Disillusionment also comes with age, not just youth . . .

I’m 70 later this year. I can’t think of any time during my adult life when I have been so disillusioned with politics here in the UK. Maybe I’ve just become a cynical old fart, but I’d like to think that’s not the case. Cynicism is not a personal attribute that I recognize. I am, however, a born optimist. My glass is almost always half full.

Yet the more this Brexit fiasco grinds on to its inevitable end in March next year (unless, by some political miracle, Theresa May and her inept government actually accept their own and independent analyses of the downside of leaving the European Union), the more pessimistic I become. Someone keeps taking sips from my glass.

Maybe I should quit Twitter. Inevitably, I follow tweeters who support Remain. So maybe I’m just reinforcing my own perspectives (prejudices) about the consequences of leaving the EU. Nevertheless, I did carefully weigh up both sides of the argument at the time of the June 2016 referendum, and voted to remain.

In the intervening two years, my opinion has not changed. If anything, I’m now a more committed Remain supporter given the distortion of the truth (I hate to use the term ‘lies’) pedaled by Theresa May and the Brexiteers in her Cabinet (the arch-protagonists being David Davis, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove) and on the back benches of the Tory Party such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, and John Redwood (and too many others to mention). If nothing else, they are certainly being economic with the truth.

It’s no better on the Labour benches, at least the Labour front bench. In my antipathy to the Tories, the Labour Party should be the logical recipient of my support. With Jeremy Corbyn at the helm I’m afraid that is never going to happen. Although he’s never said so explicitly, every action (or lack of) that he makes signifies that Corbyn is a Brexit supporter. Although not as commonplace as among the Tories, there are several prominent back-bench Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey who made a name for herself by spouting some of the most unverifiable drivel you can imagine in support of Brexit.

It’s remarkable that when the Tory government is in such disarray over Brexit that, in a recent poll, the Labour Party now finds itself several percentage points behind the Tories, notwithstanding the party making considerable parliamentary gains during Theresa May’s botched electoral campaign in 2017.

I just don’t see how being a member of the EU is holding this country back. I am sick of hearing that leaving the EU is the will of the British people. Yes, a majority of those who voted, 52%, supported Leave. One cannot dispute that result. I do believe that the referendum was flawed from the start, and evidence is emerging that there were shenanigans in the Leave campaign. Given the constitutional, social, and economic consequences of leaving the EU (after more than 40 years) the bar should have been set much higher for the vote. By that I mean that there should have been an absolute majority vote of the total electorate for one side or the other, not just those who voted. Because of the turnout, we now have a decision to leave the EU supported explicitly by just 37% of the electorate.

After two years we still do not know what the UK government’s negotiating position really is, or what outcome it desires, other than ‘Maybot’ slogans like Brexit means Brexit, Taking back control . . . of laws, borders, money.  Challenged on the BBC2 Daily Politics program yesterday to state clearly what she wanted from Brexit, Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns just trotted out the same old slogans that I mentioned above. No ideas, no vision! If this is the best they can do after two years, Heaven help us! The situation has now became so untenable that the EU negotiators as recently as yesterday rebuked the government for living in a fantasy world.

What I find particularly irksome is the dismissal, denigration even, of expert opinion. Facts don’t seem to matter. Ideology is the name of the game. Appearing before a select committee this past week, the CEO and Permanent Secretary of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Jon Thompson (someone who should be in the know), was asked for his assessment of the economic consequences of the two future customs options being ‘discussed’ by Theresa May’s Cabinet. He unequivocally stated that both options had severe economic consequences for businesses, as high as £20 billion. That’s more than the UK currently pays into the EU! Yet, when queried about that analysis, Andrea Jenkyns dismissed it, just as other Tories (particularly Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as The Daily Mail) have dismissed other expert opinion/analysis.

So, if things carry on as they have been, we’re headed for cloud cuckoo land¹. Flying in the face of reality, in the hope that the remaining 27 EU members will fall over to give the UK a special status post-Brexit (like being a member but not being a member), or that countries are lining up to sign trade deals (palpably untrue or, if under consideration, will exact terms that most of the population would consider unfavorable or unacceptable), we’re looking over a Brexit precipice and potentially sacrificing the futures of youth today.

