Wednesday 29 October 2014

Britain is still a country for and says "Bravo" to its old and much loved humanitarian, Nicholas Winton

Nicholas, a wonderful example of what can be achieved by selfless determination and is now 105 years old, yesterday flew to the Czech Republic to receive the country's highest honour, the 'Order of the White Lion', from the President, in recognition of his saving, though his 'kindertransport', 669 Jewish children from certain death under the Nazis in 1939.

Although he has now outlived many of the children he saved, 6000 people are alive today because of the success of his efforts in Central Europe on the brink of the Second World War, 75 years ago.


* was born in 1909 in Hampstead, London, the son of German Jewish parents called 'Wertheim', who had taken the name 'Winton' and converted to Christianity and at the age of 14 in 1923, went to the newly-opened Stowe School and on leaving, worked for Midland Bank, then went to Hamburg and worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin.

* in 1931, at the age of 22, moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris, then returned to London and became a Stock Exchange broker and at 29 before Christmas 1938, was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing with his friend, Martin Blake,  working for the 'British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia' trying to help those perceived 'opponents' of the Nazis fleeing from the recently occupied Sudetenland region of the country.

* cancelled the holiday after a phone call from Martin : "I have a most interesting assignment and need your help. Don't bother bringing your skis" and at his request, joined him in Prague, visited families living in appalling conditions in refugee camps and finding no plan the get the children out, set up office using the dining room table in his hotel room in Wenceslas Square in Prague and then an office with school teacher, Thomas Chadwick, used to distribute questionnaires and register the children.

*  returned to England, visited the Home Office and found each child had to have a £50 guarantee to pay for re-immigration and a foster family to take them in and on receiving photos and names of children, advertised in papers and worked with organisations, like the Quakers, to find foster families while continuing to work at the Stock Exchange.

* devoted late afternoons and evenings to rescue efforts, often working deep into the night, with his Mother as secretary and a few volunteers and pretended to be more 'official' by taking stationery from the 'British Committee' and adding 'Children's Section' to its header, making himself 'Chairman'.

* found that "officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, 'Why rush, old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.' This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits" and also paid off officials : "It took a bit of blackmail on my part. It worked. That's the main thing."

* successfully organised 8 transports, the first by plane and then train and on September 1, 1939 found the biggest, cancelled when Hitler invaded Poland and all borders controlled by Germany were closed and carried with him the picture of hundreds of children waiting eagerly at Wilson Station in Prague."Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling."

* served as an ambulance driver in the Army at the start of the War, before serving in the Royal Air Force and then trained pilots after the War, before working for mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly for the Abbeyfield Society and in 1983 was awarded the MBE for his work and saw the retirement village in Windsor, appropriately named 'Winton House'.

* was given a scrapbook at the end of the Second World War as a momento of what he had done, and in the years that followed said of his War work : "I didn't really keep it secret. I just didn't  talk about it." which remained the case until he was 57 in 1988, when his wife, Grete, found the scrapbook in the attic, with the children's photos, list of names and a few letters from parents of the children to him and shared the story with Dr. Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and wife of newspaper magnate, Robert Maxwell who arranged for the Sunday Mirror to publish articles on his deeds.
* made an appearance on Esther Rantzen's BBC tv programme, 'That's Life', in 1988 who asked "whether any in the audience owed their lives to him ? and, if so, to stand", at which point more than two dozen people surrounding him rose and applauded and because the programme was aired nationwide, many other rescued children wrote to and thanked him :

* saw his story become the subject of two films by Czech filmmaker Matej Mináč: 'All My Loved Ones' and the award-winning 'Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good' and met Bill Clinton at the New York Premier when he was 93 in 2002, who, as a luminary, was his favourite, because :"You could have a proper conversation with him."

* added commentary to a 96 minute long documentary 'Nicky's Family' released in 2013

* 2013  saw 120,000 children in the Czech Republic sign a petition to request he be awarded the 'Nobel Peace Prize'.

* this year had his story told by the US tv programme '60 Minutes : Sir Nicholas Winton "Saving the Children" : and in May, saw his daughter Barbara publish his life story,'If it's Not Impossible'.
* in  2003, had a bronze statue put up outside Liverpool St station, depict the children he rescued and a thousand kms away in 2009 had a bronze statue holding two of the children erected in his honour in Prague Central Station, while 2010, saw a bronze life sized statue placed on the platform at his local Maidenhead Railway Station, showing him reading a book with images of the children and the trains he used to save them.

