PREVIOUS CHAPTER: THIRTEEN ÄLGSTIGEN
Perhaps I didn’t quite realise at the time what a traumatic decision this move was for Sigyn – or perhaps I did, but then suppressed the memory – but it became clear to me with increased force years later when she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she wrote about her feeling of loss on leaving Sweden. (She contributed to a book called Fighting Spirit). Whatever I felt, and feel today, the outcome was that in May 1972 I took a ship from Gothenburg to Immingham and with a growing feeling of excitement at the prospect of living once more in my home country travelled down to Portsmouth, arriving in the late afternoon of the day before the interview.
I had prepared myself very thoroughly for the interview and had even posted several copies of the strategies that I proposed for the first couple of years of the SSRIU (the research centre in Portsmouth). My hope was that the panel would see these in advance and therefore gain me a headstart.
A very clear memory, having checked in at some hotel or other, is of walking along Penny Street in Old Portsmouth towards what I hoped would be the sea. The street ended in a ramp, which I climbed, and saw before me the most stunning, sparkling vista of blue-green sea, sailing boats, ferries, navy vessels sailing up and down the Solent, in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, all lit up by the late afternoon sunshine, and beyond them the beautiful green hills of the Isle of Wight. I was overwhelmed. It was my dream come true. If I wanted to live anywhere, work anywhere, have my children grow up anywhere, it was here.
Next morning I turned up Ravelin House, the dignified mansion that served as offices for the Polytechnic President and found myself one of six candidates waiting to be interviewed. We chatted and lied, claiming that we didn’t care whether we got the job or not, and one by one we were called in to face the panel. When it was my turn I entered to find a panel of seven men sitting behind tables arranged in a U shape. A lone chair had been placed in the middle of the U, with no table before it, so that I sat fully exposed, hands on knees, facing my questioners. As an interview technique, it was old fashioned and appalling.
The interview was tough and probing; some seemed to feel that my work in Africa was a positive disadvantage, and when I suggested that Portsmouth – for centuries a military and naval base and in some senses a Colony itself within the United Kingdom – eyebrows were raised. ‘I want you to tell me in one word, in one word,’ shot one member of the panel, ‘what it is that links this city with the Research Unit you wish to lead’. This was a tough one and I honestly didn’t know what word to choose, but seeing an aerial photo of a crowded street on the wall above the questioner’s head, I began, ‘Well, the people who –‘ ‘Precisely,’ he concluded, ‘The PEOPLE!’ Gradually, I felt, they began to warm to me and, towards the end, when one of them said, ‘Now, about this North Sea shipwreck…’ I knew things were going well. On my application form, under ‘Other Interests’, I had taken care to write: SAILING. ATTEMPTED THE VOYAGE STOCKHOLM-LOWESTOFT BUT SANK IN NORTH SEA. It was bait, and it had just the effect I hoped for.
Waiting outside on the Ravelin House lawn until the panel had made its decision, we six candidates continued to lie about our indifference as to whether or not we got the job, but it was with a feeling of relief and elation that I heard the secretary call down from the balcony, ‘Would Mr Roberts please come inside?’
Having accepted the job, and pretty weary from the stressful interview, I then found myself invited to join the panel in order to interview the second member of my research team. In some ways this was more stressful than the morning’s ordeal, as the other seven members put their questions first– often using up any good idea I might have had – and I had to come up with something intelligent at the tail end. Clearly any question I asked would be scrutinised by the panel as a test of my own competence. Eventually, we chose a small, intense woman, Elizabeth R., with brilliant academic qualifications, first class honours in Anthropology and a fine grounding in statistics. This turned out to be an ill-starred choice.
The third member of my team was a solid, dark Welshman, Evan Jones, and the three of us – together with Tom Williams, Head of Social Studies at the Polytechnic, a wise and supportive chief – began to shape the research unit that was to occupy me for the next eleven years. Portsmouth was very much a military base in 1972. The Naval Dockyards employed over 23,000 men, while sailors and officers still walked the streets in their uniforms. I remember how, one lunchtime, Evan Jones and I popped into a pub for a pie and a pint and found it crowded with naval officers, all in uniform, their caps under their arms, chatting away. Evan nudged me and said in an unnecessarily loud voice, ‘Oh my! Did you ever so many bus conductors in one pub?’ The room fell silent, faces turned towards us. ‘Evan,’ I whispered, ‘Maybe we’ll try somewhere else..?’ (For the younger generation: a bus in those days had a driver and a ticket collector/conductor – and the conductor typically wore flat caps and sober uniforms.)
Moving from Algstigen: Sigyn’s sister, Ing Marie, lends a hand…and removal men do the rest
Back in Sweden we had a month or two to wind things up, sell the house, pack a little furniture and have it sent to England. Friends and family came to help on the last day and there was real sadness, not least among Sigyn’s brothers and sisters that we were leaving. Sigyn and the boys went first to my parents in Manchester while I found a flat at No 3 Flint Street, in Southsea and began to equip it. When they did arrive in Portsmouth, together with my mother, I still had no double bed for Sigyn and myself. With minutes ticking by till closing time on a Saturday, she and I rushed along Kings Road and into a furniture shop, bought a large mattress and then staggered slowly back to Flint Street carrying the springy, bouncy, floppy thing on our heads and shoulders. The Flint Street flat proved cold as autumn turned into winter. We, on the top floor, found we had no insulation between our bedroom ceiling and the roof space and the ill-fitting metal window frames (single-glazed, of course) let in icy draughts. We had no central heating and the feeble gas fires scarcely gave any warmth. Nor was there sound insulation between us and neighbours next door or in the flat below, so we were ever nervous about the boys shouting or rushing from room to room on the uncarpeted, resonating floors. We looked out into a dismal street and our only bit of garden was three floors down, much too distant to allow our lads to play there unsupervised. What a contrast to our snug little house in Sweden!
The boys help unpack at Flint Street
Sigyn was unhappy, too, about general conditions in the city and in England generally: the shabbiness, lead pipes for drinking water, poor labelling of foods, limited provision for pre-school children and cyclists – problems that Sweden had tackled twenty years before.
Flint Street flat
Grandma Ruth helps to furnish the boys’ room
I was starting to find my way with the SSRIU designing a study into foster care in Portsmouth. We held meetings at Social Services area offices and at County HQ in Winchester. On 3rd March, Paddy Sheridan, Head of Social Services in Southsea, invited Sigyn and me to an evening at her flat on King’s Road where we met David Collins (also working with Social Services) and his wife Erika. Paddy thought that Sigyn and Erika would find things in common, being both from overseas. We found that we lived very near each other, we in Flint Street and the Collinses on Stone Street. David and I had similar political views, while Erika and Sigyn – as Paddy had predicted – also had much in common.
During this period I was also active with Ex-Volunteers International (EVI) – trying to radicalise volunteers going overseas so that they would see “underdevelopment” in a new light and become activists for a fairer world when they returned to the UK. This also tied in with the World Development Movement (WDM) where I soon met Sarah Wells (later, Hirom) of the Polytechnic’s Geography Department – who was to play a very active part five years later on the Board of Directors of Tools for Self Reliance.
There was growing contact, too, with Frank Judd, our local MP, looking into the future for employment in Portsmouth as the Naval Dockyard was being run down. His wife, Chris, was also to play an important part during the early years of TFSR.
Ruth, Dan and Björn outside 54 Village Road, Alverstoke
Ruth and Bob Roberts sold Northwood, their house in Prestwich, and moved to 54 Village Road, right in the heart of Alverstoke Village in Gosport. Road. We had also moved to Gosport, to a house on Park Road. They felt that they had missed so many years of contact with me and Sigyn, they now wanted to be close to us and to their grandsons. Very soon, my father picked up again on his adult literacy work and The News (Portsmouth) ran a major article on him on 15th August.
My diary details few interesting events, but the end-of-year résumé reads:
‘1973 has been a good year. We began the year at Flint Street, but continued to look for a house of our own. At last, found 3 Park Road (Gosport) with a view over the water. Small but snug. Unfortunately Nan (Agnes Dean) died around that time. She was a fine person. A little later, my parents moved (south from Manchester) to Alverstoke Village and they have been able to get to know and play with the children, which is good for everybody. The job has been interesting in its way, but I don’t feel we are touching its real potential. How things will be after April 1974 is unsure – maybe Winchester? Some enjoyable days in Göteborg in August at an EVI conference, with the outcome that I am now introducing a new booklet about development and the concept of power – hope it will be good.
But the most important happening is of course that Sigyn is pregnant again. We must make sure that everything goes well and that Sigyn can then get out and find a job outside the home. Thanks for this year!’
