Christmas isn’t Christmas without the Big Christmas Singalong with the Choir With No Name

Of all the wonderful experiences I have had over the last 37 years while working for BHT Sussex, one of the most joyous has been the Choir With No Name.

If you haven’t yet come across the Choir With No Name, it runs choirs for homeless and marginalised people in London and around the country. It was set up by a visionary, Marie Benton, who I am proud to call a friend. For more than 10 years she was the Choir’s chief executive. Even though she has moved on to new ventures, the Choir goes from strength to strength under the new leadership of Kate Wareham.

There are Choirs in Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff, as well as in the capital. But until 2018 there wasn’t a Brighton Choir With No Name.  It was over a coffee that Marie and I agreed to set up the Brighton Choir as a partnership between the national charity and BHT Sussex.

Each December, the Choir puts on the most spectacular Big Christmas Singalong at the Brighton Dome. As the name suggests, it is a singalong, be it classics like White Christmas, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, and Jingle Bells to more modern ones like All I Want for Christmas, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, and Fairytale of New York. 

The evening traditionally ends with a mass-participation, anarchic rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, together with actions. I will leave it to your imaginations what actions go with ‘Six geese a-laying’.  “Can’t sing? Come along anyway”, is the invitation from the Choir. 

The Big Christmas Singalong, this year to be held next Tuesday (6th December) at 7.30pm, marks the start of the Christmas period. Fancy dress isn’t mandatory, but it does help. I must thank the Brighton Dome who puts on and promotes this event which would not be possible, on this scale at least, without their extremely generous support.

During the Covid lockdowns, the Brighton Choir met online and in covid-safe ways when possible, singing out-of-doors or socially-distanced in the Open Market.  It was a period when so many people struggled with isolation and loneliness, but the Choir provided an important lifeline to our members.

I have known several members of the Choir for many years, seeing them at their lowest ebb and now as confident individuals, thanks largely to the Choir.  Being part of this amazing Choir family has transformed their lives.  I am humbled by the confidence they have acquired.  To stand up and sing on the stage of The Dome takes real courage.  The changes they have made in their lives has taken much more.

 

The highlight for me of the 2021 Big Christmas Singalong came after it was all over. Two young women told me that they had had a very tough start in life, that they had been sleeping rough until BHT Sussex had helped them to get housing.  That’s what it is all about.  They said that they wanted to join the Choir.

All people go through tough times. Some find themselves homeless and marginalised. The Choir provides them with a place to sing their hearts out, among friends.  Through the Choir, people can showcase their talents, build personal resilience and positive, joyful singing communities.

Many Choir members describe the Choir as their family where they look after each other. Belting out classic tunes and dancing together, sharing delicious food and jokes, and finding somewhere to leave their troubles at the door is what the Choir is all about.  Choir members are encouraged to achieve serious change in their lives, but without taking themselves too seriously!

There is one downside of the Big Christmas Singalong – you have to listen to me speak for a couple of minutes asking for donations to keep this amazing Choir going. I try to say something outrageous and funny which usually gets people laughing and, as a result, more generous. A few years ago I told the children at the performance: “If your parents don’t donate £20 it means that they don’t really love you!” This was met with howls of derision from the audience, but that night we collected a record amount from our very generous audience.

This will be the last Big Christmas Singalong before I retire in January but, from next year, I will be there as a member of the audience. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

People who have come to the Big Christmas Singalong tend to come again. To misquote Mariah Carey, “All I want for Christmas is the Big Christmas Singalong with the Choir with No Name!” At the same time as having a cracking evening, you will be supporting our work with homeless people.

There are still some tickets available on The Dome’s website (brightondome.org) and cost £14 and  £8 concessions.

Friends, Enemies, Political Frienemies and the Poll Tax

(This item first appeared on 23rd November 2022 in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus)

I love reading plaques on park benches and am often left speculating about the lives and loves of the people being remembered. I was amused by one plaque in a London park that read: “In memory of Roger Bucklesby who hated this park and everyone in it.” The plaque is there but sadly, I understand, there never was a Roger Bucklesby.

