Sunday 28 September 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to an old Welsh-born poet called Dannie Abse

Dannie, who has died at the age of 91, was best known as a poet but had worked in a chest clinic for over thirty years and was born in Cardiff, as the younger brother of the late politician and reformer, Leo and eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred.

In the Spring of 2013, he produced a new anthology of poems named after the ventriloquist bird invoked at the beginning and end of his collection, a bright-plumed fugitive. He was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 'Today Programme' in April of the year by fellow Welshman, John Humphrys and began by reading his poem:
                                Talking to Myself
I, old man in my new timidity,
Think how profligate, I wasted time.
Those yawning postponements on rainy days,
Those paper hat hours of benign frivolity.
Now time wastes me and there's hardly time,
To waste for vascular speech.
The aspen tree trembles as I do,
And there are feathers in the wind.
Quick, quick, speak old parrot,
Do I not feed you with my life ?
John : You talk of wasting your life. It's hard to think of many people who've had a fuller life than you have had.
Dannie : On yes, I wasted a hell of a lot of time sitting in cafes in Swiss Cottage when I was young and just sitting down and staring. No, I wasted a hell of a lot of time.
John : You've done a huge amount. You've not only become one of the favourite writers of your generation, you've been a hugely successful doctor. You've done all manner of things, even a footballer.
Dannie : I have just often been in a state of mental paralysis and maybe that's led to writing poetry, because I had to prove to myself I'm alive.
John : So you didn't set out to become a poet did you ? Did you set out to become a doctor ?
Dannie : I was put down for Westminster Hospital when I was 15 or 14 by my eldest brother, Wilfred.
John : You didn't have much choice then. It was foisted upon you.
Dannie : I didn't mind. I'd heard stories from my elder brother, he was a medical student. He told me stories about othe medical students, how Tonken Davis had cut off a penis from a cadaver and went to a saturday night dance and took it in his pocket, much to the consternation of his partner. So I thought it would be great fun to be a medical student rather than being a doctor. Most days I wasn't thinking of writing poetry. I wanted to play for Cardiff City in Wales.
John : I ty to imagine what what the conversation would have been like in your house when you were a young man. There was your elder brother, Leo Abse (right), who became a great reforming politician. Your older brother still, became a very eminent phsychoanylst. I wondered what the conversation was like.
Dannie : It was a privilege to hear their conversation in the 30's. Leo was seven years older than me and Wilfred (left) was nine years older than me and I was hearing the conversation about Karl Marx and Sigmund Feud as a teenager.
John : Now what about old age ? You've porduced a book of poetry at the age of ninety. Is that it ?
Dannie : I keep telling myself how well some poets like Thomas Hardy and Yeats did in their old age and that gives me encouragement to write.
We're an amalgam of many selves aren't we ?  I mean, however sedate we may be, there are some times an evil one escapes and I have an inspirational self, that's what my parrot is.
John : Will you keep writing poetry ?
Dannie : I don't know. I have to wait and see if that parrot returns. At the moment the cage is pretty empty.
John : You don't just sit there now with the blank sheet in front of you. Do you still do that ?
Dannie : No, but I leave the cage door open.
John : I think a lot of people hope that it does return and there will be much more poetry and perhaps we'll talk again on your centenary.
Dannie : I have the feeling that this could well be my last 'new' book of poems.

Dannie reading 'Talking to Myself' at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2013 :

What you possibly didn't know about Dannie, that he :
* was born in 1923 to Jewish parents, with one grandfather from Poland and his grandmother from Germany and studied Medicine in Wales and at King's College, London, qualifying as a doctor in 1950.

 * had his first collection of poetry, 'After Every Green Thing', published in 1948 and combined hs careers as both a doctor and a specialist at the Central Medical Establishment Chest Clinic between 1954 and 1989.

 * endured the tragedy of his wife being killed in a car accident in which he suffered a broken rib in 2005 and published 'The Presence,' a memoir of the year after his wife died, in 2007 and saw it win the 2008 'Wales Book of the Year Award' and later dramatised for BBC Radio 4.

* read for Oxfam in 2007.

Britain is still a country for an old campaigner at a Labour Party Conference called Harry Smith, who made delegates weep with old tales of past hardship

Harry, a 91-year-old writer and campaigner was hailed as the Labour Party Conference in Manchester 'star speaker' this week as he brought delegates to tears with recollections of poverty and premature death before the creation of the National Health Service, when he was 25 in 1948.

Barnsley covered in snow, 1930.Harry, who spoke in the 'Health and Care Debate' said :

* "I came into this world in the rough and ready year of 1923. I am from Barnsley and I can tell you, that my childhood like so many others from that era was not an episode from Downton Abbey. Instead, it was a barbarous time, it was a bleak time, and it was an uncivilized time because public healthcare didn't exist."

* "Back then Hospitals, doctors and medicine were for the privilege few because they were run for profit rather than as vital state service that keeps a nations citizens and workers fit and healthy."

 * "My memories stretch back almost a hundred years and if I close my eyes I can smell the poverty that oozed from the dusky tenement streets of my boyhood."

* "I can taste on my lips the bread and drippings I was served for my tea. I can remember extreme hunger, and my parent's undying love for me. In my heart. I can still feel my mum and dad's desperation as they tried to keep our family save and healthy in the slum we called home."

* "No one in our community was safe from poor health, sickness and disease. In our home, TB came for my oldest sister Marion who was the apple of my dad's eye. It is why her sickness and his inability to pay for her medicine or the best care broke his heart."

* "Tuberculosis tortured my sister and left her an invalid that had to be restrained with ropes tied to her bed. My parents did everything in their power to keep Marion alive and comfortable but they just didn't have the dosh to get her to the best clinics, doctors or medicines. Instead she wasted away before our eyes until my mother could no longer handle her care and she was dispatched to our Work House infirmary where she died 87 years ago. Mum and dad couldn't afford to bury their darling daughter so, like the rest of our country's indigent she was dumped nameless into a pauper's pit."

* "Election Day 1945 was one of the was of the proudest days in my life I felt that I was finally getting a chance to grab destiny by the shirt collar and that is why I voted for Labour and the creation of the National Health Service."

* "As I stand here today, my heart is with all of those people from my generation who didn't make it past childhood, didn't get an education, grow as individuals, marry, raise a family and enjoy the fruits of retirement because they died needlessly and too early in another era of austerity. But my heart is also with the people of the present, who, because of welfare cuts and austerity measures, are struggling once more to make ends meet, and whose futures I fear for."

* "Today, we must be vigilant, we must be vocal, we must demand that the NHS will always remain an institution for the people and by the people. We must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past. I am not a politician, a member of the elite or a financial guru, but my life is your history - and we should keep it that way. So say it loud and say it clear in this hall and across this country: Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS."

Harry's speech :

The headlines the next day :

The Independent :
Labour Party conference: 91-year-old campaigner Harry Smith steals show with impassioned welfare defence

The Mirror :
91-year-old NHS campaigner's storming Labour Conference speech earns TWO standing ovations

The Telegraph :
World War veteran's passionate NHS plea earns rapturous applause

BBC News :
Harry Smith, 91, brings tears to Labour delegates' eyes

Sixty-four year old Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the trade union, Unite, holding back the tears.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Britain is no longer a country for an old and unacknowledged TV documentary film maker called Nigel Evans

Nigel, who made his mark over thirty years as producer and director of more than 40 tv documentaries, championing the rights of disabled and marginalised people, has died without fanfare at the age of 71

What you possibly didn't know about Nigel, that he :

* was born in Guildford, Surrey in 1943, during the Second World War, the son of mother, Pauline and father, Donald, a fighter pilot in the RAF who had shot down two enemy fighters, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and after the War was promoted to Air Vice Marshal and appointed Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff at the Ministry of Defence when Nigel was 17 in 1961.

