With Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont making waves in the US Democratic primary campaign, it’s not surprising that the media in this country have been featuring interviews with his brother Larry, who has lived here for many years. Listening to Larry talking, often quite emotionally, about his brother ‘Bernard’, has brought back memories of when we worked together on the Berinsfield estate in Oxfordshire in the 1980s. I was the Community Education Organiser for the area, and Larry was one of two social workers who had the estate as their ‘patch’.
Berinsfield is a post-war housing estate, a ‘new village’, built as an overspill estate for working-class families from nearby Oxford. It quickly gained a reputation as a ‘sink’ estate, particularly after the main local employer went out of business, and then the controversial closure of its secondary school. Marooned in the Oxfordshire countryside, cut off by ring roads, and dependent on unreliable public transport, the local population suffered from many disadvantages, but were fiercely proud of their community.
My post was based in a tiny office – a converted store cupboard, really – in the local primary school, and my job was to organise educational opportunities for people living on the estate and in the neighbouring, more affluent, villages. I’d come from running an education day centre for ex-offenders and other disadvantaged groups in inner London, in the heyday of the GLC, the miners’ strike and anti-racism campaigns. Arriving on a windswept rural housing estate, with a virtually all-white population, and little or no infrastructure or funding, and where my management committee included the local lord of the manor, was, to say the least, a bit of a culture shock.
In this context, I found my contacts in the local social work team something of a lifeline. I worked most closely with the community social worker, Halina Pasiecznik, and together we organised a number of initiatives, based around the school and the estate’s unemployment project, which included a family centre. It was through Halina that I met Larry Sanders. Larry was a widower: his late wife Margaret had also been closely involved with the Berinsfield community, and indeed the local branch of the Workers’ Educational Association – an all-women group – was and still is named after her. It was odd at first to see this larger-than-life New Yorker, with his unmistakable accent and fund of Yiddish expletives, dropped into the English countryside. But Larry was absolutely dedicated to this struggling working-class community, and the local people loved him.
Although I had the word ‘adult’ in brackets after my job title, part of my brief was to look after the needs of what were officially termed ‘disaffected’ school pupils – in other words, truants, most of whom were boys. Since Berinsfield’s own secondary school had closed, children were bussed daily to and from one of the schools in Abingdon, seven or eight miles away. The journey provided multiple opportunities for ‘bunking off’: either deliberately missing the bus and hanging around the estate or getting off the bus in the town centre, with the opportunities it offered for illicit activities such as shoplifting.
There was a small group of boys who were persistent offenders, and whom the schools had virtually given up on. Larry and his co-worker Ginny had responsibility for some of them and used to run a group for them one evening a week. Halina and I started to go along and as a result we came up with the idea of doing something to make up for the education that the boys were missing. As an education worker I had access to some of the mobile classrooms on the site of the abandoned school. Maybe we could scrape together some equipment and materials and invite the boys to come along in the daytime for some kind of informal educational activity, rather than hanging around and getting into trouble?
We managed to secure a meeting with the director of education for Oxfordshire, Tim Brighouse, who had a reputation as something of a radical. However, to say that he was unsupportive of our proposal would be an understatement. Looking back, I now realise that he couldn’t possibly endorse any venture that might be seen as encouraging young people to stay away from school and get their education elsewhere. As we saw it, the boys weren’t going to school anyway, so why not provide something positive for them?
My recollection is that, even after our official rejection, we continued to provide activities for the boys ‘under the radar’. I recall bleak mornings in draughty classrooms, trying to find imaginative ways to interest the boys in learning. We led some of the classes ourselves, but we also found a local volunteer, Ruth, who was home-schooling her own children and was happy to add a few more to her flock. In retrospect, it was all a bit thrown together and chaotically ‘alternative’, and I’m not sure what the ‘me’ of 2016 would have made of it all.
I left Berinsfield in 1989, to take up a post running an adult basic education project in Milton Keynes, and then two years later moved on to The Open University. Larry eventually retired from social work and became a Green Party councillor in Oxford, and more recently a parliamentary candidate. I occasionally see his name attached to campaigns and petitions, and I often find myself in disagreement with him on key issues. But I recognise, and admire, his continuing dedication to the wellbeing of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. It’s the same passion that seems to be driving his brother Bernie’s presidential campaign, and which an increasing number especially of young people appear to find appealing. Even though I’m pretty sure that, were I a US citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders, when I hear him speak, I hear the same passion and commitment, and the same unmistakable Brooklyn accent, that I remember fondly from my days working in Berinsfield, and that I associate with his brother, my former colleague.