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Monday Memories – The Work of a Councillor, Pt.1

1989 began with a by-election in Richmond, Yorkshire. This was to replace a Conservative who had resigned following his appointment as a vice-president of the European Union. Our former constituency chair person was chosen as the candidate for the new party and I joined many others campaigning hard for her election. There were eight other candidates, including a Liberal and one from the SDP, as well as Labour and Green.

Image shows a young William Hague -  one time leader of the British Conservative Party
William Hague. Image credit National Portrait Gallery London

The election was won by a young William Hague with 37% for the conservatives, the SDP candidate receiving 32% and ours 22%. A bitter disappointment that could have been avoided if the SDP leadership had accepted the decision to merge the two parties. The new party was now in debt and facing council elections and a European election.

It became obvious that the four Liberals on Humberside County Council would be unlikely to retain their seats at the May election. Were any of us to do so, we would have much reduced roles and it would be necessary for me to return to full-time employment. When the election came, only one of the four was re-elected, joined by two others. My vote reduced me to third place on the ballot for the Cleethorpes division I had represented for the preceding four years.

By then each of the other three had separated from their wives/partners, at least in part as a consequence of the heavy workload, mostly self-imposed. Only one of our number went on to achieve a modicum of success in politics – our leader. He moved to London where he quickly got elected to Camden Borough Council, a position he held on to for many years.

When I say the workload was self-imposed, it was the inevitable consequence of our insistence that we must play a full part in the work of the council. Four of us chose to attempt to undertake the same amount of work as that shared between 30+ members of each of the other parties.

There were recruitment panels, such as that already mentioned for head and deputy headships in Grimsby, but extending also to a new Assistant Chief Constable, a Manager for the Airport, and various other vacancies that occurred from time to time during the four years. There were disciplinary appeals panels organised as a final tribunal for staff members who contested a sanction imposed in response to unacceptable behaviour. There were several meetings each summer to dispense discretionary grants for third level education.

One of the more pleasant duties associated with membership of the Education Committee was school visits. In particular, there was a national award for the “best community school” given to the school that demonstrated active involvement between school and community. A small panel of councillors and education officials sifted through the various applications from our area, visited the ones whose initial presentation seemed most promising and selected the one that would be put forward to represent Humberside.

The winning school was located in a picturesque East Yorkshire village. The school was clearly at the heart of the community. The primary aged children were encouraged to participate in many activities beyond the traditional curriculum, with a section of the playground given over to the creation of a small farm with chickens and small animals.

I can’t recall now if that school won the National award, but I do remember attending the award ceremony at a prestigious London venue. Interestingly, I see that there is now an annual Community Education Award in the UK but, according to the website, it has been in existence only since 2011.

A young Paddy Ashdown in a Youtube Video

At that time the late Paddy Ashdown was Education Spokesman for the Liberal Party in Parliament. He invited each of us who were members of local government education committees to submit a report on the state of education in our areas. My report featured the importance of community within the ethos of Humberside Schools. Subsequently an organisation promoting community education asked permission to publish my report as an article in their magazine. A version also appeared in Liberal News.

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Monday Memories – Birth of the Liberal Democrats

I saw an advertisement for a job producing articles for a business magazine. The idea was that you contacted local businesses with a view to providing them with a feature in the magazine, funded by advertising from their suppliers and clients. I was quite familiar with a number of businesses I’d used as contractors whilst working for Courtaulds. Several were generous enough to accept my offer to write a feature. I certainly enjoyed talking to the business people and writing about their projects, but the selling of advertising was a task I hated – and it was commission on the income from advertising that was my only reward. Mostly people would fob you off – “he isn’t available/is in a meeting/will call you back tomorrow” (‘he’ never did!).

We were now living on just the attendance allowance I received for my council duties. I don’t know how councillors are remunerated now in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. Back then we were paid for each four hour period, with a maximum of three such periods in a day. That maximum only ever happened on the four occasions each year when the full council met. Sessions that lasted more than four hours were quite frequent, especially in 1988 during the period when the re-organisation of Grimsby’s schools was in the implementation stage. This meant conducting a series of interviews of all the heads, deputy heads and some teachers who deemed themselves ready for headships, with a view to filling the leadership roles in all the new schools and the sixth form college.

