Sunday, 10 July 2016

We have a difference of opinion, or: the Park Keeper's Lodge, and another chapter from the lost history of Broken Barnet

Victoria Park: an early 20th century view - from 'Finchley & Friern Barnet, a Pictorial History', by Stewart Gillies and Pamela Taylor

Whether or not you have a curiosity about the distant past, the history of the place you live in, or even the 'genius loci', the spirit of the place in which you live; the past that lies beneath the feet you stand on, even in Broken Barnet, can have the power to influence the unwinding narrative of the present time. 

How can you live in an old house, and not feel curiosity about its past? In my own case, and in regard to the history of a house that has never felt entirely home, certain things have always worried away at the back of my mind: the strange noises that occur from time to time: the banging on the living room door, when no one is there; the shadow in the hallway, flitting around the corner, just out of sight - the 'dream' my son had when he was younger that he woke up and saw an old man sitting in the chair in his room, watching him. 

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, or simply the ability of the long years of a building's past life to influence your imagination, you surely cannot deny the impact of the lives of others gone before you, on the place where you live now.

A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I opened a letter, addressed by hand, in bold black ink, that had  fallen on to the doormat, addressed to 'the occupier' of my house. 

It was from a man who had lived here, as a boy, before and during the war, with a black and white photograph of the Edwardian house, as it was, before subsequent owners pulled out some of the original windows, and the front garden wall. 

Fascinating to see, and further correspondence with him led to a copy of his childhood memoirs, a short autobiography of his life in our house, which detailed the disintegration of his family, including an attempt on his mother's life, a 'good time girl' who spent much of her time 'up Soho' getting up to no good - an assault made by her jealous spouse, as she stood by the back door, one evening, during the weekly Saturday night party to which all neighbours were invited, to sing around the piano, and play racy games in the dining room ...but also, his memories included immensely potent details of the building itself: the characteristics of the house, and the curiosities he found in the cupboard under the stairs when he moved in:

... the black and white lozenge-tiled entrance hall at the end of which was a dark, triangular, under-stair cupboard in the depths of which was a cornucopia of goodies. 

The first wonder I discovered was a large, metal, 3-storey multi-windowed hotel-cum-train station, void except for a candle-holder. At night the candle provoked exciting imaginings as its light flickered out through the glassless windows. 

Deeper in the cupboard I found  a pair of cowboys’ chaps (“Steady, The Buffs!” – my drunken uncle's habitual warning not to lose control of your emotions.) They were made of REAL sheepskin, but ancient and stiff as a board. I was Roy Rogers as I waddled around in these dreadfully uncomfortable over-trousers that protected my legs from the lethal cactus thorns along the dry gulches and cattle-trails in our garden

Up in the attic he found the gramophone player with a few choice jazz records which inspired his life long love of music and career as a semi-pro trumpet player. 

And as a boy, he could recall, still,  memories of playing in the local park, Victoria Park:

 “Watch out, here comes Treaclefeet!” Why did we run away from this miserable old sod in his Park Keeper’s uniform? What could he do? Would he actually hit us with his stick? In 1948, YES! ‘Treaclefeet’ was a name steeped in irony. He could run like the wind! But he never caught us; we ran like a faster wind and we left him puffing every time. 

He got incensed (quite rightly) when we gouged and ripped up the neat Park grass with our bicycle wheels on a Friday morning when the Park temporarily became Wembley Stadium and we were skidding,  speeding Wembley Lions. Treaclefeet! Time to go!

The house, his house, my house, was built in 1906, on land that was once, like Victoria Park, part of Cobley's Farm, the place where Charles Dickens came to stay in the 1840s, when he was writing 'Martin Chuzzlewit', a salutary tale of selfishness, hypocrisy and greed, with at least one character, Mrs Gamp, based on those he met while walking the 'green lanes' of Finchley, all that time ago. 

Selfishness, hypocrisy and greed are eternal driving forces, of course, and now deeply embedded as the corporate values of Broken Barnet - and Charles Dickens would have found himself in familiar territory, should he return to those green lanes, and those familiar fields of Cobley's Farm, as we shall see.

Time, in Broken Barnet, is money, of course, or it is nothing at all, and the past is not just another country, to our Tory landlords, where they do things differently, and a matter of no relevance, but something to be despised, as of no monetary value. 

Hence the closure and ransacking of our local Museum, at Church Farmhouse, a beautiful Grade II* listed building, central to the history of Hendon, the childhood home of Dickens's friend and Punch editor Mark Lemon - and providing for decades a perfect home for a museum with an irreplaceable permanent local collection, as well as a venue for an unceasing sequence of wonderful exhibitions of a more general nature.

Our grasping Tory councillors had long had their speculative eyes on Church Farmhouse: a building that they thought must be worth a fortune, and presented a marvellous opportunity for capital profit, if sold - as well as presenting another opportunity, one of demonstrating their inordinate contempt for the subsidisation, as they see it, of culture, or the preservation of heritage. Their sight was fixed on the house, and its fate was doomed. 

Unsurprisingly, no developer wanted to take on the restricted use and risks of a listed building, so it has stood empty and forlorn, neglected and rotting, a perfect symbol for the only culture to which this current administration aspires: a culture of despair and cynicism, where only profit matters, and to hell with all the rest.

