Monday, January 24, 2011


Following my earlier post about the longest strike in history, my good friend Alex has pointed me towards this: a documentary (made in the 70s, I think) about the Burston Strike School. It features interviews with the schoolchildren, including the strike leader Violet Potter. I especially like the toothy chap, who recalls the village's unofficial speaker shouting, "Stick, stick, stick the shit to the blanket!"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


At home or abroad, whether it's students marching against fees or Tunisians overthrowing a dictatorship, when a crowd of angry people gathers and protests, we hear the same threats and accusations:

To speak of them, as the Times has done, as an organised rabble, easily beaten by the soldiers; and to say, that it may be desirable that the spirit should break out in all places at once, so that the trouble of subduing it may be the sooner over; to talk in this light and swaggering manner is calculated to swell disconent into rage and despair [... They can find no agitators. It is a movement of the people's own.

Twas ever thus. This is William Cobbett writing in 1812. Attitudes towards those who, dissatisfied with what their rulers offer them, come together to challenge them have altered little. Unions of whatever kind - but especially of workers - are viewed as conspiracies, as though a spontaneous and widespread desire for justice is simply impossible. The people (or so our politicians and commentators opine) would never wish for such things of their own accord: there must be somebody stirring them up.

Cobbett came to the conclusion that forming trade unions was not only necessary, but perfectly consistent with the ideology (then, as now) of economic individualism. This ideology rests upon the sanctity of private property. The liberty that allows a person to do what s/he will with that property reflects individual freedom in the broadest sense.

The principle upon which all property exists is this: that a man has a right to do with it that which he pleases. That he has a right to sell it, or to keep it. That he has a right to refuse to part with it at all; or, if he chooses to sell it, to insist upon any price that he chooses to demand: if this be not the case, a man has no property.

Anticipating Marx, Cobbett argues that the only property which workers possess is their own (capacity to) labour, and that this should, therefore, be subject to the same rights as other property.

That the law failed - and still fails - to apply property rights to labour is a contradiction, but a necessary one, for it papers over the central ideological and economic contradiction of the system. The law in an economically individualist - neoliberal, entrepreneurial, call it what you will - society cannot permit workers who own no property but their labour to unite in order to demand their price. Any argument about whether workers, when choosing whether or not to go on strike, should obey the law is based on a fallacy. They are, a priori, outside of the law, and must act accordingly.


Monday, January 03, 2011


It is obvious that the prescribed way out of our economic troubles will anger the public in ways which the powerful will not be able to control. There are limits to how far people will undergo austerity before they decide that enough is enough.

What was so inspiring about the recent protests was that they were led by the very people who are supposed not to be interested in politics: the young. Not just A-level or university students, but younger secondary and primary school pupils. Maybe we have learned that these are the most purely political people. Untarnished by ideology, children and young people can see most clearly what is right and what is wrong.

This article from the Eastern Daily Press is typical:

Placards saying “Dumbledore would never let this happen” and “these men have Eton our futures” were displayed during the protest yesterday and passers-by were urged to sign petitions against the tuition fees increase, cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the end of transport subsidies for sixth form students in Norfolk.

Children and teenagers from all over England made the same point, though it must be said that young people in Norfolk have a certain track-record when it comes to refusing to know one's place. Readers who are unfamiliar with East Anglian history may not know the great story I'm about to tell, so I shall whet your appetites with a quiz. Who was responsible for the longest-running strike in British history? Coalminers, perhaps? Dockers? Transport workers? Journalists? All these are plausible, but all wrong. It was, in fact, a bunch of school-children.

In 1902, the Conservative Government passed the Education Act, which passed into statute the obligation for local authorities to educate working class children. While apparently progressive, the aim of the Act was to teach children their place in society - in other words, to maintain the status quo. At that time, rural East Anglian was divided sharply along class lines, with a few powerful landowners renting their land to farmers and managing the running of the local community.

Into this society stepped Tom and Kitty Higdon, two school teachers who had moved to Norfolk from London. They were Christian Socialists, opposed to a system which they saw as a tool for empowering the elite, and dedicated to broadening the minds of ordinary children.