Nevertheless, the daily allowance amounted to much less than I had been earning at Courtaulds. Freda suggested to me that we no longer needed such a large house. She went on to point out that there was a flat for sale above a shop across the road.

We obtained a valuation for our existing house and I was surprised to discover that its value had increased threefold in the nine years we had lived there. Although this was mostly accounted for by inflation – my Courtaulds salary had more than doubled in the shorter period up to my leaving – we had, over the years, put in a number of improvements, including all new kitchen units, fitted wardrobes and new double glazed windows at the front. We had, it transpired, sufficient equity in the house to enable us to purchase the flat outright, eliminating the mortgage from our outgoings.

After the Alliance failed to make the expected breakthrough in the 1987 General Election the bulk of the membership of both parties began campaigning for a merger between the Liberals and Social Democrats. A serious problem had emerged at the election when the two leaders had made statements that seemed to contradict each other in key policy areas. At each of the parties’ annual conferences in autumn 1987 there was overwhelming support for the move and this was later confirmed by ballots of members.

Image shows Dr David Owen, former leader of the UK Social Democratic Party (and former minister in the Labour government 1974-'79)
David Owen made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to succeed in the period after their formation. Image from https://totalpolitics.com/articles/interview/conversation-david-owen

Nevertheless, David Owen and a few others were unable to support the new party and tried to keep the SDP going (called “The Continuing SDP”). And a group of Liberals from the radical wing of the party tried to keep a separate Liberal Party alive. All of this meant there was a collapse of support and funding for the new party.

I had been approved by the Liberal Party as a potential Parliamentary candidate and had begun applying to various constituencies seeking candidates, including our own. This involved meeting selection committees and then addressing full meetings of constituency members. So far none of these attempts had proven successful.

I had also joined an organisation called “The European Movement”. The local branch was chaired by the conservative MEP for Lincoln* but it was a cross party organisation for people who supported the ideals of the European Union. When I learned, through colleagues on the county council, that the new party was looking for someone to contest Humberside in the forthcoming European elections, I put my name forward. It was acknowledged on all sides that we hadn’t a whisker of a chance but it was deemed important that supporters have the opportunity to demonstrate their support by voting for the party in every election.

*Bill Newton Dunn defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2000. His son, Tom, is a well known journalist.

Getting Rid of Filter Words

I am currently revising “Called to Account“, my novel based on real events in County Clare during the Great Famine. The story is narrated by the main character. He is very much the Victorian gentleman, in his background and his behaviour. I’ve tried to give him an appropriate voice. But I worry that he appears too detached from the horrific conditions he is witness to.

So I am grateful to Chris Graham for sharing this timely article about filter words, how to avoid them and when to use them to advantage. Here’s a passage from quite early in my book as it is at present:

As we departed the building the noise from the crowd seemed louder. It appeared that some manner of dispute had erupted near the entrance to the lane. A number of individuals were engaged in fisticuffs. It was clear to me that, were the situation not dealt with, the contagion could spread.

And here it is without the words rendered in bold:

As we departed the building the noise from the crowd grew louder. Some manner of dispute had erupted near the entrance to the lane. A number of individuals were engaged in fisticuffs. If the situation were not swiftly dealt with the contagion could spread.

Do you agree that increases the feeling of urgency in the situation, without losing the natural restraint of a gentleman with a typical English stiff upper lip?

And, whilst you are pondering that, take a look at the cover I designed in Canva and tell me what you think of it.

Confused About Cholesterol? Sally has it Cracked.

The blog post I’m linking to is the second of two. Don’t let that worry you, there is a link near the beginning to the first part if you want to read that first.

Unlike a lot of medical stuff you can find on the internet, this comes from a very reliable source. If in doubt, scroll to the bottom of the article and read her credentials. That’s enough from me, here’s the post: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2019/05/07/smorgasbord-health-column-cholesterol-and-fat-myths-part-two-vitamin-k2-and-healthy-fats-by-sally-cronin/

Monday Memories – Adventures in Retailing

With the election behind us, and the financial returns lodged with the Returning Officer, we took our week’s holiday in Jersey. Actually a week and a day, because the airport was fog-bound on our planned return date. Back in Cleethorpes our thoughts turned to ways of using my lump sum to produce income. Once again, opening a shop seemed like the sensible thing to do. And, this time we would plan properly.

