Friday, July 31, 2015

Not all Angels, but Not Just Victims Either.

MATCHGIRLS,1888 strike lit way for new trade unionism.

REBEL councillor Minnie Lansbury on way to arrest and jail, 1921

"ANGEL OF CABLE STREET", Dr. Hannah Billig

CABLE Street, in the East End of London, entered the pages of history on October 4,1936, when police attempting to force a way through for Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirt fascists ran into resistance, barricades, and unpleasant objects such as the contents of chamber pots hurled at them from the upper storeys of houses. 

A much larger crowd was waiting at Gardners Corner. Eventually,though heads were bloodied and arrests were made, the police, or the Home Secretary, decided to call it a day. Mosley was told his march was off,and he should pack up and go home. Many an East Ender had stories to tell of what they had been part of that day, and most of the legend they handed on to their young were true.

But if the Battle of Cable Street has rightly been remembered, the "Angel of Cable Street" deserves her place in history too,   Born in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields, in 1901,and growing up around Brick Lane, Hannah Billig, the daughter of refugees from Czarist Russia, qualified as a doctor in 1925, and worked in hospitals before setting up her surgery in a Georgian townhouse at 198 Cable Street in 1935. A blue plaque there commemorates her work. Soon the lady doctor riding around to visit people, on her bike with her big black bag, became a familiar sight. She always seemed to have time for the local kids, whether ill or not. And in those pre-NHS days she would see to the patient first, and worry whether they could pay later, if at all.  Sometimes she would pay for medicines out of her own pocket.

During the Blitz on London, Dr. Billig took care of the sick and injured in the air raid shelters in Wapping.  On March 13, 1941, she was tending to people at Orient Wharf  when an explosion threw her out of the shelter and broke her ankle. After bandaging it herself, she helped to get the others out of the rubble, and cared for them through the night.

For her courage and bravery, Billig was awarded the George Medal. Not content with this service, Hannah joined the Indian Army Medical Corps in 1942 as a Captain and was posted to Calcutta. For her work with injured soldiers and refugees in Assam, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1945. The story goes that she apologised for being unable to collect her decoration at the Palace because she was too busy with her patients.  She carried on in the new NHS until her retirement.
Hannah Billig is one of many brave and outstanding women made what they became by their experience in London's East End, but making their own mark on history,and the prospects of future generations.  It was here that Eleanor Marx helped the gas workers organise, and Sylvia Pankhurst turned from women's suffrage to workers' revolution, her follower Minnie Lansbury going on to play a leading part in the Poplar council fight.  Not all the makers of history were particularly famous. We can't give the names of all the Bryant and May "matchgirls" who lit the way for the new trade unionism at the end of the 1880s, or the women who stood their ground united in the Stepney rent strikes of the 1930s, creating in their own way yet another barrier to fascist aims of divide and conquer.

But all deserve to be remembered.

 So when a new museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ got planning permission to open on Cable Street, that seemed only right, and commendable,something to look forward to.

The original application for the museum said: “The museum will recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history, telling the story of how they have been instrumental in changing society. It will analyse the social, political and domestic experience from the Victorian period to the present day.”

The document cited the closure of Whitechapel’s Women’s Library in 2013 to stress that the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it was billed, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history”.

But what has actually opened on Cable Street has turned those apparently virtuous intentions into a sick joke.  Instead of commemorating the matchgirls' strike of 1888, this museum is dedicated to the life of  Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who viciously murdered women across London's East End, from 1888 and 1891.  The founder (a former Head of Diversity at Google) claims "It is not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place”.

This is rubbish. The Ripper's victims may have turned to prostitution in order to live, but they were not to know they would fall victim to a psychopathic murderer who managed to evade detection and whose identity remains a matter of mystery and speculation to this day. Critics of the new museum see it as victim-blaming, as well as treating victimhood as the only role for women, quite the opposite of the kind of history we have cited.

Besides which, it is pretty evident that what was promised in the planning application and what has been delivered are very different things. The new museum, with its sign depicting the supposed Ripper as a black silhouetted figure in Victorian costume on a rose pink background, is turning what may be a legitimate historical and criminological interest into an entertainment for tourists. Besides the implications of treating real-life murders this way, it insults all East Enders, though especially women, by treating the area as a mere backdrop for psychopaths and killers.

