Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Polish names on Southport

 On Sunday morning as we were all waiting in the Mayor's Parlour prior to assembling at the War memorial Pat Keith and I fell into conversation with Sefton's first Leader of the Councillor Tom Glover. Tom had two medals pinned to his coat. The one that interested me was the award he got from the Communist Polish Government. Tom explained that he had arranged for the names of Polish Servicemen to be added to the War Memorial.

At a time when there is so much bile and nonsense is spoken about Polish people it is important to remember their significant contribution to winning WW2. Their part tends to get played down in British War time movies but history does show us how crucial a part they played in -for example -the Battle of Britain. The war time play Flare Path -revived in London a couple of years ago to coincide with the centenary of  Terrance Rattigan birth-features a polish pilot and his wife (played by Sheridan Smith. Radio 3 also broadcast the play. Rattigan was part of a squadron and his play better reflects the part that polish people played .

Next time you walk along Lord Street pause to read the names on the memorial. As the poet said:
 “When you go Home, tell them of us and say,
 For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

foisting Mayors on reluctant Northern Cities is a disgrace

The ill considered foisting of a City regional mayor on a reluctant Manchester is not the way to reform the constitution. It is a London answer to the English question. Firstly it does not answer the Mid Lothian Question-why should MP's from constituencies with devolved administrations vote on English issues, it fact this botched proposal makes it worst- and secondly it blatantly ignores the wishes of Manchester people. We certainly DO NOT want this option foisted on us. Secondly the way to constitutional reform is from the bottom up. We, the people, will decide not the Whitehall and Westminster elite.

It is outrageous that the Tory Chancellor has ignored the wishes of the people. There was a referendum in Manchester and the voters said NO to a Mayor, then along comes a London based Conservative politician and foisted a Mayor on them. The powers offered are ones that should naturally rest with Local Government and do in almost every Western democracy. Imposing a Mayor shows a spectacular contempt for the wishes of the people. It is not health that all the power should be vested in one person.

We must not allow the same deception be visited on Southport. We do not want our services being run from Liverpool. Our key economic need is to improve communications to the North and the East. The road and rail links to Manchester and Preston are a disgrace. The action that needs to be taken to remedy those issues lies out side of the so called City Region.

John Pugh has a Bill before parliament at present that would allow local people to change the boundaries of local government districts. It is no secrets that Lib Dem have since the 1970’s argued that Sefton is not fit for purpose. Southport needs urgently to get back control over our own affairs. Rule from Bootle has seen our Libraries close and Lord Street go on to the ‘at risk’ register. Rule from Liverpool is not the local government change we need.


What has been announced is a tweeking of the powers of local government. The challenge of how the North should respond to the transfer of significant power from London to Scotland must be decided in the North. We do not want London politicians coming here telling us what to do. This grubby little deal transfers a minuscule amount of power and money-less than 2% of the money the government spends in the area. It is a London answer to the English question.

KGV: The Governors and the principal must not be allowed to sit out the storm

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
King George V 6th Form College has just had a truly shocking OFSTED report. They have fallen from Outstanding in 2010 to Inadequate this year. Sadly too few parents and students were that surprised. The evidence has been mounting for some time. It is no secret that John Pugh MP received some detailed complaints which he put to the Governors. They rejected the concerns and made it clear that they thought that they were doing well in the present climate.

They were wrong.

It appears that their staggering level of complacency has continued since the OFSTED report was published. This is some of the things the report said about the Governors and Principal:

  • the governing body does not hold senior managers to account with sufficient rigour
  • the Principal's appraisal lacks targets and objectives
  • Governors have not set challenging objectives for the senior leadership team
  • performance management across the College is not effective
and so it goes on, page after page. This institution was (prior to 2010) one of the very best VIth Form Colleges in the entire country. There is a real danger that students will not choose to go to the College. Other FE provision in the area have expanded as student recognise that their chances will be enhanced by going elsewhere. There is a genuine danger that the College will go the way of Ainsdale High.