And if the Brexit shambles wasn’t enough to cope with, this pathetic government has been mired recently in a scandal of its own ‘hostile environment’ making. Immigration is one of the major concerns of the Brexiteers, and a tough immigration policy has been a central plank of this and previous Tory governments. The Home Office (formerly occupied by Theresa May) is responsible for implementing immigration policy. But it has gone too far, and people who had a perfectly legal right to reside in the UK have been deported or threatened with deportation, and rights and benefits they enjoyed for decades were withdrawn. This was the case in particular with immigrants who came from the Caribbean (and other Commonwealth countries) in the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called Windrush Generation. It’s not only a scandal, but it’s a blot on the name and reputation of our country. The UK under the Tories really is becoming a nasty, insignificant little country, that aspires to greatness, but has lost the plot. This article highlights just one case.

Anyway, I refer to this latest scandal, because I found something rather interesting in the Conservative Party manifesto for the General Election held in June 1970, the first time I voted (I was 21, the minimum age for voting back then), and Edward Heath led the party to victory over Labour that had been in government from the mid-1960s under Harold Wilson. It also paved the way for the UK’s successful application to join the EEC (now the EU) on 1 January 1973. I searched the manifesto for any reference to the [EU]. This is all I could find:

These policies will strengthen Britain so that we can negotiate with the European Community confident in the knowledge that we can stand on our own if the price is too high.

But then, I came across something rather interesting with regard to immigration, and highly relevant in the current circumstances:

Good race relations are of immense importance. We are determined that all citizens shall continue to be treated as equal before the law, and without discrimination . . . We will establish a new single system of control over all immigration from overseas. The Home Secretary of the day will have complete control, subject to the machinery for appeal, over the entry of individuals into Britain. We believe it right to allow an existing Commonwealth immigrant who is already here to bring his wife and young children to join him in this country . . . We will give assistance to Commonwealth immigrants who wish to return to their countries of origin, but we will not tolerate any attempt to harass or compel them to go against their will (my emphasis).

How times have changed, and how the nasty party under Theresa May today has diverged from that broader church of Conservatism that I grew up under.

Come the next General Election, where will my vote go? Certainly not to the Tories. And unless Labour elects a different leader, and brings some realistic social thinking to its policies – and supports continuing membership of the EU – then my vote won’t be going there either. It’s a dilemma. It’s depressing. No wonder I’m disillusioned. Nevertheless, a little voice does whisper every now and again that things can get better. I certainly hope so.

¹ Cloud cuckoo land is a state of absurdly, over-optimistic fantasy or an unrealistically idealistic state where everything is perfect. Someone who is said to “live in cloud cuckoo land” is a person who thinks that things that are completely impossible might happen, rather than understanding how things really are. It also hints that the person referred to is naive, unaware of realities or deranged in holding such an optimistic belief.

Candles, paraffin lamps, electricity . . . and a ‘rule of thumb’

Once there were hundreds. Now there’s just Court No. 15, the last remaining (and carefully restored) courtyard of working people’s houses just south of Birmingham city center on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets.

Court 15 of the Birmingham Back to Backs, with the Birmingham Hippodrome on the north (right) side. Just imagine what the area must have looked like in earlier decades with street upon street of these terraced and back to back houses.

This is the Birmingham Back to Backs, owned by the National Trust, which we had the pleasure of visiting a couple of days ago, and enjoyed a tour led by knowledgeable guide Fran Payne. This National Trust property should be on everyone’s NT bucket list.

Court 15 was completed in 1831 and its houses were occupied as recently as the mid-1960s, when they were condemned. Commercial premises on the street side were still being used as late as 2002.

Court 15 was a communal space for upwards of 60-70 men, women and children, living on top of one another, in houses that were literally just one room deep: built on the back of the terraces facing the street. Just imagine the crowding, the lack of running water and basic sanitation, leading to the spread of social diseases like tuberculosis or cholera that were common in the 19th century. Just three outside toilets for everyone.

