Sunday, 11 November 2018

Remembrance Day in Broken Barnet, 2018

Remembrance Day, North Finchley, 2018

It seems to be increasingly the thing to do, these days, to reject the idea of remembrance, to raise criticisms of the wearing of a red poppy, and to present any ritualised commemoration as somehow mawkish, jingoistic - or a gloating triumphalism.

Maybe this is simply because we now have a generation of younger people whose families have never experienced the horror of war, or who have forgotten their own history, and the losses they experienced seventy years ago, or a hundred years ago.

Easy to repeat the aphorism that those who forget the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat it. Easy to point at what is happening now, in the US, in Europe, and the UK: the rise of populism, and the normalisation of extreme right wing politics: the rise of anti-semitism, anti-gypsyism, islamophobia. Hard to understand it, perhaps, unless you see it against a personal background of experience, or inherited memory.

Easy to misinterpret or misrepresent the interest by so many in the wars of the past: in the trenches of the First World War, or the unfolding of World War Two.

In most families, any traumatic experience, of loss, or poverty, or violence, is hard enough to deal with. 

For those families who have gone through the experience of war, or persecution, and flight: the loss of loved ones, the loss of home, the threat of injury or death - it is something that is often impossible to process at the time. 

Often those who survive such experiences never speak of it, to their own children. I know this to be true in my own family, where unspoken trauma was passed on through the generations that followed : from those that survived the horrors of eviction and famine in Ireland, my mother and aunts who lost a brother and sister, in one terrible week, in their impoverished childhood: other, darker, half acknowledged secrets that died with them - and of course my grandfather and great uncles, some of whom did not came back from the Great War, or did return, but physically or psychologically damaged:

It is painfully true, this suppression of trauma, of those I have met who survived the Holocaust, and could not bear to tell their own children the story of what happened to them, in Germany, or in the Warsaw Ghetto, or escaping from a one way journey to a concentration camp.

Those untold stories remain in the margins of silence, to a greater or lesser extent, because for survivors the memory is or was too great to acknowledge: but the pain these experiences cause often become all the greater for remaining unspoken, and visited onto all the generations that follow, in one way or another.

Better then to address it, and confront it - and remember. 

I have my grandfather's portrait in his Royal Field Artillery uniform, handsome and swaggering, as usual, keen to get to France and act the hero. He came back to Durham from the Great War a broken, brutalised man, with his life in ruins: a new wife soon expecting their first child - and no job. No jobs for heroes, only a life ahead of poverty and humiliation, for him, an educated man left with no option but to take a job down the pit like everyone else.

I have my great uncle's dog tags: returned to his mother after his death: but with the wrong details - John Cross, CoE, instead of RC, for Roman Catholic. He had been called up, even though he was, as we would say now, someone with severe learning disabilities - when his brother accompanied him to the army recruiting station and tried to explain this, they listened, and then conscripted the brother as well. 

Their Irish Catholic mother Mary Ann refused to believe the dog tags had come from her son's body: especially when someone from the same town claimed to have seen him walking along the top of a trench, two weeks after he was supposed to have been killed, in the last few weeks before the war ended, in the last great push. She never accepted his death, and waited for him to come home. He never did, of course, and is buried in a small cemetery near Cambrai, with 63 other casualties from the 19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. Mary Ann's sister had already lost two teenage sons within days of each other, in 1915. No graves for them, just a name on a wall, and on a local memorial. 

We had a mass said, for John Cross, on the anniversary of his death: it is what my grandmother, and my mother, would have done, as a matter of course, in their lifetimes. I noticed from the mass lists that he was the second soldier to be remembered in this way, in that week: the other also from an Irish family, in the Connaught Rangers. 

I also have the engraved 'trench art' shell case another great uncle bought home, Percy Garnish, listing the battles he had survived: Hooge, Ypres. He survived, but not for long: gassed in the trenches, he never recovered his health and died in the old Colindale hospital, where he had been sent from Brixton for better air. Making the long trek from South London to Colindale to visit Percy was how the family made the decision to move here permanently - to Edgware and Mill Hill. 

