At the moment I am holiday in Cyprus enjoying the 30C + weather but the news that friend and former Reading Borough Councillor, David Geary, had died last weekend clouded over the sunshine.
I first met Dave when I moved to central Reading in 1990. I hed previously been involved in local politics and geting in touch with the local party on my arrival resulted in an invitation to the December meeting in a party stalwart’s house, a former coaching inn, a few doors down from my flat. After a bit of politicking regarding the selection, or non selection, of a member, there is alway politicking around candidate selection time, there was a very warm and welcoming social. The ideal way to meet new comrades in a relaxed and friendly way, and one of those I met was Dave, then one of our ward councillors. In time I was to meet other members of Dave’s family who were activie in central Reading; his brother Ted who worked at Broadmoor, and his formidible mother, Frances.
The next meeting, at the beginning of 1991, was the Annual General Meeting when the positions in the ward are elected along with the all important representatives to the pan Reading party. It was held in a room in the old Town Hall named after a former representative of the ward who had recently died as a result of an explosion in Africa. I achieved my ambition and got to be one of the representatives. But, what I remeber the evening for, and the reason I write about it here, is the report from the four Labour councillors representing the ward. As part of this, Tony Page started giving a report about an incursion by gypsies, believe me reader he used a lot less politically correct language than that. He went on to talk about measures which would clear them away. Dave then objected to what had been said as he was part Romany. A ding-dong then ensued between them and I witnessed for the first time the haughter with which Tony Page treated his colleagues. Dave held his own and did not back down and it was left to the chair to return some order to affairs.
Soon after I learnt the truth of the saying about the problems of getting what you wish for. A month or two later Saddm Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait. An emergency motion was taken at the Readingbparty calling for non intervention by ‘western powers’. It had not been discussed by the local party so we had not been mandated to support a position. Dave spoke strongly in favour of the motion as a result of his strong Christian based pacifist views. I couldn’t support approving the use of force by one country to subjugate another and voted against. I was too new a member to speak, feeling a bit cowed at the prospect. It was not the first time Dave and I took different positions and it made no difference, we chatted friendly after in the bar.
The second time I got to almost regret getting what I wanted was at the following policy conference. At the time groups of interested people worked through the Autumn compiling policies for the different areas of the council. Then they were debated by the different parts of the party and ammendments put forward. There was then a policy conferece where the ammendments were discussed and voted on and the complete policy document then voted on to go on and become the party’s manifesto, and then implemented if the party won control of the council. Such an open, transparent and participative process didi not survive the party being taken ober by a small.cliue. The main issue that year was a confrontation between the represntative of the Labour Group of councillors on the council’s, the Chair of the Planning and Transport Committee, and Katesgrove ward over a planned road. The debate was in such jargon and language that only an afficiando would know what was being talked about. In the Labour party at the time you were a member where you lived and despite being a councillor for Park ward in eastern Reading, the then Chair of Planning and Transport lived in central Reading and we had met at some of the socials and got on so I voted in support of her position. It was only when Dave explained to me after what had been going on that I understood the magnitiude of my error. It was not held against me.
In April it became clear what all the manouvering was about. Senior members of the Reading Borough Council Labour Group had been meeting members of Berkshire County Council to do a deal to remove Reading’s objection at a public inquiry into a proposal to build a dual-carriageway road alongside the Thames, over the mouth of the River Kennet and then through a park. When this deal was taken to the Labour Group Dave was one of the people who voted against it becoming one of the “Cross Town Route 5”. The deal didn’t stop councillors working against the road proposal and Dave worked with a number of members of the public, community activists and others to build opposition to the proposal, and, more importantly, prepare to fight the scheme at the inquiry ourselves. We did, Dave, I and many others representing groups from across town opposed to the proposal. So many members of the Labour Group from the council turned up to oppose the scheme at the inquiry, so much had we got support behind us, that if those councillors had just voted against the scheme originally they would have saved us all a lot of time and money as there would not have been an inquiry. Despite having opposed the might of the County Council with deep pockets of taxpayers money to throw at the scheme, we learnt two years later that the government decided to throw out the proposal.
