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The Beast from the East, February 1979.

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Image free download from pixaby – “no attribution required”

It had been cold all week up to now. A brutal North Easterly wind scoured the coast in sub-zero temperatures under leaden skies. I was working in Grimsby, awaiting the board’s approval of my permanent posting, still travelling back to Coventry at the weekends. That Thursday morning, St. Valentine’s Day 1979, was no different to any other that week: still bitterly cold as I left the guest house at 8am for the twenty minute drive to work. As I crossed over the traffic lights where Grimsby Road, Cleethorpes, transforms itself into Cleethorpes Road, Grimsby, I felt the wind rock the car and saw the first flurries of snow caught in the headlights’ glow.

By the time I reached the next set of lights, at the junction with Freeman Street and Fishdock Road, the traffic seemed to be at a standstill, nothing moving when the lights changed. The snow was still fine and light, though driven by that bitter wind. There was now a light dusting of white powder on the road being picked up and swirled around by the wind, mingling with the steam from vehicle exhaust pipes.

Eventually the traffic in front of me began to move forward slowly. I switched into the right-hand lane by the derelict Alexandra Theatre, ready to turn right onto the swing bridge. As I made the turn into the wind, the snow began to plaster the windscreen and I turned on the wipers. Beyond the swing bridge, the road climbs briefly. It was here that I discovered the cause of the hold up. Heavy vehicles were struggling to negotiate the incline, their rear wheels spinning, causing them to snake slowly forwards.

Beyond the dock estate the road to the plant runs parallel to the coast, about half a mile inland. That half mile consists of a flat cultivated field – or it did then. The field is separated from the road by a low hedge and a ditch. Here I was to learn the meaning of the expression ‘white out’. The road, the sky, the field, were all white. Snow flakes swirled around the car. The only guide I had, as I covered the mile or so of straight road to the plant entrance, was the red glow from the rear lights of the car in front of me. Its driver, like me, an employee arriving later than usual to work that morning.

My morning routine, having arrived in the office, was to take a walk around the various projects for which I had responsibility. This necessitated a quarter mile walk outside. I donned waterproof over-trousers, wellingtons and a hooded waterproof, carrying the hard hat and goggles I would be obliged to wear inside the plant. Snow stung my face and I turned my head to the side so that the hood took the brunt of the storm’s blast. Where the internal factory road turned a corner between two buildings set at an angle to each other, snow was piling into a huge drift.

By noon I was back in the office, nursing a mug of hot tea. In the meeting room all eight of us Engineers were gathered around the conference table to hear the Chief Engineer explain that the road leading to the plant was completely blocked, the narrow channel between low hedges creating the perfect repository for every flake of snow the wind scoured from the farmer’s field. Nothing could get in or out of the plant. No deliveries, no collections.

Of greater importance was the fact that a change of shifts was due at 3pm. The road needed to be open, both to enable the employees due to arrive to do so, and to ensure those leaving were able to do so safely.

Bucket Loader

The plant generated its own steam and electrical power by means of a bank of nine boiler and generator sets, 4 coal powered, 5 oil fired. The company employed two large bucket loaders to move coal around the yard. It was agreed that one of these would be deployed to clear the road. The cars belonging to incoming employees would be held at the entrance to the road, then led in, in convoy, behind the bucket loader. The loader would then lead the vehicles containing departing workers away from the plant. This process would be repeated as often as necessary to complete the change-over.

With this operation completed, the day staff, officially due to leave at 5pm., would be led out. Finally, those of us who would normally leave at 5:30 would be led out. We were left in no doubt that this operation would take some considerable time and that we would likely be here until well after six.

There are 3 other plants, further North along the Humber Bank. Two produce Titanium Dioxide and the other, fertiliser. I learned the following day that staff at one of those had been unable to leave their plant and remained there over-night.

I had hoped that, by Friday afternoon, the roads out of Grimsby would have been cleared. They were not. So I had to spend an extra night in the Cleethorpes boarding house, journeying to Coventry on Saturday morning. By my return on Monday morning most of the snow had cleared, just the drifts under the hedges remaining.

Gang Show

And here is an odd thing. Four weeks later, on Friday 15th March, there was another heavy snow storm that prevented me travelling to Coventry until Saturday morning. That was a bigger blow, personally, than February’s winter blast had been. My son, Ian, was a scout and was in the Gang Show company. Their show was playing Saturday night in the Coventry Theatre. I had to be there. More than that, the plan was that I would drive to Hereford on Saturday morning to collect my mother and her husband so that they could see her grandson’s performance. That part of the plan had to be abandoned, but I did get to see the show.

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Saturday Sound-off: Mixing Politics With Other Work

This recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs.

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My 1981 election leaflet

In the 1980s I decided that, if I wanted to change the world, it was time to stop moaning and get involved in politics. I joined the Liberal Party and stood for election to the County Council. I didn’t make it at the first attempt but four years later – in May 1985 – I was successful. I became one of four Liberals holding the balance of power between 36 Labour and 35 Conservative councilors.

It was a large county. About a quarter of the population of over 800,000 resided in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. Grimsby and Cleethorpes formed the next largest centre of population. Scunthorpe was also included within the county boundary as were three other sea-side resorts, the port of Immingham and eight or so medium sized towns.

Back then the County Council had responsibility for Education – schools, colleges and adult education; Social Services, including childrens’ homes and old people’s homes; Economic Development, which included responsibility for a small airport; Libraries, Police and Fire Services, Weights and Measures inspectorate and the maintenance of major roads. The Authority employed in excess of 20,000 people in these important activities.