* was, like his father, educated at the independent boys boarding school, Wellington College in Berkshire and at 16, was awarded an 'RAF Flying Scholarship', but declined to follow in his Father's footsteps, left school in 1961 and enrolled on the 'Cours du Civilisation Francaise' to study French as a foreign language at the Sorbonne.

* as a student in Paris, indulged his love of cinema and was enthused by the French ‘New Wave’ cinema with its natural light and sound and hand-held camera shots and no doubt saw Jean Luc-Goddard's 'Vivre Sa Vie' about a young woman forced into prostitution when it was released in 1962.

* returned to Britain and in the mid 60s set up 'Lusia Films' with old school friend, Richard Mordaunt, one of the first independent production companies not making industrial or promotional films, but documentaries about aspects of life in London.

* with private donations made 'Heroin' in 1970 and 'Cure' in 1971, following a small group of heroin addicts struggling to overcome addiction which was to bring his work to the attention of the big charities and was commissioned to make campaigning films for 'The Spastics Society' (Scope), the 'Mental Health Film Council' and 'LEPRA'.

* at  the age of 30 in 1973, was awarded a 'Churchill Travelling Fellowship' to explore 'new approaches to raising public awareness to the plight of marginalised people', travelled to New York and met the tv reporter, Geraldo Rivera (left), who had exposed Staten Island’s Willowbrook Hospital with over 4,000 mentally handicapped adults and children
housed in appalling conditions and bussed to Central Park where volunteers partnered them for the day in a festival atmosphere with street theatre groups, magicians, clowns, donkey rides and percussion bands with a view to encourage longer term volunteering.

 * inspired by Geraldo, returned to Britain and founded the charity, 'One Plus One', which supported volunteers working with patients in psychiatric hospitals and in 1974 organised the first 'One-to-One' days in 4 hospitals which expanded to 21 by 1978 and although the take number of volunteers making a long term commitment to visit and befriend was encouraging, reports that there was little improvement in the plight of these forgotten patients forced his resignation as Chair of 'One-to-One' and prompted him to research a film that would highlight conditions in the hospitals.

* in 1980 at the age of 37, became a member of the 'Channel Four Steering Committee', a lobby group dedicated to set up a fourth tv channel which would commission programmes from independent producers and successfully obtained a remit from Parliament 'to provide a broad range of diverse programming which, in particular, demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes and addresses the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society.'

.* produced 'Silent Minority' in 1981, a documentary which generated a furore by highlighting neglect and abuse in mental hospitals and demonstrated that the bizarre, self-harming and repetitive behaviours seen in the long-stay wards were not the result of a mental disability, but a response to the endless hours devoid of stimulation and therapeutic activity which gradually disappeared in patients placed in the setting of a specialist unit with qualified staff using programmes tailored to their needs :

* bought the film rights to David Cook’s novel and in 1982 produced 'Walter', the portrait of a few years in the life of a mentally handicapped young man which was directed by Stephen Frears, starring Ian McKellen and transmitted on the first night of Channel Four and followed it in 1993 with 'Vulnerable People', a catalogue of comments from nurses talking anonymously about ‘injustice, brutalisation and cover ups’ in 16 named mental handicap hospitals in the South East of England.

* in 1983, saw his ‘The Skin Horse’, a film essay which explored the sexual and emotional needs of the disabled, win Channel Four its first 'Royal Television Society Original Programme Award' and the following year saw it  networked in the USA and awarded a 'John Foster Peabody and a Primetime Emmy Special Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement.'

* made 'Taking the Lid Off ' in 1984, a collaboration with children from the 'NSPCC Family Makers Unit' at Gravesend that explored their experience of parental failure and the damage of abuse and abandonment and the ways they found to reach, touch and make sense of what had happened to them.

* set The Madness Museum' in 1986, a drama documentary written by and starring Ken Campbell, in a 19th century lunatic asylum and based on treatment meted out to the unfortunate inmates based upon the text books of the time.

* in his 'Pictures in the Mind' in 1987,  produced for Channel 4 the 'first drama documentary in sign language', dramatizing attempts by early educators of the deaf to promote sign language as the preferred method and their defeat by the promoters of ‘oralism’ resulting in nine out of ten deaf people becoming illiterate victims of a system that denied their right to communicate in their natural way and saw  transmission followed by the successful campaign led by Jack Ashley, MP (left), to have ‘total communication’, speech and signing combined, introduced into all schools for the deaf in Britain.

* in his 'Name of Charity' for ITV in 1987, told the story of  two district nurses from the East End of London who, over a 20 year period, adopted and fostered over 30 ‘hard to place' children and charted the family’s move from London to a converted convent in Essex over a one year period and saw the public’s unsolicited response lead to 'Family in Trust', a fund set up to support and continue to support the family.

* in the 1990, 'The African King' for Channel 4, tracked the pillage of cultural treasures from the deserts of West Africa to the auction houses of Paris and London and saw its broadcast lead to the withdrawal of all the Malian works of Art from the Royal Academy’s 1991 ‘Africa Exhibition' as the film had demonstrated that all the pieces on show had been stolen from Mali.

* made 'Fantastic Invasion' in 1991 as an essay in ’ethnofiction’ and a celebration of the last South Pacific Cargo Cult on the island of Tanna where the 'American Dream' had become a formal religion.

* in 1992, his 'Cowboys in the South Pacific' presented a cautionary tale around the search by a group of Texans for the wreckage of a World War Two plane, piloted by Weyland Bennett, on the small Pacific island of Espiritu Santo : and the following year in 'Excuse me for Living', studied his life-long obsession with cannibalism and presented and narrated the autobiography of Issei Sagawa :

* returned to the Northern Hemisphere and a more conventional subject with 'The Widowmakers' in 1994, a documentary which told the story of the disasters that befell the Russian nuclear submarine K.19 which National Geographic bought and took to the USA and invested in a Holywood version starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and which upset K 19 veterans who complained the film bore little relation to the truth :

* in 1995, was asked to make the BBC's contribution to 'World Aids Day' and in his controversial 'The End of Innocence', highlighted the attitudes of the public and politicians to 'Gay issues' in the 80s and early 90s, reflected in the 'Don't Die of Ignorance' Campaign, in which the group overwhelmingly affected by AIDS were never mentioned and therefore marked a lost opportunity to confront the issues:

* marked his retirement from tv film the following year with a celebration of life for the over sixties in 'Grey Sex' which extolled the tenderness of love, companionship and a shared lifetime of physical intimacy :

* decided to train as a psychogeriatric social worker and in his fifties, returned to full-time education, gained a BA in 'Community Care Management' and for a number of years, worked for 'Community Mental Health' Teams in Isleworth and Hounslow.

*  turned to writing under the name of 'Nigel Randell' and in his first book, 'The White Headhunter' in 2003, questioned the memoir of 19th century teenage Scots sailor, Jack Renton, who, shanghaied in San Francisco, jumped ship, drifted two thousand miles in an open whaleboat to the Solomon Islands, served the island’s tribal chief as his most trusted adviser and using oral history, pieced together a more complete and grislier account of Renton’s experience as a man forced to assimilate in order to survive.

* enjoyed positive reviews from The Sunday Times : 'His telling of Renton’s story is brilliantly done….original and gripping' ; Simon Winchester in The Daily Mail :
'Nigel Randell’s extraordinary first book reminds us brilliantly of the deeply British secret – that we are not exactly as we seem….it is an utterly compelling story' The Good Book Guide : 'A grisly, fascinating and meticulously spun yarn' ; Publisher’s Weekly :
'First time author Randell demonstrates skilled storytelling…fascinating and horrendous'  and Kirkus : 'A fabulous ethnographic tale inside a larger tragedy of cultural genocide and retaliatory murders.'

