PREVIOUS CHAPTER: FOURTEEN: FLINT STREET AND PARK ROAD
The house on Little Anglesey Road was of Georgian style, built a few years before Victoria’s rein began. It stood low and white, with a slate roof and an unusual, curved front. It was one of three pairs of similar houses built in 1832 to generate an income for the curates at Alverstoke Church. The six houses had allotments behind them and Stoke Lake, an upper arm of Portsmouth Harbour, in front. Spring high tides flooded Little Anglesey Road to a depth of half a metre, but when the tide ebbed, the lake remained, thanks to a dam a couple of metres high. Although part of Gosport (though we liked to consider that we were in the posher Alverstoke), this little community of houses felt very rural, having no neighbouring dwellings.
1, Little Anglesey, furthest to the left, partly hidden by trees
Two incidents, one bad and the other good, marked the day we started life in our new home. We moved things ourselves as the drive took only a couple of minutes, and on one trip back at the old place we found a young boy by the gate clearly in a state of shock. His face was a mask of red and black and it took a moment to realise that the red was running blood. We helped him inside and dialled 999. He told us that local children had funnelled beads of glass from a shattered windscreen into the petrol tank of a car abandoned in the back alley; then he had dropped a lighted match in, ‘to see what happened’. Once the ambulance left with him, we went on with the business of moving house, pretty shocked ourselves.
At Little Anglesey a surprise awaited us that we took as a good omen. (I should mention that we had learned from some source, now forgotten, that Alverstoke Church’s ancient silver had disappeared in the 1830s, around the time that the six houses were being built. Naturally, we joked that the treasure might be hidden within our walls.) As we stood in the front room surrounded by cardboard boxes, the floor uncarpeted, one of the boys said, ‘Look, here’s some silver!’ and prized a coin out from between two floorboards. It turned out to be a silver sixpence, paper thin, with Queen Vic’s head on it. Hoping that this was a clue to greater riches a foot or two beneath us, we lifted several floorboards and dug around in the rubble foundations – to no avail. But it was a great start: and we still have the silver sixpence to fall back on, should funds ever run low.
Little Anglesey, just yards from the sea, was a magical place in which to live, and for the boys to grow up in. Twenty years later I wrote a short story, The Ocean Changes, for a competition run by Gosport Council. Let a few paragraphs paint the picture:
“It was a rather special spot. Each morning, when I opened my eyes, the ceiling reflected a light as if from new-fallen snow. But we seldom had snow by the Solent and the light that danced on the ceiling came from the Lake. This ‘lake’ was actually a tidal creek reaching from the harbour a mile off, past parks and fields, till it ran up against a low stone wall in Alverstoke Village.
Across the water lay a stone dam. Victorian engineers selected this village as an ideal spot for early rail passengers (including the Old Queen herself) to embark for the Isle of Wight, and their railway crossed our creek. But the Company failed and the line was torn up. Years later, the Council laid a cycle track over the heavy iron bridge with its dark weir below.
ften, as I pulled back the curtains, two swans came paddling hard for our shore. A neighbour threw them bread at the same spot every morning. But seagulls wheeled above, ready to pirate the bits once she turned away, so each day it was a race: gulls versus swans. And in the swans’ wake, nodding at its anchor was our little boat, white and green and badly in need of a scrub to remove the sea slugs and barnacles.
I’d check the swans, I’d check the boat – and I’d check if we had a waterfall at the weir. Yes, this was an arm of the sea, no mere lake, and as the tide flooded in, a head of salt water built up on the harbour side. Twice a day, it emptied itself over the weir, pouring in, roaring and bubbling for an hour until our lake was full and level with the Atlantic itself. At high tide, the shore road could be two feet deep, and all traffic stopped. This pleased us. We’d watch the faces of drivers as they came round the bend, found the road gone and hit the brakes. Some were annoyed by nature’s vanishing trick; they’d grind their gears and reverse at high speed; but most stared with a wondering smile at the stretch of water ahead, and the road sinking mysteriously into it. Three or four times a year, strangers to the district would park their cars by the lake at low tide and go for a walk. Later, barefoot, they’d be at our door: ‘Excuse me, may we use your telephone?’ Then we’d chat about the tides and global warming.
At really high Spring tides, we liked to watch from our window as the water rose. It would lap onto the shore road, then sneak across. Suddenly it was on the pavement and slipping under our garden gate. Next it flooded the lawn and path, submerging each brown and white chequered tile in turn. But just five paces from the house – at the strawberry tree, without fail – it would lose its nerve and hover for about ten minutes. From the lawn, streams of bubbles would reach the surface. Then very quietly, the sea would retreat, leaving a tide-mark of grass, weeds and twigs. Canute had won again!
More drama. All that trapped sea must make its escape, through the same narrow gap by which it came. On the harbour side of the weir, the tide drops away much faster than in our pool, so now a waterfall poured outwards, smooth and transparent as glass – three, four, five feet – as the harbour level sank. Such a two-way cascade is pretty rare, I guess, but this one could be a fountain too! When east winds gusted under the bridge against an ebb tide, they’d catch some of the waterfall and fling it up as spray, high into the air, so that it rained back down into the lake thirty yards away. We never tired of watching.
In sunshine, flying rainbows inhabited the mist, coming and going with each squall of wind, while on stormy nights, milk-white ‘moonbows’ emerged from the shadows, fading and reappearing, all at the whim of the spray, the moon and the racing clouds.”
* * * * *
Here are a few memories from those first few years at Little Anglesey.
The previous owners (a dentist and his wife) had done little to maintain the house, and what they had done usually needed undoing. Sigyn was determined to redecorate, change doors and find furniture, so that all would reflect the era in which the house was built. The one thing we did which rather went against this principle was to join the front and back parlours into one good sized sitting room. Our funds were limited, but we scanned second hand shops for appropriate furniture. In particular, we bought a sofa and two upholstered chairs, all in rich, hand-carved mahogany, and a large Welsh dresser for the dining room. From this, over the years, Sigyn was to serve many a fabulous Christmas dinner, first on the Eve (Jul afton: Swedish style) and then on the day itself (English style). We also reinstated several old gas lamps, and not only for the sake of authenticity: these were years of industrial unrest in Britain, and several power cuts plunged the rest of Gosport into darkness while No 1, Little Anglesey Road shone out like a beacon!
Björn and Adam on a well-loved mahogany sofa
Coming home one afternoon soon after we moved in we found the front door had been left unlocked, and we were then surprised to hear voices in the upstairs hall. We went up, found three people sitting there and asked what they wanted. ‘Oh, it’s all right,’ came the reply, ‘we’re just waiting to see the dentist.’
A special feature of the house was the entrance porch, with a quarry tile floor and lit on three sides by tall glass windows. For many years, Sigyn kept a profusion of plants flowering there. I searched long in Gosport antique shops for a pleasant sounding bell and then rigged up a mechanical system, activated by firmly tugging the end of an ornate brass poker.
Sigyn tends the front porch flowers
Sigyn and I enjoyed the largest of the four good-sized bedrooms – the one that looked out on the creek – and each boy each had his own, except for periods when sharing and bunks beds was more fun. Our dining room, wood panelled throughout, was warm and snug – especially when we installed a Jøtul wood-burning stove – and it was here that much of family life went on. On the wall above the stove ticked and chimed the self-same Viking clock that had caused so much trouble one evening back at Älgstigen, and against one wall stood the Welsh dresser with its dinner service of homely brown crockery. And one drawer was always known as “the messy drawer” – which needs no explanation, but in it you would nearly always find something that would do the job.
Our kitchen was long, rather narrow, and had a large built-in dresser made of pine planks. The kitchen could be chilly at times with its two outside doors, one of which had a brass porthole and a rather fine Art Nouveau knocker. Actually, this door did not lead directly outside, but to a narrow walkway roofed over with corrugated plastic. The wind whistled through it, but it was handy for storing bikes and going between front and back gardens without traipsing through the house.
Whoever washed the dishes had a good view of the back garden with its old brick walls six feet high (one with a stone panel giving the date of construction and some initials) and a couple of dilapidated outhouses which we soon replaced. Beyond these walls stretched the church allotments and Sigyn was very keen to get one and grow organic vegetables. Unfortunately, none was available, but we discovered that the patch of land directly behind our back wall was used as a dump by the allotment holders. We contacted the allotment committee and they agreed that we could use the patch as our vegetable plot at half the normal yearly fee – if we cleared the dump of all the rubbish, glass, rusted watering cans, nettles and other nasty stuff.
Not knowing that I was doing anything wrong (the house was a Grade Two Listed building, as were its garden walls) I cut a gap in the end wall and fitted a wooden door to give direct access to our plot. We then hired a skip and worked for several days filling it with several years’ worth of rubbish. Hard work, but worth all the effort, as that little patch of land paid dividends many times over and gave Sigyn particular delight. Ben Russell, an elderly gentleman with a ruddy complexion and a warm smile, with an allotment next to ours, gave her plenty of good advice. He also used to give her seedlings to plant, but sadly, they often seemed to keel over and die, leaving us feeling guilty and embarrassed. But old Ben was always affable, and he took a great liking to our boys, who roamed freely round the allotments, especially when they tired of the watering our own little patch of land. This was quite a chore during dry spells. The allotment pump tended to bring up brackish water, being sited so close to the creek, so we had to fetch buckets from the kitchen or roll out a very long hose.
In August, Björn, Dan and I travelled up to Weet Ing to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Naturally we picnicked on the flat rocks by the bathing pool, as so many in our family before us. As ill luck would have it, the midges were out in force and we struggled to keep them at bay by lighting smoky fires, but Daniel in particular got badly bitten.
Trying to keep the midges at bay
Owning a car was still four years away and Sigyn did everything on her bike, notably bringing home all that was needed to feed a husband, three sons, herself, weekend visitors (and Bilbo the cat), week after week, year after year. Visitors included Grandma Ruth, of course, colleagues at Portsmouth Polytechnic such as David and Erika Collins, a growing circle of friends within Tools for Self Reliance such as Mark and Sheila Smith and Ian and Liz Backhouse and a regular of flow of friends and relatives from Sweden. From Paris, we had my old pal Arthur – now divorced from Nicole, who settled with her daughter in the United States – and his new wife, Deborah, with whom he had a son, Arthur junior. This little fellow was later to found the band Moriarty. A song that he and Adam wrote together one afternoon in the Gillette’s apartment on the Ile St Louis in Paris (Jimmy, Won’t You Please Come Home?), later became a hit with millions around the world.
Sigyn, Adam and Björn – off to school
Sigyn was an excellent cook and the kitchen and dining room at Little Anglesey were the warm heart of our house. We usually ate meals round the table together as a family and everything she prepared, she made with love and wholesome ingredients. For a while, she worked in a whole-food store in Fareham and grew enthusiastic about the nutritional properties of aduki beans, tofu, and other roots and cereals. But she also cooked an excellent traditional English Sunday roast, Swedish kottbullar, pytt i panna, Janssons frāstelse and a variety of cakes (especially a Swedish one topped with almonds in toffee sauce) and biscuits.
Christmas began early in our house as we celebrated the Swedish tradition of Santa Lucia at dawn each December 13th with glasses of hot wine, raisins and almonds and ginger biscuits (pepparkakor). Some years, I think we even had a Santa Lucia in a white gown and with candles, bringing them to our bedrooms – though who played her part I can’t recall – possibly Rita, when the Dahlgrens came to visit. A week or so later, when school finished, we would go to Titchfield Haven where a Swedish friend of Sigyn’s would cut us a Christmas tree from her small-holding. Back at Little Anglesey, we would fix it in a proper holder, either in the front porch or in the sitting room and play a scratchy gramaphone record from Älgstigen days, ‘Granen står så grön och grann i stugan…’ and ‘Nu har vi ljus hār i vårt hus…’. Then we would decorate it with the tinsel and glass balls commonly found on any Christmas tree, but then add a selection of stars, animals and other shapes formed out of plaited straw, which Sigyn particularly liked as they recalled her own Christmases back at Bidarhem.
Late one evening in December, the phone rang and a voice enquired, ‘We’re from War Resisters’ International. Do you by any chance know of someone with a house close to Portsmouth Harbour who might help us moor a sailing boat while we load it with banned books? We plan to take them to Namibia as an act of peaceful protest against the South African apartheid regime.’ Of course I fell for it. It had everything to grab me – non-violent international action, anti-racist politics, banned books and a sailing boat. ‘Come to us,’ I urged, ‘we live right by the water. Use our house as your shore base. Feel free!’
Nothing then happened for several months – no contact whatsoever – until we had a late night call from Portsmouth Harbour police. ‘Mr Roberts? I understand that you are the shore agent for yacht Antelope. They’ve tied up alongside a submarine at HMS Dolphin, and I want them out of here, fast. They say you will pilot them up Haslar Creek. Correct?’ Yacht Antelope? I’d never heard of a Yacht Antelope…. but this story is really for 1976.
On the 4th of December, Sigyn trimmed off four of Björn’s [Daniel’s?] curls and glued them to a scrap pf paper – though actually it was his long, curved eye lashes that everybody remarked upon. Whenever they did, it made me think of my own curly hair back in Weet Ing days and how ancient (ancient to me) ladies would gather round, cluck and say, ‘Oh what lovely curly hair. Wasted on a boy!’
Around this time, Sigyn and Daniel were shopping at Waitrose. Sigyn was standing with a full basket checking her list to see if she had forgotten anything when an announcement came over the loud-speakers. “If anyone has lost a small boy with fair, curly hair, will you please come immediately to the frozen food section? He cannot tell us his name.” Sigyn looked around: no Daniel. But at six years old why on earth couldn’t he tell them his name? She neared the ice cream cabinet, pushed past a number of amused onlookers, and found Daniel stuck by his tongue to the glass door. He had just been “testing” the freezing panel.
Much of 1976, I spent distributing copies of Questioning Development and speaking at conferences about the ideas in the booklet. I also joined various working groups evaluating volunteer programmes in the Third World. Generally speaking I was critical of the government-sponsored, highly financed programmes as they seemed to ignore any analysis of why Underdevelopment has come about – and is perpetuated – and, instead, focus on an apolitical “technical assistance” approach.
By now, Frank Judd had become Minister for Overseas Development and of course we knew him well – going right back to CCIVS days at UNESCO, and he was also our local Portsmouth Member of Parliament. One interesting get-together took place at the Ministry, when he invited half a dozen of us ex-volunteers to put our ideas forward to him and to half a dozen of his civil servants dealing with overseas aid. We turned up at 2p.m. precisely, but were asked to wait 15 minutes as, ‘The Minister is slightly delayed’. Frank’s staff, all perfectly groomed in smart suits, sat down one side of a longish table while we, very casually dressed, sat down the other. Conversation began and we soon discovered that the gulf between us was far wider than a mere table’s width. I do not remember now upon just which points we differed, but I do recall that – while we had each lived and worked in a developing country for two or three years or longer – not one of Frank’s senior Technical Assistance staff had spent longer than a brief visit to any of these countries.
My work at the Social Services Research & Intelligence Unit (SSRIU) continued during the year, and this is the almost last time that I will refer to it. But for anyone remotely interested in what we were doing, it is worth Googling: “SSRIU Portsmouth” and looking for a paper we wrote, in which we asked: “Does research actually have an impact on policies and practice within Social Services?” We took examples from three studies that we had made – into the rates of children coming into Social Services care, into the first year of an Observation & Assessment Centre (which looks into the needs of specially problematic children in care) and Portsmouth’s precious stock of foster parents, looking after children in the community rather than in Children’s Homes. I won’t go into any further detail, other than to say that I, after an interval of 37 years, have just looked up the article – and am quite impressed by our approach at the time.
This was the year, too, when my father’s third main book, A Ragged Schooling, was published by Manchester University Press. It covered similar ground to The Classic Slum – describing life in Salford before 1914 – but it was lighter-hearted, more anecdotal. It had very good reviews and it is such a shame that my father never lived to enjoy them. Credit should also go to Ruth, who worked hard to make sure that a final typescript really made it through to the publishers. This excerpt from a review of the book by Paul Bailey, presumably in the Guardian (I only have the cutting – it’s clearly from a national paper), gives a good idea of Bob and his early life:
This is an autobiography of an exceptional man. Robert Roberts grew up in the back streets of Salford in the early years of the century, in the shadow of the gasworks. A bookish child, short-sighted and poorly, he was considered to be a bit “touched” by his drunken father. His mother understood him – as well as she understood her other six children. It was through her sceptical tolerance and common sense that he was able to make something of his life, against all the odds. He became a teacher – working for a long spell with the educationally deprived – and a noted member of the Labour movement. In his sixties he wrote a masterpiece about the Edwardian poor called ‘The Classic Slum.’ A RAGGED SCHOOLING, which is every bit as good, was written shortly before his death in 1974.
It is a short book, and a shaming one to read in these days of the sinking pound. The Roberts family […] counted themselves fortunate when they had a stable shilling to set aside. Even so, they were comparatively well off – thanks to Mrs Roberts working 18 hours a day in the poky corner shop her husband had secured for them. It was the neighbours who lived on tick, who paid weekly visits to “Uncle’s”, who ended up in the workhouse. [….]
Robert Roberts was bright at school, but left it by the time he was fourteen. His father’s motto was ‘Earn then learn.’ And so he went to work in a brass foundry, hating every minute of it. His real education began. He read all of Dickens and ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’, and the writing of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. He saw a Shakespeare play from the gods and was both excited and entranced.
‘A Ragged Schooling’ ends, most touchingly, with the boy becoming a man – a defiant human being, aware of the huge sacrifices made on his behalf by his still resilient mother. It is a memoir of quite extraordinary richness.
Years later, ‘A Ragged Schooling’ was turned into a musical, performed at the Library Theatre, Manchester, and Ruth, the boys and I drove up in Sunshine, our yellow Deux-chevaux car, to see it
Now, back to the submarine base in Portsmouth Harbour, one night in March 1976. This was at a time of great political tension in Northern Ireland, with Protestants killing Catholics and Catholics bombing Protestants, and the British Army deeply involved. HMS Dolphin, like all military bases on the mainland, was heavily guarded against IRA attacks – so when I turned up on my bicycle after midnight and asked to be let in, the gun-wielding fellows on the gate were suspicious. But they rang around and an officer turned up to take me down to the jetty. He was less than pleased to have a strange yacht moored against one of his ships, and at first seemed to hold me personally responsible. As the tide was on the flood, I promised to have the boat off his patch within five minutes, then climbed aboard at met the crew. The engine fired first time and we slipped off under Pneumonia Bridge and followed the winding channel – with banks of black mud on either side – for a mile or so until we dropped anchor in the creek on the seaward side of the old railway bridge I’ve described above (the one with the two-way waterfalls and flying rainbows). ‘See you in the morning,’ I shouted as they rowed me ashore. Little could I guess what a bucketful of problems I had piloted up the creek that night.
Nine o’clock next morning, a ring at the front door and half the crew ask to use our bathroom.
‘Sure,’ we said, ’and the others?’
‘They’ll be along shortly. Oh, and can we use the phone? And perhaps we can store our bigger stuff here, the mast and rigging and other bits and pieces, until we leave?’
‘And that will be…..?
‘End of May, hopefully.’
‘Why, of course, you’re welcome.’
After breakfast we strolled along to look at the Antelope – and gasped. I hadn’t noticed the previous night, needing to focus on the winding channel in the dark, but she was clearly a sad, flimsy, plywood job, showing her years and scarcely suitable for a Sunday trip to Cowes. Passers-by coming along the road from Gosport – with its heritage of matters nautical – shook their heads and asked, ‘They’re sailing to Namibia in that?’
The crew were a pleasant lot, young, long haired and scruffy – but so were many of us back in the 1970s – with good principles of internationalism, practical democracy, non-violence and anti-racism. I couldn’t find fault with their principles. However, the democratic principle meant that they would sit around on the deck and discuss matters for hours, a process complicated and prolonged by the fact that several of the overseas participants spoke almost no English. Also, when they reached a decision it led nowhere because no one knew much about boats and boat repairs. And Antelope needed repairs. For a start, several of the floppy plywood panels and some of the supporting timbers were rotten, her deck fittings were skimpy, her engine in need of a complete overhaul. In order to start work, they decided – eventually – to remove mast and other spars, sails, cordage (ropes) and engine parts and store them with us. ‘Only until the end of May, when we sail’, they promised.
The end of May came and went, of course. A plywood panel or two were replaced, but weeks passed by with no progress. Discussions intensified on deck, sometimes becoming arguments. Several of the original team quit, grim faced or in tears. Others were on our telephone for half an hour at a time, analysing the crises with their London office. Occasional new recruits arrived, some to stay, others to leave abruptly. The quickest turn-around was a girl who turned up at our house one afternoon asking for directions to the Antelope. Not ten minutes later she was back, ashen-faced. ‘I value my life,’ she told us, gulping down a cup of tea before fleeing to the bus stop.
Björn and monks by the Golden Harvest
Two Buddhist monks arrived from Cambodia, bearing tambourines and clad in colourful robes and sandals. They spoke no English, and early each morning would shave their heads in our bathroom, leaving a tide-mark of black stubble round the basin. Then, beating a tambourine and carrying enamelled bowls they paced the streets of Alverstoke signalling to the retired admirals and other wealthy residents to come out and donate some boiled rice. Unfortunately, the Royal Navy Signals Handbook does not explain the significance of thumps on the tambourine, so the Alverstocracy slept on as our monks trudged back to the boat without a single offering.
By late June, even Operation Namibia had realised that the Golden Harvest would never reach the Southern Ocean, especially with a ton or two of banned books on board, so they decided to sell her and look for a sturdier vessel. In August, with the good fortune that sometimes comes to the innocent and high-minded, one of the team – wandering round the fishing boat quays in Old Portsmouth – got chatting with the part-owner of a solidly built wooden trawler. The owner was so inspired by Operation Namibia that he joined the project. All they needed to do was sell Antelope and buy out the other part-owner – which, amazingly, they did.
Björn on board
Finally Antelope – and all its gear and volunteers – had gone, from our house and from the creek, and life got back to normal. Just before Golden Harvest motored out to sea, in late October, we visited them to wish them Bon Voyage, but their voyage later turned into a nightmare. The boat was left by a high tide, beached for a month on a wild shore in Senegal (one Cambodian monk jumped ship, scurried into the African bush and never came back); in Nigeria, the entire crew was arrested and charged with carrying arms (which I am certain was untrue: they were incompetent, but were certainly non-violent). Finally, one crew member died from cerebral malaria in Gabon. The rest made it to Angola and delivered their cargo to SWAPO, the Namibian independence movement. Whether the books then reached Namibia, I have no idea.
Returned Volunteer Action published Thinking about Power (my opening chapter expressed well my outlook on Power and Development.
During 1977, the boys began to have various pets. Each had his own hen: Henny Penny, Eggy Peggy and Pullan. A year later, Daniel was taking Henny Penny for a walk in the park, leading her with a string round her neck, when a dog rushed out and savaged her. When I reached the crime scene it was clear that the bird could not survive and I had to dispatch it with a spade. At this, the boys screamed, ‘Murderer, murderer. You could have saved her!’ which took me back to Weet Ing and my tearful outburst at my own father. Daniel drew a picture of Penny and glued her feathers to it. He wrote, ‘Penny was my hen. She laid many eggs. She had soft feathers, Daniel’.
“Penny was my hen”
Later, they had mice and a huge Belgian hare that disappeared mysteriously one day, stolen, we thought, and much later still, a cat. I never wanted a cat, but one morning the boys rushed in to say that a stray had made a nest in the hedge down the road with four blind kittens in it, and could we have them? No. Next day, they reported that the nest had only three kittens, and twenty-four hours later they were down to two. Could we have just two? No. Next morning, I was moving the car when one of the boys yelled ‘Stop!’ and there, by the wheels, wobbled a tiny scrap of ginger fur, peering up at us. I can be as hard-hearted as the next man – and with cats even harder, as they make me sneeze – but there are limits. So it was that Bilbo Baggins joined the Roberts family, staying with us for many years and, perversely, always preferring my lap to jump onto, however often I lifted her back onto the floor.
The boys, sitting on the pavement where Bilbo was found
When not working on Social Services research, I was still much involved with international volunteers and especially with the role they played when their two years overseas were over and they came home. Many simply looked around for a normal, paying job – their stay abroad by no means wasted, but still a fading, exotic memory. And there were those who felt that an overseas experience should demand more of us: we had seen with our own eyes the effects of malnutrition, ill health, poverty and injustice on people (we had also seen with what courage, intelligence and determination our hosts coped, and with what good will they received us). Surely, once back home, we had an ethical duty to carry on working for a fairer world?
I had joined the group Returned Volunteer Action, dragging Sigyn and the boys to various summer conferences – notably at Wick Court near Bath – speaking at other meetings and drafting small booklets for volunteers to read before they set off to foreign parts. I felt strongly that such a prior ‘inoculation’ could greatly influence how they later interpreted life abroad. For example, instead of judging things in racial terms when frustrated by local non-cooperation or what they judged to be inefficiency, they should rather look at their whole set-up in terms of power and privilege are distributed. Thinking About Power and the Handbook for Development Workers Overseas explain this a little more fully.
In the spring of 1978, Arthur wrote from Paris to ask if I could manage a two month’s consultancy for UNESCO. It would take me to Tanzania and Zambia to study their national civic (non-military) service programmes. Portsmouth Polytechnic had no objections and I was doubly keen to accept; first, as these programmes were very interesting in themselves. The governments in both countries had decided, for example, that their university graduates – who had enjoyed a privileged education at the taxpayers’ expense – should repay something to the community by doing a year’s civic service in the villages. But that was not necessarily how the young graduates saw it.
This trip provided me with another great opportunity. For years, ever since my last trip to Uganda, I had been mulling over the idea of sending recycled tools to village workshops in Africa. Collecting them in the UK, refurbishing and sending them off all needed planning, but so too did distribution. We needed to find a reliable African agency to get the tools out of the port and take them to village workshops – having first checked that those village communities really could and would put them to good use.
The full story appears in Keeping Something Alive (published in 2011), but suffice to say here that in Tanzania I came across the Small Industries Development Organisation (SIDO), the very aim of which was to support artisans – carpenters, blacksmiths, motor mechanics, tailors and women’s groups – especially in rural areas. SIDO’s Director General, Basil Mramba, latched on to the Tools for Tanzania proposal immediately and soon sent us a detailed request. With that, and help from Sigyn and some close friends in Gosport, including Eddie Grimble, Mark and Sheila Smith and Sarah and Charles Hirom (plus Ian and Liz Backhouse a year or so later) I asked students at Portsmouth Polytechnic to join me on street collections of unwanted tools. We set up a small workshop in a disused church, and by Christmas were cleaning, mending, sharpening and oiling any number of rusty hammers, saws, spanners and drills.
That spring, we had bought our first car, a bright yellow Citroën Deux-Chevaux that we called Sunshine. Sunshine served us well on a series of summer holidays, the first being a trip to Somerset with Sigyn, Grandma Ruth, the three boys and myself and luggage all squeezed in. Around Lynmouth, now with several rocks in the back, ‘treasures’ collected on the beach and – the boys insisted – essential to take home, and with gradients of one-in-four, all passengers had sometimes to get out and push. In later years, Sunshine and her successors took us on much longer trips, notably through north Germany and Denmark to the Swedish family near the lakes and on to Göran and Rita in Stockholm. Our little car seldom went faster than 60 miles an hour, and much less on a slope, and being the only driver, some journeys did feel interminable.
Above: A ride on Piet’s Plaisir, somewhere in Belgium, with Sunshine in the background.
Around this time, Adam, aged eleven or so, and two or three friends set themselves up as a gang: The Pirateers. They took over one end of our garden shed as a club house in which to plan their dastardly deeds, and used Path Bay or P.B. (a camp in the woods across the Creek where Daniel and he tried to build a stone house) from which to carry out their sorties. Being older, Björn remained loftily above such childish games, though from time to time both and Daniel couldn’t resist a little provocative action of their own – an ambush, or spying – just to spice things up.
1979 – A very busy year at TFSR, getting the first consignment of tools packed and dispatched from Portsmouth to SIDO in Dar es Salaam. See Keeping Something Alive.
At this time Sigyn began working at Sunshine House, in Alverstoke, helping Vietnamese refugees who were given shelter and care there. The boys would sometimes go along too and play football with the children.
TFSR in its second year and starting to take over my life. From my diary: ‘Wednesday 2nd January: Made list of jobs to do: 39 for a start! Don’t see how I can keep both Portsmouth Poly and TFSR jobs going, so much to do. So many interesting avenues, esp. in TFSR. Not fair on SSRIU. That needed too, with Mrs Thatcher’s policies beginning to bite. Will see what February workshop [Minstead] produces.’ On 11th January, we collected 4½ tons of tools from the Southern Gas depot in Poole and in early February held the first-ever national Tools for Self Reliance get-together at Minstead Lodge in the New Forest (see Keeping Something Alive).
15th February: ‘Take Adam’s mice to school in afternoon’.
By 23rd February, with Sigyn’s agreement – but not without her worries at the prospect – I secured six months’ leave of absence from academic research to fund-raise for TFSR. ‘Sigyn not happy about our future finances. Feels we are living off past resources – falling behind’. Three weeks later, I wrote, ‘Christian Aid meeting. They seem interested and I’m more than ever convinced that TFSR is as close as anything to being developmental. £100 invested produces £1,000s of tools, and they can produce £10,000s of goods. A hundredfold increase!’
However, my request for financial support was modest, just £500. But by mid-March, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust had allocated TFSR £15,000 to see us through the coming three years.
26th March: Great Aunt Hilda (one of the Dean family) having left me some money in her will, we bought a second-hand set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which came in handy for school homework for years thereafter.
3rd April: With the boys, drove Grandma to Heathrow on her way to Delhi, to start a three-week coach tour with other teachers from Europe. One evening, a few days into the tour, the coach driver asked Grandma to ask the group to keep to agreed times for departure as they had been drifting up later and later. Next morning they must all be on board by eight as they had a long desert journey ahead. Grandma clapped her hands to get the group’s attention and passed on the message, with slightly moralistic overtones, I can imagine.
By 7.45 next day Ruth was up, dressed and ready to leave, but she couldn’t find her false teeth. For the umpteenth time, she checked her bedding, her suitcase and the bathroom – nothing. Eight o’clock came and went. Eight fifteen. She was desperate to get onto the bus, but the thought of two weeks in India without teeth (they were not to pass this town again) was totally unpalatable. Eight twenty. Finally, she picked up a pillow, knowing full well from previous searches that there was nothing under it, but felt something inside the pillow case. With huge relief she popped the dentures into her mouth and rushed down to the coach – to be met with averted faces and sullen silence as she babbled her excuses.
Sunshine seldom let us down, even on the steep mountain road in the French Alps leading to perhaps our favourite holiday destination, Pralognan in the Parc National de la Vanoise. This is a wonderful spot to visit: a little town set among towering mountains topped with snow even in mid-summer, with ice-cold glacial streams rushing past its two camp sites. The air is crystal clear, the sun hot, fields sweet-smelling and full of flowers and butterflies so tame that they flutter onto your hand in a moment if you hold it out. Walks up through the pine forest take you out of the valley and up onto the high Alps, also full of flowers and boulders. One hears cow bells tinkling and the gurgle of fast flowing streams. Onwards, heading towards the highest mountain in La Vanoise, La Grande Casse, the landscape becomes severe, stripped of most vegetation, with great glacial deposits of scree and a lake, the Lac des Vaches. It is quite shallow and one marches straight across it for two hundred yards on a long row of flat stones. Here, Bjorn is leading the way.
Björn leads the way across the Lac des Vaches
Above the lake, the path zig-zags onwards and upwards through the grey scree until it reaches the Felix Faure mountain refuge. We slept there, though it was very basic in those days: everyone, men, women and children stretched alongside each other on wide communal bunks.
This is the land of the edelweiss, of shy marmots and of sensational views – past the Aiguille de la Vanoise or up to La Grande Casse – and a path leads even further, across a long desolate stretch until it drops down in an empty valley. It was on this stretch that Bjorn and I were caught in an afternoon storm. With a couple of other walkers and nowhere to shelter, we huddled behind a stone cairn, cowering there, feeling very vulnerable, dazzled by the flashes and deafened by claps of thunder, each amplified by the rock faces of the mountains. As the storm rumbled away into Italy we prepared to leave and within a few steps passed a crucifix and bronze plaque erected in memory of a mountain guide and several others who had died at that very spot, struck by lightning.
(On the subject of great thunderstorms, in which I delight for their sheer power and drama, I will record here that I do not feel I have received my rightful allocation of them in this life. Yes, in Ghana I did enjoy fabulous displays around 4 p.m. each afternoon for a week in 1964, then memorable thunder & lightning in the Baltic once, sailing towards the Kiel Canal, and twenty years later, more celestial pyrotechnics at night while driving down a sinuous mountain road to reach the River Duero in Spain (but on both occasions I was too busy steering to enjoy the majesty of Nature’s fireworks). Over time, I have begun to suspect that thunderstorms actively avoid me. Björn, Dan and Adam will confirm, how, when they are enjoying fantastic storms in Paris, Guildford or East Cowes, say, I am in Portsmouth where the sky has merely darkened a little. But when I shelter from drizzle in Paris, Guildford or East Cowes, they ring to say they are experiencing the Mother & Father of all thunderstorms in Portsmouth. It is bizarre – and quite unfair.)
Autumn 1980, and Bjorn starts at Bay House School – a good school and a fine building (at least the original house, set in parkland overlooking Stokes Bay and the Isle of Wight). Sigyn and I were proud to see him overcoming the major disruption in his life of leaving behind friends, family and language in Sweden and adapting so well to his new country. Daniel and Adam still attended the Alverstoke Juniors C of E School and Sigyn would often take one or the other there on her cycle.
Tools for Self Reliance had now reached a critical point in its development. TFSR’s “HQ and administrative centre” consisted of one corner of a bedroom at Little Anglesey, where Sheila Smith typed away by day, and Sigyn and I slept at night.
Quite a number of collecting groups had sprung up around the country, some with their own refurbishing workshop, and all were sending tools down to us for despatch to Africa. Quite often, we came home to find crates dumped in our front garden and small boxes stacked in our porch. We did have a workshop and store in the cellars of the Old Rectory, also on Little Anglesey Road, but these had been built in 1348 for the Bishop of Winchester’s imports of wine, and were small, cold and damp. Sigyn argued quite reasonably that we must find new premises for the tools scheme – soon.
Then Peter Gardner, of the Minstead Lodge community in the New Forest, told of us of derelict buildings for sale at Netley Marsh, on the edge of the Forest.
24 August 1981, Peter, my mother and I visited the 3-acre site. It held one huge hangar, big enough to store any number of tools, plus ten barns, sheds and lean-tos, all in a sorry state: walls bulging, earthen floors, roofs collapsing, rafters rotten, gutters missing, no wiring, water or sewage… And rats, grown large and fat on animal fodder, watching us placidly from each nook and cranny. But a semi-detached house in reasonable condition was included in the asking price of £110,000, so the potential seemed enormous, though the price was impossible.
However, we persuaded the seller to come down to £77,500 (read the story in Keeping Something Alive) and within a few months, with a bank loan and help from the Minstead Lodge community, TFSR owned Netley Marsh Workshops. We were triumphant: TFSR had a proper home at last – but none of us could imagine what an enormous work load we had just taken on. Bravely, Eddie and Hilary Grimble were first to move there to look after things, later followed by Michael Jacobs and Mary Atkinson.
Rebuilding work starts at Netley Marsh
Back in Portsmouth, at the Research Unit in Milldam Barracks our work continued with a particularly happy small team. Anne Snowdon had turned out to be an excellent secretary, indeed more than a secretary, being as lively, good fun and sensible as she remains to this day. Carol Lupton and Robin Lovelock, both very bright research workers shared with me pretty similar political views; so the atmosphere was the best-ever between us all.