Since coming into its hands in 2004, the National Trust has developed an interesting tour of three of the Court 15 houses, taking in the lives of families from the 1840s, 1870s, and 1930s known to be living there then. The tour, encompassing very narrow and steep (almost treacherous) stairs over three floors, takes you into the first 1840s house, up to the attic bedrooms, and through to that representing the 1870s. You then work your way down to the ground floor, and into the house next door. From the attic in that house, the tour passes into the former commercial premises of tailor George Saunders who came to Birmingham from St Kitts in the Caribbean and made a name for himself in bespoke tailoring. When Saunders vacated Court 15 in 2002 he left much of the premises as it was on his last day of trading.

A Jewish family by the name of Levi, was known to reside in one of the houses during the 1840s. The Levis had one daughter and three sons, and like many other families, Mr Levi practiced his trade (of making clock and watch hands) from his home.

On the top attic floor of this house there are two rooms still accessible on the street side, but have never been renovated.

In the next 1870s house, occupied by the Oldfields, who had many children – and lodgers! – there is already a coal-fired range in the kitchen, and paraffin lamps were used throughout for lighting. The children slept head-to-toe in a bed in the attic room, shared with the married lodgers. Modesty was maintained by a curtain.

By the 1930s, there was already electricity (and running water) in the house, occupied by an elderly bachelor George Mitchell.

The premises of George Saunders are full of all the paraphernalia of the tailoring business. An old sewing machine, and another for making buttonholes. Patterns for bespoke suits handing from the walls, and bolts of cloth stacked on shelves. There are some half-finished garments, others ready to collect. Until his death, George worked with the National Trust to document the last years of the Back to Backs.

Throughout the houses there are many contemporary pieces of furniture and ornaments. My eye was caught by this particularly fine pair of (presumably) Staffordshire rabbits.

Finally, no visit to the Birmingham Back to Backs would be complete without a look inside Candies, a Victorian sweet shop on the corner of Hurst and Inge Streets at No. 55, purveyor of fine sweets that I remember from my childhood. What a sensory delight! In fact, tours of the Back to Backs start from outside Candies, so there’s no excuse.

And finally, what about that ‘rule of thumb’ I referred to in the title of this post. Well, while we were looking at the sleeping arrangements for the Oldfield children in the 1870s, Fran Payne reached under the bed for the gazunda, the communal chamber pot (‘goes under’). In the darkness, she told us, this how you could tell, with the tip of your thumb, whether a chamber pot was full or not. Dry: OK. Wet: time to go downstairs to the outside toilet in the courtyard.

I mentioned that our visit to the Back to Backs was very enjoyable, but it’s not somewhere that I would have made a special trip. We had to be in Birmingham on another errand, and since it was just a hop and a skip from the central Post Office, we took the opportunity. The Birmingham Back to Backs are a special relic of this great city of 1,000 trades.


A working-class movement for political reform

Less than 4 miles by road west of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (much less as the crow flies) lies the village of Dodford. Nothing remarkable in that, you might say.

Well, until 1849, the village didn’t even exist. The area was known then as Greater Dodford, but became a community (of sorts) when a ‘village’ of more than 40 redbrick cottages (like the one below, known as Rosedene) was built, each in its own 4 acre plot of land. That’s significant.

Feargus O’Connor

Rosedene was built by the Chartist Cooperative Land Company, and the Dodford community was the last of five that were set up around the country by Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor.

So, what was Chartism and who were the Chartists?

Chartism was a national (but geographically uneven) working class movement, with violent and non-violent factions, campaigning for political reform between 1838 and 1857. The movement  was named after the 1838 People’s Carter that espoused six principles:

  • manhood suffrage (but not women)
  • the secret ballot
  • abolition of property qualifications for MPs
  • payment of MPs
  • equal electoral districts
  • annual elections.

Communities like Dodford were established to help working-class people satisfy the landholding requirement to gain a vote in county seats. That’s why each cottage was built on 4 acres of land, the minimum at the time to satisfy the landholding requirement to make a man eligible to vote.

O’Connor purchased a farm of more than 250 acres at Greater Dodford, and divided it into 4 acre plots for each cottage. The lanes around Dodford remain as narrow today as when first opened in the 1840s.

