A few words for my dad…

My dad, Don Ryan, was a World War II veteran, London fireman, electrician, DIY superhero and the best dad anyone could wish for. He would have been 100 today. To mark his centenary, here’s the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral in 2009.

I would like to thank you all for being here today. At times like this, words are cheap. But they’re all we have. Words are my trade, and Dad loved words too. He was a big crossword man, scrabble too, and he had a particular fondness for puns – the cheesier the better. And he loved to regale us with obscure London slang – though I think he made some of it up.

A few words, then, for my Dad.

He had a long and happy life but it wasn’t always an easy life. Poverty, the great depression, and then war, made for a difficult start. 

A few weeks ago, I went to look for the house in West Norwood where Dad was born. It’s gone, of course, the site is now the Lambeth Council municipal dump. Dad laughed when I told him. ‘I’m not surprised,’ he said. ‘It was already falling down when I lived there.’

When Dad was born there was no TV to watch, no radio to listen to. Money was still made of silver and, as Dad would no doubt say, tea was still made of tea. No one had ever heard an electric guitar, put milk in a fridge or seen the West Indies play test cricket. 

In his lifetime, Dad saw four monarchs and 17 prime ministers. And I don’t think he was greatly impressed with any of them.

Dad wasn’t famous, but his was a big life, an important life. He was a modest man; he didn’t ask for any special recognition. ‘I was a bit of a coward, to be honest,’ he would say about some incident in the war. He never even bothered to collect his war medals and he wasn’t interested in ceremonies or reunions. He was quite happy to talk about the war, but his life was more than just that war. 

He knew war is a ridiculous situation in which to place human beings, and if you couldn’t laugh at war, see it for what it was, it would take over the rest of your life.

But let’s not forget Dad saw things that none of us can even imagine. 

Near the end of the war, Dad was with the Royal Armoured Corps advancing into Germany, when the Nazis sent batallions of old men and kids – some as young as 12 – to fight them. 

The old men, no fools, surrendered en masse. The kids, pathetically brave, did not. The British troops refused to fire on them. They had to use heavy artillery from behind the lines, so the gunners couldn’t see whom they were shelling. 

Dad thought he’d seen everything.

And then came the horror of the Belsen concentration camp – which he could hardly bear to talk about even sixty years later – where the survivors were so traumatized and hysterical that they had to be locked up again by the British troops who had liberated them.

Nothing in our lives can compare to those experiences. 

Dad also played a small part in the Cold War. In fact, I sometimes think Dad might have started the Cold War himself. 

In late 1945, he was stationed in Helmstedt, running a railway station right on the border between the British and Soviet zones of occupied Germany. The Russians were blocking an important convoy from Berlin, so Dad went across the frontier to see the Soviet Commissar at Marienborn, to try to persuade him to let the train through. 

‘Nyet, Comrade,’ said the Commissar. 

Dad went off and came back with his interpreter, a six-foot-six guardsman nicknamed ‘Lemon’. He waited on the platform while Lemon went into the office to speak to the Commissar. After few minutes of shouting, the Commissar crashed through the plate glass window and landed on the platform on his backside, pursued by Lemon, who stood over him, abusing his paternity in Russian. 

The Soviets let the train through – grudgingly – but it’s probably a good thing for all of us that Dad’s methods of diplomacy weren’t used more widely in the decades that followed.

In the 1970s, Dad crossed the Iron Curtain again to work in Eastern Europe. He would spend weeks on end in such mysterious places as Moscow, Prague and Sofia. Some Russian engineers even visited our house in Frimley, accompanied by their KGB minder. 

In the paranoid atmosphere of the 1970s, this led some of my schoolfriends to think that Dad was a Soviet spy. We were Labour anyway, so it wasn’t hard to make that leap in some people’s minds. When the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was murdered with a poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in 1978, one of my friends asked me – quite earnestly – if Dad had anything to do with it. 

The funny thing was, and this says something about the tragicomedy of the Cold War, no one seemed that bothered. I never told anyone Dad was a spy. But I didn’t deny it either.

Dad was many things in his life. But being a husband, father, and a good friend, was what he excelled at and enjoyed most. 

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks, but I can never think about Dad for long without smiling.

The ridiculous sideburns he sported during the 1970s. The Denis Healey eyebrows he always refused to trim. The glint in the Eric Morcambe glasses askew on his face. His Shirley Temple fancy dress outfit that made him look like Miss Piggy.

However you picture him, I’m sure what you’ll remember most is his good humour, his optimism, his warmth and his sheer humanity. 

The way he always saw the good side of things and the best side in people. 

How he took things as they came, and people as they were.

And how his remarkable life was so rumbustious and full of fun.

But let’s not be sad for more than a few moments when we think of Dad.