In between the inquiry and the decision I joined Dave on the Council. Most of the time we were in agreement but if we didn’t it made no difference to our friendship. One thing I learnt about Dave was exactly how far he would go to stick up for his principles. In the same area as the proposed road, by the Thames there were the former railway coalyards, which had now grown wild. Tesco had obtained the land. A proposal was taken to the Labour Group that the Council’s Plan be changed to allow the new Tesco’s to go ahead. Incidentally they had chosen the site based upon the above road going ahead and had offered a large payment towards the road if it did go ahead, and they got planning permission. At the meeting of Labour Councillors, the Labour Group, they were briefed on why they had to give permission to Tescos, that if they did not give permission Tesco’s would appeal and, if Tescos won, the Council would have to pay Tescos a lot of money which could result in councillors who took the decision to refuse being surcharged, ie made personally financially responsible for the council’s bill. The bill would be hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions. No councillor had that sort of money and they would have to sell their house, go bankrupt, who knows. Basically the Labour councillors were being offered the chance to support the Tesco application or to lose their home. Only one member of the Labour Group voted against the Tesco plan, Dave. They got their store. He did not lose his house but he did stand up for his view against the destruction of green space for the new store and the new traffic it would bring across Kings Meadow.
Each May the Council elects a new Mayor. The role of first citizen impresses residents but apart from being the Council’s external face to the public the only other duty they have is to chair the full meetings of the Council. In March/April thoughts, amongst other things, turn to who the new Deputy Mayor, and then by tradition the year after the new Mayor, should be. Around that time in 1994, together with a colleague, it ended up that we were in a pub after a meeting alone with Dave. After general chat about the meeting we had just been in, we asked him if he would like to be Mayor. Dave’s diffidence meant that initially he said he couldn’t do it. We persuaded him he could. For some time a senior membr of the Labour Group had been bullying Dave and he thought that people would laugh at a suggestion of him as Mayor. We agreed to talk to colleagues and report back to Dave what the other Labour councillors said of the idea. We talked to the other Labour councillors and they seemed to be about split between Dave and another councillor, who was being promoted by the person who had been bullying Dave. She was saying a vote for the other candidate was support for a ‘sisterhood, feminism’ ticket. (Dave’s response to that was “that’s bollocks”. Dave was surprised there was enough support for it to be neck and neck and was nominated and won clearly. Concerns about the other candidate emerged when she comprehensively mishandled being Chair of the Licensing Committee, nearly destroying the Rock Festival and making many other barmy decisions which led to the unusual step of her being replaced midway through a council year.
In the early 90’s the Conservative government decided that Berkshire County Council, uniquely as a non-metropolitan council, was to be abolished. In 1996 candidates for election to the new Reading council had to be selected. Previously there had been three Reading Borough councillors and one Berkshire County Councillor. In some wards all four stood and one lost. In others the County Councillor thought they would lose and ran away. In the case of Dave he made it clear from the start that he thought the other three councillors would make such good councillors that he volunteered to stand down. Greater love hath no man than he lay down his council seat for his colleagues, you might say.
Well the people of Reading knew a good thing when they had it as he was soon re-elected to the council and, not long after, became one of the few people to be Mayor of Reading twice. As I progressed through the Labour Group I learnt there were some councillor’s who provided a more thoughtful response to any new proposal and what they said had to be listened to. Sometimes, if I was bringing forward a proposal I thought might have a difficult passage through Labour Group I would talk things through informally with one or two of thos three or four councillors first. It would always help me understand how the proposal would be greeted, what were the really difficult part of the proposal was or how it could be presented better. Dave infallibly gave measured, sensible and helpful advice – even if I didn’t like it at the time.
In the first decade of the new century Dave’s mum Frances died. She had a wonderful farewell at the Spiritualist Church in central Reading that she had attended. Dave spoke to me after how exasperated and upset he was about the way the MP for the western half of Reading had stalked the family in order to get the chance to speak at her farewell. He said nothing to avoid trouble in the party but he was very upset by the behaviour.
Dave was married but the time I knew him they lived apart and seemed to get on well. He would talk sometimes about her coming to stay for a few days. I believe she was escort for him the second time he was Mayor. Dave told me that his dad was horrified when Dave told him he was gay. Dave told that his reply was “You must have had some dodgy Guiness the night you knocked me out.” told with a chuckle. The last time I saw him before leaving the UK he planned to go to Nottinghamshire to join his partner but from reports it looked like he didn’t leave Reading. His last Christmas card had a wonderful message about how things were when they were together.
One of the last times we were together was at a party meeting in Reading following things being printed in the media about there being bullying in Reading Labour Party. In an intimidatory atmosphere when everyone was being asked to agree that there was no bullying in Reading Labour Party Dave stood up and said that there was bullying and that he had experienced it. He was one of a few who spontaniously stood up to tell of their experience of bullying in Reading Labour Party. They were ignored and everyone agreed there was no bullying.
So a brave, principled gentleman has been lost to the World. But most I remember Dave saying something humerous, with a twinkle in his eye before breaking out into a laugh. He could be incourageable at times.