When Labour was Labour, and Willesden welcomed back its heroes
NOT only has Labour's annual conference become largely a combination of ministerial photo op and trade fair, but it seems the media have chosen the "up and coming" man whom they think might be next Party leader. We did get a brief soundbite tonight of Tony Woodley, my union leader, suggesting renationalisation of utilities like water, gas, and electricity, as distinct from failing banks; but before viewers started getting the idea politics could be interesting and relevant, there was some hack shrugging off what the unions were saying, and introducing us to the supposedly lovable David Miliband mouthing vacuous phrases about "change".
No wonder Labour veteran Tony Benn has told us he is giving the party conference a miss this year to attend the rival Convention of the Left, also being held in Manchester. I dare say some more devout -or careerist - Labour types will tell us the Convention cannot take any decisions or change government policy. And the Party conference...?
I'm not at either, because I'm attending the Oval cricket ground this week, not for the thwack of leather on willow by flanneled fools, but the opening of the inquest on Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on a tube train at nearby Stockwell Underground. On Wednesday, members of the Metropolitan Police are expected to start giving their evidence. It might seem an open and shut case, as Coroner Sir Michael Wright has told the jury their task is to ascertain facts, and we know the cause of death, seven bullets in the head. But Sir Michael also told them not to make any plans between now and Christmas.
On Wednesday evening however I will be thinking about some other shootings, and recalling the days when Labour, and the labour movement, was very different, as Brent Trades Union Council in north-west London has invited Dave Chapple, from Bridgwater, to come and speak to us about Kilburn-born Howard Andrews, who died aged 101 in Taunton in May this year. A lifelong trade unionist and socialist, Howard - known to friends as 'Andy' - was one of the first to go from Willesden area (now part of Brent) to help the fight against fascism in Spain. He served in a frontline medical unit.
Hearing that Dave was interviewing and writing about Andy, someone anonymously sent him a photocopy of a little programme produced for the event which Willesden Borough Labour Party, Trades Council, and Spanish Aid Committee held in Pound Lane School on Saturday, March 18, 1939. to welcome home local members of the British Battalion in the International Brigade.
Howard is listed as Keith Andrews - he had used his brother's name - and there were also George Cornwallis, John Ducksbury, Morgan Havard, Harold Horne, Charlie Hunt, J.Russel, Alec Unthank, Danny Doyle and A.Moulton - who was to reply on the Brigaders' behalf to the welcome from deputy mayor Alderrman WH Ryde, in the chair. The Hendon Left Singers were to perform, and also billed were MP Sydney Silverman, nurse Lillian Urmston, and Maurice Orbach, then a London County Councillor, later MP for Willesden East.
The event was to finish with the Spanish national anthem and the Internationale (when did you last hear that sung at a Labour Party gathering?)
The programme also had a roll of honour, remembering Ben Murray, trade unionist, killed on the Aragon front; Sam Pearson, a Cambridge graduate, mentioned in despatches, who fell on the Ebro; John Unthank, killed in the battle of Jarama; John Stevens, a young trade unionist captured by Moorish troops at Jarama and shot; and Robert Blair, also mentioned in despatches, whose fate was not known since he had been cut off behind enemy lines on the Aragon front.
Those were desperate times, and they were courageous men, and whatever we might think of the kind of political leadership to whose banner they were tied, we can only hope that a fraction of their spirit lives on, especially in these days of economic crisis and fascism again rearing its head.
Thanks to whoever sent the copy of that programme, and hopefully we may yet meet, and see the original, and see if we can get a better reproduction than I've been able to use
Meanwhile if anyone wants to meet Dave Chapple and hear about Howard Andrews, and you are in London on Wednesday evening, September 24, the Brent TUC meeting is at the Trades Hall (under the Apollo Club) , 375 Willesden High Road, NW10, near Willesden bus garage, the nearest tube is Dollis Hill, and the meeting starts 7.30pm.