This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

khatch1
Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

khatch2
The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

My April/May article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine (un-edited edition)

A few issues ago, I gave readers an insight into some of the key political issues that make up the position of Labour Party candidate for the Forest of Dean, Steve Parry-Hearn. With just over a year to go to the next General Election, it’s time for an update.

Like others I endorsed the Welsh-accented Parry-Hearn at the hustings in which he was pitted against two great local campaigners Tim Gwillam and Tanya Palmer. Parry-Hearn won that competition, but in the face of a hitherto local media black-out is he up to the job of un-seating the incumbent Tory, Mark Harper?

In theory, Mark Harper MP has written-off his chances of returning to represent the Forest of Dean by supporting the government sell-off. So it will probably be the Forest’s own HOOF campaign which sees off Harper more than Labour’s candidate in Parry-Hearn. Parry-Hearn should walk it. But there are two possible problems with this analysis. 1. The national performance of Labour might mean we fail to even get our vote out (as we’ve seen happen in France only this week), and 2. UKIP – who have targeted the Forest as one of their 6 national seats to win.

On the national question there’s the issue of the so-called end to our economic woes. This presents Labour with a massive headache. First as the Labour leadership mantra goes it’s a lie: working people are still facing a cost-of-living crisis. True employment is up, but how many of those jobs are short-term and part-time? Or worse: zero hours contracts? The problem is that the electorate might just believe the lie because that’s appears to be exactly what the media’s offering: everything is fine and growth is back. And yet most public sector cuts have yet to bite.

Coming back locally and to my surprise, going against the national line of both the Tories and current Labour policy, Parry-Hearn has come out strongly and convincingly against the development of new nuclear power at Oldbury. Instead, Steve gave a sincere speech at S.T.A.N.D.’s Fukushima memorial event in Lydney in March and backed it up with a report to the local Executive and a press release.

He was also out with the Rebecca Riot campaigners on the issue of the Severn crossing tolls, managing along the way to get a by-proxy jab at Harper in a subsequent Westminster Hall debate on the issue via the Labour shadow transport team and our friendly Welsh MP’s. Harper looked satisfyingly sick at the thought of Parry-Hearn chasing him down as he hid in the corridors of power.

But then there’s UKIP. We will see their actual strength in the coming European elections. Certainly the possibility of them becoming the third main party in the UK increases as the anti-European, anti-immigration Tory vote heads over to UKIP. Not even regular outbursts from anti-gay, sexist bigots within UKIP ranks seem to quell those of that persuasion. For their part, the Lib Dems will have an emaciated support. Hopefully many of them will feel One Nation Labour better reflects their views than their leaders’ betrayal of some of their fundamental principles.

Putting aside inconsequential protest votes to minor parties, we return to Labour’s Parry-Hearn who lives with his young family in the Forest and has proven himself part of a new generation of local Labour activists. Personally, when I’ve heard him air his views and principles, he is certainly a man who Clarion readers would find speaks their language.

For sure, Parry-Hearn needs to increase his profile. Mostly by hitting the streets but also by attending other public-facing activities and events and certainly District Councillors need to get out and support their Party and their Parliamentary candidate. Already there’s an evolving team of great people willing to give their time and support, among them former Forest MP Diana Organ who’s just one of a team of Branch-level Labour Party Co-Ordinators.

My call is for Clarion readers to join us and build a future for the forest that they recognise as their own. And not that of Harper or UKIP.

My Jan 2014 article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine

Nationally the message is clear.

When Ed Milliband says that he will “promise that, if we win, I will scrap the Bedroom Tax. No ifs or buts: a One Nation Labour government will repeal it.” [1] There’s no doubt that this is OUR kind of Labour Party.

You can’t say the same for our Constituency Party. We need to be clearer on our message and tighter on our inner party discipline. When Bruce Hogan rightly questioned the failure of local UKIP Councillor Alan Preest to attend meetings it was instead received by some as a call to limit local democracy.

And you would have thought that the fact that UKIP act the way do would be a gift to us. What a local UKIP figure branded as ‘hags’ [2] are the ordinary people concerned about the rightwing myth-building of the right, at least on the topic of immigration. UKIP should be easy-pickings nationally and locally. But, as we saw with the New Year influx of east Europeans – which didn’t happen – the media has bought their narrative rather than report on facts and actuality. Rightwing speculation has become ‘reporting’.

We also see that narrative on ‘Benefits Street’. How easy it is to stoke the fires of blame just to sell advertising by producing controversial content.

There’s a cost of living crisis in Britain, but it’s now contained to those who don’t matter: the voiceless majority. We know this because we’re getting told by this government that we’re ‘turning the corner’ on the economy and its cuts, cuts, cuts that provided the cure. In reality we’re going through a sustained attack on the welfare state; an ideological crusade the kind of which Thatcher embarked upon in her 70’s attack on the Trade Unions. Her greatest achievement came with the defeat of the Miner’s but – in this anniversary year – it is up to us to ensure that the new breed of Conservativism doesn’t do the same with our social welfare, education and health services. Because that’s the way its heading.

I don’t think that message could be clearer. What bothers me is why we’re not the argument.