When they arrived at the small school in Burston, near Diss, they had already been kicked out of one Norfolk village for upsetting vested interests. They found at Burston a school which was insanitory, which set the expectations of children at the barest minimum (boys were to be farmhands, girls domestic servants), and from which pupils were seized, mid-lesson, by farmers who needed free labour. The Higdons knew from experience that this was a life shared by most poor children across England. One morning, when a group of children arrived at school soaked to the skin after walking for miles in the rain, Kitty Higdon lit a fire in the hearth to dry their clothes and hair.

The school's management board, made up of landowners and the local rector, sensed trouble. The Higdons were challenging the divisions which they claimed were the natural order. They charged Kitty on a trumped-up charge of not asking permission before she lit the fire. Tom's landslide victory over the rector in a parish council election in 1912 was the final straw, and the board referred the Higdons to the local education authority. They were found guilty of discourtesy towards management, and ordered to leave the school.

What the management board had not counted on was the sympathy and support the Higdons would get from pupils and parents. They had vocally sided with labourers and their families in local disputes, and the people of Burston were in no doubt that they wanted their children taught by the Higdons, not a teacher who had been shipped in by the board. When the new teacher arrived on 1 April 1914, she found an empty classroom with the words "We are on strike" written on the blackboard.

Outside, a girl called Violet Potter led her fellow pupils on a march through the village high street. The children carried drums, trumpets and placards, and the scene resembled a great carnival. The management board thought it was an April Fool's prank. But Violet led her young comrades and their parents to a marquee on the village green, where the Higdons had set up a make-do school. Of 72 children, 66 chose the Higdons over the Council school, even though many parents knew they would face the sack or eviction from the local landowner. The Higdons' method of schooling was to let the individual talents of each child blossom, so it's little wonder that the children themselves embraced their new school.

The school couldn't continue for long in a marquee, nor in the village's empty warehouses. But the Burston Strike School had caught the imagination of the labour movement up and down the land, and donations poured in from Trade Unions and co-operatives to build a proper school. The new school was opened by Violet Potter in 1917.

This is where I must declare a personal interest. In the late 1910s my great-grandfather, Robert Ratcliffe, was a driver on railways across Suffolk and Norfolk. A leading light in the Ipswich co-operative (and, later, Trade Union) movement, his trains would stop at Burston and he became a keen supporter and fundraiser for the strike school. When his wife Ruby gave birth to their third child in 1917, they named her Lillian Burston Ratcliffe. I knew her as Auntie B, and she died only a few years ago. Here are pictures of the Higdons with Violet Potter outside the school in 1936 and, below, my Auntie B (then aged 18).

And here's one of B with her parents, Robert and Ruby. The stones commemorate the strike school's benefactors. They are a little difficult to read, but I can make out the Gainsborough and Kirkby-in-Ashton branches of the Independent Labour Party, and the Tottenham branch of the NUM.

Robert died before I was born. He became a Labour Mayor of Ipswich in the 1950s and wrote a four-volume called The History of the Working Class Movement in Ipswich. Apparently there are only three copies in existence. Ipswich Library has one, my uncle has another. I wonder who has the other.

Anyway, back to the story. The management board quickly realised that Burston Strike School was no flash in the pan. Some of the parents were fined for not sending their children; others were thrown out of their homes and jobs. But the high-handed action of the management board only served to fuel Burston's solidarity. The strike school continued to educate children until Tom Higdon died in 1939. During the 25 years of the strike, the Council-run school was forced to improve its conditions and standards in order to compete. When the last remaining pupils were transferred to the Council school in 1939, it had become a school to which parents were happy to send their children. This was, in large part, due to the vision and labours of the Higdons.

Each year, Unionists and activists meet at Burston to commemorate the strike. Here is a clip of Tony Benn's at last year's event. I especially like the parable / anecdote he ends with.


Soon after dawn salt-air awoke the seagull. It hovered above the water for a while then, distracted by movement on the cliffs, changed its course. But six, seven, eight o’clock all passed without a mouse on the grass or a fish in the sea presenting itself as breakfast. Tourists would arrive with food. The cheap ones would offer bread. The expensive might have fish pate to steal. But nowadays the expensive ones went to Eastbourne or Lewes.


Roger had driven down on his motorbike with Doreen as pillion. Jimmy had borrowed his father’s coupe. Margaret, his current ladyfriend, had expected to travel down with Jimmy, but had been disappointed at the last minute and had instead caught the bus.

It had promised to be fine from sunrise. Mr Gormley, Jimmy’s father, had risen early and had heard the forecast. Mr Gormley had always risen early on a Saturday. Nowadays, there was no reason to, but then again there was no reason not to, so at seven every weekend he left his wife snoring in bed and went downstairs to listen to the forecast and make some toast. On this particular Saturday morning, Mr Gormley ate with a furrowed brow. There was something on his mind.

Mr Gormley saw his boys not with the pride that often accompanies fatherhood, but as the potential for nuisance. Growing up, Peter, the youngest, was the more spirited of the two and his parents’ early favourite. While Jimmy had to cultivate generosity and charm to gain friends, life was easy for Peter who simply scooped up the younger siblings of his brother’s friends. At an early age he noted Jimmy’s aggression and his frequent tantrums and used them to emphasise his own meekness and good grace. But, aged eleven, Peter had suddenly grown quiet and withdrawn and had stayed that way ever since. He had not told his father the cause of this shift in character and his father had not asked. But Mr Gormley now saw nothing of himself in his youngest boy and so he turned his attentions to Jimmy who had taken to adolescence with gusto and, in doing so, had capitalised on Peter’s introspection. He was an early-developer and, while many of his colleagues were still trilling girlishly, Jimmy was speaking with an impressive contralto before his fourteenth birthday. A ladder of hair climbed from his waist to his sternum and his shoulders broadened hurriedly. For a while, he was source of some hilarity amongst his male peers but his interest in the opposite sex was at once voracious, an interest which he had pursued with stamina in the nine years since.

Which explains why today Mr Gormley, knowing full well his eldest’s intent on wooing that poor Margaret Patterson in the back of his saloon, ate his breakfast despondently. But as it went, Jimmy drove his father’s car to the Beachy Head without mishap and he completed the foursome which sat picnicking on finger-sandwiches and admiring the Channel.


“Good thinking to bring the dog along, Jim. But what will your father say?” Roger, a friend of Jimmy’s since their heady days of puberty, was jocular if somewhat nervy.

“I thought he’d be good for cricket. If the weather keeps up, I thought we might go down to the beach later on and play a bit. Argos umpires impeccably.”

Margaret Patterson was quite exhausted. She had left her house that morning brimming with confidence and unperturbed by the failure of Jimmy Gormley to provide her with a lift. But, sitting opposite an aloof Jimmy on the cliff-top, her poise was waning. He could be a real brute, sometimes. When it was just the two of them and he looked with big brown eyes into yours – well, that was different. Windows into the soul – well, who’s to know? Girls say they know Jimmy Gormley. Really know him. Well – I know him too. Better than they do. Or at least as well.

Roger was getting hungry. “Jimmy, go and fetch another packet of crisps, will you?” he asked. “I would go myself, but we know how protective Jim is of his coupe.” He looked at the others, grinning hopefully.

Jimmy smiled briskly. “It’s not a case of being protective, Roger. But it’s my father’s coupe. It’s his pride and joy. He calls it a saloon. One scratch and I’d be dead meat.”

“You know we’d be careful though, Jimmy” Doreen told her boyfriend’s best friend.

“I’m sure you would, Dor. I’m sure you all would.” He glanced cursorily at Margaret. “Actually – I’m not sure you would, Mags. You’d try to be careful. You’d try not to scratch it. But you know how you are. Terribly clumsy sometimes. Silly girl Margaret!” Jimmy laughed mannishly. “First time I met her – first time we went out, wasn’t it?” He appeared to be asking the sea as much as Margaret. “Well, she had a knock on her. Looked like a burn. Really - ” he searched for the right word - “purulent. Turns out it was a wall.”

“A door.” Margaret said blankly.

“As I say – terribly clumsy.”

Roger grinned at Margaret and she warbled with a giggle that tried to suggest she was enjoying herself. There was a brief pause as the warm breeze gathered pace and flattened the longish grass on which the four lovers had made their picnic.

“I’ll go and get the crisps.”

“He’s a funny sort, isn’t he?” said Roger once Jimmy was out of earshot. “Ever so reckless, loves the sauce, real bounder when he wants to be. And yet he’s so particular when it comes to that car. Fancy making Mags catch the bus down here! All the way from Ramsgate! I mean, really!”

“You could have come with us, Mags” said Doreen kindly. “I’m sure you could fit two in the sidecar.”

“Or I could ride on the back with Roger!”

“Steady on, old girl! That privilege is enjoyed by Doreen only!”

Doreen took another bite of her tuna sandwich. “You can ride in the sidecar on the way back to Ramsgate if you like.”

“Oh no. Thanks anyway, Doreen, but three’s a crowd. I wouldn’t want to be a gooseberry. And I bought a return ticket anyway.”

The three of them carried on chatting. Margaret relaxed a little as Roger made daft jokes and Doreen smiled kindly at her, and in no time she had forgotten about that beast Jimmy Gormley. After making Margaret laugh for a fourth time, Roger grew bored and walked back to the car in search of his friend.

“Jimmy’s a real sod,” said Doreen, once Roger was out of range. Margaret emitted a prudish gasp. “He should treat you better. You’re a lovely girl, Margaret. What are you doing with him? He’ll have moved on to someone else soon. He always does.”


Roger had reached the car but, expecting to find Jimmy filling his arms with picnic goodies, he instead found his friend hunched in the front seat of the car. Roger walked round to the passenger door, found it was open, and sat down beside Jimmy.

“That Margaret’s a lovely girl, isn’t she Jim?” Jimmy stared at Margaret and Doreen talking shop, while Roger continued. “She’s the belle of the ball. A real knockout. Better than all those other girls you wasted your time with, anyway. Could she be the one?”

Jimmy grew a little red and straightened his tie in the rear-view mirror.

“The one? Don’t know about that.”

“She loves you like mad, I bet. Don’t know what they see in you, Jim, I must say, but all these girls – well, you seem to be quite the catch.”

Jimmy turned on the radio. They were playing a song from last year’s chart. It was their song – him and Margaret. Or one of those girls anyway.

“Have you - ” Roger, never the best judge of propriety, was winding his friend up.

“What?” asked Jimmy.

“Have you – you know - ” He was jutting his elbow and making provocative movements with a balled fist.

“Oh, really Roger!”

Roger was smiling stupidly. “Sorry, Jim! But she is a funny one, Wanted a ride with me and Dor earlier.”

Jimmy opened the car-door abruptly, stepped outside and marched imperiously back to the girls. Roger watched, bemused, and wondered what on earth Jimmy and Margaret ever did.


Mr Gormley had been in the garden until early afternoon but a nascent drizzle had developed into quite a downpour. As he put his fork and weed-tray back into the shed, he thought of Jimmy and that poor girl and sighed. He walked back through the kitchen and, seeing Peter in the sitting-room, went upstairs to sit on the bed.


The rain was coming down heavily and Margaret had run for cover to join Roger in the car. Blotches of rain beat down upon the windscreen, obscuring the Channel. The rainwater hammered down incessantly upon glass and metal but still Roger and Margaret kept their voices lowered.

“Quite a storm brewing.”

“Doesn’t seem to put them off though does it?” said Margaret. Roger murmured in restful agreement. “I wonder what they’re talking about.”

“Must be important to get this wet about. I’d rather be in the warm.”

“Me too.”

Over the din of the rain and the occasional distant rumble of thunder, Roger and Margaret continued chatting in an understated monotone. The radio was still on and Gene Pitney sang over the lulls in conversation.

“What were you doing when this got to number one?”

“Number one?” Margaret pulled a face. “I can’t remember, Rog. I remember hearing it on the radio. I was in the kitchen with mum. We were baking a cake.”


“Yes, for Susannah’s birthday. She was 17 and I was going to be 20 the following week. I did like that Gene Pitney. Still do. I’ve got a poster of him on my wall.”

“I like him too.”

“Really, Rog?”

They stared out to sea and sang the song’s chorus.

But I was only – twenty-four hours from Tulsa.”

They both laughed.

“So where is Tulsa?”


The rain was proving persistent. Jimmy, ever hardy, was unruffled by it, and Doreen actively enjoyed rain, and they continued with their picnic.

“What do you and Roger talk about?”

Doreen let out an unpleasant laugh. “Oh, Jimmy! Talk about? Cricket. His dad, the Lance-Corporal. The Shadows. That sort of thing.”

“No, I mean really talk about.”

“Really, Jim! That is what we talk about. You should try it. It’s riveting.” She gazed unwaveringly out to sea.

“I talk to Roger about those things too.” Jimmy said.

“Then you’ll know how fascinating it is.” Doreen finished the last sausage-on-a-stick, bit her tongue and raised a sandwich to Jimmy’s mouth like a mother feeding a small child. Jimmy took a bite while Doreen held it up for him.

“So what else do you do?”

“Well, sometimes Roger tries to get me pregnant. And other times we go on picnics to the seaside with you and your various girlfriends. Speaking of which, when are you going to settle down with one girl?”

“When I find one I like.”

“Girls are not toys, Jimmy.”

Doreen was getting a little acid for Jimmy’s liking.

“I’ve got girlfriends who have been with you. You don’t treat them like ladies, that’s your trouble. I’m not sure I’d stand for it. I suppose - ” Doreen paused for effect as thunder clapped overhead. “I suppose if you were worth the effort, I might put up with it.” Jimmy looked back towards the coupe. “But I’m not sure you would be. I think you might be a timewaster. There’s a lot of men out there, Jimmy. A lot of men to try and get me pregnant. I don’t think I’d have the time to waste on you.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m speaking hypothetically of course.”

“I wonder what Roger and Mags are doing?” Jimmy was getting fidgety and wished he was no longer on this soaked piece of cliff-top. “I hope they’re taking care of the car.”

Doreen unbuttoned her cardigan, took it off and handed it to Jimmy. “It’s soaked right through, Jimmy. Put it in your bag, will you?” Jimmy obeyed. “So how about it then? You and me? Would you be worth my while?”

“I – I – oh, Doreen – do stop it! You’re pulling my leg!” Jimmy was laughing weakly.

“Up to you, Jimmy.” Doreen’s wet blouse clung to her as she ran a hand through her dripping hair. Jimmy suspected she might not be wearing a bra.

“I wonder what they are doing?”

“Roger and Mags? Jimmy, they are doing exactly as us probably. Except that they are dry and we are wet.”

The rain poured down on them as the grey sky glowered overhead.

“You really shouldn’t do this, Doreen.” Jimmy said quietly, looking down. “It’s just not on.” Jimmy looked out to sea like a little boy, the rain teeming through his hair and over his body.

Doreen looked on inertly. “I know, Jimmy.” She paused. “It’s getting awfully wet. I’ll put away the things.”


The seagull had circled the cliff-top a hundred times and Argos the dog was driven mad by courting couples. He had been shut in the car all day, but had now pawed apart the knot which tied his leash to the toe-bar and freed himself to make light with the mocking bird. Roger and Margaret sang along to "Long live love" by Sandie Shaw while Jimmy stood at the edge of the cliff watching the lighthouse and Doreen cleared away the picnic. The gale was rough and the seagull had surrendered all sense of direction to be swept along by currents of wind and rain.

Argos bounded over the grass. He loved Beachy Head: the ships, the sea, the stories from newspapers. That sickly, salty wet air. He had felt it in his fur before, but not on a stormy day like this. No, this was special¸a one off. All he could see ahead of him was grey – grey skies full of grey clouds separated from the grey sea by a grey horizon – and all of it beckoning him, willing him in. Running towards the edge of the cliff, he leapt past the kneeling Doreen towards the swaying gull, taking Jimmy with him. Dog and master flew through the air, the rain driving into their wet faces as they watched the rocks and the foam hurtle thrillingly towards them. They shut their eyes one final time while Doreen packed the picnic into the boot and Roger drove slowly home.