Looking around at the existing shops in the area I noticed that there was not a quality glass and china shop. Yes, there was a housewares section within a department store in Grimsby, and a number of cheap souvenir shops on Cleethorpes sea front. But very few places where the discerning buyer could obtain a good quality dinner service or a set of vases or ornaments. In the library I found a Mintel report on that market sector and discovered that the size of the market was such that reaching just 10% would produce a satisfactory return. Margins were good. Next I contacted suppliers, most of whom proved to be eager to have a new outlet in the district.

Seeking a suitable premises, we found a unit in a recently converted building. Owned by a kitchen design outfit, the ground floor showroom had been partitioned into 4 retail units, the kitchen showroom confined to the upper floor. One unit had already been let to a hairdresser. We discussed the possibility of our taking one of the other units, pointing out that our proposed business would complement the kitchen designer’s showroom. He could supply our display units and we could display some of our wares in his showroom.

Image depicts china objects in glass display cases in a retail setting
Our dream that never materialised. Image from https://www.woburn-china.com/See-our-shop.html

He agreed and took that unit off the market. Time passed during which we heard nothing and then, with a strong sense of deja vu, we learned that his scheme to divide the ground floor and let it in units, intended to overcome his own financial difficulties, had failed in that endeavour and the whole building was now up for sale. It was unlikely that the new owner, when found, would accept us as tenants. The most likely use for the site was as a fast food outlet. In due course that is what it became.

We resumed our search for suitable premises. Just around the corner from us was a shop that had for many years been a dairy. Lately it was occupied by a young chef who made up gourmet ready meals which he sold from the shop, alongside cheeses, charcouterie and fine wines. He was looking for someone to take over the retail side of the business so that he could concentrate on production in an industrial unit he’d leased in Grimsby. He had won a potentially lucrative commercial catering contract but would continue to supply his gourmet ready meals to the shop and would introduce us to his suppliers. The proposition looked interesting. The up front investment was much less than the china shop. We would be taking on an already successful business. What could go wrong?

We took over the business in the autumn and turnover was steady. In the lead up to Christmas we were amazed by the demand for specialist cheeses and other luxury products. Christmas Eve was chaotic with both of us working frantically to keep up with the long line of customers queuing for service. We expected January to be a let down after that. What we had not anticipated was the original owner losing his catering contract and closing his Grimsby unit. Our leading line, our USP, disappeared over night. No more gourmet ready meals.

We found a supplier for such things as quiches and cooked smoked meats, but sales were slow. We were paying the bills from our own resources, not from the business’ income. We distributed leaflets around the district – something I was used to doing as part of my political endeavours – but it produced few results. I ran a series of small advertisements in the Grimsby Telegraph, extolling the virtues of different varieties of cheese.

We thought about relocating to a more central site – one with greater “footfall” – but rent and rates would be much higher. We would need to generate much more turn-over just to meet overheads. And that level of business, if achieved, would require us to hire an extra hand. It was an impossible situation. By the autumn of 1988 it was obvious we needed to close the business. But we would have to find another tenant or continue paying rent even though the business was closed.

A woman answered our advertisement. She was making and selling cakes from her own kitchen but needed larger premises. We still had the kitchen that the chef had originally used to produce his gourmet meals. It seemed ideal for her. She had some government funding under a scheme which paid a basic income to unemployed people wishing to start out as sole traders.

Image depicts a small refrigerated display cabinet, such as might be found in a butcher's shop or deli
A refrigerated display cabinet like the one that disappeared from our shop. Image found at http://www.nisbets.ie

She was only there for a few weeks before she fell behind with the rent. Then one of the refrigerated display cabinets disappeared, replaced by a newer one. I told her she couldn’t do that, that the unit was mine and that she must pay for it.

