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Bob Holman 1936-2016 RIP

June 26, 2016

BHolRobert Holman was born on November 8 1936 in Ilford, Essex and died on June 16th of motor neurone disease

His colleagues thought he was mad when he left a professorship at Bath University in 1976 for community work on the city’s Southdown estate.

He joined the Labour Party in 1961.” Very important was my dad being an air raid warden during the war,” he recalls. “He was part of a working-class team which rescued the bombed and dug the dead. His colleagues became friends for life. They demonstrated that the working class were important and I still recall the 1945 [Labour] victory. May the next one come soon.”

But, it was reading an essay by Peter Townsend that shaped the type of socialist he would become – one who would apply his beliefs to his own behaviour. “You cannot live like a lord and preach as a socialist,” was Townsend’s clarion call.

Holman’s politics belongs to a tradition of Christian socialism and Jesus is at the centre of much of what he talks about, as a figure and role model. When I ask him about his support of refugees, he says: “Jesus Christ was a refugee.” Does he believe he has led a Christly life? “No,” he says. “I’ve tried to.”

This attempt to follow Christ, though, is something he shares with Keir Hardie, who wrote in 1910: “The impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.” Of all the books Holman has written, he’s proudest of Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero?, which explores the Christian element of Hardie’s socialism. “I admire him. I relate to him. People like Keir Hardie were in the community. Today’s Labour leaders are not.”

“To equality,” was often the sign-off on Holman’s emails.“I believe society should be equal … and we should move towards a more equal society. Keir Hardie thought that.”

In 1987 the family moved to Holman’s wife’s native Glasgow, to live on the vast Easterhouse estate, where he founded Family Action in Rotherfield and Easterhouse (FARE). The organisation, run by single parents, unemployed people and others, began in the Holmans’ front room and represented, to Holman, a channel for the individual and collective spirit and abilities of ordinary people.

“You become a Christian,” he said, “and then you begin to work out what it means.”

“I am looking at a section of a Sunday newspaper headed ’Money Matters’. It reports that two of Bath’s finest houses are on the market at £300,000 each… (an) escape from London for the weekend. Not far from me a neighbour showed me her son’s bedroom. It contained two beds, no cupboards, no heating. A huge damp patch on wall and ceiling . . . She is desperate to move . . . but rebuffed by demands of £250 key money.” The woman did not have the key money, and when another flat was found the rent was above what Housing Benefit office would pay. No chance of escape, says Holman, and definitely not to Bath.

He strove to make the venture self-financing, following St Paul’s example: “St Paul was a tent-maker, and always prided himself on not having to ask the Church for money. I’m going to operate on the tent-maker principle.”

There were clubs, sport and art activities, family support groups, holidays, and adult mentors for children and young people. Holman’s role was as “a resourceful friend”: “I’m not a social worker: I can’t have your children taken into care. I’m not an ordinary friend: a friend can reject you. And I’ve got certain skills.” He would help to fill in benefit forms, speak on people’s behalf at tribunals, find money for a new washing machine, or accompany a youngster to court.

Many social workers, dissatisfied with the managerialism that infected their profession, saw Holman as a reminder of social work as a vocation.

Bob Holman summed it up when he said that the inner city wasn’t a place; it was a state of mind – the mentality of entrapment, where aspiration and hope are for other people, living in another place – Iain Duncan Smith

I no longer recognise the Iain Duncan Smith with whom I have had a cross-party friendship for eight years. In 2002, as the Conservative party leader, he visited the project I helped to found in Easterhouse. He has described the visit as a kind of epiphany: “I saw the poverty among a swath of forgotten people. I felt I had to do something and came away a changed man. Since becoming work and pensions secretary he appears to have accepted old Tory policies on every crucial issue. The IDS I knew was a politician who almost wept at the plight of the poor. My guess is that, in order to reach his costly goal of a universal credit scheme, he has had to mollify the chancellor, George Osborne – and that can only be done by being like those Tories who take pleasure in punishing the poor.There is an alternative. I have observed his rare gift of being able to listen to and communicate with people crushed by social deprivation. I believe he should leave the cabinet and devote himself to those at the hard end” – Bob Holman

The danger is that in writing about my reasons for doing so, I will come over as an inverted snob: “I am more radical than thou”. But that isn’t my intention. I decided to write about rejecting the MBE for two reasons. One is that I want to thank and explain my reasons to the unknown people who nominated me. Second, perhaps it will encourage others to do the same. The honours are bestowed by the monarchy. As a democrat, I am opposed to a queen and other royals who wield great public influence in spite of never having been elected. I am an egalitarian. I believe that a socially and materially equal society is more united, content and just. The royal honours system is designed to promote differences of status. It is made clear that those who are made knights or dames are socially superior to those given CBEs, OBEs or MBEs. But all are socially above those without honours. These imposed differences hinder the co-operation, interaction and fellowship that are the characteristics of equality. Refusing a royal honour is a small step but one in the right direction.

If you’re with people who don’t have much money, then money is not their God and other things become important, like friendships, helping each other. That’s the kind of society I want.

A consultant speaks frankly to me: “Mr Holman, I am sorry to say that you have motor neurone disease.”For several months, I had been under several departments for difficultities in swallowing and coughing fits, loss of use in my right hand, breathlessness and problems with my voice. Then it was brought together by the neurology department – motor neurone disease, a rare but deadly disease. It involves the decline in use of nerves and muscles, with the victim usually unable to carry out basic tasks. There is no cure, it is progressive and usually leads to a shortened life span. I am in the early stages but my life style has changed considerably. My diet consists of easy to swallow food, well prepared by my wife, Annette. The slow chewing means that it can take 50 minutes to consume breakfast, often accompanied by coughing. Consequently, I cannot eat in cafes or restuarants. My voice is difficult to understand and will eventually go altogether. I can no longer speak at public meetings. I do insist on going to buy the local papers at the local co-op everyday where they know about my illness. But the short walk can make me breathless. To sleep, I have to sit upright. For all this, I do have a certain contentment for these reasons. The illness has brought me even closer to all our family. My loving wife Annette and I accept the likelihood of my soon-to-come death. At my remembrance service, I want not just hymns but also We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn. My dad, in the war, dug out many bombed people, dead and alive, and the song always brought tears to his eyes. In addition, I believe Annette and I will meet again. – Bob Holman

I will not lose my Christianity. It came before my socialism. The example and values of Jesus Christ led me to seek a societal implementation through politics. The writings of Richard Tawney and the practices of Keir Hardie and George Lansbury led me into the Labour party. But Christianity is more than politics. It will be with me to the end. – Bob Holman

He said, “…. I’m quite looking forward to dying.” When he was 64, the age at which his own father died, he had a dream in which his dad appeared, welcoming him into the next life. “I’m looking forward to dying. Be with my God. I have a belief in an afterlife. I’ve no idea what that is. But God is merciful … I don’t know. I’ve had a great life.”

If I have achieved anything, I hope it is seen in other people, not me – Bob Holman

Bob’s political philosophy is perhaps best summed up in the title of a book he edited in the late 1990s, based on interviews with local Easterhouse residents, Faith in the Poor. It was the in intelligence, resilience and creativity of so-called ‘ordinary people’ that Bob saw the best hope for the future.

There’s a review of his book about Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy aka ‘Woodbine Willie’ here

Also his biography of Keir Hardy

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