The immediate action required is that the Chair of the Governors must go. I suspect his instinct is to sit it out in the bunker and wait for the storm to subside. Our town cannot afford for that to happen. We need to see rapid reform and those who complacently dismissed all criticism over the recent years are not the people to oversee that change.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Iraq:reasonable concerns

11 years after the American led invasion of Iraq the Chilcot Inquiry has not been published. The Inquiry was established to learn lessons from the 2003 invasion and the bloody aftermath. They were to look at the way decisions were made and actions taken.

Amongst the questions we can reasonably expect to be explored are; how clearly were the war aims agreed, what was the exit planning like, how effective were the various phases of the war, was there mission creep etc.

In addition have we a policy towards the Kurds? The Kurds appear to be the one coherent group in the territory of Iraq. Is it stills our policy to maintain the borders drawn up by Sykes Picot in the aftermath of the break up of the Ottoman Empire. If we are prepare to contemplate a redrawing of boundaries what do our allies in Turkey think and what impact does it have on the outcome in Syria?

It strikes me very forcibly that General Petraeus had all the combined might of the US armed forces, supplemented by his allies- including ground troops, and they could not suppress the uprising amongst the tribesman that are now supporting Islamic State. What hope is there for air power alone and does dropping bombs on innocent civilians win their hearts and minds? The US led coalition spent recession inducing sums of money equipping and training the Iraqi army. That strategy failed. Why will it work this time?

There are many other examples across the world of vile groups who torture and murder and who have the potential to strike the UK. Why are we not going after them? The insurgent group in Nigeria are clearly as unpleasant as Islamic State. What about the actions of Russia in mainland Europe invading other sovereign states and arming terrorists?

I fear that this comes under the heading of : 'it is so awful something must be done'. If the Chilcot Inquiry had been publish we could have learnt the lessons from the last war and sought to mitigate them-with all the information available we may even have concluded that this was not the best course of action. This war may not being begun with the contempt for international law which was the hall mark of the engagement under the Labour government, but it is hard to be re-assured that the lessons have been learned and that mistakes will not be repeated.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Labour 'lite' and late again on decentralisation

Today were see launched plans for City State devolution within England. These are by their very nature inadequate as a response to what is happening in Scotland with Devo Max. We should remember that Glasgow has the biggest City Deal worth £90billion, it is not an alternative to the Scottish parliament it is as well as. We need to recapture our confidence in Regionalism if we are to have an adequate answer to the challenge, and then we need to make afresh the federalist case.

I was watching John Prescott getting a hard time in Rutherglen on the TV last evening. What a wholly unconvincing advocate of decentralisation he proved to be. There should be no surprise there, it was he who produced the pathetic proposals for NE devolution which were so bad they scuppered devolution within England-even now Labour's proposals on tax powers for a Scottish Parliament if there is a No vote and 'lite' compared even to the Tories let alone Ming Campbell's Commission.

I have for 40 years or more been an un ashamed advocate of federalism both within the UK and on a wider European level. I remember watching Callaghan rejecting the idea of federalism with an evident distaste for a 'foreign' idea.

Back in early July I was arguing for real powers to be devolved-and preferably entrenched in a written constitution.

Just judging by our ruling Labour party in Sefton 'democratic centralism' is part of their DNA. It was always deep in the soul of the Labour party who at every turn have rejected decentralisation in favour of central control and conformity. David Marquand charts the debates in 1945 for a localised Health Service and how that was lost by spurious arguments for uniformity and efficiency. (put in link)

It must be admitted that there are some in the Labour party who raise their heads to argue an alternative case-the late John Mackintosh, Evan Luard amongst others. The present MP Graham Allen is also raising important ideas in his new Magna Carat initiative.

Anyway I thought it was appropriate to reproduce the posting I wrote in early July:

I am mightily unimpressed by the consensus on Northern devolution that is emerging in London. We will face new challenges post the Scottish referendum whether it results in 'Independence' or Devo Max. None of the 'lite' proposals emanating from  the SE-whether from Heseltine, Osborne, Clegg or the Labour Party -adequately take account of the new challenges we face. Let us compare and contrast the proposals.

The Scottish Challenge

  • The Scottish Parliament already has significant powers and now even the Tories are proposing to give them more. Win or loose the referendum the Hollywood Parliament is going to have tax raising powers which may include: 
  • control over income tax, bands and rates,
  • powers over inheritance tax and capital gains tax,
  • existing powers over Stamp Duty,
  • land fill levy,
  • the aggregates levy and air passenger duty
  • corporation tax
  • New powers to borrow to balance the economic cycle and take long term decisions on investment
In addition to that package those of us advocating a federal solution for Britain would wish to see a further diffusion of power to local government and communities. Ming Campbell's Commission recommended;
  • Financial freedoms for local authorities
  • Removal of powers for Ministers to over rule local authorities
  • Power over council tax and business rates to rest with Local Authorities
  • General powers of competence
  • Requiring Councils to raise roughly half their money
The Commission added

'The Commission goes further in recommending new rights for local communities to take over services in their areas and to require the co-operation of councils, national government and quangos to do so. The recommendations also offer the opportunity to local communities to establish new burgh councils or other mechanisms if they want to put in place clear local control of services.
The final recommendation entrenches local government as envisaged by the original (Scottish) constitutional convention. 

Besides this what is the North being offered?

Well Mark Tavernier's chorus from the Liberator Song book may be the appropriate response. The North is paying a heavy price for John Prescott's incompetence when he brought in the pathetic proposals for  Devo Minimums that were rejected by the North East .

What is on offer now is not a lot better. It is based on the current fad for Balkanising the North into warring City States with few real powers. It is the perfect Whitehall solution to decentralisation of power within England-hand over as little as possible, 'nothing you would notice', but behave as if the proposals are truly radical.

Jim Hancock reflected that:....'by contrast the North of England is bought off by City Deals, Combined Authorities, Elected Mayors, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Regional Growth Funds.'. He continues

'Let’s remember that this demand for Scottish independence has been driven since the 1970s by economic grievances, largely centred on North Sea oil. In that it differs from independence movements in Quebec and Catalonia where political and cultural factors are more to the fore.

Then there is the dramatic effect independence would have on British politics. 59 Scottish Labour MPs would be out of Westminster. The party that relies on London, the north and Scotland to form a government would be very lucky ever to see power at Westminster again. The Tories, with their strength in southern England, would be bound to reflect those interests at the expense of the North.

We need to hope for a no vote, but prepare to welcome the headquarters of Scottish based multi nationals relocating in the North after independence rather than London and demand a Council of the North to give northern business and people real strategic and economic power here'

If we are serious about federalism then we need a Council of the North to administer the sort of strategic economic powers that Scotland will achieve post referendum. The present architecture for devolution is simply inadequate.

One key flaw in the proposals that is felt very keenly in vast tracts of the North is simply stated-we do not all live and work in Cities. The systematic way in which the City centric policies are destroying the economic prosperity of market towns, rural areas and even large boroughs within the region should be unacceptable to us

Part of the Federal proposals drawn up by Ming's Commission that I have quoted above is about decentralisation within Regions. Take Southport as an example. The concentration on Liverpool is undermining our economy. There has just been a major report on Rail Strategy for the City region. It ignores Southport. Our great need is to re-open our transport connections to the North and the East-our traditional hinterland. Our economy which is founded on tourism and retail  requires people to be able to get here easily. Since the wretched county of Merseyside has been created we have seen very little investment in those essential links. Everything has been poured into the narrow corridor to the South. Our retail offer is competing with Liverpool One which has had bucket loads of investment and will shortly get enhanced rail links. We regularly have business rates reduced because of the impact of Liverpool One. Our Conference trade is equally impacted. If it is difficult to get here why bother coming? And now our residents are meant to be pleased to see their council tax being spent to further scupper our economy. In significant part the decisions made in the 1970's made this inevitable

The North needs to plan across the whole region. We need real power decentraliseded. And just as Highlanders are seeking devolution in Scotland so those of us outside of the big cities require that our economic needs are catered for.We need the powers of this new constitutional settlement enshrined in a written constitution so that the are truly diffused not merely devolved for a season. From London The North may just be the cities -it is much more than that.

