Magna Carta links

Magna Carta links
At the Library of Congress in Washington

Saturday, 24 June 2017

One year on and my heart is still broken

I shall never forget waking on 24 June 2016 to discover that the electorate had voted to leave the EU. It broke my heart.

For me, it was never about money; it was a matter of principle: we have avoided war by working together. I have spent many hours researching and writing about the two world wars and the thought that these would never be repeated mattered massively. The EU was the child of the peace process following the end of WW2. It was, it is something of immense value and the electorate voted to leave it.


So we could regain control? My argument always was that the EU is governed by a democratic process comprising a directly elected Parliament and a Council of Ministers from each member state. There is a civil service, the Commission, but it is answerable to the democratic bodies. The EU does those things that are better done together rather than 28 times over. It made, it makes sense. The EU together can tackle the major problems we face; countries can't do it alone.

I have friends who voted to leave. For them it was immigration. Interestingly it was immigration from middle eastern countries, which to my knowledge are not members of the EU.  They were angry; they wanted their country back. Voting to leave the EU will not make a bean of difference. If we do leave, they will be disappointed; actually they will be furious. They will be all the more furious when they can't get the NHS treatment they need because of a lack of skilled staff and when they see living standards fall.

The economic picture straight after Brexit looked OK. The Stock Market had risen, so all was well. Shh. The Stock Market rose because company profits earned in currencies other that sterling were suddenly worth 20% more, because the pound tumbled. Since then the negative impact of the fall in the pound has been felt with inflation caused by imported goods costing more.

This whole Brexit thing is a total nonsense.

How I wish we had an opposition brave enough to say this out loud!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Blame Game

It seems that there is nothing for which Mrs May is not responsible. This is profoundly dangerous scape-goating and risks hiding the real issues.

Taking a very broad brush, the tragedy in Kensington, the Brexit vote and the state of the NHS all have in common the results of austerity. Buildings seem to have been maintained on the cheap and millions have seen their living standards eroded and it seems that there is simply not enough money to pay nurses properly or provide the health service we need. There has grown up in government a mind set that says all that matters is not spending money. It is a fear that if ministers do so they will be outed for sacrificing a sacred cow.

We don’t have enough money.


The immediate reason was the need for government to pay out many millions to save the banks which were on the point of going bust in the financial crisis of 2008. Banks going bust mean countless millions losing savings. It mattered.

Having saved the banks, the Labour government set about trying to balance the books. Millions had been borrowed and, if only to pay the interest, millions had to be found. There is a choice: borrow more, raise taxes or reduce public expenditure. Borrowings already looked terrifying, raising taxes risked impeding enterprise, or upsetting core supporters, and so public expenditure was chosen. The Coalition and then the Tory government continued on the same path.

The result is the denuded public services we now face and ministers closing their ears and eyes to the evidence of experts on the safety of tower blocks, for example.

Who was to blame?

Blame must focus on the banking crisis. Unpicking the strands, we had a situation where financial institutions were struggling to keep the interest rates paid on people savings at the levels they had become used to. World interest rates were falling, largely as a result of monies flowing out from China. The backroom boys at the banks set to work to devise products that would offer high interest rates to the people and pension funds hungry for them, that is you and me. One way of doing this was to lend money at high interest rates to people probably unable to borrow otherwise – high risk lending. These loans were bundled together in such a complex way that, when they were offered as an investment, the inherent risk was hidden. These were the sub-prime mortgages. First in the USA and then at Northern Rock amongst others people began to see that ‘the emperor had no clothes’, that millions of pounds of investments were worthless. Banks had invested heavily in them and so they faced disaster. The government stepped in, borrowing massively to do so.

Who was to blame? Was it pensioners demanding high interest rates, pension schemes struggling to meet their obligations to retired workers, evil bankers who without question made a fortune in the process? A bit of each. What is certain is that it was not the NHS, it was not occupiers of high rise flats and it was not millions of people whose jobs had disappeared over the decades with technological advances and third world countries entering the market. It wasn’t the EU.