NUCLEAR POWER On other matters this government has just approved the ‘generic design’ for the huge nuclear power station that will appear soon opposite Lydney. In response, S.T.A.N.D. are conducting a range of meetings and events in Chepstow and Stroud to raise awareness of the monstrosity while also building for this years’ anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Catch-up with the campaign on Facebook or www.nuclearsevernside.co.uk

[1] Labour membership e-mail 21/9/2013.

[2] Recent reportage in the local press of UKIP’s Tidenham meeting where their spokesperson attacked women who expressed concern over UKIP position on immigration.

This paper is loosely based on a talk given at the Heritage Open Days in September 2013 for the Dean Heritage Centre.

In all the euphoria that came with the liberation of the suppressed people of the Eastern Bloc, it is easy to overlook that when the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war did not.

Today there remain some 12,000 active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of just 9 countries [a]. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it is the United States and Russia who harbour over 90% of these [b], shared roughly equally as it was during the Cold War.

The battle of ideology might have come to an end with the dissolution of the USSR, yet the destructive armaments which made the abstract of political and economic doctrines a terrible, threatening reality remains.

But of what importance is this to the people of the Forest of Dean, then or now?

Firstly, our incumbent MP for the Forest, Conservative Mark Harper, is a strong supporter of nuclear weapons [c]. Secondly, it probably less well known that in the early 1980’s, our county – Gloucestershire – was THE most targeted rural county in the UK.

Why? The answer is simple, but chillingly as relevant today as it was in 1980: GCHQ.

2013 saw Cheltenham’s Government Communication HQ feature regularly in newspaper headlines thanks to the revelations of US intelligence whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. He uncovered GCHQ’s pervasive role in an array of scandals over internet privacy. GCHQ was implicated in covert deals with internet service providers and the developers of computer operating systems to guarantee ‘back-doors’ into everyone’s private data. Their success in this work saw them re-sell their services to the US government. GCHQ has of course been at the forefront of intelligence, surveillance and code-breaking for over half a century and it is for this reason it undoubtedly has always been and remains a very high-value target.

Back in the 1980’s British Civil Defence and NATO-wide exercises predicted a range of nuclear attack scenarios to make their war games theoretically more relevant to how war might actually play out. These games were influenced by the strategic thinking of the British Government who at the time believed that a nuclear war was both survivable and ultimately winnable. This philosophy was based on the idea that there existed such a thing as ‘limited nuclear war’. But the Soviets rejected this concept entirely. They believed that once nuclear weapons were used in the theatre of war, there would be an unstoppable cycle of retaliation and escalation. Indeed, their systems were automated based on that very premise as to ensure a retaliatory strike would occur even after receiving a surprise attack.

At this time Brezhnev was ending his term as Soviet leader and nearing the end of his life. He was thus easily influenced by his paranoiac head of KGB, Yuri Andropov. Together they launched a secret international surveillance project called ‘Operation Ryan’ to find out when and under what auspice the West was to launch their surprise attack on the USSR.

The world will never know how close we were to an automatic nuclear war when the West ploughed on with their exercise ‘Able Archer’ in 1983, but the Soviets were certain that the exercise was the very cover they had suspected would be the trigger for that surprise launch by NATO forces. And this was also the year US cruise missiles was went ‘live’ in the UK.

It is with this polarisation of the British strategic view compared to the Soviet stance which lead a team of British academics (Openshaw, Steadman and Greene [d]) to build a body of evidence to counter the British idea that the ‘Protect and Survive’ attitude meant we’d prevail in a nuclear war.

Together the academics built a computer program to collate all the grossly over-optimistic British attack scenarios and compare them to US war games and planning and all available Soviet data on the subject. They’d supplemented this with analysis of strike impacts from peer papers from the likes of the British Medical Association in order to build a more realistic view of what might really happen.

They had no need to exaggerate their claims. The 11 attack scenarios they built from this deeper review of the data spoke for themselves: the picture was far less optimistic than the Thatcher government would have us believe. And it was for those of us living in Gloucestershire, Openshaw et al predicted that in even in the most limited attack our county would endure a predicted casualty rate of 70%.

Even when putting aside their concerns for Russian rejection of the British notion of a limited nuclear war, their scenarios ranged from the lowest probable strike to a massive, total attack. Over half of the 11 attack scenarios posed by Openshaw et al saw Gloucestershire shoulder a 97% or higher casualty rate.

Other rural counties only saw that level of destruction at the total-war end of the spectrum. On the other hand, Cornwall never had more than 17% in all scenarios. Somerset peaked at less than 30%. These figures were based only the initial blast and immediate radioactive fallout casualties. Wider fallout would of course travel with the wind so even Cornwall and Somerset would not have been safe.

At this point the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ was only just being more widely accepted as a probable outcome of a sizeable nuclear exchange. This foresees a prolonged winter lasting years where sunlight would diminish but skin cancer rates rocket through the destruction of the ozone layer. A nuclear winter would devastate the environment with the obvious impact of our food supply and agriculture. Perhaps the blinding flash of the 97% wasn’t so bad after all.