Jim Hancock, who I quoted above, has I think got it right when he writes that even if there is a Lab/Con consensus on the 'lite' form of devolution the civil service will scupper it.

 It is secretive and bitterly opposed to any policy that would take power and influence away from Whitehall. It is the Civil Service. They used to wear bowler hats, now they are less identifiable. Their appearance might change but they’re basic attitude to the North will never change.
They know little about our area. They regard the North as a place populated with people with begging bowls, trying to get money which they haven’t the expertise to spend. They sometimes acknowledge people like Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese, but generally believe northern politicians are Town Hall minnows who can’t be trusted with the cash. ( I would add that Mind you Mark Dowd and his like during the long spell in charge of Merseytravel did there best to conform to that negative stereotype IBB ) At a recent conference I heard one former senior Treasury official bragging that as far as civil servants are concerned there never has been a regional policy.
This situation has prevailed for many decades even when there were civil servants in regional government offices. Some tried to make a difference, most couldn’t wait for a posting back to London.
Tony Blair invaded Iraq but he never had the guts to demand his civil servants implement John Prescott’s vision for well resourced development agencies democratically controlled by assemblies. We elect the politicians and they should tell the civil servants, with the threat of dismissal, to get on with what the elected government propose.
So let’s see what happens after the election. Both parties want to devolve money and power to the North. I forecast the civil service will first of all go slow, then the Treasury will reduce the money available, then the powers will be trimmed.

It is this context that John Pugh, speaking at his adoption meeting in Southport last week, called for a 'Peoples' Convention of the North' rather like the Scottish Convention that ushered in the Holyrood Parliament. We need to get on with the task of creating a Federal constitution which doesn't treat England as a unitary state. If Scotland had been offered a City Deal for Edinburgh and Glasgow instead of a Parliament I can guess their response.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Why have Bootle Labour got such a big problem with women?

Here is a list of Bootle's MP's


We are told that Bootle Labour Party are meeting to select a new candidate to fight the 2015 General
Election having dispensed with Joe Benton.              


1885Thomas Myles SandysConservative
1911 by-electionAndrew Bonar LawConservative
1918Sir Thomas Royden, Bt.Coalition Conservative
1922James BurnieLiberal
1924Vivian Leonard HendersonConservative
1929John KinleyLabour
1931Chichester de Windt CrookshankConservative
1935Eric ErringtonConservative
1945John KinleyLabour
1955Simon MahonLabour
1979Allan RobertsLabour
1990 by-electionMichael CarrLabour
1990 by-electionJoe BentonLabour

Here is another list of all the people who have been Mayor of Bootle:

