Wednesday, March 03, 2021
Tuesday, December 01, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
ROB (or BOB) STEEL, 31/01/55 – 11/08/20
Although this is an obituary for Rob, it is written for local Green Party members and from the standpoint of Rob’s place in the party. To a certain extent it therefore reads like a history of the party and its constituent members over the years. However, I hope that readers feel that this approach adds to Rob’s story with the Green Party and helps us appreciate some of the contexts in which Rob spent so much time and energy.
In 1979, Rob, as a young local Geography teacher in his mid-twenties, joined a handful of local visionaries to found the Sutton Ecology Party, as the Green Party was called at the time. As ever, the party comprised a small number of dedicated and radical individuals who had a wide and lasting influence in the local community. Amongst the number was a Quaker man in his 70s called Richard Allen whom Rob greatly admired for his clarity of thinking and dynamism. Rob himself threw himself into his new-found political party immediately and stood for election for both the borough council and for parliament as soon as the opportunities arose. As a result of the local Ecology Party campaigning for the 1983 General Election, there was an upsurge in membership in the area and I was present at a stimulating follow-up meeting of about 30 people in the upstairs room at the Sun pub, Carshalton, where we met Rob and many others who were to become ardent members of this still minor political party. For me it was the start of many years of working closely with Rob and the others, acting as their local election agent as well as being involved in much other general party activity.
Rob was already a key figure in the party in the early 80s. He had endless energy to put his increasing understanding of environmental politics into action in the fledgling political party. One lasting amusing memory in the early days was the regular waste newspaper collection which the local group carried out every 2 weeks around a set of a few streets in Wallington. It involved a leaflet drop a couple of days prior to the collection, two people to drive up to Dulwich to pick up the “Eco Van”, about the size of an old Post Office van, and whoever was available to go round on foot picking up the piles of papers left on doorsteps for us and chucking them in the van. A brave volunteer would get up at 6 the next morning to drive this ramshackle van to a recycling site in Croydon and hopefully receive about £30 for it after it had been weighed. They would then have to drive the van back to its home in Dulwich. As this was before the days of any paper recycling by the council, this was quite a revolutionary action on our part – fulfilling our environmental concerns, as well as bringing us some well-needed cash for our funds. Rob always worked flat out at this, but his enthusiasm persuaded many of us to join in the mad venture! Some of the stalwarts at this time were Graham Garner, James Deane (not an American actor!), George Dow and Nick Greaves, whose mammoth ancient photocopier churned out endless members newsletters, along with the ones that would inevitably catch fire in the process! (Remember all those envelopes and stamps too?)
The Council Elections rolled by over the years, with the local Liberal Democrats gaining an ever stronger hold on the local council and claiming to be the greenest London council (they had now started their own newspaper recycling!). This was welcomed by some local environmentalists and members of Friends of the Earth, including those working for the fledgling Centre for Environmental Initiatives, set up by Vera Elliott and later to be called Ecolocal, but Rob kept the Ecology Party members well informed, so that we consistently challenged the Lib Dem environmental claims. He delighted in quoting the considerable number of examples of anti-environment and contradictory actions and policies by various Lib Dem authorities, as well as on the part of the almost permanent Lib Dem MP in Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake. However, even Rob struggled to convince some of our members, like Phil Mouncey!
Among the party members by this time were the charismatic Silvia Scaffardi (co-founder of NCCL, now Liberty), Peter and Josie Hickson, Karin Andrews and Sue Riddlestone, Director of the new local organisation, Bioregional. At one of the local meetings we had a persuasive speaker from the Vegan Society, which prompted at least Jim Duffy to switch to a vegan lifestyle, now so common with environmentalists. Neil Hornsby brought his civil servant expertise and successfully persuaded London Transport to adopt his idea of “jogging tickets” for commuters under another name. Heather Jarrett and her partner Bruce gave stalwart service locally, and by now some of Rob’s ex-students from Wallington Boys School were joining the cause, as did Simon Dixon, proof that Rob had been spreading his views in the classroom!
And all the while, Thatcher and her successors would come back into power at every General Election and there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst our little party (as well as amongst many others of course!) and Rob would sift through the details of the Green Party results here and all around the country, declaring that there was no hope for this country and we should all go round to his house and have lots of ale!
In the early 1990s we had a young television journalist by the name of John Cornford join us. His experience and skills with the media of the time were a great boost to the local party, as exemplified by our campaign against a British Rail tree cutting extravaganza in Carshalton in 1992. John and Rob led some of the party to trespass peacefully onto the railway line from a garden in Denmark Road and most importantly got the London television news reporters to film the event and interview John and Rob for us to proudly watch at home that night!
By the turn of the millennium the Sutton Party was reaching out to Croydon Green Party members who had no active party, and we attracted a small but powerful core of members, including Bernice Golberg, Shasha Khan and Martyn Post (the latter of mass leafletting fame!), who went on to get the Croydon Party properly established. While there were a lot of separate issues for the Croydon and Sutton Parties, we were soon collaborating again, because our councils, together with Merton and Kingston, had announced in 2008 that they were forming a waste partnership. “No, they weren’t going to build an incinerator; they were going to consider various options, one of which may be a pyrolysis waste processor”, we were told. The rest of the story is more or less history, as the saying goes. Rob managed to play an active part in the anti-incinerator campaign, in spite of taking on some long term supply teaching posts in various parts of the country. He worked with Dr Stan Prokop, who first informed us of the issue, with his own ex-student Peter Alfrey who had specialist knowledge of birds and the ecology of the Beddington Farmlands and with several others of our own highly motivated party members. Rob, as ever, threw himself into writing well researched and detailed submissions for the Green Party against the council planning application.
While Rob often gave solid and comprehensive presentations at many election hustings alongside his opponents, his forte definitely lay with his writing. First there was his letter-writing on behalf of the party, whether to local newspapers (of which there were up to 3 at one point!) or national. For many years this involved writing very quickly and then of course getting the letter into an envelope to post it in time to catch the appropriate editorial deadline. He had a bulging file of cuttings of letters which had been printed in various papers. Then there was his leaflet-writing for the numerous election campaigns run by the local party. Hardly had an election been called than Rob had composed a first draft for a leaflet and usually the first discussion of his drafts would involve asking him to “tone it down a bit”! But he usually managed a great balance between getting serious information across and appealing to “the masses” in the Sutton wards and constituencies. Then, after the party had carefully calculated what our funds (and leafletters) would enable us to produce, Rob would wave opposition leaflets at us and insist that we needed to put out another leaflet to put the voters right on this or that issue and he would “lob in some dosh” for it. So just when we thought we had done all our leafletting, he was lining up the next lot of boxes!
When Rob got married and moved to his new home in Wiltshire about 6 years ago, it was a dramatic change for the local Green Party. He had been so central to its functioning for almost 40 years! By keeping on his lovely quirky Tower Cottage in Carshalton and lured back by his longstanding connections to The Hope real ale pub, as well as with the aid of IT and electronic communication, Rob managed to keep up to a certain extent with the activities of the local party. Any good organisation tries not to get into a situation where any of their members become indispensable, and both Sutton and Croydon parties are continually moving forward with new blood, but that is not to deny the absolutely vital part Rob played in the party for all those years and the huge gap he now leaves. Whether we knew Rob since his early days in the party or just met him more recently on a brief visit back to the area, or some time in between, our parties collectively mourn the sad, sad loss of such a dynamic and influential party member. May we all learn something from and be inspired by his enormous contribution to the party.
By Gay McDonagh, Sutton Green Party member, September 2020
Sunday, November 22, 2020
|Carshalton Environmental Fair 2012|
|Bob Steel and me|
It seems that every other post seems to be a memorial to a local member passing. And so, it is with great sadness I do this again and write about the death of Bob Steel.