* once said with perfect understatement :
"I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help."and his quietly stated humanity : "If people lived together, for the moment, their religion : the fundamental ethics of goodness, decency, love, honour. The world we be a different place."

In Wednesday I  tweeted a link to this post to Roger Cohen, a journalist at the New York Times, for which he thanked me and the next day produced a moving article in the Times entitled :
An Old Man in Prague
The Discretion of Nicholas Winton

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Is Britain still a country worthy of an old and great humanitarian called Nicholas Winton ?

It is ironic that one item of news today was that 105 year old Nicholas Winton, flew to the Czech Republic to receive the country's highest honour, the 'White Lion', in recognition of his saving, though his 'kindertransport', 700 Jewish children from certain death under the Nazis in 1939. Another item was the announcement by the Foreign Office that Britain will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees from North Africa drowning in the Mediterranean, with the claim that they encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing,

So on the day that the selfless, fearless, humanitarian actions 75 years ago, of a great, old Briton are recognised and revered, the self-interested, timid, lacking-in-humanity actions of today's British politicians are revealed.

British policy was quietly spelled out in a House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office Minister, Lady Anelay:
'We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean' because there was 'an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.'
Does the Baroness really believe that those fleeing from hunger and persecution, often mothers and fathers with their children, will think twice about making the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean because they are less likely to be rescued at sea? Over a thousand have drowned already, many of them children and with absolute certainty, many more will also die.

The facts are : that the Italian sea and rescue operation, operation, 'Mare Nostrum', is due to end this week after contributing over the past 12 months to the rescue of an estimated 150,000 people since the Lampedusa tragedies in which 500 migrants died in October 2013. It will now end without a similar European search and rescue operation to replace it. The Italian authorities have said their operation, which involves a significant part of the Italian navy, is unsustainable. Despite its best efforts, more than 2,500 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.

Instead of the Italian operation, a limited joint EU 'Border Protection' operation, codenamed, 'Triton' and managed by Frontex, the European border agency, is to be launched on November 1st. Crucially, it will not include search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean, just patrols within 30 miles of the Italian coast. The Home Office has said that it was not taking part in Operation Triton at present beyond providing one 'debriefer' – a single immigration officer – to gather intelligence about the migrants who continue to make the dangerous journey to Italy.

Nicholas :

* was born in 1909 in Hampstead, London, a son of German Jewish parents called 'Wertheim',who had taken the name 'Winton' and converted to Christianity and at the age of 14 in 1923, went to the newly-opened Stowe School and on leaving worked for Midland Bank, then went to Hamburg and worked at Behrens Bank, followed by Wasserman Bank in Berlin.

* in 1931, at the age of 22, moved to France and worked for the Banque Nationale de Crédit in Paris and then returned to London and became a broker at the Stock Exchange.

* before Christmas 1938, was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday, but decided instead to visit Prague to help his friend, Martin Blake, who had called to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work.

* set about, single-handedly, to set up an organisation to help children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis, setting up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square.

* found his plans eased after 'Kristallnacht' in Nazi-ruled Germany  when the House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country, but still had to overcome the obstacle of getting official permission for the children to cross into the Netherlands, where the Dutch Government had officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees

* found homes in Britain for 669 children, many of whose parents perished in Auschwtz, with his mother working with him throughout the Summer of 1939, partly by placing  advertisements seeking families to accept them.

* served in the Royal Air Force during the War and kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found, in his 79th year, a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988.

* in the same year, featured in an episode of the BBC television programme , 'That's Life', during which the host of the programme, Esther Rantzen asked whether any in the audience owed their lives to him ? and, if so, to stand, at which point more than two dozen people surrounding him rose and applauded.

In an interview, broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, John Humphrys asked Nicholas :
" When you look at the world today and look at the troubles in all parts of the world ... I wonder what you, with tour great age, I wonder what you make of it ?"
Nicholas : "We've made a mess of it."
John : "So you don't think we've learned from the mistakes of the past ?"
Nicholas : "I don't think we ever learn from the mistakes of the past. No, I don't think we've learnt anything. I mean the world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been."

