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

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle