The Call of a Cuckoo

Mam loved cuckoo clocks. I don’t know why. She just did. She always talked about them and of her wish to own one. In 1967 I bought her a traditional cuckoo clock on a school trip to Austria. It hung in their front room and gave her many hours of pleasure. Every week, Dad would wind it by pulling the weights to ensure it kept going. Mam could not enter a room unless a clock was ticking and she could not sleep without a ticking clock.

The clock hung in many front rooms until they moved into their final home, a council bungalow, in the 1980s. The cuckoo clock had pride of place in their living room, until one day it stopped. Dad tried to get it going again, to no avail. It remained silent.

Mam became depressed. We had seen her sad before but never in a state of depression. Dad had a series of mental health episodes in his life and my brother still suffers with depression and other mental health issues, but not Mam. She had experienced much in her life including the loss of a son and several homes. Yet she always showed a positive face. To see her depressed was so unusual that all the family became worried. Trips to the doctor didn’t help. He just put it down to her age and gave her some pills. Dad did not know what to do.

My sisters rang me to ask me to visit to see if it would help. I visited on a number of occasions. There was no change. One day my brother said that she was missing her cuckoo clock. I was asked to buy her another. I could not find an exact match. I eventually bought a different version. I gave it to her and Dad fixed it to the wall next to the old one. She would not let him take it down. Once more the room was filled with the sound of a ticking clock and cuckoo chimes on the hour and half hour.

Within a few days the depression began to lift and in a few weeks she was back to her old self. I have no idea if the two things were linked. I know enough about depression to know it is unlikely. If they were linked I cannot see how. All I know is Mam did not suffer from depression again until Dad died in 1997. This she recovered from. She never recovered from the one that descended in 2003 when my two sisters died within a few months of each other. That I can understand. It finally led to her death in the same year.

Some weeks after the new clock was installed, the old one started working again. No one questioned this. It just seemed right that it should. For the rest of her days, two clocks ticked and cuckooed in the room. This is why she became known as cuckoo grandma to some of her many grandchildren.

The clocks are silent now. They are stored in my attic. Even now I associate the call of a cuckoo with Mam. I think of her every day. I think of her most of all in early summer when I hear the sound of the first cuckoo reminding me that she is still there. Just as she always was.

 

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Put Some Butter On It.

My younger brother mentioned to me recently that broken bones, burns, bruises, scalds, and cuts and stitches were all part of growing up when we were young. Forgetting to add that he was often the cause of some of mine. The reason I part my hair on the “wrong side” is that he hit me on the crown of my head with a yard brush when I was 7 or 8, resulting in several stitches. He was also the reason for two of the three major fights in my life where I was badly bruised and cut.

We grew up on the council estates of Leicester. In the late 1950s we moved to St Mathews, a new estate that was being built on a major slum clearance area. This was our playground. It was where I suffered many injuries that were part of my growing up.

The first thing to go was my front teeth. I lost these in a fight in the school room. I hit a desk as I fell and left my new second teeth behind. It took a week to see the school dentist. Too late for any replacement, except dentures. I have worn false teeth since that day. They are second nature to me now but they were a source of great embarrassment in my teenage years.

I broke my arm next. There was an old recreation ground on the estate. In those days the play apparatus appeared to be designed to injure young bodies on the tarmac floor. One day, I was competing with a friend to see who could go highest on the swings. The aim was to get at least level with the bar or even higher. This was done standing up. I reached this height and lost my grip, falling backwards off the swing and onto the tarmac below. I took the full weight of the fall on my left arm and it was badly broken. I wore the plaster with pride for several months.

The demolition sites provided most of our adventures. One game of dare involved going along a street of abandoned houses and punching out the window panes. If you did this quickly you were usually safe. If you mistimed your punch you could end up with a nasty cut. Suffice it to say more trips to the hospital followed and the game was banned.