A petition is now under way, calling on Tower Hamlets council  to revoke the planning permission for the new museum on Cable street or force it to close down and re-open as the women's history museum we were promised.

About Hannah Billig:

 Sign the petition to Tower Hamlets council:

 Learn some real East End history on the streets where it happened:

And read Dave Rosenberg's book "Rebel Footprints":

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Don't let Netanyahu finish Iran nuke deal. Instead make it the start

NETANYAHU scare tactic misfired.  So will he try again?

THE international agreement under which the Iranian government renounces the production of nuclear weapons and allows international inspection, in return for which it gets a relaxation of sanctions, is a major achievement for US President Barack Obama.

It is a humiliating setback for Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. From getting Tel Aviv children to crouch under desks in air raid drills, to treating the UN General Assembly as children, Netanyahu has done everything to whip up fear and hysteria about a supposed Iranian threat.  We were told Iran was near to having the bomb, and planning to use it, even though Israel's own intelligence chiefs doubted this was the case. Past remarks by former Iranian president Ahmadinejad about erasing the Zionist state were interpreted with the help of Israel's friends in the media as meaning the Iranians were intent on a nuclear Holocaust.

It would not take more than elementary knowledge of geography to realise that any such use of nuclear weapons against Israel would destroy al Aksa and slaughter large numbers of Muslims, leaving Palestine a radioactive wasteland rather than a homeland to which Palestinians could return.

But logic does not figure much in war psychology.  The threat from Iran was to be used not only for unity at home, circling the wagons, and stilling Jewish dissent by evoking a supposed new Hitler; but to let Israel pretend to the world it is the victim, threatened with annihilation, even as its bombs rained down on Gaza and Lebanon, and its government prepared new ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians.

Besides which, Israel remains the one nuclear power in the Middle East, neither admitting nor denying it, but not allowing international inspection, nor allowing nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu the right to travel and speak abroad.    

Under the deal secured with Iran, its government agreed to:
  • Halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity.
  • "Neutralise" its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium.
  • Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium).
  • Allow international inspection of nuclear facilities. 

See also:

In return the six states which took part in the Vienna talks with Iran will:
  • Not impose further nuclear-related sanctions.
  •  Suspend certain sanctions on trade.
  • Transfer $4.2bn (£2.6bn) to Iran in installments from sales of its oil.

In response to a complaint by Netanyahu that Iran was being "rewarded" with billions of dollars, opponents pointed out that Iranians were merely being allowed to receive the money they have earned, unlike the billions which Israel receives in US aid.

In Tehran suburbs, ordinary Iranians who have been suffering the effect of sanctions in scarcity, job losses, and price inflation, were celebrating the good news this Eid.
In Washington, President Obama said the deal “will make America and the world safer and more secure”. He used his weekly address to Americans on Saturday to build support among voters, ahead of a vote in Congress and against Republican opposition.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who took part in the Vienna talks, told Parliament on Wednesday that "no agreement with Iran would have been enough for Netanyahu. Israel prefers a permanent state of standoff (with Iran)."  Hammond, due to discuss the deal with Netanyahu, added  the Israeli prime minister would try to undermine the deal through influence with the US Congress, but predicted this would fail. He said he was hopeful that the UK and Iran could reopen their respective embassies before the end of this year. 

While Netanyahu has been pre-occupied with the supposed threat from the Islamic republic in Iran, Western powers have shown increasing alarm at the real threat from the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", ISIL, or Da'esh. Whatever suspicions there were that the US and Saudis might sponsor Sunni and Wahabbi militancy as an asset, this ruthless and well-armed force has threatened the Saudi regime and carried out massive attacks on Egyptian forces in Sinai. And while Netanyahu and his mouthpieces could only attack ISIL in propaganda crudely lumping Hamas and Hizbollah together with this new barbaric force, we know that Hizbollah, an Iranian ally, is fighting ISIL in Syria, and that ISIL has threatened boastfully to destroy Hamas.

It was revealed this weekend that RAF pilots are flying combat missions against ISIL forces, not only in Iraq but in Syria too. Many people on the Left and in the peace movement have protested that this goes against the vote in Parliament last year not to intervene in Syria. But what we might note here is that back then the government wanted to go to war on Syria and oust President Assad, whereas now British forces are being deployed on the same side as Assad's backers, Iran, which also has forces fighting ISIL in Iraq.