Monday, September 14, 2020
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Peter joined the Green party around 1986 while working as a postman at Sutton sorting office, and with his late wife Jose was an active and committed stalwart of the local Sutton party until shortly before his death.
Peter was a passionate advocate for justice and a thorn in the side of his local MP with his frequent handwritten letters. He worked tirelessly to promote and support both local causes and international campaigns and was never afraid of controversy. He attended numerous demonstrations in London for the Palestinian cause. He was an active memberof the local Amnesty International group, for whom he wrote many (again handwritten!) letters. In more recent years he focussed particularly on NHS privatisation and the KOSH campaign to keep the local St Helier Hospital. The front of his house was usually adorned with banners and displays of his current issues, so he really got his messages across to his neighbours!
Peter was also a very talented man with a variety of creative interests, turning his hand to vernacular architecture, pottery, painting and drawing - including a range of hard hitting posters and displays for our campaigns - and, maybe less successfully, the violin! Just before he died, the local adult education college in Sutton put on an exhibition of a range of his work, as they felt it merited wider attention.
Peter’s house was like entering a library-cum-museum, a bit reminiscent of a William Morris house, whom he greatly admired: There were shelves and shelves of books on a huge variety of subjects, many of them really heavy political tomes - which scared off any lightweights around! (And let it be remembered that Peter couldn’t read until about the age of 10 when he was evacuated during the war.) Then there were his paintings and artifices all round the walls, his “barge painted” wooden kitchen cupboards, his doors with painted figures – the list goes on!
When Peter and Jose’s promising son, Shane, was tragically killed as a young man in a road accident near where he lived in St Andrews, Peter responded by raising money to plant trees in Scotland and made many lifelong friends and contacts with Shane’s friends there.
Peter’s death comes less than a year after he lost his wife Jose who had been poorly for some time. He was just beginning to pick up his life again, cycling regularly (he never drove a car) and doing his gym exercises in the local parks when the news of his cancer came through quite recently. We extend our very best wishes and warm support to his surviving daughter Angie as she comes to terms with her great loss. In saying goodbye to Peter, the local Green Party is saying goodbye to a man of great stature, whom some of us have been very privileged to know.
Thanks to Gay McDonagh and Bob Steel for the words above. I was privileged to know him and remember being amazed by his library-cum-museum of a house. In the summer of 2009 I went to his house to pick up a new placard/poster display unit for our stall at the Thornton Heath Festival. Smartphones weren't so smart in 2009, but I did record some footage while there. See below:
He stood in local, London and general elections and was always campaigning, Here I've identified him at one of the Stop The Incinerator demos.
|Peter and Jose|
Rest in Peace Peter.
Tags croydon, greenparty
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Ken Livingstone and David Mellor used to present a show on LBC. In this clip (which I saved from January 2016), Ken Livingstone talks about how, "five million Bangladeshis starved to death over 18 months" during World War II. Moreover, he adds the deaths resulted from a decision to export rice from what was then Bengal (India) towards the war effort.
My jaw dropped when I heard this. I wasn't expecting a discussion on the Salisbury nerve agent attack to cite something that happened in Bangladesh around seventy years ago.
Ken Livingstone says at the end of the clip that, "Great leaders protect themselves and they don't give a damn about the lives of others."
Upon hearing the jaw-dropping revelation back in January 2016, I thought I would ask my dad if he knew anything about this. He was born in what is now Bangladesh in 1935.
His recollection of 1942-43 is indeed one of great poverty and starvation. There was a shortage of food in Rajshahi, a state in the north west. He remembers emaciated bodies lying on the street, close to death or dead The towns had more food than the villages. Everyone around him, literally everyone, was suffering, and owing to the lack of news, he assumed that everyone during the world war was suffering as they were. Until I told him, he was unaware that there was a reason why so many people were starving in Bangladesh.
I had to investigate further. I bought a book which I started reading called CHURCHILL'S SECRET WAR, The British Empire and the ravaging of India during World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee.
I had been meaning for sometime - well four years - to post about this. Over the last couple of weeks a greater awareness of Churchill's views and actions have come to light because someone daubed the plinth of his statue during a Black Lives Matter protest.