On one occasion I was playing on the sites and impaled my calf on a 6 inch rusty nail. I was getting use to the stitches but this was the first time I had a tetanus jab in my bum. One morning walking to school, which I always did unaccompanied, I crossed a working site. It was early morning and still misty. I was late and began to run. I swerved to avoid a fire that was in my path. Unfortunately in doing so I trod on a stick which had one end in the fire. The stick shot up and hit me an inch above my right eye. It was covered in hot tar. I don’t know what happened next but I finished up once again at A&E. I still have the scar today. A little lower and I could have lost my eye.

Probably the nearest I came to serious injury was an incident on a piece of wasteland in front of a pub called The Talbot. It was a Saturday dinner time and I was going home in the rain. I crossed the site which resembled a First World War battlefield. Half way across I began to sink into the mud. I sank to my waist. I called for help but no one heard. A man came out of the pub and saw me waving. He recognised me and returned to the pub to call my Dad. He rushed out and ran across the site. Unfortunately he was too heavy for the swamp like conditions and began to get bogged down. A lighter man followed him, reached me at speed, and with an amazing show of strength pulled me from the quagmire. The ambulance was called and I was declared fit except for a little shock and exposure. We learned later that there were cellars below the site which had not been filled in properly during demolition. If I had sunk any further I could have fallen through.  I appeared on the front page of the Leicester Mercury on the following Monday. The site is now a park in the middle of the estate. Very few people know that underneath the park lies buried a pair of wellingtons which I lost as I was pulled out.

Some might say that Mam and Dad were wrong to allow us to roam free in our childhood.  I disagree. Life is full of risks and I fear that we are now in danger of over protecting our children. From an early age, we played on the streets. As we grew older, we travelled further onto the local parks and into the countryside. I feel sad now when I enter a local park and see it empty even at the height of summer. We would have been playing on them from dawn until dusk. We knew there were dangers but we dealt with them. My brother calls it community knowledge. I call it being streetwise. Getting injured was a rite of passage. Being independent prepared us for the greater risks in life that came with growing up. We need to be set free to make mistakes and learn. We need to get dirty and hurt ourselves to build up resistance. As my Mam always said when I returned home with another bruise, cut or burn. “It’s only a scratch, just put some butter on it”

 

 

The Dress She Wore

There was no sign but we all knew that Mam and Dad’s bedroom was a forbidden area. Of course that made the temptation to enter even stronger when they were not at home. They both worked, so there were lots of opportunities to trespass when I was young. Once across the threshold it was difficult to see what secrets it held. It was only as I grew older that I understood. This was their private domain, an escape and sanctuary from an overcrowded home. A place where they could rekindle their love and lasting partnership.

Mam’s pride and joy was a dressing table, which always stood under the window. It had three mirrors which if angled correctly would reflect my image to infinity. I rarely opened the drawers for fear of being discovered. Nothing was disturbed on that sacred table. When I dared, I found mainly clothes. Some were old, some new, and some never worn. In the bottom drawer was her treasure, wrapped in old crepe paper. Inside was the salmon pink dress that she wore on the day she and Dad were married. It had faded over years. Their marriage never did. She had kept it, as she kept many things, as a memory of that special day.

The old family wedding photos show how she looked in it on that July  day in 1942. A beautiful 18 year old bride standing arm in arm with the man she loved. He is wearing army uniform. On special leave from his wartime posting in the south of England. The rest of their families stand on either side, supporting them. She looks so happy and so young. Usually, we only remember our parents as they age. We forget that they were young once. We forget that they were full of passion and excitement as they took their first nervous steps on a lifetime together. For four years they were parted by the war. When he returned, they were never parted again, until he died in her arms, as she bathed him for the last time.

I remember taking her to see him as he lay in his coffin. I entered the chapel of rest with her and stood beside him. The coffin was open. I could see that she wanted to be alone. I kissed him and left. I could hear through the door the sound of her gentle sobbing. Her only words were, “I will see you soon, Tom.”

It was not as soon as she had expected. She lived another six years without him. I visited her regularly. I would spend the night with her often in silence. She would always ask me to help her change the sheets on their bed. Her room was no longer forbidden. I discovered that she slept with a pair of his pyjamas but it was never mentioned. When we had finished making the bed  she placed them carefully under her pillow.