Philip Hammond is not the only European Foreign Minister telling Netanyahu to calm down and behave. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German broadcaster ARD in an interview on Wednesday that "this is a responsible deal and Israel should also take a closer look at it and not criticize the agreement in a very coarse way.”

In Israel too, though Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners and the "opposition" Labour Party might be drawn behind him, not everyone agrees. More than one said Netanyahu had already alienated the US government and continuing to interfere in Congress would only make things worse.

Veteran political columnist Akiva Eldar writes:

'A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who has been closely following the Iranian issue in recent years, discussed with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Israel’s ability to influence ratification of the agreement by its signatories. “Bibi [Netanyahu] knows full well that the agreement was signed between Iran and six [world] powers, and not just with the US,” he said. “Everyone understands that Russia, China and Germany will not sign off on what Congress does.” He described Netanyahu’s opposition to Obama as “uncontrollable and political,” and that he is convinced that the prime minister’s moves in Congress will fail, as did the Israeli attempt in 1981 to thwart the sale of advanced warning AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

“I will tell you something that they don’t tell you in the Foreign Ministry,” the official said. “The agreement looks good to anyone not engaged in governmental public diplomacy. That includes the [military] chief of staff and many senior officials in the intelligence community. We understand that the Iranian threat has been deferred for a far longer time than we ever imagined in our rosiest dreams, with minimal danger for Israel.”

'He added, “Not only that, the agreement creates superb opportunities, which must be and can be used, if done correctly, of course. For instance, Iran will have a vested interest in maintaining calm in the near future, and Europe and the United States can be used to pressure it to rein in Hezbollah in arenas where it operates against us — on the Golan Heights and abroad.” '

Whatever Netanyahu and his sponsor in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson, are able to do by meddling in Washington, hopefully Britain and others - not least China and Russia - will make it clear that they are sticking by the Vienna agreement and not going to tolerate an Israeli war threat or a return to sanctions.

Here in London, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament welcomed the deal and said it showed how tensions in the Middle East could be reduced by diplomacy.

I'd take things further.  The best way to make this agreement hold, and convince Iranians and everyone else they've made the right move in renouncing nuclear weapons is to be consistent.
Make the war-torn Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone, as Mordechai Vanunu has long urged, removing this sword of Damocles from hanging over all its peoples, as part of aiming for a peaceful world for everybody.

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Nasty business in Bromley

Eviction threat to diabetic carer and daughter

 AS a responsible council worker and trade unionist, Paul Rooney thought it his duty to criticize the policy and workings of Tory-controlled Bromley borough council.

As well he might. Bromley is closing libraries and other services - a day care centre for disabled adults is next in its sights,  - with little or no consultation or concern for what service users and workers think.  It isn't just a matter of saving money. It's policy. The Tory council plans to cut its workforce from 3000 to 300. Critics say it has over £150 million in its reserve fund alone, yet is still refusing to spend this.

Like their counterparts on Barnet council over in north London, the Bromley councillors not only want to cut services to a minimum but to become a commissioning body, farming out work and service provision to private firms who can make a profit.   

You'd almost think they'd be glad to see the back of Paul Rooney, when he gave up his job as a social work manager. 

As for the rumour that someone had said they were out to get Paul Rooney, if it reached him he probably shrugged it off.  What could they do? This is England. Leafy, respectable Bromley. 
Anyway, enough of rumours. Here's what's happening. A statement from Unite the union.

Eviction threat to diabetic ‘facing £51,000 council tax bill is cruel’, says Unite

The attempted eviction of a Bromley insulin dependent diabetic, who looks after his severely disabled daughter and was wrongly charged a total of £51,000 for his council tax bill by outsourcing giant Liberata, was branded as ‘ham-fisted and cruel’.

Unite, the country’s largest union, has rallied in defence of Paul Rooney, who gave up work as a social work manager to look after his 14-year-old daughter Roisin, as bailiffs today (Monday 13 July) descended on the home he owns at 22 Yew Tree Road, Bromley BR3 8HT to take repossession.

Liberata, which runs the council tax collection service on behalf of the controversial Tory-controlled Bromley council, claims that Paul Rooney allegedly owes just over £2,000 in council tax. Liberata, it is alleged, has also tacked on £49,000 in solicitors’ fees.

Unite said that the mistakes made by Liberata were in not processing his application for council tax benefit correctly and this resulted in the council tax not being paid on time – which the union said was ‘an astonishing cock-up and a catalogue of outrageous incompetence’.

