STOKE HILL GUILD HOUSE
After Coventry was blitzed during the War, the Government erected three large barrack blocks to house some of the workers needed for the city's vital industries. These blocks were called, for some reason, probably euphemism, Guild Houses. Each contained over seven hundred bedrooms, or cells, heated by a wide-gauge pipe that ran through the entire structure. The rooms themselves were just about big enough to accommodate a bed and the space to stand up and get dressed. There was a communal refectory or dining-room, a cinema, and a laundry.
I was assigned to living quarters in the second biggest of the three, which was called Stoke Hill Guild House, during my stay in Coventry in early 1966. Full board cost £3 15 shillings, or £3.75 in decimal money, per week. I was there because I was studying for Oxford University's Diploma in Social and Public Administration. I had been persuaded to seek Local Government service by one T Dan Smith, an important politician in the North-East of England, who soon afterwards was given a substantial jail sentence for corruption. The University Department had obtained placements for several of its students with Coventry City Council. Now in those days the Clerk to the Council, who would nowadays be called Chief Executive, was Sir Charles Barratt, who must still be regarded as one of the greatest public servants of all time. His deputy was the hardly less impressive Mr Besserman, a Jew with enormous ears whose reputation was such that he had been asked to assume the presidency of NaLGO, the Local Government officers' union. In those days, anyone who could claim to have worked in Coventry could more or less walk into a job anywhere in the country.
Sir Charles, despite his considerable work load, took the time and trouble to interview us alien students and have the mysteries of the city's government explained to us. Our brief was to assist in an already active undertaking to identify areas of overlap in the departments with social service obligations, and also to discover weaknesses in the system that might leave unfortunate citizens unsupported in their time of need. As I have said, this was in 1966. There have been regular similar initiatives sponsored by Central Government since then, usually prompted by some child abuse scandal. In those days, local authorities were required to maintain a Children's Department. The problem was, and no doubt still is, that there were a number of agencies that had responsibilities for children's welfare. For instance, I spent a fascinating day in a mother-and-baby clinic. The system was socialistic in the best sense, and the most important person was the worldly-wise nurse who presided over the clinic. Mothers were expected to bring their babies in once a week to be weighed. The weight was entered on a card, and consistently increasing weight was regarded as a sign of good health. Not by the nurse, though. She told me that babies do not necessarily grow at a steady speed. She showed me how she craftily held down the weighing scales with one finger when it was necessary to enter a massaged weight. The whole point of the exercise was to have the baby checked over by a competent professional. If the infant showed signs of distress, bruising, fleabites, or spots, the nurse would direct, with immense tact, the mother to the Doctor behind the screen. The mothers would compare their babies' cards on the way home.
Actually, the medical welfare people operated like a sort of Gestapo. Perhaps that is the wrong simile, but that is what I thought at the time. The two diseases that gave the most concern were tuberculosis and syphilis. If anyone was found to have either disease, their contacts were tracked down with ruthless efficiency and appropriate measures taken. I am not being critical; wartime privations and population displacements had created conditions for disease to spread. In addition, there were many recent immigrants. The Indians refused to live in the same accommodation blocks as the Ukrainians because, they said, they were filthy. A local joke ran:
“You can tell a true-bred Coventry man because he wears a shamrock in his turban”.
Another day was spent in a GP's surgery. The GP, an Indian lady, very professionally asked each patient for permission for a student to attend the consultation. Nearly all the patients were Asians. After a while, I observed to the Doctor that I thought she had been using a number of languages. Yes, she agreed, she spoke Punjabi to the old man, Gujerati to the woman in a sari, Hindi to the plump lady, and Maratha to the young fellow. How many languages do you speak? Indian languages, she replied: eight. She explained that she had been born in a village where they spoke one language, but the primary school spoke another, the nearest town another, and the secondary school yet another. Her university training was in Hindi. She had deliberately learnt Tamil, which is not an Indo-European language, because a lot of the civil service spoke it and she found it convenient to be able to meet them on their own ground. What about European languages? I ventured. She rattled off all the main ones plus modern Greek, and stated that she was learning Russian because she had to chair a medical conference in Moscow.
I also spent some time in schools for children with special needs. In those days the word “maladjusted” was used. It meant not performing to full capacity beause of emotional problems. One such child had an IQ of 170 but his parents were mentally subnormal. His behaviour was appropriate to a person of low intellect, because that was what he had learnt in the home. The City's child psychologist was Dr Valentine, who had written what was then the standard textbook on child psychology. Another case of Coventry being the best. During these excursions I formed the view that the most skilled teachers, the most deserving, and the most admirable, were the ones who devoted their lives to enabling the mentally handicapped and the emotionally damaged to hold their own in society. That is a view that I have not lost, and it causes me to regard recent emphasis on league tables, standard curricula, and academy status with some cynicism.
When I was there the Council was run by the Labour Party. Sir Charles told me that he regarded political neutrality as so important that he had never voted, in case making a choice affected his impartiality. He added that that was a personal preference, and that he would not try to impose his view on anybody else. The local press was Tory, however, and it missed no opportunity to belabour the Council. “Lift out of action in tower block again”. “Council denies cover-up”. The Conservative opposition was led by a vituperative and waspish hunchback. He was an expert in inculcating ill-feeling, and fist-fights in the Council Chamber were not unknown.
What I had intended to write about was not the wonderful people who managed local services, but the not less interesting, if less respectable, people residing in Stoke Hill Guild House. A pice of graffiti in the toilet block read:
“This is Coventry, a holy city,
And he who writes here does not deserve God's pity.”
Each cubicle had a yellowing notice that read: “Newspaper is Injurious”. Breakfast was an adventure. The food was greasy bacon with greasy egg and greasy fried bread. Every day. It was washed down with pre-prepared tea or coffee. There were four large metal jugs with lids, bearing labels such as “Tea with sugar”, Coffee Without”. There was no option of black coffee. The odd thing was that all the labels were wrong. Newcomers were expected to learn that “Tea with Sugar” meant “Coffee Without Sugar”. And it always had done, ever since the Guild House was built. As one would expect in an establishment designed for hundreds of single men, there were some very strange people. Some were fugitives from justice. Perhaps more were fugitives from their wives' solicitors. One man used to drive to the dole office from the Guild House, where, I repeat, he paid £3 15 shillings for full board, in a powder-blue Bentley. Some worked and drew the dole.
The inhabitants even had their beds made for them. My bedmaker was a young woman called Rusty, possibly because of the colour of her hair. She told me that she was not well paid, and that when she ran out of money she would take up prostitution for a while. No, she would not consider myself as a client. She would only accept old men. Young men can be temperamental and sometimes violent, she said, but old men are considerate and grateful. That was a piece of worldly wisdom no doubt learnt the hard way. It has stuck in my mind.
The cinema was well attended. B-feature cowboy films were staple fare. Commercial cinemas used to be required to take a job lot of films, so that if, for example, they wanted Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday they would have to take it in a package including all sorts of pap. That may be how Stoke Hill acquired Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde. Younger readers might need to understand that Bogarde was a matinée idol in those days and a recognised star. His involvement in Victim must have done his career no good whatsoever, for it is propaganda in favour of decriminalising homosexuality. Bogarde plays a respectable married professional man whose secret boyfriend kills himself to prevent his lover from being exposed to criminal prosecution. Nowadays the film would probably be of little interest, since society has changed for the better. But I came away from watching it mightily impressed by Bogarde's courage; and I have no doubt that it helped towards the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. I am not sure how the rest of the audience took it, however. Most, probably, would have preferred gunfights and some cleavage. But the audience filed silently out of the cinema and I guess they were somewhat stunned.
I was naturally on the lookout for anything of interest sociologically. Coventry included some of the highest-paid manual workers in the land. I wondered why these people enjoyed a substantially lower standard of living than the schoolteachers that I was meeting, who ostensibly earned a half or a third of what the best-paid assembly-line workers did. They lived in meaner houses, ate worse food, drove worse cars, and did not travel to interesting places. One obvious reason was that they spent a lot of their money on drink, tobacco and gambling. An important difference between the classes was job security. Assembly-line workers had only a brief access to wealth. Industrial action, such as strikes or lay-offs made their position precarious. Also, the piece-work system meant that they could probably only last out for two years before they collapsed and had to be assigned to lighter duties. Even so, one might have thought that they might have saved the surplus to cushion their families against the time when they had to revert to relative poverty. Perhaps some did, though it was my impression that most just wasted it.
My stay in Coventry was enlivened by the companionship of a fellow student, S. Now S had originally excelled at modern languages. He had been expelled from Communist East Germany at gunpoint for staging, as part of an international drama festival, the Wall Scene from Midsummer Night's Dream. But now he had taken up an interest in sociology, and, more to the point, in criminology, and he did his best to infect me with his enthusiasm. So we spent a day in the magistrates' court, where no doubt the police wondered who we were. By and large, the accused persons seemed to be unusually dim, and the police, the solicitors and especially the magistrates seemed also not to be the sharpest tools in the box. The Assize Court was quite different. The barristers were absolutely brilliant at explaining their case to the twelve good men (and women) and true, and the judge (who went to the very top of his profession in later years) convinced us that justice was being expertly upheld. What interested S was the information that there were certain places in Coventry that were well worth a visit if one wished to meet “deviants”, as S liked to refer to criminals.
Accordingly, we visited a public house that had been named in a number of cases in the courts. Immediately one of the occupants tried to sell me a car battery. Soon word went around that “Punchy” was on his way. It was explained that Punchy was a retired boxer who had suffered brain damage and was considered not in full control of his actions. Sometimes he would lash out and hit people, but the customers of the public house did not take offence even though being hit by an ex-boxer was quite likely to lead to hospitalisation. The customers were very kind to Punchy and did everything in their power to prevent his outbreaks from attracting the attention of the police. Here is an illustration of the essential kindness of human beings.
One evening S and I paid a visit to Jenner Street. This was a relic of Victorian Coventry, still lit by gaslight. There still is a Jenner Street in Coventry, though most of it has had a large modern hospital built on top of it. This is where the street prostitutes plied their trade. The ladies, having ascertained that we were harmless, recruited us as minders. If they did not like a would-be customer, at a prearranged signal we would emerge from the shadows and frighten him off. I did not discover why they did not like certain men. Perhaps they were known to be violent. I was particularly interested to watch a mother training her daughter how to conduct herself. There is (or was) a particular way of standing with all the weight on one leg, with the leading knee thrust forward on the non-load-bearing leg. In France that posture used to be called le pied de grue, where the word grue meant the bird “crane” and, by extension, dockyard crane. As a result, one slang word for “tart” was grue. A large white handbag was to be brandished in lieu of an advertising placard. I have never put on a CV that I was once employed as a prostitutes' minder.
Jenner Street ran north of the city centre. That had been totally destroyed by German bombing, though visitors to Coventry in later years have taken the view that any destruction that Hitler could wreak, the City Council achieved worse. They were very proud of their new central shopping area, that served as a model for other cities in the 1960's. It is a bleak brick and concrete wilderness suitable only for skateboarding. As if to isolate it, a subsequent Council built an inner city motor racing circuit round it. Also in the centre are the ruins of the old cathedral, and, right next to them, Sir Basil Spence's new cathedral. I visited it in 1962. I am still not sure what I think of it. The concrete pillars that separate the main nave from the side aisles are bogus; they are suspended from the ceiling and do not actually support the structure. The stained glass is colourful, and the huge windows let a lot of light in. Above the main altar there is Graham Sutherland's gigantic green tapestry of the Risen Christ. Actually Christ seems to be floating on a mushroom cloud, maybe one caused by a nuclear explosion. I would not, on balance, advocate demolishing Coventry Cathedral, though as a general rule I would let the bulldozers loose on anything built in the 1960's. Around the city were several tower blocks, that were the state of the art in municipal housing. The lucky tenants were provided with underfloor heating. Unfortunately, they were not provided with adequate ventilation. So when electricity prices doubled and trebled as a result of Middle Eastern wars, the tenants, being unable to afford the underfloor heating, installed paraffin heaters instead. Thus the much vaunted flats with beautiful views over the Motor Racing Circuit had water running down the internal walls and black fungus everywhere.
This is nothing to do with Coventry. In January, ealier in the same year, 1966, I had been invited to attend a conference of criminologists in St Anthony's College, Oxford. Heating was by gas, controlled by a coin-in-the-slot meter. When the gas supply cut out, the room became dreadfully cold. And nobody could, or would, supply a shilling to put in the meter. So I pulled a small screwdriver out of my pocket and proceeded to wind back the internal mechanism, thus releasing a supply of gas once more. I was keenly watched by a scrum of criminologists close behind me as I worked. One of them said: “I have been a criminologist for many years, but this is the first time I have ever seen a crime being committed.”