Monday, April 22, 2019

GUEST POST Three unlikely heroes from Grantham suggest a future for smaller towns

Brynley Heaven looks at the problems besetting the Lincolnshire town of Grantham and finds solutions in some unexpected quarters.

Violet Van Der Elst, the daughter of a washer woman and a coal heaver, took over Grantham Castle in 1937. Edward VII had tried to buy it before her, but had to settle for the less impressive accommodation at Sandringham.

As chief promoter (and quite probably inventor) of Shavex shaving foam, Violet had become seriously rich and spent lavishly on interiors. Everything top drawer and in the grandest style, she received visitors in the great chair of the Doges of Venice.

She banned shooting from the estate, which wound up the local gentry something rotten.They got their revenge when the all-powerful War Ag Committee set the parkland to the plough.

Violet sponsored the Women's Peace Legion in Grantham and conducted a tireless, incredibly brave and ultimately successful national campaign against capital punishment which made her a now-quite-wrongly-forgotten household name. She was arrested seven times and there were innumerable Court proceedings. She deserves a statue in Grantham.

Denis Kendall, who liked to call himself The Chief, employed 6,000 people in a Grantham rearmament company called BMARCO. Son of a Yorkshire miller, he ran away to sea age 14, made a pile of money on the Shanghai waterfront (we await his biographer, there is enough for a lengthy tome), he developed serious manufacturing ambitions, which are compellingly captured in a Pathe newsreel. The treatment of the Land Girl is as noteworthy as the styling of the vehicles.

Elected MP by a whisker, reelected by a landslide as Independent MP for Grantham (so much for the town's immutable Toryism), Denis led a national wartime cause célèbre against US servicemen or rather their very public red light support contingent in the town. It was graded by price along the High Street and culminating in the most expensive parading on the Town Hall steps.

He died in his nineties, living long enough to support Ollie North in the Iran-Contra scandal, capping a lifetime of glamorous skulduggery, arms smuggling and shady connections.

Our third Grantham notable, Margaret Thatcher is better known and usually misrepresented. Here I can draw upon my interviews with the late John Mitchell, which are published for the first time.

John was also a "political animal" who knew Margaret Roberts from the Conservative circle around the Upson family at Heydour Manor House, Grantham where both were encouraged to take their interest further. "Mrs Upson acted informally as Margaret's godmother".

Margaret overcame three interwoven kinds of prejudice, as a woman, as a Methodist and, by no means least, as merely middle class, to win selection as a Conservative candidate:
"You could see that she had got promise and that she had ambition. Her sister was like her mother, but Margaret was like Alfred, her father. There was something in her eyes, although she was four years younger than I, I found her highly attractive. She had a gleam in her eye like her father".
Grantham today
A walk around Grantham today reveals a town on its uppers, the heavy engineering all gone, the great names - Aveling Barford; Ruston & Hornsby - at one with Nineveh and Tyre.

"It's a lot poorer than it should be, an hour from London" is the customary put-down. Well paid jobs replaced by work in chicken evisceration, a huge enterprise. The housing crisis evident in the terraces.

If the High Street seems more vacant than is now usual, the urge to investigate further is choked off - and that is the apposite phrase - by the inexplicable failure to pedestrianise. The George Centre, an indoor shopping precinct, boasts a pizza place, vape shop and nail bar, but is mostly vacant, the shop fronts decorated to disguise this fact. The ancient Market Place itself is framed by a prominent sex club.

A little further out of town are the retail sheds, my favourite is the approach to B&Q and M&S Food where a mini-Zebra Crossing leads straight into a raised bank. Unusable. Nobody cares. Been like that for years. You must fight your way through moving traffic. Any survivors must repeat the ordeal on the way out.

Out on the A1, there are to be Outlet Centres/Fashion Villages, two rival schemes both approved, which conventional wisdom might see as a threat to the centre. But that ship has sailed and these arguments are no longer heard.

Grantham was designated for growth - meaning housing estates - long ago, a sensible place to expand, then billed as "the greenest ever" and subject to eternal rebranding as Eco Towns, Town Extensions, Garden Suburbs, New Quarters (a far from exhaustive list), but nobody expects to see what we really need, homes to rent and buy within reach of local wages, so more dormitory, more financial assets to juggle.

Lincolnshire, or this part of it, is run by a moribund rentier class, who live in surrounding villages and are currently taking the Conservative Party in unexpected directions. There is a cultural side to this. A fantasy ruralism. And a few accomplices in the media to make it plausible. Well almost plausible, if you shut your eyes.

The future
What remedies would our three Grantham go-getters suggest?

Voilet van der Elst anticipated our own times with her passions for animal welfare and human rights, her deep interest in spiritualism notwithstanding. She would have eschewed market town philistinism as thinly disguised defeatism and self-loathing.

Denis Kendall was the original populist, overthrowing tables, defeating incumbents (including Winston Churchill's nominee in wartime, let it be said), flirting with extremists, appealing to base feelings, throwing huge parties, dispensing favours, cutting corners. He would want urban ambition, not the sulking ruralist concoction currently served up.

Margaret Thatcher famously never had time or affection for her old haunt. A statue with a high plinth will shortly be put up on St Peter's Hill where, vandals permitting, she will gaze out on Lettings Agencies and a Betting Shop. What an accurate tribute.

One of her local acolytes, Colin Davie, the Conservative responsible for economic development, has proposed closure of Lincoln's prestige purpose-built Usher Gallery with its dazzling list of big name artworks:
"The future is not going in to somewhere and staring at walls"
Clunking and crass, the phrase might have come from her lips. Thatcher would be proud that the torch is still carried. Let us go boldly into the dark.

Brynley Heaven is a member of Grantham Labour Party.

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