26 September 2009

The Burston Rebellion

By Liam Carroll

Every year on the first Sunday in September, people from all over Britain and the world descend on the small quiet and picturesque village of Burston in South Norfolk, a few miles north of Diss. Why?

As the EDP reported on September 7, they gather to commemorate the longest strike in British history; not a conventional strike of industrial workers, but a strike by schoolchildren against the school authorities.

The story begins when Mr and Mrs Higdon came to Burston in 1911 as head teachers. Not only were they very popular teachers, they were also social reformers. In those days the parish was ruled and controlled by the farmers, the gentry and the priest, although the majority of the voting population were farm labourers and craftsmen.

In those days farmers would take the children out of school to pick stones out of the fields for little or no payment. Such was the nature of society. The Higdons, however, tried to put a stop to these practices. Besides running the school, they would meet with the villagers and impress upon them the fact that, as the democratic majority in their village, they could run the village themselves.

Within a year or two, the Higdons had successfully encouraged the parishioners to take democratic control of the parish. This however offended the authorities, and a farmer's daughter at the school then claimed she was hit by one of the teachers. This gave the education authorities a reason to remove them from their position. Subsequently one of the students, Violet Potter, convinced all the school children to stop attending.

Due to the fact the children were not attending a state school many of the parents were taken to court and fined a large sum. This proved to be a great hardship as most of them were poorly paid, however they were adamant that they would not accept the removal of their teachers. Subsequently the village carpenter who had a small room on the green renovated it and offered it as a school for the Higdons to teach in.

In order to keep it running, letters were sent to trade unions all over the world seeking support for the school. Funds came in from every corner of the globe to pay salaries and maintain the facilities. The school ran successfully despite the fact that even the National Union of Teachers objected to this situation. The strike eventually ended with the death of Mr Higdon, and the children went back to the state school which had lain empty for 30 years.

The annual commemoration of the strike, the Burston Rally, always has a National and International speaker of high standing. It has stalls, from trade unions to Amnesty International, as well as having cakes, a beer-tent, second hand books and music.

The carpenters shop has become a museum containing artefacts and booklets about the strike. The external walls are made of engraved bricks from all over the world; sent by those groups and individuals who supported the strike. Significant among them is one from Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, whose involvement with East Anglia went beyond support for the strike school, for he also gave all the profits from a book printed in England to an anarchist commune in Suffolk.

What is exceptional about this strike is that it was instituted and carried out by children between the ages of 7 to 12 years. Their awareness of the social significance of what these two exemplary teachers in this small rural village were trying to achieve at such an early time is evident in this remarkable strike.

Please visit the museum which commemorates this unique place in our Norfolk history (a key is available in a nearby house).

This article is based on the work of Colin Phillips.

19 September 2009

Peace with justice

By Nicola Pratt

Last week, I sat at the Dead Sea in Jordan and admired the beauty of the rolling hills of the Palestinian West Bank on the opposite shore. The next day, the boom of Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier overhead reminded me that conflict continues to blight this beautiful area.

President Obama aims to resolve this situation. At the UN General Assembly meeting this month, he hopes to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. For almost two decades, the US has brokered several rounds of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The first round led to the signing of the Oslo Accords, in 1993, under the auspices of then US president Bill Clinton. In this agreement, Israel allowed the establishment of a Palestinian National Authority (with similar responsibilities to those of Norfolk County Council) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - Palestinian lands that Israel occupied illegally since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In the second stage (which was not reached), Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate issues such as the final borders of Israel and an expected Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948. This agreement was widely heralded as historic since this was the first time that Israel agreed to negotiate with the PLO, which it had previously labelled as terrorists. However, whilst the Oslo Accords got the two sides talking, it created a problematic framework for peace since it forced the Palestinians to negotiate for rights that, in international law, should be already guaranteed.

Imagine that you wake up one morning, look out of your window and see that a group of strangers have built a house in your garden. Not only do they refuse to leave (despite the fact that their presence is against the law) but they invite their friends to also build houses. They stop you from entering your garden. They siphon off your water supply. All this time, the police do nothing. You obviously get upset and decide that, if no one is going to evict these people, you will have to take the law into your own hands. So, you use violence to get the intruders off your land. The intruders retaliate with even more violence and manage to force you out of your house. Finally, the government intervenes to stop the fighting. However, rather than removing the intruders from your land, they instruct you to accept them and to renounce the use of violence against them. For their part, the intruders have to accept you but they do not have to recognise your rights to your land, or even to renounce the use of violence against you.

Imagine that you are Palestinian and the intruders are Israeli. This, more or less, characterises the various rounds of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Today, President Obama, with the EU, is pressuring Israel to stop further settlement building in the West Bank (which is already home to half a million Israelis). For the Palestinians, the settlement freeze is a prerequisite to restart negotiations. This is a good first step. However, there cannot be a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without recognition of the rights of the Palestinians. Israelis feel that having their own state is international recognition of the injustices perpetrated by Europe against the Jewish people - particularly, the Holocaust. However, it is unjust for the international community to make the Palestinians pay the price for European atrocities. The Palestinians deserve justice too and the US and its allies must recognise this and pressure Israel to do so too. Glaring double standards create violence and hatred. We all have an interest in ensuring that Israelis and Palestinians make peace – but a lasting peace based on justice and not merely a photo opportunity for politicians.

12 September 2009

Re-imagining our future

By Marguerite Finn

On 6th September I attended the Charities Day at Mannington Hall in support of the Wulugu Project. As I wandered around enjoying the many attractions, I found myself thinking how difficult it would be to explain the anomaly between an English, moated, stately home and the problems experienced by the children in Northern Ghana – for whom the funds raised at Mannington were destined.

