 2: Soldier of the queen - Fred & Florence

Another installment in my on-going project to  research my  family history: This is one of  my maternal Great Grandfathers - Frederick Albert.

He was born in 1871 in Richmond in Surrey - his father Albert was a former soldier and  bricklayer who died before his son's eighth birthday leaving his widow Caroline with six children. She supported the family as a needlewoman so it is fair to assume that life was pretty tough for them.  Fred worked initially as a milkman but at the age of 18 followed his father into the army. He opted to join the Royal Artillery as a driver - presumably his experience in working with  horses helped equip him to drive a gun carriage. In fact shortly afterwards he transferred to the more glamorous Royal Horse Artillery as a gunner - all artillery being horse-drawn at the time but in the horse artillery the gun crews rode into battle rather than marched. And being equipped with lighter guns they provided close fire  support to the cavalry. Like most soldiers at the time Fred signed on for twelve years - the first seven of these to be served in the regulars and a further five in the reserves subject to recall in the event of war. 

His father had served in the army in the Crimea era when soldiers were generally held in pretty low esteem as the dregs of society. By the time of Fred's service it was the golden age of Kippling's 'soldiers of the queen' and some sentimental regard had developed for the common soldier. Reforms in the army had abolished some of the abuses of an earlier age - flogging and the purchase of officers' commissions  - but life in the ranks still tended to be harsh and brutal. Four of Fred's seven years were served in India on the North West Frontier and this posting would have produced mixed feelings. Unlike home postings, there were numerous possibilities of action in policing operations even when there weren't full-on hostilities ,and there was the constant attrition of disease. On the other hand, pay went much further in India than at home,  and even the rank and file would enjoy the benefits of being part of the race that ruled the empire - with native servants and a more relaxed barrack regime than the spit and polish of Woolwich or Colchester. Fred appears to have made it unscathed through these years - although when he transferred to the reserves in 1896 it is recorded that he had severely sprained his left knee 'in action'.

Other than marrying Florence and starting a family, we don't have any record of what Fred did back in Richmond for the next three years but in 1899 with the outbreak of the war in South Africa he had the misfortune of being recalled to active service. War with the Boer settlers had broken out after a shameless adventure of land-grabbing by the British to secure the gold and diamond fields of the region. It was arguably the British army's first 'modern' war - fought against an opponent who combined guerrilla tactics with the use of European weapons and so embarrassed an army used to colonial victories against  indigenous peoples with inferior arms. As a foretaste of the First World War  the fighting  was fully in the public gaze;  the civilan population was galvanised with a call for volunteers to supplement the regular forces, and comfort parcels from home were sent to the troops.

Fred landed in South Africa in 1899 and was posted to 'G' Battery - his medal record shows that he served at the battles of Paardeburg, Dreifontein, Johannesburg, Diamond Hill and Kimberley. There's little doubt that he would have been in the thick of it - one of the frequent British tactical errors was to deploy their artilery too far forward in the open where the gun crews made an easy target for the skilled Boer marksmen. 

Happily my Great Gandfather survived all this and was finally discharged in 1902. His record shows that he was never an exemplary soldier - throughout his service he never managed to rise above the rank of Gunner and he seems to have regularly forfeited and regained his good conduct pay. On his discharge his character merited only a 'good' - but this was obvious sufficient for him to secure a saught-after position on his return to civilian life in Richmond as the town's resident fireman. In an age when the public sector was almost none existent fire brigades were generally formed of volunteer part-timers with only the resident fireman as a fulltime paid position - much like the coxswains of the RNLI today he was also the caretaker of the fire station and responsible for the maintenance of the equipment. Again his experience with horses would have stood him in good stead for this. The position would also have secured a certain status and security - reinforced when his wife Flo  became the caretaker of the new municipal public conveniences. Not too glamourous perhaps but aslo a position of trust and relative  status - and with the added scope of earning tips from the customers.  