The four of us decided from the outset that we would not form a coalition with either of the other two parties. Instead we insisted that every decision must have the agreement of a majority of members. It didn’t matter how that majority was constituted so long as two of the three parties were in agreement. Of course, that meant we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee, and ad-hoc panel or consultative body.

Airport management

To begin with it didn’t look as if the commitment would be too heavy. The council worked on a 3-monthly cycle during which each main committee and the full council met once. So, two committees plus full council would mean twelve meetings a year, one day a month to take off from my job. But the Education Committee had two large sub-committees, one dealing with schools and the other with everything else. And there was a sub-committee of Economic Development to deal with management of the Airport. So that doubled the commitment to two days a month. Still quite doable.

But Schools Sub-Committee members were expected to meet with the governors of the schools in their area. If a school was facing a possible upheaval of some kind there would be meetings to be had with governors, teachers’ representatives and parents. If an employee was accused of some misdemeanor he or she had the right of appeal to a panel including councilors. Recruitment to fill vacancies in senior positions in the Authority was undertaken by a panel including members. And I’ve posted elsewhere about the panel of members, advised by staff, who determined which young people could and which could not receive a grant for their third level education.

Severance

Before long I was taking two, sometimes three, days off every week. My employer was remarkably generous in granting me this much time off for what the contract of employment defined as ‘public service’. The deal was that I continued to receive full pay so long as I returned to the company any allowance I received from the council for carrying out those duties. After a year and a half I was asked if I’d prefer to leave. I was offered a very generous severance package which I am still reaping the benefit of 30 years later.

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Aerial view of Grimsby docks. Image from Cycling Weekly

The council embarked on the full scale reorganisation of the schools in Grimsby which involved closing every existing school and opening a bunch of new schools covering different age ranges. Every teacher in that part of the county had to accept early retirement or apply for a job in one of these new schools. The process began soon after I was elected with a consultation exercise in which the nature of the proposed change and the reasons for it were explained at a series of meetings. Feedback from the consultation was debated and the proposal document amended accordingly. Once the plan was approved by the Department of Education at Westminster it had to be implemented. Councillors sat in a long series of meetings with governors to choose heads and deputy heads for the new schools.

The work of a councilor, in these circumstances, did indeed become almost a full time job, for a while at least. For the first 6 months after leaving my job I worked unpaid for the Party, as election agent for the District Council election and the General Election that followed a month later. My wife and I decided to find a shop – a disastrous venture the details of which have no place in this post. I got a part-time freelance job as a feature writer and advertising sales agent for a regional business magazine.

All of this recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his several other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs. He is the same age as I was when a county councilor. Several former editors of the Evening Standard were interviewed on the BBC last night. At least one suggested that the job could occupy up to 100 hours a week. I dare say the job that Osborne has taken, though described as Editor, is much reduced from what the person with that title formerly had to undertake. Even so, I don’t envy him trying to juggle the demands of both roles. He has to survive until May 2020 unless he decides to resign from one or other post before then.

Will he last three years? I’m not a betting man, but I am inclined to think that he will not. What do you think?

Coincidence: #atozchallenge

On Saturday I told how the family moved house in 1956 in order to live with my mother’s new partner. The house had previously been the home of the village’s Baptist Minister. It was one end of a block that was originally built to accommodate a small school and schoolmaster’s house as well. The school had long since merged with the village school and been converted into a home. For a number of years all three had been rented out to tenants but, when the tenant of the former manse left, the trustees decided to sell all three. The former school and master’s house were sold to the sitting tenants and the former manse to us.

The village is named for the Church of St Peter which was established in Saxon times on the banks of a small river. The Normans enlarged the church and allegedly gave the river its name: Dore, from the French d’or, literally ‘of gold’. The river’s valley they called Golden. A couple of miles upstream from the village is a smaller community called Dorstone.

DSCI0550Downstream are two hamlets, Vowchurch and Turnastone. Legend has it that two rival land owners both wanted to build a church there. One is alleged to have said “I vow I’ll build a church before you so much as turn a stone.”Alongside is a photograph of Turnastone church. The combined population of these communities would have been, in the 1950s, no more than 1000.

Coventry

My wife and I were married in Turnastone church in 1963. Five years later I obtained a job as a Design Draughtsman working for a large company in their Coventry head quarters. I worked in an office with about 30 other designers and engineers on the top floor of a three story building with similar sized design offices on each of the other two floors.

One day I was chatting to a colleague and remarked on the fact that, although his name sounded Welsh, he did not have a Welsh accent. He explained that his father was Welsh but that he’d lived most of his life in England. “We did live in Herefordshire for a while,” he added. I asked him where exactly in Herefordshire and he surprised me by saying that is parents had run the village shop in Dorstone for a number of years in the early 1950s.

Cleethorpes

At the time I thought that quite strange but it was nothing compared to what happened years later in Grimsby. The large company I had joined in Coventry operated manufacturing plants throughout the British Isles and, in 1979, I became a Project Engineer at their plant in Grimsby. We purchased a house in Cleethorpes. I became involved in local politics and, in 1985, was elected to the County Council.

Some time later I was invited to address a meeting in Grimsby. I began my speech with a brief outline of my background. Later, when we were mingling and enjoying refreshments, an elderly gentleman approached me and asked what part of Herefordshire I had lived in whilst growing up. When I told him he replied: “I used to live in that village. My father was Baptist Minister and we lived in the Manse.”

Grimsby is some 200 miles from Hereford and yet, here we were, two people who had each lived in the same house in a tiny village, at different times, many years before. Such a coincidence appearing in a work of fiction would have the reader struggling to suspend disbelief. Use the comments to tell of a similar coincidence from your own life or an example of a novel, play or movie whose plot you think relies too heavily on coincidence.