But there’s more to Gloucestershire than GCHQ. There’s also the USAF base at Fairford (you may recall Stealth Bombers left Fairford bound for Iraq in the 2003 war), plus the secondary targets of 2 civil nuclear power stations on the Severn. One of these is still being decommissioned today while at the same time being re-developed to 3-4 times the size. Back in the 80’s though there was also a National Grid Strategic Reserve Depot in Cirencester and our Civil Defence Sub-Regional HQ bunker at Ullenwood which had the extra role of being the national Anti-Aircraft Operations Room.

In 1966/67 the Joint Intelligence Committee drew up a revised list of probable Soviet targets, which included GCHQ [e]. They expected it to receive two 1MT bombs (a direct ground strike) plus two 500KT bombs (air-bursts). Air bursts are used to knock-out electronic, communication and radar devices. So 4 nuclear strikes on GCHQ alone, but for comparsion please remember that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in WW2 was only 12.5KT. Our county was predicted by the optimistic British to receive almost 3,000 times the destructive power.

Yet incredibly, another exercise conducted in the same late 60’s period, ‘Grass Seeds’, saw Civil Defence and Council planners consider Gloucestershire as the ideal place to receive nuclear war refugees from Birmingham and London. Both the attack scenario papers and what is presumed to be the Chief Executive’s review of the exercise written months later are available for review at the Gloucestershire Archives. This demonstrates that Openshaw et al were right to question the logic of British defence planning. On one hand Gloucestershire was being played as a safe haven for refugees (although there is some pretty grim reading in the document, with the docks used as a makeshift prison camp, and the old market as a rest area) on the other hand central government were writing us off with 4 nuclear warheads.

The possible targets on the Soviet list doesn’t stop there. Our county is literally surrounded by high-level targets. The highest of these has to be the national Seat of Central Government at Corsham (only 30 miles from the Speech House as the crow flies) where the Prime Minister would retreat to at the time of war.

Then there was a Cardiff branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and even closer there was the huge US weapons store at Caerwent.

Nevertheless having painted such a depressing picture of our assured destruction, not all levels of British government embraced Conservative optimism and bravado. Our neighbouring council, Gwent County Council were one such example.

Gwent CC refused to do anything more than the absolute minimum when it came to new civil defence and emergency planning laws. There was no money for massive civil bunkers so the Government insisted that Local Authorities educated their citizens in ‘Protect and Survive’ and conduct civil defence exercises and prepare for council continuity. But Gwent CC exploited the ambiguity of the new law and issued a pamphlet to the public in 1983 which ‘declared its opposition to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ [f].

They went further stating that Gwent CC ‘will not hide its view that war planning can be used to persuade other nations of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war.’ [g] And even more candidly sought to answer the difficult question of survivability and limited nuclear war: ‘There could be survivors but the Council fears that any nuclear exchange would escalate to all out nuclear war. In that event, Home Defence measures could not prevent the end of civilisation as we know it.’ [h] Certainly not the normal council circular one might expect to find in your local library. Gwent’s position, you will note, is remarkably similar to both Soviet views on the folly of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, and in keeping with Openshaw et al on the topic of optimism. Gwent predicted a 500KT bomb for Caerwent and also cited concerns over the civil nuclear power stations on the Severn [i].

Like much of history, the facts reveal a massive topic. Even on a local level the documents available and wider literature, as well as the testament of Royal Observer Corps or peace veterans form the body of a time we think is entirely behind us. But returning to my opening words, those warheads remain or have been replaced with more accurate equivalents. And so does the most appealing target in GCHQ. Let us hope this is one of those rare occasions where humanity might learn from history. One might say that this time our lives depend upon it.

SOURCES

[a] ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

[b] ibid.

[c] Mark Harper was previously listed as a supporter of the ‘Freedom Association’, a conservative group which believes in strong defence, including the nuclear deterrent. And, of course, this is also current and former Conservative government policy. But Harper’s own interest goes beyond this, calling and hosting his own public debate on Trident Renewal in Highnam in 2007 in which he invited specialists from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) to speak in support of nuclear weapons, NATO and the British deterrent. Over 200 of his constituents at his public meeting overwhelmingly voted against Harper’s support, but when the vote came in Parliament, Mr. Harper still voted for Trident.

[d] ‘Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack’ by Openshaw, Steadman & Greene (Basil Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1983)

[e] cited in ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: the passive defence of the Western World during the Cold War’ by N. McCamley (Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2002 (2009 edition)).

[f] ‘Gwent and Emergency Planning’ (Gwent County Council, 1983)

[g] ibid.

[h] ibid.

[i] ibid.

My latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article (this is the submitted, unedited edition – expect the print edition to probably include different photos).

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

Coalfaces2
The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

Coalfaces1
A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at www.windinghouse.co.uk – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG

The Forest of Dean Constituency Labour Party has nominated Steven Parry-Hearn as its Parliamentary candidate for the next General Election.

What does this mean for the left in labour?

Indeed, what does it mean for the Dean? And what about those dissatisfied with New Labour and have yet to be tempted by Ed Miliband’s brand of ‘One Nation’ Labour?

Mr. Parry-Hearn lives in the constituency with his young family and has been very active behind the scenes in the Party with various projects and posts at Executive Committee level. He’s also a member of the LP South West Regional Board and stood against Liam Fox at the last election. Then he lost (but then again who didn’t in Labour that time around? It was a national swing of historic proportions – nothing less than our greatest defeat, so we can’t blame him for that!), but Steve did gain a significantly higher vote than was expected of a Labour Party candidate there.

He’d also been active in the Aberavon CLP in Wales at the election before that – a heritage his accent reveals. So, clearly, Steve has experience and the organisational skills of a good CLP member. But where does he stand on policy?

He says ‘There are issues here, social injustices, which the current Member of Parliament has completely ignored. He has betrayed his constituents…’ [1]

Whereas Harper is an accountant by trade, Parry-Hearn works for the Shaw Trust, dealing with the fallout of failed Tory policies.

Like many of us, he vehemently opposed Harper on the sell-off of the Forests while at the same time bringing a breath of fresh air to the Forest of Dean CLP. Although not a target seat for Labour, Harper must be on the back foot precisely because of the attempted sell-off of the forests and the success of the HOOF campaign. Now we have chosen Harper’s opposition it is time to get to the nub of his beliefs and so I took advantage of the selection process to quiz him on issues I feel particularly strongly.

For starters, I asked him about the development of new Nuclear Power at Oldbury, a hot topic amongst local people living opposite in the Dean as well as environmental and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Parry-Hearn said he does not support Hitachi-Horizon’s development and that he has ‘been opposed to the development of nuclear powered generation for many years.’ [2] In fact, he goes on to state ‘I believe that there are energy generation solutions which are far more acceptable not only to ourselves, but also to our descendants.  I believe that we are merely custodians of our fragile planet, and we must use all our ingenuity to develop new, cleaner fuels and means of generating energy.  I feel that wind, sea and solar must be the way forward.’ [3]

This puts Steve at odds with the previous candidate, Bruce Hogan whose position had seen him switch over the years to a pro-nuclear power stance.

Moving to a deliberately tricky issue for some in Labour is the question of the renewal of the UK nuclear missile system (Trident). On this topic Parry-Hearn said that ‘I personally stand idealistically and morally opposed.  I feel that we are behaving rather hypocritically here. We rattle sabres at Iran, Libya and North Korea, but what right do we have to dictate terms of disarmament to those states, when we ourselves stealthily and perpetually patrol the world’s oceans with our Trident Submarines?’ [4] And he goes on to qualify this with further reasoning: ‘we should not commit public money, when we are seeing this awful, callous government cutting welfare to the most vulnerable in our society.

On those points we can agree and welcome our PPC, but that’s just two issues. It is not enough to judge him on these alone. We still don’t know whether Parry-Hearn sits as a pre-New Labourist or post’. That is, is he a believer in the One Nation line? Certainly, it seems we can – I think – rest assured Parry-Hearn is no raving Blairite.

The true test, I suppose, will be the moment our national programme is finally launched.

That document, which will at last declare our Party’s policies, will be the strongest challenge for Party-Hearn to date. Will he stay true to his own beliefs upon which he was elected as PPC locally or will he sway to the national line? I strongly suspect on both Trident and nuclear power the national policy will differ from Hearn’s. With the nuclear power development directly affecting his constituency will he have the will to act against his party? For sure, he says he is of ‘high moral courage, honesty and diligence.’ [5] And on the issue of nuclear defence, this could arguably be the most moral question of all.

But as I have said, we shouldn’t shape our support of opposition of him on those two nuclear topics alone. Does he have the red fibre Clarion readers’ lust after? For his part, Graham Morgan (County, District & Town Councillor for Labour) believes Steve is ‘a real man of the people.’ [6]

What else? Parry-Hearn states he is committed ‘to establishing a Business Task Force, promoting growth, sustainable inward investment and apprenticeship opportunities for our young generation’ [7] in the Dean. He targets housing as the way forward both locally and nationally as a tool of economic renewal and his work with the Shaw Trust would mean he also has first-hand experience of the dire need for good social housing. He is pro-European but supports a referendum.

At the 28th July hustings which resulted in his election, Steve cited Andy Burnham as one of those currently influencing his political thinking. This being the same Andy Burnham who is leading the charge against the Tory Health & Social Welfare bill, promising to repeal it at Labour’s first opportunity and re-investing instead in the NHS. That is a good place for Labour and Steve to be and thus a good influence to hold, in my book.

So, while Parry-Hearn might not be the Forest’s answer to Tony Benn we can hold some comfort by the fact that he probably wouldn’t be entirely offended by the idea either.

In fact, I would go so far to say that I think that our constituency has the strongest candidate for many elections past. I hope you will canvass his opinion yourself by directly engaging with him while supporting our party and his campaign with all your vigor.

We MUST get rid of the ConDems, keep the Tories and UKIP out. We must save our NHS. We must be united in our support of the only realistic chance for Parliamentary power across the left. And in doing so we will keep our values alive in Labour, locally and nationally. Support Steve and we support that aim.