Potential occupants placed bids for the cottages, with the highest bidder receiving the ‘choicest’ plot, and so on until all plots had been allocated.

Having walked around the plot at Rosedene, I can vouchsafe that it’s a large plot for one family to manage. Many of those who came to Dodford were working class families from the cities, with little experience of agriculture. What they encountered at Dodford was a very heavy clay soil that was extremely difficult to cultivate. Eventually however, they established that strawberries did grow well, and opened up a market to Birmingham for their produce. Likewise, garlic thrived, which they sold to the makers of Worcestershire Sauce, Lea & Perrins, in Worcester, 15 miles to the south.

By the time Dodford was built, O’Connor had perfected his simple cottage design. Each cottage had a simple central living room with a range for heating and cooking, with a bedroom off to each side. To the rear was a small scullery and an indoor water pump. The ash toilet was in an outhouse (much like my grandparents’ cottage in Derbyshire that they occupied until the early 1960s). Maybe there was a pig sty attached to the enclosed small yard. Behind the cottage there is a small barn.

Bricks for each cottage were made on site. Rosedene sits on foundations of stone. I did wonder whether stones from the 12th century priory nearby (now incorporated into a farmhouse) had been used for this purpose but there is no record of that being the case. O’Connor’s design included the ‘modern’ feature of air vents low down on the walls and into the roof to reduce condensation.

The National Trust purchased Rosedene in 1997 and has faithfully restored it. We visited the cottage a week ago. There is only limited access on the first Sunday of each month between April and December (on pre-booked tours).

Unfortunately, the National Trust volunteers waiting to welcome us to Rosedene were unable to unlock the property so we never got to look inside, apart from peering through the windows.

However, you can see something more of the interior here, which also provides a potted history of Rosedene.


Spring is in the air in Worcestershire

Nestling under the eastern flank of the Malvern Hills, the Three Counties Showground is home to the annual Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Malvern Spring Festival (from 10-13 May this year), just 25 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove.

We were lucky enough to enjoy a day out at the festival yesterday, although somewhat marred unfortunately by a journey to the festival of almost 2½ hours, such was the volume of traffic trying to get round just 3 miles of the Worcester ring road, A4440. And the return journey wasn’t much better, taking almost 90 minutes, as we hit traffic north on the M5 due to a stranded vehicle. I can’t deny I was quite relieved to arrive home, put my feet up, and enjoy a welcome cup of tea.

Later that evening, almost half of the regular Friday night Gardeners’ World program on BBC2 was devoted to the Malvern festival, filmed the day before when it was much brighter,and far fewer visitors than on Friday. Drone footage showed us just how big the site was (we walked almost 3½ miles), and showcased many of the show gardens that we could obviously only view from ground level. It’s also remarkable just how ‘permanent’ some of these gardens appear, as though they (and their plantings) had been there for years, not just a week at most.

We didn’t see any of the Gardeners’ World presenters during our visit, but gardener and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh was taking questions from the audience in the event tent; and later on we saw Master Chef judge John Torode waxing lyrical about the use of plants in Thai cooking.

The Royal Horticultural Society is the world’s leading gardening charity, and organizes a number of flower shows around the country between April and September each year. Of course its major attraction is the Chelsea Flower Show, that takes place at the end of May in London. It can rightly claim to be the world’s most prestigious flower show that inspires millions and leads the way in innovative garden design. We enjoyed a day there in 2013 when the show celebrated 100 years since its founding. Tickets for the Chelsea (also the Malvern, Kew Gardens, and two Gardeners’ World Live shows) were Christmas presents from our two daughters Hannah and Philippa.

The RHS Malvern Spring Festival is the second in the Society’s 2018 calendar and, set against the magnificent Malvern Hills . . . is packed with flowers, food, crafts and family fun. And yes, we did have fun. So rather than describe what we did and saw, here’s just a selection of the many photos I took during the day.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths that almost all growers and exhibitors go to, bringing plants in flower from all seasons, even though it’s late Spring. Plants like daffodils and tulips that flowered in our garden at least a month ago were exuberant. Summer flowering plants like sweet peas and so many others were displayed in all their glory. In some ways, we should have gone into the huge floral show marquee from the outset, rather than exploring to the far corners of the show ground. It seemed just so commercial, with booths offering every sort of gardening equipment, clothing, and almost anything to do with gardening (or not in some instances).