I also like obituaries, the juicier the better! I once saw a lovely obituary of someone who was described as an expert in conflict resolution. It ended by saying that he had been married and divorced four times!  The Irish author, Brendan Behan, said: “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

Never speak ill of the dead, we are told. Sadly, in today’s political world, we make up for that by speaking ill of the living. Rarely do politicians praise their opponents such is the adversarial nature of political dialogue. By contrast, those on your own side are praised and defended no matter how inadequate, ludicrous, corrupt or ghastly they might be.

That is why I like the slot on Times Radio called ‘Political Frienemies’. It brings together political opponents who, away from partisan exchanges, are, in fact, friends. There are some remarkable friendships, such as Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott, and Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jess Phillips. Tony Benn and the Revd. Ian Paisley were also friendly and very fond of each other. 

Martin McGuinness and Revd Ian Paisley

Even life-long enemies can end up as friends. Paisley and Martin McGuinness, two people who were so diametrically opposed to each other throughout the ‘Troubles’, became close friends when they became First and Second Ministers in the Northern Ireland devolved administration. So close, in fact, that they were referred to as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’. 

In the 1990s, when I was still a member of the Labour Party, there was an attempt to have a few of us expelled from the Party because, as councillors, we had repeatedly broken the ‘whip’ (voted against our party in council votes). The final straw was our opposition to the Poll Tax. Joyce Gould, at the time the Labour Party’s Director of Organisation and now a member of the House of Lords, led the purge. She liked the description ‘Witchfinder General’ so much that it is the title of her autobiography.

While Baroness Gould was very effective nationally in having members of Militant and others on the left expelled, a few of us in Brighton became one of her very few failures as she was unable to achieve that objective. I resigned from the Party a couple of years later, not because of the Groucho Marx adage that I didn’t want to be a part of anything that allowed people like me to be a member. It was because of cheap point-scoring by Jack Straw, then Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, in which he targeted street drinkers and those begging. While I have been vocal about my own views about both street drinking and begging, it seemed like a cheap shot and beneath the dignity of a future Home Secretary to conduct himself in that way and, because of my professional role, I wanted to play no part in that party. I have been politically homeless ever since.

I no longer call her Ms Gould or, to give her her proper title, Baroness Gould of Potternewton. I call her ‘Joyce’ as we subsequently have become friends. I was honoured recently to be invited to her 90th birthday party at the Hove Club. It was a lovely occasion attended by some of the great and the good of the local Labour Party including former MPs David Lepper and Des Turner, as well as the current incumbent in Hove, Peter Kyle.

I have also been able to brief her on housing issues as part of her activities in the House of Lords. While our reconciliation is hardly on the scale of McGuinness and Paisley, it is one that is complete and I retain a great deal of affection for Joyce and, hopefully, Joyce for me in spite of being one of her few failures!

Since being asked to write this column I have written about people who are no longer with us, such as the former Labour MP, Dennis Hobden, the late BHT Sussex Life President, Pat Norman, and my former council colleague, Ruth Larkin (the Best Mayor Brighton Never Had).  It isn’t a case of merely speaking well of the dead. I have great affection for each and hold them in high esteem, and would have said to them, if still living, what I wrote about them after they were taken from us.

I think we should pay greater tribute to people while they are still alive so that they know what we think of them and how much they are appreciated. 

By-elections in Brighton and Hove, and the legacy of Garry Peltzer Dunn

There is nothing that political activists enjoy more than a by-election, especially when held in a marginal ward or constituency. The most recent by-election in the city was in Rottingdean Coastal, once the safest of safe Conservative seats, which Labour won for the first-time ever.

Rottingdean Coastal shows that no seat can be regarded as safe for any one party. It is now represented by one Conservative, one Independent and one Labour councillor. It is unfortunate that the Conservative and Labour councillors are indisposed through ill health leaving the Independent, Bridget Fishleigh, as the sole active councillor in the area.

Garry Peltzer Dunn

On December 8, there is a by-election in Wish ward in Hove following the sad passing of one of the nicest and most decent councillors I have ever known, Garry Peltzer Dunn. He had served as a councillor for over 50 years. Following his death there have been countless accounts of small acts of kindness for which he will long be remembered.

One of the characteristics of any election are claims on social media by the activists about how well their campaign is going. You hear the activists say: “A fantastic response on the doorstep tonight” or “Great reception on the phones this evening for our amazing candidate”, even “Out canvassing all day!!! Gr8 response!!!!!” And then most of them lose!

I have only heard one candidate say that he must be the exception, that the response he had received had been terrible! Graham Cox, a former Chief Superintendent of Police, was a candidate in the Westbourne by-election in December 2011. He was honest enough to say that the response he received wasn’t ‘fantastic’ or ‘Gr8’. The reaction he got must have been good enough as he won with a majority of 201.

I stood in a by-election in Regency Ward in 1985. I won by the narrowest of majorities. I could only dream of a 201 majority. At the time the Conservatives had twenty five of the forty eight seats on the council. A defeat would mean that they could continue as the administration only by relying on the casting vote of the Mayor. 

The election was fiercely fought and the count was tense. I had not expected to win and could feel my knees giving way when my agent whispered to me that I had, in fact, beaten the Conservative candidate, John Sheldon, a lovely man who I subsequently got to know and who was taken from us too early. His father was a former Mayor, Danny Sheldon.

The result meant that the Conservatives lost their overall majority and I became the first-ever non-Conservative to be elected at any level of government in that area.  

The thing about by-elections is that there are far more activists available to knock on doors that in normal elections. They came from all over Brighton and from as far off as Hove which, at that time, was a separate town with its own council.

The other side of by-elections, and probably all elections, is that the candidate goes a bit crazy. The tiniest issue gets blown out of all proportions in the mind of the candidate. The candidate wants to spend far too much time in the committee room talking about what is going on and moaning that not enough is being done in this, the first step of their glorious political career!

I was lucky that I had an organiser who made sure I was the first to be sent out to knock on doors and I wasn’t allowed back until everyone else had returned. 

I actually loved the campaigning side of elections, not so much the part when I was elected and, subsequently, re-elected. The life of a local councillor is not a glamorous one. Most work hard for little reward and even less thanks.  They are hampered by years of vicious central government cuts.  

Those in the party that forms the administration, of all persuasions, get over-sensitive about criticism, worse today than in my time when we didn’t have the joys of social media. But criticism comes with the territory because the issues that are dealt with by a local council impact on the everyday life of the community, such as the state of the streets, rubbish collections, graffiti, and the closure of public toilets.

Even though I have, on occasions, been critical of councillors in this column, I do respect their service, commitment and diligence. I would absolutely not want to be a councillor today, a fact that makes me all the more appreciative of those who do put themselves forward for election. They deserve recognition and the gratitude of the community. 

Good luck to all the candidates standing in the Wish by-election on 8th December. And please remember and honour the legacy bequeathed to you by Garry Peltzer Dunn.

(This item first appeared on 16th November 2022 in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus)

Armistice Day: Remembering the war dead and my mum, Joan Winter

(This item first appeared on 9th November 2022 in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus)

This coming Friday is Armistice Day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment the guns on the Western Front fell silent at the end of the First World War. It has become the day when we remember the war dead and others who sacrificed so much in that and other conflicts.

I want to reflect on one young woman who served in the Second World War.

My mother, Joan, had a tough start to life, but probably not one uncommon for a woman of her generation, born in the 1920s and who lived through the war.

Joan was born in Rotherham in Yorkshire to James and his second wife, Eva. James’s first wife, Elizabeth, had died in 1920 after the couple had had three children, including one who died in infancy.

But tragedy struck again. Eva contracted a condition called Psittacosis, also known as parrot fever. It is an infectious disease in humans caused by a bacterium and is contracted from infected parrots. The symptoms are akin to acute pneumonia with continuous high fevers, headaches, cough and severe shortness of breath. Today it can be treated easily with antibiotics, but in 1930 it proved fatal for Eva. She died leaving James a widower for the second time, now with four children, the youngest being my mum, aged just five. 

James contracted a chill at Eva’s funeral and he, too, died, just three weeks after Eva. 

Joan and her sixteen-year-old sister, Anne, were sent to Birmingham to live with James’ brother, George, and his wife, Ada. They had had five children, the oldest three having died in infancy. Their youngest daughter, Alice, took little Joan under her wing and provided the nearest thing to maternal care that Joan experienced.

My mum, Joan Winter, as a Wren

Joan helped in George’s shop, but she wanted more than Birmingham could offer. While the Second World War took young men into the horrors of battle, it was to provide a liberation for young women like my mum. As soon as she was old enough, she enrolled in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The Wrens, as they were known, had duties including driving, cooking, clerical work, operating radar and communications equipment, and providing weather forecasts. 

After her basic training in London, she was sent here, to Brighton, for training as an electrician. She trained by day and danced by night at the Regent Dance Hall opposite the Clock Tower. She was having a truly wonderful time. 

On completing her training, she and her two best friends were sent to Dover where they were billeted in a house overlooking what is now the ferry terminal. In 2019, on one of his visits to the UK, my brother, Simon, took my two sisters and me to Dover, and we stayed in the very property where Joan had been billeted. 

Dover was subjected to fearsome bombing during the war, and Joan and her comrades had to take refuge in the caves behind her accommodation. On one occasion a bomb killed several Wrens as they left a dancehall frequented by Joan, and on another, some shrapnel went through the roof of their home and became lodged in the bed of one of the three Wrens who shared the room. The occupier of that bed hadn’t come home that night and, thereby, had escaped almost certain death. 

By day Joan worked on submarines, including wiring the detonators on torpedoes. By night she danced. She hospitalised a Chief Petty Officer who thought he could take advantage of the pretty blonde Wren by grabbing her from behind. Little did he expect her to smash the monkey wrench she was holding into his skull.

Joan was engaged twice during the war, but both her fiancés were killed. It is hard for those of us who were born after the war to imagine what it must have been like to have lost family, friends and lovers, never knowing when death might visit as an unwanted guest.  

The war, my mum once said, was the making of her. It gave her the appetite to see the world. She wanted more than Birmingham and even England had to offer. It was after the war, while visiting her brother who had become a priest in Stoke-on-Trent, that she met my dad, Tom. In the late fifties they headed off to southern Africa with two young children in tow. It was in Cape Town that my younger sister and I were born.

Joan Winter and her four children in Cape Town, c1963

So on the eleventh of the eleventh, I will remember those who sacrificed so much in order that we might have freedom and democracy, and today I remember my dear old mum on what would have been her 98th birthday. She went through so much but she gave my siblings and me such a loving start in life.

Why I don’t like Bonfire Night – it might be a family thing

(This item first appeared on 2nd November in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus)

This coming Saturday is Bonfire Night, the day we remember the foiled plot of 5th November 1605 to blow up Parliament and King James I.

The person most associated with the plot, Guy Fawkes, was not, in fact, the leader of the plot, rather a humble servant who happened to be found beneath Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. 

Robert Catesby, a Roman Catholic, was leader of the conspirators who hoped to restore a Catholic monarchy to England after a long period of persecution of Catholics. Catesby died of a gunshot wound when resisting capture, while many of his fellow conspirators were rounded up and brought to The Tower of London where they confessed, usually under torture. 