Pilgrim Tucker said: “Bromley's notoriously bad outsourced council tax collection service has repeatedly messed up the processing of Paul’s council tax, and now his home is threatened with repossession today.

“Paul, a former Unite rep, gave up work to care for his daughter Roisin, who has a brain tumour and chromasome disorder, with consequent physical and learning disabilities.

“Liberata has presided over an astonishing cock-up and a catalogue of outrageous incompetence – it is shameful. It is ham-fisted and cruel.”

About 30 community activists from Unite and local residents were at Yew Tree Road in a bid to stop the bailiffs from evicting Paul Rooney and Roisin, who has a brain tumour, a chromasome disorder and, as a result, physical and learning disabilities. He gave up work to care for his daughter.

Unite’s London community co-ordinator Pilgrim Tucker said: “This is a horrific case that is inhumane and proves that the outsourcing of council’s services to the private sector is a shambles and they should be brought back in house immediately.”

Bromley council is fully committed to becoming a commissioning council and reducing the number of council employees from 4,000 to 300 – despite having £130 million in reserves. The accelerating privatisation programme has been opposed by Unite’s council members who recently staged a fourth wave of strikes over the plans.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab, who represents members at the council, said: “This appalling case just reinforces the case that Unite has repeatedly made that privatising council services has been a horrendous mistake.

“Our members at the council will continue to fight for the maintenance of decent in-house council services and the jettisoning of the deeply flawed privatisation agenda.”

On its website Liberata claims to be “a business process innovation company that helps customers reinvent complex services, transactions and processing. Our strategy is simply to create value with our customers by building better services for theirs.”

Bromley trades union council  as well as Bromley Unite members are rallying to the side of Paul Rooney, and have raised the issue in the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils (GLATUC). They are also supporting a lobby at the Civic Centre on Wednesday 15th July, at 6pm to defend the Astley Centre against privatisation.The Astley Centre provides essential support for adults with learning disabilities and it is now being hugely threatened by privatisation efforts.

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Clinton campaign undermined on the streets of Tegucigalpa

HONDURANS denounce corruption.  

WITH all eyes on Greece, and how far its people can defy the bankers, the IMF, the European Union's commissioners, and those Germans who insensitively forget how their occupation robbed Greece blind during World War II, and how the Federal Republic was rewarded with massive aid when it began re-armament in 1953....I wonder if I might be forgiven for trying to catch up on some events on the other side of the world?

The Greeks, of course, have experienced the limits of Western democratic tolerance before. In 1944, before the Nazis had finally been defeated, the Allies turned their guns on the main Greek Resistance movement, ELAS, because it was Communist-led, and Greece had to endure four years of civil war. Then in 1967 the colonels staged their coup, in accordance with a NATO contingency plan -though they might not have been the intended military group - rounded up opponents, and ruled for the next seven years.

If that was a shock for Europe, people in Latin America have been used to such interventions over the years, from US marines landing on their shores in the earlier half of the 20th century to recoup the bankers' losses, to the coup which overthrew Salvador Allende's government in Chile in 1973, and the US-armed Contra terror against Nicaragua through the 1980s and early 1990s.

So it is all the more remarkable today that not only are a number of countries refusing to be bullied by the great power to the north, and attempting policies of independence and social reform, but even people in some of the little 'banana republics' are gaining confidence, and getting results. Here's a report from a week ago: 

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – After weeks of thousands of people marching against the corruption in Honduras arrest warrant has been issued for vice-president of Congress, Lena Gutierrez, by the supreme court of Honduras. Gutierrez, along with 16 others, including her father and two brothers, have been charged with fraud, crimes against public health, and falsification of documents.
According to UPI: “Gutierrez and her family are linked to the AstroPharma Company that allegedly embezzled and defrauded the government out of about $120 million by selling poor-quality medicine at inflated prices.”

Gutierrez, who is a member of the governing National Party, has of course claimed innocence. She had previously made the statement that she will prove her and her family are not guilty of the accusations, however now that proceedings are underway, she has been advised to remain silent. Hernandez has also been accused in a corruption scandal dealing with social security. During his 2013 election campaign, he allegedly received about $90 million out $300 million that was skimmed from Honduras’s public health system. It is not yet known if President Hernandez will resign despite the protests.

