Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

OBITUARY: JOAN LEVINE: thinker, campaigner and activist.

In C.Spiby, Obiturary on January 30, 2015 at 1:28 pm

One of the universal symbols of peace is the white dove.

When I met Joan Levine she seemed to me an ordinary little old lady, a tiny sparrow of a woman.

But I soon realised that Joan was a formidable thinker, an immensely important local campaigner and a tireless activist. And she had for much of her adult life been active in the Communist Party.

cpb_flagThroughout her life she fought continuously for justice and human rights in the name of the voiceless and the poor of the world.


I discovered that her world view was built on the meticulous gathering of facts and evidence. File after file organised by topic – “campaign against the arms trade”, “Palestine”, “nuclear power”, “Yugoslavia”, “Trident submarines”, “Iraq”, and so on. Together they represented a register of the many concerns which shaped her life.

The files held clippings with references and notes, sections highlighted, paragraphs under-scored. There was endlesss campaign correspondence, newsletters and briefings. Most revealing were letters of frustrated replies from successive MPs. From Paul Marland and Diana Organ to our current MP, Mark Harper. How dare this little old lady from Coleford hold us to account with her endless facts and sound moral reasoning?

Joan’s husband, Maurice, fought in the Spanish Civil War. She spoke of her husband’s commitment with quiet pride, yet would only do so when invited. To her it seemed the most natural thing in the world.  To Joan a life of holding the powerful to account, of fighting for the rights of the many, was just as natural.


I remember that Joan was often the last to speak during meetings. It was then that her formidable mind revealed itself.  Her incisive views always made our wandering debate seem like mere waffling, but she was never condescending.  Instead her logic enabled the rest of us to catch up, while she moved on to propose an action. To her, all debate was pointless without action and, in her heart, Joan was all about activism.

So together we stood in the rain. We marched around US military bases under grey skies and paraded past the Houses of Parliament in the largest march in British history. Joan and the late Ralph Anstis got themselves thrown out of the Co-op collecting signatures for a petition against the invasion of Iraq. And, with the late Wendy Corum, Joan was a key part of Forest of Dean CND. She campaigned for pensioners’ rights. But more than anything she was against war.


I am sure that you all know the purpose of CND. Joan’s archives reveal that this campaign is the one she saw as the most pressing. And rightly so, in my view. While the Cold War may be over, Joan was acutely aware that the world still has more than 15,000 nuclear missiles. What could be more despicable than the targeted killing of millions of innocent civilians in nuclear war?

Joan remained an activist for as long as she was able. This little sparrow may have flown. But her legacy is the sum of all the good she did in her own time, and the new generations she inspired, of which I am proud to have been but one.

a version of this was read by Diana Gash at Joan’s funeral


EDUCATION MATTERS: Where are Labour’s policies?

In R.Richardson on January 30, 2015 at 1:15 pm

When Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesperson, gave his speech at Party conference, I was hopeful that we might gain some insight into what policies will be adopted when Labour is in office.

There were a few pointers in the right direction. The Tory cuts, which have decimated the “Sure Start” centres for the under 5s, would be halted. Free nursery education for under 5s would be increased. Vocational education in F.E. Colleges with two year apprenticeships and career advice would be promoted.

Interestingly, Hunt declared that all teachers would have to be qualified. Hadn’t this been the case for the past forty or fifty years?

Until the last few years this was certainly the case – but academies and free schools can now appoint unqualified staff if they wish. Hunt also stressed that schools should co-operate not compete.


So far so good. But Hunt’s speech was very short, and Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, was critical about what was omitted. “What about Ofsted?” She asked. “Or teachers’ morale and workload?”  Matt Hood, wrote in his Labour Conference Preview in Academies Week,  “The main thing missing was… Labour’s position on academies and free schools.”

At fringe events at the conference other concerns were raised – again, concerns about which Tristram Hunt appeared to have no policies. There was a perception that because of the impact of academisation , many local authority services such as educational psychologists, youth offender initiative and sports facilities have been deprived of funds.  What would Labour do to put things right?

Another area of concern was the focus on traditional subjects to the detriment of the “creative curriculum”. The proscriptive nature of the new national curriculum was another area not tackled by Tristram Hunt.

On another occasion, Tristram Hunt had declared that “we will end the free schools programme”, though what would happen to existing free schools was not made clear – and no mention was made of academies.


Speaking of academies, they have again been getting adverse publicity in the press.  It appears that some pay out large sums of public money for services provided by their sponsors or even by individual trustees.