A few weeks later I had an appointment with my dentist in Grimsby. On the way there I spotted my refrigerated display unit for sale in the window of a refrigeration specialist. He had taken it in part-exchange for the different unit now in the shop. To be fair, he accepted my story and paid me for the unit. It was now up to him to chase the woman for his money.

Monday Memories – Another Election (or three)

Meanwhile, there was an election due in May of 1987 for Cleethorpes Borough Council, in all probability followed soon after by a Genereal Election. We had found a replacement for Gavin, a young man who gave up his job in financial services and bought a house in the constituency in order to work full time, unpaid, for the party.

Now that I was technically out of work, I agreed to work alongside him doing all we could to promote the Party’s message, finding and helping candidates for the Borough Council. Our constituency chair person, a lecturer at Leeds University, ran a series of training days at her home. A few days after I left my job a by-election was called for the port town of Immingham, which was a part of Cleethorpes Borough. We threw a good deal of hard work into that by-election, building a team around the candidate, and secured the seat.

For the first four months of 1987 we continued to work hard. As agent for about 40 candidates, including myself, it was my job to ensure that the rules about spending and publicity were properly adhered to. The spreadsheet programme proved very handy for the task, and the Word Processor (“Locoscript”) was good for producing leaflets on the Amstrad’s tiny 9pin dot matrix printer. We used it to produce masters which were then taken to an offset litho printing company to be reproduced.

The end result was that we increased our representation on the council, becoming the largest party. With support from the handful of Independent members we could have taken charge. The Independents, however, refused that support, allowing Conservative and Labour members combine to deny us the opportunity. They had all been in office for many years and, I suppose, were not prepared to have a bunch of new-comers with radical ideas break up their cosy arrangement.

I was now a member of two councils. Would there be a General Election? Given the success of Alliance candidates across the country, which matched similar results a year earlier, and several Parliamentary by-elections, I doubted it. I booked us a holiday for a week in Jersey to coincide with Freda’s birthday at the beginning of the second week in June. Margaret Thatcher had other ideas, however, and called the election for the Thursday of the following week. We postponed the holiday until afterwards and redoubled our efforts at promoting our candidate.

Two issues dominated the election locally and I had some degree of involvement with both. A few years before there had been a proposal that low level Nuclear Waste could be stored on a site belonging to the national power generation company, CEGB. There was a campaign against the proposal locally. I was one of several hundred people who took part in a protest march and demonstration.

Image shows a gas turbine power station at night.
Killingholme power station at night. The gas powered station opened in 1994 and was recently shut down. In the mid-1980s there was a plan to store nuclear waste on the site. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killingholme_A_power_station

That scheme was quietly shelved but there were now rumours that the site might be used for the construction of a nuclear power station. On one of our trips to Germany I had taken a photograph of a nuclear power station we passed on the banks of the Rhine. Now, for one of two tabloid newspapers we produced during the election, I superimposed that photograph on one of the CEGB site. Remember, this was done with actual cut and paste – no photoshop or any of the other software we are used to today.

The other issue concerned education. Before I and my 3 Liberal colleagues were elected to the council, a plan had been devised by the council, and approved by the government’s Department of Education, to reorganise the school system in Hull. Liberals in Hull had opposed it, arguing that staff and parents had not been adequately consulted. We wanted to have the plan re-examined but were unable to do so because the DoE would not agree to re-open it. When plans to reorganise Grimsby and Ceethorpes schools were under consideration we determined that there would be full consultation and local views would be listened to.

The background to this was two fold. Across most of England at that time – and still today to the best of my knowledge – schools are in two phases, primary for 5 to 11 year olds, and secondary for 11 to 16 and 18 year olds. When Humberside was created, by the merger of several other councils, the arrangements in Hull and in Grimsby (though not in Cleethorpes) consisted of infants for 5 to 8 year olds, junior, or middle, for 9 to 13 year olds, and senior for 13 to 16 & 18 year olds. The plan in both cases was to close all these schools and replace them with new primary and secondary schools and a sixth form college.

The other problem this plan was intended to solve was the reduction in school age population as the 60s “baby boom” worked its way through the system. The authority was under pressure from the government to remove so called “surplus places” in order to make the system more efficient, reducing the cost per pupil of running the service.