But faith was restored once we’d entered the floral marquee and I was able to breathe in the beauty of all the fabulous displays of botanical beauty.

Among my favorites were the auriculasPrimula auricula, that come in a huge range of colors. Some are covered in a powdery coating called farina.

And I can never go to a flower show without seeking out the tulips. Maybe I should have been around during the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century.

So after my early ‘disappointment’ that the Malvern was all about commercialism, I think we must have spent at least half of our time wandering around the various flower display marquees.

Having now been to two RHS and two Gardeners’ World Live (GWL) shows, I’m not sure I can agree with Monty Don (lead presenter of Gardeners’ World) that Malvern is a real jewel. He always waxes lyrical in his praise, as do the other presenters on that program. Yes, it’s a nice show, but I think the standard of displays is unquestionably higher at Chelsea, and also at GWL. Maybe my perspectives were jaundiced by the horrendous journey we had to Malvern. I was exhausted before we even began to look around.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable visit, and a lovely Christmas present from our two daughters and their families.

Almost 400 years of history in the vicinity . . .

Yesterday, Steph and I traveled some 40 miles southeast from our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire, to revisit the National Trust’s Upton House and Gardens near the village of Edgehill in Warwickshire, that lies some seven miles northwest from Banbury (map).

We were last there in July 2012, combined with a trip to nearby Farnborough Hall. Take a look at a web album of photos that I posted afterwards.

Edgehill was the site of the first major battle of the First English Civil War, on Sunday 23 October 1642. Here the Royalist supporters of King Charles I clashed with Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Essex. The King had commanded the high ground and his troops marched down the Cotswolds escarpment to join battle with the enemy, arrayed below. The battle ended in stalemate.

The roar of cannons has long faded, as have the tramp of troops or galloping of horses, the clash of steel on steel, and the screams of wounded and dying men. Over the past four centuries the landscape must have changed immeasurably. Probably back in 1642 there were no fields, just open country, intermittently broken by woodland. And there certainly were no vivid blotches of bright yellow oilseed rape that are so typical of farming in the UK today.

A panorama over the site of the Battle of Edgehill, and north across Warwickshire.

We could see almost 40 miles west to the Malvern Hills, just visible (using binoculars) through the distant murk of an approaching weather front (that finally arrived with a vengeance overnight, and it has been raining heavily since). But what a magnificent view we had, almost perfect weather on May Day, even if a little chilly.

We had been intending to visit Upton just a few weeks ago, and enjoy the National Trust’s recommended ‘What a View’ Walk from Upton house, that takes in the Edgehill escarpment and the glorious view, a circular walk of just under 2½ miles that took around 1½ hours before arriving back at the car park to enjoy a welcome picnic.

We decided just to take a look at the gardens, rather than tour the house again. That would be a better option when the weather is inclement. Yesterday, after weeks of poor weather, it was just too nice to be inside.

The south front of the house overlooks the Main Lawn towards a ha-ha that disguises a steep drop to the Mirror Pool in the valley bottom.

The Main Lawn, looking south to the ha-ha, from where the garden drops steeply to the Mirror Pool. The open fields can be seen beyond the brick wall of the garden (see image immediately below).

The Mirror Pool from the ha-ha, with the Hazel Bank and Sunken Lawn on the right.

It’s remarkable how the landscape was adapted to create quite an intimate garden. We really must return again a little earlier in the year and enjoy the Spring bulbs. Most had already flowered, although there were some patches of Narcissi and beds of tulips adding a vibrancy in the early afternoon sunshine.

Looking west across the Mirror Pool to a magnificent yew behind the Kitchen Garden and the Dry Banks above.

A panorama of the Kitchen Garden and Dry Banks across the Mirror Pool, from the south. The ha-ha is at the top of the terraces, immediately below the Main Lawn.