1989. The Berlin Wall
On 2nd February 1989 my dear brother Roger died of heart disease and a few days after the funeral, his hospital appointment, (leading to by-pass surgery) came through the post. He had been taken from his home to Queen Elizabeth hospital whilst my sister-in-law was out and luckily our telephone number was found on him. Upon receiving a call, we were there in minutes, but it was too late. The nurse at his bedside had deep faith and was inspired by his inner peace in his dying seconds when he told her he was about to embark on a great journey. Roger was at that centre of his 'concentric sphere of Peace' - the inner self, radiating outwards to the family, the neighbours, community, town, country and the world -but my brother was never going to stop there at its very edge.
I wrestle with my conscience - yes, the times I should have been more kind to people being nasty to me; should I have exercised more patience before embarking on confrontation, if such was even necessary? My family? My workplace? Hurtful and bloody unjust things have been done to me yet I forgive and have no bitterness, but forget, never. If at a flick of a switch they would go away it would be done; but if a propitious time comes my way to exact a bit of 'come-uppance', I am not averse to dishing it out; trouble is most of my proposed recipients are dead and I can only hope overburdening guilt afflicted them before they passed on. My neighbours? Well I have seven in the legal sense of sharing a mutual boundary, far more than most people and for such a small plot it seems ridiculous; four are private and three are corporate but, it is the Stantons that this chapter concerns who became nationally notorious for being bad neighbours. So with the inner rings of my 'Peace Onion' causing me difficulty, one of my retirement aspirations was to work really hard for world peace. Let me tell you about my efforts in the seventh year after not having to go to work for a living.
On Easter Saturday, 25th March, the "Life Style Movement" sponsored this, my seventh, consecutive, Selly Oak annual Easter Peace Festival at George Cadbury Hall. I say "my" because in the planning and organisation of a nine-year spread of consecutive annual festivals, I put in a hundred times more thought and effort throughout the year than any other individual or sponsoring organisation.
Barbara Panvil and other devout Quakers, Rev. Irwin Barnes, long-time member of the Labour Party, possessing that original, core socialist conviction, and other ministers of various denominations supported me. All were wonderful people but Barbara and Irwin as "Lifestyle" members inspired me with their depth of conviction and inner peace. Irwin visited me the previous October with a petition he wanted me to head and, typical of his concern for his weaker neighbours and for the best of reasons known to me, he wanted agreement to end the village Bonfire Night celebrations. His particular anguish was the waste of discarded but valuable, usable timber. His home bordered on the site of the celebrations and he hated the affect of noise on the elderly and pets, and the symbolism of the burning at the stake of Guy Fawkes. It was so difficult to turn his gentle approach down, as I agreed with him, but would not lead the way for him. As I explained in my last chapter, I had taken a strong line in the neighbourhood over smoky garden fires but always extolling the November 5th celebrations as a community event - as long as the fire burnt brightly and the noise restricted to a half hour before 8 pm. Certainly the organisers rigorously excluded garden refuse and the owner made to take it back. Two months after Irwin's visit and just before Christmas, Bernard Stanton was issued with a Smoke Abatement Notice. His fires were regular and notorious and he always got away with it despite protests from residents and final warnings from Environmental Health Officers. However, his enraged frustration was an ideal present to delighted neighbours for the festive season. The Stantons blamed me totally of course, refusing to recognise Bernard had been an insufferable nuisance to the neighbourhood for a long time. His final fire was innocuous and purely to establish his independent course of behaviour and for the very first time this fire was as close to his house as mine. I heard him shrieking at the Environmental Health Officer that it was another fire yesterday that had given trouble, not his. This time he was right, but it did not upset me much - in fact I enjoyed it. I was congratulated by Mr Henslowe at BVT and modestly accepted his and others praise that at last my campaigning zeal had been recognised and official action had been taken not just threatened. I learnt afterwards of the severe resentment of me that the notice caused to the Stantons - they hated BVT, and interfering council officials, as everybody else did but particularly as they had backed me. Little did we know how it was to boil over to pathological hatred, retaliation and tragedy?
George Cadbury Hall is a unique, imposing building, situated in the centre of Selly Oak, on the Bristol Road. I pass by it on my daily walk. Expensively adapted for the convenience of the disabled it was ideal for my purpose. Inside there is an immediate conversion facility to accommodate double anticipated attendance numbers, should you be so lucky, by opening the gallery screen; when kept closed an impression of closeness is endangered with a hundred or more people. Beyond that number, opening up the gallery more than doubles the capacity and does not alter the atmosphere.
There was always irritating pressure on me to move my annual peace festival to an alternative venue and to any other time other than Easter Saturday and the place would then be busting at the seems. The white middle class professionals offered abject apologies for non-attendance as they took their families off for their first clear break in the year. Who could blame them? In no way could attending a meeting, end the cold war. Loyal supporters and fellow peaceniks who never came during the whole sequence of my nine annual festivals, nevertheless delivered house to house leafleting as part of the distribution system and contributed to funds and to peace in their own way.
In any case the celebration was only the focal point of a resume of a whole years activity and the launch of another one. The President of Selly Oak Colleges lived in the delightful detached house, next to the Hall and college grounds. It was a tied cottage and Professor John Ferguson as he retired from academic life, agreed to take over chairmanship of Selly Oak Peace Council. We were very lucky to have John, an astute chairman. He ran the meeting part of the 1989 Festival skilfully, bringing together strands of the Peace Movement under the current year's theme "One man's greed is another man's need". I had written to ask Tony Benn to speak; instead he wrote us a Peace message on his vision of European Unity that to this day has an eternal quality ring. Tony, as all of us, did not know that he would sit within seven months at a campfire with Petra Kelly, leader of the German Greens among the ruins of the Berlin Wall. Our Euro-MP Christine Crawley brilliantly responded to the message elaborated by a speaker from Life Style, and the Woodcraft Folk. I had designed a Peace Card in yellow and green with the Life Style logo of a burning candle encircled with the caption,
"Peace Means Life For All" and on the back was a text from Gandhi
"Recall the face of the poorest and helpless person whom you may have seen and ask yourself if any step you contemplate is going to be of use to him." There was a slight transcription error, for which I will take the blame - although so many had proof read it. I slightly tapered the candle on the Life Style logo that should have had parallel straight edges and this caused irritability. At each successive Festival, something flawed absolute satisfaction and perfect harmony from everyone. Each year there was a different sponsoring organisation from different aspects of the Peace Movement. That organisation could feel overwhelmed that a hundred other groups were sharing the limelight. However, as they did not pay the bill they could not moan as I begged for money and provided all publicity and the considerable labour free of charge. Our mailing list was national and international, sent all over the world by the other individual groups to members and friends.
CRIS - Community Resources and Information Service, aided then by Cadbury Charities and Council grants is a professional group founded to provide office facilities, advice on organisation, printing and publicity on an economic basis to community organisations in the South Birmingham Area. They printed several thousand cards for me at their commercial price. These were given to any supporting groups free to sell or give as Peace Cards and keeping any proceeds. They were available in all the College bookshops and purchasers retained some and sent them out for years afterwards. It is a pity they were not absolutely word perfect but no one noticed my error. Twelve thousand paper leaflets were produced in the same colour and inside were the details of all the organisations taking part and speakers at the Festival.
Helen Stanton, my neighbour's daughter-in-law helped in the delivery system that I had organised to secure delivery to every house or flat in Selly Oak. Helen either collected leaflets from our house or I delivered them to her and others. Packs of leaflets were posted to members of our constituent groups nationally for distribution through their own internal mail. It was always deeply touching that some individuals were prepared to travel hundreds of miles almost on a pilgrimage to come to George Cadbury Hall on Easter Saturdays. Year by year we expanded our national and international dimension and that helped me in my concentric circle view of Peace. Each festival cost £500, as the hall though ideal for the purpose, was expensive as the Colleges Administration made no concession for a kindred group such as ours for the all-day Saturday booking.
