Jarrow March 2011: Kevin Maguire on the road for historic repeat
by Kevin Maguire, Daily Mirror 3/10/2011
Read more: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/columnists/maguire/2011/10/03/jarrow-march-2011-kevin-maguire-on-the-road-for-historic-repeat-115875-23462922/#ixzz1ZhtA9yQa
THE 330-mile walk for work from Tyneside to London is history repeating itself for James Allison. The retired labourer was a young boy when he skipped alongside his dad, also called James, one of the marchers on the 1936 Jarrow Crusade. He was also there, 75 years on, to watch a group of young people leave town in the footsteps of the most famous protest trek of them all.
“I was going along, holding my dad’s hand,” he recalled. “And one of the others grumbled that I was putting them out of step.”
Now 84, Mr Allison went on: “It was terrible in the 1930s during the Depression. Everybody was out of work up here, you had no money and you were always hungry.
“I went to school in my bare feet and drank out of a jam jar – you couldn’t pour in hot water or it’d crack. If you had a chair, you had to sell it before you got help from the unemployment board.”
Nobody claims the jobless are as badly off today as the means-tested destitute of 1930s Depression Britain. Half of a poverty-stricken Jarrow was out of work and struggling to stave off malnutrition. Yet there are signs the great British public is stirring. As the procession makes its way round town, with a brass band near the front, shoppers applaud, bus drivers toot their horns and lunchtime drinkers spill out of the pub to watch. Ordinary people are increasingly resentful of the unjust austerity of Tory Cameronomics.
One in every 10 workers in North East England is dumped on the dole. Youth unemployment at just over one in five is at a record national high. The dreams of young people are destroyed by education cuts and £9,000 university fees. Insecurity is terrorising workers; plummeting living standards the curse of a growing number of families. Those in work, such as the cleaners on the minimum wage at Tyneside’s Metro, risk losing their paid meal breaks.
Yet at this week’s Tory conference in Manchester, our Government of millionaires will blame the jobless for their plight. A big stick will be waved at the jobless while big tax cuts are dangled before the wealthy. Lizi Gray, the great granddaughter of another of the original marchers, will walk parts of the route between studying at college. The 17-year-old, from nearby Gateshead, explained: “If you go to university you’ll be saddled with a huge debt that you might never be able to pay it off.
“Is that what we want? Britain’s getting unfairer, more unequal. It doesn’t have to be like that. This march is about an alternative.”
About 30 marchers will cover all or most of the miles, compared with the 200 three-quarters of a century ago. Unemployed chef Rhys Harris, from Pontypridd, South Wales, intends to take a few days off to watch Cardiff play Burnley in the fourth round of the Carling Cup.
I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen in 1936.
Trainers and blue T-shirts have replaced hobnail boots and oilskins. The elderly may also be amused to learn they will take five weeks compared with the four weeks of the originals. Indeed, I heard the first jokey, “Are we nearly there yet?” in the very first mile.
The route, however, is broadly similar to that followed in the year of Edward VIII’s abdication. Last night the marchers were due to reach Durham and then on to London by way of Harrogate, Sheffield, Leicester, Coventry, Northampton and Luton before a rally in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, November 5.
Youth Fight for Jobs, the group behind the trek, is an offshoot of the Socialist Party, formerly part of the Militant Tendency, which Neil Kinnock devoted much energy in the 1980s to expelling from the Labour Party. Half a dozen unions including the biggest, Unite, PCS civil servants and RMT rail workers back the march.
On Saturday, I addressed a rally alongside trade unionists to send the walkers on their way on Saturday. Dave Nellist, the ex-Labour MP kicked out over his Militant links, has lost none of his combative rhetoric. Now a Socialist Party councillor in Coventry, he warned that smashing windows and rioting will achieve nothing. Even Mr Cameron may agree with that sentiment – if not Mr Nellist’s call for revolutionary action to overthrow the Tories.
Having grown up on South Tyneside, I can attest to the hold the Jarrow Crusade has on the town. It’s as much a part of the North East’s identity as the soaring Angel of the North or the magnificent Tyne Bridge. Local lad Stephen Hepburn, Jarrow’s Labour MP, was inspired as a kid by tales of the marchers. In 2001, on the 65th anniversary of the Crusade, he unveiled “The Spirit of Jarrow” statue to honour the marchers.
It’s outside Morrisons – not a spot art snobs would pick. But it guarantees a daily audience for Hepburn’s predecessor “Red Ellen” Wilkinson, two banner-carrying marchers and a couple of kids running alongside.
“We’ve massive local pride in the Jarrow Crusade,” Hepburn told me. “But it’s more than a piece of history. It’s a warning about what the Tories will do, turning their backs on the unemployed. And a rallying cry to good people everywhere to stand up and be counted.”
History has repeated itself too for pensioner Emma Madsen. Back in 1936, when she was a jobless teenager, she stood near Jarrow Town Hall to cheer the leaving marchers.
Fast forward to 2011 and the former barmaid was in Jarrow Park, curious to see this group. “Everybody was much poorer than today,” she remembered. “But good luck to them. At least they’re having a go.”
Then, with a twinkle in her eyes, she showed Jarrow’s true grit. “I might have gone with them if I had the legs,” she said. “As it is, I’d have just slowed them up.”
I’m not so sure, although she is 94.