Thursday, 1 June 2017

In search of sunny optimism for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn

Today's Guardian has a wonderful piece by Alan Johnson headed 'Alan Johnson's Sgt Pepper pilgrimage' in which he remembers the album and revisits Liverpool. It would be very easy to dismiss it as nostalgia, but it taps into the topical and present day in unexpected ways.

What caught my eye was the following paragraph:

As Ian MacDonald said in Revolution in the Headthe greatest of all books about the band: 'Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture. A sunny optimism pervaded everything and possibilities seemed limitless.'

Now I cannot claim to have been a Beatles fan at the time. I liked their music and, as people, they always held my attention. My first wife bought their albums, so I heard their songs regularly, my favourite from the moment I heard it was Eleanor Rigby and it remains so fifty years on. I was more into Joan Baez and folk, but whatever your musical tastes at the time, the words of Ian MacDonald were, and remain, true, especially the last sentence, which bears repeating:

'A sunny optimism pervaded everything and (the) possibilities seemed limitless'.

1966 was the year I moved from Wembley to South Harrow with my first wife, Tricia. We had married in 1965 and spent our first year together living with my maternal grandfather, my grandmother having died in 1960. I grew up with my grandparents, my mother unmarried until 1953, then starting a new family with my step-father, 'Uncle Jimmy'. Somehow I never saw myself fitting in, so I stayed with Nanna and Pop, as I called them.

Tricia and I both left school at fifteen and, thanks to Tricia's tenacity, saved enough money so we could put down a £300 deposit on a semi-detached house which cost us just over £3,000. In 1966, we were earning about £32 a week between us.

Today that seems eye-popping stuff, but it was still the same in 1975 when Susan and I bought our first house together in Mansfield with a similar deposit and for a few hundred pound more. Then, we were earning about £60 a week between us.

There were then schemes for low earners whereby the income tax relief came off the mortgage payments instead of being a tax allowance.

What we don't hear folk reminiscing about is how much it cost in the mid-1960s and into the 1980s to buy a TV, a washing machine or a car, to name just three 'luxury' items. TVs and washing machines were rented for about 35p a week (7/6d then).

The world was different then in many ways. I didn't know Nottingham until the early-1970s, but this photograph is dated August 1965 and comes from The Prestige Series Nottingham 2 by John Banks with photographs by G H F Atkins and published by Venture Publications in 2002. Sadly the book is out of print, but the occasional second-hand copy can be found. It is a truly wonderful collection of photographs showing Nottingham old trams, trolleybuses and buses. What makes them so good is the street scenes like the one above. August and most folk are wearing thick coats. How different to now.

To go with the music we had Harold Wilson, his 'The white heat of technology' speech a couple of years before, plus the prospect of what it offered; North Sea oil and, to cap it all, we won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966. Harold Wilson went up and down the country enthusing us with visions of a future offering more leisure and automation making live easier for all. 'Let's go with Labour' was the slogan.

Roy Jenkins is reviled by many, but I knew the man personally for a good few years, because I was a Labour city councillor living in Stechford, Birmingham. I did not agree with him over Vietnam, but when it came to social reform he led the charge, pushed along by a sea of great Labour politicans, names few remember today: Sydney Silverman, Fenner Brockway, Dick Crossman plus, of course, Barbara Castle, Derek Healey, Dick Crossman, Jenny Lee to name just a few.  As I saw somewhere recently, Harold Wilson stood on the shoulders of giants. Hanging was abolished, we got votes at 18, Homosexuality legalised, The Open University, so the list goes on. No wonder 'a sunny optimism pervaded everything and (the) possibilities seemed endless'.

I wish I could say 2017 feels full of sunny optimism. I want it to be, and I am beginning to think that Jeremy Corbyn might just have the makings of Harold Wilson MkII. Shame on me for doubting.

I still believe this general election is a mistake, and I am suspicious of media talk about the closing gap between Labour and the Conservatives in the polls. This election, like 2015, is all in the demographics: Facebook and Twitter etc belong to the young and the chattering classes. Oldies like me may do Facebook, but most seem to blog like me.

Us oldies are damned before opening our mouths as Mayite Brexiteers, when many of us are more left-wing and less accepting of austerity than the young who condemn us.

For the remainder of the campaign I'm going to promote sunny optimism. Here's my attempt at a logo. I'm sure someone can do better than me!

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