It was not a surprise when she died in July, 2003. She had survived Dad’s death. She could not survive the death of my two sisters in January and May in the same year. She gave up after that. I was with her during her final hours. She lay in a hospital bed, a frail echo of the beautiful young woman looking out from the wedding photo. There were no words as she went but I felt that she was no longer alone.

I visited their bungalow once more before her funeral with my brother to begin the painful process of removing their belongings. The contents that made it our home, even though we had both left to be married many years before. We joked as we entered their bedroom. It continued to hold its spell, the forbidden place. Dad’s pyjamas were still under her pillow. The dressing table stood under the window. I looked into infinity for the final time. I opened the drawers. I was surprised to find the wedding dress had gone. I thought she must have removed it after Dad had died. I opened the wardrobe to begin to pack her other clothes. At the end of the rail hung a dry cleaning cover. I opened it. Inside was the newly pressed salmon pink wedding dress. She had sent it to be cleaned before she became ill.

I will never know why? She had not mentioned it. I just knew that she had been preparing it for her death. I carefully took it from the rail and placed it in the back of my car. It was 61 years old and had only been worn once.

We decided that she would wear it again for her funeral. I am not a religious man. I struggle to believe that there is life after death. Mam and Dad did believe. As she said, she was convinced that they would meet again. I believe she had prepared the dress for that moment. The dress she wore on the happiest day of her life when she married the man she loved. The dress she wore when they were reunited in death. The dress that had lain hidden at the bottom of a dark set of drawers for 60 years, in a forbidden bedroom, waiting for its time to come again.

 

The Return Of Social Housing

In my final years as a housing association chief executive I became increasingly concerned at the attacks on social housing by the Conservative led Coalition. I was the first chief executive to speak out against Grant Shapps’s demonization of social housing and its tenants. So it should not have come as a surprise to the sector that I began to devote most of my early retirement years to campaigning for social housing.

At the beginning I felt like a lone voice, until I discovered like-minded people on social media and became a founder member of SHOUT, the campaign for social housing. At the time we were heavily criticised by many leading housing figures. I have been challenged about my views on many occasions when I suggested that we were witnessing the slow death of social housing and that housing associations were moving away from their social purpose and values. I have been called a “grant junkie” for arguing that the only way to solve the housing crisis is by public investment in social rent homes. I have been called a dinosaur for my views and much worse. I have been attacked for being a dissenting voice as many in the housing sector tried to ingratiate themselves with the government. Even if this meant turning their backs on social housing and its tenants.

It is worth remembering that many in the sector stopped using the term social housing, as if they were embarrassed by it. I compared this to the famous jeweller Ratner. Our trade body stopped using it, saying it was unhelpful. Any mention of social housing was removed from our national conference. Even the title was changed to remove the phrase. It was a difficult time for those of us who believed in social housing and its tenants.

Many in the sector were gripped by a Panglossian optimism driven by apparent business success, as thousands more became homeless and poverty increased. It was argued that building any tenure in a time of housing shortage fulfilled social purpose. Housing leaders claimed that the move to be more commercial was motivated by “profit for purpose”. Yet last year we built the lowest number of social rented homes, or their equivalent, in my 40 year career.

Despite the opposition SHOUT and others continued to campaign for investment in social housing. We realised that the move to commercialise housing associations and calls for their deregulation would not solve the housing crisis. More importantly we realised that these moves would further distance housing associations from those they were set up to help. Recent evidence supports this, as more on low incomes are excluded from housing association homes because of unaffordable rents and benefit cuts. SHOUT produced research that showed that investment in social rent homes would save the government £billions by reducing benefit payments and providing a home and a springboard for the poorest in our society. Sadly this was ignored by the government and some sector leaders.