Governments, including the EU, should have applied tighter regulation and still must. De-regulation goes back to the time of Mrs Thatcher but it continued under governments of all colours since.

What do we do?

We can’t go on with austerity. We have to have and pay for proper public services as Polly Toynbee argues in her book, Dismembered. So we have no alternative than to raise taxes, from everyone not just the rich, but the rich should pay proportionately more. The LibDems were wrong suggesting a penny in the pound from everyone; but Labour were also wrong in saying the rich must pay. We are all in this together, but those best able should shoulder the greater part of the burden, not by threats but by seeing their role in a cohesive society.

Probably the major part of the deficit arising from bailing out the banks should be left and no attempt made to repay it. Adair Turner, in his book Between Debt and  the Devil, suggests this. Investment financed by new borrowing should now be made in infrastructure and in education and training to encourage enterprise which is the key to a strong economy.

We need to look very carefully at the wisdom of an economy based on individual borrowing to finance consumer spending.

We must remain in the EU for access to their markets, for the immigration we desperately need and to work with other countries to face the challenges together.

We have to accept that we have been living beyond our means and so can’t have new cars on finance every few years. We have to share out the national cake more evenly: another point that Turner makes. This will benefit the economy as a whole since the current polarisation of wealth means that millions lie unproductive in property.

It is not only Mrs May, but equally she is not the leader we need to get us out of this complex mess.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Some more memories of Lincoln Drill Hall

Can anyone remember Len Marshall’s dance band playing at the Drill Hall?

In response to my last article, Ralph Williams told me that, as a small boy in WW2, he would sit on the stage and watch the couples navigate the crowded dance floor every Friday and Saturday night. Ralph’s grandparents were caretakers and lived in the house attached to the hall. His granddad would take great pride in keeping the dance floor shiny. His gran would serve refreshments to the thirsty dancers.

It wasn’t just Len’s band, or that of his wife, who took over the band when Len died; it was others: Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Ralph spoke with special delighted of Ivy Benson’s All Girl Band, which he also managed to see later out in Egypt on his National Service.

New Year’s Eve was very special. Mrs Marshall would have dances going on not only in the Drill Hall but also in the Assembly Rooms and in a dance hall, now gone, opposite the Theatre Royal.

It wasn’t just dances. In the first floor room bordering Broadgate there was a private Men’s Club with bar and billiard table. At the other end, again upstairs, there was the Sergeant’s Mess Club also replete with billiard table.

On Boxing Day the shooting range to the right of the hall would be brought into use for a shooting competition and Ralph’s Dad, Arthur Williams who worked at Rustons in Boultham, would be a keen participant.

As musical tastes changed, so did the Drill Hall offering with the bands and performers such as Gene Vincent (with his famous hit “Be Bop A Lula”), Screaming Lord Sutch, Jess Conrad, Shane Fenton (later re-invented himself as Alvin Stardust), The Hollies and Ultravox.

There were local bands too, including the Sultans. The Hollies crossed the road after their Drill Hall gig to hear the Sultans in the old Ruston Club, aka Oddfellows Hall. Martin Phillips recalls that the Hollies complemented the Sultans on their version of Searching. Andy Blow told me another Sultans story: they were invited to support the Stones at the Drill Hall on NY Eve ’63 but felt they had to decline - they were already booked at Branston Village Hall! The Stones were a breaking band but it wasn’t yet apparent that they were going to be one of the biggest bands of all time.

In 2004 the Drill Hall re-opened with a broader remit. It was to be the performing arts venue for the city. This was not only a matter of hosting professional acts, but also being the space where local groups could perform.

There was comedy and in their early careers audiences enjoyed Lee Evans, John Bishop, Rob Brydon, Lee Mack, Jason Manford, Jack Dee, Sean Lock Sarah Millican and Stewart Lee. Still enjoyed are Marcus Brigstocke and Jeremy Hardy amongst others.

There were talks, in politics, Tony Benn and Shirley Williams but also Roy Hattersley, Michael Portillo and Ken Livingstone. Outside politics the hall has hosted Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer who is back this coming summer, Will Self, Gervase Phinn, Jenny Agutter and Chris Packham.

There has of course been more music. Not only did Johnny and Cleo play the Drill Hall, but their daughter Jacqui Dankworth has appeared in two Lincoln Jazz Five gigs there. Darius Brubeck, son of Dave, has been another famous jazz visitor as has Jamie Cullum of course. Georgie Fame, The Kyle Eastwood Band and Dennis Rollins.

In terms of Folk, Fairport Convention have been back each year and there have been visits from Martin and Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Bella Hardy, Lau, The Unthanks. Julie Felix was a visitor last year.

With rock and pop, audiences have enjoyed Steve Cropper, The Buzzcocks, Lloyd Cole, Midge Ure, Howard Jones and King King.

All this is before I even mention classical music, dance and theatre. Did you see Ockham’s Razor when they first came?

What are your memories of the Drill Hall?

This piece was published by The Lincolnshire Echo on 30 March 2016

Monday, 3 April 2017

John the Troubador surely must take his place among Lincoln’s Literary Heroes.

Never heard of him!

Well, read on.

On 20 May 1217 a battle took place just outside Lincoln castle between two groups of English barons: one loyal to the boy king Henry III, and the other led by Louis, son of the French king, and supported by French troops. This battle must rank alongside the Armada and the Battle of Britain in its significance to this island.

Barely two years before, a similar group of barons had confronted Henry’s father, King John, at Runnymede and had persuaded him to add his seal to a list of their demands in the document we now know as Magna Carta. This document remained in force for just ten weeks when, in response to John’s pleading, the Pope annulled it. The battle lines were re-drawn with a group of barons seeking the support of the French with the objective of overthrowing John. Another group rallied round their king.

One of these was a septuagenarian, William Marshal, whom in his younger days had been a dashing, handsome young knight beloved by those fond of jousting. William stood by his king and crucially was by his bed when John died of eating an excess of peaches, or so the story goes. John entrusted the care of his young heir to William.

The rebel barons, under Louis, controlled London and the whole of the east of England, up to and including Lincoln, but crucially not Lincoln castle which was under siege and held by Nicola de la Hay, the widow of its previous castellan.

William and his troops controlled the west. In May 1217 reports reached William that the French troops had spilt into groups and so he grabbed the chance to take them on at Lincoln and so lift the siege of the castle. They camped at Torkesey and on the morning of 20 May marched into Lincoln. A fierce battle followed and the French and the rebel barons retreated down steep hill with the English in pursuit. The English were victorious and celebrated by plundering the city of Lincoln which they accused of being in league with the rebels.

How do we know all this?

John the Troubadour wrote it in an 19,214 line poetic celebration of William Marshal’s life. John had been commissioned by William’s son and he wrote it within ten years of the battle taking place using a good number of contemporary sources. The poem, originally in medieval French, has been translated into English by Stewart Gregory and David Couch and form the basis of Crouch’s William Marshal. 

Phil Hamlyn Williams  - chair of Lincoln Book Festival, indebted to David Starkey who is speaking at this year’s festival in September 2018

Friday, 3 February 2017

What are your memories of Lincoln Drill Hall?

At this year’s beer festival, the mayor told me that she remembered drilling there. Andy Blow recalled a story told by the caretaker of wrestling and one contender in particular who was a Coronation Street fan and so had to go up to the caretaker’s flat to use her television, presumably between bouts. More than one person I’ve spoken to was there when the Rolling Stones came.

I want to capture as many memories as I can as a ‘hall of fame’, before, as they say, it is too late.

The beginning of the Drill Hall story was probably a good forty or so years before the hall was built.