What I did not mention in that résumé was the struggle that Björn had in adapting to a new country and a new language. Daniel was still too young for it to be a problem, but his brother was already Swedish and it must have been frightening suddenly to find all around him speaking a foreign tongue, particularly his mother and father. Of course we spoke to him in Swedish too, but there were times when we had to communicate with others and this really upset him. We felt desperately sad that our happy little boy of a year before was now so miserable.
A year or two later, he did a remarkable drawing that we called Homo statisticus. A psychiatrist would have a field day interpreting it. Is that Daddy there, crammed full of research data? The small figure looks scared, but tries bravely to match the giant by his side in leaping. The whole suggests surprise and instability. I find the drawing very moving and still feel sad that our brave little boy was made to pay such a price for my determination to move the family to England. But then again, it could just be a drawing of a Jack-in-a-Box. Be that as it may, for eighteen months Björn remained very quiet and then, one day when Sigyn asked him something in Swedish, he told her that from now on he would speak only English, which he did – and went from strength to strength.
Another thing not mentioned above was that 3 Park Road had a garage, and when we moved in we found that the previous owner had left all his old tools behind. They came in useful for dozens of jobs about the house, but five years were to pass before I was to appreciate the wider potential of old tools.
3 Park Road looked out onto a creek that was pleasant at high tide, but as the water ebbed away it revealed piles of rubbish and shopping trolleys. We were also close to a Victorian red brick building that had once been a Workhouse for the poor of Gosport. It had two wings, one for men and boys, the other for women and girls, with the Superintendent’s rooms separating the two – presumably to keep the sexes well apart. Sometimes, when we dug in our back garden or in the little allotment a few yards from the garage, we would find remnants of clay pipes smoked by the interns a hundred years before. Gosport had featured in national newspapers early in the 19th century when a baby was abandoned on the steps of the Workhouse during a snow storm. A few years later, Charles Dickens used this event in his opening chapter of Oliver Twist.
Some months after moving in, I organised for a skip to be left by the creek and all one Saturday afternoon a group of local children, including Björn and Daniel, splashed around in the mud dragging out trolleys, car tyres, chunks of concrete, plastic bags and other very yucky objects. By the end of the day we had the skip pretty nearly full and the youngsters rushed back home excited by their volunteer project, muddy from head to toe. What their mums had to say about it, we never heard, and luckily no one raised questions about health & safety. To round it off, we painted a sign “HELP KEEP A TIDY CREEK” and nailed it to a tall post sunk by the shore. It is still quite legible today.
By the end of the year the Social Services Research Unit had published its first report – into the problems faced by foster parents in the Portsmouth area. It went down well both in academic and Social Services circles and we were soon asked to begin a second study, asking ‘why does Portsmouth have one of the highest suicide rates in the country?’.
Björn had a year at Wakefield House nursery school. He most enjoyed playing in the “wet sand and dry sand”. He also learned to ride a two wheeler, cycling up and down the back alley between the garages and some strips of allotment.
8th January – Sigyn and I took Björn over the bridge that crosses Workhouse Lake and into the playground of Stone Lane Primary School (what grim Dickensian names; both have now been changed). We had lumps in our throats as our little lad joined other new entrants heading toward the gates. Our baby – now a schoolboy! Björn, on the other hand, took it all in his stride and disappeared into the school quite confidently. Daniel, meanwhile, was soon to take his place at Wakefield House and he, too, became preoccupied with “wet sand and dry sand”.
First day for Björn at Stone Lane
Besides his work with adults with literacy problems, my father was also writing a new book about Salford life before the First World War, A Ragged Schooling. Unfortunately, he also became very ill around this time and the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar diagnosed bowel (stomach?) cancer which was too advanced to operate.
Sigyn, of course, was growing bigger by the day with our third child. We chose not to know if it would be a girl or a boy. Spring turned to summer and we invited a Swedish teenager, Anna Karin, a neighbour’s girl from Älgstigen, to come to us for the crucial month of July. The month was very well advanced when Sigyn and I made the dash to Blake House maternity home in the north of Gosport. It turned out to be quite old fashioned and a complete contrast to the modern, super hygienic Swedish hospitals. The delivery room was ten steps from the ward where other women lay awaiting their turn, so they must have been quite unnerved by the screams and groans of women ahead of them. As Sigyn lay on the delivery couch I climbed onto a chair and ran my finger round the lamp shade above her, a thick layer of fluff floated down.
