Farewell, Bert

Yesterday one of the first things I saw was a status on facebook to tell me that Bert Crane had died on Tuesday.

Local paper reports are here – Crawley Observer and Crawley News

I knew Bert from when I was very little – he was a friend of the family and a constant presence during my life in Crawley. This is partly because we were very much a Labour family, and based in West Green. But also because we liked him immensely.

In the 1950s, when he was becoming about the first ever Labour councillor elected in Crawley, my grandparents on both sides moved down with young children (they didn’t know each other then). They, along with Bert and many other were part of the New Town expansion and the establishment of the Labour Party.

My paternal grandfather joined him as a councillor in the late 1950s, but died in 1961. My father joined him as a councillor in the 1970s, and after the transfer from the UDC to the Borough Council he stepped back after me and my sister came along. I joined Bert as a councillor in 2000 and stood down four years later due to work commitments and the possibility of having to relocate. So Bert was not only a councillor continuously for 58 years, but he outlasted three generations of Richards.

He is often referred to a “Young Bert”, which is not some ironic teasing, but because in the 1950s his father was very active politically and well know locally and was also called Albert Crane (the Albert Crane Court in Ifield was named after the senior Bert). However, it was appropriate even as Bert aged, as he always had a twinkle in his eyes.

Aside from politics, the main thing that my family shared with Bert was supporting Fulham. It was always, umm, interesting to watch a game with him. Relentlessly pessimistic about the outcome, even if we were winning, but unfailingly loyal to the club even as it plummeted down the divisions. When we went to games, he would insist on going to the Putney End, the crumbling stand next to Bishop’s Park which was supposed to be for away supporters, because that’s where he’d always stood. It was at least a test of keeping quiet surrounded by opposition supporters in the 1980s.

Over the next few weeks I expect a lot will be said about Bert’s political life over the next few weeks. His energy, his deep knowledge of the workings of the Town Hall, his successes like the Greenfields sheltered housing. But he had a full life outside politics.

He was a stalwart supporter of the Arctic Convoys veterans’ association. I believe that he had not spent much time on the British Navy escorts taking the dangerous trips around Scandinavia to protect ships carrying material to aid the Soviet war effort in WWII. He was in the navy but my recollection is that he spent more time in the Pacific. But after the war, he did spend time in the Baltic and got to know many of the men who had survived those terribly costly convoys. At the time, he was unknowingly at grave danger himself from TB – a mix-up in test results at the end of the war that took two years to sort out meant that the disease had progressed disastrously. After being discharged and admitted to treatment, he was given a year to live. However, the use of antibiotics to treat TB had been shown to work only a few year before, and thanks to streptomycin, care from his parents and the newly created NHS, he survived. I like to think a fair degree of stubbornness on Bert’s part made a major difference.

I didn’t always agree with Bert, but that never seemed to affect our friendship. One day he did shout at me in the Council Chamber after I rebelled on a vote, and I recognise that we were both wrong and right at the same time about that: I was right about the issue (whether the council should investigate the causes of flooding across the town in 2000 and 2001), but wrong in how I’d approached it (ambushing the Labour Group with an amendment to the Tory motion rather than pushing the issue earlier). In the end, I got a rap across the knuckles and we had a proper review of flooding (instead of one only looking at Maidenbower, and around the corner from where Henry Smith lived, which was the extent of the Tory proposal). And Bert forgave my transgression, as I forgave his outburst.

As I moved out of Crawley 6 years ago, I hadn’t seen Bert much in recent years. He was still a serving councillor then, but his health was starting to fail and he stood down in 2012. The last main memory I have of him was when we celebrated his 50 years of council service by having a dinner (pie and mash-based) and Dennis Skinner was invited down to speak. Bert looked so happy, and so honoured, to be spoken of in high terms by a political hero.

But to be honest, my abiding memories tend to involve Sundays in the Labour Club, after a branch meeting talking over some beers, with a man with good humour, strong opinions and a caring heart.

Rest in Peace, Bert. You deserve it, mate.

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