[1] Personal letter to all FoD CLP members 1st July 2013

[2] Personal correspondence with the author 22nd July 2013.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Steve Parry-Hearn FoD PPC campaign leaflet  July 2013.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley  Clarion magazine

THE LEFT INSIDE column by C. Spiby

Things are getting a little ugly. Especially in Falkirk where the CLP is in a fizzle thanks to UNITE the union bombarding the local party with its members in an attempt to get the next Parliamentary candidate to be their preferred candidate.

While I see that, theoretically, an infiltration of any kind is dangerous, an infiltration of working class-conscious trade unionist is – SURELY – what Labour needs right now.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support it.

But there is a split of opinion as to Ed Milliband’s plan to re-boot the role Labour has with the Trade Unions. Even Len McCluskey endorsed the idea that the scheme might mean thousands of new official working class members paying their way in the Party ‘officially’ (rather than paying by default). The doom-mongers, however, see the move as an attempt to sever the historic link (which is probably why it got the support of Tony Blair!) and in doing so lose the Party millions in vital funding.

If the doom-mongers are right, then this leaves the door wide-open for the Party funding machine to head out and woo more donations from big business and the rich.

What started as a call for ‘8 hours for work – 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose’ spawned a workers movement. Workers coming together in union to end the tyranny of employers. The call went out in 1868 for the first Trades Union Congress.

The struggle for workers’ rights commenced and gathered pace with the rise of each challenge, each success and every knock-back. As Billy Bragg calls ‘There is power in a union’ and as is the popular noise of each and every protest the world-over: ‘The workers united, will never be defeated.’

But there were defeats, so we must take the latter as a rallying call – a call to metaphorical arms. For it soon became clear that to really change things, representation in Parliament was necessary. And thus the move toward a social democratic socialist party gathered pace. In the wake of the 1906 general election the Parliamentary Labour Party is born.

This history lessons informs us that something on both sides of the link has failed. The Unions has weakened their relevance (mostly through the actions of Tory Parliaments), but also the in the Labour Party has swung rightward for fear of militancy. Strikes – never popular – have ceased being the tool and call of the downtrodden worker as the right and the media present it as one massive, self-indulgent inconvenience for the rest of society. And in doing so breaks society.

Without Labour there’d be no welfare state. Without Trade Unionism there’d be no Labour.

The question is one only of relevance.

Now is the time for those Trade Unionists to re-embrace their Party. And to do it through the front door.

OTHER MATTERS But then there’s murkier water ahead with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. My personal beliefs seem out of kilter with my Party, although I will reserve full judgement until the final General Election manifesto is ready. So it is up to us to make sure they hear our voices on the topics we are moved by and join in at www.yourbritain.org.uk (the Party’s policy development platform).

So it is with relief that our leader e-mailed to remind us that…

“Only One Nation Labour will repeal David Cameron’s Health Act and put NHS values, not Tory values, back at the heart of our NHS. Our NHS is at the heart of what makes Britain great. Labour will always make safeguarding its future a priority. [a]”

Previously he let us know about some of things his leadership had on the agenda…

We all know Labour in 2015 will have less money to spend, because the Tories have failed on the economy. So we are going to take action on the big problems our country faces to control spending:

  • Cut costs by helping the long-term unemployed back to work
  • Make sure jobs are well-paid to reward work, so the state does not face rising subsidies for low pay
  • Get the cost of renting down by ensuring more homes are built – thereby reducing the welfare bill
  • Cap social security spending by focusing on the deep-rooted reasons benefit spending goes up.

This builds on an earlier message from Ed Balls, of the shadow Treasury. He said…

Tory economic policies aren’t working. On living standards, economic growth and on deficit reduction – they’ve got it wrong, and millions of people are suffering the consequences. It doesn’t have to be this way.  [c]

My worry is that these messages are being overtaken by noise from Labour vs the Unions. What the movement needs is a united voice and united message.

[a] E-mail from EM 2/7/13.

[b] E-mail from EM 6/6/13.

[c] E-mail from EB 3/6/13.

(from my Left Inside column in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion)

The Bedroom Tax is so diabolically typical of Tory Government. Exactly the type of policy which creates a two-nation state. The ‘them’ and the rest of us state.

But it is the rest of us who fuel the economy with our labour, skills, services, creativity, drive and devotion to both our jobs and our society. It is the rest of us who help those in need; not to leave them behind. We do this through our taxes and many do much more by providing real-term care, by which I mean all those who stay at home to look after our very young, or the elderly in need, or those disabled.

And it was US who bailed out the banks.

But, as Liam Byrne MP (Labour’s shadow Work & Pensions Secretary) points out it is Cameron’s Government which is about to give 13,000 millionaires a tax cut worth an average £100,000, while more than half a million households with a disabled person will lose £700.

And not content with rising inflation and stagnant wages, the Tories go on to offer us (from 1st April) a real terms cut to maternity pay, taking £180 out of the pockets of mums by 2015. In Hull alone 4700 people will be affected by the Bedroom Tax – and there are just 73 properties available for them to move into. Meanwhile youth unemployment is now almost at a million mark and unemployment amongst women is also on the rise.

