Thursday, 19 January 2017

Three Wembley histories and different perspectives

Back in 1954 I was ten and saw that a book called Wembley Through the Ages had been published by the Wembley News. It was the local newspaper of choice in my house on Swinderby Road. Pop (my grandfather) read the Evening News Monday–Saturday and The People on Sunday.

I took this photograph in the kitchen at the back of the house in about 1958. 1959 at the latest and, at some point, it got torn, so I stuck it together with sellotape!

We didn't buy the Wembley Observer, though I did deliver it every week. It was not as popular as the Wembley News if my afternoon newspaper round was anything to go by. From the age of seven until I was eleven I delivered papers for 'Uncle Joe' Lochmatter, who had a newsagents shop on Ealing Road between 'The Brook' (as I knew it) and Chaplin Road. I was paid 5/- a week (25p) to deliver all the roads between Chaplin Road and Eagle Road up to Barham School. To deliver papers for bigger newsagents like W H Smith up on the High Road, between Ealing and Ranelagh roads, you had to be eleven, but Uncle Joe gave me a round because he and my Pop were drinking pals and members of the Fairview Club, up on Harrow Road, beside the fire station, as you head out of Wembley towards Sudbury.

I also got the comics to deliver and looked at them in the shop, preferring to buy the small 6d (2½p) cowboy picture story books a bit smaller than what we would know today as A5 size. My favourites being Rocky Lane and Lash LaRue. So long as I bought something each week I was able to read the comics at the back of the shop. I was also marking up my round after a while, so I would dash out of Barham School and go to Uncle Joe's. By four o'clock I usually delivering my papers and by 5.30pm I was home. It was my routine six days a week, except when I was on holiday or ill.

Anyway, it was reading the Wembley News as I did that I found out about Wembley Through the Ages and decided to buy my mother a copy as a Christmas present. Needless to say I read it as best I could and it came back to me in 2006 after her funeral.

Of the three books about Wembley, it is probably the best written and opening it again for the first time in years I went immediately to the chapter on enclosure. It spoke to me in much the same way as it did when I ten.

'The 1803 (Enclosure) Acts… completed what private greed had begun, and abolished people's rights… So far as Wembley was concerned, the wholesale robbery was completed under the Act (and) the only people who were forgotten were the small tenants, who lost not only their rights but, in many cases, their land and livelihood. This ought to be remembered today when the cry is "Back to the Land" and, particularly, when one thinks of the vast sums which now have to be paid for re-purchasing and acre of common land in order to provide a "lung" for the people… but the injustice (of enclosure) is that it gave nearly everything to those who had, and took away from the commoner even that little which he possessed'.

Rev Elsley does not criticise the consolidation of land holdings so that farmers 'were no longer compelled to wander all over the manor to do their farming'. It was the enclosure of common land that he was objecting to.

I never learnt about English land enclosure whilst at school, but I did learn about clearance in the Scottish Highlands, which was the same thing by another name, and I saw enough westerns at the Regal and Majestic cinemas in Wembley to know about the brutal treatment of 'Red Indians' and, again, I could see the injustice of it all without anyone telling me. 

Oh I know the reasons were these things were a little different, but all were about the powerful dispossessing the powerless.

Sixty-four years on and I wonder what Reverend Elsley would make of both Conservative and Labour governments privatising public assets over the last thirty-five years?  I suspect he would see the injustice of it all. As my wife, Susan, frequently points out, British governments do believe in public ownership, providing it is not British. The Dutch, French and German governments can own our buses and railways, and the Chinese our power to name just a few.

The Reverend Elsley is a man I will be quoting again in other blog posts I'm sure. I will end with tattered image from the back of the book's dust jacket:

A History of Wembley edited by Geoffrey Hewlett dates from 1979 and published by the then Brent Library Service.

It is divided into topics with contributions from a number of writers. Like many local histories of its time it is antiquarian in style and light on interpretation. Housing* and politics are noticeable by their absence, which given Brent has always been a very political borough seems strange, for its councillors as individuals and a group had made Brent what it was in 1979. Reading this book I get no idea of what political parties have won elections in Wembley or what wards. It is a history without passion, but as a collection of starting points it is invaluable.

