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In the summer of 2005 we planned a long weekend visit to Ireland to check out the housing market in towns near to where Ian was living. We picked the weekend immediately preceding Mum’s birthday and arranged to bring our grand daughter back to England with us, taking her to Kent to visit Mum on her birthday the following Wednesday.
The day we were due to travel, Thursday 7th July, I had arranged to leave work early. I had been at my desk barely 30 minutes when I took a call from Freda. She had heard on the radio that there had been terrorist attacks on transport in London. Victoria Station was mentioned.
Freda wondered should she ring Mum who could be worried about my sister who commuted daily from Kent to Victoria Station. I said it was best not to – if she had heard the news she’d want the line clear so as to receive a call from my sister. If she had not heard, best not to worry her. A few minutes later Freda rang again. My sister had rung to say that she had arrived safely at work to be told that Mum had been taken ill. She was now on her way back to Kent.
Now, instead of travelling to Ireland that afternoon, we drove to Kent. Mum had been found by the warden of the apartment block, collapsed in her bathroom. She was in a coma in hospital in Canterbury. She remained in the coma until the Friday evening when her breathing ceased.
A month later we did undertake our trip to Ireland and looked around several new estates under construction. We thought that a bungalow would suit us best as we aged. We found, via the internet, an estate where there were a few bungalows included. On site we were told the bungalows had all been sold – they were in phase 1. The developer was now selling phase 2, due for completion in the summer of 2006. That would be ideal, since I was due to retire in the autumn of that year. We placed a deposit on a small house in the centre of a block of three which, on plan, seemed to have a decent outlook, on the edge of the development.
My retirement date was the last day of the month in which my birthday occurred – November. That was the date from which my pension would be payable. Of course, the state pension and a couple of small annuities were paid from my birthday onwards, and I was already receiving my Courtaulds pension.
The company mandated 26 days leave during an employee’s final year before retirement. These were supposed to be taken as one day per week over a sixth month period and used to prepare for retirement. The company even offered courses to help with the transition from work to retirement. I arranged with my manager to add those 26 days to the 5 weeks annual leave to which I was entitled.
We’d need a couple of weeks in the summer to make arrangements for taking over the new house, shopping for furniture and so on, but it would be possible for me to leave on the first Friday in October, 8 weeks before my employment officially ceased. The following Monday we were on the evening ferry from Hollyhead to Dun Laoghaire.
After listening to the village church bells ringing in the new millenium, I joined their team and began once again to learn the art.
From our arrival in East Yorkshire onwards I continued to help at elections. We got to know the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the area, an elderly woman who occupied a large house where she held the occasional garden party to raise funds.
Following boundary changes, a new candidate was selected for the newly created Howden and Haltemprice constituency. Diana Wallis was a successful solicitor and I recall attending several meetings at her home ahead of the 1997 general election and the 1999 European election. In 1997 she came second to David Davis, in 1999 she was one of several MEPs elected for the Yorkshire Region. She was re-elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and held several important roles there. She has since left the Liberal Democrats, becoming a founder member of the Yorkshire Party.
In 2001 and 2005 the Liberal Democrat candidate was a young man called Jon Neal and in 2001 he succeeded in reducing Davis’s majority. A young PR manager from the local Independent Radio station stood against John Prescott in the Hull East constituency. Because this seat was regarded as safe for Labour, very little effort went into the Liberal Democrat’s campaign.
Howden, however, was regarded as a Liberal Democrat “target” and that young woman worked hard for Jon’s team. Her name? Jo Swinson. Last week she was elected leader of the Party, having secured election to Parliament in 2005 in her native Dunbartonshire. Jon Neal stood again in 2010 but has since moved to Suffolk where he works for the mental health charity Mind.
In the early noughties we took our summer holidays 3 times in Cornwall and contemplated moving there after retirement. The verdant countryside and spectacular coastline were very tempting. House prices less so – especially when compared to values in our part of Yorkshire. So, when, in 2004, we began seriously to consider our retirement options we rejected that idea.
We could, of course, stay where we were. However, we were a long way from Freda’s relatives in Hereford, my mother who was now in Kent alongside my sister and her family, and our son in Ireland. We decided to investigate the possibility of moving to Ireland. We had our house valued and discovered that it had increased by over 150% since we purchased it in 1991. There had been a period when house prices were static through the early ’90s so most of this increase had taken place over about 10 years.
During that time there had been many changes to housing finance. When we purchased we were paying 13% or 14% interest. As time went on, interest rates fell. The chancellor took advantage of the falling interest rates to reduce and, eventually, eliminate tax relief on mortgage interest.
Of course, falling interest rates meant that the returns on the investments backing the endowment policy were reduced and providers began issuing warnings that the final payout may not be sufficient to repay the outstanding capital. Borrowers were advised to maintain the level of payments as the amount required to cover interest reduced, so as to chip away at the outstanding capital.
We were able to do that and, by the time our 15 year endowment mortgage matured, in April 2006, we had a small cash surplus.
Fully 18 months ago I gave an update on my famine project, which consists of two slim volumes. The first was A Purgatory of Misery and the second The Poor Law Inspector. In that post I indicated that the initial draft of the first, an entirely non-fictional account of the events in British and Irish history that led up to the famine, was complete and that I was then embarking on the second, a fictionalised account of the work of Captain Arthur Kennedy in West Clare between late 1847 and mid 1850.
A Purgatory of Misery was published at the end of 2017 but work on The Poor Law Inspector stuttered on and off throughout last year. I finally reached the end last month and passed it to a first reader. At only 50,000 words it is a novella, rather than the full length novel I had hoped to create. That it is so short after such a long time is down to several factors, the main one being the difficulty of presenting the real horror of conditions in that place and time in a way that is not too depressing to read.
The opening chapters were posted to Chapter Buzz at the end of 2017. The book now has a new title, Called to Account, which relates to the fact that Kennedy and the man who came to be his arch rival were involved, in 1851, in a court case as a consequence of an insult delivered in public by Kennedy to the other, who then sued him for libel. I have now structured the book around the court case and Kennedy’s recollections of significant events in his life up to that point.
Once again, it is being posted on Chapter Buzz whilst I work on revisions, including those suggested by my first reader. Follow this link to find it. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can post them there or here.
Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such recently came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence. The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.
The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardly happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting.
Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.
It is true that the final settlement achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.
I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where war over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.
Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland
and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.
Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border on the island of Ireland”, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”.
Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.
I suppose it is a truism that the most of these one can have is nine. I just reached my seventh. Seems like a good time to look back at the others and see what I was doing.
My first, 11 in 1952, saw me just commenced at boarding school. About six weeks into my first term in this new and strange environment I can’t honestly recall what I was feeling. I do know that I was not particularly happy in that first year. Looking back at the whole of the six years I spent there I do think the experience was good for me. Over the last few years, thanks to the magic of the internet I have been able to make contact with some of the men who were fellow pupils there. In the last couple of days we have been discussing the effect on us of the religious education we received there and it seems that the majority are, like me, either atheist or agnostic, certainly sceptical about religions.
My second double digit birthday, 22 in 1963, happened six weeks after my marriage and 3 months after completing my apprenticeship. Definitely a happy time, excited at the life ahead of us as a couple and the interesting work I was already doing in a small design drawing office.
My third, 33 in 1974, I was in South Africa, embarking on what would become a very happy and fruitful period. There will be more about this in forthcoming installment in my Monday Memories sequence.
By double digit birthday number four, 44 in 1985, I was a County Councillor in North East Lincolnshire, then part of Humberside. One of 4 Liberals holding the balance of power, I was struggling to keep up with the enormous work load and my full time job. A year later I accepted a generous severance package which allowed me more time for political activities and, or so I fondly imagined, writing.
On my fifth double digit birthday, 55/1996, you would have found me working as a Project Planner at a steel works in Scunthorpe. Knowing the job would not last beyond the following summer, I attended a recruitment fair staged in Leeds around that time by British Aerospace. Later I would be invited to attend a selection day, and at the end of June 1997 I joined that company, still in the role of Project Planner.
Eleven years ago, my 66th birthday on November 2nd 2007, I was beginning my second year resident in Ireland, retired, painting, writing and looking for opportunities for volunteering. The following year I began work as a volunteer with the local community development company, a move which subsequently led to both of us becoming volunteers with a local support group for cancer patients and their relatives, which we still are.
If I make it to an eighth double digit birthday I shall have out-lived my mother by a week – she died the day after the 7/7 bombings, five days before her 88th birthday. As for 99, that’s too far in the future to contemplate!
It could have been any street in any industrial town or city in England that winter evening early in 1970. Almost fifty years later it is impossible to recall with accuracy the nature of the buildings that lined it, illuminated in the orange glow of sodium lighting. I imagine most would have been closed and shuttered except perhaps for a launderette or a tobacconist. A dress shop, hardware store and pharmacy would have ceased trading an hour or two earlier. A fish and chip shop would have announced its presence long before I reached it.
It was around 7pm and the traffic was light. The number of working class families with motor cars then was much fewer than now. But it was an feature of the traffic that served as a reminder that this was not just another English city. In fact, it was not even England.
At just turned 28 I had been working for my then employer for a little over a year and a half. Much of that time had been spent producing drawings for a plant to be installed at the company’s synthetic fibre manufacturing facility at Carrickfergus a few miles north of Belfast. With design work completed I had been assigned to another project. Now construction of the plant was completed too. The task of starting up and handing over of the plant had been allocated to a young management trainee from Northern Ireland. I had been delegated to accompany him to Carrickfergus where my role would be to acquaint him with the various parts of the plant and their intended functions.
It was the availability of accommodation for him in the family home that left me alone in a small hotel for the night. I decided to take a bus into the city and take in a movie. The local paper I found in the small reception area of the hotel told me there was a film that might be worth seeing at a cinema on this street. Not knowing how far along the street the cinema might be, I decided to walk out from the city centre.
The name of the street was all too familiar. Six months previously it had featured regularly in the evening news as the scene of rioting. I don’t doubt that my decision to walk was influenced by a morbid desire to see first hand the scene of those riots. For me and, I imagined, the majority of young Britons, those riots had revealed a shocking truth: that there was still, in the United Kingdom, a group of people who were denied certain basic human rights. They did not have the vote, they were denied access to certain jobs, and they were, or so it seemed, being treated by the majority of their fellow Northern Irish residents as second class citizens. We felt that, whilst some of their activities could not be condoned, they did have right on their side.
Now the government had acceded to some of their demands. The rioting had ceased and life in the province had returned to normal. Except that some of the army personnel that had been deployed to quell the riots were still present.
The passage along the street of two grey painted Land Rovers, bearing distinctive military registration plates, was my reminder that tonight I was on a street unlike any other in the Kingdom. Their windows were covered with steel plates in which narrow slits provided the only means for the occupants to see where they were going and to observe other road users.
Once arrived at my intended destination I discovered that the programme had changed mid-week and that the film I wanted to see was no longer showing. I didn’t fancy what was on offer and recalled that I had also considered the possibility of going to the “arthouse” cinema at Queen’s University where a film by Jean Luc Godard was promised. There was not sufficient time to walk back to the city centre but it occurred to me that I might get to the university before the film began if I took a bus.
I crossed the street and waited at the bus stop opposite the cinema. Soon I was joined by a couple of young men who stationed themselves behind me at a discrete distance and indulged in some idle chatter. I recall nothing of these exchanges. I took no notice, lost in my own thoughts until the re-appearance of those army Land Rovers on their return journey to the city centre.
One of the men behind me let rip an expletive laden torrent of invective against the “F***ing bastard British army”, shouted at the top of his voice. No sooner were the Land Rovers past than he must have regretted having expressed his anger within earshot of a stranger. He could hardly have failed to note my reaction: the reddening of my neck and ears, the agitated shuffling of feet.