Another property on the list of targets for our council, a few years ago, was the Park Keeper's Lodge, in Victoria Park, Finchley: just around the corner from my home, and a building of no little charm: an arts and crafts style design, with sloping gabled roof, dormer windows, terracotta finials, a distinctive chimney, a sweet little porch, and other period features, nestling in a secluded garden, fringed by a privet hedge, and a selection of fine old trees. Once the home of 'Treaclefeet', and no doubt a number of other guardians of the Park.

We don't know exactly when the Lodge was built, except that it was after  1901, and before 1911 - the house is listed on the latter census, as the home of the Park Keeper, Thomas George Smith, a former gardener, who lived in the four roomed property with his wife Fanny, fifteen year old son Frank, and fourteen year old daughter Dorothy. 

Thomas Smith signed the census return with a firm hand, giving his address, significantly, not as Long Lane, the road which runs along this side of the park, but as 'The Lodge, Recreation Ground, Finchley'.

from the 1911 census, image credit

A few years ago, the property was happily inhabited by another family, social tenants of the council. 

They were summarily evicted, despite the chronic housing shortage, the children's swing and toys abandoned in the garden, as if they had left in a hurry. The building was then left empty - again, like the Church Farmhouse, initially, whether by design or indifference, with no security or maintenance - making the properties easier to condemn as beyond saving in their original state, of course. 

Years later, and still the Lodge stood empty and decaying, the gate left unlocked,  and the property an open invitation to vandalism. Why? And why was it not, as we were informed, going through the process of sale? 

Because, it transpired, the authority, after launching itself on this course, had belatedly discovered that all of the park was protected by covenants that date from the time of its creation, more than a hundred years ago. 

The council, when originally questioned, was reluctant to explain the issues behind this delay in action, but was confident that the covenants could be proven to be shown to be no longer valid. 

And a few weeks ago rumours emerged that at last, the Lodge had been sold. 

Horrifyingly, it seemed that not only had it been sold, developers intended, once planning permission had been obtained, to demolish it, and build a block of nine flats - with underground parking - in its place. It was also rumoured - quite incredibly - that they had 'other plans' for the rest of the park, although this has yet to be substantiated. What is clear, and this was not denied at last week's Forum meeting, is that there are extraordinary plans by unknown parties - and the council - to create a car park near the Ballards Lane entrance.

The idea that we would lose the Lodge, a building integral to the park's history, and an irreplaceable part of our built heritage, and clearly in keeping with the Edwardian and Victorian housing that dominates this part of Finchley is bad enough: to see it replaced by a modern building, forced onto the footprint of the park, and violating the very principle of a public open space, is intolerable.

The precedent that such a development would create is very dangerous, and would compromise the future of every park and open space in the borough.

One local resident, Mary O'Connor, who lives very close to the Lodge, has spent years investigating the truth behind the proposals for this building, accumulating a wealth of documents pertinent to the early history of Victoria Park, and with much material which might well be used as evidence to support the claim that the founding of the Park, by public subscription, and generous donations by local benefactors, in order to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, is - or should be - protected by covenants that may not be undone at the whim of the current administration, simply because they want to make capital out of a public asset. 

The park was officially opened, on the 10th May, 1902, by the late Queen's daughter, Helena, Princess Christian.

One hundred and fourteen years later, in the year in which the nation celebrated the ninetieth birthday of Victoria's great great granddaughter, the elected members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet have approved the sale of part of the Jubilee park to commercial developers. 

An appropriate gesture from a Conservative council which puts profit before all other considerations, even as they gather under a portrait of Her Majesty, in the Town Hall chamber, at Full Council meetings, and send her loyal greetings on our behalf. 

The sale has taken place: but should it have been approved? 

Mary has tried her best, over the years, to ask questions about the intended sale, the involvement of trustees, the covenants and so on: and has always been assured the transaction was perfectly in order. Yet it is clear the council itself has never been entirely sure of the legal limitations of the proposed sale - even now, after the event.

Mary O'Connor - pic credit the local Times group newspapers

At this week's Finchley & Golders Green Residents Forum, she attempted to ask about the sale, and the implications of the fact that it was approved by councillors at an ordinary council meeting, apparently with no conflict of interest inherent in their other roles as trustees of the Park: in other words, approving a sale that would benefit the council, at the expense of those whose best interests in the use of the park are supposed to be protected by those same councillors, acting as trustees, who have inherited the role of guardianship of that same park.

Quite clearly there is a clear conflict of interest here: it benefits the council to sell the Lodge to developers, because although, no doubt to the great annoyance of the Tory councillors, who had not foreseen any trouble in flogging yet another public asset, it now transpires that any money gained by the sale of any part of the park must be ring-fenced for the purposes of the park itself - just like income from the iniquitous parking scheme, this frees pressure on parts of the council's budget, and allows them to make cuts in spending.

Parking income subsidises the Highways budget, and in similar fashion, the windfall from the sale of the Park Keeper's Lodge, they think, will absolve them of responsibility for the improvement - and to some degree the maintenance - of Victoria Park - a 'premier' park, which will now act as a precedent, a template for all other parks and open spaces in the borough, which can be milked for income to be used instead of the council tax you and I already pay for such services, so as to subsidise the losses incurred by other council expenditure such as the unstoppable demands of the Capita contracts.