Labour on the other hand challenged the Tories and Liberal Democrats to support a mansion tax on properties over £2 million stating this would pay for the reinstatement of a 10p tax rate to help millions of people on low and middle incomes.

And it is with enthusiasm that I welcome Gloucestershire Labour Party’s 2013 County Council Election manifesto. It keeps the one nation theme running at a local level, pledging to ‘support and campaign for all health and education provision to stay in the public sector’.

It also says much about trying to restore those services lost through the cuts including library and youth services as well as children’s centres.

As an anti-cuts and pro-NHS campaigner the manifesto is a real boost for those who recognise Labour as it should be.

Join us in our fight against the cuts.

Now I know that readers will write in an warn me that Labour supports the cuts too. But our mantra has always been not so deep and not so fast. True; the theme is to cut the deficit when many Trade Unions, socialists and anti-cuts campaigners argue whether that is even a necessity. But to them I say this: you may compromise your position, but by not supporting Labour you might well be gifting the next election to a stand-alone Tory government.

Now that’s one compromise too far.

And I won’t compromise the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, the very young, the workers for a position in an argument or an ideal. No matter how attractive that ideal is. The pragmatic compromise is to help build a nation against the injustice of Tory policies.

And then, within that victory go for the battle within to build socialism. But don’t jeopardise that victory on a principle alone. Go for the victory which benefits our nation. One nation together for all.

 

So, we have a re-shuffle in the ConDem government.

What does this mean to us locally?

On the face of it not much. In reality numerous mainstream media pundits see the changes as a move further to the right.

That means a consolidation of the awful Tory policies of cuts, cuts and cuts. Oh, and increasing private influence and profit on everything from schools to hospitals.

For his part Mark Harper MP has been promoted to the Ministry of State at the Home Office, taking over from Damian Green as minister for Immigration. Surely what that means for us, in the Dean, is even less representation in the House, as his Parliamentary career portfolio increases in importance and workload.

To start with an aside, it is my personal belief that the when a minister wins a portfolio, then either the second-place local candidate at the last election is assigned as constituency representative, or – even better – each Party also stand a reserve during the General Election: one to act as Parliamentary MP for the constituency in the House of Commons, the other to get on with the business of Government should they be selected. This latter idea might even help the media to focus on Party policy, not personality. But these are whims of fancy of my own.

Back to Harper. Our beloved Minister used to be listed as a member of the right-wing Freedom Association but matching his ascendency in Government is the removal of his name as a cited supporter of the pressure group’s website. Their 7 principles don’t directly target immigration, but they put all the other traditional Tory policies right at their heart. We might perhaps characterise those policies as rampant self-preservation.

But, the Tories yell, net migration is down [1]. Hurrah! Cry Daily Mail readers and the EDL. And I guess at least the Government is consistent on one thing: its attack on the poorest. By removing and reducing benefit to even those previously denied their role in society on medical grounds, the only jobs left in a recession will be exactly those low-paid, temporary jobs that previously could only be filled by workers from Eastern Europe. If those workers are denied access, then, great! The workforce the government feel is ripe to pick up the shortfall in labour will be those very same poor devils they’ve got the media to class universally as ‘benefit scroungers’. They will be forced to work in what pretty much amounts to near-slave-labour rates in the kind of poor working conditions we thought we got rid of in the Edwardian era, thanks to the Trade Union and labour movements.

Of course it will only be ‘benefit cheats’ and the ‘hoodies’ Cameron previously urged us to hug who will be doing that low paid work, not the tax cheats like investment bankers who brokered this worldwide economic downturn.

However, even immigration – which has to be the golden chalice of the right – is bungled by this lot. There’s been a 30% drop in student visas [2] to June this year, and even cases of forcing foreign students back from where they came before their courses have finished. In a climate of highest-ever fees for students yet reduced government funding for education, this Government is struggling to handle even its most prized policy. Perhaps Harper’s ability to dress up saving us from the selling-off of our Forests as something he did in the corridors of power has proven the skills necessary to navigate the morally tricky world of immigration control.

And what of Labour? Well, Chris Bryant MP who holds the shadow post of Harper states clearly: “Rather than preventing legitimate students our economy needs, the Government should focus on the worsening illegal immigration situation. We need to reverse the fall in deportation of those who break the rules, and the rise in people absconding through immigration controls.” [3]

But, despite his new role to protect this island from the invading hordes of scroungers, Mark cares a lot about our foreign friends. Well, he does if they come from Israel.

Harper is a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a position he shares with some 80% of fellow Tory MP’s [4]. CFI is one of the most dynamic lobby groups in Parliament. While the Arab world is in revolutionary turmoil, where neighbouring countries take the brunt of conflicts such as that in Syria, housing hundreds of thousands of families fleeing brutal murder, Mark and his friends are primarily concerned with keeping low paid jobs for low-paid British workers. The CFI lobby for their part is primarily concerned about business deals with friends like Israel, especially in the arms trade. For example, Israel and the UK have been working on a joint drone project for a number of years. Some of these were used on the 2008/09 drone attacks on Gaza.

[1] www.conservatives.com/News/News_stories/2012/08/Damian_Green_welcomes_figures_that_demonstrate_a_fall_in_net_migration.aspx

[2] ibid.