Nov 1869 William Geves
1870--75-76 Thomas P Danson
1871-72 William Molyneux
1873 William Geves
1874 George Barnes
1877 Louis W Heintz
1878 John Newell
1879 John P McArthur
1880-81 William Poulsom
1882-83 James Webster
1884 James Leslie
1885 Matthew Hill
1886 William Jones
1887 John Howard
1888 John Wells
1889 Benjamin Cain
1890-91 John Vicars
1892 William Thomas
1893-94 Benjamin Sands Johnson
1895-96 Isac Alexander Mack
1897 John McMurray
1898 William Robert Brewster
1899 George Lamb
1900 Peter Ascroft
1901 George Samuel Wild
1902 William Henry Clemmey
1903 James Julius Metcalf
1904 Owen Kendrick Jones
1905 Robert Edward Roberts
1906 Alfred Rutherford
1907 James Person
1908 George Randall
1909 Hugh Carruthers
1910 James Rodger Barbour
1911 John William Edwin Smith
1912 William Henry Clemmey
1913 John Rafter
1914 George Alexander Cassady
1915 James Pearson
1916 Benjamin Edward Bailey
1917 James Pearson
1918-19 Harry Pennington
1920-21 John Henry Johnston
1922 Thomas Alfred Patrick
1923 Robert Turner
1924 Birty Wolfenden
1925 Thomas Harris
1926 Frederick William King
1927-28 Edmund Gardner
1929 Simon Mahon
1930 Donald Samuel Eaton
1931 Arthur Hankey
1932 James Scott
1933 Maurice Stanley Webster
1934 Edwin Smith
1935 John William Clark
1936 James Burnie
1937 James O'Neill
1938 Nicholas Cullen
1939 James Spence
1940-41 Joseph Sylvester Kelly
1941-42 James Stubbs Riley
1942-43 Richard Owen Jones
1943-44 George Alfred Rogers
1944-45 William Keenan
1945-46 John Thomas Hackett
1946-47 Harry Oswald Cullen
1947-48 Thomas Harris
1948-49 Thomas Harris
1949-50 C G Anderson
1950-51 David Berger Black
1951-52 Robert James Rogerson
1952-53 Mark Connolly
1953-54 R J Rainford
1954-55 P Mahon
1955-56 T A Cain JP
1956-57 Dr I Harris JP
1957-58 A S Moore JP
1958-59 Ald J C Hevey
1959-60 Hugh Baird
1960-61 Joseph Samuel Kelly
1961-62 Joseph Sylvester Kelly
1962-63 S Mahon
1963-64 J Morley
1964-65 TE Dooley
1965-66 G Williams
1966-67 J Grimley
1967-68 Mrs Veronica Bray
1968-69 O Ellis
1969-79 H Gee
1970-71 F Morris
1971-72 G Halliwell
1972-73 J Murray
You will notice that since 1869, that is145 years, only ONE women has held either office. Step forward Mrs Veronica Bray, she was Bootle's only ever female Mayor.

Surely, I hear you ask, since 1973 and the inception of Sefton the Labour party has nominated a women. There have been Labour Mayor's a plenty -we have even be treated to the same man THREE times-but no women.

If there is an argument for all women short lists then surely Bootle should be a prime candidate. Left to their own devices I think you can guess the outcome..........

Time to re-think post election strategy?

As we all mull over the scenarios that could arise after an election it is time to debate what the party's approach should be. I fear 'ex cathedra' statement from the Leader's bunker. I have a couple of matter to start the ball rolling.

Way back at the dawn of time when Jeremy Thorpe was Leader and David Steel (to whom we shall return) was Chief Whip, I recall much discussion about under what conditions we would form a coalition and it what circumstances 'supply and confidence' would be the best option. In 2010 we didn't have that discussion. Chris Rennard did try, and Paddy did listen but sadly Clegg did not. Back in the 70's I recally the view was that a small party -even with a big electoral mandate-should not venture into a coalition. Then, as now, it is perfectly possible that we could land up with the balance of power and only have 30 seats. Unlike post '74 the chance of us landing up with 25+% of the vote are diminishingly small.

Having observed the present coalition and the way the party has failed to maintain a separate identity with getting on for double that number of MP's I cannot see it is possible to maintain an idependent party in a coalition with so few MP's. All our reps would need to be involved in the government and nobody could speak for the party. The near wipe out of the party in great swathes of the country would be worse. Thank in large part to Clegg's poor leadership-especially in the early days-it would be hard to justify wielding great influence on a government with only 10% of the vote. We have failed with more than double that.

My conclusion is that we need to look at 'Supply and Confidence' much more carefully as both Chris Rennard and David Howarth have suggested. No Ministerial cars, no Rose garden and no tuition fees, but with a clearer focus on the long term interests of the party-and needless to say I think the Country benifits from the survival of a Liberal Party.

David Steel has made much the same point in his radio interview with Peter Hennessy

Lord Steel was also critical of the way his party handled coalition negotiations after the 2010 general election, suggesting the option of doing a deal with Labour should have been explored a bit more before a deal was struck with the Conservatives. "It was done with unseemly haste," he said of the discussions, which took place over five days.