In order to present the sale of the Lodge as something beneficial to the users of the Park, Barnet has been awfully clever - or so they think. They have skirted the requirements of consultation with the community by identifying a small group of residents - a handful of people, not a formally constituted group or association, and negotiating with them, in secret, and with the developers, and including them in plans to spend a sum of around £600,000, which they say the sale will enable them to use - in fact requires them to use - on the Park.

Trying, as a local resident, and park user, as well as an investigative blogger, to find out anything about this tiny group, the 'Etchingham Friends', is practically impossible. There is no website, no way of knowing who they are, or when they meet. The only reference found was in regard to a visit to the House of Commons, hosted, funnily enough, by local Tory MP, Mike Freer.

After asking around and obtaining an email address from a contact, I wrote to a representative of this group asking for details of the level of membership, how often they met, if minutes are available. No proper response to these specific questions has been given. But apparently ... the group is working with the developers, having formed the opinion that the Lodge is a lost cause, and anyway of no real merit. 

I was told that it was a shame the Lodge could not be saved, but that it was "was not of any great architectural value" and anyway now "we have a pot of something over £600,00 in a ring fenced fund, held by Barnet Borough, to be used purely for Capital Developments in Victoria Park ..." 

The group, doubtless well meaning, and acting in good faith, is informal, very small, and practically anonymous, but clearly has been given a formidable responsibility.

We have a pot: whose pot? From the sale of the Lodge? Who are we, and anyway, who should be consulted in the allocation of such funds? The wider community, surely, not a favoured few? Even if 500 other objectors were completely ignored before the Lodge was sold.

I understand that the average attendance at this group's meetings is around ... eight people. 

How one becomes a member, or takes part in the process of consultation for the expenditure of around £600,000, is a mystery, especially when it is admitted the group is not legally constituted. Is it even lawful, to hand over the control of such a budget to an informal group, without proper consultation?

To be fair, I was invited to join, now, rather late in the day. 

I will not be doing so, as I believe the entire basis of the sale of the Lodge and the new policy of the attempted commercial exploitation of our parks and open spaces is wrong, and deeply regrettable, and not something to condone by cooperation with the council and developers.

Back to the Forum meeting, anyway,  held after many months of no meetings at all, in a venue in the very affluent Hampstead Garden Suburb, a choice of location so obscure, of course, that poor Mrs Angry, perhaps predictably, got lost, and ended up only just in time for the Lodge items.

As I arrived, Labour councillor Arjun Mittra was angrily protesting at the habit of this Forum to fawn over the slightest request of residents of the Tory Suburb ward, and yet ignore those from Labour wards such as his own, in East Finchley.

Victoria Park, of course, is in the Labour held ward of West Finchley.

Mary O'Connor had submitted, well before the deadline, a series of questions. The day before the meeting, however, she was told there would be no written responses, only verbal replies at the Forum, due to the 'complexity' of the issue. 

This is totally against the constitutionally defined process of the Forums, and utterly unacceptable. 

Mary wrote in protest at this cynical misuse of that process. Only when she arrived at the meeting did she discover, without warning, that some written responses had been given, at the last minute, although not published on the website, and of course too late for her to read, absorb, and thereby formulate proper supplementary questions. She struggled to do so, and was clearly upset by their game playing. 

Significantly, however, present at the meeting was a lawyer, from the authority's outsourced legal service, HBPublicLaw, who was very keen to respond to Mary's concerns. Why had Barnet obliged this woman to attend this meeting? Could it be that ... Mary O'Connor had actually touched on an area of this issue that was indeed open to legal challenge? 

An defence of the Lodge sale by a representative of the council's outsourced legal services, watched by Tory councillors Chair Shimon Ryde (third from the left), and library cutter Reuben Thompstone, to his left.

Who knows? The law is a ass, and in the end, there may be nothing we can do, to stop the inevitable plundering of Victoria Park, and every park and open space in Broken Barnet.

The meeting itself was something of a stand off between Mary, the HBPublicLaw representative, and the Tory councillors, who thought that the fact they had provided some belated responses to the questions required a deep sense of gratitude in return from residents present, and could not or would not elaborate on any real explanation of their own involvement in the approval of the sale. 

Had they read the 500 objections? Or even looked at any of them?

A long and awkward silence. 

Clearly not. 

Eventually, after further awkward questions,  from Mary and me, Councillor Zinkin gave way to an outburst of indignation that underlined the real attitude of our Tory members: that we are accountable to them, and not the other way round, and should not dare to challenge their decisions. The tension in the room was palpable: and a sense, from the nervousness of the councillors, that the full story of the Lodge's sale was yet to be uncovered. The Chair brought the discussion to an end: there was no time to continue, and no point - We have a difference of opinion, he concluded, bringing the meeting hastily to an end.

The day after the meeting, out of curiosity, I thought I would visit the local Archives, and see if there was any material relating to the early history of the park, and the land on which the Lodge now stands. 

Ploughing through some accounts of the period, and the creation of  Victoria Park, was an educational experience, in fact, and in lesson in historic irony.

The Park was created in order to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, although by the time it was opened, Victoria was dead, and a new era begun, but in fact the idea of some sort of royal commemoration in Finchley had first been launched before her Golden Jubilee, in 1887. 

Local worthies, including Henry 'Inky' Stephens, of Avenue House, had set the ball rolling, public meetings were held, but the plans came to nothing. The Golden Jubilee was marked in other ways, such as a fete in East Finchley, whose attractions included a notably politically incorrect Minstrel Show, amongst other features. 

Local benefactor Henry "Inky' Stephens

Ten years later, there had been much speculation in the local press as to what plans were being made to mark the next royal jubilee - ideas included a hospital, or a recreation ground - and there was a good deal of waspish criticism in the local papers over the apparent secrecy of those involved in the organisation of the proposals, a 'self appointed committee' - as well as the lack of  ... consultation. Future historians, it was noted in the Finchley Free Press, would have difficulty in collecting material to write about the Jubilee. Indeed they have.

Enter the politics of class war, as we learn in a history of 'Victorian Jubilees' by Paddy Musgrove (no relation, as far as I know, thought we did meet once, I recall, when I was still at school ...) published in 1977: in regard to Finchley and Victoria Park he notes that early meetings 'had been attended by a fairly small group of well-off inhabitants', but that then there was another meeting, of around 200 people,  'a conference of working men to consider not only the provision of a recreation ground, but also the need for allotments ...' A rather more pragmatic approach to the useful commemoration of the monarch's reign.

That idea fell by the wayside, and Mr Stephens had his way: plans were approved to create a recreation ground, and money raised by subscription to purchase several parcels of land which now comprise the park we know today. 

The very first purchase, it should be noted was from, Henry Francis Brooks, a local timber merchant - and was the piece of land that now includes the Park Keeper's Lodge.

There is a wealth of documentation still available to explain the history of the park's origins, and the clear intention of Henry Stephens, Henry Francis Brooks, Francis Hamilton, and various other donors, that the park should be for the benefit of the people of Finchley,  and protected by covenants to that end.

Part of the original documents relating to the subscription for, purchase and endowment of the land on which the Lodge stands.

It is also clear that Barnet Council has never been entirely sure of the extent of that protection and has had extensive correspondence with the Charity Commission to that effect, some of which, on close inspection, raises questions about the interpretation the authority has placed on the advice it has received.

After the Residents' Forum, two men approached me and introduced themselves. They were the new owners and would be developers of the Lodge site. They wanted to include me in their discussions. What was there to discuss, I asked? You want to demolish a piece of our local history, and build a monstrous block of flats in my local park. They smiled. Why didn't you buy it then, they asked? 

I wish I could have done so, friends: and if I could, I would have followed in the tradition of Inky Stephens, and Henry Francis Brooks, and given it back to the people of Finchley, for use as it was intended, for the benefit of park users - as a cafe, or some other community use.

Here in Broken Barnet the idea of community is not understood, or respected, of course. We are in the process of undoing the work of Victorian philanthropy - poised to destroy our local library service, most notably - and now gearing up for an assault on our parks and open spaces. 

How shameful that is.

On Friday I began this post, and wrote about the lovely features of the Park Keeper's Lodge: the terracotta finials, and the slender chimney. 

On Saturday morning I had an email to say that someone had begun to ruthlessly remove such features from the building, apparently overnight. On visiting the site, it was plain to see that it was true: the finials had been smashed off their places on the roof, and the chimney - pointlessly, savagely smashed in two. It was a terribly upsetting sight. Clearly someone had decided to remove from the Lodge the most remarkable external period features. Why, and why now, is an interesting question.

The damaged lodge yesterday: hammered off finials, and the chimney smashed in half

As I was taking photographs by the gate, a young mother with a son of about six years old, stopped to ask what was going on with the building, and was astounded to hear that the Lodge would be replaced by flats, in the park, overlooking the children's playground. 

Looking at her son, I could not help but wonder, when he has children of his own, whether or not there will be any parks at all, in this borough.

The story of Victoria Park Lodge, in its small way, is the story of Broken Barnet.

Our Tory councillors may try to eradicate the social functions of our public services and amenities. 

They may attempt to sell our heritage to the highest bidder, demolish the buildings, and pimp our open spaces to private enterprise: all the more reason, then, to remember the history of these places, and the reasons they were so important to us, once upon a time. 

Perhaps, before it is all too late, we can reclaim the past, and use the lessons it holds, to make a better future.

And here is the point at which we will stop, and look again at what seems to be the only remaining photograph of the early history of Victoria Park, shown at the very top of the post. 

Just as I was about to shut the book in which I found it, and wander forlornly out of the archive section of Hendon Library, on the day in which the staff had been to a meeting to be told the majority of them faced the loss of their jobs ... something rather curious caught my eye, in the right hand corner of the picture. 

I went back to the photo I'd taken, and enlarged the image ... yes: look, standing to the far side, almost unnoticeable, out of focus, the wraith like figure of a man, dressed in gardening clothes, looking on, from the side: it must be the park keeper, Thomas Smith. 