A cross-party education select committee has brought to light these conflicts of interest. One school’s head spent £50,000 on a one-day training course run by a friend.

Another newspaper report high-lighted the huge pay-rises that academy heads have been awarded.  One quoted is that of Sir Greg Martin, head of the Durand Academy in Stockwell, London. He enjoyed a 56.5 per cent rise last year, bringing his annual salary to £229,000.

It would be good to know that there are Labour policies in the pipeline directed at curbing such excesses, and imposing some measure of accountability to the local authority.


Earlier this month, Nicky Morgan, Education Minister, raised a few hackles when she said, “The arts and humanities were what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course we know now that couldn’t be further from the truth. .. the subjects that unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the “stem” subjects” – i.e.: science, technology, engineering and maths.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, commented that downgrading the arts was shortsighted, whilst Nigel Carrington of the London University of Arts felt that discriminating between “hard” stem subjects and “soft” arts subjects would damage the next generation of entrepreneurs. An excellent letter in the “i” newspaper put forward the view that young people should be encouraged “to study what they love best, to broaden their intellects and to be endlessly curious.”

It is worth remembering that Nicky Morgan attended a private school, studied law at Oxford and became a corporate lawyer.  So, one wonders, what special qualities does she bring to her post at the head of the country’s Department of Education?


HEALTH WATCH: NHS REFORMS – were they all a big mistake?

In A.Graham on January 30, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Well, who’d have thought it? According to a front page story in Murdoch’s Times newspaper, “senior Tories have admitted that re-organising the NHS was the biggest mistake they have made in government.”  (The Times. October 13 2014).

According to the usual Downing Street sources, David Cameron failed to understand what the reforms were all about, whilst George Osborne now regrets that he didn’t prevent a “huge strategic error”.

Neither Cameron nor Osborne, it seems, realised the “explosive extent “ of the plans drawn up by Andrew Lansley (the then Health Secretary) which were described as “unintelligible gobbledygook”.

According to The Times investigation, at least £5 billion is wasted every year on inefficiencies – such as “overpaying for supplies, out-of-date drugs, agency workers and empty buildings”.   And “trolley waits” to get into hospital from A&E are running at almost three times the 2011 level.

Another gaff committed by Lansley was to abolish NHS funding bodies and instead gave £63 billion to new GP-led groups to spend on services as they saw fit. This in turn led to a lengthy fight with health unions , who declared that the reforms would not only be disruptive, but would fragment care and open the door for more privatisation of the NHS.

“A former No 10 adviser said: ‘no-one apart from Lansley had a clue what he was really embarking on, certainly not the Prime minister. He kept saying his grand plans had the backing of the medical establishment and we trusted him. In retrospect it was a mistake’.”

You’re not kidding. Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, was quoted as saying, “I think politicians and policy makers need to have a long hard look at themselves. The big issue is that nobody has been held accountable for it. If Mr Lansley had been a doctor, he would have been referred to the General Medical Council.”

Another quote from a critic declares that “you’ve got leaders in the NHS re-arranging the deck chairs when we’re about to hit the iceberg.”

Only Jeremy Hunt, Lansley’s successor as Health Secretary, was prepared to defend the reforms.  Meanwhile Mark Porter, chair of the BMA, said: “Rather than listening to the concerns of patients, the public and frontline staff who vigorously opposed the top-down re-organisation, politicians shamefully chose to stick their head in the sand and plough on regardless.”

The Times may have a different take on the NHS than the Clarion – but it is after all a Murdoch newspaper. Our approach would be more akin to the paper produced by Professor Allyson Pollock and Peter Roderick (outlined in our last issue).

But it is worth reminding us why we fought so hard and vigorously to save the NHS – and remembering why the fight must go on.

REVIEW: Coal On One Hand, Men On The Other: The Forest of Dean Miners’ Association and the First World War 1910-1920.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm


Written by Ian Wright, and published by the Bristol Radical History Group, 2014 

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, mining was an important (indeed arguably the most important) industry in the Forest of Dean. Some 6,000 were employed down the pits, plus of course the Dean’s freeminers.

There was also a strong sense of militancy amongst the miners – and a high level of opposition both to the war and to the demands made on those who hewed the coal. But back then they lacked any central union organisation. What did exist was a loose federation grouped together under the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB).

In the Forest, most (though not all) miners belonged to the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA). But whilst there was an obvious level of collaboration, the federal structure did not necessarily guarantee solidarity with miners elsewhere in the country.