In the mid 19th century volunteer battalions of riflemen were being formed all around the country to defend the nation when the professional army went overseas. They needed somewhere inside to train and drill halls were such places.

The Lincoln Drill Hall is regard as one of the better ones and this shines out from the article in The Times on May 26th 1890 about its opening.

“Mr. E. Stanhope opened a new volunteer drill hall at Lincoln on Saturday. The hall has been presented to the Lincoln Volunteers by Mr. Joseph Ruston, a former M.P. for the city, and the total cost is about £10,000.”

“The Drill Hall, erected in 1889-90, from plans by Messrs. Goddard and Son, is of red brick with freestone dressings, and consists of offices, men’s club, orderly room, gymnasium and men’s recreation room, sergeants’ room, magazine, armoury and Morris tube range, band room and caretaker’s quarters.”

“Not only have the Headquarter Companies of the 1st Lincolnshire Volunteer Battalion been provided with a drill hall that embraces every requisite, but the building, with its frontage of 55 ft to Broadgate, is an ornament to the city. The front elevation, of red brick and stone, with Ancaster dressings, presents a military aspect, with its embattlements and watch turret. The gateway is 10 ft wide, and above it the Royal arms are skilfully carved out of stone.”

It obviously caused quite a stir.

Joseph Ruston was insistent that there should also be kitchen for the hungry of the city, a tradition we try to honour with our #CompassionateLincoln events.

One of the upstairs rooms, which we renamed the Cosker room after my predecessor as chair of trustees, has a sprung dance floor. Was that original or added later? We think that the room was once used as a private members club. Can anyone remember?

In WW1 the Lincolnshire volunteers mustered at the Drill Hall before going off to war. The Hall was then used as a hospital for the wounded returning from the trenches. In WW2 the Hall was once again the place where the troops mustered.

After the Second World War all kinds of events began to be staged in the Drill Hall from televised wrestling to bingo, roller skating to live bands. The Rolling Stones famously played there on 31 December 1963, prior to their appearance on the very first Top of the Pops the next day! Other notable acts who performed at the Drill Hall include Arthur Brown, Spooky Tooth, Barclay James Harvest, UFO, Budgie, The Stranglers, The Skids, The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, The Adverts, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Ultravox, Psychedelic Furs, Judas Priest, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden.

I have heard that famous dance bands performed in the hall. Can anyone remember them?

The hall was closed in the late 1990’s because the electrics were unsafe. It re-opened in 2004 in its current role as the city’s arts and community centre.

What about more recent memories? Which are the great acts and performances of recent years? Did you see the first Panto? It is the tenth anniversary this year.

The Lincolnshire Echo published this piece in their Nostalgia section on 2 February 2017

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Britain I know and love has suddenly changed

2016 must be the most awful year of my life, so far.

We have had in Syria carnage on the scale of the Great War. We have had a constant stream of ordinary people fleeing the terror and many dying in the process. We have had two votes of massive significance each of which has unleashed a wave of hatred and intolerance.

I am not going on about the result of the EU referendum; the result is the result and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I am not going on about whether it should be soft or hard Brexit. What concerns me is that the Britain I know and love, as a country with a proud tradition of welcoming refugees and being a place where communities of different origins have for decades lived in harmony, suddenly has changed.

It seems that those people on the extremes somehow have been given ‘permission’ to behave in ways that would shock and anger their parents and grandparents. To throw racial abuse at neighbours was surely something that we left behind with Alf Garnett? We had moved on as a society; we had grown up.

Apparently not.

It isn’t just the outbreak of racism and xenophobia. There is all the language of hate.

I have to come clean; I was a lawyer, a Barrister, although it is many years since I did any law. I remember as a law student getting irritated by the decisions of the old buffers who were judges at the time. Irritation would find expression in humour. Now disagreement finds expression in hate. The case over Article 50 is simply a question of what the law is. It is not a matter of being as abusive as possible in order to bully judges round to a particular view point.