Gradually, this changed, as some began to realise that the government had gone too far with its austerity programme. They saw that the demise of social housing was posing a real threat to society by creating more poverty and inequality. They began to call for government investment in social rent homes and the reversal of the draconian benefit cuts and caps. Strangely the national trade body did not join this call and still failed to mention social housing in most of its literature.

I’m glad to say that in recent weeks this change has accelerated. All of the recent General Election Manifestos mentioned social housing and the need to invest in it. The CIH especially has argued strongly for investment and has openly promoted the need for more real social housing. A recent report by Homes for the North proves, not surprisingly, that social rented homes make up the majority of future so-called affordable housing need. A fellow SHOUT member, Tony Stacey, has written about the sector bending itself out of shape as the political mood music changes and of the need to re-evaluate our social purpose and values. Tragically it has taken a horrific disaster to remind us all of the importance of social housing and the consequences of neglecting it and demonising its tenants. Even a Conservative Prime Minister has said that she “would stand up for social tenants”

We have come a long way from those dark days when the government openly attacked social housing and its tenants. An attack that was met at best with silence from many housing leaders and at worse tacit agreement. Maybe it is too early to talk about the rebirth of social housing. We need real action and proper investment before we can say that. But for the first time in a long time I feel that I am not swimming against the tide, but with it. I will resist the temptation to say that it is good to see that others have caught up and finally discovered that we need social housing.

I have always believed that it is an essential part of a fair society. For me, it is one of the pillars of the welfare state and it requires state investment to ensure that it continues to meet the growing need. That is why I have continued to campaign for it when many were critical. Like another ageing campaigner, I look forward to a few apologies from the people who criticised those of us who kept the social housing flame burning during those dark days. But I won’t be holding my breath. I am just grateful that social housing is back on the agenda. For the sake of the many who need it more than ever, we all must ensure that it stays there.

The Last Words

I have written about the last time I walked with him in The Last Vote. I have written about the last time I saw him in The Last Wave. It is time to write about the last time I spoke to him.

It was on a Friday night, 20th June 1997. I had just made that long journey up the M6 from my office in Birmingham to my home in Merseyside. The journey that I made every day for 5 years. I was tired after a long week and I was looking forward to a glass of wine and dinner with Vishva. Just after 6pm the phone rang. It was my sister, Pat. She was with Mam and Dad at their home in Leicester. She was obviously distressed. I could hear in the background that my brother, Andrew, was with her* She told me that Dad was unable to breathe and that she thought it was a panic attack. She asked me to speak to him, to try and calm him down. The Doctor had visited and said that there was nothing seriously wrong with him. I realised from my recent visit that this could not be true. He had not recovered from his many recent illnesses and he was clearly not well.

She gave him the phone and a weak voice said Hello to me. It was so faint that I found it difficult to hear. His was panting. I asked what was wrong. He found it difficult to reply as he tried to catch his breath. I asked again if he was all right. Again there was no reply. I asked for a third time as I tried to calm him. The phone went silent for a few seconds and he simply replied, “I’m bolloxed son, I’m bolloxed.” He said no more. They were his final words to me. I put down the phone and sobbed. There was nothing I could do to help. My sister rang back a few minutes later and said that he had calmed down and was breathing normally again. For some reason I still felt uneasy. I could not get those final words out of my head.

The next day, 21st June, Midsummers Day, at exactly 6 o’clock the phone rang. My wife, Vishva answered. She gave the phone to me. It was Flo, their neighbour, the mother, of my oldest friend, Malc. All she said was, “I’m sorry Tommy, your Dad has just died. Can you come as quickly as possible?”   I put down the phone and told Vishva. We got into the car, with Kieran, our son, and began the journey I had always feared. We did not speak. The only words in my head, “I’m bolloxed son, I’m bolloxed.”

The death certificate said that he died of pneumonia and heart failure bought on by the MRSA he had caught during his long stay in hospital. The doctor was wrong. He had not been suffering from  a panic attack. He was drowning.