Robert and Thomas Wintour / Winter

Amongst the conspirators were Catesby’s cousins, Robert and Thomas Wintour, sometimes written as ‘Winter’, and the signature on Thomas’s confession was written with this spelling. Antonia Fraser, in her book, The Gunpowder Plot, said that the signature differs from his normal signature, ‘Wintour’, and suggested that the confession was a forgery. There is no doubt, however, that Thomas was central to the conspiracy and involved from the outset.

At their trial, Thomas tried to protect his brother, saying that he regretted having involved Robert to the plot. He asked that he be hanged on his brother’s behalf as well as his own, but that was not to be.

At his execution, according to Fraser, Thomas was “a very pale and dead colour” and, while he absolved the Jesuits from any part of the Plot, said that this was “no time to discourse” and that he had “come to die”. He was hanged for only a few moments and, while still conscious, he was taken to the block for the remainder of the sentence – the dismembering of his body while still conscious.

Guy Fawkes died when his neck was broken as he was hanged, thus sparing him the agony of being ‘quartered’.

As a keen genealogist, I have spent many years trying to establish a link between Robert and Thomas and my family but, alas, without success.  Some of the surviving members of the family, like many Catholic families, experienced an increase in persecution following the plot and fled England for Ireland where they remained. My Winter ancestors, all Catholics, moved from Ireland to Liverpool in the nineteenth century.

I hope that one day I might be able to establish a family link to Robert and Thomas. It is said that the plotters were amongst the few who “entered Parliament with honourable intentions”. This may be a controversial view. How can anyone planning what can reasonably be described as an act of terrorism be described as having honourable intentions?

The Plotters and their Catholic community had been subjected to harsh repression by James, and their maternal uncle, Francis Ingleby, a Catholic priest, had been executed in York in 1586, a fact which, Antonia Fraser said, “could hardly have failed to leave a stark impression upon the Wintour family.”

Terrorist or freedom fighter, let’s not forget that the greatest freedom fighter of them all, Nelson Mandela, led a bombing campaign aimed at overthrowing a regime which was itself violent and anti-democratic.  Mandela was, allegedly, described by Margaret Thatcher as a “grubby little terrorist’. History has judged him differently.

Excluding the war, it wasn’t until 1979 that another bomb was planted within the Palace of Westminster. On that occasion it killed its intended target, the Conservative MP, Airey Neave.

By pure coincidence, I was there at the very moment that the bomb detonated. I had only recently arrived in the U.K. from South Africa. I was travelling from Brighton to Stoke-on-Trent but was too early for my train so I decided to walk from Victoria Station. I lost my bearings and did not know which way I was walking. After about 20 minutes I found myself outside the Palace of Westminster for the first time. As I was looking up at the iconic tower that houses Big Ben, I heard an almighty explosion. Soon there were police officers everywhere and we were all moved back to the other side of Parliament Square.

It struck me as ironic that having lived in a state of emergency in South Africa, I had never heard a shot fired in anger, nor witnessed an explosion. Yet six weeks after arriving in the U.K., I was no more than 100m away from the highest profile political assassination of that time.

I’ve never liked Bonfire Night. It might be something to do with Thomas and Robert Winter. I am also uneasy about bigoted elements of some of the Lewes Bonfire Societies.  I don’t like anything that goes ‘bang’, and animals really suffer on the night. 

Others love Bonfire Night, so enjoy it, look after your pets, and please keep yourself safe.

It’s no longer ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, it’s become ‘Outraged of Brighton and Hove’

(This item first appeared on 26th October 2022 in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus)

There used to be a character, known as ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. It was a generic name used for a person with strongly conservative political views who wrote letters to newspapers or to the BBC in moral outrage about the main issue of the day.

Today ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ has been replaced by ‘Outraged of Brighton and Hove’. Outrage has become the new currency, often amongst people on the left who are judged by their peers for the causes to which they subscribe and how outraged they are on Twitter.