Monday 27 October 2014

Britain is a country where old men of Salford said "Goodbye" to an old photographer called Shirley Baker who captured them on film when they were boys

Shirley Baker, who has died aged 82, with her camera recorded and celebrated life in the streets of working-class Manchester, as the terraces occupied by thousands of families were being demolished, in favour of a 'brighter future' in high rise flats, half a century ago.  
What you possibly didn't know about Shirley, that she :   
* was born with her identical twin, Barbara, in Salford in 1932, to Josephine and Alec, who, with his brother ran a furniture making business and remembered her mother’s folding coronet camera and being given Box Brownie camera at the age of 8 : “a mechanical object that could do something extraordinary.”

* first went to a convent school, before being packed off with her sister to Penrhos College, in Colwyn Bay, a Methodist Boarding School for Girls, which, when they were 7, at the outbreak of the Second World War, was taken over by the Ministry of Food and saw them evacuated to Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, with the state rooms converted into dormitories and where they shortage  hot water for them was compensated by skating on the Canal Pond in winter.

* at school, developed her first film in a darkroom, was in charge of the 'Photo Society', read photo magazines and felt "freedom through photography," and on leaving in the early 1950s, studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, where there was only one other woman on a course which she found boring and antiquated.

* was influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, his Exhibition in Manchester, Bill Brandt and his ‘Perspective of Nudes’ pasting up nudes over her fireplace, his ‘Shadow of Light’,'Swiss Camera' and 'Creative Camera' Magazines.

* also came under the influence of Norman Hall (right), who sent her letters of advice and published her first photo essay on 'Manchester Dog Show' and went on to play a significant role in raising awareness in Britain of the power of the photographic medium through his work on 'Photography Magazine', then as editor of 'Photography Year Book' between 1954 and 1963 and later as Picture Editor at 'The Times'.

* graduated and started work in the early 1950s at Courtaulds Fabric Manufacturers,  producing promotional images, freelanced for other businesses and did some photo journalism for the 'Guardian' and 'The Lady', but had difficulties getting a press card, met obstructions from unions, received threatening phonecalls, was badly paid and believed she was only given the assignments deemed unsuitable for men.

* from the 1960s taught photography at Salford College of Art, carried her camera modestly stowed in her handbag and in free periods started and continued for 13 years, to photograph the slum clearance in Salford in "a time of much change: people were turfed out of their homes and some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the traditional life they knew" and at the same time felt 'pain and misery' for the Salford children living in poverty and squalor.

* was keenly aware that she was preserving images of a vanishing world, both in Salford and suburb of Manchester, Hulme, at the demolition of Hanky Park which had been the setting of Walter Greenwood's novel, 'Love on the Dole'.

* was touched by the fact that, even as the terraces were being demolished, the residents remained as house-proud as ever, scrubbing their front doorsteps as the dust descended around them and moved by the resilience and good humour of the children, who smiled through the incipient chaos and fashioned toys from whatever scraps came to hand.

* in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank said : “I love the immediacy of unposed, spontaneous photographs and the ability of the camera to capture the serious, the funny, the sublime and the ridiculous. Despite the many wonderful pictures of the great and famous, I feel that less formal, quotidian images can often convey more of the life and spirit of the time.”

* in the 1980s, when commissioned to produce a series of images at Manchester Airport, rather than taking the obvious course of photographing aircraft,  concentrated on the wearisome nature of travel, portraying the way in which people occupy space as they while away the dead hours, either falling asleep on benches, or propped up against the terminal’s walls.

* also in the 1980s, when her husband’s work as a GP, took them to London, produced a series of pictures of punks in and around Camden Lock and Camden Market and at the same time captured owners who looked like their dogs and people falling asleep in public.

* in 1986 exhibited at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, 'Here Today, Gone Yesterday' and finally became more widely appreciated at the age of 57 in 1989 with the publication of her first book, 'Street Photographs : Manchester and Salford'.

* continued to photograph and completed an MA in 'Critical History and the Theory Photography' at the University of Derby at the age of 63 in 1995 and published 'Streets and Spaces: Urban Photography — Salford and Manchester — 1960s-2000' in 1999 which showed how the same streets had been transformed in the intervening four decades.

* joined the 'Mary Evans Picture Library' at the age of 76 in 2008 and in 2012 had solo shows in Oldham and Salford, with another planned for 2015 at the Photographers'  Gallery in London entitled : 'Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men'.

* once said : "I cannot claim that my photographs represent anything other than a few wisps teased from some of the countless threads that form the intricate tapestry of our lives."