* in 2003 he retired to the small island of Vava'u in the Pacific island Kingdom of Tonga, where he met his second wife, Cindy and researched his second book, 'Boy From the Sky' published in 2013 and based the world's first ethnography, William Mariner's 19th century account of his rise from castaway ship's clerk to the King of Tonga's lieutenant.

* occupied his time making Tongans aware of educational opportunities at home and abroad and raising money for school fees and university scholarships, until illness forced him to return to Britain last year.

* had his remarkable life and work marked only in 'The Guardian' by his friend and colleague from his Lusia film making days in the 1960s, Richard Mourdant, now based in Australia :                                    

  • Friday 19 September 2014

    Britain is still 'one country' and says "Thankyou" to an old Prime Minister called Gordon Brown

    Gordon, who is sixty three years old, was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland, the son of Bunty and John Ebenezer Brown, a Presbyterian Minister of the Church of Scotland, who had a strong influence on him. After a career in politics and serving as a formidable Chancellor of the Exchequer, he took over from Tony Blair as Labour Prime Minister in 2007 and after an unsuccessful Premiership, lost the General Election in 2010 and was replaced by a Conservative led Coalition Government fronted by David Cameron. At that point he retired to the backbenches and made few speeches and interventions in Parliament and dropped out of public view until, that is, until the Scottish Home Rule Referendum, which could have given Scotland its independence. He was parachuted in to help the 'No Campaign' after the late-August Nationalist surge boosted the 'Yes' supporters' confidence and support.

    His 'Better Together' speech on the eve of the Referendum, without an autocue in sight, was magisterial. He might have been a Presbyterian minister delivering a rousing address to his congregation  :

    “ We are a nation forever – yesterday, today and tomorrow. Hold yourselves with dignity. Have confidence. Our values are the values of the people of Scotland. Have confidence. Our stronger Scottish Parliament meets the needs and aspirations of the Scottish people. Have confidence. Our future lies in cooperation and sharing, and not in separation and splitting apart. That unity is our strength. Have the confidence to stand up, be counted and say for Scotland’s sake: not now, not this time, not the risks, no thanks. Have confidence to stand up and be counted and say, for Scotland’s future, ‘No’.”

    It was magnificent oratory and was recognised as such in the press :

    Gordon Brown roars into life : On the eve of the historic vote, ex-PM gives the speech of the campaign so why wasn't he in charge of the No campaign from the beginning ?

    Gordon Brown's address to a Better Together rally has been hailed by some as his moment of redemption.

    Former Prime Minister delivers barnstorming speech at Better Together rally before vote urging Unionist to 'hold your head high' and be confident of victory.

    Gordon's contribution to the 'No Campaign' was not solely responsible for its 55% of the Scottish vote victory, but it certainly played a part in tipping the balance, confirming that Britain is a country where you never know when an old Prime Minister might come in handy.

    The full text of Gordon's speech :

    Thursday 18 September 2014

    Britain is no longer a country for and said "Goodbye" to old soldier, Pacific colonial officer and English safety officer called Gemmell Alexander

    Gemmell , who died in the summer, aged 95, was the last surviving Military MBE from the Second World War and one who served in the post-War, Pacific Islands Colonial Service in the last days of the British Empire.

    What you possibly didn't know about Gemmell, that he :

    * was born at Hooton, Cheshire, just before the end of the First World War in August 1918, the son of a father, joint partner with his father of the wealthy Liverpool accountants, 'Harmood' and mother, Winifed, who had been 'close friends' with the Prince of Wales when both were students at Oxford University in before the War in 1914.

    * was 12 years old when his Mother died and was adopted and brought up along with his three brothers and sister by her sister, Aunt Marjorie, in
    Heswall and was educated from the age of 14, as a boarder at the
    independent boys' public school, Sedbergh, set in the Cumbrian countryside where he developed his love of walking and where the school motto was 'Dura Virum Nutrix' (Stern Nurse of Men) and a song, 'Winder', was named after the fell that dominated the northern skyline of the school and all boys had to climb once.