Take your pick on the issue. Being anti-racist, for example, is no longer enough in itself. Saying “black lives matter” is not enough. One has to support the organisation Black Lives Matter including all its aims, subscribing to Critical Race Theory. Failure to do can provoke outrage.

Not long ago I was criticised for saying, in the wake of the awful killing of George Floyd, that “all lives matter”. I know that this form of words has been used, even hijacked, by elements on the American right. I used it to highlight the murder of several women in the U.K. during the same week that Floyd was murdered. I wrote on my blog:

“The killing of George Floyd in the USA has had an impact on many of us. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds he had a knee on his neck. ‘I can’t breath’, he protested. His murder has shocked and appalled us.”

I suggested that people should “set an alarm for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Sit quietly. Don’t move. Think about the pain and terror George Floyd experienced for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as his life ebbed away.”

But I went further. I wrote: “And think, too, of those closer to home who have also been murdered this week, whose deaths have gone largely unnoticed but are equally shocking and, yes, more numerous.  An average of at least three women in the UK are murdered each week, mostly by their partners or former partners. 

Nikoletta Zdan and Aneta Zdan

“Think of Aneta Zdun, 40, and her daughter Nikoletta Zdun,18, who died on Tuesday (allegedly) at the hands of their husband and father, and of 58-year-old Mandy Houghton who was murdered in her home on Wednesday.”

I concluded by saying that all lives matter. Those who criticised me, some who were outraged, by my using this phrase said that what I had written was “a distraction from the Black Lives Matter movement”. Hardly, I think. My blog is insignificant compared to the protests taking place around the world. Footballers have continued to take the knee. Yet it is so easy for some white middle class people amongst the ‘progressive’ political class in cities like Brighton to parade themselves as outraged.

But where were the demonstrations for Mandy, Aneta, and Nikoletta? Where was the outrage about these killings. They were much closer to home. But the killing of women by close family members are so frequent that they pass unnoticed, often without comment.

Some people were, and will be, outraged by me saying that all lives matter because, as the writer, Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles, has said that “being outraged allows you to take the moral high ground. It reaffirms your righteousness. It lets you say: ‘I am offended and therefore I am principled’.”

Professor Molly Crockett, in an article called ‘Moral Outrage in the Digital Age’, writes: “Outrage expression provides reputational rewards.” Those who are seen to be the most outraged hope to be seen as being the most virtuous. I would argue that this is especially so in Brighton and Hove.

I have, on occasions, been critical of all three main parties. I am critical of the student union approach to politics where there is no place for nuance. It is all or nothing. The Greens, in particular, have a puritanical streak that runs through their politics that is not a good look, even though it runs alongside their idealism, which I do respect.

I am critical of Labour at a national level for having become so bland that they make Steve Davies (the snooker player not the Green councillor) look interesting. Actually Green councillor Steve is one of the more engaging and interesting of their councillors, having an inquisitive mind, and he remains friendly in spite of comments I may have made.

And I am critical of the Conservatives for their housing policies that stimulate demand (Right to Buy, Help to Buy, etc.) while doing little on the supply side. They need to build council houses in their hundreds of thousands.

Honest, vocal disagreement is to be encouraged. Don’t take offence. Debate the issues. Enjoy the cut and thrust of political dialogue, learn from it, and broaden your outlook.

My message for Rishi Sunak: build hundreds of thousands of Council homes

If there is one thing that should persuade the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to change course on its housing strategy, it is news that councils spent £1.6 billion between April 2021 March 2022 on temporary accommodation for homeless households in England. A quarter of this bill was spent on emergency bed and breakfast (B&B) and hostel accommodation, with B&B costs alone increasing by 20% in the last five years. The overall increase is 61% compared with five years ago.

There should be another reason to persuade him to change the government’s approach – the human cost of housing people in such accommodation rather than in a home of their own. There is ample research on the long-term impact of accommodating children in temporary accommodation in terms of lower educational attainment, mental ill-health, and the loss of other life opportunities. For adults, there is an increase in mental health problems, alcohol and drug misuse, and break downs in relationships, to mention just three consequences.

I spoke at a conference last week and, in response to a question about what would improve the current situation, I said that the only thing that will begin to address the housing supply and affordability crisis would be to build council houses in their hundreds of thousands, coupled with the abolition of the Right to Buy. 

Come on, Rishi Sunak. Do you want a legacy of which to be proud?

Does Rishi Sunak have what it takes to be a competent Prime Minister?

It is looking increasingly likely that Rishi Sunak will become the next Prime Minister, possibly by tomorrow if Boris Johnson and Penny Maudant fail to get 100 nominations. There is still a chance that Johnson might make it and then who knows what members of the Conservative Party will decide. Their recent judgement has been, how can I put it, not great.

Supporters of Sunak have been all over the media today advocating for their champion because of his “attention to detail”. Clearly that is the line from Team Sunak. This is something that clearly puts clear blue water between him and Johnson who has the attention span of a gnat.  But is it the stand-out quality that defines a successful prime minister. 

I can think of three recent prime ministers who were renowned for their attention to detail: Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Liz Truss. By anyone’s standard none made a great prime minister, not even an average one. On the other hand, all three were more than competent Cabinet Ministers. Brown was an exceptional Chancellor, and May and Truss had excellent reputations for their attention to detail. 

The role of prime minister is so vast that having attention to detail is not a critical factor. A prime minister does not have the luxury of being able to be across all the detail.  They are required to make prompt judgements on a wide range of issues, to be fleet-of-foot, to be able to communicate exceptionally well, to be able to motivate people and to inspire confidence.

While he has the ability to focus on detail, I am not sure whether Sunak has these other qualities. If he does not have them all, and in abundance, his time in No 10 is unlikely to be a successful one.

Why there won’t be a general election following the appointment of the latest Prime Minister

There is no way that there will be a general election following the conclusion of the latest Conservative Party leadership campaign, notwithstanding all the calls for one. Constitutionally there is no requirement to have an election if a party of government changes its leader and thereby the Prime Minister (as I wrote last week). And it doesn’t matter how often the leader is changed and how feeble the governing party appears, that remains the position.

The King is unlikely to intervene by refusing to invite the latest Conservative Party leader to form a government, and would only agree to the dissolution of Parliament if requested by the PM (that won’t happen) or if the PM loses a confidence vote.

I understand why these calls for an immediate election are being made. Such is the disarray at the state of government, which is likely to continue as none of the three front-runners has much chance of uniting the party. The government will limp along, squabbling and plotting, remaining inward looking until the next general election. Whether that will be in December 2024, the last possible date, or earlier, will depend on one factor, will enough Conservative Party MPs vote against the government in a confidence vote?

The answer is that with its sizeable majority, no matter how much the leader is disliked, even hated, the state of the polls currently point to a near total wipe-out of Conservative MPs should there be an election anytime soon. Why would enough MPs from the governing party vote against their leader knowing that it would mean a premature end to their glorious political careers?

The latest Prime Minister will limp on from his or her appointment next Friday until the local elections next May when a fresh round of internecine war will break out in the party.

And all the while Conservative MPs come on our television screens to remind us that their party is the most successful political party ever in any democratic system. The more they do so, the more they shine a light on how far they have slumped. Saying the complete opposite of what the reality is, be it ‘Strong and Stable’, ‘I have acted decisively’, ‘I am a fighter, not a quitter’, or ‘Keir Starmer is interesting and inspirational’, reminds us of everything they are not.

