My cycle ride to the Thomson monument, recorded in my previous post, wasn’t the only excursion of recent weeks which triggered a journey into the past. Beth was home and keen to visit her friends from University days, one of whom was living in Lanark. When Lanark was mentioned I suggested that I come along too. ‘Why?”, she asked, somewhat bemused. Well, I could have said that I wanted to be part of a reunion which would have recalled Beth filling their student flat with two bantams, my Christmas present from way back. But no it wasn’t that. I had other reasons.
In my early twenties a University education back then encouraged wide reading and reflective, critical thinking. ‘Compulsory Miseducation,’ ‘The Power Elite’, ‘Working for Ford’, ‘Small is beautiful’ , ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ were just some of the books which came my way. The upshot was a desire to come across examples of enterprise or practice which improved things, made things better. What stepped forward to fill this gap for me was the story of a historical precedent, the life and work of Robert Owen. I went on to write a dissertation about his life, philosophy and work. To cut a longish story short, Owen was a man who put his principles into practice and established communities which provided livelihoods, homes, education and health care for its members. Word spread and ‘Owenism’ took on a broad appeal paving the way for trade unionism and parliamentary democracy. The place where this vision was first realised were the New Lanark Mills near the town of Lanark itself. Because of it, Owen appeared to wage earners “ as the prophet who laid his fingers on the mysteries of iniquity and who had preached a fraternal gospel by which the capitalist demon could be brought to heel.” (3)
Now after forty six years I was to visit the actual place which had inspired me and which in this long interim had been classed as a ‘World Heritage Site’. It didn’t disappoint. There, in all their restored glory, were the mill workers cottages, gardens, the school, shop, and of course the mills themselves. Evidence of his writings were dotted about discreetly:
“Charity and kindness
admit of no exception.
They extend to
every child of man.
They consider not what
country gave him birth ,
what may be his complexion”.
Robert Owen 1771-1858
A hard hearted perspective might see it all as having been no more than an exercise in a paternally gilded exploitation.This would be a harsh judgement given that since then modernity has scoured the bottom of the barrel in terms of exploitation of the human and natural world. The so called ‘gig’ economy of today in which workers are tracked, tagged and even micro chipped into an insecure, low wage economy is common place .(1) Anyone wanting to emulate Owen today would be branded a revolutionary!
What would be beyond dispute would be the tangible evidence of Owen’s faith in the restorative, benign, effects of living and working in close contact with the natural world. The site of his model mills and village is stunning. My walk beyond the village and up into the Clyde river gorge revealed some magnificent vistas. Recent rain saw the river in a turbulent spate, a truly “ horseback brown, rollrock, high road roaring down” (2). Ever appreciative, Owen wrote;
“The ever changing scenes
of nature afford not only
the most economical,
but also the most innocent
pleasures which man can enjoy”
A sentiment obvious to Owen then, but somewhat alien to us now.
So once again my early twenties had come back to me refashioned and qualified by the here and now. There was one more occurrence which was to have a similar effect. Three small pocket diaries arrived in the post. They had been sent by my brother Nick and were written by our father during his war time service in the RAF. He served from 1943 to 1945 in the Middle East, Greece and Italy operating as a mechanic. His task was to ensure the assorted ‘kites’, Stirlings, Lancasters, Liberators, Defiants, Fairchilds and ‘Spits’ were kept airborne. He was nineteen years old when he enlisted.
The diaries show that he enjoyed his work. Here is a memorable entry for 27-29/5/44 where he describes salvaging a plane from the Dead Sea.
“Starboard engine removal. Pete not much help.
Engine in 18 inches of water. Salt made feet very sore.”
He was often homesick and forever writing or receiving letters from home. On 29/4/44 he received a batch including one from ‘Babs,’ our future mother, who was back home in Combe having joined the Land Army and been deployed there from Rochdale. She was sixteen years old. Meanwhile, for Dad, reading and going to the ‘flicks’ were the downtime activities with occasional forays into Athens, Jaffa, or Ramallah. Scary moments occurred. On one evening on guard duty in Aleppo (9/9/1944) he was called out to attend a fellow guard who “had been murdered for his rifle”. VE and VJ days came and went so he found himself still serving when the major conflicts had ceased. It was then, however, that he was in the greatest danger as the world was rapidly moving into its next phase of conflicts. December 1944 saw civil war in Greece with Britain siding with the government against the left wing insurgents ,E.L.A.S. “The ‘drome’ was in danger of attack”, he recorded, while our planes ‘strafed’ Athens. “we can see it all from here. Much too close. I don’t like this at all. Slept in lorry in case we are attacked. Bags of sorties. I am getting fed up with this blasted trouble.” A visit from Churchill to the base did nothing to lighten his mood. On 28/12/44 he wrote:
“Churchill left today. Saw him off in a DC4. Spoke to us and wished us a prosperous New year. Bullshit”.
Nearly a year later on 14/10/45 he was once again in a post war hot spot: Palestine, where Arabs and Jews were in open conflict with both projecting blame on Britain, the colonial power. “Bags of panic. Jews were going to attack us. Issued with arms. Confined to camp. Everyone is prepared.” Christmas brought welcome news. He was going home, aged twenty one, after three years away; relieved and hardly infused with patriotic spirit.
So at our comparable ages my parents and I were inhabiting utterly different universes. Dad had been called to patriotic duty and ended up on the cusp of a new era of conflicts. Babs, his wife to be, had been uprooted from her urban world and educational path and deployed into the Land Army. As for me, thanks to the peace in Europe they had worked for, I was able to read widely, and follow my whims and explore how better ways of doing things could be fashioned.
What would I say to them now? Well those better ways which my reading was anticipating certainly ran into fallow ground and became no more than pipe dreams for those who advocated them. As for their generation, whose lives were uprooted, they no doubt would have looked back later on in their lives and come to ask, “what was it all for?” Inequality, degradation of the natural world and global conflicts have all escalated beyond belief in the blink of an eye. Time has indeed travelled; downhill and to who knows what.
- Shenker. J. Now we have your attention: the new politics of the people. 2019. Bodley Head. Extract included in Guardian Review. 31/8/19. Issue 85.
- Hopkins. G. M. from poem entitled Inversnaid.
- From my dissertation. 1973. Owenism: a study of the movement; its preconditions and creative achievement. It included this quote by R.H. Tawney. The Radical Tradition.