Tuesday 9 September 2014

Our Friends in the North: our NHS, and our history - forced to repeat itself

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it - George Santayana

1936 was a terrible year, for my mother's family. I've told this story before, but it bears telling again, I think.

In the late spring, in a space of less than a fortnight, two of the six children lost their lives as a result of contracting diptheria, in an epidemic that raged in the foetid slum housing of the mining town where they lived. 

My mother's four year old brother succumbed first, alone, in a bed in the isolation ward of the local fever hospital, his father looking on, punching the glass wall in despair, forbidden to hold him as he died. 

His six year old daughter died a few days later, shortly after making her first holy communion - a source of some comfort perhaps, if there was any, to my devoutly Catholic grandmother. 

A third child, ten year old Peggie, was expected to die too: in later years my aunt could still recall with vivid memories lying in the fever hospital as her parents watched her at a distance through the window, her head thrashing from side to side in delirium. Somehow she pulled through, and was eventually sent home, in a horse drawn ambulance, accompanied by the matron, in starched collar and cuffs, then carried into the house and laid on a sofa in front of the fire, there to be slowly, lovingly nursed back to health by her Irish granny, as her own mother struggled to come to terms with her loss.

A tragic loss, and a tragedy all the greater because it was not inevitable. My mother's brother and sister need not have lost their lives. 

There were treatments for diptheria, by 1936: in fact the first effective medicine had been pioneered in 1921. 

But if you were the children of a Durham miner, living in the squalor of a two up, two down terraced house, in an area characterised by a depth of social deprivation so degraded that it  visibly shocked the playboy Prince of Wales, when he made a visit to Spennymoor  - you had no chance of affording the sort of care and medicines that would save your life, should any serious illness affect your health. And of course this was twelve years before the advent of a new national health service, and healthcare, free for all, free at the point of use for all who needed it.

Not only could my grandparents not afford to pay for any medical care for their children, when their son and daughter died, they had no means to pay for their funerals. A compassionate local Labour councillor who lived nearby, and knew the family, quietly made the arrangements, and paid the bill.

Peggie survived, and did well at school, passing the entrance exam to a convent grammar school in Darlington. She was clever, and gifted too, with a talent for art: a talent she explored through studies at a local socialist run community centre, called The Settlement, which was opened in 1931. 

The settlement movement was a radical, groundbreaking venture, evolving from the work of Canon Barnett, and Toynbee Hall, in the East End of London, from the notion that educated classes and working classes would benefit from being brought together, and learning from each other: the recognition of the need to build community that involved all classes, in a cooperative effort - a truly revolutionary thought.

The Spennymoor Settlement was also known as the 'Pitman's Academy', and is perhaps best known for artists such as Norman Cornish , who died last month, the last of his kind: one of a small but very talented number of local artists who worked in the former local pits, and portrayed a now long vanished way of life. 

The Settlement had huge ambitions for the working people of Spennymoor, encouraging them in education, cultural activities, philosophy and political debate. The theatre company produced the highest standard of drama, with miners and their wives playing roles from Ibsen, and Gorky, making art, playing and listening to music. But most importantly it educated the working poor out of their sense of powerlessness, and took them to a place where they could begin to challenge the political system and the limitations of their own lives. They learnt to expect and demand more of themselves, and to question the inequality of their lives.

Norman and Peggie both attended classes at the Settlement and then in later years were near neighbours, he and his family living a few doors up the road from my grandparents' old house, later my aunt's. She and I once spent a memorable afternoon wedged on his sofa, with his wife,  Sarah, listening to the well rehearsed story of his life; and then he showed me round his studio. I picked up one that reminded me of my grandfather: miners drinking in one of the many pubs and clubs in the town, figures sketched in rough blackened outlines, as if marked out in the very coal dust that used to lie everywhere, in my childhood visits, sweet smelling soot in the air, on your clothes, the window panes. Nodding at the picture he said, aye: Lowry liked that one, too.

Norman is gone now, and that way of life is too. But the work remains, a heritage and a legacy to remind us of the past, as it really was: harsh, painful, but sustained by family, and community.

The idea of 'heritage' is something our Tory friends mistrust: they hold in the deepest suspicion the notion that working people might benefit from cultural activities, or that society might benefit from theirs. Worse still they fear that such creation might reflect the ugly truth of life as it is lived now, with the exploitation of an underclass once more the raison d'etre of their own existence. 

As we see in Broken Barnet, the neo Thatcherite tendency, aspirational Tory administration still in power here, has no time for culture, history, or the arts. There is no value and no profit in it, for them. And the last thing they want to do is to encourage people to think for themselves, or inform themselves. Shut the libraries, close the museums: sell their collections that tell the story of our social history, and the progress we thought we were making, towards a better future. 

But as the events of the 'Barnet Spring' demonstrated, by trying to close our library, and our museum, they inadverdently recreated a sense of community, and a network of resistance connected and informed in the same way as the settlement movement worked for another age.

Only months after the deaths of my mother's brother and sister, and many children, in Spennymoor, in October 1936, a group of unemployed men from the North East left their home town of Jarrow on an epic journey to London, a march intended to draw the attention of the government and country to the appalling plight of those living in the sort of conditions that were to be found not just in Jarrow, or Spennymoor, but all over the industrial and mining areas of the country. 

At the beginning of their march, they stopped in Ferryhill, the village next to Spennymoor, where my grandfather worked, at the Dean & Chapter pit. According to newspaper reports of the time, 

'before leaving, many of the younger marchers danced with local girls in Ferryhill market place. Gifts in kind were made by Ferryhill people, and even a dog which has attached itself to the marchers got a ration of biscuit ...'

According to another account, during the gruelling 25 day march, stopping in towns en route, and accepting modest support from sympathetic supporters on the way, one marcher was seen to place the ham from his sandwich. When asked why, he said: 

'I'm sending it home ...my family haven't had meat in the house for six weeks.'

As the march approached London, they left St Albans, and travelling via Edgware, now in this borough. On arrival at their destination, of course, no one really wanted to listen to them: they were given their train fare home and sent on their way. 

No one in government wanted to listen to them at the time, but the initiative they had demonstrated, and the commitment and courage of the marchers helped to inspire the burgeoning Labour movement, and the slow building move to the first Labour government, and the great founding principles of our welfare state. 

The birth of the NHS, in 1948, transformed and extended the lives and expectations of my family, everyone's family. My grandparents' later years were supported by free healthcare, and the end of their lives took place in dignity, in the comfort of an NHS hospital. 

Would they believe it if they were told that in my lifetime, all the social progress they saw in their middle age, and old age: access to good education, a safety net of benefits, and a free national health service, all of this would be taken away, piece by piece, no: not taken away, given away, piece by piece, by a government largely comprised of the grandsons of the same ministers that once turned their backs on the Jarrow marchers? I doubt it. But that is what is happening.

Yesterday, around 20,000 people assembled in Trafalgar Square to greet the arrival in London of a group of people supporting some women from Darlington, Co Durham, who had the brilliant idea that there should be a commemoration of the Jarrow March of 1936, a journey dedicated to the fight against the predation of the private sector companies now invited to feast themselves on our precious, irreplaceable national health service.

The 'Darlo Mums'  followed the same route, through Ferryhill, and Barnet, though High Barnet rather than Edgware this time, as we witnessed on Friday.

The pride and determination of the marchers and their followers as they entered the square was evident, and well deserved: just as the speeches that followed were a real mark of the rapidly building sense of outrage that is now felt by people of all classes, and all backgrounds, the length and breadth of the country.

Looking at the crowd, listening to the speeches, it was clear that this policy, the assault on our NHS has galvanised political activism in people who were completely new to any form of campaigning, or demonstrations. Senior citizens, middle of the road, middle class, ordinary people, burned into a state of protest through sheer fury, and deep anxiety about something they have always taken for granted, and fear they are about to lose: a health service, free at the point of care; the A&E departments at their local hospitals, the GP centre down the road, new demands to pay for that cataract operation, or those crutches, a two tier service for those who can afford to be fast tracked: a return to the old way of doing things - a return to a past their parents fought to put behind them.

An army surveillance plane circled low at least three times over the Square - (why? If it was for security reasons: fine - if for gathering information on the participants in a legitimate protest: that's deeply worrying). 

Speech after speech bore witness to the real and present danger in which we now find ourselves: doctors and MPs spoke of the threat of closure of their local hospitals - including Chase Farm, whose A&E department, before the last election, David Cameron promised to protect, but has now been shut, causing an intolerable burden on Barnet General's services.

Welcome words from Labour politicians, Andy Burnham, Andy Slaughter, Diane Abbott - all pledging to reverse the iniquitous assault of the NHS by the Coalition government, and interesting thoughts too, from Owen Jones and Billy Bragg: the latter two stressing the importance of the past, our inheritance, our legacy: our heritage, fought for over centuries as Owen Jones put it, by a people's army. 

Between songs Billy Bragg reminded us that the generation that voted the 1945 Labour government into power, and made possible the creation of the NHS was the first election in which women really had the opportunity to make their voices heard. They voted for the future, he said, for their children, their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren. 


He is right: it was women who had had enough of war, and want, and loss and hardship, and voted for a new society, where every one had equality of access to health and social care.

And it was a group of women from the North East who walked to Trafalgar Square to remind us of the past we may have forgotten, and never want to return. 

Aneurin Bevan famously predicted: The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"

We owe it to those who made the welfare state, and have paid all their lives to support it, and for those who knew the indignity of poverty, and denial of the right to life, and good health, to fight for those rights now, with every last breath in our bodies.


Anonymous said...

Mrs A. i read your peace & felt very moved , But what Became very clear to me was how very strong & motivated your Relatives & others were . The down right truth is we are Being Robbed of what is Ours ! The Hospitals WE payed for . It's NOT there's . If they don't want to support our Hospitals then Let us the Local people take over the Running of them , if they Don't want to provide Local services , then Let us !!! But Don't take our money in Tax Local or central . There has Been an on going campaign to undermine the NHS & Local Government from within by Employing Prats ! If these Highly over paid Prats in exec positions Don't want to do the job & simply hand over the jobs to private corporations to rip us off then GO !!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. When I contacted you about helping to publicise our march last week, I had no idea that you would have such a personal connection to what we were doing. A moving read. Darlomum Emma x

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks, Emma: I think the march was the most brilliant example of what can be achieved, if only we use our imaginations in finding ways of communicating to others exactly what a perilous state we are in, on the brink of losing something so precious and irreplaceable. Sincere congratulations to all the marchers.