And Percy is buried in Hendon Cemetery, along with both my grandparents. Ah yes: Hendon Cemetery,  handed over to Capita, who were desperate to get their hands on the opportunity for profit from death and bereavement, planning all sorts of ways of maximising income: live streamed funerals, DVDS, even a cafe. Oh and re-using our family graves to squeeze more profit out of plots. 

Colindale hospital is no more: another luxury housing development.

Here in Broken Barnet we do things differently, of course - remembrance not excepted.

Like every other token of culture, history or heritage, this must fit in with the ruling principles of market forces: profit before all. 

History begins only in Year Zero: when our borough became annexed by Capita; everything that came before can be of no interest, unless it can generate income, or pay its way: and if it stands in the way of development? Knock it down, or sell it off. 

Most residents will have no idea that there have been plans for Finchley to mark the hundred year anniversary of the end of the First World War with the unveiling of a large memorial, with no less than 1300 names of local people who went to war, but did not return: a wonderful idea, promoted by local historian Mick Crick.

Amongst those names should be the name of Private John Henry Parr, the first casualty of the War, who died on the 21st August 2014, it is believed after having been sent on his bike with another soldier on a reconnaissance mission, and coming face to face with a German patrol. He was only seventeen years old, having lied about his age in order to join the army two years earlier. 

Probably this was an economic necessity for his family: in the 1911 census he is listed as living in Lodge Lane, North Finchley, where there is a commemorative plaque, but he was born and spent his early years in Lichfield Grove, a turning off the road I live in. The 1901 census shows a large family struggling to live in rooms in a shared small house: and we know that poor John's mother, by 1911, had only seven children surviving out of twelve. Joining the army must have seemed like a good move. John Parr is now buried in the same cemetery in France as the last soldier to die before the Armistice took effect.

Another casualty of war who lived close by, here in Finchley, was a twenty year old boy called Frank Smith. Already a veteran of combat before his eighteenth birthday, wounded while serving in the Dardenelles, sent home to recover for twelve months, he was then called up again, and sent this time to France, where death soon claimed him, in April 1917. 

Frank went to the school next door to my house - and he lived in the Lodge, in Victoria Park: his father was the park keeper. 

Yes, that Lodge, and that park: a story I've written about a lot, over the last couple of years. 

Local campaigner Mary O'Connor at the entrance to the Lodge, Victoria Park

I always think of poor Frank, and his family, when I pass by the gate to the Lodge, most days, and I thought of him recently when reading about the planned memorial to Finchley's fallen: would his name be on it? 

And then: a curious development - an application to put the Memorial not where originally intended, but in the park, where Frank used to live. 

Originally, you see, the Memorial was meant to stand in a location in Finchley that seemed the most appropriate of all: Finchley Memorial Hospital, in Bow Lane.

This is another local building that I've written about - the white elephant that squats on the site of an older hospital, demolished in order to replace it with a state of the art facility, funded by PFI money, from a Labour government initiative - and then left empty and deliberately underused by a Tory government and unaccountable local CCG. 

The first hospital was built in 1908 on land purchased by a local benefactor: Ebenezer Homan, who lived with his family in Friern Watch, a large house in North Finchley.

At the end of the Great War, the building was renamed as Finchley Memorial Hospital, in honour of the generation of the many local men who had gone to war, and not returned. As I discovered when writing an earlier post some years ago:

When Finchley Memorial Hospital was renamed, in 1922, the ceremony was marked by the attendance of General Sir Ian Hamilton, who was, until recalled from duty, the former Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force during the Gallipoli campaign, and seems to have made a consequent career of unveiling memorials to those who lost their lives as a result of the insanity and incompetence of his fellow officers and architects of war.

The original Finchley Memorial Hospital

Hamilton being one of those ultimately responsible for the botched landing at Suvla Bay may have been seen by Mr and Mrs Smith as an inappropriate choice to oversee the renaming of the local hospital.

When the hundred year anniversary approached, plans were made by Barnet War Memorials Association, led by Mick Crick, to commemorate the fallen of both world wars on a new memorial, which would be placed on the hospital site. Planning permission for this project was granted last year.