    * left school in 1936 and he signed on with a North Sea trawler at a shilling a day, before going to Brasenose College, Oxford to study for a Law degree and at the age of 20 in 1938, was a leader of the Oxford Expedition to identify the mosquitoes preventing the development of a tourist industry in the Cayman Islands and in '39 photographed gannets and little auks off the coast of Iceland and on the boat home he met his future wife, Rona Page Elias, a nurse, as they both leaned over the rail to be sick.
    * graduated in 1939 and was apprenticed to a Liverpool garage before being called up for Army service after the outbreak of the Second World War and was posted to 51st Infantry Division in France to join the British Expeditionary Force, only to find it had been evacuated and, stranded, made his way from St Etienne to Nantes where, after killing a German soldier in self-defence, hid for two months in the attic of the home of Anne-Marie, the family's French Governess, with whom he had eaten ice creams as a boy, before escaping on a Polish trawler which was attacked by a German Stuka dive bomber.

     * on return to Britain, was posted to the Military Police with the Eighth Army in North Africa and promoted to Captain and then one of 'Monty's Majors' after his senior officers were both killed and had to pick up the personal possessions and arrange the burial of his of  his younger brother, Stuart, after he was killed in the Battle of El Alamein a few miles away.

    * took part in the beach landings at Sicily and Anzio in 1944 and later was present at the capture of the Belsen Concentration Camp, was twice 'mentioned in despatches' which recognised his 'gallant action in the face of the enemy', was demobbed from the Army at the age of 27 in 1945 and awarded 'Military MBE' which honoured his 'distinguished service.'

    * married Rona and embarked on a career in the Colonial Service with a posting to Gilbert and Ellice Islands, restored to British rule after war-time Japanese occupation.

    * set to work : marrying those who had been living together, granting divorces and giving appropriate sentences to wrongdoers, only to be advised that his actions were 'without authority' since he had not passed 'the necessary exams', but since they could not be rescinded, received back-dated authority as 'Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific' and while posted saved the life of his daughter, Alison, from drowning in the Pacific.

    * also introduced a law banning outside traders to help the local economy to grow and started a trade in shark fins until the Chinese Government placed a ban on their import and faced complaints about the smell when they were stored in Suva until an American purchased the entire consignment for four times the price originally agreed.
    * posted to Mauritius, supervised the building of a road so that planters could bring down sugar cane from the mountains and helped to organise a co-operative dairy to deliver fresh milk to the capital, Port Louis.

    * moved on to Cyprus as 'Commissioner for Co-Operative Development', joined the Cyprus Grain Commission, helped the Agricultural Bank of Greece and was Controller of Vine Products, against a background of  the Greek Cypriots demand for 'Enosis',  union with Greece which was spilling into violence.

    * returned to Britain at the age of 42 in 1960, joined the 'Co-operative Wholesale Society', organised the bulk buying of fertilisers and animal feeds, then joined the 'International Co-operative Alliance' then became 'Director-General of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents' and finally worked as 'Road Safety Officer for West Yorkshire' before retiring at the age 60.

    * in retirement in 1978, climbed Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in just 24 hours and ten years later at the age of 70, to celebrate his birthday, walked the 'Yorkshire Three Peaks' twice on the same day.

    * in 2002 appeared on the 'Richard and Judy Show'
    as the sole survivor of the family filmed by his Aunt in a 16mm compilation called 'The Alexanders' and saw it lead to a three part mini series called 'The Alexander Archive' for the BBC, screened in 2003 :
    * in a life in which he : survived a gas explosion as a baby,  escaped from German soldiers in full British uniform in 1940, in the Pacific survived when a hurricane flattened his house while he was inside and had his son Harvey say of him : “He was a bit of a Houdini. He was very lucky. He led a very full life, at any rate!”