Fifty-seven years previously Mahatma Gandhi stayed for a week at Woodbrooke College, the birthplace of George Cadbury and three minutes walk down the road from the hall. I walk past it every day when it is not wet or icy. American tourists claim to have seen the bed the Guru slept in - they were wrong - he slept on the floor. Those feet had touched this local earth and I sing to myself "and did those feet in ancient times " Gandhi had freed his people by non-violence from the greatest Empire the world had ever known but would he have been so successful under the rule of an even more cruel aggressive world power instead of a patronising one? He was shot dead by one of his own when his movement took freedom from a willing Atlee Labour Government following its election manifesto. It was one of the reasons for which as a seventeen year old I had worked so hard for its 1945 General Election success.
The spirit of George Cadbury, pacifist and Peace benefactor smiled over us. In 1914 George gave part of his fortune to the Independent Labour Party as they were opposed to the war. I looked at his bust, watching over his hall from his foyer plinth conveying a wink, a wry smile and a thumbs up when no one was looking. The very austere, pious man frowned back at me. I would have a couple of pints that evening and he would not like that. Various Cadbury charities, whose offices or accommodation addresses were in the same grounds, if written to humbly, informally in longhand would respond favourable with help if I sent them a begging letter. This year I pulled a reply out of one envelope, which was plainly rude, irritable and exasperated, which made me want to respond in exactly the same vein until catching sight of an odd bit of paper fluttering to the floor. It was a cheque for £100. The local branch of the Transport and General Workers Union always sent £25 and displayed their banner and was represented by past militant, Longbridge trade unionists including the much maligned Red Robbo. He is a great guy - educated, cultured and compassionate although basically politically naïve - alongside fellow communists he was supporting the existence of the Berlin Wall. Retired ex-butcher Walter Hillman, a Quaker was our treasurer and he recorded impeccably the accounts that balanced within a few pounds either way. We had no bank account as Walter used his own.
Five days before all this on 20th March, I carried my double aluminium ladder, placed it against the end of the hedge, fully extended it, hauled my unwieldy carcass to the top and began sawing through the trunk five feet from the tip. It took eighty-year olds, Frieda and Bernard Stanton seconds to appear on the other side although the hedge obscured my physical view of them. Bernard called out,
"We know exactly what you are doing and how much you are taking off".
I ignored him completely and continued sawing gently with my tiny sharp saw, scarcely longer than the thickness of the trunk. It was reasonable soft wood but it would need half an hour of steady sawing, for me with arthritic shoulders, fat and sixty-one years old. My puny efforts could not compare with a ten second zip of a chain saw held by a young, professional woodsman to saw through and sever the timber. Perched on the top of the ladder with twenty-two feet of tree below me, my balance was precarious and as the right hand was pushing the saw the left hand was needed to push the trunk away from the saw to avoid it jamming the blade. There was no hand free to hold on. Bernard went on
"Let me offer you a bit of friendly advice - you can't do that". I answered,
"But you are not my friend" and continued sawing. Frieda hysterically called out,
"Michael Jones, Michael Jones we have just been on the phone to our solicitor and we are taking out an injunction on Monday morning". I continued without answering and meanwhile Bernard had brought a long piece of iron conduit that he thrust upwards. The lethal piece of metal pierced the hedge and went straight through the rung of the ladder between my legs and the length of piping sprang up and a length of pipe hit me with excruciating pain below a sensitive place. I dropped the saw and made a painful slide down the ladder landing in a winded crumpled heap on the ground. After managing to get to my feet I managed to push aside vegetation at the end of the hedge and coincidently got eye contact with Stanton. His face was contorted with rage and anger and I gasped, "Make sure that that never happens to me again". I staggered into the house and immediately took some strong painkillers and then examined and treated my cut hands and body abrasions with TCP. Stanton's lunge with the iron conduit between the rungs of the ladder had failed to pierce the skin but of course the end of the pipe on its way could have ripped through soft tissue and been fatal. The impact blow in the testicles when the pipe below the end sprang upwards was painful and dangerous and back pain caused by hitting the ground gave me trouble for a week. When calm and rested for twenty minutes I phoned the Stantons and when Frieda answered, I described my physical condition,
"Things have now reached a critical stage, you can both come round and discuss what your husband has done to me, see precisely how you spoil our amenity and if you are still prepared to use violence instead of resolving the situation amicably. Bernard has hurt me and any long term effects is actionable and his responsibility". Frieda replied,
"That is exactly what you will get every time you trespass on our property and damage our trees". I insisted,
"You were warned, but you did not believe me, if you do not control your trees I shall, but you are grossly mistaken if you think I am tolerating your husband's dangerous behaviour just because I did not retaliate with violence. I am getting free legal advice now with a view to prosecuting him for assault as I am certainly not paying anymore solicitors fees".
Of the 30 minutes of free telephone legal advice paid for by my house insurance policy, 20 minutes was taken up giving answering the questions on background only to told to go to the doctor, inform the police immediately, about this and the previous assaults. I phoned the local station and was put in touch with the superintendent who asked what on earth the Bournville Village Trust was doing about it, and would I get an interview with them, let him know the result and he would do the same. I phoned the legal secretary's office and got an appointment at 9.30 am in four days time and started to write a letter in which I put in capitals
YOU MAY ADVISE ME IF THE TREES WHICH MR STANTON PLANTED ON THE BOUNDARY LINE ARE A HEDGE. I detailed my injuries and my conversation with the policeman.
Two young male constables called later as their last assignment of their shift. The ladder was still in place and when I pointed to the half sawn timber one expostulated in industrial language,
"Is that all you are taking off, I would have cut them off here" he pointed at a spot about five feet from the ground. We went back in the house and I poured them and myself generous glasses of scotch. We were all pleasantly relaxed talking football, making jokes and chatting as though we had known one another all our lives. This was the most pleasant part of police duty, but it was coming near to the end of the shift. Then one said,
"Better have your statement". When we got to the part where the old man had sprang the pipe against my goolies and knocked me off the ladder I felt the mutually sympathetic pangs of excruciating, breathe drawing, sympathetic, male agony. A dead silence gradually expostulated into a strangled whimper that I defused by laughing and we all exploded with mirth. When they had left the "spirit" of the occasion had numbed the abrasions on my hands and body where the injuries had clotted over but I was unable to straighten myself from my bent position that night and for many nights afterwards it was difficult to find a comfortable position in which to get a night's sleep. A terrified aversion to climbing ladders was overcoming me.
However life was hectic, the Festival was my annual high spot in my whole year and it was coming to its climax, phone calls were pouring in. "Friends of the Earth" agreed to do the refreshments, vegetarian of course, and keep all profits from what they sold and as one of our constituent groups, also have free rent of a stall in the hall. They wanted to know how many were going to attend, so did the press but that was something we did not know. Wastage of food is anathema to conservationists and advance-planning provision was necessary to dispose of surplus or plan for insufficiency. That was their concern not mine. It worked out well but I got moans about the catering being too expensive and there was no meat. Then there were my imperfections in my literature did the omission of "most" in the Ghandi quotation and the 'tapering' not straight sides of the Lifestyle logo candle matter. With any enterprise undertaken with great commitment, trivialities assume too much importance, but there again the trivialities to some are not to others. Lack of excellence assumes too much importance in conveying an image. It was sad that the leaflets did not reach our sponsoring group "Life Style's" own membership; one of them from East Anglia rang me up to express regret that they were not informed about the Festival. The sponsoring organisation was about the only peace group not internally notifying its members. Why did I bother? Professor John Ferguson made one telling remark
"If an angry baby throws its doll outside its pram in a rage the ripples of anger will travel throughout the universe for all time". Maybe our message will go on to the end of time for at least one new local Woodcraft Group was born and maybe those young people will pass the occasion on and inspire others. George Cadbury would have liked it and is why he insisted that
'The spirit rather than the law shall govern his estate' which he started to build ninety years earlier as his example to the rest of the world. My name as publisher and organiser was on all the leaflets and a local deliverer dropped one in at Bernard and Frieda's house as their daughter-in-law posted a couple of hundred through her local letterboxes in her local part of Bournville.
Garden chores had to be attended to and some of the seedlings in my greenhouses were growing too fast and needed pricking out and planting on into trays. Attention was needed to watering, shading and ventilation and cover on frosty nights. One silly piece of neglect and months of tender loving care would be lost. I wished that was all that was on my mind and it was possible just the ecstasy of raising my seedlings.
Maureen came with me to the Trust Offices on the Friday morning and Secretary Thomson, expressed concern about my injuries and informed me the Stantons were in an interview in another part of the building. We impressed him that the stress upon us was appalling and BVT held the crucial part in the solution of the problem, and I would continue to assert my right to maintain the hedge if the Stantons would consent to maintaining it at a permanent, agreed, reasonable height. Mr Thomson would not give a verbal ruling as to the status of the trees growing in line with the beech hedge but he would send along the Trust surveyor and let me know upon his report.
More than two hundred came to the Festival, all the old regulars and an encouraging number of new groups took advantage of the publicity offered for free but in the main they would be offering their pamphlets, badges and propaganda to the like minded. The faithful local Labour Party people came and put up the Selly Oak "old" Labour banner, the old Liberals were there as were the new Greens who were about to take third place in the local election. The prospective council candidates gave me thanks for my work. We had two Communist Parties not speaking to one another. Red Robbo was selling his Morning Star, still a daily paper and the only British newspaper on sale in Moscow. The Soviet Communist Party had a massive daily subscription and the paper would report our event in full on Monday, the only national paper to do so. Derek Robinson's communist party, owning the daily newspaper was the original Stalinist rearguard, loyally supporting the Moscow line that considered the Berlin Wall as a state boundary; too true of course but only for a few months longer. The other Communist party, detaching itself from Moscow domination still owned and ran the old bookshop, which displayed our leaflets and sold our peace cards; lovely people, our great supporters but not on speaking terms with their communist brothers and sisters. They accepted re-unification of Germany as did its sister parties in the European political main stream. We had old Liberals, and the new Lib-Dems, Labour and Greens but we still had to wait two years for the next festival but one before the Tories accepted our invitation and were to come were to come quite naturally, accepting "Peace" as a natural word that everyone understood and not placed in their personal dictionary as a Moscow inspired conspiracy. I rang them up even but they were riding high in the political process but patronisingly declined me as a nut case. The ecumenical success was considerable. The local churches displayed our publicity on their notice boards when I asked ministers. They would also mention the festival in announcements. Chris Aldridge our local vicar, prominent Catholics, Methodists and John Ferguson himself who was a prominent URC man, but shortly to be accepted as a Quaker just before his tragic early death from cancer. He and wife Elnora were spiritual and financial supporters of the Community of Reconciliation once supported by George Cadbury. A couple of years later when life was stressful a Community member rang to ask how they could help me, if I needed personal counselling and that they would pray for me.
Many assumed I was religious, and it made no difference when told, that I had not and might never make that fundamental leap to faith. It has always been my view that believers and non-believers alike made a simplistic leap. However many letters came to me addressed to the Rev. Michael Jones. Financial and numerical support came from Quakers whose witness for Peace is fundamental to their belief. For the first time Humanists supported us and attracted interest from the politicos who unlike me envied those with faith but regretted their own inability to make that honest challenging step from non-belief. They passionately demanded a moral and ethical structure in their own lives and for society. Maureen was an enthusiastic and active Humanist and it was through her that an official Humanist presence and advertisement in their journal supported the Festival. Here was another link with the Stantons, long proclaimed humanists.
So now the 1989 Peace Festival was it over but was it a success? The question I always myself as did others. Maybe waves were generated that will ripple throughout space and time for ever though I wished a bit of the rippling would start now with my neighbours on that same day.
On Easter Monday, two days after the festival I sent a letter to the Stanton solicitor, with copies to the Local Police Superintendent and to Bournville Trust. I explained that I should continue levelling the trees at the same height as when Stanton knocked off the ladder and after that I would always maintain them at a suitable height until some permanent agreement was agreed. I would never retaliate by meeting violence with violence and therefore needed their protection and specifically pointed out that it was too dangerous to work in the rain but when the weather was settled I would ring and give two hours telephone notice before starting work.
It was not politically possible for western governments and politicians to admit that the cold war and division of Europe was at an end particularly when Gorbechev asked the world,
"Who knows what will have happened to the two German states in a hundred years time ". He did not expect an answer and no one offered one. On Sunday 2nd April there was the last (although we did not know that) major, cold war CND mass rally in Hyde Park. Political considerations induced the major parties Thatcher Tories, Kinnock Labour, and now the newly formed and named, tiny band of Lib-Dems who actually drafted their constitution specifically incorporating support for the old cold war theme NATO. It was done thus to avoid any perception of equivocation on the most crucial issue of our times. The Soviets had bankrupted themselves on nuclear weapons and our own impoverished Health and other public services badly needed the billions wasted on the futile Trident weapon system. The Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons had costed the deterioration of the Health Service against the billions wasted our misnamed and so-called independent nuclear deterrent. The next Labour Government, still a frightening eight years away would be in trouble through failure to provide the necessary catch-up investment in public services, well beyond inflation. Here was an opportunity for outstanding Labour leadership but Neil Kinnock flunked the issue, reneged on his past and committed himself to something abhorrent to himself and his loyal supporters. He was born for this moment in history but he muffed it by taking the wrong advice from the wrong people at the wrong time and lost, never to regain his credibility. He lost the next general election and lost forever his premiership ambitions. However, I was thinking of my own not so cold war, having lost my Birmingham friends as the huge rally dispersed and made my way back alone and literally leaping on the train just pulling out from Euston Station to be re-united with my friends.
Three days later I received the official reply from the Stanton solicitor's firm about their client's pole launch at my testicles. It said,
"We have been advised by Mr Stanton of the incident and given him certain advice and do not propose to make further comment".
At 10am on Friday 7th April there was rain in the air and it was a little gusty and an excuse would have been ideal for me wanting to funk the issue but, a decision had to be made on a fine balance of judgement. I phoned the Police Inspector, the BVT legal man and Stantons solicitor and all three private secretaries told me their bosses were out, in conference or court or had a virus and I did not for one moment believe them. Their bosses, completely cheesed off with me, would whisper to their girl,
"Tell him to leave a message?" I told them I would be cutting the trees at 2 pm that day. Come that time I was shivering with fear at the terror of climbing the ladder but, was it also because I was committing myself to something big and irretrievable? If there was any point at which I was taking the law into my own hands this was it. I was literally going over the top in an irretrievable action. I deliberately clanked the metallic ladder in the hope that showdown point could be reached without having to climb up the damn thing but, disappointingly no one came to shout at me, arrest me or take me away. So I clanked the aluminium ladders another couple of times but no luck. Then I took a deep breath and clambered up at a speed amazing for an arthritic of my size and age, slid my little saw halfway through the timber into the slot made fourteen days previously and gently easing the tree top away from trapping the blade, glided through the other half. The five-foot heavy piece of timber with its branches and foliage tottered ominously and I had to make a quick decision that it should go my side and me with it or push it by itself over the Stanton side. It may have flitted through my mind that it was their property. I dropped the saw, gave the thing a push and held on like grim death to the next piece of tree. Posterity records a famous photograph of Bernard, taken a few weeks afterwards, standing behind it holding up his piece of tree top, with his head just showing above it. It was copied scores of times from a Stanton affidavit produced two years later.
As this bulky Christmas tree like structure hit Stanton ground my built up nervous expectations inducing me to believe the Earth would move at such a grotesque act; but nothing happened. Access for anyone coming in from the road was deliberately left open but there was literally not a soul in sight. Perhaps I was a little disappointed that there was no raving, shrieking objection but apparently no one had observed me. I went inside made a cup of tea, sat on the settee opposite the patio window and looked with grim satisfaction at a chunk of sky not seen for many a year. All was peace and quiet; Maureen came back startled and filled with apprehension at what I had done and the approaching storm of rage. I did nothing to allay her fears because it was certain that night follows day that all hell would be let loose.
