Battles of the Sexes

The Committee was 18 strong. There were three women appointees (including me) – the other two were, respectively, a District Council elected representative and a retired Social Work Assistant/now Labour Party activist. The men were all, without exception, elected representatives – with the Committee Office Holders being drawn from the Strathclyde Regional Council reps. They were all (with two exceptions)  Labour Party members, but, young as I was, it surprised me to discover that status was very important to them – and Regional reps were clearly considered of greater significance than District Council reps…

I knew Jackie, the ex Social Work Assistant, well. I was the local Party Chair and she was the Treasurer. But she was more than that to me – even at that stage. A whirlwind of force and fury and anger against “the establishment”, against “privilege” and poverty and inequality. Self-taught. life-battered. Ex-Trade union Steward who was active in the Plessey sit-in (here). Vociferous proponent of the under-dog – prisoners and abused and neglected children in particular. She would rapidly become a second mother to me. Helping me cope with the demands of my 2nd child whom I found initially difficult to parent and to bond with.

The gender imbalance was typical of politics and public service of that time. The 90s saw the introduction of One-member-one-vote (Omov – though the electoral college rules water that down) and  latterly women-only shortlists for the Labour Party (under John Smith) – but “equality” was a concept viewed with very deep suspicion in the 80s and 90s West of Scotland (in truth, it still is).

This is an area that the Swinging 60s completely bypassed. An area where 50s attitudes, particularly in relation to the divisions between the sexes, reigned supreme – where, in 1985, my school taxi-driver felt comfortable enough to seriously and at-length give me chapter and verse as to why it was a “waste of time educating lassies because they would only give it all up to have wains”…

I lost count of the number of fights I witnessed and joined, attempting to shift the attitudes of the cabals of Party misogynists who would be up in arms about their preferred male candidate being sidelined in preference to a “stupid wee lassie ootsider wi nae experience”… It always amazed me that many women supported these men. And at a time when women reps were as rare as hens teeth.

Vera, the other woman member, was one of those women. She and I never did see eye-to-eye.

(to be continued)

Committee Business

There was more chair-shifting and shrinking. A florid sweaty man to my left wrung his hands. The very small elderly Chairman, (a man with pretty eyelashes under rimless glasses) laughed with a forced, high jollity –

Haha! now then, now then, we don’t want any “outrageous assertions”. Haha, we all know you Ken. But the Governor has been kind enough to explain just how the service has changed from your days. (and at this the Chair paused, to nod and smile at the Governor). Then he added more quietly And I will be grateful if you would remember that I’m Chairman here – we are not in the Social work Committee now. 

Ken smiled very graciously and said You are all fools if you believe there has been any change for the better.

Business moved on. I had stopped note-taking. 
It was clear the scene that had been long in the making. That at the very least it involved a history of personal and political antipathy. I had that spine-shiver that intrigue always provoked. I was studying  Ken with real interest now. Clearly he had been in the Service. But for how long and in what capacity? What did he do now that involved the Regions Social Work Committee?
There was a break for tea and biscuits. A prisoner, small dark and elderly wheeled in the trolley. He bobbed his head to left and right acknowledging the Committee members who were indulgently praising the quality of the tea. One said not long now then Alec. Eh? Not long at all. Eh? The sweaty florid man chipped in, with a laugh least you’ll be able to make tea out there when you go! and continued to laugh at his own words   as he looked around the room for appreciation.

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/oct/11/guardianobituaries.prisonsandprobation

(follow link for background info re Ken)
(to be continued again…)

A wee bit for the CV

At the age of 24 close political contacts ensured my appointment to the local H.M.Prison Visiting Committee. Corruption? Nepotism? Of course it was.

I had just had my first child and had begun the law degree. The Committee appeared to ask very little of me but seemed a good CV bet. There was nothing more in it for me than that. I gave the shift little thought.

I was the youngest Committee member by at least 35 years. The combo of gender and age meant that I was quickly appointed to the paid position of Committee Clerk. A  lowly unattractive admin position – but one which I shortly realised was the real power behind the Chairs illusory throne.

The then Prison Governor was a bastard of a man. Ex-military. Dictatorial. Capriciously and gratuitously bullying. Misogynistic. loved by the old Officers and respected by prisoners habituated to a hard unbending institutional violence. He was due to retire within the year but had the offer of a contractual extension – he had reigned over the Prison for an unusual trouble-free twenty two months.

He despised the Committee do-gooders. Displaying contempt in late arrivals to meetings. In eye-rolling  dismissals. In hard stares. I watched that first day. He fixed his gaze on each emerging source of irritation – and simply stared potential dissent down. Big grown men – leaders in their own fields – cowered, shifted in their seats, ahemed, and then back-tracked.

As the Agenda stuttered and faltered, Governor would distribute a short typed report. Speak to it. And, finishing it, would raise his gaze, looking over his half-moon glasses to fix the company with a stare which dared response.

I remember that first meeting. The tense silence. Eyes looking to the table top. One cough. Then another. Men seeming to shrink in their seats.

All, in fact, but one man. A big tall craggy attractive man in his 60s who had caught my attention earlier. A man with a twinkle in his eye. I remember him catching my bemused stare,winking at me, then turning to the Governor to say, with a slow, deliberate nonchalance, that acted like a slap, Now, George…You and I both know that that’s not quite true…is it?

(to be continued)