Saturday, 3 February 2018

Let's have a heated debate....

Back in the late 80s I went to Manchester University as a mature student, and in Freshers' Week I went to a cheese and wine social at the university film society. A momentous decision as it turned out, as I met my partner there and 30 years later we are both still in Manchester, with a son studying A level Film (about whom, more later).

At that time, FilmSoc was a bit nerdy and bloke-ish, but we were a pretty professional bunch for a student society. We showed 5 films a week (from obscure world cinema to recent blockbusters) on industry-standard 35mm projectors. This meant that we needed a team of volunteer projectionists, all of whom needed training. When I joined, their one female projectionist had just graduated and what was left was a bunch of male (mostly) science undergraduates sacrificing their degrees to the needs of the society. Originally, I'd gone along with an idea of writing film reviews, like a good little arts student, but I signed up as a trainee projectionist because it looked like fun. 

Now this was real projecting, not just pressing 'play' on a video recorder. It took several weeks of training and supervision before a trainee was let loose on a live screening. If it goes wrong swapping between projectors (a changeover) the screen goes dark (or, worse still, the melty fireball of doom appears on the screen); if you lace the film up incorrectly the film appears 'out of rack' (the black bar between frames appears in the middle of the picture, with the bottom of one frame and the top of the next). All of which incurs the derision of your audience and is best avoided.

A couple of weeks into the Autumn Term a university women's group approached us to ask if we could put on a women-only screening of Desert Hearts, which had been released a couple of years earlier but not widely shown (this was before the age of the multiplex and even in Manchester there weren't that many screens). We agreed and our Chair, a lovely gentle man who was an expert projectionist after three years doing the job, went to discuss the screening with them. Except he didn't. Not only was he prohibited from entering the Women's Office in the Union building, he had to stand at the end of the corridor to have the discussion. 

The women-only screening, he was told, must have a female projectionist and there were to be no men present in the projection box or the Film Society office behind it. He explained that at the time (only a few weeks into the academic year) the society had no women projectionists, but this was apparently irrelevant. I had done about 2 weeks' training, and could just about lace up a projector and do a changeover, but I'd only ever done it as an exercise and was still nowhere near screening a whole film, even supervised. However, I was the least worst option, and I think a compromise was reached that a more qualified male projectionist could talk to me through the projection box door if there was a problem, but could not come in!

I did it. I managed to show a whole 5 reels without mishap, but it was a petrifying experience and I've still never watched Desert Hearts, but the women's group got its safe space screening, albeit a pretty ropey one. I hope they enjoyed it. I remember thinking at the time (maybe because I'd already had several years out in the real world beyond student politics) that this kind of exclusionary feminism was a bit daft and potentially harmful, something which has come into stark relief over the last few weeks. I've never really enjoyed women only events and don't join women only organisations. I'm not convinced we can smash the patriarchy by removing ourselves from engaging with men. Confront misogyny, certainly, but I would rather come from a position of inclusive feminism. Which brings me to that crowdfunder.

Whatever the arguments about gender self-identification and all-women shortlists, the actions of some of the proponents of this GoFundMe appeal have been completely unacceptable. Whatever pretence they might make at wanting a civilised debate are undermined by the vile comments made by some of its supporters. Dead-naming and deliberately using the wrong pronouns, using insults such as 'dicksplash' and 'chicks with dicks' is if nothing else provocative and downright bloody rude. And when you state "any left-over funds will go to fight against self-id", you've pretty much stated your debating position. 

It's not as if all-women shortlists haven't been used in the past as a mechanism for keeping un-favoured male candidates out of a selection process, so forgive me if I don't see them as some kind of holy grail. If you want to increase representation, you can determine a shortlist for a particular group (we had a recent BAME-only shortlist locally); increasingly this is probably the direction the Labour Party should be moving in. That's a debate; throwing insults at trans women is not.

I've found myself alienated recently from women I had previously considered comrades; this pains me, but I really won't be associated with this kind of intolerant behaviour in the name of feminism. The same women would rail against hate speech for any other minority group, but for some reason trans women are legitimate targets. Women who have rightly fought against misogyny in the Labour Party are now behaving in the same way as those misogynists. 

Encouragingly, though, this appears to be a minority view, and many more people have been supportive of trans rights than have signed up to this campaign. I'm glad, because I have to declare an interest here. My son, that A level Film student I mentioned, is trans. That's not something you're really prepared for as a parent and, yes, it does challenge your feminist views, but ultimately your duty as a parent is to love and support your child unconditionally. I've been told by certain feminists that "it's a phase" or that he's "just a butch lesbian" * but, to be honest, it's looking like a pretty permanent phase, so he (and therefore trans women) will have my full support in this "debate." It wasn't always an easy journey, especially when he first came out, but I've learned a lot and come to respect him for being true to himself. And, given how many of his friends have been disowned or ridiculed by their families, I want him to know that we will always support him.

It would seem that trans men don't figure much in the exclusionary feminist worldview, but I have friends with trans daughters and as far as I'm concerned, it's one fight - trans rights really are human rights. I'm still learning, and I don't always get it right, but at least I'm not getting it completely wrong.

As my son said recently, "Yeah, mum, you used to be a bit of a TERF, but you're better now."

I'm happy with that.

*which conveniently overlooks his preference for men...

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Mr Cellophane

So, we're having problems with M's education and social care again. Nothing new there; it's been happening pretty much all her life. Except that she's now an adult and we're running into the brick wall that is adult social care, where you only count if you're actually currently suicidal (and not always then).