As with her first two deliveries, Sigyn had the whole thing over in double-quick time and it was wonderful to see little Adam appear into the world early in the morning on the 31st July, just twenty-four hours before my own birthday. He was soon home and became our third baby to occupy the cradle, now becoming a family heirloom. I took pride in carving his initials and date of birth – as I’d done for his brothers – now on the third rocker.
A week or so later, we took a photo of Bob Roberts holding Adam in his lap, with young Dan beaming at them, and a short while after that, despite his illness, Bob, Ruth and I took the train north to Salford University, where my father received an honorary Master’s Degree for his books on Salford life at the turn of the century. In the official photograph he is smiling broadly, well pleased by the recognition that came so late in life, but (I imagine) slightly uncomfortable in the academic finery which was not really his style at all.
In August, my booklet Questioning Development came back from the printers. As always, I tried to question overseas development in terms of power – when there are changes, who becomes more powerful and who becomes weaker? Although (because?) it was less than 60 pages long it made quite an impact in volunteer circles. 30,000 copies were published in all, including translations to French, Dutch, Japanese, German, Italian and Esperanto.
Both Björn and Daniel were turning out some fine little drawings. Probably all parents think their kids’ sketches are special, and we were no exception.
By early September, my father was very ill indeed and often in intense pain. He wanted to remain at home and Ruth looked after him with patience and affection, though she too was growing exhausted. Their earlier battles had been put aside and the later years of their marriage were much happier. One evening, I looked in to see how things were and she asked me to go up to him while she made tea. I entered the bedroom and he was half-sitting up in bed, gripping the sheets, moaning and staring hard at the wall, clearly suffering another bout of pain. It passed and he relaxed and smiled up at me. We chatted a little before the next surge of agony wracked his body and he sat up again, rigid. I bent over and put my arm round his back to support him, and at that moment – in that position – he died.
Dazed, I laid him back down on the pillow. I didn’t call my mother immediately, but sat there with my arm still round his back, shocked, less by the drama of his dying than by its speed, its banality. ‘Is this it, then, dying? How frighteningly easy.’ But it also felt very natural, a privilege even, to have helped the man who gave me life, and so much help and inspiration, to slip out of this world. I won’t add, “…into the next”, as it feels glib and I doubt that there is any such place, but I am still deeply grateful to have looked in at 54 Village Road at that moment. I could so easily have hurried by.
Bob Roberts was cremated in Portchester and his obituary appeared in several newspapers, where he was described as, ‘Writer, broadcaster and driving force behind the Portsmouth Literacy Project’.
Much of the rest of the year, besides the research work at Portsmouth Polytechnic, I spent on anti-apartheid activity, writing letters and articles for the local paper, which provoked salvos of letters from service personnel and their wives telling me to, ‘Leave South Africa Alone…South Africa is an independent state and its politics are no concern of this or any other country… The black African is not the same as the European. He does not think the same… he does not wish to be the same. In 100 or 500 years (who knows?) I hope he will…’
Sometime during the winter, Sigyn and I decided that 3 Park Road was too small a house in which to bring up three children, and I cycled off each weekend, with a fistful of estate agents’ brochures to check on likely-looking properties.
In March, I came across the most wonderful house for sale, in a stunning location – the Walled Garden Cottage, with its four big bedrooms and massive marble fireplaces, located at the end of a long wooded drive and looking out over the Meon water meadows. It had once formed part of Titchfield Manor and its large fruit garden had ten-foot walls of old mellow brick, while another section had stone troughs and fountains covered in deep green moss. I couldn’t wait to peel back the moss and get the water flowing again. There was even a little path running down to Titchfield Haven, where one could keep a sailing boat. The price for all this on the south coast of England: £18,000.
At right angles to the house, forming an L, were stables, already converted into living accommodation, and our friends David and Erika Collins considered buying that – so we would have great neighbours!
Sigyn was less enthusiastic. She pointed to a car breaker’s yard, 75 yards from the property and sharing “our” drive (it was rumoured, cars turned up late at night to be re-sprayed and driven off again before dawn); the price was so low because the car breakers were actively hostile to prospective buyers; Titchfield Manor had burned down in unexplained circumstances and lead had been stripped from much of the remaining roofs. And, a further detail, the property had no mains water, gas, sewage or electricity.
Details, details – always details! I was heart-broken at the thought of missing such a rare opportunity. Sigyn and I argued for weeks, but when a survey of the property revealed extensive rot in the joists [‘Dry rot – So? We can easily deal with rot!’] Sigyn put her foot down and I conceded defeat. (Ten years later, I happened to meet the man who did buy the Walled Garden Cottage. He wouldn’t sell it for Half a Million.)
