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

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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