Largely because of Fred's military service, in the course of twenty odd years he had risen  from poverty to working class respectability.  The family memories of Fred in his old age are of a fairly stern and forebooding patriach. But poignantly there is no one left to remember the impact it must have had when his own son, following the family's military tradition, was killed in action at the age of 18 in 1917.

NB: Although the photogarph above has been kept by the family we have no idea which one of the men is Fred although we can be sure that he isn't one of the NCO's. His medical record at the time of his enlistment descibes him as short and stocky with a ruddy complexion and scars to his cheek and forehead, he also had tattoos on both forearms. It looks like his genes have run strong ...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Barbarossa legacy

Today is the 70th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa - the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. One of the defining moments of the 20th century it deserves to be marked by more than just the Stalinists apologists I have seen online so far. 

In Eastern Europe it marks the start of  suffering  on a scale and level of barbarity that eclipses anything seen in the West.  But in this country the event went a long way to re-orientating  the political compass for generations - for society as a whole and spcifically for the Left. 

To mobilise the war effort Churchill and the ruling class had to evoke the idea of a 'Peoples' War' - a dangerous game for them to play as would be seen in the 1945 Labour  landslide. But in the dark days of 1941 when Britain was isolated, Hitler's attack on the USSR was a gift to rallying the working class to the cause. The cynical creation of  the character of 'Uncle Joe' Stalin as the lovable popular patriarch of Russian workers, and propaganda campaigns the stressed solidarity with beleaguered Soviet fellow-workers, were all part of a drive to increase industrial production in the cause of 'arms for Russia'. This was notoriously  assisted by the British Communist Party who had little difficulty in doing an about-face from their previous defence of the Nazi-Soviet pact and denunciation of the war effort as an 'imperialist war'.

Leaving aside the jesuitical isomersaults required of the CP to justify this - the significance of popular support for Russia was felt by a much wider layer than those sections of the industrial working class influenced by the Stalinists. If many on the Left had come to the conclusion in the 1930's that Communism and the USSR were the only bulwarks against fascism - Hitler's war against the USSR spread this thinking to a much wider audience. - From the radicalised youth of the ruling class such as the Cambridge spies  who  used their privileged positions within the establishment to assist Stalin's war effort - to a  very much wider layer of workers for whom the propaganda rubbed off: Ordinary 'non-political' people who came to see the USSR as a glimpse of a possible alternative - and better - way of organising society. Of course this was to become steadily eroded by the Cold War and the spreading realisation of the realities of Stalinism, but it was not to be altogether extinguished until the 1990's.

I was born almost 25 years after these events - but still the impact of  the post 1941 era has in a sense defined my own political identity, and many others on the Left:  The label of 'Trotskyist' is still worn in the early 21st Century, but essentially it takes its definition and reference from that time. And as I have said before, whilst it is important to understand this history - and even to  acknowledge the pull that it has a generation of CP-ers - I am not sure that it is useful to allow these things to continue to define us. I think of my daughters who now study this period as school-history.  Questioning and radicalised though they may be, the controversies - and resulting labels - are about as relevant to them as theologians discussing the schisms of the early church. Time for the Left to move on.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Cosiness isn't the alternative to sectarianism

I was at a local meeting the other night to support the action of UCU members at the local FE college. It was celebrating an all too rare but (partial) success for once. A ballot with overwhelming support for strike action had persuaded management to climb down over a vicious cuts package that targeted most of the leading union activists for redundancy. The meeting was dominated by the SWP. And I couldn't argue with that - they have a number of activists at the college and appear to have led the movement there - they also lead the local Trades Council in whose name the meeting was called. What I was surprised at was their attitude to our local Labour MP - David -'pull up the ladder behind me' - Lammy.

An invitation to attend the meeting I can understand -t's  a chance to put him on the spot  for his record whilst higher education minister in the previous government and  now as  shadow education minister. But there were no questions about whether a future Labour government would restore EMA  - a massive issue in our area - or what would be done about student fees. And this was a meeting where the forthcoming public sector strikes on the 30th June, and the events in Spain and Greece, were greeted as virtually the start of a revolutionary situation in  Europe. But Lammy wasn't even asked if he supported the strikes or if he would be coming to visit local picket lines on the day. 

In fact he was only politely thanked for lending his support to the campaign at the college: Of course in the forum of a public meeting none of these awkward questions could or should have been put in a personally aggressive or sectarian way - but they need to be asked nonetheless. If we're being doctrinaire about it (although I'd rather not)  you could say doing so is  a classic 'transitional' approach. It's fair enough to proclaim 'one solution - revolution' but it really does wear a bit thin when over-used - and it becomes a ritual if it's not linked to the day-to-day. 

Strangely the SWP  sometimes remind me of my happily brief time in the CPGB in the 1980's. Whilst feeling a smug 'more-revolutionary than thou' glow, in practical terms  the CPGB could amicably co-exist with the dreaded 'social democrats'  of the Labour Party as some sort of pressure group / custodian of the socialist conscience of the movement, and so enjoy a place in the Lefts' great and good. The political vocabulary of the SWP is obviously different -  but the similarities in the social and psychological cosiness are striking.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Entrepreneurs ?

History repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce:

 On a Wednesday night I'm usually out and manage to come home just in time to catch my family watching the last ten minutes of The Apprentice. This is actually  the optimum duration to see a summary of the week's  farcical cock-ups and then witness the ritual culling of one of the disgusting talentless and avaricious moral vacuums that comprise this years' 'hopefuls'.

Lord Sugar is usually fed with some well-scripted humiliating put-downs for these wannabes - and in the process reinforces his own  brand positioning as the 'peoples' entrepreneur' - the same persona carefully nurtured  by the previous Labour government. His folksy message is an insidious one -  business people are just like the rest of  us and business is good for all of us -  'entrepreneurship' is the best hope of the common man.

But much as I detest the show it does serve some purpose  as a  metaphor for everything that is wrong with capitalism. And this week Lord Sugar came out with something that unconsciously revealed  the bankruptcy and degeneracy of our age: 'I've never met an engineer who made it as a businessman'.

Back in the day - when Marx himself grudgingly allowed capitalism the credit for having developed mankind's resources - 'entrepreneurship' did mean something: Richard Arkwright, James Watt, Richard Trevithick, Henry Bessemer, Isambard Kingdom Brunell may well all have been heartless bastards who didn't give a toss about the human suffering that was the price of progress and profit - but  they did  make their money by invention and manufacture. And in doing so undeniably transformed our material world along the way.  

They didn't do it like Lord Sugar  by  knocking out inferior copies of other people's products sourced from cheap components,  or  by property speculation, or  by making profits from supplying the needs of a starved public sector. But then you don't need to be an engineer for that -  just a parasitic modern day 'entrepreneur'.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Poll Tax - First time round

Today I've got a guest slot  over at On This Deity  - to mark the anniversary of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381: 
"When Adam delved and Eve span - Who was then the gentleman ?''
John Ball (1338-1381)   
The 'mad priest of Kent' -  itinerant Lollard preacher and possibly the first English socialist.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Out of town interlude

Feeling in need of a bit of unpolluted air for a change, I pointed my wheels East(ish) and took off for a couple of days in Cambridgeshire and the Fens:
First stop was the Cambridge Strawberry Fair. I hadn't been since the early 1990's when 'new age travellers' were still the folk-demons. I remembered it as a very mellow affair where dreadlocked crusties happily mingling alongside  the WI and scout groups. When I saw that the police had cancelled it last year it stirred me to visit it again. The old (and not so old) 'alternative' types were still there - along with a large showing from the very pissed-up white underclass of Middle England. As a  Londoner that's a phenomenon that we just don't see here - and certainly not the open and casual display of EDL regalia in a non-political context. As I was riding I couldn't drink more than a couple of pints, but I still had quite  a pleasant afternoon people-watching - albeit slightly unsettling and nostalgic for the old days.