Following the extensive consultation process (a source of many of the additional meetings I was having to attend) the draft plan had been published. The only controversial aspect was a proposal to close the smallest of the secondary schools in Cleethorpes Borough. We opposed this although, hitherto, both Labour and Conservatives on the council were in favour. Labour selected, as their candidate for the election, the Chairman of the council. He did not take long to state that Labour would now oppose the plan to close that school.

Not withstanding a hard fought campaign, the conservative candidate was re-elected with roughly the same majority as previously, our candidate coming second. This pattern was followed across the country and the Thatcher government was returned with a marginally reduced majority in Parliament.

Monday Memories – A New Direction

My boss, the Chief Engineer, was heavily invested in the waste burning project. My council workload was becoming a problem for him. He came to discuss the situation with me, saying he was finding that when he needed to discuss work with me I was not around. Could we come to an arrangement whereby my council business would be confined to specific days of the week? I should point out that, up to this point, the company had been extremely generous in allowing me time off with pay for these duties, subject to my returning the council attendance allowance to them.

A subsequent meeting with the Site Director resulted in the suggestion that a voluntary redundancy package could be put together should I wish to leave. For me the suggestion was welcome, provided the terms were right. It would enable me to embark on my preferred career as a writer and/or politician. When the terms were put to me, they were indeed generous. A tax free lump sum, roughly equivalent to two years salary. In addition, my qualifying service for my future pension would be increased from 18 to 20 years and the pension would be paid from age 60, not 65.

Coincidentally, the company’s pension had been a subject I had addressed in an article for the Senior Staff Association magazine a few years before. A number of the members were exercised about what seemed like inadequate communication between the executive and the membership. I and one of the Chemists from the R&D department in Coventry had, independently of each other, proposed that a members’ newsletter or magazine was needed. “Why don’t the pair of you get together and produce it?” was the challenging response, and we did.

There was a general feeling that Courtaulds’ staff pension scheme did not measure up to those offered by the civil service and other “blue chip” companies. I investigated and concluded that our scheme was – I think my words were – “disappointingly average,” backing that conclusion with data gleaned from various sources. You could call it my first piece of investigative journalism! The basic principle of all such schemes, based on rules established by the tax authorities because the contributions were tax exempt, was that the pension earned by the combined contributions of employer and employee, extending over 40 years, should not exceed 2/3 of your final salary.

More than 30 years later, now that I have been in receipt of a pension from the scheme for 17 years, I have to say I am grateful to have been a member whilst I was an employee.

To her credit Freda supported my decision to leave my safe, secure job. Ian was now well settled in his position as a student nurse, living in Lincoln and making new friends. It would not be easy living on the meagre attendance allowance and Freda’s salary from the Spastics’ Society, but the lump sum redundancy payment would yield some income if wisely invested and I hoped to be able to generate some additional income from writing.

I left Courtaulds shortly before my 45th birthday in November 1986. One of the first things I bought on the strength of my severance package was a Word Processor. Since the early 1980s I had had access to an Apple 2 desk top computer at work and, more recently, this had been replaced by a Hewlett Packard PC which was networked with new HP mainframe computers.

Image shows an early desk top computer with separate keyboard and small printer.
An Amstrad 512 kb word processor/computer like the one I purchased on leaving Courtaulds. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amstrad_PCW

The Amstrad Word Processor came in two versions – the basic 256 kb machine with one built-in floppy disc drive and the larger 512 kb machine with two disc slots. I opted for the 512. The main advantage of this being that you did not have to keep swapping discs. To explain that properly, it is necessary to realise that neither 256 nor 512 kb of on-board memory allowed for any software to be permanently installed. You used one disc to load the software, then saved the files you created to a separate floppy disc. This was infinitely easier with two discs than with one.

I had become quite accomplished at using Lotus 123 spreadsheets for work so my colleagues purchased, as their leaving gift for me, a spreadsheet programme that would run on the Amstrad. Because of the limited on-board memory you had to create your spreadsheet from scratch, defining how many columns and lines you would need. A long way from the seemingly infinite number of columns, lines and sheets that can be utilised on present day spreadsheets!

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