Steel goes on to discuss the second point that I think we have not debated properly-namely to whom do we speak. Clegg rather bounced us into the imprecise formula of the 'biggest party' first. It raises the issue what if the party with the larger number of MP's has a smaller popular vote than the lead opposition party?

Steel says:

"But it was also done the wrong way round by talking to David Cameron first and, in fact, the incumbent prime minister should have been talked to first. "I think if that had happened, Gordon Brown would have done his statesmanlike thing and come out and said he was resigning as leader of the Labour Party much earlier and the party would have had much more clout with the Conservative Party because they would have been seen to be talking to their more natural allies first."

Now I do understand that Steel is being overtly political here and I agree with him. We should be in politics to achieve political ends. The largest party is a foolish formual. If in the Netherlands the PVV landed up as the largest party (and in 2010 they were not that far away) would we expect D66 to sit down with them? In Brirain 2015 with UKIP forcing the already extreme Tory party further towards a right wing anti immigrant, anti EU, neoliberal poistion surley they would be beyond the pale?

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Chapel Street Chuggers-action at last

Seaton Council have, at best, been disinterested in the way that Chargers have besieged Chapel Street. Elected representatives and members of the public have raised their concerns with the Council and no effective action has been taken.

I spoke about this issue a couple of years ago, and to be fair Sir Ron Watson (Indep) challenged the Council but no effective action was taken. Let us be clear this is not a matter of money, this is about the will to act.

This morning I met Enda Rylands the Chair of the Southport BID. His organisation has recognised the problem and is willing to act. They have drawn up a plan to regulate fundraising in the town which will require Charities to apply for permits and will designate the pitch they should occupy. This should put an end to the accosting of shoppers.

I am not against fundraising on ChapelSt but when large charities send battalions of chuggers to occupy Chapel Street things have gone too far. There is good practice in Southport. The young man who sells the Big Issue sticks to his pitch and folk approach him. The same is true of the women who sells The War Cry.

The Southport Visiter has done a survey of readers and well over 90% agree with me.

The BIDs permit arrangement should come into force in September. There are about 100 other similar schemes across the country. If the Council had acted when this was raised 30 months ago a lot of inconvenience and upset could have been avoided. I predict that we shall shortly see a Labour Councillor claiming credit..................

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


The annual table of members allowances has recently been published by Sefton Council. Reports in the local press have given limited highlights. The full details (including those for previous years) are to be found towards the bottom of this section  Alternatively you can go direct to the 2013/14 table.

Most councillors make no claim for expenses (as opposed to allowances – effectively a salary) as, since 2007, they have to bear the cost of travel to committee meetings etc themselves. The only exception is that the cost of travel outside the Borough can be claimed for. My Birkdale colleague Councillor Simon Shaw is once again one of a very small number of Sefton councillors who make any expenses claims at all. As before, Simon has sent through for publication, in the interests of transparency, full details of his expenses claims submitted to Sefton Council.

There are two activities outside the Borough in which he is involved, and for which the cost of travel etc is claimable, as follows:

  1. He has been a member of the Local Government Association’s Workforce Board and some related NJCs as well as the Local Government Pensions Committee since 2005, all of which meet in London.

  1. He has been a member of the Merseyside Police and Crime Panel since 2012.  In fact, although the travel expenses for this have to be claimed from Sefton Council, the full cost is reimbursed out of a grant from Central Government to cover the cost of the Panel

A detailed analysis of expenses for 1. is to be found here: Expenses 2013/14

In summary, for last year, Simon has claimed expenses of:

  • £490.90 in total, of which
  • £364.75 related to 4 trips to London, which equates to
  • an average of £91.19 per trip, which includes rail fares, tube fares and also hotel & subsistence on one trip.  This compares with the Standard Open Return from Southport to London Euston which costs over £300
  • £126.15 for mileage for 9 round journeys to Police & Crime Panel meetings in Huyton + one to Leeds (502 miles @ 22.5p per mile + £13.20 for parking).  This £126.15 is reimbursed in full to Sefton Council out of Central Government grant towards the cost of the Panel.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Liverpool Rd closure

Subject: Temporary emergency road closures, Birkdale village
Dear Councillors
Please be advised that we have been notified that the gable end of the Barclays building on the junction of Liverpool Road and Alma Road in Birkdale village is in imminent danger of collapse.
Site inspections have been carried out by the contractor for the building owner and our building control and highways inspectors today, and the decision has been taken to temporarily close both Liverpool Road and Alma Road whilst work is undertaken to stabilise the building.
The decision to temporarily close Liverpool Road in particular was not taken lightly. Given the height of the building and the size and weight of the ornate gable wall it is considered that leaving the carriageway of Liverpool Road open could result in significant injury or loss of life to the general public should the wall collapse onto the pavement or carriageway below.
Further consideration was also given to closing the southbound carriageway only and the use of temporary traffic signals, therefore allowing one way traffic to pass the site. However, given the close proximity of the railway level crossing (less than 50m), it was considered that there was a potential for queuing southbound traffic to ‘back up’ across the level crossing, which could result in a major incident.
Measures will be put in place immediately, and vehicular access northbound on Liverpool Road will be possible to its junction with Alma Road and southbound access will be possible to the Santander building. All pedestrians will use the westbound footway to pass the site.
Details of the temporary emergency road closures is attached to this e-mail and it is expected that the road will re-open by Friday evening.
I trust that the above information is of use to you and explains the reasoning behind this difficult decision.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

War poet who spent time in Southport's Psychiatric Hospital finally rehabilitated

All around us we hear of war and the remembrance of war. As I watched the lamps going off across the town on  Monday evening and as the last candle was about to be extinguished at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier the camera panned to the plaque in Poet's Corner which bears the names of sixteen soldier poets . One name caught my eye- Ivor Gurney.

A few weeks back I had caught bits of as radio programme (now available as a podcast) about the life and music of Gurney. I knew of his protracted mental illness but I had no idea that in 1918 he had spent time in Winwick Hospital. Between 1915 and 1920 it was known as The Lord Derby War Hospital and treated over 56,000 soldiers.  After the war it returned to being a civilian Psychiatric Unit and served a wide area covering, Southport, Crosby, Bootle, as well as Warrington and Newton-le-Willows. I well remember families struggling to go and visit the Hospital 30 miles away. All sorts of voluntary effort went into organising lifts and coaches. The hospital was still serving Southport in the 1980s.

Gurney had been gassed on the Western Front at St Julien at got his 'Blighty Ticket' to come home. He landed in June 1918 at Winwick. Gurney had been ill before the war. Long and disputations articles have been written about exactly what illness he suffered from. I don't think that we should be too hung up on exactly what label he would be given today if he met a modern day Psychiatrist, it doesn't really matter if it was bi polar or schizophrenia. The experiences of the trenches had a devastating impact on his health, it haunted his poetry until his death almost 20 years later.

Winwick Hospital was dealing with some of the worst cases of 'shell shock'  and employed some
novel and experimental treatment including 'electrical treatment'. I cannot trace any record of Gurney having received such a treatment at Lord Derby's hospital, although during the many years he was an impatient he was given a dose of malaria as an experimental treatment-it was not successful. What is clear is that witnessing the extreme distress of the other soldiers did take its toll on Gurney.

War accelerates change in so many fields technological, medicine and in society at large. Mental ill health continues to be the subject of discrimination and stigma. In the aftermath of WW1 there was some public acceptance of the impact on soldiers 'nerves' of what they had witnessed and endured. In some small way it made its way into popular literature, for example D.L. Sayers's all to perfect character, Peter Wimsey suffered from shell shock and his bouts are described and discussed in some of the books.

