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Camden New Journal - FORUM: Opinion in the CNJ
Published: 5 February 2009

This picture was taken last February when Hetty marched to Downing Street to hand in a ­letter of protest to Gordon Brown, on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war
‘We wanted to see who would arrest a frail 102-year-old in a wheelchair’

A year on from the death of the New Journal’s ‘Oldest columnist in the world’, her friend Hetty Bower, aged 103, tells how Rose Hacker planned one last fight over civil rights

THE inauguration of Barack Obama reminded me how much I miss Rose Hacker.
To celebrate that historic event, Rose and I would have danced on the lawn at the Mary Feilding Guild, Highgate, where we both lived. Rose, a close friend whose political views I valued and usually shared, died one year ago. I am 103 years old. She would have been 103 this month.
Our political and social outlooks ran on parallel lines. By the time I came to live here, my illusions and hopes about the Soviet Union’s socialism had long since been ­shattered. Instead, I drew inspiration from wonderful individuals I had met such as Brian Simon in the Communist Party, and Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen in the Independent Labour Party*.
They never betrayed their prin­ciples or abandoned their work for the improvement of society. No one could ever accuse them of selling out. By contrast, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I was horrified at how many Russians became millionaires overnight, former party apparatchiks, supposed to have been working to better humanity. Similar actions by British politicians, especially New Labourites, distressed Rose as much as they upset me.
I moved here in June 2002. Soon after, I was delighted to discover a fellow socialist, humanist-pacifist of Jewish origin moving in. We fell into what Rose described in this paper as “friendship at first sight”, finding common ground in our interests in social and political ­problems, criticism of the cults of monetarism and privatisation, and active membership of and commitment to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
I had been a “walker” continuously since age 15. Rose, sadly, could no longer walk great distances. We would have enjoyed many happy hours walking and sitting together in Kenwood. However, we both shared a love of classical music and frequently went to concerts together, especially of MANA (Musicians Against Nuclear Arms).
Whenever Radio 4 morning news reported significant social issues, including new legislation, I went to discuss them with Rose. We were constantly indignant about what Tony Blair was and was not doing.
We both opposed the 2003 Iraq War. Rose felt wretched, unable to accompany me on all the anti-war marches. She always wanted details: who spoke, what happened? We were unconvinced by the lie justifying that war – “weapons of mass destruction”.
The First World War equivalent was stories of German soldiers invading Belgium, cutting off ­children’s hands at the wrists. My father was the first person I heard talk critically about this, telling my suffragette sister it was untrue. He taught us this absolute lie was intended only to foster hatred between peoples and that the First World War was a war for power.
From him I learned that the way the winners “managed” the peace and treated Germany after the 1918 armistice made the rise of Hitler possible, leading to the Second World War.
The killing stopped, but my father told my sister and the schoolgirl me that the Allies’ inhumane treatment of Germany would lead to trouble. It did. Rose and I were equally ­convinced that US and UK ­treatment of Iraq after the 2003 Coalition victory would have ­similar consequences and that much of the anger behind September 11 arose from how the US treated Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
Before her death, Rose introduced me to Jews for Justice for Pales­tinians. I have been on all recent demonstrations against Israel’s aggression in Gaza. Rose would have been as outraged as me at the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the ­Disasters Emergency Committee humanitarian aid appeal.
Like Germany after the First World War, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians can only lead to long-term disaster.
Back-door privatisation of the health service, forcing people to “choose” commercial options infuriated us. We foresaw a total collapse of public services, as a result of government policies. Rose wrote about the property ladder, its ­instability, fragility, likelihood of collapse. Now we are living it. She predicted the forthcoming collapse of major banks, greed and false accounting leading to the massive losses she feared were coming. She was right. The only bank that has been stable and made steady profits is the Co-operative. Both Rose and I banked with it.
We were both horrified at the loss of liberties our own government imposed on us in the name of “the war on terror”.
Shortly before her death Rose and I went to hear political comedian Mark Thomas describing how his campaign against the ban on protests around Westminster was tying local police in knots. We planned to protest against limits on the right to protest – the thin end of a dangerous wedge. I would get a permit, Rose would not. My banner would read: “102-YEAR-OLD LEGAL PROTESTER AGAINST LOSS OF RIGHT TO PROTEST WITHOUT PERMIT”. Rose’s would read: “102-YEAR-OLD ILLEGAL PROTESTER AGAINST LOSS OF RIGHT TO PROTEST WITHOUT PERMIT.”
A better walker, I would walk. Rose would sit in a wheelchair. Rose was keen to be arrested. I ­wasn’t. We wanted to see which police officer would arrest a frail 102-year-old in a wheelchair. We never got that chance.
Becoming Prime Minister, ­Gordon Brown announced, “change, change, change”, including modifying that ban on demonstrations. Eighteen months later, no change.
As I know Rose would, I hope Barack Obama’s changes are real and his presidency marks the turning point Rose looked forward to.
*Brian Simon was an eminent educationist who first advocated and campaigned successfully for the introduction of the comprehensive school system in the UK
Fenner Brockway was a lifelong peace activist, jailed for resisting conscription in the First World War and later a Labour MP.
Clifford Allen was chairman of the Independent Labour Party, who was jailed three times for conscientious objection during the First World War.

* A film about Rose Hacker and Hetty Bower, The Time of Their Lives, is to be screened at the ICA on March 8 with a Q&A afterwards.
103-year-old Hetty Bower shared similar views with Rose Hacker, who described them as ‘friends at first sight’.

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