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Skegness Is So Bracing
by Robert Baker

I liked some Welsh miners more than Jack Straw, former British Foreign Minister, later Home Minister. In 1973 he was already a smooth young politician and President of the large, Labour Party-dominated National Union of Students (NUS). The miners and Jack were at the annual NUS conference in Skegness.  Part of my job at the U.S. Embassy London, was to report on the politics of young Britons, so I attended Labour, Liberal and Tory youth conferences.

AuthorAs you drove into the seaside town of Skegness, a small billboard greeted you. It pictured a hearty old sailor in a yellow sou’wester and black hip boots dashing through a roaring gale. The town’s tourism motto ran across the bottom of the sign, Skegness is So Bracing. The town was a telling contrast to the Persian-carpeted library where the Conservatives had held their youth conference in the Swindon estate of Britain's first Air Marshall. 

Skegness was the cheap, chilly, gray, windy seaside resort of working class northern England. You had to walk out a half mile before the water got up to your knees when you were at the beach on this part of the North Sea rightly called, The Wash. 

In the dim, dusty, half empty conference auditorium used by the NUS, several hundred mostly technical college and university student delegates were bunched into ideological crowds. They were plain Labourites, the vast majority, with a scattering of Trotskyists, (informally called Trots) Maoists, old-line Stalinists, etc. 

NUS President Jack Straw ran the Conference Executive Committee firmly behind the scenes. It worked to crush opposition to mainstream Labour Party views or to thrash out compromise resolutions. The halls were full of conspiring or arguing students. At the same time student speeches went on and on and on in the main auditorium. 

In high school, I was theoretically, a syndical anarchist, along the lines of George Orwell when he fought in the Spanish Civil War and then wrote, Homage To Catalonia. In Skegness, My heart was touched by the hopeless, idealistic, principled, tiny and vociferous "Trot" faction of students. They argued about every conference resolution. And never won an argument.

At that time in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant workers were shooting one another. They hated each other because of ancient political/ethnic/religious feuds. The Trots refused to recognize anything going on in Ireland except a workers’ revolt against British imperialist, capitalist oppression. The Trots even got a resolution onto the floor of the conference. They proposed to stop the Irish fighting each other by funding weapons to be passed out to all Irish factions to create "worker patrols". Those armed patrols, according to the Trot resolution, would in "worker solidarity" bring peace to the war-torn Irish neighborhoods. The Trots were mostly technical college students. 

A band of six young Welsh coal miner delegates, now students, was recognized to speak on the motion. They hilariously derided the Trot proposal which was voted down. I went up to the miners after the conference closed for the day, introduced myself and invited them for a drink after supper. Everyone stayed at the same hotel, so we met in the lobby and sat around a table where I put out the two bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label I always carried to such conferences.

The miners were bright, funny and a lot more real than the plain students. We were well into my first bottle when the hotel owner descended on our crowd. 

He clearly did not like Labour people in general and angrily demanded "corkage" of one pound sterling, for each of the two bottles of Scotch I had brought from London. "Corkage" was news to me, but my British assistant, Terry, told me "corkage" could be levied on drink brought from outside into a hotel. The miners made fun of the landlord as he collected his two pounds of flesh, then we polished off the rest of the scotch by about two in the morning as we sang the evening away.

When the scotch was gone, the miners said they were hungry. So was I. The hotel kitchen was closed, but the miners knew an all night bakery where shift workers in Skegness picked up freshly baked bread on their way home in the middle of the night. So we staggered out into Skegness byways and walked through a drizzle way down near the sea. 

Sure enough a single light bulb burned at the end of a dark side street. It was the bakery - one small room with a bare wooden floor, a bare wooden counter and wooden shelves behind that, with loaves of bread on them. The baker in his white apron came out from behind the shelves. The miners lined the counter while I and Terry, my British assistant, stood blearily behind them. The miners told the baker they wanted really fresh bread from just out of the oven. The baker went back behind the shelving to fetch it. One of the miners suddenly leaned over the counter and snatched a big round loaf and passed it back to Terry. He automatically took it and hid it behind his back. 

The baker returned and handed them a fresh loaf. The miners tossed a couple shillings onto the counter and crowded around Terry as he backed out the door. We ate hunks of the delicious warm bread as we walked through the wind and salt drizzle on the way back to our hotel.

I was bushed and went to bed in my room, leaving the miners still singing in the lobby. A couple hours later, they called me from jail. The Tory landlord had caught them eating cold chicken from his fridge in the hotel kitchen. He had them arrested for stealing. 

I was glad to be a bailer instead of the bailee. At the bakery, when I looked at Terry’s astonished and guilty face with the loaf of bread behind his back, I imagined a small newspaper headline: "American Embassy Staff Arrested Stealing Bread in Skegness." It was close, but it didn’t come to that. Instead, I found that the Welsh do sing wonderfully and that Skegness is very bracing.bluestar

Author Bob Baker: 5 years intelligence analyst (USIA IRS); passed FSO exam; A-100 class; French language training; first post: Kampala, Uganda; next: Bamako, Mali; a year as a producer trainee, WETA; posted to London, Bonn, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles (Foreign Media Center), Vienna Regional Programs Office; retired in 1992; currently writing memoirs in LA.

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