It seems like a message, of sorts, to me: a moment of acknowledgement from the spirit of the past we are about to lose, robbed from our common history - but I'm not sure many will understand what it means.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit: Breaking points, broken promises - and Broken Barnet

A deserted Hendon Town Hall, on election night

This election day seemed wrong footed, right from the first step inside the polling station. After the chaos of May's London elections, and the cockup over the registers, which saw thousands of voters disenfranchised, one might have hoped for all irregularities to have been addressed, and the democratic process restored to some sort of efficiency. 

This time, they had the right registers, but at our polling station the Presiding Officer appeared to think he had to escort us through the procedure, following us to the table, asking for my daughter's card, taking it from her and handing it to the clerks, as 'proof' of our address. They were confused by his intervention, as we have different surnames, and they thought I was not on the list.

No, I said. That is not how this works. We both state our name and address, and that is all that is needed. I don't have my card. It's not up to you to ask if we are related and assume we live at the same address. He wanted to argue about it, but we walked away, and voted, in an empty room, and left, for the first time in my voting experience, with no tellers at the doors to ask for our numbers. 

I suggested to my daughter that we were fortunate not to be asked who we wanted to vote for, and have the infamous pencils taken out of our hands, to be replaced by magic biros, and a proxy vote made on our behalf, in the approved manner.

As it happened, pencils won over biros, in Broken Barnet, and the vote here at least was a convincing win for Remain. But as I observed later, in the long, long hours of the count, some Brexit voters were determined to make their mark indelibly, and in the most emphatic manner, large angry crosses, in marker pen, as if that would have a more convincing outcome than a less determined indication. 

As I made my way to join the count, I had passed by the Town Hall, where election night results, in the era of local MP Margaret Thatcher, were traditionally declared, now looming large in the midsummer dusk, in all its deserted, gothic majesty, the lights not on, and nobody home, except for a congregation of pigeons determinedly clinging on to the window ledges, peering in at the empty council chamber. Another omen.

The signs were ominous, but arriving at the count, at Allianz Park, in Mill Hill, with Labour councillor Devra Kay and her daughter, our mood was reasonably optimistic, despite the prospect of having to stay awake all night, scrutinising the tables of ballot papers. 

Allianz Park is the name given to the former local authority Copthall sports stadium, handed over to Saracens rugby club by our Tory councillors, and renamed in homage to the German insurance company, who have an £8 million sponsorship deal with the team. It is, therefore, of course, the perfect venue for the counting of votes, in Broken Barnet: a former public asset, deliberately neglected until ripe for disposal to a profit making enterprise, its annexation confirmed by the striking out of its local name, and any association with the history of the borough.

Arriving at the count, with misplaced optimism, Labour Cllr Devra Kay & daughter

Copt Hall was once the home of the Nicholl family, whose centuries long association with the area is now forgotten, their ancient house demolished, and its name a matter of indifference to our Conservative easycouncillors. 

Handing our heritage and only major sports centre to German business partners did not raised any concern from our elected representatives, and the dark irony of this crucial referendum being accounted for not in the former seat of municipal power, but in a once publicly owned building and facility appropriated by a European sponsor, would probably have passed them by, as well.

On the other hand, it may have been a matter of no interest at all. Hard to tell, on the night itself, because of one remarkable fact.

Not one Tory councillor, or local MP, or senior Tory activist attended the count. 

They boycotted it, and left all the work of scrutiny, and overseeing the counting of the ballot papers, to others. Sitting up all night, watching and checking the count were Labour councillors, Labour party members, a handful of Better In activists, and a cabal of tight lipped, sullen Brexiteers. 

We left around three thirty: the result came in an hour later: unless he made a last minute appearance then, and I've seen no report that they did, neither the Tory leader of the council, Richard Cornelius, nor the deputy leader Dan Thomas, or any senior Tory came to observe the proceedings, let alone thank staff for their hard work on the election, and through the long night. You might think after the national disgrace heaped on the authority as a result of the mismanagement of the last election, it might have been appropriate to show some interest.

As for our MPs: no sign of Eurosceptics Offord or Villiers, or Remain supporter Freer. 

Why did the Tories stay away? 

Clearly the Tory group in Barnet, like the party itself, was divided on the subject of Europe. The Tory leader has always shown his antipathy to the EU, and after standing unsuccessfully as a candidate in the London Assembly elections, Thomas has been outed as an outer. Other members, such as the veteran member for Hampstead Garden Suburb and former MP, John Marshall, have been staunchly pro Europe. Marshall, despite his age and frailty, helped man a Remain stall at last week's East Finchley festival - and indeed we happily agreed that this was the first and only time in which we were likely to be on the same side in any political debate. 

Marshall's fellow Suburb councillor Gabriel Rozenberg is also pro EU, and has been tweeting madly about it since the disastrous vote, although curiously more reticent beforehand. Gabriel is of course the son of Brexit fan Melanie Phillips, and like most sons (though not mine on this point, at least) is probably naturally inclined to disagree with his mother as a point of principle, but still ... Neither of these two Remain supporting Tories showed up, on Thursday night.

