Eulogy For A Niece/Sister

Francesca Marie Murtha/Clarke.

Frankie was my Dad’s favourite grandchild. (apologies to Lee, Casey, Adam, Warren, Kirsty, Marnie, and my own son Kieran) Just as my sister Pat was his favourite daughter. They were the eldest of their generation. Pat was born in 1943 and Frankie in 1960. All three were similar. They were stubborn. They could be gobby. They could cut you with a look. And they all had a heart as big as the moon. They spent their lives helping other people. Often at their own expense.

It might come as a surprise to some but Francesca Marie to give her full name was born a Murtha in a Catholic mother and baby home in Derbyshire. We were living in St Mathews Estate at the time. Pat was training to be a nurse. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman just like her daughter became. I remember her at night carefully folding stiff linen fabric into an elaborate nurse’s hat. One day she came home and told Mam and Dad that she was pregnant. As the song at the time said she was only 16.

Having a baby outside of marriage was viewed very differently in those days. It was regarded as a scandal. Families were stigmatised for it especially in the Catholic faith. The women were blamed not the men. What is new? Because of this, Pat was sent away to Newcastle to live with my aunt for the first six months of the pregnancy.

When she returned, she was sent to a mother and baby home in Borrowash until Frankie was born. The main purpose of these homes was to put babies up for adoption. Around 500000 babies suffered this fate in the 1950/60s. It was planned for Frankie to be adopted too. Although I am sure it was not what Pat wanted. Sadly, she had little say in the matter. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her.

When Frankie was born, she was very ill. As they watched her struggle to survive, Mam and Dad realised that they could not part with her. She melted their hearts. So Pat brought Frankie home to be our sister. I was 8 and my brother Andrew was 4. For the first few years of her life that is how we saw her, our little sister. Part of our family. Strange as it seems now, we didn’t question it.

Soon after this we moved to the Palmerston Arms, a pub next to Taylor school. Frankie moved with us. Then we moved to the Three Cranes Hotel on Humberstone Gate. Again, Frankie came with us. It was here that Pat met John and they were married. Frankie became a Clarke. John became her dad and he raised her as his own. Frankie still visited us regularly and went on holiday with us. We still regarded her as our little sister. She always will be.

I often think of what might have happened if she had been adopted. All our lives would have been very different including hers. We are all here today because she was not. We have all benefitted from that. We have all benefitted from knowing her. We have all benefitted from having her in our lives. It was her fate to raise such a beautiful family and my heart goes out to Chantelle, Chay and Cairo. It was her fate to be friends to so many. And as the radio tribute showed last week, it was her fate to be loved by everyone.

Don’t think too harshly of my Mam and Dad’s reaction before she was born. The world was very different then. They loved Frankie dearly. They regarded her as more of a daughter than granddaughter until the day they died. They were there for Frankie as she was always there for them. After all she was their favourite.

So, Frankie, as Mam and Dad said all those years ago as we all went off to bed. Nan night God bless. May the God who you so devoutly believed in, who sustained you through your darkest nights, now grant you eternal peace, once more in the arms of our family who have gone before.

When she became ill, I sent Frankie a poem by Maya Angelou. It is called,

Still I rise.

I would like to read the final verse. It seems appropriate for today.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into the daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Rise in glory Frankie.

Tommy Murtha 2022.

Table Football 

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You  asked how it began.

The First Time.

The first time I met him was in my room at Raymont Hall. I was standing on my balcony smoking. It was a sunny afternoon in early October 1972. I had returned recently from a holiday in Spain with a broken relationship, a sun tan and 200 Spanish cigarettes. My Mam and Dad had just driven away, bursting with pride that their eldest son was “at university”. My door was open and the strong pungent smell of continental tobacco drifted onto the corridor. He walked by, smelt the air and walked in.

He said his name was Alan and asked for a  cigarette. He said he was from Southampton and had arrived earlier. I remember his long hair and the smell of Old Spice. We talked about nothing, anxious to fill the void. Trying hard not to show that this was all new and that we were strangers in a strange land. That Raymont Sunday feeling was already filling the room. Do you remember them? Those Sunday afternoons that seemed to last forever, where nothing happened.

We stood on the balcony, smoking and talking, watching the other newcomers arrive. I can still hear his soft Southampton bur. I can still smell the burning tobacco. I can still feel the sun on my back. I can still hear the sound of his guitar. He said he had found a games room and suggested that we play table football. I followed him thinking that he did not look the type who played games. The games room was empty. The football table stood at its centre. There was a slot for payment.

