Category Archives: Berkshire

On Galliano And Streatham

John Galliano

When I hear the name Galliano, I don’t really associate it with Streatham.

My first thought is of the tall thin bottle of Galliano, a sickly yellow Italian liqueur, that used to stand behind the bar in the pub my parents ran. It’s the main ingredient of a Harvey Wallbanger, which in the Iron Duke wasn’t the usual tipple of choice – a pint of best was more the thing. But my parents had to keep a small supply of such things in an unassuming Berkshire pub, and keep dusting them, just in case the cocktail set pranced in.

My second thought would be of the excellent journalist Joseph Galliano, who I used to have dealings with when I was a Labour press officer.

Only thirdly would come fashion designer John Galliano. I knew vaguely of his connection with Streatham before his whole shameful ‘I love Hitler’ drunken tirade blew made the news. Galliano’s Streathamite credentials have been much quoted in the past few days, though only in the off-hand way that Naomi Campbell is always mentioned by journalists as being ‘Streatham-born’ when she does something wrong. Galliano, when he transgresses, is written about as ‘Streatham-raised’.

It’s all a shorthand for ‘Isn’t he or she actually a bit of a bad ‘un, a bit common, dodgy, dangerous?’, which of course ends up characterising Streatham in the minds of people who don’t live here.

Simon Callow, the distinguished actor, is ‘Streatham-born’ but you don’t read about that very often, if at all, in coverage of his career. Perhaps it’s because he talks with a plummy accent. Perhaps because he hasn’t committed any offence – if he did, I imagine he’d be written up as ‘Streatham-born’ in every paper.

Streatham has, and has always had, many good and strong things to recommend it, not least of which today is its diverse and vibrant community.  Streatham’s history, its past, is fascinating. Its present is promising, despite the recession. And its future is in the hands, not so much of local councillors like me, but of its young people. So it’s not fair to them that journalists persist, deliberately and lazily, in using and abusing Streatham as a badge of disrepute.

That said, what is John Galliano’s connection with Streatham anyway? We know, through the official blurb, that he arrived here from Gibraltar at the age of 6 in 1966. His father worked as a plumber, apparently in the area. The family seems to have moved quite soon after arriving in the UK, decamping to Brockley (Lewisham). So ‘Streatham-raised’ is therefore pretty tenuous. We know he attended St Anthony’s, a Roman Catholic primary in Peckham Rye (Southwark), some distance away. After that, Wilson’s Grammar School for Boys in Camberwell (Southwark). Thereafter, St Martins College of Art, also not in Streatham. So is he really all that connected with Streatham?

Galliano’s anti-semitic comments, made in a bar in Paris, were disgusting. We have two synagogues in Streatham, numerous churches and mosques. Streatham, a diverse place which is its strength, does not represent the mindset of people like John Galliano. As an openly gay man, he should also know and feel sorrow and anger for the 100,000 homosexuals imprisoned or locked away in mental institutions by the Nazis, and of the 15,000 who died in death camps wearing pink triangles. Being brought up a Catholic, he should feel sorrow and anger for the deaths of 3,000 Polish clergy at the hands of the Nazis. Above all, he should feel sorrow and anger at the fate of 6 million Jews.

It is obvious to me that living in the glittering, pampered bubble of high fashion in Paris, and being indulged for years in his behaviour, has been Galliano’s downfall, not any vague connection with SW2 or SW16.


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Lib Dem Quits After Racist Tweet About Chuka Umunna

Cllr Warren Swaine

No, not in Streatham, where I live, but in the area where I grew up, in Reading.

Liberal Democrat councillor for Katesgrove ward, Warren Swaine, decided to pass comment on the recent performance of my good friend and neighbour Chuka Umunna, Labour Member of Parliament for Streatham, on BBC Question Time.

Cllr Swaine (pictured) tweeted this:

“I am waiting for the Labour guy to claim, ‘Is it because I is black’ as a defence for being a muppet.”

Disgusting. Loathsome. Detestable.

I watched Chuka on TV, as I often do, and thought it was an excellent performance. As a press officer I used to brief people up for Question Time, and still do occasionally. So I can claim to know a thing or two about effective QT performances. I texted Chuka afterwards to say so.

Chuka is young, bright, articulate. He’s a very capable politician, in the Commons, in the media and, crucially, in the community he serves. Warren Swaine has shown himself to be the reverse of that, the negative, the underside of the stone. He is a bilious disgrace to his party, the people who elected him and the office he holds. If anyone is a muppet, it is Swaine. A racist muppet.

I read today that Cllr Swaine has now ‘stepped down’ from his role as Cabinet Member for Environment and Sustainability on Reading Borough Council, but not before turning his not inconsiderable mind to maligning black community leaders on his own doorstep.

Reading is a town (it should really be a city) with a significant black and minority ethnic population. Cllr Swaine, who uses being half Sri Lankan as a defence when it suits, chose to question the integrity of campaigners trying to prevent funding cuts (by his Tory Lib Dem administration) to Reading Council for Racial Equality. Swaine said on his blog:

“Maybe I can be forgiven for thinking that they [RCRE] aren’t quite the spontaneous groundswell of support they were supposed to appear as.”

Swaine also sought to suggest RCRE has leanings towards Labour. RCRE director Rajinder Sophal has responded:

“Cllr Swaine came to RCRE disguised as a friend but actually with malice in his heart. We treated him nothing other that as a friend and colleague and we feel let down by his outburst.”

I do hope that in 2012 the voters of Reading will assist Warren Swaine in ‘stepping down’ from his role as a councillor.

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We Are Like The Thames

The Thames at 'Proud Windsor'

This blog is about a poem I wrote last week and read out today at my Auntie June’s funeral. I share it because a number of people have asked to read it.

I wrote it (a) because I was grieving and wanted to express what I felt, and (b) because I couldn’t find any reading that said what I wanted to say, or that wasn’t very religious (which as a family, generally, we’re not – pray for us if you must), or overly sentimental (‘So dear old Mum now flaps her angel wings in highest Heaven’), or so familiar that everyone might as well recite a line each (‘Stop all the clocks’, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, etc.), or  indeed just a bit scrappy, random or inappropriate (‘Alas! the people now do sigh and moan for the loss of Wm. Ewart Gladstone’ – a William McGonagall classic).

But anyway. I felt the need to write a poem of my own, which is below. I tend to think poems that need to be in any way explained – something usually done in a title that’s almost as long as the poem (e.g. Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree Which Stands Near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a Desolate Part of the Shore, Yet Commanding a Beautiful Prospect’), are missing the point of poetry and perhaps of life in general. While I make no claims to poetic quality – really I don’t, why else do you think I am doing avoidance-waffle like this? –  here is a personal poem about a much-loved member of my family, as well as my much-loved family as a whole. So I’ll just  explain that it’s themed around the Thames because of the long family connection with the river.

So after all that preamble, think of what living and working generation after generation on and near a great river might come to mean to a family, and read on.

We are like the Thames.

We are born, we are pushed out new,

Rising from the loving source

Of mother and father.

Small at first, we grow as we begin

The flowing journey of our life.

We flow, slowly at first, learning about

Others as we learn to be ourselves.

Meeting and knowing

Family, friends, neighbours.

Spouse, children, grandchildren.

They become part of us,

Like tributaries of our Thames –

Counter’s Creek, Beverley Brook,

Wandle, Effra, Evenlode –

They join and stream with us

To love us and help us on our course.

Sometimes we flow fast, too fast;

We rush and regret.

Sometimes we flow slow, too slow;

We falter and fail.

But we flow on.

Happiness comes to us like sudden sunshine

Glittering on rippling waters at

Goring, Shepperton or Hurley.

We wish we could stop and stay.

But life washes us on.

Once in a while, as we swirl gently along

Sadness falls on us like rain.

Perhaps a momentary shower,

Perhaps lengthy, pelting us from slate-grey skies

But like our Thames we are not to be stopped.

Not us. Not yet.

Rainwater tears only give us new depth,

Strength, courage and understanding

To push onward, fleeting under bridges,

Through the locks, weirs and reaches

Of experience.

We flow through villages, towns,

Busy Reading, proud Windsor and great London.

Looking around us, seeing lives lived,

Making plans for our own.

Some we make happen.

Some we don’t.

Then we see ahead what we have sometimes feared,

The arms of the sea opening

Waiting to take us where others

We have known and loved

Have been taken.

We look back over our years, knowing others

Will follow, and one day join us.

We would dearly like to wait for them

And go together.

But we go alone.

Trusting we will be remembered

Kindly, with some sadness but with many a smile.

Hoping the love we have given

Flows on and on,

Like our Thames.

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Daily Mail Dale Fail

It’s always interesting to observe the off-balance reaction of Conservatives when they are attacked by their own side, particularly around issues of sexuality. But on this occasion, I have some sympathy and respect, and I don’t think the reaction is at all off-balance. It’s the attack that’s way off-balance, and it’s no surprise to see it emanating from that bastion of all that’s putrid and poisonous, the Daily Mail.

Tory blogger and political publisher Iain Dale has blogged about a diary story in the Daily Mail which, on the face of it, draws sneering attention to the fact he is a gay man seeking to enter elected politics.  The Ephraim Hardcastle diary has this to say:

“Overtly gay Tory blogger Iain Dale has reached the final stage of parliamentary selection for Bracknell, telling PinkNews: ‘I hope any PinkNews readers who live in Bracknell will come to the open primary on October 17 to select their new candidate. You don’t even have to be a Conservative to attend.’

“Isn’t it charming how homosexuals rally like-minded chaps to their cause?”

Dale has written to the editor, Paul Dacre (see p 721 of Alastair Campbell’s diaries to read about my brush with Dacre). He has also made a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. Dale rightly complains about being described as “overtly gay”. What does overtly gay mean? militant? flamboyant? predatory? dangerous? camp as Christmas?

Dale says on his blog “I’m afraid I have had it with the Daily Mail and their particular brand of hate”.

Well said, though I would have to agree with his pessimistic view that he’s unlikely to get anywhere with Dacre or the PCC. Dacre after all, as well as editing the Mail, is Chair of the Editor’s Code of Practice Committee, which ‘reviews and revises the voluntary code of standards overseen by the Press Complaints Commission’. When he was elevated to that giddy height, he said “I am a passionate supporter of the principle of self-regulation, Press Freedom and a Code which reflects both the concerns of newspapers and needs of the public which it serves.”

Or in other words, he believes that papers should be able to print whatever suits their agenda. Fair enough for papers to have an agenda, but in this case, the Dale diary story is typical of the Mail’s “brand of hate”. The subtext is: here is a homosexual with the effrontery to want to stand for Parliament, he’s obviously trying to get others of his sort to infiltrate the selection process in Bracknell, let’s try and ‘queer’ the pitch, guffaw, guffaw. 

The Mail should be ashamed but of course it won’t be. When I was a press officer, of the Labour persuasion, I regularly had to deal with Mail hacks who seemed to have long ago crossed the line of fair reporting to glory in inflicting misery and damage on people in politics. I was the defender, so to make my job more difficult and theirs easier, they would call at times that would make it all but impossible to sort out and present the facts – late at night, last thing on a Friday afternoon, twenty minutes before the paper went to bed, you get the picture. Even when the facts were presented to the sneering voice on the other end of the phone, they rarely appeared intact in the story, or an inaccurate story appeared despite having been doggedly knocked down for not being accurate or not a story at all. 

I don’t share Iain Dale’s political views but he has a right to them. He also has a right to be respected as a person of experience and character who wants to serve people as an elected politician. His sexuality should not be imposed by others as the issue that defines his candidacy, it should be his values and his policies. 

I was born very near Bracknell and know it well. Obviously I would like to see Labour winning there, but that doesn’t stop me wishing Iain Dale good luck in the open primary, particularly if unfair obstacles are being set up for him, as seems the case. I hope none of his fellow candidates in the primary are engaging in smear tactics. Primaries are a positive attempt to break away from the backstabbing and backroom dealing that only contributes to cynicism about politics, so it would be depressing to see such behaviour creeping in. It should be for the people of Bracknell to make their decision in the primary and then their choice in the general election, not narrow-minded Daily Mail journalists.

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Broadmoor or Wildmoor?

Question: Why does a good school change the name by which it has been known for generations?

Answer: When it has been standing next to a mental hospital for 146 years and the governors don’t like it.

Crowthorne in Berkshire, where I grew up, has some much-loved primary schools. The oldest is Broadmoor School, where I went, with a history stretching back to the time the hospital of that name was built as a ‘criminal lunatic asylum’. The earliest pupils were the children of staff at the hospital. That tradition, at least, continues.

So why cancel out nearly a century and half of history? A local paper reported earlier this year: “The governors of the school decided the current name’s connotations with the infamous high security hospital in the village were stopping parents choosing the school for their children.”

It grieves me, genuinely, that the school will this autumn change its name to Wildmoor Heath School, which sounds to me like something out of some lost Bronte novel.

So the school loses a name that relates directly to its history and its location in favour of a name that relates to a nearby nature reserve, a name that few people in Crowthorne recognise.

As a former schoolmate remarked yesterday: “Where the bloody hell is ‘Wildmoor’? Actually, it’s a little bit insulting.”

Broadmoor School is a typical red brick Victorian village school, with later additions at the back and a tarmac playground where countless children have played ‘It’, ‘British Bulldog’ and a curious game called ‘Off Ground He’, which involved racing to get off the ground at a given moment to hang from drainpipes and railings. There’s also a field for football, cricket, fetes and sports days. What marks the school out, in a good way, is the name, which far from being the stigma its current governors fear, is a source of pride for people like me who started a happy education there.

I’ve been thinking in the past few days about how a love of learning started in me at the school, and where it started. It was not in the classrooms but in the little library, which used to be in one cramped room off the corner of the school hall, and which doubled as a photographer’s studio once a year.

When my sister, brother and I were all at the school together in the mid seventies, we would be lined up annually for the Bennett ‘usual suspects’ mugshot. Here’s one. That’s me on the left.

Mark, Debbie and Chris Bennett

Mark, Debbie and Chris Bennett

I remember being yanked from the infants class by the no-nonsense Miss Foster (who had also taught my dad back in the forties). I had barely finished the tepid milk we were given every morning in squat glass bottles. “No timewasting and no burping. You say ‘pardon me’ when you burp. What do you say? Quick, quick.”

The photographer had set up a big white umbrella on a tall stand, with a big white light pointing into it. At the age of 6, I hadn’t seen anything like it, and stood staring.

I remember how the bright light fell on the shelves full of the clever books that the big children were allowed to read, in this room where only the big children were usually allowed. Hardback books with fat, glossy spines, not like the thin scrappy paperbacks in my class – some with teeth marks – which were kept in a jumble in a box.

A few years later I would spend a lot of time in that library, looking through the books and learning.

When I moved up to Mrs Cooper’s class, we learned about China. There was no mention of Communism – we were eight, this was Berkshire and Mrs Cooper’s husband was the local commissioner of the scouts.

Instead we learned about the Great Wall, gunpowder and the story of the willow pattern plate. We painted nonsense in made-up Chinese script. I know it was nonsense because when my grandad proudly showed my handiwork to Ping, his Chinese neighbour who owned the village chip shop, he was told: “Don’t mean anything.”

One day Mrs Cooper mentioned a man called Confucius, whilst dramatically chalking his name up on the blackboard. She had buck teeth and an enthusiastic way of teaching, which meant she would often spray spit over children in the front row. She turned round, and repeated: “Con – few – shoosssss”. Forewarned by my brother and sister, I always sat near the back. I watched the front rows duck.

Off I went to the library that afternoon, looked up Confucius and read about him.

Confucius came to mind when I heard about the move to change Broadmoor’s name.

He said: “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”


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Blériot and the Wokingham Whale

Today marks the centenary of Louis Blériot’s 22 mile flight across the English Channel between Calais and Dover. An important moment in aviation, it was the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft.

Blériot’s flight was inspired by a competition organised by the Daily Mail, with a prize of £1000 – about £90,000 in today’s money. A rare example of the Mail welcoming a foreigner on to British soil without wailing that the country is doomed. No doubt Lord Northcliffe was grinding his teeth as he wrote the Frenchman’s name out on the cheque.

This is what Mail reporter Harry Harper had to say when he watched the aviateur take off for Dover:

“Again I felt that overpowering rush of excitement which I find almost everyone has experienced who has seen a man fly. It is an exhilaration, a thrill, an ecstasy. Just as children jump and clap their hands to see a kite mount, so, when the machine leaves the ground and with a soaring movement really flies upon its speeding wings, one feels impelled to shout, to rush after it, to do anything which will relieve the overcharged emotion.”

As with most aviation competitions (the Mail staged a series), a lot of attempts were made at flight by other would-be aviators, in an array of contraptions. You probably remember those early silent films where intrepid souls with huge moustaches attempt to take to the air sitting in something that appears to have been fashioned out of kites and coathangers, and which very quickly crashes, collapses or shakes to pieces.

It is one of those forgotten fledgling aviators that I think of today. Coming from Berkshire as I do, I want to pay tribute to A. M. Farbrother and his improbable invention, the Wokingham Whale. What a name for an aircraft!

Farbrother was a joiner in Wokingham, Berkshire who designed and built the Whale in 1909 or 10 to compete in one of the Mail’s competitions. He sold his house to finance his project, and accepted donations from the people of Wokingham, who seem to have been rather proud that they were helping to carve a niche for Wokingham in the field of aviation.


A M Farbrother's Wokingham Whale

A M Farbrother's Wokingham Whale

Though Farbrother’s great monster resembled an airship, in fact it was designed to have wings, and the 66 foot gondola was capable of extending to more than twice that length. It was designed with an 80 horsepower engine which would power a rotoscope or propeller capable of 1200 revolutions per minute. Inside there were to be seats, electric lights and lavatories (“for navigation over seas and other waters”) as well as ‘self-balancing’ hammocks, suggesting that Farbrother was envisioning an age of long distance passenger aviation that was still many years away.


The Whale did in fact make it the dozen miles from Wokingham to Windsor, but only on the back of a Pickfords removal cart. As with many of the eccentric and unworkable aircraft of the Edwardian era, it did excite curiosity from the national press, but only for a time.

The Wokingham Whale was doomed to stay on terra firma until it was broken up, along with Farbrother’s dreams.


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