With the majority of Barnet Tory councillors, it is hard to detect if their absence was strategic, a matter of fear, apathy  - or merely laziness. Whatever the reason, it perfectly illustrates the moribund state of health of the Conservative local party, the democratic deficit in their administration - and the contempt our Tory members extend towards the process of governance, the role of governance with which they are entrusted.

The morning after the night before: always the hardest moment, in any election, in Broken Barnet - and here we still are, rubbing our eyes in disbelief, wondering whose bed we are in, and how we got there, and what we did ...

And how even to begin to consider the implications of what has happened? 

The duplicity and recklessness of those leading the Leave campaign, with no plan for what to do, if they were successful, defies belief, and represents an act of irresponsibility on a incalculable scale. More than irresponsible: if there had been any discernible signs of intelligent strategy and forethought, one might argue they were guilty of an act of economic and constitutional treason, or terror. As it is, the apocalyptic storm they have unleashed is by default, rather than by design, an act of idiocy - but its impact will be the same.

How fitting it is that we are, at last, about to see the Chilcott report published, and Blair's invasion of Iraq held to account. An act of aggression, based on a false premise, for the purpose of regime change, and no strategy for managing the outcome of victory: hard not to see parallels with what is happening now in the disastrous Brexit campaign - a catastrophically stupid retreat, rather than an invasion, but with consequences that will last for generations to come.

Equally irresponsible are those voters who made their mark on their ballot papers without properly informing themselves of the implications of their decision, choosing to leave Europe, largely, simply on a basis of fear of migration, and a vague belief, promoted by the tame press, that their lives were being remote-controlled by faceless Eurocrats, leaving them powerless to direct their own destinies ... All the promises they believed, now revealed as lies and misconceptions, and the unimaginable impact of their decision entirely due to their own failure to think, and question, before voting, and exercising what is, after all,  a democratic duty, as well as a right.

And then we have the self indulgence and self serving machinations of the Labour party, looking on as members of the Tory government expose themselves as the most conflicted administration ever yet seen, a party torn in two, and instead of stepping into the breach, here is the opposition launching us into another act of self immolation.

The opportunist MPs who so happily accepted posts in Corbyn's shadow cabinet have been waiting for the time in which they could seize a chance to kick him out, restore a more malleable leader, and return to the cultivation of their own best interests, in defiance of the clear mandate given last year by grassroots members. 

They neither understand nor care why there was such a groundswell of support for change: that core Labour voters have abandoned a party run by those who put career before principle, who fight for preferment rather than against social injustice, who regard the ideals on which the Labour movement was founded as an historic footnote, an irrelevance to the modern day party, and an obstruction to the smooth progress of their own best interests.

Here in Barnet, a few Blairites in the local Hendon CLP attempted yesterday to promote a motion of no confidence in their own party leader. They failed: defeated by a membership vote that reflects an acknowledgement that there is a reason the Labour party is losing votes in that constituency. Not just a change in demographics, but a growing dissatisfaction with the party from local campaigners and residents being driven from the area by Tory housing policy, for example, who look at the ineffectual leadership of the council opposition, and cannot support them. 

It is a problem echoed in constituencies all over the country, and best exemplified perhaps by what is happening to the teaching assistants in Durham, in what should be the heartland of Labour support, but whose Labour council has sacked these vital workers, and demanded they lose 25% of their income on new contracts. The Labour establishment, a legacy of New Labour, still embedded in so many parts of the country, is complacent, and estranged from working class communities in the North East, and elsewhere, and this is why increasingly such voters veer towards ukip territory, voting for Brexit - or not voting at all.

A new Labour shadow government and leader will fail its duties as an opposition, and never become elected, if it fails to learn this lesson, and refuses to acknowledge the message sent to them by those grassroots members who voted, last year, for a reaffirmation of Labour's core values, and a commitment to the people of this country, who are being crushed by a punitive set of Tory policies, and so desperately need a Labour party that offers an alternative vision - and hope for the future.

The day after the vote, I fell into conversation, in a supermarket, with a local Tory party activist: a nice woman, bright enough, yet who told me she had not really made up her mind about her vote, until the last minute. Now she wasn't sure whether it was the right decision, she said, vaguely, as if it didn't really matter. 

Here in London, during May's elections, citizens rejected the politics of hatred so cynically adopted by Tory campaigners. That horrible attempt at divisive, gutter politics deflated as satisfyingly as the Back Zac balloons in the window at Margaret Thatcher House, here in Finchley, post election.

But we are always just a knife edge away from the rise of something even less inclusive and tolerant, in our capital city, and elsewhere.

Back home, I noticed the foreman of the Polish builders who have been working hard on the house next door for months, standing outside, leaning against the skip, and regarding my 'Remain' signpost with a worried expression. He is right to be worried: not because he will be asked to leave any time soon, or fail to find work here, but because something fearful, and dangerous, has been unleashed, here, now, in this country. 

Already there are many reports of incidents of hate crimes against migrant workers, and fear amongst migrant communities of a backlash from the dawning realisation, by those who voted for Brexit on the basis of an unthinking resentment of immigration, that their vote was wasted, and our diverse, multicultural society is here to stay. 