Mukerjee's book is well researched and I when I started reading it four years ago, I marked out paragraphs of note (including the very first paragraph of the book - below):
"No great portion of the world population was so effectively protected from the horrors and perils of the World War as were the peoples of Hindustan," Winston Churchill wrote in his 1950 history of the twentieth century's most lethal conflict. They were carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island. By Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus, Churchill meant India, which during the war was part of the British Empire.
Britain's wartime prime minister did not discuss in his six-volume account the 1943 famine in the Eastern province of Bengal, which killed 1.5 million people by the official estimate and 3 million by most others. One primary cause of the famine was the extent to which Churchill and his advisers chose to use the resources of India to wage war against Germany and Japan, causing scarcity and inflation within the colony.
Hitler did not comprehend the extent to which the Indian freedom movement, along with other developments of the twentieth century, had weakened imperial controls over the colony. The days of formal empires were numbered- and, ironically, the conflict he initiated would deal the fatal blow. To commandeer Indian manufactures and produce for the war, His Majesty's Government would have to deploy inflationary monetary policies in preference to straightforward confiscation of the colony's products or revenues.
Mukerjee states, a cyclone in 1942 had caused pressure on food stocks but this was nullified by a bumper harvest the following year. Those who want to brush Churchill's involvement under the carpet, usually use the cyclone argument as the reason for the famine.
In truth, a combination of factors resulted in the famine in 1943. Here are some I picked out from Mukerjee's book:
Firstly, prior to the war, India's much vaunted railway system had left the Indian government heavily in debt to the UK. The terms of the repayment for the railway would have been comparable to WONGA. This left India vulnerable to fluctuations.
Secondly, there was a scorched policy to stop Japanese progression from Burma. The Japanese would be denied food and transport if they invaded India. Military authorities had requisitioned all trucks and cars in southern and eastern Bengal, and boats and steamers, the principal method of moving the harvested rice crop from surplus regions to those with shortages, were destroyed.
Thirdly, what harvested rice crop that existed in Bengal had to be sent to other parts of the empire, namely Ceylon, Arabia and South Africa, all of which were better supplied with grain India. There was also a requirement to feed the troops in India. Ninety five percent of the total wheat requested by India to avert a disaster was not delivered. Mukerjee points out that only one quarter of the wheat promised to Bengal by the Government of India actually arrived and most of that remained in Calcutta for the priority classes. Interestingly, Mukerjee points out that the Indian government chose not to explain why it was unable to supply the wheat and instead insisted the province had more than enough rice. This may explain why my dad said, it was assumed during the war everyone was suffering in this way, with little focus on why? My dad's account here is fascinating. He does remember relatives, including his uncles, finding work as Food Inspectors at the time. These inspectors were responsible for the limited stocks - which were stored in 'go downs' - and distribution.
Fourthly, an offer of aid in the form of wheat from Canada was refused. India Office files which should have had information on this during the 1944 famine commission which was conducted in secret were missing.
So, was he a war hero and a racist?
Could it be that if Churchill had a lower opinion - to put it mildly - of Indians, he would have little compunction in taking decisions that caused the deaths of possibly a million people. He famously once said, "I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion." I would argue he was probably a war hero and a racist.
One final area to clear up is the number of deaths. Mukerjee's final chapter states:
The population of Bengal in January 1943 was 61.8 million. The mortality rate that year was 6.5 per cent which gives a total of 4 million deaths in 1943. From this figure must be subtracted 2.5 million baseline deaths. That gives 1.5 million for the famine toll in 1943. Doubling this figure, because death registrations were roughly symmetric around December 1943, provides a famine total of around 3 million......... One thing is clear, the figure of 3 million does not include all fatalities from shortages of food because deaths from malnutrition were occurring even in so-called normal tears. If for comparison we were to use the death rate of 2.1 per cent that was the norm for India (rather than Bengal) in 1942, the famine toll would be 5.4 million.