Back in the summer, after she had been admitted to hospital due to an attempt on her own life (which put paid to the two GCSE's she was due to sit), we contacted our local authority requesting an adult social care/mental health assessment, as we didn't feel we could keep her safe. When she turned 18, we were told "don't bother applying for a social care assessment, she won't meet the threshold." Reading up on it since, this seems a bit contrary to the Care Act, which says that local authorities should be proactive in offering assessments to people on the autistic spectrum, but we didn't question it, assuming that these were professionals who knew what they were talking about.

She was given a mental health assessment, carried out by a very pleasant and empathetic person whose train of thought was, sadly, interrupted by the realisation that she would have to go and move her car around the hospital car park mid- appointment, due to the Trust not providing all-shift parking for its own staff. She was sympathetic, but admitted M was unlikely to get much help, given that she was no longer at immediate risk of harm to herself or others (on the day of the appointment, at least). As with the RAID team in the hospital, she was able to offer useful phone numbers (no use at all for an autistic person who would no more phone a helpline than break the land speed record), referrals for counselling (4-6 month waiting lists) and a referral for a carers' assessment for my partner, her primary carer (we're still waiting on that, too - we anticipate more helpline numbers and offers of coffee mornings). 

As to a social care assessment, nothing. "We should really be talking to her rather than you, as she's over eighteen." Well, yes, but she won't talk to a stranger, especially over the phone, so she won't seek help herself even when she needs it. So good luck with that...

And so we tried to get her back into  some kind of routine. Her anti-depressants (which she'd been on for several years) were reviewed and amended and we tried to get her back on an even keel. The end of the academic year was fraught, although she managed to complete enough work to gain her Level 1 BTEC course, in preparation for the L2 Art & Design course she had been wanting to study for several years.  

Then we had a letter from Transport for Greater Manchester regarding the renewal of her travel pass. We duly filled in the application and returned it, only to have it refused on the grounds that "autism is not a learning disability" so she no longer qualified for it. I phoned the local authority and was told that this was because she was now an adult, and no longer came under Children's Services. We approached TfGM, who helpfully suggested applying on the grounds of having been refused a driving licence (although, to be fair, she would probably have qualified under the mental health criteria as well) and this was granted just before the Autumn Term began. With this pass she only qualified for free travel after 9.30am, a problem if her timetable included 9am starts, but better than nothing. As it turns out, we'd been wrongly informed; her EHC Plan means she is still entitled to the free travel she has had for the rest of her post-16 education, so we've now reapplied for the pass she should have had at the start of term.

In the meantime, I had taken some advice and was advised that her EHC Plan had some notable gaps in provision on the non-educational care needs and since her mental health had deteriorated sharply since the Plan was implemented in October 2016, we were advised to request an emergency statutory annual review. I wrote to the local authority on 2 September to formally request this.

Back at college enrolment, she discovered that she would not be allowed to sign up for the L2 course as she did not have English GCSE (the one she missed due to being an in-patient, hooked up to a drip) and was put on a L1 Art & Design course. Then she was told that the single Art & Design course was not running due to low numbers and that she would be doing a mixture of art, media and other disciplines. Having been put on a different L1 course last year, due to the Art & Design not running, she now found herself studying another course she didn't want to do, at a lower level than she thought she would be studying at. Her timetable didn't arrive before the beginning of term and rooms changed from day to day. Can anyone see why this might unsettle someone on the spectrum?

As a result, her anxiety went through the roof again and and she was pretty difficult to deal with, swearing at staff and spending half an hour hanging around the doorway trying to get into class (thresholds have always been an issue for her, but with careful management this can be overcome). Eventually, we were called in to a meeting, where it was proposed she should sign a behaviour contract; she declined to do so with 4 adults and her parents all sat around the table looking at her, so she was given some time to go away and think about it. 

As with most teenagers tasked with decision-making, she procrastinated. Last Monday she got a letter fro college stating that as she had not responded they would be starting withdrawal. This resulted in a frantic phone call to me at work (her carer had rashly though he could take half an hour off to go food shopping without incident) with M in floods of tears. I contacted the college straight away to see if there was any way to avoid this. I was assured someone would contact us. No-one did, so the next day, my partner contacted the college and was assured that someone would get back to him by the end of the day. That was a week ago, and despite us chasing twice since then, we have had no contact from anyone.

Similarly, the local authority has not contacted us regarding her annual review. No reply, not even an acknowledgement of our request. I worked for this local authority for 17 years and during my time there we had strictly-enforced service standards regarding response times to the public. 3 weeks' silence, despite the intervention of IASS (Parent Partnership as was) and a local councillor, was not part of the service standard then. Budget cuts, staff shortages and increased workloads notwithstanding, failing to even acknowledge a request for a statutory procedure is pretty poor by any standards.

We are beginning to think we are invisible, hence the title of this post. A vulnerable young person, at risk of self-harm has been pretty much abandoned, and her parents are bearing the brunt of her frustration. She is, as everyone keeps pointing out, an adult. We can't keep her locked in the house, but our hearts are in our mouths every time she announces she's "going out". It seems the parents of adults with autism are fine for fulfilling the state's responsibility for care (until the point where we become too decrepit to cope) but we don't warrant a reply to our very polite (for now) emails asking for help.

You'll be pleased to learn though, that the local authority's self-assessment of its Autism Strategy is all "Green". So that's OK.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Let's not let dead cats decide this election.

The rest of the Tory election campaign will be headed up by Lynton Crosby - a very unpleasant, unelected Australian 'strategist' with some unanswered questions about his tax arrangements, who delights in using 'dead cat' tactics wherever he can and is very effective at making nasty and incompetent people (Cameron, anyone?) look good. 

Please don't be fooled - May will not deliver a good (or possibly any) Brexit deal but she will continue to hammer the poor, the disabled and anyone other than the wealthy, despite all her faux concern for "ordinary hardworking people". And the NHS will continue to be run into the ground to soften us up for a US-style insurance system (look up how many Tory politicians have a financial interest in private healthcare companies if you don't believe me). 

She is a weak PM (and was a rubbish Home Sec if you look back at her record) who crumbles and then hides at the first sign of adversity. And if Brexit is what you're worried about, look at her negotiating team - the dilettante Boris Johnson, the security risk Liam Fox and David Davis, who really doesn't seem to know what he's doing so far. Angela Merkel has already given up on us, seeing the UK as Trump's ally! If we have to have Brexit (and I voted Remain, so I'm less than happy about it) then we at least need a decent settlement, and we won't get that with this bunch. 

I'm old enough to remember when Tory governments had Big Beasts - you may have disagreed with them and not liked them but at least there was a level of competence. Instead we have people like First Strike Fallon, who can barely control a tv interview, let alone our national security. 

And then there is what they're not telling us. There should have been an announcement on the state pension age due out before the election, but they're holding it back until afterwards - from which we can probably deduce that it's going to be bad news for us and we'll all have to work even longer than the current 66/67/68. 

So yes, you may not like Corbyn (although it's funny how many people have changed their mind now they've seen more of him in action) but really - does the Conservative Party really strike you as Strong and Stable after the last few weeks? Compare that with the calm response Corbyn has shown over two years of vilification from a hostile press (and large chunks of the PLP). If there's one thing he doesn't do, it's panic when things go pear-shaped. Unlike May. 

And before anyone starts with that "magic money tree" bollocks, there is no Magic Money Tree; what there is is a costed manifesto - and that's something else that's missing from the Conservatives. 

So if you live in a marginal, get out and vote - preferably for Labour, but tactically if that works better where you are. The collapse of the UKIP and LibDem vote means this is the most 2-party fight in a generation, but there are some marginal Tory seats that can be overturned - in some cases by a few hundred votes. And if you live in a safe seat, vote to keep the vote share high (and start campaigning for voting reform!) 

If you're young, follow up on that phenomenal registration surge and actually turn up on the day. 

If you're older, consider what old age and frailty will be like with no NHS, and vote for a party that won't allow it to be taken away from us. 

If you're poor, unemployed, disabled vote to stop being demonised by your own government. 

If you're not poor, unemployed, disabled have a bit of compassion for your fellow citizens and vote to stop them being demonised by your government. 

If you have children, vote for a party that won't starve schools of funding to levels not seen in a generation while reintroducing unjustified and un-evidenced educational segregation through grammar schools. 

So in conclusion, vote. Obviously, I'd like you to vote Labour, but in reality vote for anyone who can get rid of this shower of unpleasant incompetents. And remember, what you see from them over the rest of the campaign will be Crosby, not May.

Monday, 15 May 2017

A year's unpaid leave, you say? How generous!

Twenty one years ago, my partner and I both worked in the public sector, in modest but secure jobs. Our parents were enjoying well-earned retirements and were, in the main, fit and healthy.

Nineteen years ago, our first child was born with a rare neurological condition which meant that much of her young life was taken up with medical appointments with a range of medical professionals. After 6 month's maternity leave (the maximum I was allowed or could afford), I went back to work full time, and my partner and I managed these appointments between us, thanks in part to decent terms and conditions (good annual leave entitlement and flexi time). Our daughter had a place at a council-run SureStart Centre, with exemplary support from qualified, experienced childcare workers.

From the day she started school, there were clearly problems with her behaviour and by Year 1 she already had a statement of Special Educational Needs and at one point had 200% 1:1 support in class. At 9, she was additionally diagnosed with autism, which helped inasmuch as school staff at last knew what they were dealing with, but didn't make it any easier to manage. We were no strangers to exclusions, and each of those meant one of us taking time off from work. We will be forever grateful to those managers who allowed us to work from home at short notice and even, on some occasions, allowed us to bring her to work with us!

In 2007, my professional life took a hit when the project I had been working on with the council was put out to national contract, and I was TUPE'd to the private sector (thanks, New Labour). Now, I was working in a culture where I dreaded having to ask for time off, for fear of it being seen as a sign of weakness. Much of the "please come and take her home" requests then fell to my partner, with such frequency that he came to dread the school's number coming up on his phone. 

The following year, my daughter suffered sudden and unexpected sight loss in one eye and needed emergency surgery over in Liverpool and at least a week's recovery time. For an 10 year old autistic child, who needed to remain still and calm during her recovery, I was given 3 days' compassionate leave. No "take what you need and we'll sort it out on your return" but the maximum (grudging) allowance with an instruction to work at home for the rest of the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision was made with by a male manager with no children....

A year later, I was offered a voluntary severance package, which I accepted with almost indecent haste. My daughter was about to transfer to high school, and this gave me the opportunity to take a year out (as I thought) to get her settled in. My partner carried on working full time, and by living carefully, I made the severance money (about a year's salary) last a year and a half. At that point, we applied for DLA. Although she would probably have been entitled to it for some years, we both felt that we had been earning reasonable salaries and that we could absorb the 'additional costs of disability' that DLA covered. (We were earning substantially less than David Cameron, who did claim DLA for his son, but let's not go there).

We battled on. My daughter's behaviour continued to challenge and became more erratic as she entered the hormonally-challenging teenage years, resulting in more exclusions and eventually a spectacular crash out of mainstream schooling and a hellish (for both of us) 6 month spell at home while the local authority tried to find a place at the over-subscribed special school. My 'year out' didn't look like coming to an end any time soon, as although she eventually did get back into school (it took Sir Gerald Kaufman's intervention to get it resolved), I still needed to be on hand during the day. And then my partner fell foul of the local authority job cuts imposed on council's by Coalition austerity. He had to make a decision - take voluntary severance or hang in there and hope that the next round of cuts wouldn't include compulsory redundancy. We had a talk - I had been a full time carer for nearly five years, and the effects on my wellbeing and mental health weren't good. We decided to take a risk - he would take the severance package and I would look for work. 

Things were a bit ropey for a while (especially with the continued Coalition assault on social security benefits), but eventually I found a part time (well, 30 hpw, so almost full time) job. The salary wasn't great - about half what I'd been on before, but it was a route back into the workplace after a 5 year absence in my 40s - never a good time to lose skills and a track record!

By now, our household income was about a quarter what it had been in 2007, and we were held together by goodwill and tax credits. My partner now became our daughter's full time carer as she moved on from school to college. things should have been improving, but this was a troubled time for her (in part down to the college's actions) and it became clear that it would not be possible for him to find part time work to augment the massive £60 a week Carers Allowance he got for being permanently 'on call' for the next crisis (and there always is a next crisis). 

And then my parents became ill. My mother was 90, with the multiple ailments of old age and the beginnings of dementia, and my 86 year old father (not in the best physical health himself) was her carer. I had encouraged them to apply for Attendance Allowance and we were all (pleasantly) surprised when they were both awarded higher rate; indicating how much we just absorb caring into our daily lives without appreciating quite how bad things might be getting. In February of 2016, my father was given a terminal cancer diagnosis, with a suggestion from his GP that he should probably put his affairs in order.

And so our lives shifted again. Our daughter was still struggling with college, but I had to leave my partner to deal with that (and our other child doing GCSEs) while I went to work and then did a 500 mile round trip every fortnight to my parents' house. Trips to the hospital, a weekend where my sister and I turned their dining room into a downstairs bedroom, setting up care plans, talking to the hospice staff, making sure their bills got paid and, as dad got weaker, discussing mum's inevitable need for residential care (something neither of them wanted). I called them nightly from home during the week and the calls become less and less coherent as dad's morphine levels rose. Luckily, we had excellent care workers coming in four times a day for each of them, but towards the end I was getting panicky phone calls as their grip on time deserted them. My sister lived closer, so was able to call in on them, but her ongoing health condition meant that she was physically and mentally exhausted and was limited in what support she could offer without making herself worse. And even though I worked in the field of adult social care, it was still really hard work navigating the many and various departments and people involved in their care, from the excellent carers to the unhelpful social worker; hospital OTs, community OTs, hospice staff, district nurses, pharmacists, the GP, the local authority ASC department. It was a full time job, but at least I had the income from my day job, all £16,000 a year of it, to hold the family together back home.

One Friday in mid-June, mum was taken into hospital, and I got a call at work from my sister to say that mum wasn't expected to come out again, so maybe I had better come down straight away (I had been planning to go down that evening anyway). On the same day, dad was admitted to a different hospital with chest and urinary infections which had made him very poorly. I did the 5 hour drive and arrived very late at night (the M6/M5 traffic on a Friday could mean journey times of up to 6 hours). The hospital(s) hadn't phoned to tell us of any deterioration so we got some sleep and intended to go and see mum as soon as visiting time came round. As it happened, we were on our way there when the hospital rang to say she had taken a turn for the worse, and by the time we arrived she had already died. 

We then had to go to dad and break the news to him. To be honest, we both thought, looking at him, that he was about to join her that day, so I called my partner and suggested he and my son (who had just finished his last GCSE) come down by train. The following day, we were all together as a family, and dad held court from his bed - a hospice bed within the local community hospital - and said his goodbyes. Physically frail and in pain, his mind (now the urinary infection was being treated) as sharp as ever, and he was lucid and funny. We said our goodbyes, thinking this might be the last time we saw him.

On the Monday, I phoned work and explained the situation and was told to take whatever time I needed. In fact, dad lived another ten days after mum's death, and I spent a week sleeping on my sister's sofa and visiting him as often as possible (save for a quick, 24 hour round trip to vote in the referendum, having not had time to arrange a postal or proxy vote). As I was packing my bags to go home at the weekend, the hospital phoned to say he'd taken a turn for the worse, so another panicked call to work who (bless them) told me not to worry about it and to take the time I needed. In the end, dad died peacefully and pain-free on 28th June. My sister and I spent the rest of that week making arrangements for a joint funeral and initiating the legal processes as their executors, and I then returned home for a well-earned rest at work before travelling down again for the funeral.

There followed another few months of estate-sorting and house-clearing, involving more weekend trips and, finally, a large  rental van to bring stuff back home to sort and we finally closed the door on their home of 23 years in October.

In the meantime, we had managed to find our daughter another college place and get our son into sixth form college (he passed his GCSEs, if you were wondering). We are still caring for our daughter (we probably always will be, given the nature of her disability) and now my mother in law is showing the first signs of dementia, so it looks like the cycle is about to start again.