“Are you English?” he asked in calmer tones.
Denial was not a viable option. I turned to face the men. I guessed from the way he looked me up and down that it was the younger of the two who had posed the question. I didn’t doubt, either, that it was he who had uttered the tirade.
“Yes,” I said, already beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing this far from the city centre alone.
“I’m an Engineer. Doing a job for Courtaulds.”
“What part of England are you from?”
“Ah. I’ve been to Coventry. I have relatives there. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. Can you imagine how you’d feel if Coventry was bristling with soldiers the way Belfast is just now?”
I resisted the temptation to point out that Coventry had not been the recent scene of civil disturbances. Grateful for the imminent arrival of the bus I moved closer to the kerb edge. I climbed the spiral stairs to find a seat on the top deck. The two men ascended and sat in the seat immediately in front of mine. Turning to lean on the back of his seat, the young man repeated profuse apologies and went on to regale me with a story about a friend who had, he claimed, been brutally beaten by a soldier using the butt of his rifle to administer the blows. The soldier and his colleagues were just teenagers like the victim and his friend. Their vicious show of power was the cause of his anger.
As the conductor arrived to collect our fares the young man insisted on paying mine for me. When we arrived at the city centre he provided directions to Queen’s University. It was there that I was to receive the second shocking revelation of the night.
As the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had grown during the preceding summer, echoing the similarly named movement demanding equal rights for African Americans in the USA, one of the people who had emerged as a popular leader was a young woman from Derry called Bernadette Devlin. She had grown rapidly in popularity among the population of Derry City, sufficiently so as to be elected to the British parliament, where she had become the youngest member of that body, earning widespread admiration for the way she had articulated the grievances of her fellow citizens.
That admiration plainly did not extend to all parts of the province. As I approached the university campus I passed a series of timber hoardings upon which I was able to read in graphic detail, not so much a critique of her rhetoric, as a libelous account of “Bogside Bernie’s” sexual proclivities and the crudest imaginable descriptions of various parts of her anatomy. Alongside this shockingly pornographic writing were equally lewd, rude and crude illustrations.
I don’t remember much about the movie. It concerned a group of people stuck in a traffic jam as they joined the annual summer exodus from Paris. I vaguely recall that it featured some horrific pile ups involving numerous vehicles and some strange antics, around a camp fire, involving a fish.
The two examples of sheer unforgiving hatred that I experienced on my way there will, however, live with me forever. I recalled them repeatedly over the next two decades of violence that beset Northern Ireland and frequently spilled over to England with bombings of pubs and shopping centres in Birmingham, Guildford and Manchester among others.
In recent years the warring factions within the province have arrived at something of an accommodation and I have the greatest admiration for those like Mo Mowlem and George Mitchell whose patience and persistence made that possible. But it remains difficult for ordinary outsiders like me to understand what drove such bitterness and hatred. My belief is that fear born of ignorance is the root cause of conflict wherever it is found.
I often wonder what became of those two young men that travelled on the bus with me that night forty eight years ago, or the authors of the evil graffiti on the hoardings near Queen’s University. Did they join a paramilitary organisation? Were they driven out of their homes because they were of a different religion to that of their neighbours? Did they serve time in the infamous “H” block high security prison, perhaps participating in the hunger strikes or “dirty” protests? Did they become active participants in one or more bomb plots? Did they achieve positions of power within local or national government or in some covert organisation?
Above all, did they pass on their hate filled beliefs to their children and grandchildren, or did they discover, as some of their leaders seem to have done, an understanding of the importance of tolerance and forgiveness? I hope the latter is true.
My thanks to Sally Cronin for featuring Strongbow’s Wife on her blog, along with an excellent review.
For anyone that’s interested, there are two ways in which the Strongbow story connects with Archbishop Becket. Both he and Henry II were close friends with the Bristol merchant Aoife’s father first turned to for help in regaining his kingdom. And, once Beckett had been murdered in Canterbury Henry felt the need to atone. His mission to Ireland, suggested by the Pope some years earlier probably seemed like a good way of doing so.