Friday, 9 September 2011

The Sins of the Father?

Police and unemployed marchers clash in Old Market, 1932
In an article for Bristol 24-7 called “Confessions of a failed Bristol rioter” I described the anger my father, a council tenant, felt at the rioting that took place in St Paul's in 1980. He didn't know that his 15 year old son sympathised with the rioters, let alone that he had tried to join them.

Nevertheless, my father was concerned about his son being "led astray" by others, and when I left school (without any qualifications) it was my father who arranged for me to get a "proper job" working as a labourer laying bitumen-sealed felted roofs (a skill which came in handy recently when my garage roof sprang a leak).

It was also my father who later organised for me to attend a computer course, and encouraged me get a part-time job as a postman so that I could still contribute to the family's income (I apologise now to the residents of the Turtlegate Avenue area of Withywood for the poor state of their postal services in the 1980s).

As a direct result of that one course, I ended up working for two very successful IT companies before starting an independent business consultancy and now working as a campaigner for a charity that aims to improve the pedestrian environment (I also occasionally do some political campaigning for my local Green parties).

However, IF a policy that council tenants should lose their homes if a member of the same household was involved in the recent riots had been in place in the 1980's, and IF I had managed to be more "successful" in my efforts to riot as a teenager, then that history would have been very different.

The sins of the son would have been visited upon the father (and the mother and a younger brother and sister) in the form of eviction from their council home, and it is likely that, as a result, the bonds between concerned father and rebellious son may well have been irretrievably damaged.

It is very unlikely that the lesson I would have learnt from the eviction of my family would have been one about the benefits of contributing positively to society – after all I would have just seen how my father, who had contributed positively to society all his life had been rewarded for that lifetime of civility - with enforced homelessness.

Indeed the negative effects would have extended to my wider family because it is likely that my father may well have placed some of the blame with my maternal grandfather (Granfer), who, unlike myself, had been a “successful” rioter in his past.

Most young men, at some point in their life, experience a stage when they rebel against what their father represents. My father stood for law and order and a certain respect for the establishment, along with a belief that the pen would always prove mightier than the sword.

My own developing politics were more radical, less accepting of the existing order, and greatly informed by Granfer’s recalling of his experiences growing up in the 20’s and 30’s in slum conditions in the Old Market area. He felt that often the sword was the only thing that would force those in power to take any notice of those towards the bottom of society.

In 1932, as an unemployed 17 year old, Granfer heard that there was going to be a march to support calls for government funding of “public works” to provide jobs for the masses of unemployed resulting from the Great Depression - and for those jobs to be prioritised to those amongst the unemployed who had failed the “means test” and thus were deemed ineligible for benefits.

A route for this march had been pre-arranged with the police which would see them start from the Horsefair, proceed to Lawford’s Gate and then return via Old Market Street to the Council House in Corn Street where a petition would be handed in.

When the day came, some 200 demonstrators gathered, banners waving, near the Bridewell police station and began to march. When they reached Lawford’s Gate they had grown to some 2,000+ marchers. At this point, somebody in authority decided that the march must stop.

A double row of police, batons drawn, lined up across Old Market Street. When the marchers came face to face with the police, confusion reigned and, inevitably, fighting broke out. A second group of police stationed in a side street charged the crowd trapping some of the marchers.

Many of the marchers armed themselves; a building site nearby provided bricks and scaffolding poles, chunks of coal were taken from a coal cart for use as missiles, even carts loaded with vegetables were cleared as potatoes, turnips and other assorted greens were thrown at the police.

When Granfer returned home, bloodied but unbowed, it was to the hero-worship of his youngest brother, 9 year old Stan. I imagine that others might have been calling for Granfer, his father and mother, his brother and sister, to lose the "benefit" of their council owned home.

The authorities did eventually invest in “public works” in the 1930's – including the building of affordable housing and clearing the worst of Bristol's slums. Granfer found work building the new homes and, eventually, moved into one of them in Knowle West where my mum was born in 1940.

The country was now at war - a war that had its origins in the previous war and the impact of the demands for reparations and debt repayments that followed it. The sins of the fathers were being visited upon the sons.

At the beginning of August 1944, Granfer was in Normandy. Unbeknownst to him, his hero-worshipping younger brother Stan, now 20 and recently married was also in action just a few miles away. Great Uncle Stan was killed in action on the 1st August 1944 near Caen. The story told of his death was that he was killed because the equipment he had been issued with proved completely ineffective against the German tanks attacking his unit. 

After the war, Granfer returned to Bristol and bricklaying, this time building many of the houses on the new Hartcliffe estate in the 1950's once again including his own where he would spend the rest of his life, and where he would tell his eldest grandson about growing up in inter-war Bristol. There were no stories about the war – other family members filled in those gaps. 

However Granfer's experiences both before and during the war had left him with a intense hatred for the "ruling classes" who he felt had speculated to get rich in the 1920's contributing to the financial crash, and then in the 1930's had completely failed to recognise or prepare for the threat of war, resulting in the lives of British troops being needlessly sacrificed when their equipment and tactics were found to be completely outclassed.
If the council had really wanted to evict the person other than myself who was most responsible for my attitudes and actions during the rioting of 1980, then they would have had to knock on the door of an OAP who had fought for his country, losing his brother in the conflict, and had helped build many of Bristol's homes either side of World War II. .

But I suspect that evicting an old soldier might not have looked good, so instead they would have had to evict my father, the man who did his best to instil respect for law and order into his rebellious son and who felt dismay and anger at the rioting. The man who offered a more restrained counterbalance to the radicalism of Granfer. It is likely that if my family had been evicted from their home, I would have moved even closer to Granfer's views whilst railing against the injustice of my family being penalised for my actions.

But that's what happens when two-dimensional politicians offer simplistic populist responses to complex problems. They produce unsatisfactory and ultimately self-defeating reactions that simply store up further problems which bubble to the surface further down the line, when the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons.