Saturday 28 July 2018

Across the divide - mistrust, the Unions, Labour and an immigrant's story

There’s a song in the musical Oklahoma! titled, “The farmer and the cowman should be friends”.  I had no idea when I first saw the show of the antipathy between the ranchers and the cattlemen and while the lyrics ostensibly say they should be friends, it still highlights the distrust between the two groups. 

It may be too big a leap to write about the relationship between employers and the trade unions: most of the time they rub along reasonably amicably and it is only now and then that the relationship descends into acrimony – thankfully less often than it used to be.  

I have spent a bit of time recently sorting through some old papers as you will have seen from an earlier blog.  I have written a bit about my maternal grandfather’s military service in WWI but this is about his career starting as a craftsman and a trade union member and ending as the Chief Executive of a furniture factory and retail stores – and his changing relationship with the trade union movement.

He trained as a cabinet-maker in the East End of London before the war. His father was a cabinet-maker before him, no doubt training in Poland from where he emigrated in the 1890s.

Grandfather was a member of the Labour Union – it was then the “National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association” and he was a member of the East London United Branch.  The motto (I suppose it would now be a ‘mission statement’) was “Unity is strength” “Strength united is stronger”.  (Through a series of mergers, this is now part of the GMB.)

In the early 1920s, when my mother was a baby they decided to emigrate to South Africa and my grandfather was duly signed off from the Union “having paid all dues and demands”.

I know that he obtained employment in Johannesburg as a cabinet-maker as I have a reference provided by an employer.  How he transitioned from craftsman to entrepreneur I have no idea but I do know that he always had good relationships with the Unions and was highly respected in the trade.

One of the documents in the pile is a letter written by I assume the leader of (the South African) Federation of Furniture and Allied Trade Union offering apologies for not being able to attend my grandfather’s retirement reception. It is a very moving letter for a granddaughter to read – especially in the adversarial, aggressive and sometimes poisonous environment we live in today. 

As a Union man and a Labour supporter he would have been horrified at today’s betrayal of the Jewish community evidenced by the upsurge of anti-semitism from the left of the Labour party.

The history of my grandfather, his Polish parents and the rest of the family highlight the significant contribution made by immigrants, in this case Jewish immigrants, to the societies into which they move.  Of the eleven children there were several successful entrepreneurs, one corporate bigwig (in Canada) and Professor of Applied mathematics in the USA. 

They all made their way in the world. Immigrants are ambitious and resilient you see. 

I attach a copy of the letter. 

Monday 23 July 2018

Old papers, old documents, the RAF and Jan Smuts

I was having a bit of a clear out - that was the intention but, as usual, too much time spent reading things and looking at pictures to actually dispose of very much. When we left South Africa for good in the late 1970s my mother came with us and so did quite a bit of her memorabilia as she lived with us for the last few years of her life.  

We have disposed of all the little photographs of people we can’t identify and a few other bits and pieces but it is difficult to let go.  My children are very welcome to throw it all out when I have departed but I can’t.  

Amongst all the papers are some relating to her father’s military service, his early career and then retirement.  Born in the East End of London he served in WW1, enlisting in 2016 and ended up as a rigger in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) which was the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, under the control of the British Army. 

He was however, demobbed from the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF) at the end of the war after the RFC had merged with the Royal Naval Air Service.

The RAF is the world's oldest independent air force: that is, the first air force to become independent of army or navy control. There is a particular South African interest in this as General Jan Smuts (subsequently twice Prime Minister of South Africa) was largely instrumental in its formation.  

Smuts was invited by the then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to join the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917 and served until 1919. Lloyd George commissioned Smuts to report on two issues the second of which was air organisation generally and the direction of aerial operations.  Smuts reported: “the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate”. How prescient!

Given this new dimension he commented that it was important that the design of aircraft and engines for such operations should be settled in accordance with the policy which would direct their future strategic use. On this basis he recommended that an Air Ministry should be created which should supervise the merger of the two air services. This was accepted and Smuts was then asked to lead an Air Organisation Committee to put it into effect. This received Royal Assent from the King on November 29 1917. 