It is more than hate levelled at judges; it is hate levelled at politicians with whom people disagree. Disagreement is what debate is all about. Hate and threats have no place in politics in a civilised society. Anyone watching the television or reading the social media of late will have noticed a turn for the worse in terms of language used to express opinions. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I have never seen an argument better expressed with expletives.

There is an even more worrying side to hate. It is the opposite of love and compassion and this is shown in the very visible poverty in our communities. To go to the supermarket and to be faced by a large number of volunteers collecting for food banks might be a mark of compassion, but the need is surely the mark of a society where the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots is unacceptable. It is a mute point whether any gap is acceptable. The difference in 21st century Britain is colossal. In previous ages where the difference has increased, the 18th and 19th century, those with money saw it as their duty to help the less well off. Not so now, except in a few high profile cases.

It is also shown in the number of people sleeping rough. Spending cuts have lead to the withdrawal of services and this has resulted in vulnerable people being uncared for, in effect discarded.

Is this the society we want? Let us have robust debate, but let us too not let go the tolerant and caring society which our parents and grandparents bequeathed to us through two horrific world wars.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Wearing our Poppies not only with pride

Just one week after Remembrance Day we commemorate the final day of the Battle of the Somme and I find myself pondering that word, pride.

I am immensely proud of our service men and women, but ask whether it was it pride that compelled those politicians and generals to send thousands of boys, defenceless against streams of machine gun bullets? Perhaps some thought that the enemy could be overrun if enough were sent.

I have been researching accounts of the Great War with a view possibly to writing a ‘Prequel’ to my book, War on Wheels. I thought I already knew much of what happened in those years 1914 to 1918. I didn’t know the half; indeed I still don’t. Yet what I have unearthed sheds a very a different light on Remembrance, on the idea of wearing my poppy with pride.

So, I search for other words. Do I wear my poppy with thanks. The answer is ‘yes’, I do thank each and every one of those boys who gave their lives. But what of those who had their lives snatched from them, cruelly dragged from them?

There are stories of young men in 1914 desperate for adventure, desperate for the chance of standing up for King and Country. Pumped up with adrenaline, or do I mean testosterone, ready to give the enemy the hiding they deserved. I am sure there were some; but just how many met a quite different reality? Trench warfare was obscene beyond anything we can comprehend.

Following on from those seeking adventure were the pals, the battalions made up of men from the same village or workplace. Who wouldn’t step up to support a pal? There were those stepping forward out of a sense of duty or patriotism. There were those shamed by a white feather into volunteering. The fate though was the same. I try to imagine, but fail. Arriving in the trenches surrounded by mud and death must have shocked to the core even the strongest man. On the command to go forward, was it possible to think at all, staggering into the hail of bullets?

So, do I wear my poppy with sympathy? The word surely is too weak for the feelings of those who received the dreaded telegram telling them that their husband, son or brother was dead, or possibly worse, missing. Grossly inadequate for those enduring an unimaginably hideous death from gas or gangrene. Insufficiently enduring for those thousands who would carry a wound for the rest of their lives.

If not sympathy or thanks, then what? Shame?

Governments sending young men to war are doing so on behalf of the electorate, at least in theory. So is the poppy a mark of shame that so many were needlessly slaughtered? This is not the same as saying that the war should never have been fought, it is much more about ensuring that those who offer their bodies in the service of their country are protected to the best extent possible. Winston Churchill’s campaign for the tank was just this, to offer a means of protection against machine gun bullets.

Shame though devalues the sacrifice made by so many. Heartbreak then, that the land of Europe endured such suffering. Heartbreak for those who suffered agony and those who suffered loss.

More so though, to wear a poppy to make sure that we never forget. What happened in those years 1914-1918 was meant to end all wars. It didn’t, but it still could if those in power took seriously the lessons of history.

This piece was published in the Lincolnshire Echo on 3 November 2016