All of which goes to demonstrate that a new "worker's right" to twelve months' unpaid care leave is utterly useless - most of us cannot afford to do without pay for a year, even if our jobs are held open for us, and so we mostly just juggle our caring responsibilities as best we can. The best employers already make accommodations for their workforce; the worst don't now and will do their best not to in the future (and to be fair to them, why should employers subsidise the care industry by effectively seconding their employees to it for a year?). My partner and I have both, at various times, given up work in order to care for a relative, but it was a decision forced on us by other circumstances and we did at least have the paltry £60 a week the government deems sufficient to pay carers. Neither of us could really "afford" to give up work and it's been damned hard work coping on that much of an income reduction.

In reality, those who can afford to take up the generous offer of unpaid leave will, by and large, have parents with savings of their own; in other words, the already-comfortable middle classes. In essence, this policy will end up (by accident or design) being more about preserving inheritances than truly solving the care crisis.

And since when did the Conservatives ever really care about Workers' Rights?

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Mad About the Buoy...

I went for my regular Sunday morning swim today. We have a lovely new leisure centre, which is well-used and inviting, with two pools (something of a luxury in this day and age). Today, owing to some staffing issues, the swimming lessons which usually take place in the second pool had been moved into the main one, with half of it roped off for general use. This made lane swimming a bit tricky for the Desperate Old Codgers like myself - I can keep up a slow and steady pace, but am easily sunk by an over-eager youngster suddenly lurching in front of me or splashing me unexpectedly. Still, no-one begrudges children their swimming lessons - it's a vital skill which will become ever more important as ocean levels rise....

As I was plodding along like an out of condition dugong I started to reminisce about my own swimming lessons. As I recall, my primary school took us every week, on foot, to the local municipal pool. Initially, this was the old Maidstone Baths, apparently the first municipal baths in the country (we also had the first municipal theatre, which as the theatre manager once said was ironic, as "the town has never been known for either its cleanliness or its culture"). 

I can't remember how young we were when lessons started, but it was certainly pre-decimalisation, because I recall taking a threepenny bit with me every week. Later, we moved to the brand new pool built in the early 1970s, which had a main pool, learners' pool and diving pool. A council-built and -run facility. A Tory council, no less. These lessons continued every week up to the end of what is now Year 6. 

Every week. For six years.

Now, our kids get one year's school swimming, to which they're bussed (a sizeable chunk out of the school budget). So if you're not fortunate enough to become a strong swimmer in the course of the year you probably won't get any better.

The only alternative is for your parents to fork out for lessons from the company that runs the leisure centre for the council - "from £16.50 a month" isn't easily found when money's tight, so inevitably, the poorest and "just about managing" will lose out again.

To be fair, Manchester City Council offers free swimming to the under 16s during school holidays but it's still no substitute for regular supervised tuition over a number of years to produce strong, safe swimmers.

Increasingly I'm feeling that if I wasn't fortunate enough to be part of the baby boomer generation at least I benefited from a childhood where the welfare state and civic provision was embedded in our post-war culture and made us a progressive nation. All that has now been stripped away by the cult of individualism that has marked the last 35 years. I grew up in an era when even Tory governments saw the merit in public provision. Successive governments since 1979 have outsourced everything of value to us as communities and then we wonder why communities have given up on politics.

I wonder what on earth we could do to start rectifying that....on June 8th?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

End of an Era

A few weeks ago, both my parents died within ten days of each other. In time, I will probably write about the last few months of their lives, the issues of dealing with end of life care and the memories they left us with, right up to the end. For now, though, I am just posting the eulogy I wrote for their joint funeral, which my sister and I delivered together.

Freda was born in 1926 in Maidstone, to Albert (aka Gerry) and Frances Oliver. Her mother wanted to call her Geraldine, but the family advised that this would mean she would end up being called Gerry, a boy's name. It's ironic, then, that she was known universally as Fred or Freddie for most of her life. Albert was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and was absent for the first few years of her life – she remembered hiding under the kitchen table when this strange man came home – but was able as a 2 year old to answer a neighbour's “Where's your daddy, then?” with: “In the Mediterranean.”

Frank was born in Tonbridge four years later, the son of Henry, a police officer, and Rosa. Within the year they had re-located to Maidstone when Henry was promoted to Sergeant. The family – children Bill (Son), Robert, Frank and Brenda - lived at the Police Headquarters at Wren’s Cross. Sadly, Robert died at the age of 5.

Despite a profound dislike of school Fred was one of the first pupils to attend Maidstone Commercial School (later Maidstone School for Girls/Invicta). She often told the story of the wind carrying her much-hated school hat into the River Medway, only to have someone drag it out and return it to the school. To add insult to injury, she then had to write to thank the man who had rescued it. Much more important to her than school was her dancing, which she had been doing from a very young age.

Frank, meanwhile, gained a scholarship place at Maidstone Grammar School, the passing of which exam he put down to the intervention of WWII. Worried about air raids, his primary school teachers took the children out to the relative safety of the oast houses at East Farleigh, where they crammed past scholarship papers. Anyone who knew Frank and that fierce intelligence he still demonstrated even to his last few days, may suspect he was being (uncharacteristically) modest. It meant, though, that both of us were able to point to the scholarship board at All Saints Primary School and say “That's my dad!”

For Frank, the war years were something of a schoolboy adventure. He always claimed to be Maidstone's first war casualty, as he put it himself a few years ago:

On the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made a wireless broadcast stating that a state of war now existed. Within a matter of minutes the Air Raid sirens started to sound. At that time I was a rather cherubic choirboy and the strains of the siren came to us through the chords of the organ while I was at choir practice. We were hurried back to the vestry where the vicar dismissed us with the words "we are in a moment of very great danger - I want you to hurry to your homes". I did not need a second telling. I ripped off my surplice and cassock and leapt through the vestry door, tripped over a tombstone and fell headlong on the ground, taking off a large piece of skin from my knee. Because of this I claim to be the first civilian casualty of World War II.”