A little known condition, Poland Syndrome, that effects the rich and famous (and others)

(This item first appeared in my ‘Brighton and Beyond’ column in the Brighton Argus on 19th October 2022)

I am a huge admirer of the former Sussex cricketer, Lewis Hatchett. We share the same birthday, although 30 years apart.  We first met in the Accident and Emergency Department at the Eye Hospital in Brighton one Saturday afternoon. We had both received minor eye injuries, him playing cricket, I an iron filing lodged in my eye while on a train going over the viaduct into Brighton. I saw this young man (he must have been about seventeen at the time) in Sussex cricket gear. We were the last two patients to be seen so we chatted for half an hour or so. 

He struck me as having such a fine character, a really impressive young man. Over the years we chatted a few times when we bumped into each other at the County Ground. I was impressed that he remembered my name –  he was young, had a promising cricket career ahead of him, and had no reason to recall some middle-aged bloke who had spoken to him at the Eye Hospital.  

Lewis Hatchett (photo used with Lewis’s permission)

Lewis Hatchett was born with a very rare condition: Poland Syndrome. It is a little known birth defect where affected individuals are born with missing or underdeveloped muscles on one side of the body, resulting in abnormalities that can affect the chest, shoulder, arm, and hand. The extent and severity of the abnormalities vary amongst affected individuals.

Poland Syndrome needs not impact on one’s sporting abilities.  Lewis is missing the muscles on the right side of his chest as well as two ribs.  As a child he was told he could never play cricket, let alone professionally. That spurred him on all the more and he realised his ambition, playing professional cricket for Sussex for six seasons, although injury interrupted his playing and, aged just 26, he retired in 2016 on medical advice.

There are many famous people with Poland Syndrome including the actor, Ted Danson, the Formula One motor racing driver, Fernando Alonso, and the late television presenter, Jeremy Beadle. 

Matt Goss and his Strictly Come Dancing partner, Nadiya Bychkova, who were eliminated from the competition at the weekend

Poland Syndrome has come more into public awareness because Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Matt Goss, one half of the Bros twins, has spoken publicly about having Poland Syndrome. He told the Metro newspaper that it had affected his confidence for years.

He said: “I might not have the best posture because I’m basically missing a pectoral muscle. But a few years back I saw an American swimmer win a silver medal and the commentator said he had Poland Syndrome and I was in tears because, for the first time in my life, I realised it had a name. 

“I remember as a kid, I had 12 doctors around me all going, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ It doesn’t have any bearing on me now, it’s just who I am. We’ve all got our issues, including me”.

Poland Syndrome effects around one in 20,000 people, and twice as many men as women. The condition was identified and named after an English surgeon, Sir Alfred Poland, who described the condition when he was a student in 1841. The cause of Poland Syndrome remains unknown and it is not an hereditary condition.

Lewis Hatchett has made his experience of having Poland Syndrome something of a badge of honour, and he is now a sought-after motivational speaker and personal coach. 

It was his example and courage that led me, relatively recently, to acknowledge that I, too, have Poland Syndrome. I am missing my left pectoral muscle.  Unlike Lewis, though, I am not yet confident enough to be photographed without wearing a shirt. I also, sadly, don’t have his fabulous physique.

In my case, it isn’t too obvious. My parents had no idea that I had the condition. It is usually first diagnosed at puberty.  I just looked thin as a child with an under-developed chest.  Psychologically it has caused me some minor difficulties, such as being reluctant to take off my t-shirt on the beach or by the pool.  

At school I was never able to do more than a couple of pull-ups and I struggled with rope climbing. My swimming has always been weak but, because my missing pectoral muscle is on the left side of my chest, I have been able to throw and catch well with my right arm and, when younger, I was a reasonable runner and an above-average badminton player.

Like Lewis, I had an ambition to play cricket at the highest level. The only reason why I didn’t end up playing internationally was my total lack of ability with either bat or ball. And my fielding wasn’t great either.

Society today, in spite of greater awareness of the impact of body imagine on individuals, still idolises ‘perfect’ body types, male and female. They are not the norm, and I am proud to be different.