It was during Gurney's time in Winwick that he tried to commit suicide in response to voices in his head. He wrote to several of his friends saying 'I am committing suicide partly because I am afraid of madness and punishment and partly because my friends would rather know me dead than mad'. One of his friends Marion Scott acted quickly and alerted the hospital and Gurney was found wandering along the banks of a canal. He was returned to the hospital and put under 'special supervision'.

What is significant for me is just how many friends stood by Gurney through all his mental distress. We well know how people with severe mental ill health often loose touch with family and friends believing that their 'friends desert them like a memory lost'. However Gurney may have felt many of his friend stood by him. Not only did Marion Scott bundle her Mother on to a train  and go to Warrington to see Gurney, other continued to visit and care for him during the long years in hospital . Ralph Vaughan Williams visited him and helped fund his care, as did other childhood friends like Herbert Howell.

Ever since his first breakdown in 1913 Gurney had believed that hard physical work and discipline was the best way of coping with his illness. After his suicide attempt he told nurses that he thought he'd be happy farming. This idea led him to believe that the army life would suit him well and he volunteered to join up when war was declared. Because of his eyesight he was not taken on immediately. He joined up as a Private and as such was the only soldier poet named on the plaque in Westminster Abbey who was not an Officer. For a while the war did seem to help him control his symptoms and recently a documentary was made on Gurney called The Poet that loved the War

Gurney did write poetry whilst he was in Winwick including the one below:

The Stone-Breaker

Written at Warrington in July 1918.

The early dew was still untrodden,
Flawless it lay on flower and blade,
The last caress of night's cold fragrance
A freshness in the young day made.

The velvet and the silver floor
Of the orchard-close was gold inlaid
With spears and streaks of early sunlight -
Such beauty makes men half afraid.

An old man at his heap of stones
Turned as I neared his clinking hammer,
Part of the earth he seemed, the trees,
The sky, the twelve-hour heat of summer.

"Fine marnen, zür!" And the earth spoke
From his mouth, as if the field dark red
On our right hand had greeted me
With words, that grew tall grain instead.

* * *

Oh, years ago, and near forgot!
Yet, as I walked the Flemish way,
An hour gone, England spoke to me
As clear of speech as on that day;

Since peasants by the roadway working
Hailed us in tones uncouth, and one
Turned his face toward the marching column,
Fronted, took gladness from the sun.

And straight my mind was set on singing
For memory of wrinkled face,
Orchards untrodden, far to travel,
Sweet to find in my own place.

Gurney had been a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral and along with Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello had been an organ scholar there. He went on to the Royal College of Music with Howells before the war and returned there afterwards to study under Vaughan Williams. Herbert Howells went on to be one of the leading English choral composers of the twentieth century and though his pre war teacher at the Royal College thought Gurney was 'the biggest of them all' he found him unteachable.

Howells and Gurney were together in Gloucester Cathedral on the night that many people believed marked the start of the great renaissance of English music; the first performance of The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams. The pair of them were so moved by the music that they could not sleep and spent the whole night walking around Gloucester talking about the performance.

Throughout his illness Gurney wrote both poetry and music but after he entered The London Mental Hospital in 1922 little was published or performed and he faded from public view. He always did have champions but it took many years for his achievements to be widely acknowledged. His friend still visited him but he was never discharged from the hospital till his death in 1937. At his funeral Herbert Howells played the organ.

Gurney's re emergence into the light took a long time . A biography appeared in 1978 and his two volumes of war poems-Severn and the Somme and War Embers were re issued in 1997 (the Winwick poems are in the second collection) there have been some performances of his music including his 1920 War Elegy performed at this years Proms .

On holiday this year in the Cotswold's I went to Gloucester Cathedral where in April they had unveiled a new window dedicated to Gurney designed by Tom Denny. The second panel represents The Stone Breaker his 1918 poem written in Winwick Hospital.

At the outbreak of war Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked  "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life”, the same could be said of Gurney's reputation, but now  the light has been restored. Sadly the same cannot be said of peace in Europe where we still hear of wars and rumors of war.