In this booklet Ian Wright has done a good job in piecing together the events of the war, and how these affected the miners of the Forest of Dean.  Coal was vital both to the war effort and to keep the country running, and consequently mining was a reserved occupation – ostensibly exempt from conscription when this was introduced in 1916. But this did not prevent several hundred miners from volunteering for the armed forces in the early years of the conflict.

To try to keep up coal production in the pits, inexperienced men had to be recruited to work underground. Meanwhile, whilst there were strong anti-war sentiments amongst the miners, their agent in the FDMA,  Henry Rowlinson,  was a strong supporter of the war – as was the Forest’s Liberal MP, Henry Webb (himself a coal mine owner).  Indeed, in many ways they worked together to try to sustain the dwindling support for the conflict.


But as the casualties of war increased, so did opposition to the slaughter. Meanwhile calls on the miners to increase production intensified. And the ideals of Socialism began to permeate the Forest – so much so that by 1918, the constituency was able to elect its first Labour MP, and the Liberal stranglehold on the Dean came to an end.

All in all it was a toxic brew as far as the Forest’s establishment was concerned.  Strikes were outlawed – though this did not prevent stoppages from taking place, particularly in the South Wales coalfield.


One issue that caused a degree of controversy was that of “combing out”.  In other words, removal of men from the pits, to fight at the front. In April 1917, the MFGB was called to a meeting with the military authorities, to assist in the direct conscription of 21,000 miners – with some 140 from the pits in the Forest of Dean. By August opposition to the “comb out” had grown and resolutions were passed condemning the scheme.

By this time, Rowlinson’s authority was on the wane, and by the end of the year he was forced to leave his post as agent for the FDMA.

Ian Wright’s booklet is extremely well researched (with copious footnotes), and it’s not possible to do it justice in a brief review. He carries his account up to 1920 – the immediate aftermath of the war – with a description of the new order of things emerging in the Forest. The miners now had a new leadership, and a fresh sense of militancy. By 1919 there was also an eruption of mutinies and strikes within the British military. The world was changing in those immediate post-war years.

Many of the leaders of the Forest of Dean Miners Association were blacklisted following the miners’ strike of 1926.  But the radical spirit that had grown since 1914 was to remain.


REVIEW: THE NIGHTMARE TRAIL – Scenes from the life of poet and war casualty, F.W.Harvey

In I. Wright, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:04 pm

by David Adams

Reviewed by Ian Wright.

The poet F.W. Harvey (1886-1957) spent the last thirty years of his life in Yorkley, in the Forest of Dean.  I was brought up in the Dean, and was always taught that Harvey was our very own war poet and First World War hero who won a medal for “conspicuous gallantry” which included killing a number of German soldiers at close quarters.

However, this book is about Harvey the man, who was both human and flawed. The book challenges some of the myths surrounding his story and places his poetry in the context of the violent and turbulent times in which he lived. It even goes as far as to challenge the myth of his status as a war hero.

Adams, referring to a theory from a medical writer who has worked with current soldier sufferers, wonders whether Harvey may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when he wandered into the German lines.  Adams goes on to question whether he was captured, confused or, like others, just wanted to escape from the war. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, traumatised by his experiences and sinking in and out of depression.  It was during this period that he wrote the poetry for which he became famous.


Adams’ father Ivon and his grandfather Edgar, a Forest miner, were both good friends of Harvey.  As a result, Adams was able to gain access to memoirs, to tell a revelatory and sympathetic story of a man whose life was so affected by the First World War. His story is told by tracking his life backwards through a series of snapshots from his death to his first memories as a child, much in the poet’s own words. In the process Adams offers fresh insights into his poetry as he re-examines Harvey’s attitude to war, poverty and social justice.


Thanks to this emphasis on the development of his ideas, Harvey emerges as a more interesting poet than history has recorded – a generous and active member of the Forest of Dean community, a great humanitarian and fascinating and complex man.

After the war, Harvey set up as a solicitor, but often represented his impoverished neighbours in the local courts for little or no fee. He could often be found in the local pubs, the Bailey or Royal Oak, drinking with the local miners and offering free legal advice.


The title of the book is from an elegy that Harvey wrote on the death in a lunatic asylum of Ivor Gurney, his friend, fellow soldier, poet and musician. The war is described as

That devil’s wonder   

That tore our lives asunder             

And left behind a nightmare trail     

Of horrors scattered through the brain,

Of shattered hopes and memories frail.

