Graham Wilson enjoyed a rich and principled life. He was, in his own words, a ‘west Leeds boy done good’. He was born in 1948, at that pivotal moment in history, when the era of low wages, harsh living conditions, injustice and lack of opportunity for ordinary working-class people gave way to the postwar Labour government’s extraordinary vision of economic, social and political reforms which changed Britain and Graham’s life forever. He never forgot that.
His first childhood home proper, after a short stint living with his mother’s parents in Beeston, was a ‘one up one down’ in Picton Place, Armley, with no bathroom or toilet. He slept in the upstairs corridor but by the time he was a young lad, Leeds City Council had built thousands of high-quality homes, dubbed ‘council houses’ and Graham’s parents, Tom and Peggy Wilson, and his sister Susan were the lucky recipients of one of them, in Old Farnley. State schooling gave him an education and the ability to read. The library gave him free access to books. The NHS gave him health and the glasses he needed to read them. The vibrant economy enabled Graham and his family to grow and prosper and he became the first member of his family to attend university.
It was a revolution and it cast Graham as a revolutionary and a socialist, something which informed his life without pause from childhood until the day he died. Graham was a do-er, a grafter with a cast-iron vision of a better world built on the simple idea of ‘from each according to their means, to each according to their needs’. It was informed by his own profound passion, knowledge and understanding of history. He knew and expressed a burning certainty that the progress that had been achieved could only be defended and extended with a permanent change to the nature of government and state, a belief that was reinforced as those great reforms were subsequently unpicked by Thatcher and her political legacy. He was truly a revolutionary.
The miners’ strike of 1984–5 was a watershed event for Graham. He was tirelessly involved in the Miners’ Support Group for Emley Moor and Park Mill collieries. It was a spontaneous movement built on nothing more than raw human compassion for striking miners and their families. Graham could be found organising collections of food and groceries in Halifax town centre or delivering them directly to the miners. His family life at this time was built around socials, fundraisers and even the picket lines on occasion. He gave his time and efforts to countless progressive political struggles over the years, but the miners’ strike was the big one for him and, as it turned out, for the UK as we know it today.
Graham’s education began at Clock School in Armley, then Castleton Primary, Old Farnley Primary and Cow Close Secondary Modern. After passing the ’13 plus’ exam he transferred to Leeds Central High, a grammar school where he was regarded, his friends say, as one of the intellectual set as well as being a footballer of some renown and where he became deputy head boy in his final year.
While studying at Central High School, Graham met Dian Crowther from Morley at The Grove pub in Holbeck, both were members of the Folk club there. They married later, when he was studying for a degree at Canterbury University. Over their 25-year marriage Graham became close to Dian’s parents Douglas and Margaret Crowther and during this period he shared more common interests and affinities with them than with his own parents. Graham and Dian went on to have four children: James, Suzie, Daniel (AKA Stanley) and Emily, who in turn have produced nine grandchildren: Elizabeth, Rosa, Alice, Douglas, Tom, Iris, Edward, Margaret and Elin.
Politics and history were huge and unshakeable passions for Graham, but they were far from his only loves. Education and the confidence that came with increased prosperity combined to give him an inquiring mind that knew few bounds. Graham was very class-conscious but defied easy classification himself. He said that his middle-class friends considered him working class, while working-class friends considered him middle class. This was reflected in his profound appreciation of culture: from the high brow to the low, he was equally relaxed with fine dining or fish and chips, opera or ‘Wooly Bully’.
He loved Hebden Bridge Trades Club, as a visitor and also as a performer playing tenor saxophone with the rhythm and blues band Walking The Dog, one of the many bands he played with during his long career in music. He played in pubs and clubs around Calderdale, even the Piece Hall over the years. Later in life and in the face of advanced Parkinson’s he still managed to steel himself and busk in Hebden Bridge and Herne Bay, working tirelessly to keep the music going. He was never the most natural musician, but always the most determined. The most successful moments of his musical career were during his weekly residency at Rips Cafe in Halifax and in the Tonbridge College Band, where he worked for a year. During these times he was able to focus and apply steady, regular graft, his strategy to achieve moments of brilliant musical success. As well as playing, Graham loved listening and dancing to music. Always among the first on the dance floor and a reliable help at getting the party started, Graham had also taken lessons over the years in several different dance styles.
Leeds Utd football club bookended his life, firstly as a young lad with his dad and uncles, then many years later when he repeated the regular pilgrimages to Elland Road with his by now elderly mother. After leaving school he hitchhiked across Europe as far as Istanbul with his childhood and then lifelong friend Dave Hiley. The trip was financed by working for 6 weeks in Brittania Metals scrap-yard in Stanningley and by twice selling blood at 10 shillings per donation in Greece. Travelling abroad remained a regular feature in his family life and, later, on several walking trips through Spain. He’d learned Spanish as a schoolchild and continued exploring this passion on these trips and with the Instituto Cervantes branch in Leeds, meeting and socialising with Spanish visitors and migrants, ensuring they felt welcome here in the UK while improving his own language skills along the way. His love of Spanish inevitably bled into his love of socialism; Frida Kahlo, Castro and the heroes of the Spanish civil war were cultural icons to him. A painting of Frida Kahlo by his partner Veronica was one of his most treasured possessions.
Graham’s occasional brushes with fame didn’t end with music. His childhood friend from Armley, Alan Bray, another ‘west Leeds boy done good’, wrote important books on the subject of lesbian and gay history. Alan died of HIV/AIDS before completing his final book The Friend, which included research from Shibden Hall, here in Halifax. It was left to Graham to take responsibility for completing the final section of the unfinished book, diligently based on Alan’s notes and the many conversations they had shared while Alan was dying. The writer Alan Bennett is another ‘west Leeds boy done good’ who was revered by Graham. His books and plays jockeyed with Leeds Utd gossip in conversations between Graham and his mother Peggy during the years of companionship they shared after the death of his father Tom and before her own death last year. Bennett is the president of the Churches Conservation Trust, an organisation that Graham also engaged with, especially as a key holder for the Copley church that stands opposite his house. It was just one example of Graham’s many idiosyncrasies: an unbending and lifelong atheist who paid more attention than most believers to the upkeep of the nation’s churches.
Always a grafter, Graham worked as a plasterer’s labourer while on a solo school-aged camping holiday in Scotland and shovelled coal at Canterbury railway station during breaks from his studies at Canterbury University. On graduation he took a job in engineering, machining parts for agricultural machinery as a milling machine operator at International Harvester in Leeds. He was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party by now and keen to stay close to his working-class roots. After a time, encouraged by his wife Dian and the needs of his growing family, now two children strong and soon to be four, he reluctantly looked for better-paid work. His search led to the role of General Studies lecturer at Percival Whitley College, Halifax (later known as Calderdale College), teaching day-release apprentices about art, literature and beyond.
He was never truly happy with this compromise: the academic culture was a liberal one and he was a revolutionary, not a liberal. He was relieved and happy when a new ‘special needs’ department was created at the college, conceived to reflect changing attitudes about delivering education for adults with learning difficulties. The special needs department offered a completely new occupation for Graham and was the place where he spent the majority of his working life. It was built on an ethos that was ambitious, progressive and forward-thinking by the standards of the times. It afforded him daily opportunities to practically and directly help a group of people who had previously been marginalised by the state. He was in his element. There are hundreds of young people in Calderdale today whose quality of life was positively influenced by the work of Graham and this department.
Graham was rewarded for his long contribution to Calderdale College with three periods of secondment. He completed a Master’s degree at the University of Bradford, managed Calderdale’s Adult Education services for a time at Horton House and, finally, after opting to specialise in working with deaf students, he completed a postgrad course at the University of Manchester, focused on language and deafness. He learned British Sign Language and was active in the deaf community for many years. He was a regular at the Halifax Deaf Club on Free School Lane and when it moved to Arden Road Social Club. After a short period working at Tonbridge College, his father Tom died and he returned to Yorkshire to increase the level of support he could offer his widowed mother. He returned to Calderdale College and, later, Bradford and Ilkey Community College, each time specialising in enabling deaf students to achieve success within mainstream education.
This was his last full-time job before taking early retirement, upon which he immediately enrolled on a joinery course at Leeds College of Building. This fulfilled his dream of learning more practical skills, suppressed during the many years he worked in education. He had moved to Toll Bar house in Copley by now and won hard-earned planning permission for, and built, a ’summerhouse’ in his large garden, alongside his joinery hero Kenneth Owen. This was filled with the tools and equipment he needed to be productive, and many of his friends and family became beneficiaries of his woodworking efforts.
Graham’s love for Planet Earth was totally fundamental to his existence. He was a firm environmentalist long before it was fashionable. He committed to recycling in the early 1980s, more than a decade before it became a mainstream solution to the waste we produce. He was well known for being generous with money and for the campaigns and projects he supported. At the same time, he was incredible thrifty with energy, waste or anything else that he believed had a negative consequence for the planet. He wouldn’t own a car or even a washing machine. He walked and cycled and was a passionate advocate for public transport. He was never sanctimonious about his low-carbon lifestyle and he never preached. He wished the government would do more to protect the environment, but in the absence of that he would never berate ordinary people who he believed were doing their best.
His love of the natural world stemmed from his love of being in it. He completed training in ‘mountain leadership’ in the 1970s and invested in just enough mountaineering equipment to get him and his family active in the great outdoors. He was a skilled map-reader and totally unafraid of any weather condition or challenging terrain. He had walked all over the UK and well understood the value of our national parks. He was an experienced camper and slept under canvas for as long as his Parkinson’s would allow it. For many years, he volunteered with Flysheet Camps, a charity established to make it possible for children from all different economic backgrounds to get out into the countryside to enjoy camping and walking holidays. Many Whitsun and summer family holidays were spent at these camps. Graham loved the Pennine Way and had completed different sections of it with his children, family and friends, including Tony Twibil, the friend he had met at the Star boxing club in Halifax. Graham often challenged bullies and was keen to learn more about handling himself. Tony was studying long division for a welding qualification and Graham exchanged maths assistance for Tony’s efforts to help make him a more accomplished fighter.
In the 1990’s Graham bought and renovated Toll Bar house in Copley. He had jogged past it frequently as a younger man and diligently maintained yearly correspondence with the owner. It was a visionary project to transform a semi-derelict garage into a modern home, a grand design but several years before the TV show. It was located in a large overgrown plot on the edge of North Dean Woods, which Graham worked hard to cultivate after completing the building work. He won the battle and the plot eventually became abundant in birds, trees, plants and fruit. It was the scene of much time spent entertaining his grandchildren and gardening with his partner Veronica.
In later years, Graham’s life was increasingly affected by Parkinson’s disease and the limitations it placed on his independence and mobility. He rarely reflected negatively on it, choosing instead to focus on the younger sufferers he met through the local branch of Parkinson’s UK. He’d organised his life carefully and thriftily, and enjoyed early retirement. He felt lucky afterwards that he hadn’t worked until full retirement age and that this period of his life was one that Parkinson’s could never take from him. Provision for a decent retirement was just another of the postwar reforms he had worked hard for and benefitted from. Ever the pragmatist, he recognised and accepted early on that there would be no magic cure to his Parkinson’s, preferring instead to set about keeping fit and ensuring he lived whatever life he did have left to the maximum. He was a truly heroic person in many ways, and notably so in his determination to continue walking independently until the end. The government’s PIP assessor had determined that Graham had full mobility, but the sight of Graham moving around his local community against the odds of his condition will stay in the hearts and minds of anyone who saw him.
2016 had been an extraordinary and challenging year for Graham. He was quick to acknowledge and joke that it mirrored political events here in the UK and abroad. It began with the great ‘Boxing Day Flood’ and the destruction of the 200-year-old bridge that connected his isolated house to the rest of the world, closely followed by the death of his mother a few days later. ‘Bridge stress’ and the several-mile detour the collapse of the bridge demanded exacerbated the symptoms of his Parkinson’s. During this period Graham spoke often about what he saw as the rise of the extreme right in Britain, Europe and America, and the decline in our environment and the living standards of working-class people everywhere. Almost exactly a year after the death of his mother, he took a tragic fall while walking in North Dean Woods, his favourite activity by then.
His suffered a serious spinal injury and despite the incredible effort, commitment and skills of his beloved NHS the injury was unbearably severe: it was very unlikely he would ever be able to leave hospital. After initial surgery to stabilise his vertebrae at Leeds General Infirmary, Graham arrived at the Intensive Care Unit, where the medical team were able to keep him alive, despite the seriousness of his injury. After being brought back to consciousness, the situation was explained to Graham and he was asked about future treatment. Graham requested it be withdrawn and he be allowed to die in comfort and dignity. He passed away while held tightly by his friends and family.
Graham was a fiercely independent man, never afraid to adopt and defend an unfashionable position if he believed it was the right one. He was regarded as eccentric, in that he pursued a principled position beyond the point where most people would give up in search of an easier life. He himself could find no satisfaction in giving up. He’d spend days tracking down a British made version of any product he needed to buy, sticking two fingers up to globalisation along the way. He was lucky to have found in his partner Veronica a woman with whom he was able to make the last years of his life some of his happiest, a chapter that was timed perfectly with the arrival of his nine much-loved grandchildren.
The circumstances of his death were a difficult experience to manage. The NHS that he’d loved, treasured and fought for all his life is rightly configured to keep people alive. From his children’s perspective, getting through it was made achievable by returning to the single biggest lesson he ever taught us: that ‘you can only do your best’. From our earliest childhood, through school, work, business, our own experience of parenthood and beyond, he was always interested in — but never driven by — the idea of success. Very occasionally Graham could be a fearsome father figure, but in truth all he ever demanded of his children was for us to be good, decent people who spoke the truth and did right by those around us, especially the less fortunate.
This relatively dispassionate summary of his life is without tales or anecdotes from the 40 years I spent with him. Apart from how upsetting I would find that, there are just too many. It was a shorter life than he would have liked, but it was a busy one and an incredible one. Graham’s life was about ‘getting stuck in’ and helping shape outcomes for the people and world around him. His legacy is the many hundreds of other people whose lives he influenced along the way.
He was the most principled, deeply political man I ever knew. His sense of history and the need to look to the past to understand the future was extraordinary. His love for his children was deep, but his love went far beyond that. He didn’t only want the best for his own children: he wanted the best for everyone else’s children too. He was a hard-working socialist and he taught us to ‘set your stall out’, make a good plan and work hard to achieve our goals, but he also taught us to have fun, relax and enjoy the company of people, whoever they are and wherever they come from.
Funeral: 10:30am Sat 28 Jan 2017, Park Wood Crem, Elland, HX5 9HZ.
Celebration: Noon ‘til late Sat 28 Jan 2017, Copley Cricket Club, HX3 0UG.
All welcome. No flowers, collection for Parkinson’s UK at celebration.
NB. Graham donated his brain to medical science via the The Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank scheme. ‘Vital research relies upon the generosity of donors and their families who make the vital gift of brain donation after death.’
*UPDATE OCTOBER 2017*