Add to that resentment the impact on our crashing economy of the withdrawal from Europe, and you have a potential formula for social unrest, riots, and divisiveness on a scale we have not yet seen - and the rise of an even uglier and more overt face of political demagoguery. 

The breaking point that Nigel Farage wanted us to believe in was a lie: we will be broken, in Barnet, and elsewhere, not by remaining part of the EU, but by Brexit itself, and by his doing, and that of all those, in all parties, who play games with our political future, for their own purposes. 

Where we go now, or what we do, feels as if it is completely out of our control, the inversion of everything Farage, Johnson, Gove and all the rest promised us. The only surprise is that so many of us did not foresee it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Breaking Point - and a lesson from history: voting for a better future in Europe

Let me tell you about something that happened to me last winter, just before Christmas. 

Sitting in my living room, one morning, I noticed that there was a woman standing outside my house, clearly in some sort of distress, bent over the front garden wall. 

A middle aged woman - or so I thought, nondescript - the sort of person you walk past, in the street, without noticing. I opened the window and asked if she was alright. She did not speak, but shook her head. I went outside, then, and asked her what was wrong: but she could barely utter the words to explain, clutching herself in excruciating pain, tears running down her face. In an eastern european accent, she whispered that her leg hurt, and her stomach. I asked if I should call an ambulance. No, no, she pleaded: not that. She was adamant that she could not go to a hospital. 

Eventually, I managed to persuade her to come inside, and sit down, and gave her some water, and tried to help - and eventually a kind friend who is a doctor came down the road to look at her. The friend smelled her breath, and asked a few direct questions. She's a chronic alcoholic, she told me, but I think she is very ill. She needs to go to hospital. 

Lilija (not her real name) refused. She was frightened. Don't be frightened, I said: no one is going to judge you ... (I was wrong, of course). After much coaxing, and persuasion, she let the friend drop us off at a local hospital, where we spent the next few hours, she holding my hand, the hand of a total stranger, in a tight grip, as if she were drowning, crying silently, and sipping furtively all the while from a water bottle, that had no water in it, but some sort of spirits.

In those long hours, she told me a little about her life. She was only in her thirties, which was hard to believe, from her appearance, or accept, that someone so young could be so unhappy that they must drink to the point of oblivion, in the middle of the day. 

But she was - very unhappy: having lived in this country for fifteen years or more, somehow surviving as a cleaner, or caring for children, living in a lonely bedsit. She couldn't go home: her elderly mother depended on the money she sent from England, and the family background was dysfunctional, and abusive, and she would not have been welcome. So she was killing herself slowly, with alcohol.

I had told her the doctors would not judge her, but they did. The young, cool eyed Australian duty doctor, in front of her, as she wept, announced abruptly that she was seriously ill, but it was all due to alcohol. Yes, I said, I know, but ... can't you show her a little compassion? The doctor complained then about the trouble that this woman was causing, and the burden on the NHS, with the implication that this was particularly objectionable as Lilija was from eastern Europe, and although a long term tax payer, now with mental health issues, was somehow not entitled to care - or compassion.

Fortunately, when the ambulance came to take Lilija to another hospital, and the emergency care she needed, the paramedic crew extended to her the dignity and kindness that she deserved, and took great care of her, without question or moral judgement: the familiar, kindly face of the NHS, upon whom we all depend. She hugged me, before she got into the ambulance, and I walked away, now in tears myself. What would become of her? I don't know. The address she gave the doctors was false. It doesn't exist. I've haven't seen her since. 

Here is another story  - from the past, several generations ago. You may think it has nothing to do with Broken Barnet, or Broken Britain, or anything much. You may think history has nothing to tell us, now, today - even though we are on the brink of an election being fought, on one side, on the basis of our past, or at least their version of our past, a mythical Britain which has never existed, but to which they fondly hope we can return, none the less.

Still: come with me, now, back to nineteenth century England, that cradle of high Tory virtue, where the poor were always with us, but in their rightful place: the undeserving poor, punished for their fecklessness, managed with the full force of a merciless set of laws intent on stigmatising those who could not support themselves, carefully created so as to deter all but the most desperate from asking for help, for charity, when in need.

Fear of the workhouse, for example, was a deliberately crafted tool of social engineering, lovingly polished in the workshop of political ideology, and religious zeal. The workhouse regime was made as unbearable as possible, in order to prevent all but the most desperate from applying for admission. The inspiration, of course, for much of the present Conservative government's welfare policies.

When the first members of my Irish family came here, during the Famine, to the north east of England, some of them - including three small children - ended up in Newcastle Workhouse, their mother having died, shortly after arrival, of fever contracted in Sandgate, one of the festering slums that were home to newly arrived refugees from the West of Ireland. 

Where are you from, they were asked? Shaking with fear, no doubt, not fluent in English, they whispered - 'Sligo': the beadle mistaking their words for 'Glasgow', as it is still recorded, written down in the ledgers, with indifferent inaccuracy. 

And yes: they were refugees, fleeing starvation, and religious persecution, although their new English Protestant neighbours, especially if they had the benefit of twenty first century scepticism, would have seen them, no doubt, at best as economic migrants - and more generally, without doubt, at that point, as some sort of vermin.