I recommend this book to anyone who seeks an understanding of the damaging effects of war on the mind of one young man and how such experiences could inspire great poetry and change a life, in a land which many hoped would be fit for heroes.

The Nightmare Trail (£7.50) is published by Yorkley a&e (a not-for-profit co-operative).


In A.Graham on January 30, 2015 at 1:00 pm

There was pageantry, drama – and cheers – for HOOF supporters who gathered in the dark for their torch-lit parade around Mallard’s Pike on November 5th. Whilst others elsewhere may have been letting off their seasonal fireworks, those up in the Forest were there to highlight and protest against the threatened rape of our woodlands.



The hundreds taking part threaded their way round the lake, lit only by flickering lanterns and torches. There were dogs and children taking part – as well as a large paper effigy of an owl and a Chinese dragon. Music was provided by Roger Drury – a spirited adaptation of “This Land is Our Land” – and there were speeches from Rich Daniels (chair of HOOF) and Owen Adams, HOOF’s secretary.

The demonstration coincided with a debate in the House of Lords, on the controversial Infrastructure Bill, in which an amendment was put forward by Baroness Jan Royall to remove forestry land from the body of the legislation. This was to ensure that areas like the Forest of Dean would be saved from the threat of sale to developers, and all that that would entail.


It was only after the demonstrators had dispersed that the news came through that the Government had agreed to the exemption of forestry land from the Bill. It was, it seems, a time for all those who care about our Forest to celebrate. But it remains a time for continued vigilance.

According to a statement sent out by Owen Adams, the Government has asserted that its amendment to the Bill would protect the entire public forest estate.

The amendments prevent the transfer of any land held by the Secretary of State that has been acquired – remember, this is government-owned land – or is treated as having been acquired under Section 39 of the Forestry Act 1967. … that covers all land that is under the management of the Forestry Commissioners at any given time, and includes any land that is not being used for afforestation but is still under the management of the Forestry Commissioners .

The provision is widely drawn. It includes forest waste, together with the kind of ancillary facilities that are necessary.  It simply has to be under the management of the Forestry Commissioners.

So far so good. But as Owen Adams  points out, “we will have to keep a very close eye on it (ie. the Infrastructure Bill), and the debates in the House of Commons.”

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MODERN TIMES: the Dinosaur Column

In Dinosaur on January 30, 2015 at 12:51 pm


I read with some interest the claim made in The Times newspaper that David Cameron “failed to understand” what the Tory’s Health and Social Care legislation was all about. A little electric light bulb went on in my head. Ah, indeed, I thought. That explains a lot.

It explains, for example, why Gove managed to get away with wrecking the education system. Or even why Ian Duncan Smith has managed to wreak havoc with so many people’s lives. Basically we have a Prime Minister who’s not fit to be in charge. Cameron not only appoints zealots to posts where they can do most damage, but is also incapable of managing joined up thinking. As PMs go he shows a degree of ineptitude that’s staggering.

Cameron made a pre-election pledge not to mess about with our NHS.  It was safe in his hands, he declared. And then what did he do? He put Andrew Rawnsley in charge of Health who had his own half-baked agenda.  As for putting Michael Gove in charge of education, that was like giving a bull responsibility for a china shop.

Meanwhile, Ian Duncan Smith runs his own little fiefdom – euphemistically labelled as dealing with “social welfare”.  He’s responsible for cutting and slicing away at the living standards of the most vulnerable people in our society. He’s responsible, directly or indirectly, for the rise in homelessness and the arrival in Britain of Food Banks.

It’s true that Cameron finally sacked both Rawnsley and Gove but only after the damage had been done. And their policies live on. But not Duncan Smith. After all, who is there to stand up for the poor and needy?  Only a few “bleeding heart” pressure groups and compassionate clergymen. Nothing for the Tory faithful to worry about.


There may be a band of strident Asda supporters up in Cinderford who’d dearly love to have an Asda store perched balefully on the edge of their town – but there are those who work for this US-owned giant who have different opinions.

I came across one news item recently about Asda facing “mass legal action” from thousands of women workers at the store who claim they’re facing pay discrimination.

Women working in Asda supermarkets declare that they’ve been paid less than their male colleagues working in the company’s distribution centres. The women claim that they do work of a similar value. What it boils down to is that men take produce off shelves in warehouses and put them into delivery lorries, whilst those working in the supermarkets do the reverse.

Asda management, of course, deny any discrimination.


Nuclear energy, it seems, is costly in more ways than one.

Our Government has been criticised by the European Commission for failing to disclose all the costs involved in the building of our first new nuclear power station since the 1990s.  That’s the monster that’s been given the go-ahead at Hinkley Point down on the Somerset coast.

It’s being built by the French energy giant EDF, at an estimated cost (so far) of £16 billion. It’s so costly that the Government have promised a minimum fee for the electricity that will be generated, to ensure that EDF manage to make a nice little profit. And that, it seems, is a fixed deal.

But the European Commission believes that there are other hidden costs involved. For example, what about the ongoing cost of storing nuclear waste? That doesn’t come cheap.  Or the expense of dismantling the plant when it comes to the end of its productive life? On past reckoning, that could be as little as thirty years.

But never mind, eh? Someone else will have to deal with that problem, won’t they?


CLARION COMMENT: Taking bets on the General Election?

In Editorial on January 30, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Nearer and nearer draws the time when we’ll be back to our nearest polling booths to cast our votes. The next General Election is now a matter of months away – a thought that should be enough to focus the mind of anyone involved in politics.  It’s time to sort out our policies, to set out our stalls, and begin campaigning in earnest.

Not so long ago, Labour supporters in our midst might well have been fairly confident that victory was heading their way. It seemed to be almost inevitable. Labour had been consistently ahead in the polls, the Tories were becoming increasingly unpopular – and as for the Liberal Democrats, what can we say that’s printable?  Their ill-starred alliance with the Tories in the ConDem austerity Government has left them with plunging support. Optimistically,  they may be lucky to hang on to about half their present tally of seats.

But a couple of months in politics can be a long time – particularly if you’re a Labour supporter. Since the Scottish referendum there’s been an unexpected surge in support for the SNP which poses a real threat to Labour in its heartland north of the border. Indeed some of our gloomier poll pundits suggest that Labour seats in Scotland could go down like ninepins.


There’s also been the rise in support for UKIP, resulting in that party gaining its first toehold in Parliament.  Whilst theoretically UKIP’s surge in the polls  should be damaging the Tories most, results so far suggest that the “kippers” are capable of eating into Labour’s support as well.  These latter-day Poujardists* are basically populists whose policies are little more than (often inconsistent) slogans. And for many voters, there is sadly a gut appeal to the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe message.


It’s not just UKIP that’s been enjoying increasing support. The Green Party is now level-pegging with the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. Indeed, if the Greens fail to win more seats it will only be because of the distortions produced by our electoral system.  Here we have a party that could be considered to the left of Labour on many of its policies.  It’s not just on its basic “green” appeal, though such issues must be considered important. On a wider platform, the party opposes the austerity packages endorsed by the three main parties. And it does believe in public ownership where appropriate (such as the railways, for example).

This increase in support for what were once considered to be “fringe” parties suggests that old political loyalties are breaking down.  We can’t make the same assumptions about the way the electorate might vote. Or, indeed, which party is most likely to be in a position to form the next government. Which raises the question,  are we likely to see another coalition in power after the election (though, hopefully, one of a different hue)?

Finally, it’s difficult to predict at this stage how far the controversy over the performance of Labour’s leader might affect the party’s showing in the polls. The issues involved are covered elsewhere in this issue – but, to put it briefly, in November the media was highlighting the suggestion that dissatisfaction with Ed Miliband’s leadership was provoking moves within the party to replace him with a new pair of hands. How far this was based on mere media speculation is still hard to tell.

But as we said earlier, a couple of months in politics is a long time. And it’s rather longer than that before we go to the polls in May.  As for those of us in the Forest, most of us surely will be campaigning to replace Mark Harper with an MP who will stand up for our interests and those of the community in which we live.  And for many of us, the choice will have to be Steve Parry– Hearn, our Labour candidate.

* Postscript: “Poujardist” was the term coined to describe supporters of French politician, Pierre Poujard, who, in the 1950s, founded an “anti tax” party, which had particular appeal amongst small shopkeepers, merchants and farmers. In 1956 it gained 51 seats in the French Assembly. It went on to become increasingly xenophobic, appealing particularly to voters who had a nostalgic view of what they saw as “the good old days”.

By the mid ‘sixties the “Poujardists” as an organised force had faded. But one young member who’d been elected to the French Assembly on the Poujard ticket was Le Pen – who went on to found the right-wing Front National.