An earlier report from Associated Press carried in the Guardian had said that "The protesters are upset over a scandal involving a purported multimillion-dollar embezzlement of social security funds, with some of the money allegedly going to finance the governing political party. Among other things, they are calling for President Juan Orlando Hernandez to resign.
"Organized via Twitter with hashtags including one that translates as “resign JOH” – a reference to the president’s initials – the movement began recently as just a couple of dozen people at a torchlight vigil in the capital.

"It gradually picked up steam, and thousands marched through Tegucigalpa on Friday with similarly large protests in San Pedro Sula, Siguatepeque, Choluteca and Comayagua during the weekend.
The Honduran Public Ministry has said a network led by the then director of the Social Security Institute, Mario Zelaya, fraudulently misspent at least $120m during the 2010-14 presidency of Porfirio Lobo.

"The scheme allegedly relied on mark-ups topping 100% on goods and services such as medicines and pensions, with kickbacks then being paid by businesses that benefited. At least part of the money purportedly ended up in the hands of the National Party, which counts both Lobo and Hernandez as members."

The Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign and others this week circulated a message saying "
 Honduras' people are currently marching in the largest protests their country has ever seen, demanding an end to corruption in their country. These demands are growing week on week, but they need international support to pressure their government to acquiesce".

James Watson, a member of the very small UK-based NGO the Environmental Network for Central America, who is in Honduras at the moment, writes:
"Our press is increasingly reporting on this issue, but it is still receiving little attention. Honduras has been suffering repression since 2009 when a military coup brought its current National Party to power. The country is known as the murder, repression and corruption capital of the Americas. This year, Honduran press revealed evidence of millions of dollars stolen from their social security institute, and used partially to fund the last National Party election campaign. They have demonstrated that at least 3,000 people have died as a result, from lack of health care. This has ignited the "Indignados" movement, which represents a call from the people of Honduras for change. They are demanding a UN-backed International Commission against Corruption, but the corrupt president Juan Orlando Hernández is refusing calls. The UN has responded with a fact finding mission, but international pressure is required to press the National Party to listen to the protests, and to end the scandalous financial and military support that the UK, Europe, the US and Canada provide Juan Orlando.

In the background to what is happening in Honduras now are the circumstances in which the government came to power.

In the 5 a.m. darkness of June 28, 2009, more than two hundred armed, masked soldiers stormed the house of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.  (no relation to the fraud accused Mario Zelaya - CP) Within minutes Zelaya, still in his pajamas, was thrown into a van and taken to a military base used by the U.S., where he was flown out of the country.
It was a military coup, said the UN General Assembly and the Organization of American States (OAS). The entire EU recalled its countries’ ambassadors, as did Latin American nations. The United States did not, making it virtually the only nation of note to maintain diplomatic relations with the coup government. Though the White House and the Clinton State Department denounced only the second such coup in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War, Washington hedged in a way that other governments did not.
“If you want to understand who the real power behind the [Honduran] coup is, you need to find out who’s paying Lanny Davis,” said Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador, just a month after the coup. Speaking to Roberto Lovato for the American Prospect, Davis revealed who that was: “My clients represent the CEAL, the [Honduras Chapter of] Business Council of Latin America.”

President Zelaya had been promising measures to assist the poor in Honduras. He had also been moving too close to states like Bolivia and Venezuela for the US liking. Nevertheless the official US position was against the coup.

Press Statement
Ian Kelly
Department Spokesman
Washington, DC
November 27, 2009
The United States remains committed to help restore the democratic and constitutional order in Honduras in the wake of the June 28 coup d’état that removed President Zelaya and led to the suspension of Honduras from the Organization of American States. As part of that effort, we expect the parties in Honduras to implement the measures they agreed to in the Tegucigalpa-San Jose Accord, including steps toward national reconciliation and the December 2 Congressional consideration of President Zelaya's restitution. We look forward to the Congressional deliberations getting underway as announced. 

But e-mails obtained between top Washington officials reveal a different picture. In the run-up to Honduras elections in 2009, with Zelaya exiled, anti-coup opponents were murdered, rallies and newspapers suppressed, and there was suspicion of widespread rigging. But here was then Assistant US Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who had been in Honduras before the coup, in an email to Hilary Clinton just after the November 29 election results were announced, which brought Porfirio Loba Sosa's National Party into office.