I spent the night in a Travelodge: Like so many of these soul-less joints this was located next to an equally desolate Little Chef in the middle of nowhere on an A road that was once a major route but has been superseded by another motorway or by-pass. Now stranded in time and space it  has the distinct feel of the Bates Motel. However I survived the night and headed off to the depths of the Fens to visit my friends who have built a new small-holding life up there (with a bit of bike work on the side).

I then headed off to West Stow Saxon Village - but taking a couple of wrong turns  managed to take in Ely which is definitely not on the way. It bills itself as the 'oldest English village' which in a narrow sense is true in that it is possibly the oldest dated Saxon settlement - but the timber houses in the 'village' are all reconstructions. Really aside from a small museum which could do a much better job of describing who the Anglo-Saxons were and how they lived, the main purpose of the village is experimental archaeology. Being something of an amateur geek in this respect I was impressed to see how this had transformed the idea of what a Saxon house had looked like from the ski-chalet like illustrations in the text books that I grew up on to something that looked much more like a modern construction. An amateur living-history group were giving  a surprisingly good demonstration of burial rites raising more sophisticated questions than I had expected - were grave goods really deposits of valued personal possessions or could they be goods of individuals that had no heirs to bequeath them to - or were they gifts deposited by the deceased's friends and relations ? Well it kept me happy for a couple of hours anyway.

I then took a very long and rambling route to join up with the M11 for the final stretch home to London. In the course of my pottering ( and getting lost ) I had managed to take in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Despite getting so soaked in the rain at one point that I managed to ruin my phone -  I felt rejuvenated. (I'm a simple soul really).

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Festival Of Britain

I went to the South Bank yesterday and grabbed a quick half an hour at the exhibition there to mark the 60th anniversary of the Festival Of Britain. As often seems to be the case these days I found myself thinking about my parents. What has happened in this country since the festival of 1951 - and to to them - seems like a melancholic metaphor for the decline and dead-end of our society.

I know Mum and Dad both visited the festival - at the time they  would have been in their early to mid twenties: Having been kids in the 1930's, teenagers in the war and then  coming of age in the glow of the 1945 Labour government - they represent precisely that  generation filled with the optimism and faith in the future that the festival was trying to capture.

The festival was a scheme of the 1945 Labour government - a project inherited by Churchill's  Tories that they couldn't cancel. It was intended to be a celebration of the 1945 vision of a post-war reconstruction - continuing the idea of a People's War into building a fairer society with opportunity for all. 

With the perspective of sixty years the faith in social democratic reform seems pretty naive and flimsy. But my parents - and many of their generation -  brought into it, and for a while at least it looked as if it was working. Their parents had known hardships before the war that they would never experience. Education, home ownership and  foreign holidays would blur the demarcation between the working and middle classes - creating a murky hinterland between the two. This was seen as 'getting on' - not just in terms of opportunist individual social mobility but collectively as a society. Aneurin Bevan - still one of my Dad's heroes - articulted this vision explicity with 'In Place Of Fear'.

It probably never occurred to them how precarious this would prove - but it is dawning on them now they are elderly and having to call upon that infrastructure of the welfare state they played their  small part in building. 

Mum is probably having to go permanently into care and Dad is reeling as social services telling him that after a lifetime of working their modest savings will have to be swallowed up before the state will help. They are not particularly well off  - but inevitably after nearly fifty years of working they have the modest assets that you would  typically expect to find amongst the skilled working or lower middle class.  And this is becoming a fairly universal predicament for their generation, most affecting that  very section of society that the brave new 1945 Labour meritocratic project - and the 1951 Festival - were built upon.

For my Dad it's not really about the money - there are many other more powerful emotional tugs in his mind at the moment, but one underlying thought - although he would never express it in these terms -  is that after a lifetime he is now left wondering 'what the fuck was it all for?'.