On the surface, there would seem to be a vast economic and cultural divide between 'them' and 'us' - but this apparent difference is currently being shown to be false.

For the past 300 years, science, from Newton and Descartes onwards, idealised separateness. According to Lynne McTaggart, writing in Resurgence Magazine, "from the moment we are born, we are told that for every winner there must be a loser – and from that constricted vision we have fashioned our world".

But Lynne maintains that frontier research into the nature of human consciousness has turned this scientific 'certainty' on its head demonstrating that all matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection: "at our essence, we exist as a unity, a relationship – utterly interdependent, the parts affecting the whole at every moment".

Therefore what happens in Norfolk affects what happens in Ghana.

We are only just beginning to understand the vast and untapped human potential at our disposal: the individual's extraordinary capacity to influence the world. If we could learn how to direct our potential for influence in a positive manner, we could improve every aspect of our world – and overcome the endemic corruption found within global society. Across the world, governments are battling their way out of a greed-induced global recession. This applies to Ghana as well as Britain. Young people in this country often stray into alcohol and drug abuse, neglect their education and end up on the streets, wasting their individual potential and failed by a system under stress. In Ghana, young women are driven, through lack of opportunity, to head for the cities in the South, looking for employment. They frequently end up as prostitutes, only returning home to die of AIDS.

In Norfolk, a small, dedicated group of people has achieved outstanding successes in a deprived area of northern Ghana. This month, the Wulugu Project has managed to open six more primary schools, each with a full compliment of girls. Older girls, previously condemned to slavery, flood into the five 'Wulugu' vocational schools, where they get high quality training for locally-based careers. They learn to read and write, alongside nutrition, family-care, catering, tailoring, hairdressing and office work. Wulugu is currently building a hostel for girls at the vocational school in Savelugu, allowing girls from more distant villages to return safely to education.

Lynne Symonds, Wulugu founder, explains: "Wulugu owes its success in part to the dedication of its supporters here in East Anglia, who tirelessly fund-raise, strengthened by the knowledge that 99p of every pound goes to help people who are forgotten, largely due to their geographical inaccessibility. Those who work with 'Wulugu' in Ghana walk tall because it has such a good reputation due to its refusal to participate in any form of corruption".

Let us hope that the girls of Ghana are spared the excesses of 20th century philosophy where human beings became commodified 'units' or 'human resources' – their individual creativity curtailed by over-management.

This 21st century revolution in scientific thinking gives us back a sense of optimism, something that has been stripped out of our sense of ourselves by the arid target-driven outlook of the 20th century. We are not isolated beings living out desperate lives on a lonely planet. We were never alone. We were always part of a larger whole – just as the Wulugu Project has proved.

5 September 2009

Remembering the atrocities of war

By Juliette Harkin

As I was leaving Paris last week, after a wonderful train and biking holiday around central France, a piercing and frightening sound of sirens interrupted my enjoyment of the sights of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. As France commemorated the eve of the 70th anniversary of the 2nd World War, I was reminded of the rusty old Singer sewing machines that I had recently seen in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Oradour had been a sleepy village in the Haute-Vienne region of central France that had come under the control of the French Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis. The region, with its dense forests, was also a hide-out for the French Resistance fighters who opposed the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. After the D-Day landing of 1944 in Normandy the Nazis swept into central and Southern France, in an attempt to avoid further allied advances in France. As part of this advance a Waffen SS unit entered Oradour, and (using the excuse of one of its officers having been seized by the Resistance) rounded up 642 men, women and children. The Nazis separated the men and moved them to locations across the village before shooting them in cold blood. The women and children had been taken by the Germans to the village church. In a brutal act of barbarity the Nazis opened fire on these innocent women and children, sealed the church and set it alight, murdering all but one woman who managed to escape from a window.

Today Oradour remains as it was on that fateful day of 10th June 1944 preserved as a Martyr's Village in memory of those slaughtered. It touched the lives not just of those in the village but in the wider region. Staying in the small village of Blond, our elderly neighbour Lucille recounted her own memories of the Nazis in France. They had swept by the front of her house and executed some men and women at the junction, a few hundred yards from her home. Lucille has never been to Paris, certainly not abroad, but when the war was over she cycled to Oradour and saw for herself what war had visited upon the rural communities in France.

The Germans sought to cover up their atrocity by attempting to burn all the bodies and the village down to the ground. Visitors can see this for themselves today as they walk around the burnt out homes; the signs of the burning and gunshot holes still visible. As you walk past what was once the village bakery and butchery the ovens and tools can still be seen. In the houses Singer sewing machines lie rusting in burnt as a poignant reminder of the families that were wiped out.

The perpetrators of the atrocity were not really brought to justice for this war crime. In the 1950s French soldiers from Alsace, who had been forced to join the German army, were put on trial in Bordeaux for their part in the Oradour massacres, but their sentences were seen as lenient by the local community. And then even those sentences were remitted.

The pain of the loss was intensified because most of the bodies were unidentifiable and the victims could not be given a proper burial, thus allowing a grieving process for the wider community. As a result the local authorities insisted on preserving the destroyed village as it was to aid the healing process and to remind us all of the evils of war.

It's a fitting reminder of how wounds of injustice and war crimes cannot really heal unless they are given an appropriate place in our history and are recognised and commemorated in a way that enables people to feel the long arm of justice.