The family moved to the new Police HQ in Sutton Road in 1940, where the cells were used to house downed German pilots. As Frank's best friend's dad was the overnight jailer, this meant they were able to get autographs. The war was a formative experience, which he recorded in his (as yet) unpublished work “The Second Great War in Pictures by Frank J Hayward, aged 9 3/4” His best friend at this time was Michael Todd; together they got into all sorts of (almost lethal) scrapes, such as electrifying the whole street by putting crocodile clips on a chain-link fence to run electricity out to the garden shed and constructing a diving helmet out of a gas mask which Frank then tested in Loose stream by weighing his pockets down with rocks! Mike, though, was to have a much more important role in his life.

Fred had by this time left school and was working at Royal Insurance. With the war in full swing she found herself taking a more important role than she would have done in peace time, and was soon trusted to produce what her boss called the “Dear Sir, you're not covered” letters. She was also required to fire watch during air raids, although with her legendary ability to leave cigarettes burning in forgotten places, her colleagues often said the office records were more at risk from her than the Luftwaffe. It was at this time she gained the nickname “Incendiary Fred” and where she met a young co-worker called... Mike Todd.

As Frank told Jill (a few days before he died) “I first met Fred in Mote Park in 1946, at a bonfire to celebrate a year after the end of the war” - Mike was the connection and they all remained lifelong friends.

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. Fred was already seeing another young man at the time and in 1947, married Monty Temblett. She was also by this time growing bored with office life. With the war over, and men returning to their old jobs, she found her role diminished so she took the plunge, left a safe job and formed her own dancing school in 1948.

At the same time, Frank was called up for his National Service. Having been Lead Cadet in his ATC Squadron, he became one of the first five national servicemen to be trained as pilots. He trained initially on Tiger Moths, and always retained his love of flying, although he was less impressed with air travel as a passenger. On a work trip to Perth, he once remarked. “That's not flying, it's just like being on a bus.”

Back in civilian life, his career in insurance went hand in hand with his love of entertainment. He helped out with shows put on by the Freda Oliver School of Dancing throughout the 1950s. It was during this period that the infamous “Shooting of Dan McGrew” incident took place. One of the cast, Tony, was reciting this poem as a set piece and told Frank, who was operating the curtains, to listen for the cue to bring them down. It's quite a long poem, and Frank drifted off into a reverie; he was jolted back into action when he suddenly heard the cue. He quickly pulled on the ropes.....

….and Tony launched into the next verse! Not knowing quite what to do, Frank thought “do nothing and the audience won't notice”, so he hung on to the ropes until the end of the piece. It was only afterwards he was told that the curtains had descended just enough to obscure Tony's head, so the last few verses had been delivered by a disembodied voice. This has passed into family legend and makes events such as funerals quite awkward. At Tony's funeral, his brother came up to Fred after the body was committed, held her hand and whispered, “At least Frank wasn't on curtains this time.”

In 1959, Fred and Monty were divorced and in July of that year, she and Frank were married. Their 57th wedding anniversary would have been two days before this funeral, but as they frequently forgot to celebrate it it seems fitting that we were also two days late for it.

Fred and Frank began married life in Brewer Street, but moved shortly afterwards to an upstairs flat at 21 College Road. In December 1962 Jill arrived, in a blizzard, during the second coldest winter of the twentieth century! In 1963, their landlord decided to sell up and offered Frank the whole house. As this included a sizeable front room, which could accommodate a dance studio, they found the money to pay a mortgage, and the rest is history. 

The Hayward family was completed with the addition of Sally in 1965, and from this point on the school became a family affair. In 1966, Fred decided that her pupils had little real outlet for their dancing skills, so she and Frank decided to stage a pantomime, Cinderella, at the town's Municipal Theatre. This was successful and so the following year they formed the Freda Oliver Theatre Group, and provided Maidstone with its pantomime for the next ten years.

In addition to Theatre Group work, Frank also found time to sing with Maidstone Opera Group. He also played Mitch in a production of a Streetcar Named Desire, notable for a press photo which captioned all the cast members' names as John – even the woman in the photo!

Panto scripts were written by both of them (with a fair amount of 'homage' to the Basil Brush Show). Fred's typing – for in those days, multiple scripts meant several sheets of carbon paper and hitting the keys very hard – was legendary. On more than one occasion, Prince Charming declared “...and Cinderella shall be my bridge!”  

Panto took over the entire household from September, when rehearsals started. There was usually a mad dash on Christmas Eve to remove all the costumes from the Living Room so that the family could actually have Christmas. In addition, all four family birthdays fell between the end of December and mid-January – Jill's birthday parties occasionally took place on stage between matinee and evening performances.

When in 1976 Maidstone Borough Council finally woke up to the income-generating possibilities of having a professional panto, the group found itself without a home. Undeterred, Fred and Frank simply re-designed everything and took the show on the road. The Barnstorming Years meant transporting the whole production from one venue to another – village halls, care homes, Medway Little Theatre.

During the 1970s, the Group also put on a series of variety shows and a musical – Cloud 7 – which was conceived, written and performed in the space of 6 weeks when Fred realised she had forgotten to cancel a provisional booking of the Theatre in May 1979. So instead of O level revision, several of the cast were up to their eyes in costumes and rehearsals.