When he died, I felt that everything associated with Dad was already falling indelibly into the past.

He meant, quite literally, the world to me.

But the past never leaves us, and neither do the memories of those we love. The past is always part of the present, and our lost loved ones become part of who we are, now and for the rest of our lives. 

We began with words and I’ll end with one word.

This is something I was reading the night before Dad died. It’s from the novel Underworld, by the great American writer – Dad’s namesake – Don DeLillo. And it’s somehow become associated in my mind with Dad’s life and with my own. So I’d like to share it with you.

You glance out the window for a moment…and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meaning, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself forever outwards, the tone of repose, the tone of hail and farewell…a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.


Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997), p827

Thank you for listening and may peace be with you.

Three words that won it

Ten reasons why “take back control” was probably the most devastatingly effective political slogan of modern times.

Looking back on last month’s EU referendum, my hunch is that the “take back control” message probably swung it in the last week. As a political message it had everything — all packed into three words. I don’t know if this was a stroke of genius on the part of someone at Vote Leave or just a happy (for them) accident. Although it was never actually printed on their publicity material, here’s ten reasons why “take back control” was probably the most devastatingly effective political slogan of modern times. 

1. It’s irrefutable

How could you not want to take back control? What’s your counter-argument: “Less control, more impotence!”? “Better off with someone else in charge”? To argue against it you have to waffle on about “pooled sovereignty” or “sharing control”, or you have to say something that sounds downright peverse. Either way, you lose. 

2. It’s tangible

How clever to replace the abstract concept of “sovereignty” with the much more solid and immediate “control”. People have to think about what sovereignty means, and then you’re into a discussion. But everyone knows what it means and feels like to be in control.

3. It’s flattering

No one ever won an election by telling people they were shit. It says “you’re more powerful than you think”, “you can do this”. At a time when people feel increasingly powerless, telling them that they weren’t was incredibly powerful. 

4. It’s optimistic

Instead of assailing people with a lot of doomy statistics about how bad the EU is and how many migrants are going to arrive, “take back control” simply told people that a better future is in their own hands. John Lanchester has written brilliantly about how most working people feel bewildered and powerless in the post-crash world. “Take back control” seemed to offer both an explanation and a way forward. 

5. It’s nostalgic

The “back” was important. Nostalgia is very powerful because it’s reassuring. When proposing a radical change it’s much better to say we’re going back to something we had before. That way, it seems achievable and less of a leap in the dark. And it’s more tangible. For the same reason, “Bring Back British Rail” sounds much more attractive and doable than “take the railways back into public ownership”.

6. It’s empowering

It’s not us who will take back control, not the government, not even an abstract entity like “the British people”. YOU will take back control. This ties in very powerfully with the idea that the EU is remote and undemocratic, and carries the clear implication that individual people will somehow have more control over their lives. 

7. It’s grown up

It doesn’t promise free money, cheap beer or handouts. It says you are an adult, you can take responsibility for your and our future. It’s quite challenging in a way: “it’s up to you to make this work”.

8. It blames

No one was under illusions about who we would be taking back control from. The target was clear, and if you’re going to base a campaign on blame, it’s better to be clear about who you’re blaming: we had control, the EU took it, we want it back.

9. It’s short

There’s a saying in the copywriting world: “good things come in threes”. Many of most our most effective and memorable political slogans delivered their hit in just three words: “thirteen wasted years” (1964), “Labour isn’t working” (1979), “Labour’s double whammy” (1992) and “Britain deserves better” (1997) were all election winners. Although shorter (#TakeControl) and longer (“Let’s take back control”) variants were used on Vote Leave publicity material, it’s the three-word version recited by Brexit leaders that everyone will remember. It says just what it needs to say and no more. By contrast, can anyone remember the Remain campaign slogan? 

10. It’s not an argument at all 

“Take back control” doesn’t promise anything, doesn’t refute anything, doesn’t warn about anything. It doesn’t pretend to offer solutions. Like a mantra, it can be thrown back in the face of almost any argument, without making the speaker look too foolish. Probably the most effective way to sell anything is to make people feel good about buying it. “Take back control” was just a simple instruction to do something that would feel good. 

Photo: ChiralJon/Flickr.com

My thirty years of hurt and joy with Elvis

Long, digressive, funny and deeply moving, Elvis Costello’s stunning memoir is a sort of biography of popular music itself.

I still remember the day – it was 15 March 1986, an unusually warm early spring Saturday – when I walked into an Our Price record shop and saw that cover for the first time: a scruffily bearded man wearing a country and western shirt and a replica of the Imperial State Crown. The sleeve simply said “King of America” but Our Price had helpfully put a sticker on the front: “The New LP from Elvis Costello: PLAY LOUD”. I did – more times than anyone around me will care to remember. But we all grew to love that record. Even my Dad liked it.