These were busy months and years. Besides my job at the Polytechnic, I was very involved with Ex-Volunteers International, an NGO that was trying to get volunteers and their organisations to take a more critical look at overseas aid and the causes of underdevelopment. This involved getting them to analyse their involvement in terms of power – who is made stronger and who is weakened. The whole family went to conferences, where I was speaking and I also took Björn once to Paris.
Paris was just a day trip, but perhaps just because time was short the memory stuck very clearly in our minds. We arrived at dawn at Gare du Nord and were soon down near Notre Dame having a simple French breakfast in the early-morning sunshine. We walked past the bookinistes along the Seine, heading for Place de la Concorde and Amitié’s old mooring place under the bridge. We looked in at the Coordinating Committee (UNESCO), where things seemed to be in a chaotic state, and hoped to surprise Arthur by turning up unannounced – but the surprise was on us as he was out of town. The rest of the day is less clear, but I guess that was already plenty for a six year-old boy to take in before we caught the evening train back to London. We had a wonderful chance for father and son to chat about the wider world, and Björn was already becoming somewhat political (politicised?).
A month or two earlier he had written a short note of support – pretty much off his own bat – to Tony Benn M.P. It read, “Dear Tony Benn, Don’t take any notice of the angry things people say in the newspapers. You are right. Björn”. Benn sent him a friendly reply.
In April, a moment of altruism led to a brief family crisis. The SSRIU had been running for over three years, and it suddenly came to me that its hierarchical structure was unfair and counterproductive. We had a Senior Research Officer, a Research Officer, a Research Assistant and a Secretary, all on different pay scales, yet in practice we shared out the work very equally. Each person had special skills of course, but who was to say which of these were the most valuable, the most deserving? Without any one of them, the Unit could not function. One evening, when my work colleagues had gone home, I wrote a paper proposing that we should all be renamed ‘Research Officer’, and that our salaries should be merged and redistributed equally. I left a copy of the proposal on each person’s desk and went home rather pleased with my bold step.
After tea, when the boys had gone to bed, I told Sigyn what I’d done and she went up the wall. “Are you mad?” she cried, “We have three children! Two of your team have no kids at all, and the other member just one. And two of your team have spouses earning a good salary, but I’m stuck here at home earning nothing.” She phoned my mother, who came round immediately and supported her to the hilt. Reluctantly, I began to see their point – then I grabbed my bike, caught the late-night Gosport ferry, and raced to the Polytechnic to pocket the papers: so much for my fine principles. When my colleagues arrived next morning, they never knew how close they had been to getting a very acceptable pay rise.
In April, too, having failed to buy The Walled Garden Cottage, we found another dream house for sale only seven hundred yards up the road: No 1, Little Anglesey. This was to become the Roberts’s family home, broadly speaking, for the next twenty years. It cost just the same as the Walled Garden Cottage: £18,000.
Our house on Park Road still had a hefty mortgage, which could be transferred, but 50,000 kronor from our old place on Älgstigen was still stuck in a Swedish bank because of export controls on currency at the time. I decided to risk breaking the law, and attending a conference in Sweden that summer I used the opportunity to withdraw the full 50,000 kronor. Today, that is not a great amount, but then it was close to two years of a university lecturer’s salary. With my inside jacket pocket stuffed with packs of notes I had no problem leaving Sweden nor landing in England and I reached Liverpool Street station in London around 11 at night, with just enough time to catch the last train to Portsmouth from Waterloo. At Embankment, I was the only person in my Underground carriage until three men jumped in just as the doors were closing. I thought nothing of it, but a fight immediately broke out and one, bleeding profusely broke away and staggered along the carriage to sit down beside me. The next minute was pretty tense as I thought rapidly what might happen next, but to my immense relief we stopped at a station and all three got off. I sat tight, naturally.
The train pulled out and it was only as I was calming down that I realised that the station had been Waterloo. It seemed an age before we reached Kennington, where I had another long wait alone on the platform for a train to take me back to Waterloo. And once there, of course, the last train had left for Portsmouth. So I stood in a doorway clutching my coat tight around me, kept warm only by my jumpiness and the extra padding from our nest egg until the mail train departed at 5.30. But we now had the money and 1, Little Anglesey was ours. We moved in early October, 1975.