I no longer remember how much it cost or who paid but as the afternoon wore on we played many games. I was wrong about his interest in games. He was very good. The more we played the more competitive we became. He pressed hard and I refused to be beaten. He once told me ” above all things be gentle but never confuse gentleness with weakness “. His gentle strength was revealed in his playing. Subtly stroking the rods, like the fretboard on his guitar, until he was in a position to slam in a goal. When we finally finished the score was even. I looked at him and smiled and he smiled back.That is where it all began. It was a Raymont Sunday afternoon, nothing had happened, but our lives had changed.

You asked how it ended.

The Last Time.

The last time I met him was in March 2007. Some of you were there. We had driven from London to an old barn near Glastonbury. We were going to meet to say goodbye. We knew the cancer had returned and that he would soon be gone. Throughout the long journey we had laughed and joked to hide the pain and the anger. When we finally arrived he greeted us all with a hug. He was already slightly drunk and unsteady on his feet. I sat quietly at the table watching and wondering if it was the alcohol or if it was tumor that was beginning to change him. We all got very drunk. He eventually fell over and we carried him to bed. 

The next morning he was Al again, sharing time with everyone. He told us that the barn was owned by the man who wrote ” Yes Minister “. He had been happy for us to use it as he was also suffering from cancer. We discovered that the barn was huge and it had a games room with a table football. The temptation was too much. He suggested that we play. We went to find the room just as we had done all those years ago. There it stood in the centre of the room, the football table. We started to play. It was uncomfortable to watch. The tumor had taken its toll. His hands were unsteady and he found it difficult to concentrate. He knew that I was not trying and he got angry. I rarely saw him angry before his illness. We played for some time until he became tired. I suggested that he take a rest before lunch. He seemed pleased to find an excuse to stop.

That afternoon after a rest and a massage he said he felt better and suggested that we play again. I was surprised as we had both found the morning difficult. The game started and we were suddenly back in Raymont. Two young men enjoying the first flush of friendship. He was transformed. The shakes had gone. He was totally focussed on the game. I did not hold back and took an early lead. The score fluctuated as we played on. Each time I took a lead he came back with a goal. We had always played to 10 and I began to wonder if I could get there first. I slammed in a goal to make it 9-7 and began to feel a little easier. Alan scored again to make it 9-8. The tempo increased as we each pushed for the next score. Alan stroked the ball to his front rods and dummied and scored. The scores were even at 9 all. We were both tired. I was preparing to play on when Alan stood back from the table and looked into my eyes and with a soft smile said, ” Let’s leave it there, until the next time ” I looked at him and felt the hairs rising on my neck. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I stepped forward and hugged him. I whispered in his ear, ” until the next time”.

He died on 1st May 2007. I was in a hotel room when I heard the news. As I put down the phone I looked at the bedside table. On it was a card from the hotel. On the card was a picture of a football table.

Epilogue.

Several years later, I was tidying some books which I had not touched since he died. I found one that he had given to me in 2001. I had never read it. I opened it and found a note from him. I did not know it was there.
It said,

Dear Tom,
Nearly 30 years eh ?! ( 28 3/4 to be exact )
Your friendship and quiet kindness have been so important to me.
It is no exaggeration to say that you, and Vish, have been part of
some of the happiest moments of my life.
What can I say?
Thank you,
Alan.

I miss him still.

 

There is always love.

Mam and Dad on their wedding day.

I wrote this two years ago today when it all began and our lives changed forever.

Today I felt worried about the future. Then I began to think about Mam and Dad. They were married in 1942. Three years into a war that would last another three years. Though they did not know that. They knew that they would spend years apart. They knew one or both of them might not survive. Yet they married. That to me was a sign of their love for each other. A sign that we have to live for the moment not in fear of what might happen. And a sign that even in darkest days there is hope.

The war did end. They both survived. They shared a full life of good and not so good times. They produced 5 children. Mam and Dad have now gone. Three of their children have gone too. Only My brother and I remain. Their memory lives on in us, as does their love.

The next few months will be tough. Some might not survive. But hope and love will continue. It is eternal.

And so far we have. Sadly many did not. Let us remember them.

Time to go.

As I reach my 70th year I have decided to step down from my last two non-executive and trustee roles in social housing. Thus, breaking a link with the sector that goes back over 46 years. Even further if you consider that I was born in a council house in 1952, and that social housing rescued me and my family when we were homeless in the 1960s. I owe my life to the sector. I will never forget that. I will be sad to leave it behind.

It began in the 1970s, working with tenant groups in Leicester challenging the council to improve unfit housing and declining neighbourhoods. I then moved on to work for a housing association in Coventry, supporting tenants in their homes. Learning on the job the role of a housing manager.

By the 1980s I was working on the national stage for the National Housing Federation exposing institutional racism in the sector’s first report on Race and Housing, helping to establish black led housing associations and campaigning against the right to buy. I was also beginning to learn my trade as a housing leader as I joined one of the largest housing associations on Merseyside.

In 1990s I helped to identify the maintenance time bomb that is ticking even more loudly today. I was also made redundant and became the chief executive of a failing housing association in Birmingham. I led it out of regulation.

Leading housing associations out of regulation is something that I have continued to do as an executive and non-executive for the last 25 years, often acting as a statutory appointee.

In the 2000s I was CEO of one of the largest and most successful housing associations in the country, dealing with the effects of growth and merger. I was also involved in developing one of the first extra care villages in the country. But I became disillusioned at the way the sector was going and the lack of challenge to government policy and decided to move on to make way for others. I had planned to go quietly but the sector’s move away from social housing prompted me to speak out.

Since I “retired” I have campaigned to promote real social housing, helping to establish SHOUT when the sector was silent on the need for investment. I have worked with several failing organisations and chaired several charities and trusts, including HACT and Emmaus. At HACT I played a part in introducing Fringe events to conferences. Again in the face of much opposition.

I have continued to challenge the sector on race and diversity. And above all I have tried to speak out on behalf of tenants and those in the greatest housing need. Finishing my career where it all began.

I have probably been involved in almost every major reform in social housing in the last 40 years. Either championing those which I believed to be right or challenging those which were not. Hopefully acting as a critical friend. Though some might disagree.

Have I left a legacy? It is not for me to say. But if people do remember me, I hope they will say that I always tried to act on behalf of tenants. Though I sometimes failed. That I always challenged racism and inequality. Though the sector is still failing on this. And that I believed passionately in the real social purpose of housing. Though many are moving away from it.

Throughout it all, I always tried to speak truth to power. Sometimes at a professional and personal cost. I hope that I occasionally succeeded. And if I have not. There is always Dylan.

Restless Farewell.

Oh, a false clock tries to tick out my time

To disgrace, distract and bother me

And the dirt of gossip blows into my face

And the dust of rumors covers me

But if the arrow is straight

And the point is slick

It can pierce through dust no matter how thick

So I’ll make my stand and remain as I am

And bid farewell and not give a damn

Bob Dylan.

Trolley buses in the smog

The area was called Pear Tree. The road was called Pear Tree. The school I attended was called Pear Tree. The pub where I lived was called Pear Tree. Yet I cannot remember seeing a single Pear Tree in all the time I was there.

It was the Winter of 1962/1963. One of the coldest on record. The rooms above the pub were so cold I was regularly sent to buy paraffin from the local shop. Fuel for the heater which produced more fumes than heat. It was dispensed from a pump once a half crown coin had been inserted. The can often overflowed and the smell of paraffin fumes permeated my clothes and every corner of the flat.

Sunday night was bath night. My elder sister went in first. Then me. Then my little brother. The water was cold and scummy by the time his turn arrived. It was our only bath of the week. We must have been dirty the rest of the time. So was everyone else.

We always rushed from the cold of the bathroom to the front room to dry. It was the only warm room in the flat. The floor was wet and so were our feet. An accident waiting to happen. And it did.

I raced out of the bathroom door and slid along the floor. I came to a stop as my foot hit the boxes of crisps that were stored on the landing. The crisps were sold in the pub. A cheap variety that always tasted of rancid cooking fat. My little toe was split apart by the corner of the box. I looked down to see it hanging onto the rest of my foot by a thin piece of skin.

Dad was working in the pub. He was always working. The pub was busy. The two main bars were full. Sikh men in one corner. African Caribbean men in another. And white men in the third. Women only used the smaller snug. The men worked mainly in the local foundries which lit up the night sky. They were always thirsty.

Mam and my eldest sister took me to the local hospital in an ambulance. The doctors put me to sleep, sowed the little toe back on and encased my foot in a plaster cast.

It was the week after Christmas and the snow began to fall. It lasted for weeks. I walked or hobbled to school every day in the ice and snow. My friends were playing and sliding in it. I could not for fear of getting the plaster wet or even worse.

As the snow began to thaw my foot began to heal. Eventually the plaster was removed. The doctor examined my little toe to see if it had reattached itself to the rest of my foot. It had. I could even move and feel it. I went home reassured that everything would be ok and that I would be able to play out again.

The cold spell continued. The ice and snow were replaced by freezing smog. A yellow poisonous cloud that enveloped most of the country. The last great smog of the century. We were not allowed out to play as it was too dangerous. We wore masks as we walked to school. The air tasted of soot and tar. It was like walking inside a table tennis ball. The traffic on the road was almost invisible. Except for the sparks flashing from the overhead wires of the trolleybuses as they drove blindly forward in the smog.

Redundant.

I will never forget the day in 1995 when my boss called me into his office to tell me that my post was being disestablished and that I would be made redundant. At the time I was an executive director at MIH, ( now Riverside ) a position I had held since 1988.

The thought of losing my job filled me with dread. I had settled in Merseyside with my wife, Vishva and son, Kieran. Vishva had a wonderful job at Liverpool Hope University. Kieran was settled in a secondary school on the Wirral, which he loved. Not only would the redundancy disrupt my life, it would disrupt their’s as well. As a family we were all shocked.

I immediately set about finding a new job. I was confident that something would turn up. After all, I had been involved in social housing mainly at senior levels since 1976. I thought I had much to offer. I applied for a number of jobs locally without success, then I saw the role of Chief Executive of a Birmingham housing association advertised. I spoke to my family and asked if I should apply to lead an organisation so far from our home. Of course they said yes. And I did.

After a couple of interviews I was offered the job and I prepared to take on my first chief executive role. I worked my notice and began my new job in September 1996. On my first day I received a phone call from the housing regulator to inform me that the association was in supervision but that’s another story.

On reflection I realised that I was very comfortable at MIH. I loved the job and worked with some great people. I was probably too comfortable and I doubt if I would have moved on without the push of redundancy. I sometimes wonder if I would ever have become a chief executive without that “encouragement”

The initial news of the redundancy shocked me. But I soon realised that the only way to survive was to be positive and believe in myself. Colleagues at the time commented on how well I dealt with the whole process. I think they expected me to react differently but I was determined to leave with my head held high.

I am convinced this enabled me to overcome a difficult period in my life and move on to something better. The only downside of the new role was that my daily commute grew from a 20 minute journey to a 200 mile round trip. One I was willing to make to enable Vishva to continue in her job and Kieran at his school.

The organisation I joined was called Midland Area. It eventually became Keynote and then Midland Heart. I was privileged to lead all three. Something that might not have happened without that call to the Boss’s office in 1995.

There is hope in adversity. We do not know where our lives will lead us. All we can do is stay positive even when the future looks bleak. What appears to be a setback might just be the opening for a better tomorrow. When I see my old boss today I thank him for forcing my hand. Making me redundant was the best thing he ever did for me.

Postscript During such times in my life. And there have been many. I always reflect on this short poem by my favourite Irish Theologian. I have found it helps.

Unfinished Poem
I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

John O’Donohue

A Collective Failure.

I was not shocked. I had seen it before and even experienced it when I was young. I was horrified and ashamed to see that people were still living in such conditions in 21st Century Britain and that social housing, not the private sector, was to blame.

I spent much of my early life living in the safety and the warmth of a council home. But because of Dad’s endless search for a better job, I also lived in private accommodation. Here I experienced some horrendous living conditions. Homes so damp that my mattress turned green with mould. Homes so cold that the widows froze on the inside in winter. Homes that had no security of tenure, which meant that we became homeless for nine months in the mid-1960s. The offer of a council house rescued us, and I benefited again from living in a warm, decent, secure home. Something we should all be able to enjoy as a basic human right. 

My experience meant that I associated poor housing conditions with the private sector. This was confirmed when I started working in housing in the mid-1970s. My job entailed visiting people who were living in awful housing conditions in the private sector, often in multi occupied dwellings. These were owned by unscrupulous private landlords of which Rachman was the most famous. His name became synonymous with poor housing.

Many housing associations were established as a response to Rachmanism. Their aim was to acquire these unfit dwellings and modernise them to provide decent, safe, and secure homes for those in the greatest need. The private sector had failed to do this, so the public and quasi-public sector was established to do it instead. For most of my life I have believed that this should be the main aim of all social landlords.

However, as Daniel Hewitt’s excellent journalism has shown, some are now failing to do this. Recent reports and a harrowing documentary, shown last night, have revealed the extent of the failure. Tenants are living in conditions that would put Rachman to shame. This is not in the private sector as I would expect, but in homes owned by housing associations and local authorities. How has this come about? How have some in social housing allowed it to happen? The organisations involved have apologised and come up with excuses, but they do not provide an explanation. Some have said that only a small proportion of properties owned by social landlords are unsafe and unfit. I don’t know if this is true but it is certainly not good enough. One person living in such conditions is one too many. And the number of cases revealed by ITV and those that I see daily on social media indicate that these are not isolated incidents.

The majority but not all cases are in large associations. The very size of these organisations mean that failures often go unseen and the cries for help from tenants are unheard. Many of the leaders of such organisations have no real experience of social housing and the conditions some people are forced to live in. They know more about derivatives than they do of damp. The priorities of such organisation have moved away from existing tenants and properties. Growth and development are the order of the day. The development factories must be fed. The main concern is Martini development, any type, any price, anywhere, at the expense of existing tenants. New homes that exiting tenants cannot afford. So called affordable housing that isn’t.

The tenants are forgotten. Their voices, as at Grenfell, are not heard. They have been forced to voice their problems through the media to get something done. Many of these organisations claim that tenants are at the heart of their work. Some have obviously had a bypass because the tenants cries for help have been ignored. It is not surprising that tenants sought other routes to raise their concerns. ITV did not go looking for these issues. They responded to a justified outcry in a way that the landlords involved refused to do. Why did the organisations wait until the issues became public before they acted?

It is not the front-line staff who are to blame. The fault lies in the leadership of such organisations. Executives and non-executives, who are extremely well paid for what they do, have failed in what should be their primary objective, to provide a decent home. I am not aware that any have fully accepted responsibility for this failure. Certainly, I have heard of no resignations or disciplinary action. Those who fail financially are often held to account. Those who fail to provide a crucial part of the service are obviously not.

Not only have the leaders failed, but regulation has also failed. The head of regulation might be ashamed of these issues, but they have taken no action against the organisations involved. Some have said that they do not have the powers to do so. But if the motivation was there, I believe they would have found a way. The failures identified by the documentary are clearly a failure of governance, by any definition, and the regulator can act in these circumstances. That they have not raises another series of questions as to why? Are some too big to fail?

The sector itself has failed. As in the past when such failures have been exposed in film or documentary the initial response is to draw round the wagons, to deny and often attack those raising the issues. This collective denial, this unwillingness to look into the mirror and accept that all is not perfect in the social housing garden is at the root of a failure to act on many issues. Be it service delivery, the need to share real power with tenants, or institutional racism. Unless we genuinely accept that we are at fault we will continue to fail.

So, what is to be done to prevent these horrific living conditions from continuing? Clearly changes in leadership and culture are required. Strategic priorities must change too. Some organisations have grown too big and serious consideration should be given to breaking them down into smaller units that are genuinely accountable to local communities and tenants. Some have begun to change. Some have dramatically reduced the size of their development programmes to invest more in existing homes and services. They have apologised and admitted that they have got the balance wrong in the past and took their eye off the ball. Time will only tell if this delivers real change. To enforce this, we need regulatory change. An independent regulator that is willing to act against those who are unwilling or unable to change and to concentrate the minds of those who are.

Finally let’s look at where it all began. Many of associations involved were set up to improve the living conditions of those suffering in the private sector. Some seem to have forgotten this and become more like Rachman himself. Seeking growth and profit at the expense of people living in unsafe and unfit homes. Perhaps it’s time for us all to take responsibility for this and remember why we are here. To provide a decent, safe, and warm home at a price that people can genuinely afford. If you are unable to do this, you have no place in social housing.

New and old inspirations

It’s always good to return to The Outward Bound Trust UK Ullswater Centre to be inspired by the new and the old. This time the new inspiration were a group of 16 to 19 year olds about to depart on a three day expedition to climb Scafell Pike as part of a two week course. Young people about the learn new skills and develop memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

All of the students were sponsored by the Bursary scheme which enables less privileged people to benefit from the course. I came from a similar background in 1967 and I am forever grateful for the opportunity provided by the local authority which funded my course.

As I watched the young people prepare I was that 14 year old again who had attended the course so many years before. I dreamed for a moment of going with them. But those days are gone. I could barely carry the pack now let alone walk for three days and climb Scafell.

Vishva and I had arrived earlier at the centre to be met by Sam a senior instructor. We talked about reopening after lockdown and how important it was for all involved. He offered to be our guide but we were happy to wonder the grounds unaccompanied. Vishva enjoying the views and me lost in my memories. Even after 60 years it is still a special place.

We walked to the boathouse and jetty to look over Ullswater to High Street. We passed through woods where in the past various activities would have taken place. We looked around the stores where equipment for over 100 participants was kept. Everything looking much lighter and much warmer than in my day. We admired the new buildings and old which blended together to form the centre as it is today.

Of course it has changed. As we all must change. But the work of the Trust is as important now as it was when some of us were young. Why? Because it gives people like those waking off to conquer Scafell an opportunity to change their lives. Just as it gave me and many like me the same opportunity all those years ago. As I said a very special place full of special people.