Except those in charge of the hospital had other ideas, despite the initial agreement to allow this. Due to constant delays by hospital trust managers and 'private partners' in providing the requisite permission, it became clear that the memorial would not be in place for the anniversary. It seems that the significance of the timing was of no interest to the hospital bosses: and plans were made instead to see if it could at least, at some point, be placed in Victoria Park. Wherever it goes, it will be too late for this special centenary Remembrance Day. What an insult to those whose names should have been in place, for this particular day.

At the point where the memorial should be there is nothing more than a single, forlorn and weather beaten wreath, marking the spot where it may now never stand.

Such obstruction is insensitive, but what is the reason? Well: I think we can guess.

Last year we discovered, accidentally, from an FOI released to a resident, secret plans to develop part of the land on the hospital site, plans being encouraged by council officers and NHS property managers, as well as other interested parties. 

Where the wreath has been placed is on the boundary of the most likely area for development. Could it be, do you think, that the reluctance to approve the installation of the memorial was anything to do with these plans?

The five 2-ton marble stones that make up the memorial were cut and polished.  The 1300 plus names have been researched and checked, and were ready to be engraved onto the stones.  All that remained was for someone from the NHS to give the official go-ahead and the memorial could have been installed within weeks. Now it is too late.

Whatever the real reason for the delay, the result has been to destroy the only chance to honour the lost soldiers at the most appropriate time,  the 100th year anniversary remembrance day. 

A pretty shabby outcome, and yet utterly predictable, in this borough, where developers have the last say on everything.

The Lodge, where Private Frank Smith closed the gate, leaving behind his mother, father and sister, on the way to his death in the trenches - sold by the council, in conflict with their role as trustees of the park, and despite the covenant carefully designed to protect the park from such development - is now up for auction, this coming week, despite the covenant that should prevent any sale or development. 

That covenant was put in place by the local benefactors who created the park - led by 'Inky' Stephens, of Avenue House, which was used in the war as a hospital for injured servicemen. One wonders what he would have made of the commercialisation of the park, the destruction of the local hospital - and the failure to erect the memorial.

Instead of a service of Remembrance commemorating the hundred year anniversary of the Armistice, a local Finchley ceremony took place as usual at the smaller memorial outside the British Legion building in North Finchley, which has no names on it, but is accompanied by two smaller ones with lists of men from a local bus garage, and the tramway service.

Can you guess what I am going to tell you now? That this building, and the memorial site, were nearly lost this year, due to the Capita consulted, Capita approved redevelopment of North Finchley. 

Only public protest has saved the day: and the very fact that they thought nothing of including this property in their scheme tells you everything you need to know about the continuing invasion and exploitation of our community, and our heritage, by developers encouraged by the Tory administration and their Capita contractors.

It is all part of the sickness that has taken over this borough; hanging over us in a miasma of greed and philistinism. 

Some would say history is irrelevant, and the remembrance of wars long past is pointless: that it belongs to another age. But the older you get, the less you see time as something fixed, and irretrievable - or disposable. 

You can close down the museum, prevent the building of a memorial, throw away all the history books in the libraries - shut the libraries - but the story of the past still lives on in the memory of any community, or surviving witness.

My eldest aunt was conceived in the last months of the Great War, when my grandfather had leave from the trenches: she was born in 1919. 

She is still alive, in 2018, and in her hundredth year; her lifetime spanning everything that has happened in the century after the Armistice. 

Still alive, but returned now to the time of her childhood, where she relives some of the dark history buried for so long as if it happened only months ago, not decades. 

Such is the power of memory, and loss. 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018

Friday, 9 November 2018

Kicking Out Capita - an Inquiry at the House of Commons

A trio of Barnet bloggers

Arriving at Westminster, on Tuesday night, and being a little early, I thought I might park Mrs Angry on a bench somewhere, reading over her speech for the meeting, and laughing at her own jokes, as usual, and go and have a quick peek at the river below the Parliament buildings, now shrouded in discreet veiling during the period of renovation.

This was an entirely unrelated mission to the purpose of the evening - I thought I would take a look at the spot where, in the tradition of my family's spectacular tradition of sensationalised lives and deaths, my great-great grandfather managed to drown himself, in October 1864, falling over the edge of a giant caisson, a metal cylinder placed in the water in the course of work on the Thames Embankment, between the bridge and Parliament. He managed to get himself in the Morning Advertiser, (Shocking and Fatal Accident At The Thames Embankment) and the Evening Standard, anyway: probably the only incident of note in his difficult life, born by the river in Essex, married by the river at St Mary Lambeth, living by the river in the notorious slums of Waterloo. 

Poor forgotten Thomas Garnish's ignoble death by the river, in the murky waters below the mother of all Parliaments, happened because it had been considered necessary to create a massive new sewage system for London, after years of rising pollution - and notably as a result of the long, hot summer of 1858, the year of the Great Stink, when Parliament could not keep away the noxious fumes from the foul water of the Thames. The stench had been intolerable, for our elected representatives, whose upper class sensitivities were of course rather more refined than those of the workers like Thomas, who lived in extreme poverty, with no sanitation, and every risk of an early death from disease - or accident - as a result.

That was then, and here we are now in an era when our Tory politicians appear to want to reduce the less advantaged members of society to the same level of squalid poverty and dependency they would have faced in the nineteenth century: a thought that reoccurred with chilling impact once in the palace of Westminster, watching an icily disapproving Iain Duncan Smith glide past the crowd of Barnet residents waiting in the committee room corridor. A couple of those residents clocked who it was, and ventured a muted jeer as he moved on, his feet barely touching the f*cking floor.

The air that wafts into the committee rooms of Westminster, filtered through the billowing sheets draped over the scaffolding, may be more sweet smelling these days - or it may not: as the evening progressed, there did seem to be a distinct odour of something indefinable in the air, that was not entirely pleasant. 

Because we were in Parliament to take part in an meeting that wasn't exactly a meeting: an Inquiry into the impact of Capita on the London Borough of Barnet, an event organised by Barnet Unison's John Burgess, chaired by Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, and attended by the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Evidence to be given in the form of testimonies by residents, activists, councillors, bloggers.

McDonnell welcomed all those present, and introduced himself with becoming modesty as the man whose most important job was booking rooms for John Burgess. 

He is well acquainted with the state of things in Broken Barnet, as he reminded us, having visited our picket lines and protests over the years - including, with Jeremy Corbyn, the march for libraries that some of us foolishly went on, from Finchley to the occupied People's Library in Friern Barnet - in a blizzard. Local activist Tirza Waisel pointed out that blizzard actually took place in the Barnet Spring. Indeed it did.

He spoke about the business of outsourcing, conflicts of interest, and the need to reform the process, as well as the state of audit, shared out as it is, between the magic circle of four major companies. And Barnet? Barnet had been a testing bed for outsourcing, he observed - the Easycouncil model was of course considered a flagship policy for Tory authorities.

Time for the evidence: first up, three Barnet bloggers: Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, and Mrs Angry. Mr Tichborne has written about the meeting here.

You can see our testimony here, if you're bothered: 


Mrs Angry's contribution (from about 16 minutes in) was about the creation of the London Borough of Capita, as the last outpost of their failing empire. 

In pleasing irony, the massive picture above our heads depicted King Alfred 'inciting the Saxons to prevent the landing of the Danes ...' 

Also pleasing to see the Shadow Chancellor guffawing at Mrs Angry's Crapitorial jokes for lapsed Catholics, of course:

A steady progression of speakers followed: Barbara Jacobson, from grassroots campaign Barnet Alliance, mentioned the recent £2 million fraud by a Capita employee - how many others might there be, she asked: a question Barnet's Tory councillors are keen not to explore - at least publicly.

Resident Nick Dixon told a shocking story about alleged malpractices within the planning service.

Resident Janet spoke of the appalling state of adult care in Barnet, and the lack of interest by members of the committees tasked with scrutiny of provision.

Holly Kal-Weiss, from Chipping Barnet Labour, who is hoping to be selected as the parliamentary candidate to stand against Theresa Villiers, told us about an extraordinary sequence of events involving a resident wrongly charged massive fees by Capita - twice.

Several Labour councillors made the effort to attend the meeting - although unfortunately not the group Leader, Barry Rawlings - and two of them now spoke: Ross Houston, who commented that the Easycouncil test alluded to by John McDonnell had failed, along with One Barnet and the 'Thin Client' model imposed on our local services. He criticised the lack of transparency and accountability, and most of all the gross mismanagement that had led to the wrong, understated deficit figures being published before the May elections, adjusted to a far worse level immediately after the Tories won back control of the council. 

He rightly commented that the only explanation for this was mismanagement, or something far worse. There can only be one of two explanations. Yet no action appears to have followed in terms of investigating how this happened. John Mc Donnell nodded as he suggested we needed to restore the scrutiny of an Audit Commission - abolished, of course, by Eric Pickles.

Labour member Kathy Levine also spoke: criticising amongst other Capita failures the truly awful administration of the local Pensions Scheme, the £2m fraud and the Grant Thornton report that was withheld from publication.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Holly Kal-Weiss, Cllrs Ross Houston and Kathy Levine

New councillor Sara Conway made a very good point, that Labour needs to communicate on the doorstep to voters the reality of outsourcing, and explain why it is that their local services are failing.

As the flow of testimony continued, the odour of something not quite definable moved about the room, not from the river, something we brought with us from Broken Barnet: something rotten, and dying.

Barnet Unison's John Burgess, a man who has worked tirelessly over the years, all too often ignored, to warn what would happen in the course of the mass privatisation of our local public services, wound up the meeting, with a notice of the forthcoming council meetings, such as P&R on 11th December, and the next Full Council a week later, where we expect the Tory councillors, despite all that has happened, to announce they intend to continue with the catastrophic coupling with Capita, both parties struggling in the water, dragging each other down to the depths, rather than admit their gross incompetence, and face up to the truth.

Residents are invited to attend these meetings, and make their feelings known: further details to follow.

John Burgess

Capita Inquiry address: 

I’ve been writing about the London Borough of Capita for five long years, and about the process of outsourcing for much longer: since the days of ‘Easycouncil’, Futureshape, and One Barnet. Which came first? Can anyone remember?

When we took Barnet to the High Court, to challenge the mass privatisation of our council services, the judge found it impossible to understand the ever changing shape of what became the One Barnet programme, or to identify the point of decision at which it could be challenged. But that had been a deliberate strategy: to invent a Trojan Horse, to enter the city walls, and win the war.

The truth is these shape-shifting concepts are all versions of the same thing, or rather part of the same process of metamorphosis: and they all have the same meaning, and significance, which is – no meaning at all. They are all an act of deception; smoke and mirrors.

Language, in corporate culture, which is now the culture embedded in our system of government, is not a medium of communication, but the reverse: an attempt to obstruct transparency, and accountability; to facilitate the exploitation of profit, even at the point of delivering vital public services, in a time of austerity.

Easycouncil was an empty, meaningless idea, deployed by a local Tory MP in search of a claim to some sort of political vision. It is the perfect testimony to his career. Unveiled as a new model of local government, it was in fact another version of the same model of outsourcing being rolled out by the same team of companies throughout the public sector.

It is impossible to write about Barnet, and Capita, without using the metaphor of empire: because this is what we have become; colonised by Capita: the last outpost, in a virtual invasion, and occupation. It is the twenty first century equivalent of the East India Company, perhaps: an incremental appropriation of land, and wealth, by stealth, for the commercial exploitation of resources.

By stealth, and not won by open battle or siege: Barnet was an open city, the keys willingly handed over by our empty headed Tory councillors, assured by a scheming court of senior officers, and a cabal of consultants - some of whom were moving in and out of Barnet and various would be tendering companies - that mass outsourcing was necessary, that mass outsourcing was the answer to all their problems.

They could provide better services, for less money. Did they really believe that? Hard to tell, as most of them lack the ability to scrutinise the most basic report, let alone a billion pound budget.

Barnet’s Tories are old school, unrepentant neo Thatcherites. They are an evolutionary anomaly: the last of their breed, still living in the days of glory when Margaret sat in their council chamber every election night to see herself re-elected and pretended to remember who they were. She was very good at that: the older members still recount, with moist eyes, the tiniest anecdote connected with her; to the younger ones she is a mythical figure from the past, but one whose spirit still haunts the corridors of Hendon Town Hall.

They were easily persuaded, then, that their instinctive distrust of the public sector should be reason enough to embark on the wholescale privatisation of our local services. They didn’t need much persuasion, in truth: their hands off approach to governance, and preference for an easy life, meant their approval was guaranteed, despite any reasoned arguments not to undertake such a risk laden venture.

And there were reasoned arguments, from every side: from unions, from grassroots campaigners like Barnet Alliance, from local bloggers, from Labour councillors. Reports were commissioned from leading academics, legal advice was taken, and acted upon: the Judicial Review would have been won, if not deemed out of time: and it was out of time largely because no one had spotted the moment when it had all begun, the shape-shifting of Easycouncil, Futureshape, One Barnet.

As we know, Barnet’s Tory members approved the contracts, five years ago, without properly scrutinising the details – the 8,000 pages of details. They were not allowed to, given only a few hours to skim through. The contracts were assessed and approved by … the same lawyers who had written them.

The members may not have read the contracts, but we did – which is how, incidentally, I came to discover that hidden within one section dealing with the enthusiastic commercialisation of our local crematorium, now the Crapitorium – literally making money out of my dead grandmother – Capita had proposed mitigating the risk of negative publicity by offering discounted, pre-used graves to the local bloggers! Yes: a Capita joke, and legally binding! An offer which I am not quite ready to take up. Still: in the midst of life, we are in death: and always we are in the hands of Capita. There is no escape. They own us, body and soul, & no doubt will pursue us in the after life, too, having won a contract for the provision of eternal torment, in the many rings of hell.

The Tory members had not spotted the many variations within the contracts that enabled Capita to maximise the opportunities for profit by way of extra fees such as ‘Gainshare’ payments: all of which means instead of better services for less money, we have seen a rapid decline in the performance of services, and rising costs.

One example of how this works in practice was the shameful revelation – by local bloggers – of the ‘opportunity’ taken by Capita to gain extra fees by taking over the provision of Freedom Passes to local residents with disabilities. Young people with autism and other difficulties were finding themselves stranded, unable to get home, and deeply distressed because their passes had been cancelled by Capita with no warning, and without any valid reason. Only after public outcry did the Tories intervene, and restore the passes.

Planning and enforcement is another area in which profit for shareholders is prioritised over providing a fair and transparent service for residents. Want to get your development approved? Pay a whopping fee, and you are fast tracked all the way. You can even pay to choose your own planning officer: now why would you want to do that? Where are the safeguards to ensure probity within the planning service? As for enforcement, there is no profit to be made there, so little has taken place. As a result, even Tory councillors are beginning to see the outcome in terms of electoral damage from their own voters, furious at the rampant proliferation of unauthorised development, now posing a threat to their own best interests.

Capita is in serious trouble now in regard to its botched handling of the Barnet Pension scheme: anyone like me who has experienced the level of incompetence and lack of adequate information given to scheme members will be in despair at the thought of their future financial security left in their hands.

From the moment the contracts were signed, the language changed once more: One Barnet disappeared. The word was never used again. No name was used at all. There were only coy references to ‘the change programme’.

And right from the beginning we knew there was no hope of any effective oversight either by commissioning officers, or Tory members. The committees tasked with this role were simply rubber stamping exercises. The Tory councillor who was Chair of the Performance committee actually said that scrutiny was not meant to be critical. He continually repeated the view, even as late as this year when all was falling apart, that he wanted only to hear ‘positive comments’.

And it is all falling apart now: but as in the last days of any empire, the rise and fall of Capita Barnet is a slow and painful process. It is politically expedient, however, for the Tory administration, and for the reputation of Capita, to keep face, and retain a colony in Barnet.

What’s happened here is only perhaps an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere, all over the UK, all throughout the public sector, and it raises a more fundamental question than our local concerns, which is the real point of significance here: the principle of the democratic control of public services.

Private profit cannot, should not, be made from these services. It creates a distance between accountability and the community, takes power away from that community.

Local services, local jobs, local democracy: let’s have these rights returned to us, and begin to rebuild a system of local government that works for us, and not for Capita, and its shareholders.