New Statesman | “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS

Originally posted in the New Statesman

Over 90 years ago, I was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, to a working-class family. Poverty was as natural to us as great wealth and power were to the aristocracy of that age. Like his father and grandfather before him, my dad, Albert, eked out a meagre existence as a miner, working hundreds of feet below the surface, smashing the rock face with a pickaxe, searching for coal.

Hard work and poor wages didn’t turn my dad into a radical. They did, however, make him an idealist, because he believed that a fair wage, education, trade unions and universal suffrage were the means to a prosperous democracy. He endured brutal working conditions but they never hardened his spirit against his family or his comrades in the pits. Instead, the harsh grind of work made his soul as gentle as a beast of burden that toiled in desolate fields for the profit of others.

My mother, Lillian, however, was made of sterner stuff. She understood that brass, not love, made the world go round. So when a midwife with a love of gin and carbolic soap delivered me safely on a cold winter’s night in February 1923 into my mum’s exhausted arms, I was swaddled in her rough-and-ready love, which toughened my skin with a harsh affection. I was the first son but I had two elder sisters who had already skinned their knees and elbows in the mad fight to stay alive in the days before the social safety network. Later on, our family would include two half-brothers, after my mother was compelled to look for a more secure provider than my dad during the Great Depression.

By the time I was weaned from my mother’s breast, I had begun to learn the cruel lessons that the world inflicted on its poor. At the age of seven, my eldest sister, Marion, contracted tuberculosis, which was a common and deadly disease for those who lived hand to mouth in early 20th century Britain. Her illness was directly spawned from our poverty, which forced us to live in a series of fetid slums.

Despite being a full-time worker, my dad was always one pay packet away from destitution. Several times, my family did midnight flits and moved from one decre­pit single-bedroom tenement to…

via New Statesman | “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS.

Briey (2) The Scandal Of The Phantom Army

This article details an action that could have changed the entire course of the First World War but which was not taken.

First World War Hidden History

French iron ore mines in the Briey basinOn the outbreak of war no attempt was made by the French army to strike at the crucial Thionville area of Lorraine, a target so close to the border that it was almost part of an extended Briey, even although it produced the iron and steel that provided the bulk of Germany’s armaments. In addition, no attempt was made to defend Briey or destroy it before it fell into enemy hands. Such an incomprehensible decision should have merited a flurry of high level court martials, yet no-one accepted the blame.  At the post-war commission investigating the ‘catastrophe’ of Briey. [1] Joffre insisted that the Briey basin constituted a very small part of the overall defence strategy, which few could fully comprehend without all the facts at their fingertips. [2] It was a card often played in the aftermath of the war when difficult questions were raised by journalists or ex-servicemen…

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