Two police constables came the next morning at 11am and calmly surveying the scene expressed astonishment at this "Berlin Wall", using for the first time the expression to be repeated many times by expert witnesses, lawyers, police and judges in the future. One expostulated,
"I would be pig sick if anyone put up such blockage outside my property and for the life of me I can see no reason for it, Stanton phoned the station earlier on and we've just been round there but we couldn't see your house from his downstairs, we had to go upstairs and look through his dorma window in the attic". The other interrupted,
"However, the position is this, sir; we've talked for a couple of hours and studied all the papers including particularly the letter from his solicitor that clearly states you are guilty of criminal damage. It is my duty to arrest you immediately should you touch those trees again even on your side and prison will undoubtedly follow. Please remove your ladder and we will go back to the Stantons and tell them... Looking at the hedge I pointed out,
"It looks ridiculous with a piece cut out; I will have to straighten the line". He replied,
"That is no concern of mine sir; please remove your ladder". I insisted,
"Please tell your boss, that I shall finish cutting the trees again but I will phone a couple of hours before notice as I did yesterday" The PCs looked shocked at this disclosure and they obviously did not know about my triple warning to Inspector, BVT and solicitor. I continued,
"The media will be here and when you take me to prison, I shall not eat prison food and start an immediate hunger strike". Maureen was badly shaken, perhaps shivering with fear up to this point but she bravely chipped in firmly,
"You can count me in on this; we will cut the trees, go to prison and starve together". This deeply touched and angered me at the same time because this was solely to be my personal battle and protest as it was my role in life to suffer and to go on and on until this hedge nonsense was finally resolved. I did not want her to be involved at all, and did not tell her about my proposed action and arranged for all this to happen whilst she was out. Afterwards we both laughed that as we were overweight and an enforced diet in a good cause was not such a bad idea. I carried on talking to the policemen,
"What about the assault" They were both astonished as they had no information about any assault or yesterdays notice of my cutting or had been given any background information. However one offered,
"The police won't take any action, Stanton would have to do that three or four times to you and seriously injure you before we would take action". This shook me and made me resolve what action I would take if I was injured again and it wasnt violent retaliation. The other policeman added,
"You best get a solicitor and take it through the civil courts". He quickly got the answer from me, "Wasting money is just compounding the injustice". However together we lowered the ladder and laid it on its side at the base of the hedge.
Next day was Sunday 9th April and early morning we decided we desperately needed a break, went out for the day and returned late afternoon having plugged in one of the answering machines of that period to take any calls during the day. Within minutes of our return there was a ring and the machine operated at the same time. The caller went,
"Mr Jones" and I answered,
"Speaking and the line went dead. Twenty minutes later two police cars shrieked to a stop outside the house and two PCs were about to hammer on the door when opened it to let them in, a third with a police dog was standing by his car in the road. Agitation turned to confusion as we began to put two and two together. On appreciating a very tranquil scene, one police car, two policemen and a dog went back to the station. Two young fresh-faced constables and we, an elderly couple drawn with stress, sat down together had cups of tea, whilst the story was told again with emphasis on the previous day. This was pleasant relaxing police work. A PC laughed,
"The police won't arrest you, we would look absolutely barmy" and the other one added,
"I would have removed more of that monstrosity than you, in fact I would have sawn the whole bloody lot down, just you wait until the old ****** goes on holiday and get it all down". The anonymous telephone call had obviously been made to test if we had finally arrived home and to be there for when the police responded. The policemen stayed some time because they were ashamed of their colleagues over reaction to the hysterical Stanton call and were sensitive that they had badly shaken us on the whim of the newly arrived bullyboy Stanton jnr., just trying to frighten us.
I had no intention of forgetting the incident of which the phone call was part. Luckily the call was on tape and I replayed it many times, mentally registering the voice patterns before confirming the underlying suspicions. I reported Paul Terry Stanton to British Telecom as breeching the terms of service set out in the telephone directory for sending an anonymous call. I spent some considerable time on it getting through to several tiers of management taking names insisting notes were made and then reported the matter to the police, BVT and the Stanton solicitor.
Paul Terry Stanton, the eldest son of Frieda and Bernard was born in 1941 and grew up with his two brothers at 47 Weoley Hill. He was thirty years old when we moved into Tillyard Croft, a new development on green-field, virgin Selly Oak countryside, the playground of his youth and childhood. Eighteen years previously just after we arrived he sneered at me over the bare chain-link fence,
"What are those things for?" He was referring to a tripod of canes over a very late growing circle of runner bean plants. I was proud of a late season attempt in the busy house move to try for at least a token crop of anything on our new land, He did not even wait for a reply but I remember it as the most calculated, unnecessary and unsolicited piece of rudeness I had ever heard; and my offence? It was our possession of his childhood playground. His piece of crassness was typical of our surrounding new neighbours who were all hostile but not as stupid as Stanton jnr. to articulate their hate and resentment face to face to the newcomers. They did so behind your back because I heard them and it is truisms that what you hear you are meant to hear. Eighteen years later his voice was captured on tape escalating a dispute shortly to end in his personal tragedy for which only he himself must take the responsibility. However, it would be only the first of many instances of bad errors of judgement and failure to think through the consequences of his actions. What a difference it would have made to make friends with new neighbour and then after almost a generation he had learnt nothing when he took the trouble to make a telephone call but could not say those healing words,
"I am coming round to have a talk, make friends and put an end to this silly nonsense". According to his criteria, this could have saved his mother's life.
We had been friendly to the always-changing beat officers because we thought of Martin our younger son policeman and wanted the residents he served to be appreciative and friendly to the police. Our conscientious, efficient local beat officer, PC Symonds called on Friday the 14th April. He knew the locality, personalities, history and background of his beat but little known to me had been on leave just when his services had been badly needed. I have often wondered that if he had been around things might have worked out differently. He had just been updated with recent events. He first assured us without being prompted that we would not be arrested, and he was most concerned with the state of our health. He had been appalled for some time at the conifer screen so close to our house but now expressed concern for the need for me to mount ladders to maintain it at my health and time of life. He would follow up action on the assault but above all he would visit the Bournville Trust to see what could be done to resolve the situation permanently. I wrote up an account of our conversation and sent copies to the Superintendent, the Stanton solicitor and the Trust.
Sometime during the next week the BVT Surveyor called. He had held the position twenty years before and made the survey prior to the original conveyance. Surprise, surprise, surprise, during that time the chain link fence had not moved. Looking back I realise that he had he had not been given the correct brief, and it could have made a great deal of difference. Really he should have made a report on the status of the boundary, the fence and the type of hedge along it, which is what I asked the legal secretary for verbally and in capital letters in my note to him. The visit was a total waste of time and money and negative in its effect.
On Tuesday 2nd of May PC Symonds rang me to tell me of the police decision not to prosecute me for trespass and criminal damage or Stanton for assaulting me. In not going to the doctor I had not supplied the necessary medical evidence and without this there was no evidence to be presented to the crown prosecution service. Again this jarred on my mind and underlined my previous mental note. He had spent hours with the Stantons last week trying to get an agreed fixed height for the hedge. They adamantly told him,
"There is to be no compromise with that man". The Stantons were going to extraordinary lengths to get the police decision reversed, involving the Chief Constable and the Crown Prosecution Service. If all that failed they would resort to civil action. I told the PC that I was disgusted that I had been so painfully hurt and in danger of being thrust through the body with a rusty iron pole. Nevertheless I welcomed the official police decision from the Chief Constable downwards not to prosecute me for trespass and criminal damage and I would resume cutting the trees that afternoon at 2pm.and wished him to pass my intention to his superiors.
So now comes round two; I exactly repeated the same procedures. Having informed the police I rang the Stanton solicitor but knew as a typical member of his profession faced with having to make an awkward statement involving a decision, he would be in court, at conference, on holiday or suffering a virus. I had a pleasant chat to the girl on the switchboard and she passed me on to the PA to chat some more. They both knew that I knew they were stalling and telling lies because their boss was really there and so were prepared to listen to my story because it was interesting and they did not want to hurt my feelings or cause me to do something they would have to answer for. The same happened with secretaries at the Trust. But it was a beautiful afternoon and this I bounded fearless up the ladder, cut off another couple of treetops like an experienced tree surgeon and let them fall on my side of the boundary and left my ladder in position. A sizeable strip of clear blue sky had appeared, making a real difference of view from the living room. I was so exhilarated that waking at dawn the next day I got up my ladder and experienced a wonderful sensation at being up amongst the birds. Another couple of spikes were downed and still more light flooded into our home. Maureen was amazed when she got up but was apprehensive because we knew the Stanton rage would not be contained. Our fears were made worse because we were unsure how the anger would manifest itself. We had agreed a pact that we would take the consequences whatever they were but Maureen was very insecure waiting for the retaliation and it was that aspect alone that worried me. I was determined to push the matter to a conclusion, which I hoped would be the Trust taking up its responsibility. The Stantons rang the police to report me without mentioning the present level of official involvement and of course the desk staff just passed on the call to duty staff that knowing nothing of what had gone on before.