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Private affluence, public squalor

Even in the most prosperous places, Britain is literally turning into a dump.

A few weeks ago, I went to a school reunion. The next morning, with a couple of hours to kill and a hangover to walk off, I drove over to my old school and retraced the two-mile walk home I used to make every day. The grounds of the school, a former comprehensive now rebranded as an “academy”, adjoined two small lakes (ponds really – everything looks smaller once you’re grown up), a stream and some small open fields, all of which were maintained by the local council as a public space. Although technically “out of bounds”, this was where we spent most of our lunchtimes.

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Remember — a right to buy is also a directive to sell

Conservative plans to force housing associations to sell off homes are a warning to all charities and social enterprises: toe the line – or else.

I am going to bang on about housing again. I’m probably going to bang on about housing until some Russian squillionnaire decides to launder his moolah by buying our east London maisonette (Crossrail’s coming soon, tovarishch!). At which point, we’ll be off and you’ll never hear from me on this subject again.

Almost everyone knows the government’s plan to force housing associations to flog off homes will make Britain’s (and especially London’s) housing crisis worse, not better. Almost everyone knows the replacement houses won’t get built – look what happened in Manchester, where only two out of 863 council houses sold off were replaced. Almost everyone knows less social housing will increase competition for privately rented hovels, forcing rents and prices ever higher for everyone. (Yes, I know about the existing “right to acquire” scheme – but the discounts are tiny and it’s had very little take-up.) 

So much for the consequences. But what about the policy itself? The effects will indeed be quite similar to the forced sale of council houses. But the politics behind it are quite different, and actually quite scary. “Right to buy” for council tenants was the state deciding to sell off a state asset for social policy reasons. The motives may have been suspect and the consequences disastrous, but it seems to me something a government with a democratic mandate was entitled to do. 

Housing associations are charities. They are not arms of the state. The new policy amounts to sequestration of their assets because their aims and purposes differ from those of government ministers. Most housing associations were not set up to facilitate home ownership (however laudable an aim that may be), still less the profiteering that will follow as sure as night follows day. They were set up to provide affordable housing for people in need. That is what philanthropists give their money for and it’s what volunteers and housing association staff work for. The government is saying it doesn’t like those aims and is prepared to use the full force of the law to make housing associations serve the social policy objectives of the Conservative party instead.

It’s deceitful to call the policy “right to buy” without admitting that someone’s right to buy is also someone else’s obligation to sell. And in a democratic society, rights and obligations are supposed to be universal. So why won’t private tenants have a “right to buy” and private landlords a corresponding “obligation to sell”? (The fact that many Conservative MPs are buy-to-let landlords might have something to do with it.) Giving rights and public money to tenants who have enjoyed subsidised housing while denying it to people who have borne the brunt of Britain’s brutal housing economics is simply perverse. 

But of course it is, because the policy has nothing to do with “rights” or extending home ownership. It’s about further reducing social housing, which Tories see as eating into the profits of private landlords and providing an electoral base for Labour and other dangerous lefties like UKIP.

It’s also a pretty naked attack on charities and social enterprise – the so-called “third sector”. Many Tories give money to the poor. Generally, they’re quite in favour of individual altruism, provided it’s on a modest scale. But the kind of grand, collective, entrepreneurial altruism which housing associations represent is beyond the pale. Charities that actually try to cure social problems rather than just alleviate the symptoms pose too much of a threat to their vision of a completely individualised and market-driven society. 

Many people see social enterprise, self-help and community action as a democratic and non-statist way forward for the left. Perhaps the Tories agree. The government’s “directive to sell” policy for housing associations looks their first attempt to block that way forward. It won’t be their last. 

Wake up or smell the coffin

Labour isn’t the whole left and it can’t do everything on its own. We need a progressive alliance to beat the Tories and change these islands for good.

The UK, with or without Scotland, now faces permanent Conservative government. Once the Tories have redrawn the constituency boundaries in their favour, it will be virtually impossible for Labour to win a majority in England and Wales on its own, and Scotland is no longer willing to ride to its rescue. Exit poll guru John Curtice says Labour needs at least a 12% lead south of the border to form a majority government – greater even than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 – and that’s without the boundary changes.

Nevertheless, retired Blairites like Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and Alan Milburn insist the party must return to the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. If only it were that simple. The three Ms ought to understand their own project better: New Labour relied on both a two-party system and the existence of a substantial number of “soft” Tories willing to consider voting Labour. That way, Labour could safely move to the right knowing that it’s “core” support among working class people had nowhere else to go. 

To borrow Jim Callaghan’s phrase, I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.