The surname, incidentally, of these children, was Durkin - the same as the self professed libertarian polemicist who has made 'Brexit, the movie'. The motif of which would appear to be, in the name of our freedom, to obstruct the free movement of everyone else. 

Almost every inch of the Sligo Mayo border was home to a Durkin family, at one time. Almost all those that did not die in the Famine left the area in the wake of the Irish diaspora, their descendants, like me, and Martin Durkin, scattered across Britain, the USA, and Canada, settling at will, in a new world of possibility, with open borders, and freedom from institutionalised religious bigotry. How lucky we are, that they survived - and prospered.

But let us move on, and visit another workhouse now, in London, a little later in the next century, in 1908, to be precise. Here is a small moment of history no one has remarked upon, until now.

It is the Westminster Union Workhouse, where according to the register for that year, on April 19th, a woman of sixty eight years of age was admitted - a needlewoman, referred to the Workhouse by order of the police in St James' ward. 

Her name, according to the register, is Nina Schrod, but it is a mishearing of the name Bina Schrod. 

She is described as 'injured', and would appear to have been previously in a 'sick asylum'. She will be discharged to a son, a GPO letter sorter, who lives with his own family, while his widowed mother has spent the last few decades eking out a living by sewing, living alone in a series of lodgings. 

Now, however, she is dependent on the goodwill and charity of the parish overseers, along with many other destitute and ill Londoners living in the heart of the city - all of them a burden the Board of Guardians are keen to dispose of. 

Bina came to England in the 1860s, from Germany, with her husband Nickolaus, a cabinet maker, and they settled in a part of London that was home to many other German immigrants in the nineteenth century, around the Tottenham Court road area: so many of them in this area it would probably have been more usual to hear German spoken, than English. That must have felt some Londoners feel ... uncomfortable, or even - awkward ...

Bina Schrod was from Friedberg, near Frankfurt: her first name suggests she - and maybe her husband - might have been of Jewish origin, although perhaps one of many who chose to convert rather than suffer the many restrictions forced on German Jewish citizens, even before the later persecution and genocidal regime of the twentieth century. Fortunate, if so, that the Schrod family escaped now, before the rise of Nazism, which saw the remaining Jewish population removed to Buchenwald, and total annihilation.

Most Germans who settled in London at this time, in the nineteenth century, were undoubtedly doing so for largely economic reasons, moving to a more liberal country that put up no barrier to immigration, and offered great opportunities for those arriving from all parts of Europe. 

Bina, who died in 1915, never became a naturalised British citizen: but her son Carl, born in London, was careful to change his name to Charles, and the family perhaps escaped the anti German prejudice that arose during the First World War. 

Charles married an English girl, and their children, including Gladys, born in 1900, grew up in suburban south London. Oh, yes - and Gladys, in 1927, married a man called Harry Farage: the grandfather of Nigel, of course.

Nigel Farage dismisses his German ancestry as irrelevant to his views on migration, and Europe. He has dismissed the recent revelation that the myth of his genteel sounding 'Huguenot' surname, lost, he hoped,  in the mists of time, is actually the legacy of a Belgian immigrant, who settled in Berkshire in the 18th century, and whose Ferridge descendants latterly assumed a rather more romantic spelling of their name. 

But the reinvention of Nigel Farage is key to his political viewpoint, just as the schoolboy extremism revealed in his former school records is central to a clear understanding of the man he is now.

The idea of Britishness to which he ascribes has never existed, is just as outdated and bogus as the tobacco stained, beer swilling bar room bore persona that he has adopted. 

And nor do most of the leading members of the Brexit campaign really believe in the idea of Britain to which they proclaim loyalty. They simply want to protect their own interests and privileges, and assert a sense of authority and power.

The truth is that most of us - all of us - living here, in Britain, in 2016, are the descendants of migrants. We have all of us, at one point, arrived here, and been dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the mark of the humanity, and decency, of the society we have created, as part of the evolution of social progress, that we have enjoyed such care, and flourished, as a result. 

We have to see beyond the rhetoric, and the spin, and see the human stories behind the soundbite politics: or we lose our own humanity in the process. Migrants, refugees, immigrants - you, and me, and our children. Where is the difference?

London is the most ethnically diverse city on earth, and even here in Broken Barnet, we rejoice in a population of the broadest possible cultural and religious backgrounds. 

The fear of something other, and alien, only applies if you abandon that sense of humanity, and empathy. As Jo Cox put it - we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. 

And that one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, the descendant of immigrants, who has grown up in the protection and care of a British society founded on tolerance, decency, and compassion, could stand in front of a poster of refugees, and seek to make political profit from such hatred, is contemptible. 

We are citizens of the world, Europeans, and British: no contradiction there, only something to be proud of.

Tomorrow we have the chance to affirm those values, and defend them, preserve them, for generations to come.

I only hope that hope itself wins over hate, and intolerance, because I do not want to live in a country living in the dark, selfish, reactionary isolationism that Farage, Gove, IDS, Johnson, and all the rest want to become our future, but in a Britain, a Europe, and a world, that respects and supports diversity and difference, and acts in unity and comradeship for the greater benefit of all. 

Mrs Angry, eternal optimist, teetering on the brink, June 23rd, 2016.