Ronnie's ex-pupil, Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry. Photo: Scott Gries/ImageDirect
Show Hide image

One hundred years of Ronnie: at a centenary birthday party in Spennymoor, County Durham

Swimming, war and teaching Bryan Ferry: as more of us see our centenary, one man shares his story.

Ronnie is shaved, dressed and waving as the staff wheel him into the room. Houdini was still climbing out of straitjackets the day Ron was born in Spennymoor, County Durham, back in February 1915. Kafka was proofreading The Metamorphosis for publication. Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George as prime minister.

Life in Spennymoor wasn’t easy. The ironworks had closed, along with a number of pits. Less than 10 per cent of houses had indoor toilets; most human waste went in with the ashes. By the 1920s the town was deep in depression, but Ron was lucky. He lived in one of the bigger houses. His father was a tailor whose children were always well dressed. And he was bright. In 1933, the year the SS led a torchlight parade to mark Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Ron went to nearby Durham University.

Soon after, he met Alberta – Bertie – who worked in M&S. They married in Houghton-le-Spring. But then came the war. Ron was deployed to the Cocos Islands, a strategic location for intelligence-gathering in the northern Indian Ocean, 7,246 miles from Spennymoor and his two young children. He ran the library and lived off English sausages. At night, land crabs took over the island. As his fellow soldiers were demobbed, Ron found himself the last to leave. He was alone in his tent for weeks. The war never left him.

Back home, he taught mathematics. One of his pupils was Bryan Ferry. “A bit sure of himself,” Ron says, “but always impeccably dressed.” Another of Ferry’s classmates was Howard Kendall, who took Everton to Cup glory in the 1980s. Ron still has people come up to him now – men and women, similarly stooped and ageing. “You won’t remember,” they say, “but you taught me geometry in ’53 . . .”

Retirement in 1976 brought a little leisure time. Ron and Bertie took full advantage of the package-holiday boom. They became sunlounger-lizards, always just back from the Med with new leather coats and photographs taken by Spanish waiters. Bertie died in 1995 with Ron in the chair next to her. He showed little visible emotion when she passed – public expressions of feeling by northern men are a more recent phenomenon.

He liked to swim every day at the public baths in Hetton-le-Hole until he hit 90, at which point he quietly griped about the “pensioners” – two decades his junior – who would gossip at the shallow end.

Ron’s in a residential home now. He forgets things – people’s names, which order to put his clothes on. But he never forgets the war. He never forgets Bertie. Last month the Department for Work and Pensions called his daughter-in-law, Dorothy, to confirm his approaching centenary so that the Queen could send her customary card. A rare occasion, Dorothy thought. Not at all, the DWP representative said: 5,000 cards go out every year and the figure is rising. In 1915 life expectancy for men was little over 50 but advances in medicine, diet and exercise have changed all that. The DWP calls again the week of the birthday, “just to check”.

The home is helping host his party. We’re all here. Ron’s children, Geoff – my father – and Pauline, over from Spain. Grandchildren; three great-grandchildren, too – people who may live to see 2110. The Office for National Statistics estimates an average life expectancy of 96 years for the next generation of newborns.

Ron is happy. He’s enjoying the attention. I ask him what he thinks of the future. He smiles. “I’m thinking of going back to work next year,” he says.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496