It is worth following the link below and reading about Smuts: an extraordinary intellect and career from very inauspicious beginnings.  His politics must be viewed of their time – certainly many of his beliefs sit uncomfortably today.  

Jan Smuts was the only person to sign both of the peace treaties ending both WWI and WWII. One wonders if his advice had been followed after the first war whether Germany would have followed the path it did.  

My father, a surgeon, gleefully told the following story many times. He volunteered to serve at the start of WWII (there was no conscription in South Africa and it was not a foregone conclusion that the government would join the Allies – see South Africa's entry into WWII ). He was initially stationed at what was then Roberts Heights, subsequently Voortrekker Hoogte, just outside Pretoria (the administrative capital of SA). One evening his commanding officer instructed him to go and see Prime Minister Smuts at the official residence in Pretoria.  On arrival the secretary apologised that the PM was running late.  She asked if there was anything he wanted and he asked to make a telephone call.  She indicated the chair behind the PMs desk and said to go ahead.  He then called my mother and said “You’ll never guess where I am sitting…..” 

Tuesday 3 July 2018

On the buses....Pamela to the rescue

Apparently most of the users of the buses are the old and retired and children and mothers with children. I certainly use the bus more often now that time is less of an issue and definitely in the tropical heat we are having now – some of the underground trains aren’t too bad but my line is like a sauna – even when empty.

I started the day in quite a philosophical mood. There is so much unpleasantness, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim behaviour etc that it reminded me that most of the time we rub along quite well. At the stop after mine an orthodox Jew with long beard, skull-cap and side curls came on board as did a boy – the same except for the beard. I heard Polish behind me and English in front of me. A couple of stops later several Muslim women wearing headscarves boarded, as well as a couple of young women wearing clothes the skimpiness of which took me aback. Then two young women with pushchairs – one black and one Japanese and everyone made way for each other and I thought that most of the time London is a wonderful place.

I decided to take the bus home – have book, don’t care how long it takes.  As we neared Lords Cricket Ground the driver announced that the road was closed due to a burst water main and the bus would follow a diversionary route along Abbey Road. 

For Beatles fans that is where the famous recording studio was and people come from all over the world to be photographed crossing the pedestrian crossing (as in the album cover below) and to write graffiti on the wall.  If you are driving this can hold you up considerably.

We trundled along and the bus then turned up Belsize Road to make its way back to Finchley Road (the main road). It is a six-way junction and to those unfamiliar with the area there are three possible turnings, the middle one being a dead end. That’s the one he took. We reached the dead end and he started to reverse back down the road (yikes).  This is a narrow road with only enough room for the bus, cars parked on either side. 

I went up to him and said that he should turn left into the road we had just passed on his way back down and then could turn right at the end and get to the main road.  

He wouldn’t speak until he had stopped the bus (quite correct) and then looked extremely dubious. I pointed to the block of flats on our left and said, “See that flat at the end? That’s where I used to live”.  He was still sceptical even after I told him the road was wide enough – so did a sprint half way up and came back.  “Stay here”, he said, and off we went again. Apparently the only instruction he had was to turn left not which of three streets to turn left into.

My good deed for the day.

Sunday 1 July 2018

Rescue Monkey

This is rescue monkey – you may know him as Curious George but in our house he rushes to the rescue. I have no idea where he came from but he has been living in a wicker box in the spare room with various accumulated toys, crayons, pavement chalk, jigsaw puzzles and other bits and pieces accumulated over the years and kept for visiting grandchildren.

The first time George sprang into action was when a grandson (now a hulking six foot rugby player) forgot teddy when he slept over.  Short of driving to his parents’ house to find teddy, I scrabbled around in the toy box and found rescue monkey.

The story goes that he lives in the toy box and is quite lonely so looks forward to getting out and spending some time with a cuddly child.  Fortunately it worked and it worked again last night with the youngest of our grandchildren. He even joined her in the kitchen for breakfast and colouring in.  Whew!

PS I stopped writing my blog late last year.  The world was so awful that all I felt like doing was ranting.  This is daft because our family life has been good, we have had celebrations and successes which we have enjoyed but I was finding it too difficult to separate the personal from the political.  I am not sure that the world has improved but I am trying to be a little calmer.  Maybe rescue monkey should stay out of the toy box.