On the 5th May two Bournville Village Trust officials brought their Surveyor's report and expressed dismay at our predicament at having to put up with a height of the six trees I had already lopped, and now down to eighteen feet and better than we had had for years. The words 'Berlin Wall' were used again, quite independently of the policeman's spontaneous description. They thought I was aiming at a permanent height of six feet six - BVT's own guideline height and they were coaxing me into a position of admitting I was a little unreasonable. I did not disabuse them and was absolutely delighted, but did not show it, to agree to a permanent height of ten feet as a "compromise" height for the trees. The thought that another eight feet could come off with their official backing was tremendous progress. I was surprised how really proud they were at 'wringing' this 'concession' from me. Little did they know I was aiming at a height of fourteen feet and was convinced that the eventual permanent agreement would be at that height. I really trusted them and expected legal backing from BVT upon their report back. They had short shrift from the Stantons who refused any compromise when they visited him and denied that I had any rights over the trees whatsoever. I was aware that the systematic Stanton campaign of denigration had alerted them to expecting 'the lack of reason to be' with me and but for the first time they had run full square into the Stanton hate, something we had never been allowed to forget since we moved in. It was the turning point in the battle of relationships and the Joneses had won it.
But it was not only the Trust Officials who visited the Stantons because, later that day Acting Sergeant Cox rang me to speak in dulcet tones, obviously expecting me to reject his approach, to say that he had spent three hours with our neighbours. They had contacted the Police yet again, gone through the switchboard filed a new complaint without mentioning the existing one and that had been routed through to him because of new duty schedules. He was astonished when I told him not only of his own Beat Officer's current involvement but also that of the Crown Prosecution service. Despite changes of personnel the dispute was by now well known in the Police Station and had led to the comment that it was unknown for so many senior officers to be tied down to such trivialities. The Stantons had not told Sergeant Cox any of this. He fixed up an appointment with me for next week when he had sussed the situation out.
The Acting Sergeant had done his job and his homework, stringing all his police colleague's reports together and now spending a couple of hours with us. First of all he was amazed at even this now reduced height and said the hedge must come down. Why the Stantons were were being so persistent? Why did they insist that there was to be no compromise with "that man"? He repeated that such a trivial matter occupied the time of so many high-ranking officers. Sergeant Cox cautioned me before asking me to sign a statement he had prepared and this alarmed me. Then he prepared another one that I signed regarding the assault.
Clive Wilkinson recently resigned from the Leadership of the City Council, and did not stand for re-election as a City Councillor, but had been appointed a Honary Alderman. The City appointed him as their representative on the Bournville Village Trust, board of Trustees. Clive is a dear and loyal friend of many years and we had played a close role in his family and early political life. It was not the first time he had come to my aid as I have outlined in a previous chapter. He gave freely of his time and informed me that we had the 100% backing of the Trustees but they could do nothing, as they had "no legal teeth".
Ian our elder son, worried about the stress to us, had rung Mr Thomson, the legal secretary at the Trust, who now appeared to be back in action and told him of the strain on his parent's health. He was promised that the file would be re-opened; this irritated, puzzled and pleased me because no one had told us the file had been closed. I had never accepted that the Trust could not assert itself and that the real reason for not intervening was fear of opening a can of worms and once having done it would be forced to act hundreds of times on precedence.
On 23rd May I wrote to Mr Thomson again asking about the status of the hedge, how the Trust viewed its future maintenance, as my arthritis was getting painfully worse and I would be forced to pay contractors fees each year. Also the neighbourhood, including the police, regarded the matter as misuse of police time.
During the course of the next month after a series of "dawn raids" over the weeks, I removed the remaining spikes and the appearance of our garden was much enhanced. The trunks on our side were bare and ugly, as I had previously stripped the branch carrying foliage back to the boundary. Now a 30 feet long strip, five feet high had been removed from the treetops to the Council tip. Each spike was heavy and had to be carried to the front of the house. Cars had to be swapped with Ian for the use of his car with tow bar and camping trailer and it would take a couple of weeks to shift these lumpy hunks of timber. Deteriorating arthritis slowed my work. The Acting Sergeant said Stanton was moaning about the theft of his property. The men at the tip separated these logs out for burning on their own open fires, quite illegal, as all Birmingham is a smokeless zone. This was the only use that could be made of them and was what was in the old man's mind - he wanted them for his open fireplace. This had not troubled the old man previously but now he had had a smoke abatement order served on him six months ago. Having disposed of the conifer tops some attention had to be given to the Beech hedge into which a couple of Leylandii planted a year or two ago with the object of lengthening the conifer screen were emerging with vigour. I levelled these new trees to the BVT guideline height of six feet six - the same as the existing Beech hedge planted by the Trust. All was peace and quiet. Frost danger was over and all the tender plants were taken out of the greenhouses for hardening off. The Police took no further interest.
4th June was our eldest Grandson's birthday, it was his party and he was eight years old. Chris had lots of friends who came to the baths at the Gillette Centre, next door to George Cadbury Hall, exclusively booked for the occasion. There was lots of screaming and shouting and it was very noisy. Fathers were watching behind the glass screen and mothers were in the water with their children. It was possible to pinch the jelly or drink the orangeade if you felt that way. Not one of us did although many expressed a view that a pint would go down well. One parent was a solicitor who by co-incidence we had met on holiday and had given us the best course of action against garden fire nuisance ten years previously. His free advice at that time was appropriate and useful. He asked about Stanton's garden smoking habits and was very interested in last year's serving of an abatement order. When told of the hedge saga it made his evening and he solemnly announced,
"I could get rid of those trees in a week". I answered,
"It is all over for this year, when the trees have recovered I shall be taking another four feet off the top. Getting rid of all the trees would certainly solve the problem for good, but we need some sort of privacy. I took the address of the firm he now worked for but inwardly made a pledge I would not start paying lawyers again. However here was a pleasant, very able friend who was useful to have in mind when the occasion demanded.
A couple of weeks later was the AGM of Nuclear Trains at the Selly Oak Institute, a local community centre just yards from the track on which the twice weekly ghostly white, heavy trucks with radio-active rods rumbled on to Sellafield, the re-processing knackers yard of the nuclear industry. My function to the group was as a close advisor on campaigning and organisation, always misunderstood when I declined to stand for elective office. "Nuclear Trains" achieved a high profile at my Peace Festivals and attracted much media interest. The Green Party took an integral part in the campaign. Tiny Marxist groups, irrelevant to the left mainstream, saw no other prospect of enlarging their numbers were attracted by the vast cross-party public concern about this dangerous traffic. There was Lib-Dem support but the Tory MP Beaumont-Dark was livid in his condemnation of what he perceived as a ruse by Labour and CND, having lost its long battle against Trident, turning to an alternative anti-nuclear gimmick as a stick to beat the Tory Government. He was wrong. Local CND, which used to send three or four coaches to every major demonstration, had evaporated. Nationwide activists always far fewer than the Ministry of Defence thought, were burnt right out and saw little reason for effort now the cold war was virtually over. "Nuclear Trains" were different people and attracted much public sympathy across the political spectrum. It was a single, environmental issue that mass people power could win. The local Labour Party passed the inevitable supporting resolution and made a donation but apart from one who was elected treasurer; its own activists were filled with sweet electoral success after bleak years in the political wilderness. They were at last sweeping the Tories off the council. The Kinnock leadership had completely reversed its nuclear weapons policy but it was hate for the Thatcher government that increased Labour support.
I had not renewed my Labour Party subscription by then but was diligent in keeping Maureen's membership up to date. I had quietly slipped out of the Labour Party after 44 years and purposefully did not renew my subscription but did not officially resign. I sent my sub instead to the Green Party because it was the only party opposed nuclear weapons. It was not an easy decision but it did ease my anger at the Kinnock turn around.
I had been in confidential negotiation, and that means strictly not telling anyone until this moment of writing, with a Green Party solicitor and a sympathetic barrister who had agreed to sue, pro bono, the Government and (the then) British Rail on my behalf as a private citizen. It had to be in complete secret even from my "Nuclear Trains" friends, as would have been a 'too soon' news scoop and distraction. My process of gathering of evidence could be less discreet, even though such information was closely guarded under the Official Secrets Act. The Rail Unions tried to help but even with their close sympathy with the cause I could not tell the real reasons for wanting information. The Fire Brigade Union sent a donation to Nuclear Trains because they were completely in the dark and needed essential information on the transit of the deadly cargo in concern for the safety of its members and the public. The emergency services had been given no information on how to co-ordinate and react to a crisis. A breakthrough came when a member who was a railway enthusiast bought for pence some timetables at a sale of British Rail memorabilia. The times of the trains were useful for organising protest and enthusiastic activists set to work plotting routes and setting up sympathiser spotter groups along the line. I was just too busy to help but if I could get a volume of cash from a wealthy backer I was prepared to set the rest of my life aside in a high profile court action of a lone, poor private citizen against vast state establishment. True, the legal team was for free but I could not be landed with any expense as the action proceeded through the justice system. There were legal minefields and we would be a year or two in preparation before an official announcement could be made. The Annual General Meeting having found out that a train would be passing at midnight three weeks hence, planned to hold a torchlight procession, ending in a demonstration with speakers, with a hot dog stall for which the non-vegetarians, in a minority were most grateful. I was embarrassed to have to excuse myself from the convening point on the evening itself. This did not go down too well as anyone not fully pulling his or her weight was the subject of vociferous expression.
On 6th July I responded to an invitation to a staff party at my old school. It was seven years since my retirement and a couple of my ex-colleagues had reached early retirement age and were following me into the sunset. The staff was completely changed and strange to me and looked so young most could have been pupils. It was cheering to see a few old faces that had retired since me and it was sad that others had not returned for re-union and sadder still to remember those who had died.
I made my way back to Moseley to the demo point, parked my car, walked up the High Street and met the procession. After eleven the pubs and cafes were shut and we desperately wanted a drink of anything. The train did not arrive until two hours later than scheduled. The earth trembling surreal approach raised hairs on the back of the neck. We shouted, then it passed by and all was quiet. I was desperately tired and cold despite the July evening. All the oldies had long since gone home and as I looked around everyone was less than half my age and not ready for bed.
On Friday of the next week I attended the memorial service of Professor John Ferguson in a packed Birmingham Cathedral. His passing was a dreadful blow not only to his family and friends but also to Selly Oak Peace Council. He was a big, powerful man in mind and body, his counsel and unequalled knowledge in Peace matters throughout the world was formidable. I asked Elnora his wife to take his place as Chairman and was really thrilled and very honoured that she accepted. John was well known as a local cricketer and I learned at an early stage that his mind would not come off the sport for some other interest. Our local community newsletter paid glowing tribute to his sporting performance on the village green and I contributed a tribute to his knowledge of the UN and Peace matters.
A fortnight after Maureen and I attended the British Soviet Friendship Society meeting. It was a re-union for all who had been on the Soviet Union tour the previous year although everyone had met at the Easter Peace Festival. But here we had more time to devote to our dear friends and discuss the giving of hospitality to the visit of Nichalai our guide from Leningrad.
Two days later at about 2pm on the Sunday afternoon whilst busy in my front garden I became conscious of activity in the lower part of the Croft. It is a pleasant cool place for lager youths to congregate on hot summer evenings. Rarely have things got out of hand, but it is sensible to keep a wary eye open for the possibility of unripe, inedible apples from one of the trees, thrown against houses, but it was too early in the season. I was hidden by vegetation and continued to work but after fifteen minutes was compelled to take a cautious peep only to see two people behind a camera mounted on a tripod directly pointed at me. I did not show physical reaction and pretended not to have noticed or at least acted as unconcerned. When I spotted a ginger haired youth of nineteen or twenty walking down the road it dawned upon me that this was the Stanton grandson on his way to join his grandfather Bernard and father Terry Stanton. My heart pounded a little whilst composing myself to what my reaction should be. I moved to the pavement and said.
"I have no objection to you walking down outside my house but if you join up and stay with them that is another matter. I doubt if you will take any notice of me but I consider you old enough to take responsibility for your actions. I do hope you will completely ignore that is going on between your father, grandfather and me as it is none of your business. Just try to learn from what is going on and make use of it for the rest of your life". He answered,
"I have learnt a lot already". I moved back to the garden but my movements were based on acting and pretence for the next ten minutes. Then I walked slowly down the croft towards the tripod on which the mounted camera pointed towards me. I purred,
"I am glad you are enjoying this very pleasant part of our neighbourhood and you are very welcome to walk through anytime and as often as you like and pass the time of day or even to have a chat". There was that same contemptuous sneer that evoked a distant memory but which would assume all too much familiarity in the next few years. Paul Terry Stanton gurgled sarcastically,
"Oh thank you sir for giving us your permission to use a public right of way". I ignored that and continued,
"You are abusing that right please move on". He retaliated with a desultory, mock salute and shouted, mock army fashion,
"Yes sir" and moved one smartish pace backward and continued,
"Will that do sir"? I completely ignored him and started to move back to the house". He called after me,
"I better do as your say or you will smash my camera".
They did move on and I presumed that parting shot had been a face-saver and they had probably taken enough pictures after an hour or so. It was significant that the grandson had not stayed. It was two years later before it dawned on me that the photography was meant to be a pose, an act or a threat that they were collecting evidence for court action. In deliberate intimidation they were pointing the camera at me all the time. It is a puzzle why they did not tell me and why they preferred to go to all this trouble to escalate the "aggro" instead of insisting on talking and getting a solution to our difficulties. I can vouch that the shots eventually produced in court were not taken on that day but on another when I was not around. I looked over the sub-station and viewed the Stanton trees from my side but at a distance. They looked more in scale now than before my pruning activities. Nevertheless photographs from this point, expertly processed and side by side with others would give me a great deal of trouble in two years time.
On the following Sunday Maureen's cousins from South Wales were bringing Frank and Nancy, more elderly cousins over on their last visit from their Florida condominium. It was a beautiful day and we were using the living room with patio window wide open and chairs and tables spread outside with food and iced drinks. Ian brought our grandsons Chris and Andrew who was looking forward to his seventh birthday next month. It was a happy family occasion. I was puzzled by metallic "clunk clicks" but could not tell where they were coming from and did not draw attention to it, as no one else seemed to notice. Frank suddenly exclaimed loudly in American, and pointing to the trees,
"That is an ugly pig of a thing, spoils you're whole garden, you should have it out". It wasn't a polite statement but it was a salient and irritating characteristic of Frank that he was blunt and said had to say exactly what was in his mind at any particular moment. I answered,
"There is a whole story behind it and I would not dream of boring you with it now". Frank replied,
"Who is that bloke stuck up there taking photographs of us, does he live over there"? Frank was looking at the hedge and we all followed his gaze and were absolutely astonished to see a full profile of Bernard above the knees against the blue sky pointing his camera at us. PT Stanton also had a camera in one hand whilst his other was cupped over his eyes as a shade gazing out to infinity over our rooftop. One of our boys ran to me and I put my arms around him the other ran to Ian who did the same but then detached him and put him in his grandmother's arms. Maureen had already shouted out a protest but she now concentrated on her grandmotherly protection duties. It was a dramatic moment in the boy's lives to be recounted many a time in a school essay. Ian walked to the hedge and called out,
"If you don't stop terrorising my children immediately, make sure you never meet me in the street on a dark night". Up to now I had made no reaction whilst shielding little Andrew but seeing the Stantons were only armed with cameras I released and reassured him. I took the cordless phone to the hedge and shouted up,
"I thought you had your bit of fun last week and now this, pack it in now so we can enjoy a pleasant afternoon". They could see I had the phone and I continued to negotiate,
"You have always refused to come round and see what you make us put up with and now you have chosen to see my garden from that stupid place". They did not answer but just arrogantly strutted around pointing and clicking their cameras from a platform just below the top of the trees. I called up,
"You leave me with no alternative but to phone the police". Throughout there were interventions of a woman's voice, presumably Frieda's. It would have been provocative to push aside the hedge to find out how many were present. I chose to ring 999 because the Stantons behaviour was bizarre and their threatening position and aggressive posture made their intentions unpredictable. My reasoning was that a response time of at least fifteen minutes had to be allowed for and anything could happen in that time. I stood in front of the hostile two standing twenty feet above me with the phone in my hands and described the situation exactly and loud enough for them to hear. My estimated time of arrival for the police was correct and corresponded with the occasion when PT Stanton had called the police to me. These were different officers from and one of them showed his dog to demonstrate their potential of handling the situation and then withdrew. Two officers then remonstrated with the Stantons,
"Would you mind getting down from there, Sir"? PTS sneered back,
"If you had done your job properly we wouldn't need to be up here". His manner was so objectionable that the officers winced with fury and they withdrew to the garage to be out of hearing range. One said to me,
"We are watching that bastard carefully and the moment he comes half an inch over on your side we'll take him ". The other intervened,
"We'll arrest them both if one makes an obscene word or gesture". The first one carried on,
"How old is he, you would think his son would stop him " I answered,
"He is eighty-one and his hate and adrenaline keep him going, it is worthwhile me taking a photograph of him". Bernard obliged by letting me take a photograph of him whilst he took a photograph of me. There were the same interventions from a female voice, which sounded like instructions, suggestions or demands throughout the whole saga. There was a clank and a shuffle and Bernard's profile disappeared for a moment from the skyline.
Frieda Stanton was seventy-nine and had the reputation of being a very good vegetarian cook and had been married to Bernard for fifty years. They had three sons, Paul Terry, divorced who continued to live at the top of our own croft; Julian married to Helen living close by in Bournville and Barrie Stanton in Solihull. Frieda was devoted to her sons and grand family and with her husband espoused what in its day were called "progressive" causes but despite multi self-assertions the Stantons only membership was of the Vegetarian Society. She told me once that her sons had rejected one of her innovative culinary preparations with distaste because it was too much like meat. On her own she would have been a vegan but her husband and three sons were allowed cottage cheese and milk and butter but these were the limit of animal protein. We met at the local post-box some months previously and she fixed me with her eyes, which I did not evade. I was willing to offer deference and not maintain eye contact but she was part of a bullying, inclusive, neighbourhood in-group system that has always been about in this otherwise exclusive urban village. Out of politeness I allowed her to put her letters in first and distinctly noted the greyness, pallor and transparency of her skin that I ascribed to under nourishment. We did not speak, for which I was glad for there could be but one topic. I would only submit my demands to numerical superiority of both elderly Stantons at the same time when I could state my grievance in strong terms. I found it repugnant to use the opportunity to confront her when unsupported. I felt neither hate nor anger but just irritation that she had invited Maureen into her home three years ago and associated herself with a promise and a con-trick that she and her husband were resolved to do something about their persistent smoky fires and the continued oppression of the trees. Maureen really believed her and was convinced that the womanly rapport had solved the problem of neighbourly discord. I knew and told Maureen at the time the Stantons were not serious and not telling her the truth. They never had any compassion or feeling for us or our family and now were terrorising our tiny children by this present daft display.
Bernard got down his ladder because of sensible appeals for commonsense and after a swaggering, powerful display of glory his son, PTS followed him. The two policemen decided to leave with the request that we give them a call if the situation got bad again. I appealed to them to go round and insist that the tower be dismantled but they said that was not a police concern.
Our American cousins also had to leave and we would never see them again. It is true they were absolutely intrigued by the whole saga and seemed unconvinced by our assurance that the scenes they had witnessed were not typical of urban England and could not happen outside a soap opera. They had also taken many photographs and could take back a unique story to their neighbours in the Florida condominium. Their visit was so welcome and had helped to divert Maureen's participation from the stressful occasion. She was less fired up with the anger and resentment of the intrusion into our private life and the ruthless harassment than I was.
It was difficult to calm down and after a while I applied a short stepladder to the beach hedge and looked over the beech hedge to see if the structure had been removed. The far poles of a steel scaffolding tower could be seen together with the underside of the platform at the top to which a ladder had been secured. It took two hours to compose ourselves and achieve some peace of mind and we sat until dusk on our patio when Maureen decided to go in. A few minutes afterwards my heart pounded and turned over when a silhouette rose against the skyline above the trees and the right arm was raised and shown to have a pole like object within its grasp. I hurled myself to the ground rolling over to avoid what my defence mechanisms interpreted as a missile on its way to impale me and simultaneously shrieked out,
"Get down". Maureen was back in seconds but by this time the figure had disappeared and she reprimanded me for my false alarm. I wanted to call the police and she thought it unnecessary. We compromised by calling Ian and he was around in minutes and he also was not in favour of calling the police. My argument was that my policy of non-violence would mean the end of my campaign and Stanton mugger had won. When Ian rang the relevant shift was not off duty yet and they responded by saying that they were attending to matters of greater urgency. We had to remind ourselves that we had solemnly resolved together that we would take whatever, when and however the Stantons retaliated.
The next morning I was on the phone to the Trust insisting on speaking to the legal secretary. He put down the phone, visited us and agreed that the tower infringed the covenants and said he would take the relevant steps to have it removed. The final weeks of August went by uneventfully and I was always alarmed when hearing a metallic clank that could be window cleaners, painters or householders at any house. In seventeen years this sense of apprehension has never gone away. Those of us living through the blitz share the sense of fear as a siren can have memories of those dreadful times evoked. We have never experienced the sound of German bombers since but should one go overhead the typical throb, throb, throb would be instantly recalled. The children and Ian lived within sight of the Stantons, on the opposite side of the road, about two hundred yards up. If they heard a bang or strange noise they would ring to see if we were safe. We could only see the tops of four poles not the tower or its platform hidden by the trees but its presence was felt and that was the reason for its existence. It was absolutely distasteful but we had to have some support until BVT acted. I phoned the solicitor who had told me he would get those trees removed in a week. He arrived quite quickly and he took away a copy of the Bournville Village Trust scheme of management and a copy of the guidelines and immediately phoned and wrote to the legal secretary of the Trust. I did exactly the same by phoning and writing to Mr Thompson who congratulated me on having the good sense of employing a solicitor. I also contacted Clive Wilkinson who true to his friendship brought some pressure as a Trustee. On Saturday 9th September a letter from the solicitor told me I had no right to "lop" the trees until we had established nuisance or "whatever" and to desist from further activity. I was upset at the emotive term of the word "lop" instead of "maintenance" of a hedge referred to in the copy of my correspondence. I had made abundantly clear to the police, the Bournville Trust that my cutting had been completed for this year - nineteen eighty- nine and had repeated that intention to the solicitor. My confidence getting the trees removed within a week, promised at Christopher's birthday party was now seriously undermined and I experienced the first tinge of worry about the manner in which I was being represented. On the same day of receiving the letter from the solicitor we actually met informally at Andrew's seventh birthday party held at the gymnasium of a City of Birmingham sports centre. The atmosphere was not conducive to legal discussion and we all wanted to be jolly, relaxed and happy. However I did impress on my legal friend the importance of getting the tower down which was plainly and blatantly illegal.
The next day was Sunday 10th of September and Andrew's actual birthday and in the afternoon Maureen and I walked round the block for his close family birthday party to take him his present. On turning the corner we were struck silent at the line of parked cars outside the Stanton house and as we walked past the house I remarked,
"They are cooking up something devilish against us". Then Maureen added,
"Or he has died," and I continued,
"No such luck, we shall just have to let them get on with it while we are away".
We had another, lovely and closer party although there was so much on our minds that both were scared to mention. We never arrange holidays on the children's birthdays but we were setting off soon afterwards at 2am the next morning for the airport and a flight to Zurich. Our packing was done but we needed the early night. There were cars still parked but we decided not to tempt providence and walked the other way round the block in some trepidation at what we might find at home. We were delighted that all was peace and quiet and nothing was out of order.
After a day driving by coach through Switzerland we spent the next few nights in the Tyrol then on to the Italian lakes. We managed a long day return trip to Venice.
When we returned on the 18th September there was a letter from the Trust, sent a week before saying that the Stantons had been instructed to dismantle the tower within a week but by now the indicated week had gone by and the tower was still there. The telephone answering machine indicated a total of thirty six calls the maximum it could register so it is likely there were a lot more and they were all for me.
That week I attended the Green Party Conference in Wolverhampton, for which the party received more media attention than any before it or since. I spoke to Eleanor Goodman, Peter Tatchell and to the people running the various fringe organisation stalls, I gave away my peace cards with the Gandhi quotation for all to sell and keep the proceeds. A few days later there was a local meeting of "Just Defence" that was sponsored by the Bishop of Dudley. The organisation was cleverly named and its literature and speakers brilliantly argued its case. Selly Oak was the best place in the Midlands to project itself but it badly needed grassroots organisation and political nouse to push its ideas through the political process. I could have publicised this meeting far more and in particular to influence key people but my mind had been occupied and we had been on holiday. At the weekend we both went to an enjoyable British Soviet Friendship social at the Penguin Hotel where we met Nicolai our guide from Leningrad. He came to stay with us for four days on 12th October when we invited Leo, Eva's ex-husband and neighbour of twenty years previously. Leo was born in Leningrad had not returned since surviving the siege in 1943 and afterwards taken prisoner. I took Nicolai to Hillcrest Comprehensive School by invitation, to talk to their sixth form. It was a delightful experience to be back in a school talking to young people. A week previously another host had arranged a different school visit that was used by nasty anti-Soviet demonstrators against our visitor. Nicholai was devastated as he was completely ignorant of the purpose of the protest and even if he had he was quite unable to progress the issue in the Soviet Union. This made him feel rejected and unwelcome.
However on the Monday after the social there was Nuclear Trains public meeting with local Trade Union leaders from Fire Brigades, Health and Public services. A Trainee reporter from the Post and Mail was present and towards the end she was in blind panic because of her inability to express a précised version for each speaker for her report. I suggested she came outside and gave her three sentences accurately representing each union policy, which the three speakers would be proud and delighted to have in print in the next day's paper. We were not yet in the era of mobile phones and she asked me to come to the telephone box to help her phone in her story. We returned to the meeting, it had gone on and on and still had another fifteen minutes to go.
The next evening a retired Air Commodore a member of "Generals Against Nuclear Arms" came to speak at Woodbrooke College. By request this was not a public meeting and we peaceniks were put on the spot not in our conclusions but our ignorance of the correct, strategic, anti-nuclear rationale in reaching them. Here was an ex-high military man with a brilliant mind who had participated as technical advisor at the Helsinki Accords the pact that stabilised peace throughout the cold war and a dozen years after. Trident might be of political not military value. There were numbers of retired Generals holding these views and it was a wrong decision and bad leadership for the Labour Party to be reversing its views.
Maureen kept up her own busy lifestyle going into our Grandson's school twice a week to hear pupils read. She continued her long voluntary work for the Birmingham Health authority and we shared our interests in the British Soviet Friendship Society and our Soviet contacts. She was an active member of the Birmingham Humanist Society and went to the regular branch meeting on Wednesday 27th September and she brought back the groundbreaking, astonishing news. Frieda Stanton had died on 8th September and lady member of the group skilled in that function had conducted her non-religious funeral service. The cause of death was a clot in the lung from deep vein thrombosis occasioned by dropping a full bottle of Ribena on her foot. The lady revealed that when she visited Bernard to discuss the funeral address she asked about the purpose of the tower he answered,
"That is another story". So the hedge controversy did not emerge at the funeral. Another source revealed that the family did not discuss the circumstances of the feud and no blame was laid on any others in these tragic Stanton days. It was strange that Maureen heard of the death from the citywide Humanist group not others in the neighbourhood; in fact we were the people breaking the news of the death locally, three weeks afterwards. The Trust did not know when I told them. We had been most relieved that the cars outside the house on the day before our holiday did not augur a combined family act of vengeance. In retrospect the silence was uncanny as we walked past the Stanton household, as one would expect so many cars would carry some noise or people presence. Now we were both appalled that Frieda had been dead two days at the time we walked past. We agreed that sympathy could not be expressed and I was sorry for my jocular remark when my heart had been beating fast but I was absolutely sure that that large Stanton gathering was a meeting with the intent of punishing us.
The next day we had a letter from the solicitor asking for £200 up front to instruct Counsel and prepare a writ. I sent the news of the death, the cheque and instructions to proceed and a reply followed advising caution that Bernard might be selling up and we should wait for a month. Also long conversations had taken place with the legal secretary of the Trust who looked forward to our legal action. The Trust was prepared to send further letters of warning to get the tower removed but not to proceed legally. Undoubtedly Frieda's death would unhinge the family and I knew there was no likelihood of selling up. With the tower in that position it represented a threat, was intimidating and I could not tolerate it. Then Maureen received the handwritten letter from PT Stanton. He accused me of contributing to his mother's death "from my vindictive and savage attacks" and the threats of violence from Martin, a police officer, on her family and grand family. This was silly, as our younger son had not visited us for eighteen months. I slung the letter in the waste paper basket and said we must forget such rubbish. Maureen said it was proof of my assumption that the writer was unhinged and with the tower in place things could get dangerous. I agreed and we jumped in the car got several photocopies and made an eighteen mile round trip to the solicitors delivering the original. Instructions to counsel were ready in the office for posting, the letter containing them was retrieved and an addendum of the libel added with a copy of the Stanton letter enclosed.
On 20th October I received my solicitor's letter bemoaning the dismal opinion of Counsel. In a three and a half page report he utterly and completely devastated my morale and hopes. Injunctions may be sought against the Stantons to stop further assault. I also broke condition three of the BVT Covenants in that I lopped timber trees without BVT permission. Reduction in height of the trees was a trespass to which there was no defence. We cannot sue the Stantons to compel them to comply with the covenants and take the tower down. BVT can but are not obliged to do so. I am at risk of private prosecution. The letter is libellous but as only Maureen had seen it and would not believe it and the risks of high cost deformation action would not be worthwhile. I did not read my solicitor's briefing to counsel for another three years as it was not available and when I did, it made me angry because the barrister said I had taken the law into my own hands. He quite rightly made a request for a conference which never took place. I could not see how the lawyers could reach condition three without reading through condition one which clearly expressed that a hedge along the boundary was a party hedge. The solicitor had viewed it, taken photographs included in the brief and showed what to any normal person was a hedge, a high one that is true but still a hedge.
I plotted and schemed at ways in which ropes could be grappled around the legs of the tower and hauled to topple the whole structure. In the middle of November I remembered the original advice of Mr Thompson the legal secretary about digging a ditch alongside the trees and pushing them over on to Stanton land. I wrote to the solicitor more in desperation than hope to get some ideas on how to make progress with the dispute. The letter inspired a request for another £80 and advice to await sale of the property. I felt that my employment of an expensive barrister advertising expertise in land law and a solicitor who had not fully grasped the situation was best forgotten as a learning situation.
The Berlin Wall was breached on the 9th of November and the Cold war was at an end. It was an event of mind boggling proportions significance and the end of history according to Francis Fukyuama the triumph of political and economic liberalism - too complex to be involved in this current chapter. The nuclear war threat had ended and that was the reason for dedicating my retirement and why I had been so assiduous in support of the Peace Movement for seven years.
My sister Connie and her husband Cyril held a combined 70th birthday and 35th wedding anniversary party on 25th November. Writing this piece seventeen years further on, Connie and Cyril have died and I shall be writing about them later in my biography.
As Christmas 1989 approached people offered many ideas on how to celebrate it by adorning the tower with a skull and crossbones flag, coloured balloons or blown up condoms. However the festive season arrived and drifted away as they do. We were almost happy; the Stantons were decidedly not happy for this first Christmas without their matriarch. If it was true that her death was due to stress, as her eldest son alleged, but they could only blame themselves, however who would begrudge them gratification by continuing the tower threat? I was beginning to get used to it, although different ways of demolishing it occupied my mind in unavoidable boring moments, or when I woke up or, just before I went to sleep. At midnight on the 31st January a new decade was about to begin and the tower was still there. We had just returned from seeing in the New Year in at Ian and Rose's and I looked out at its menacing, irritating, threatening presence.