Milldam Barracks then (l) and in 2015 (r)
Within the Polytechnic, a good number of us had been urging that the grim car park in Milldam Barracks quadrangle should be replaced by lawns and trees. Our 19th century red-brick accommodation was already ugly enough, and looking out each day onto two acres of gas guzzlers depressed one’s spirits even further. Oxford, Cambridge and many newer universities enjoyed lawns and trees, so why not Portsmouth? We had support from several outsiders, including an influential member of the City Council, but many of our Polytechnic staff wanted to keep the odious parking lot. Two weeks before a critical decision was to be taken, I painted a large picture of the quadrangle of the future – with trees, grass, flowers, paths and seats – framed it and hung it in the main stairwell of the Social Studies department. I cannot know whether or not it converted any of our opponents, but today (2015) the Milldam Barracks quadrangle looks almost exactly as I imagined it. It is a joy to see students and staff sitting, reading and talking there and to hear birds singing in the trees.
However Social Services research itself, as required by Hampshire County Council, was becoming more commercialised. We were asked to undertake work that could raise external funds, with growing pressure to do quick projects. Also, the advent of computers was pushing us towards numbers-oriented approaches, which did not suit any of our team. At a day seminar in Lewes on the use of computers, I found myself looking round at twenty others researchers from the South of England – all clearly excited by the wonders of greater digitalisation – and I saw myself back in Stockholm, at a nightmare seminar in advanced statistics. At the lunch time break, I sat alone in a little park, ate my sandwich and thought, “I don’t have to play this game. It’s time to move on” – and drove straight back to Portsmouth.
Soon, Mike Jacobs at Netley Marsh was drafting an application to the European Community for a two-year “Development Education” grant for TFSR, with me in mind as one of the staff.
Autumn: Night-time excursions on the M4 by the Netley Marsh team, in Sunshine, our yellow Citroen 2CV, hunting Army lorries carrying American nuclear missiles. Alas, we never found a single convoy!
December 1982: Sigyn, Ruth, the lads and I took a bundle of firewood and a cake to support women surrounding the Greenham Common airbase near Newbury. Many had camped for weeks outside the gates in protest against the US Cruise missiles kept there. That day, thousands more women had arrived to ring the entire air base, some kilometres long, holding hands, singing and chanting. Here and there they had decorated the fence itself with flowers, weavings and placards. The December dusk fell early and with virtually no lighting, innumerable dark forms circulated in the gloom, some working their way clockwise, others heading the other way. In the midst of this stumbling crowd we suddenly realised that Daniel was no longer with us. Although he was twelve and no longer a young child, we still feared for him as we struggled through the crowd, holding each other very tight and shouting his name. After ten minutes of growing panic, we found him, quite unconcerned. But that was enough for one day; physically and emotionally drained, we left the Women of Greenham to their heroic mission, piled into Sunshine and headed home to Gosport.
Bjorn and Dan at Bay House, Adam at Alverstoke C of E Junior School. Sigyn working at Health Food store in Fareham and later at a nursing home in Beechcroft Road behind the allotments, the atmosphere of which she really disliked. Her real love was teaching. During this time, she was increasingly keen that we should eat healthy food. Her eyes glowed with excitement as the annual Pick-Your-Own season arrived for red & blackcurrants, cherries and strawberries. We would drive out to Titchfield and work our way along rows already picked by people before us, sampling the odd fruit we came across and only slowly filling out punnets. Sigyn always filled her basket quickly as she was eager to get home and start making jam. The kitchen smelled deliciously sweet as her jam bubbled away in a large aluminium pan, and the first taste – on soft buttered bread – more than made up for any aching backs.
Later, she also had us join a group based at Swanmore in the Meon Valley, which collected health foods from dealers in London. These came each month in hessian sacks, cardboard boxes and big cans, and group volunteers were expected to spend some hours in a farm shed dividing the wholesale produce into smaller portions to match each member’s monthly order. Without much difficulty, we weighed and packaged nuts, seeds, dried beans of many exotic types, red & black lentils, bulgur wheat, couscous and wholemeal flours, sometimes of amazing coarseness. More interesting, and tempting, were the dried figs, dates, raisins, brown sugar and various honeys, which had to be decanted from canisters into small jars. In summer months, no one fancied this work as ten or twenty wasps might well be buzzing round one’s head. Sigyn insisted that we Robertses should pull our weight on all these tasks and sometimes the afternoons felt very long – but we drove home with our yellow 2CV groaning under the five of us and stacks of nutritious, and generally tasty, health food.
In September, 1983, after a field trip to Tanzania – and realising the importance of supporting tool-making by village blacksmiths – I resigned from the SSRIU (thanks to Sigyn’s courage and faith in the idea) and joined Mary Atkinson and Michael Jacobs at Netley Marsh as a full time Coordinator (though officially as “Development Education worker”). I commuted each day from Gosport to the other side of Southampton – a long and tortuous drive through the city, as the M27/M3 stretch of motorway bypassing Southampton had not yet been built.
NEXT CHAPTER: SIXTEEN: LITTLE ANGLESEY 1985 – 1994
CONTENTS: MEMOIR CHAPTERS