Friday, 13 June 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to an old artist-photographer, once 'Laureate of Teenage London' called Roger Mayne

Friday 24 October 2014

Britain is a country whose lonely old men have an antidote from Oz in the shape of Men's Sheds

"When women die, people drift away from the man left behind."

The report. 'The Emerging Crisis for Older Men' produced by the 'International Longevity Centre' and the Charity, 'Independent Age' makes the grim prediction that the number of old men living alone in England will increase by 65% by 2030 and although older women will still be more likely to outlive their husbands, growing numbers of men will outlive their wives. That means that 1.5 million old men will be living alone by then - up from 911,000 today.

The Report made the following points, that :
* old men are at greater risk than women because if they outlive their partners more they have significantly less contact with their children, family and friends.

*  as many as one in four old men have contact with their children less than once a month, compared to 15% of old women.
* nearly one in three old men will go more than a month without contact with any family members at all, compared to 20% of old women.
Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age, described the report's findings as 'alarming'.
"If you allow people to suffer from loneliness it has the equivalent impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is as big a risk as obesity. In general, men rely more heavily on their partner to remain socially connected. When their partner dies, often a man's social life shrinks. Our new research highlights the importance of social contact to older men. Poor physical and mental health is much more likely for the most socially isolated and lonely men."

"They're more likely to want to use their skills or hobbies so they have a real sense of purpose. Of course, out of that, they benefit from making social connections and contacts, but they won't necessarily go along just for a cup of tea and a chat."

'International Longevity Centre' Chief Executive, Sally Greengross, said it was important to accept that "many of our services simply don't work for men and innovative clubs and social programmes are needed to keep men socially connected after retirement, as well as offering support at certain later-life events, such as widowhood".

Laura Ferguson, Director of the 'Campaign to End Loneliness', said existing services to support old people such as coffee mornings were often more suited to women. "We hear from many charities across the nation that they struggle to find, and engage with, lonely older men. With social isolation and loneliness posing a serious risk to their health, local activities must be more tailored to suit men’s interests and needs.”

For Janet, Sally and Laura, one to a way to engage lonely old men comes from Australia in the shape of  'Men's Sheds'. Started in 2006 to provide support to men who had experienced either mental health issues, problems with the transition to retirement or a lack of social interaction, there are now more than 1,200 sheds in Oz. They came to Britain three years ago and over a hundred have been opened. A shed's activities usually involve making or mending in wood, such as carpentry, joinery, carving, whittling and furniture renovation, but can also include bike and vehicle repairs, tool renovation, upholstery, model engineering, milling and gardening. They are places where lonely old men can rub shoulders with other lonely old men and at the same time do something productive and useful.

Mike Jenn, the Chair of both the 'UK Men’s Sheds Association' and the Camden Town Shed in North London, which he started in 2011, after retiring from a career in the voluntary sector said : “I saw there was a social need and I wanted to demonstrate you could do something about it without money.” “At the beginning, when we needed tools, all it took was four lines in the Camden New Journal. We received six car loads – almost all of it from widows, who wanted their husband’s tools to ‘go to a good home’.”

A glimpse inside Mike's Camden 'Men's Shed', tucked away inside a community centre, reveals that it has :
* low ceilings, planks of wood, reels of tape and tiny plastic boxes full of screws.
* wood shavings and half-sanded fruit bowls.
* boxes of finished goods: plates, bowls, candlesticks, jigsaw puzzles and “bee hotels” ready for winter.
* pictures of the group’s communal projects: bird boxes, a gate for the local park and a wooden castle for children at a nearby archery club.

Eighty-seven year old, retired woodwork teacher, Les Leahy, who joined Mike's group, three months ago said : “I thought I was too old for this,” as he brandished a half finished table lamp and a toolbox. “When I first came here, I hadn’t touched my tools in 25 years. I thought I couldn’t use them anymore – I was planning to throw them all away.” Les, the oldest member of the group, lives on his own and has no children and “absolutely does not believe in the good old days” but “Forty years ago I knew everyone on my street. Now I don’t know any of the people in my block.”

Mike said : “Men are programmed to believe they can look after themselves. They don’t directly see that their life could be enriched by being with others so they end up hiding away watching TV. If you want a man to do something, don’t ask him to volunteer, tell him there is a problem and it needs fixing.”

The Greenwich 'Men in Sheds' featured on a BBC 'Newsnight' programme in 2011 (half way through the clip) :