    The turnout (probably a record) and the clear rejection of the Liberal Party shows our approach was the right one, and puts Brazil and others who would not recognize the election in an impossible position. As we think about what to say, I would strongly recommend that we not be shy. We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today's vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people, and we should call on the community of democratic nations (and especially those of the Americas) to recognize, respect, and respond to this accomplishment of the Honduran people.
   Finally, this Administration, which worked so hard to manage and resolve this crisis, should be the one who defines the results and perceptions of today's vote, and not our critics on the Hill (who had no clear pathway to elections) or our adversaries in the region (who never wanted this day to happen).
In her book “Hard Choices,” Clinton admits that she used the power of her office to make sure that Zelaya would not return to office. “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico,” Clinton writes. “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”

Clinton reports that Zelaya was arrested amid “fears that he was preparing to circumvent the constitution and extend his term in office.”  But others say this was simply not true. As Clinton must know, when Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country in his pajamas on June 28, 2009, he was trying to put a consultative, nonbinding poll on the ballot to ask voters whether they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the constitution during the scheduled election in November. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. But this did not stop the extreme right in Honduras and the United States from using false charges of tampering with the constitution to justify the coup.

More details of Hilary Clinton's role in Honduras have come out.
 A new round of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as U.S. Secretary of State released last week, reveals her connection with backers of the 2009 military coup that toppled Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. According to an email exchange in the aftermath of the coup, Clinton requested the assistance of a prominent PR advisor Lanny Davis as a back-channel to Roberto Micheletti, the interim president after the coup. Davis was also an adviser to a group of Honduran businessmen who had supported Zelaya's ouster . The request came a week before Clinton brokered a deal to reinstall Zelaya through a national unity government. According to the Intercept, this was an attempt at undermining the democratically elected left-wing president while not explicitly endorsing the coup. The plan failed however as the legal vacuum left by the coup made the return of Manuel Zelaya impossible. The U.S. State Department continued to support and recognize what many considered fraudulent elections by the post-coup government, saying they were “free, fair and transparent.”
The renewed wave of popular demonstrations in Honduras have caused the first crack in the regime just as Thomas Shannon, now a Counsellor to Secretary of State John Kerry, was starting a visit to Central America, including Honduras.

And though too late to affect former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a post she no longer holds, the latest revelations of her duplicity, as well as the signs that what she helped put together is starting to crumble, should surely damage her campaign to run as the Democrats nomination for President?.  Of course she would not be the first liar in the White House. But the others were elected before they were found out.


By way of  a personal confession

BACK in the mid-Seventies, when I was briefly employed as a journalist on the "Foreign"(sic) Desk at News Line, I was instructed to always put datelines at the head of any story, just as they came in from Reuters or Interpress. Having seen my by-line "Charles Parkins" apparently reporting from ADDIS ABABA, TOKYO or PARIS, a comrade visiting from Up North complimented me on the amount of travel I was getting in, so soon after joining the paper. I expected to see a bigger than normal twinkle in her eye, thinking she must have noticed how the day before I seemed to be filing reports from two distant locations on the opposite sides of the world, on the same day. Not even Phineas Fogg could have managed it.
In reality, unlike my senior comrade Jack Gale who was dodging bullets in the hills of Lebanon at the time, I rarely got out of the Clapham office, and the nearest I got to exotic parts was when I was despatched to rural Ayrshire to find a bunch of Glasgow lads on a jobs march, and join them on the road to London.
I did on one occasion decide to use a story about Honduras, and confidently datelined it TEGUCIGALPA.  Alas our editor, a no-nonsense Aussie called Alex Mitchell (well, except when he was fed nonsense by Gerry Healy, which he pretended to almost believe), spotted it, and shook his head. I suppose the Vimto book, from which we educated Manchester and Salford lads had learned world capitals as boys, never penetrated his remote corner of Queensland. So out it came, and I was supposedly filing my story from MEXICO CITY.  Which was probably safer in those days.
Having reached a ripe old age without ever visiting Tegucigalpa, and not having an editor to tell me what I can and cannot put in my blog, I can at least fulfil an ambition, by quoting an item datelined TEGUCIGALPA, and putting it in my headline. Ah, freedom!  

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Blue Skies, Sir Nicholas, and Fair

ARRIVAL in a strange land. Sculpture at Liverpool Street station commemorates Kindertransport

 THANKYOU  letter to Nicholas Winton from some of the children he helped to reach freedom

THE death of Sir Nicholas Winton at 106 at least shows an exception to the saying that the good die young. He wasn't always a 'Sir' of course. In fact, though hundreds of people owed their lives to this quiet and modest man, it took half a century after what he achieved before his name became famous, and it was not until 2002 that he was honoured with a knighthood.

It was Sir Nick of course who organised the rescue of 669 children, mostly Jewish, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. This involved not only arranging for them to travel safely to Britain, but finding homes for them here, in a country that was not entirely welcoming to refugees, and whose government had been slow, indeed reluctant, to acknowledge the deadly menace represented by Nazism.

After the war, Nicholas Winton did not discuss his efforts with anyone. It was only in 1988 that his  wife discovered a scrapbook in their attic, with details of the children's parents and the families that took them in. That year the Esther Rantzen programme on TV brought some of these now grown children together with Nicholas Winton, and introduced his name to a wider public.
Nicholas Winton was born on 19 May 1909 in Hampstead, London, a son of Barbara (née Wertheimer) and Rudolph Wertheim. His parents were German Jews who had moved to London two years earlier. They changed the family name to Winton, in their bid for assimilation, and converted to Christianity. Nicholas was baptised, and in 1923 he was sent to the newly opened Stowe public school in Buckinghamshire.

Leaving school without qualifications, he nevertheless managed to get into banking, first with Midland and then working with banks in Germany and France, before returning to London to become a broker on the stock exchange.  Despite his immersion in capitalism, or maybe because of what he learned from it, the young stockbroker was also "an ardent socialist who became close to Labour Party luminaries Aneurin Bevan, Jennie Lee and Tom Driberg."

Just before Christmas 1938, Winton was planning a Swiss skiing holiday when one of his socialist friends, Martin Blake, asked him to come out to Prague instead, where Blake was working to help refugees. Many people fleeing repression and persecution in Nazi Germany and Austria had taken refuge in Czechoslovakia, which was now about to become the next victim of Nazi aggression and Western appeasement.  

On September 30, 1938, the British and French governments signed the Munich agreement, under which Hitler could begin cutting up Czechoslovakia to devour it. Chamberlain came home bearing his bit of paper promising 'peace in our time'. The British authorities were barring refugees and sending people back, and after the Nazis completed their conquest in March 1939, the Bank of England agreed to hand them the Czech gold reserve which had been sent to London for safe keeping.

But in November 1938, following the Kristallnacht state-organised pogroms in Germany, the House of Commons approved a measure to allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country. In the limited time he had after arriving in Prague, Nicholas Winton organised the scheme for parents to at least get their children out, on what became known as the Czech kindertransport.

The Dutch government had responded to Kristallnacht by closing its borders to Jewish refugees. 
Border guards were catching them and sending them back to Germany. The children were going to embark on the ferry from Hoek van Holland. Fortunately, with the help of guarantees from Britain, Winton was able to persuade the Dutch to relent, and the children were allowed through. Altogether some 669 children made it to Britain, where Nicholas Winton's mother was among those helping to find them homes. Many of these children would never see their parents or relatives again, as these fell victim to the Nazi murder and concentration camps. Another 250 children were due to leave Prague on September 1, 1939, when the Second World War had begun, and prevented their departure. Nearly all of the children on this last, unsuccessful, train perished during the war.

Nicholas Winton remained modest about the work he had done, acknowledging the part played by Beatrice Wellington, Doreen Warriner, Trevor Chadwick and others in Prague who also worked to evacuate children.  "Chadwick did the more difficult and dangerous work after the Nazis invaded ... he deserves all praise".

Among those who helped find shelter for children in England was Henry Fair, who worked in the Woodcraft Folk, a youth organisation dedicated to helping youngsters acquire a love of the countryside and nature, while instilling values of community and friendship.  Arising parallel to the Scouts, but with an affection for Native American lore, and distaste for militarism, and also mixing boys and girls in the same movement, Woodcraft Folk had grown close to the labour movement, especially its co-operative wing. It linked with the Red Falcons youth movement on the Continent.

But it was south Londoner Henry Fair particularly who took up the cause of the refugee children.
Woodcraft members and parents used to receiving communications from him about summer camps and hiking, usually signed off "Blue Skies", now received a letter about people being persecuted by the Nazis, and appealing for their help to find homes for the children. Fair's daughter would remember meeting refugees at the family's home in Tooting.

Here are two others who remember those days:
Zusana Medusova, writing in a Prague magazine in 1998:
"My father was already in hiding from the Austrian socialist, political editor of Vorwarts
, the daily paper of the Social democratic party...Of course he had to flee at once. ..the paper was forbidden and its editors were enemies of the new state! So, together with many other anti-nazi refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, Czechoslovakia was their first place of exile...Very soon the children of these refugees were formed into a youth group called Die Rote Falken...Some of us Rote Falken had attended an International youth camp in the summer of 1937. It was held in England, near Brighton. ..None of us could guess that two years later Britain would beome our new homeland.

"The organiser of this large camp - the head of the Woodcraft Folk - was a young married man, an idealist, keen trade unionist, humanitarian - we all love this man. He was eager to know from our youth leaders what was then the situation in Czechoslovakia and he kept in touch with them after our return from this wonderful holiday. When it became obvious that the Germans had their eye on their Czech neighbours Henry Fair wrote a pleading letter to all members of the Woodcraft Folk, asking them to volunteer to take some of the children whose parents were once again threatened by the Nazis. It must be said that these were working-class families and that, by taking a refugee child, they would certainly have to make financial sacrifices... none of us could imagine that we would never see our parents again - in my case out of 52 members of my mother's extended family, only eight survived two returned from the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen."

(Article from Rosh Chodesh magazine, quoted in Fashioning a New World: A History of the Woodcraft Folk, by Mary Davis).

Susanna Pearson, was born Susanne Ehrmann on 11 April 1928 in Moravska Ostrava, a town in Czechoslovakia… The family moved to Prague when she was four years old, for her father’s job

"My mother had many friends, loved parties and nice clothes. We were both members of the Rote Falcons, an international youth movement which had links with the Woodcraft Folk in Britain, Mother as a helper. I have happy memories of the camps we went to. At that time, we little knew that it was probably the membership of this organization that would save my life"

As the Nazis closed in, Susanne's parents and their Jewish friends were seeking ways to leave the country. "This was proving impossible as the world had closed its doors to Jewish refugees. However there were efforts made to bring out children, particularly by a British stockbroker called Nicholas Winton who was on holiday in Prague. He realized the plight of the Jews and resolved to do something. He gained permission from the British government to bring out children, providing he could find families to care for them and a guarantee of £50 per child for re-immigration. In this way he made it possible for 1,000 children to come to Britain. The start of the Second World War prevented the last transport train leaving, but nevertheless he was able to rescue about 680 children.

"The demand for places was very high, but I was probably given one because the Woodcraft Folk in England were able to offer 20 homes for Rote Falcons. They were prompted to do so having met up with some of us at a camp in Brighton in 1938. It is difficult to know how my parents felt when they learned that they had been successful in their application for me to be one of these children. I have often wondered, particularly when my own daughters were the age I was then. The decision my parents made to send me must have been a very brave and difficult one, because they knew they could not come with me. Nor did they know whether they would ever be able to join me".

"My transport left Prague on 29 June 1939 with about 241 children aged 2-15. I find it difficult to remember how I felt on that day when my parents took me to the railway station, and I became one of the children on one of the last trains to safety before the war started. Perhaps it seemed an adventure, and I certainly did not realize that I would never see my parents again…"

Susan concludes her account thus: "My own beliefs remain intact. My Jewishness is a positive part of myself, although I am not observant. I am on the left of politics, and like to think of myself as tolerant and anti-racist. My hope is that by telling my story, it will help young people to begin to understand what can happen to ordinary people when they become the victims of racism, discrimination and prejudice".

(extracts from Susanne Pearson’s account in Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, published by The Quill Press, in association with The Aegis Trust.  

The British Establishment may have attempted to ease its collective conscience, if it has one, or to make itself look better, by honouring Nicholas Winton with media praise and a knighthood, but what he did went against the grain of government policy at the time, and would be again. He was not really one of them, in fact we could almost claim him as one of ours.

The Woodcraft Folk has come to realise what a proud page in its history was written by Henry Fair and his helpers, and you can read some of the documents etc from the time on its digital archive,

Henry Fair moved to Somerset in later years, and became a councillor in Bruton. He died in 1999. Some years before that he had received what he considered the finest of compliments - the discovery that his name was on a Gestapo hit list of enemies to eliminate if they succeeded in invading Britain.

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