[3] http://www.labour.org.uk/worsening-illegal-immigration

[4] Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, Channel 4, Monday 16 November 2009

An interview
I caught up with The Hi-Life Companion as they were busy finalising their second album, with primary recording of the new suite of songs behind them.

‘Say Yes!’ the first long-player from these Wye Valley-raised brothers, presented an intelligent mix of influences and moods. On it they moved from straight-forward power-pop to a face-full of indie fuzz only then to detour pleasantly into their British twist on Americana.

For this second album the duo, both of whom have settled in Bristol in the UK, have metaphorically returned to the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean of their Brockweir childhood. Along the way they delve into histories both personal and local.

Brothers Jon and Matt form the core of the band. They do all the writing, arrangements and primary recording. But to capture the full sonic invocation of their ideas they then recruit a range of talent to enhance the sound, do the final mix and play live.  Many, but not all personnel appeared on the first album, ‘Say Yes!’ which was released in November 2010.

The Hi-Life Companion’s first single was released in 2008 and since then the band have featured on innumerable independent compilations, internet web-radio stations and pod-casts across the US and Europe, as well as enjoying airplay on Colin Murray on BBC Radio 1 and Tom Robinson on BCC Radio 6.

The Bloodbuzzed blog included their impending release in the ‘Music To Look Forward To in 2012’ list.

This e-interview with Jon Troy was undertaken in June 2012. Jon is one half of the song-writing duo, rhythm guitarist and singer. Together with his brother Matt, he also recorded the album.

Q: Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way first. Is there a working title for the new album yet?
‘Our Years in the Wilderness’.

Q: Will the people who bought ‘Say Yes!’ be disappointed or surprised?
I’m not sure; we’ll have to see I guess. Hopefully not disappointed – it’s much more ambitious, certainly, but still has the love of a good tune that ‘Say Yes’ hopefully had. On that record we were just really trying to write good pop songs, but in the end neither myself or Matt were at all happy with the end result even though other people seemed to like it. We’ve always felt we’ve had much better songs in us, and of course, in our heads they always sound magnificent…

Q: Which track from the first album would, musically, fit most comfortably on the new album?
I’m not sure many of them would really. Sonically, it’s {the new album} a vast improvement.  As with ‘Say Yes’ there are trumpets and harmonies and strings, but the new tunes are fuller sounding and more densely layered. I guess there are just more harmonies, more trumpets and more strings. It’s a much more rounded and realised extension of the first album.

Q: This album isn’t a concept album in a prog-rock sense, but there is a narrative to it. Tell us about it.
All the songs are about the West Country in some way, mainly the Forest of Dean where we grew up, but also Bristol and the surrounding area. Lyrically, there is a connection between all the songs, they all interrelate in some way, and it’s meant to follow the path of childhood, growing up, exploring frontiers, love and loss and ending your days looking back on it all, lived through different characters and different times.

Q: Which came first, the narrative or the songs?
The songs. In that the music came first; I worked on the lyrics afterwards. Lyrics take ages, and there’s always that gnawing feeling that you’re repeating someone else’s.  A bit like when Matt comes up with a riff and I have to tell him that it already belongs to Black Sabbath.

Q: At what point did the narrative emerge, and why did you feel it was something worthy of exploration?
Probably after we’d been working on four or five demos, the lyrics all seemed to join up and reflect local places and times in our lives. There seemed to be a real connection in the geography and stories: some autobiographical, some wrapped up in local myths and legends around the Forest of Dean. They all seemed to belong on an album together. I also love songs that mention specific places; you find that a lot in American music where certain places, towns or cities become mythologized through music. I wanted to do the same with the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley.

Q: It seems like you pretty much did the whole thing by yourselves – just you and Matt. And yet you still chose to bring others in and call it a Hi-Life Companion record rather than an album of your own work. Why?
Matt and I aimed to play everything ourselves, and then get people in for the things we couldn’t. There’s not really a ‘band’ on this record, although obviously there will be when we do it live.

Having said that, it’s much more musically ambitious. Perhaps things did go a bit Brian Wilson in terms of the number of vocal and string parts, as well as the flute, harp, horns and on one song, we even had a colliery band. But that’s the beauty (or curse) of having computers and using programmes like Logic – with effectively unlimited tracks you can completely indulge yourself.

Overall, though, Matt and I tried to do the majority of it ourselves largely because we work so instinctively together. It’s a partnership that stretches back to when we were kids. We know how we work, and what our strengths and breaking points are. There’s just an unspoken understanding which makes recording together easy. Recording other people is always harder: you have to be on your best behaviour.

Q: What new influences are on this album which weren’t there on ‘Say Yes!’?
‘Say Yes’ was a bit of a hodgepodge of influences. I guess this was partly as a result of us consciously trying to write a song that sounded like A or a bit like B.

On this album there was less intent, and the songs arrived through a more organic process – we just played what we felt like playing at
the time. But we were listening to a lot of Richard Hawley, John Grant, Gorky’s and early REM, so some of that may have seeped in.