He died in the bathroom of their council bungalow. Mam was bathing him. He fell to the floor and could not be moved. The door opened inwards and the emergency services could not open it as he was blocking the way*. He died in my Mam’s arms. I could not imagine a better way for him to go than with the one he loved. Life had worn him out. He was bolloxed. But in his final moments he was in the arms of the woman with whom he had shared everything;  Marriage, births, good times, bad times, happiness, tears, and now death.

* I made it a requirement after his death that in all of our schemes, bathroom doors opened both ways to prevent similar incidents.

* If you read this please read my brothers comment. He did so much to help Dad and the rest of my family. The loss of all of them over a short period of time contributed to his failing mental health. It is important to understand how Dad’s death and the deaths of our Mam and Sisters effected him too. I am so proud of him.

A Catalyst For Social Housing

 

I have been predicting for some years that eventually the government’s policy on austerity would cause so much damage that people would be forced to fight back. Little did I know that it would take a tragedy in a tower block in one of the richest boroughs in the UK to act as a catalyst for this.

 The tragic fire is a symbol of all that is wrong in Britain today. Growing inequality and poverty have been thrown into sharp relief as some of the poorest in our society have died and suffered because of possible negligence and lack of investment following years of government’s cuts. I’m sure that the Public Enquiry will discuss many reasons for the disaster but there is no doubt that the long term neglect and demonisation of social housing and its tenants is one of them.

 Survivors, relatives and supporters of those involved in the disaster are justifiably angry at the lack of response from local and central government. They are angry that their warnings were ignored by those who managed and owned the tower block. They are angry that promises made since the disaster will not be honored. Mainly because the government’s housing policy, or lack of it, means there is a huge shortage of genuinely affordable social housing in the borough, in London and elsewhere. They are angry because they feel they are being ignored because they are poor and live in social housing. They ask quite rightly, would their rich neighbors be treated in the same way?

 If the authorities continue to ignore their grievances and continue with the inadequate response I am certain that there will be an escalation of the protests. If the local authority and the government continue with the failed policies of the past, those who have suffered for so long will no longer remain silent and now they will have the support of many others. There is no going back. The government must change its approach to social housing. It must deal quickly with the immediate aftermath of the fire and then put into place a long term strategy of investment in real social housing. They must finance the building of desperately needed social rented homes that will ease the housing crisis and reduce the poverty gap. They must fund the improvement of existing homes to ensure that such a tragedy cannot happen in future. The local authority and the government have lost the trust of those who live locally and those who live in similar communities elsewhere. Only by listening and acting swiftly to the justified complaints will they begin to rebuild that trust. It will not happen overnight. It will take time and real investment of money and resources.

 As a longtime supporter of social housing I am concerned that there is a similar lack of trust in housing associations. Many are no longer seen as the supporters of the poor but as bodies who through their policies contribute to social cleansing and the divisions that are so apparent in Kensington and other parts of London and in our major cities. Not only is it time for the government to change its approach, housing associations must change also and return to their original social purpose. Any talk of further gderegulation of housing associations must stop. Surely no government would agree to this anyway in the current circumstances. Many large housing associations are seen to have lost touch with their tenants and local communities. It is time to rebuild these links through action not words.

 There is no way to compensate for the deaths of so many and for the suffering of their relatives, friends and survivors. But if the tragedy could act as a catalyst for real change in our approach to social housing and its tenants, that would be the best memorial we could build for those who have suffered and died.

The ultimate sacrifice 

My blog for UK Housing Fast.

#UKHousingFast

By Tom Murtha

I have spent the last week visiting the sites of the First World War battlefields in Northern France. Or to be more accurate I have been visiting the cemeteries and graveyards that mark the site of the battles.

For they are all that is left to remind us of the carnage that took place 100 years ago. I visited the grave of a great uncle who is buried in a small graveyard in Roisel. I also visited Thiepval which is a memorial to 10000s who have no known resting place.

They were lost or disappeared on the killing fields, never to be seen again. I did not visit because I glorify war. I agree with Wilfred Owen when he wrote, “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori” Meaning there is no glory in dying for your country, as many politicians claimed to justify the…

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