Memories of Wembley by Derek Addison and Tony Rock is the last book in this short list dates from 2016 and is an update of an earlier version from 2011 (which I also have and referred to in 2013 posts)over the next few days.

The 2016 edition has more pages, covers more locations and topics, and has different photographs. It is a guide to Wembley in the 1940s and 50s I am happy to recommend. I love their perambulations around the borough and they remember far more than me, perhaps because there are two of them. I do have my own Wembley 'buddy' who I may have mentioned before, who grew up on Swinderby Road a few doors away from me and is just three weeks younger. She is writing her take on her Wembley days and we do compare notes, exchanging names and memories. Her name is Audrey Watson, still is, and like my wife, Susan, has chosen to keep her own name.

Derek and Tony went to the same schools as us — Barham and Alperton Secondary Modern — and there is a chapter devoted to the latter dated 1948–1952, which makes them six or seven years older than us (we were both born in 1944), but their memories offer a different take on the school. I wholeheartedly agree with them when they point out in their Introduction that 'A wise man once observed that if ten people were asked to describe a particular event that occurred fifty years earlier, there would be at last fifteen versions'.

They say, for example, that 'The teachers at Alperton School were doing the best they could, at a time when the post war socialist government was tinkering with the education system, levelling down where possible, and generally lowering the quality of education throughout the country. With classes of 45 or more pupils they had problems enough without the need for directives passed down from the Orwellian bureau known as the Ministry of Education'.

The 1944 Education Act, is also known as the "Butler Act' because Rab Butler, who was a Conservative MP and the Education Minister during the Second World War, prepared the legislation to reform post-war education in England and Wales, with the support of both the Labour and Liberal parties. There was nothing 'socialist' about education at Alperton School. The Act raised the school leaving age to 15 from 1947 and reduced the number of church schools and placed an emphasis on nonsectarian religious teaching in secular schools like Alperton. Local education authorities where left to interpret the Act which, in Wembley's case, meant Middlesex County Council.

Alperton Secondary Modern was more secular than Barham School, where I remember Catholic and Jewish pupils sitting in the corridor outside the assembly hall during the short morning service at the beginning of every school day. Right now all I want to point out is that, at the time time Derek and Tony were being educated, I wonder how they came to the conclusion that 'socialists (were) tinkering with the education system'?

A few pages on, whilst writing about 'The School Nurse' they refer to TB and, to quote, 'another government inspired programme at the time was the eradication of TB... This project would no doubt have succeeded in ridding the country of this disease, were it not for the later flood of third world immigrants who brought not only TB, but Smallpox with them. Today, TB is alive and well in the UK and apparently resistive to the antibiotics which could have totally eliminated in the fifties'.

This is racist nonsense. Why? Because the authors are clearly blaming the continued presence of TB in the UK on 'third world immigrants', a pejorative term for non-white people, but which in recent years has been extended to include east Europeans. TB has nothing to do with colour or the third world! It is all about rich and poor, and the reason it is rising again is rising inequality in the UK. 

Also the description 'third world' conveniently hides the fact that many of the people who came to live in the UK during the years after 1945 did so because they lived in countries the UK occupied and we told them they were free to come to 'the mother country'. In my time at Alperton School we celebrated Empire Day (24 May), so I guess the school did the same between 1948 and 1952, when Derek and Tony were pupils. What I learnt from those days was to welcome people of all colours and faiths as fellow subjects because they had (and have) as much right to be in this country as I do — that is a great lesson for life I learnt during the years I was at Alperton Secondary Modern School and I cannot thank the teachers responsible enough.

I have had a couple of things published elsewhere which relate to Alperton Secondary Modern School and its part in making me actively opposed to racism in all its forms and why we should all take an active interest in democracy, even if we do no more than vote!

So, as you can see. I find a lot in Memories of Wembley that needs to be challenged, especially the way the authors interpret Wembley history as they remember it. I thank them for providing the opportunity!

NOTE *: Housing was the driver of Wembley's development in the first half of the 20th century and it is, I believe, better understood if related to what was happening across south-east England during the same period. The best, popular, history I know is 'Semi-detached London' by Alan A Jackson, first published by Wild Swan Publications in 1973 (my copy is a revised edition dated 1991).

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