Q: social media and the internet have seen your recordings seep around the webosphere; do you see this as a threat to the band’s commercial viability, a challenge to the control of your work, or as a compliment or tool to get content viral?
If I had to balance getting paid for people downloading our music or it being available to a much wider audience for free I’d certainly choose the latter.

At the level we’re at, file-sharing is both a pleasure and a necessity: its people passing on music they like by recommendation, and I’m still amazed at the thought that someone in Argentina or Canada can listen to us. Knowing that someone in South America is listening to ‘Times Table’ is bizarre when you think we recorded it ourselves in a bedroom in Bristol. When we first started out in bands that was unthinkable. The only people who heard us were the neighbours.

Q: the cover of your first album had a Peter Blake, British working-class feel which complemented the songs. Should we be judging the content of this album by its cover? Is the design already in the bag? Is this side of things important to you?
That cover was a painting called ‘The Big Kick’ by Tim Wright, a Cornwall artist. It’s pretty much about the only thing we’re happy with on that first album! We haven’t got anything definite for this one yet but it’ll be something ‘local’ for us; something related to the Forest of Dean of Wye Valley. The art-work certainly needs to reflect the content, and I love an album with a great sleeve, or something interesting when you open it up.

Q: Personally, you first recorded with Airport Girl playing drums on both their ‘Honey, I’m An Artist’ and ‘Slow Light’ albums (both on the Fortuna Pop! label). Do you still compose and record the drum parts for The Hi-Life Companion and only get Mark (Freeth) in for live duties? Did you find the drums a creative stifle?
I roughly work out the drum parts and then Mark plays them. I did the drums on one track on this new album but the rest are Marks. It’s been quite a learning curve recording drums. On the first album we just stuck a couple of microphones near a set in an untreated room and I bashed away. To give you an idea of the level we were at, to try and dampen down click-track bleed through the headphones we just strapped pillows to my head…on this one we’ve taken longer to get a better, more professional sound. Besides, Mark is a much better drummer at blasting through the quicker numbers.

Q: How much of the arrangement is done away from the recording stage?
Pretty much all of it really. We worked out demos for most of the new songs a couple of years ago, and they’ve served as the basis for the proper recordings we’ve been working on since then. But we still added and improved late in the recording stage, and this is often the most enjoyable and creative bit, suddenly adding a part that you’ve just thought of. So much of recording is endless takes of a given established part that it’s fun to be creative and do something which takes the song in a slightly different direction.

Q: Do you have a complete picture of the layers you want to add to a demo, or does this arise out of the playback?
Mostly it’s just getting it down onto tracks, but as I say, there are always new ideas and other additions that happen once we’ve got the majority of the song complete.

Q: You’ve turned 40 since the first album, does this mean the second album is more reflective than the first. Is it darker? How much are you guided by the sound of the first album, by which I mean is there a ‘Hi-Life’ sound you find you’re looking to maintain even if the theme is different?
The new album is definitely more reflective and considerably darker, but I’m not sure whether that’s related to my age or not. We wanted the album to have an overall theme and feel, and that has turned out to be a fairly dark, melancholic and romantic one. ‘Say Yes’ didn’t really have a cohesive sound at all – like the first Airport Girl record it sounded like lots of different songs recorded in different places at different times by different people. But just as Rob did with the Airport Girl follow-up ‘Slow Light’, we wanted to avoid that confusion as far as possible. I wanted it to sound like the same band throughout, even though the ‘band’ is for the most part just Matt and me. I’ve never really been happy with our ‘sound’ before. In fact, I think we sounded terrible on record, so hopefully there’s an improvement with this new material precisely because it is a more consistent and organic reflection of ‘us’.

Q: You presented touring with Airport Girl as a mix of euphoria and exhaustion. What’s your approach to live performance with The Hi-Life Companion?
Mostly I’d have to say it was exhaustion. I haven’t really enjoyed having to organise so many different people for rehearsals: it’s been a real struggle getting people together. The last time we were preparing for gigs attendance at rehearsals was pretty inconsistent. I guess I’ve had to accept that for some people the band just isn’t as important as it is for us, which is understandable. When we get around to putting a band together to play live again we’ll have to have a re-think in that respect.

In terms of actually playing live my enjoyment has always been tempered by that feeling I get when playing songs I don’t actually like. Again I think it’s a process of admitting ‘I don’t like playing that song and it sounds dreadful’ and focus instead on what we want and would enjoy playing. It’s accepting that often the most painful part of a gig is where you’re playing a song you hate, badly. Basically, I need to be more assertive!

Q: What are you most proud of with this album? How many tracks were surplus to the final number which will feature? Is there a stand-out obvious first single?
I’m proud of the fact that between us we’ve worked at it and worked at it, and now we’re within sight of the finish line. I think we’ve got better songs, with better lyrics and better singing. In fact everything sounds so much better.

There are 11 tracks on the album and we’ll probably have at least one more left over, which might find its way onto a compilation – or we might give it away through a free download or something. I think it’s only when all the tracks are fully mixed that we’ll know what really stands out. Some of the songs sounded great as demos, but you never know if they will sound as great when recorded and mixed ‘properly’.

Expect the new album to be ready by the Autumn of 2012.

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