By this time, their children were growing up and doing more. Sally spent many years helping with the running of the school, taking classes, sorting costumes and performing, in addition to college and eventually starting her own school in Sittingbourne. Jill moved from stage to orchestra pit in later years before leaving Maidstone for university.

In 1992, with Frank's retirement from General Accident (something he had been counting down to for about 10 years!), they put on their final pantomime, closed the school after over 40 years and their thoughts turned to moving to Devon, site of our family holidays and somewhere they had always wanted to live. And so, in 1993, they cleared College Road of costumes, pantomime horses, cows, camels, and other assorted momentos of 30 years' residence, packed them up and (as we later discovered) transported much of it with them across country! The garden shed contains the entrance of an Eygyptian tomb painted on hardboard and a lion's head.

Once in Sidmouth, they again threw themselves into local life. Fred joined her local WI branch, serving a term as President; Frank stood for election to public office and served a term as an independent councillor on Sidmouth Town Council. They also enjoyed many a summer evening in Connaught Gardens listening to the town band, as well as seeking out the best local pubs. They were also active members of East Devon Conservative Association, canvassing and advertising cream teas.

In 1998, they became grandparents. Frank threw himself wholeheartedly into this new role, pulling faces and generally being silly. He was also M's greatest defender, always righteously indignant on her behalf and scathing in his opinion of the educational establishment's inability to deal with her autism. 

Fred and Frank also joined the Sidmouth Songsters, Frank singing and Fred turning pages for the accompanist. They also assisted in putting programmes of songs together and Frank spent many a happy hour printing out sheets of music. One of the grandchildren's fondest memories is of when Grandpa (then approaching 80) jumped off the stage during a rendition of Flanders and Swann's “The Hippopotamus Song”, although others questioned the wisdom of this!

The Songsters raised thousands of pounds for local charities and it was only in 2012, when they and other members felt they were getting a bit too old for it, did they finally retire from entertainment. As Frank said to Jill a few days before he died, “All my life, from the time I was a choirboy, I have been entertaining people.” This is so true of both of them.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer in February of this year. He accepted it with equanimity and, true to form, set to organising his affairs. I made as many trips as possible down from Manchester and Frank was delighted that he was able to buy M her first pint at the Conservative Club (and even more delighted when she bought him one in return!). Happily, the family were able to get Fred and Frank down to the Club one last time in April.

In mid-June, quite unexpectedly, Fred was admitted to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital with a chest infection and sadly died the following day. Frank was, by this time at Sidmouth Community Hospital, where he died 10 days later, with us by his side.

Reading the tributes of old pupils and friends on social media and compiling this eulogy has made us all appreciate quite how significant an influence they were on a generation of young people in Maidstone. Some have themselves pursued careers in entertainment as a result. Fred was a major figure in the town and Frank was a loyal consort, never complaining when he was mistakenly called Mr Oliver. How fitting it is that these two great entertainers, who had known each other for 70 years, should be leaving us in the way they would have wanted – as a double act.


Saturday, 6 February 2016

"Stick It Where the Sun Don't Shine" (Misogyny in the Labour Party, that is)

There are copies of candidate statements available. Can you return them at the end of the meeting, to save on copying for other meetings?” said the officiating party representative. There was no need – the pile remained untouched and un-read at the end of the meeting.

It was no surprise that others had ambitions for our ward – that became clear when the recently-victorious candidate failed to thank any of her campaign team but managed to name-check a couple of people from outside the ward at her victory party.

One of the criticisms our opponents threw at us for years was that our candidates weren't local – that they didn't live in the ward and until selection had little or nothing to do with it. For the 2015 campaign, the branch had two strong potential candidates from within the ward. Both with experience in campaigning and local activism, who were (or had been) union reps, school governors, local authority workers; who knew the area, whose children were educated in the local state schools, who had demonstrated commitment to the branch and to the campaigns of previous candidates. The branch was newly-energised, with a core group of dedicated members who regularly attended branch meetings, strong distribution networks for leafleting and a mission to engage with all sections of the local community, in one of the most diverse wards in the city.

Selection is a two stage process: shortlisting enables branch members to decide who to invite for interview (based on their candidate statements), and the selection meeting interviews all those shortlisted before voting for a candidate.

The shortlisting meeting had been booked at a local community centre, and all branch members were invited to attend. They were reminded that membership cards would be required on the night, to establish eligibility to vote. The shortlisting meeting is often the first opportunity ordinary members get to assess the capabilities of prospective councillors.

When the regular members arrived, they found that the meeting had been moved to a larger room than the normal one used for branch meetings and the AGM, and a sea of unfamiliar faces were already seated some 20 minutes before the meeting was due to start. There were two party officials present as observers but it was felt, as the Chair and Secretary were both potential candidates, that one of those observers should chair the meeting instead.

The procedure for the meeting was explained, membership cards checked (although some people were 'vouched for', having not brought their membership cards, despite this being clearly requested in advance) and it was agreed that the two potential in-ward candidates present would leave the room once the nomination process was due to start.

At this point, someone from the floor asked that any shortlist be restricted to just two names. The chair explained that the size of any shortlist was something that could determined once all nominations had been received. The two local potential candidates then left the meeting.

A total of 5 nominations were made; the two local candidates and three from outside the ward. At this point the size of the shortlist would normally be determined before discussing the merits of the nominated candidates and voting to determine which should go forward to selection. The proposal for a two person shortlist was voted on and accepted (without, apparently, any discussion of the rationale behind it) and the meeting then proceeded to a secret ballot; no discussion of the candidates' merits, just the vote.

A few minutes later, the meeting broke up. Two out-of-area candidates had been selected for interview; one of them, the person who'd been “thanked” by our new councillor....

Regular, active members, those who had been out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets in all weathers, were visibly upset at the outcome. That with two good local candidates to choose from, they had again been landed with an outsider. The one big campaign issue that could have been neutralised immediately (“You don't live here!”) would now once again be a fight campaigners would have to have before even starting on policy differences.

And this had been done on the basis of the votes of people who had never involved themselves with the branch, had never joined in campaigns, but had simply turned up to vote one one occasion, without any discussion of alternative candidates and seemingly no wish to hear what the other 3 nominees might have to say to them at the selection meeting. Notably, few of them have been seen since.

For a branch without a sitting councillor (which was in itself contentious, as the incumbent was not included on the panel of candidates, effectively de-selected by the party without reference to the branch who originally selected him, and whose appeal to the NEC was still pending on the night of the meeting), it would not have been unreasonable to have interviewed all five nominated candidates. While no rules had actually been broken, the selection was conducted in an unethical (and yet clumsily obvious) way. Active members had been left in no doubt that their hard work and commitment counted for nothing, and they would simply be given a favoured candidate for whom they were expected to campaign.

Nor was this the first year in which this had happened. When selection took place for 2014 candidates, the branch again had two candidates from within the ward (both male), but it was declared an all women shortlist (not that there is anything wrong with those). The branch was also the very last to hold its selection meeting, so the shortlist voted on by the branch diminished as other candidates got selected until on the night, there was only one remaining candidate to be interviewed. When this was questioned from the floor, the response was that if the branch did not make a 'selection', a candidate would be imposed.

The two local candidates in this case (the branch Chair and Secretary, don't forget) were not, and have never been, formally notified of the outcome of the meeting. Not that they had failed to be shortlisted, nor the names of those who had. As branch members, they should have been invited back into the meeting to discuss the final agenda points (timing of speeches, questions to be asked of candidates, etc for the selection meeting next week) but they were not, and were left outside until the meeting broke up. No commiserations from the two councillors present, both of whose election campaigns had been reliant on these people's hard work and enthusiasm. A very shabby way to treat good people. And if they treat their own activists with such contempt, one has to query what they think of the local electorate?

The party 'machine' had been used before the shortlisting to try and preclude one of the in-ward candidates from standing, on the grounds that he had a substantive job within the local authority. It had to be pointed out to them that under the rules a) local authority employees were entitled to stand as long as they resigned at the point of nomination (this has also, on occasion, been extended to resigning if elected) and that b) the person in question had disclosed his employment status at the initial panel interview without it being questioned. The machine then cranked up a gear, with a story being circulated that the other in-ward candidate had stood down from the process prior to shortlisting, an (incorrect) fact that was happily passed around the party.

After the selection, relations between the elected councillors and the branch executive worsened considerably. Laughable appeals for 'unity' which appeared to mean the branch supporting councillors' actions without question, failure to respond to reasonable requests for information, while accusing branch officers of inaction (when the officer in question was on holiday) regarding councillor actions/activities, discussing a significant issue about a branch officer privately with another officer on a matter which affected the branch more widely, seemingly appointing a campaign manager without reference to the Executive Committee and arranging a campaign meeting at 24 hours' notice during August, when most of the EC were unable to attend. There was also a (hastily withdrawn) threat from the CLP to suspend the branch for questioning councillors' actions, with the accusation that the branch was “trying to impose its will” on the councillors. A formal complaint to the party about the conduct of one of those involved has not given any response some sixteen months after it was made.

The smears continued. The first branch meeting of the autumn was held at a new venue, but some people turning up at the old one were told that it had been cancelled as 'trouble' was expected. Only mischief-making possibly, but deeply unprofessional. The next leaflet omitted the sitting-but-deselected councillor (whose term of office did not run out until May 2015) from the 'team' contact list, effectively air-brushing him from the branch.

In the next few months, both the branch chair and secretary resigned; a branch fundraiser attracted only about 15 people; activists stopped going out on the doorstep. By the time of the AGM, it was felt necessary to put forward a motion declaring that the branch had “complete confidence in its councillors and candidate” which, in itself suggested there might be a problem.

This is not an isolated case. There are reports of similar things happening all over the country. The Labour Party has many fine, committed activists, but increasingly, they were not being given the chance to serve their communities. It is a profoundly worrying trend and will ultimately do harm to a party already accused of ignoring its core vote and parachuting candidates into seats with which they have no connection.

In the last 24 hours, there have been news stories about muslim women being prevented from standing as candidates. Sadly, this is all too credible, despite the party's reassurances as to the robustness of the selection system. This system can be, and is, played to the advantage of the party machine. And it's not just muslim women, but all women (and some men) whose faces don't fit, for whatever reason.

Of course, there's a right of appeal. But when no actual rules are broken (just twisted to within an inch of snapping), what would be the point? As many of us have discovered, complaints disappear into a black hole. And, as we're always being told, party unity is important, so why would 'ordinary' members want to cause embarrassment?

Suggesting that other political parties don't have ways of influencing candidate selection would be naive. Other parties may  be "worse". But I expect better of the Labour Party. Women members have had enough of 'keeping quiet' for the good of the party. This is wrong, and we shouldn't have been putting up with it. As one comrade puts it:

"We, us, the gobby, loud, opinionated bintz in the Labour Party are ready, willing and prepared to shout from the roof tops; shove your misogyny where the sun don't shine."