First, there aren’t that many soft Tories. The Conservatives polled only 36% in 2015, compared to the 43% in 1992. There are your soft Tories, right there in that 7%. Secondly, move to the right and Labour’s core voters now have other choices. The SNP tsunami in Scotland, the UKIP surge in the north and east of England and the more modest progress of the Greens in the south, shows they’re increasingly willing to exercise them. Slim pickings on the right and leaking votes to the left – pursue the New Labour strategy and the fate of the next Labour leader will look more like Nick Clegg’s than Tony Blair’s.

How does Labour solve this conundrum of having the be both more left-wing and more right-wing at the same time?

I don’t know. Perhaps someone can work out a programme that will be both convincing to working class voters and credible to the Tory-leaning middle classes. Perhaps the Tories will tear themselves to pieces over Europe and people will flock back to Labour. Perhaps a spectacularly charismatic new Labour leader will generate such enthusiasm that all these dilemmas and past disappointments will be swept aside. Perhaps if all three of these things happen, Labour will be able to win next time. But I doubt it. And I bet you do too.

So let’s look at this another way. Labour can’t solve the conundrum, but maybe it doesn’t have to. The conundrum isn’t the problem. The problem is Labour.

The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said something very important on the BBC last Friday. He said people have stopped seeing Labour as part of the British radical tradition and now see the party as “something narrow” and Labour politicians as “just in it for themselves”. He’s right. Since the election, Labour politicians have been talking about Britain as if it was a political party with a small country attached. Stop it! I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “only Labour can” save the NHS, solve the housing crisis, end poverty and deliver a better life for working people. As we’ve seen, all too often Labour can’t. And if I’m sick and tired of hearing it, you can bet your last penny working people are fed up with hearing it too. 

I love the Labour party (I’ve been a member for 30 years) and the labour movement (ditto), but they aren’t the the only progressive forces in the country. We face a daunting task in opposing the Tories’ ruthless programme, which seems to be nothing less than reimposing the plutocratic rule of the pre-democratic era. To stop them we will have to take on and beat the most powerful alliance of right-wing forces we’ve ever seen: global financial capitalism, a ferocious right-wing media controlled from abroad and a deeply-rooted Conservative party establishment, which extends into most areas of national life. Yes, the coalition of opposition we could range against them is formidable too. But only some of it is in the Labour party and the wider labour movement. Labour can’t do this on its own. And it shouldn’t try to.

Instead, we need some sort progressive alliance of all the anti-Tory forces in the country. We need to get a government elected that will introduce a fair voting system so we can – for the first time – elect a parliament that actually represents us. This is no time to be tribal, narrow-minded or cynically detached from electoral politics. The alliance needs to stretch from the Liberal Democrats through Labour, Plaid and the SNP, to the Greens. At a minimum, would it really be that hard to come to some arrangement that would allow Labour supporters to vote for Caroline Lucas with a clear conscience or save social democrats like Vince Cable from defeat by another Tory?

I know I might lose some of you here, but we also need to reach out to UKIP, or at least the millions of working people who voted for them. UKIP’s support for PR is self-interested, but that doesn’t make it any less justified. A single seat is an insult to the four million people who voted for them and the left shouldn’t be afraid of saying so. 

But a progressive alliance or popular front is about more than a pact between political parties. It has to include anyone who rejects the Tory vision of a society based entirely on market relationships, where working people are just hamsters on a wheel in a global race that ever ends, where nothing humans make or do has any value except the profit someone (usually someone else) can extract from it. There are enough things we can agree on – an end to ideological austerity, investment in housing, universal human rights, fairer wages, better rights at work, fair votes, to name but a few – for us to put aside our differences for a few years. 

And the same alliance should work together to make the Tories sweat for the next five years and beyond. Progressive politics in this country needs to be much more robust. Too often we’re content to fling statistics around to win the intellectual argument, and then to give in. A progressive alliance needs to link up all the groups around the country who will otherwise spend the next five or ten years campaigning in isolation. We need to win and be seen to be winning. People like winners. They vote for winners.

We can spend the next five years working our socks off in our different parties and campaigning silos, and the odds are we’ll be wasting our time. Or we can try to change our islands for good. The choice is ours, for once, not theirs. 

None of this will happen, of course. No Labour leadership candidate will dare whisper his or her nagging fear that Labour can’t win on its own. The collective ego of the labour movement can’t take that kind of honesty. Probably the best we can hope for is a minority Labour government with a pact for voting reform cobbled together after the voting’s done. But if we’re going to do deals, wouldn’t it be better to do them well before the election so everyone knows where they stand? And wouldn’t it be so much better, so much more powerful, if Labour were to grow up at last and take the lead in such a progressive alliance itself?

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash