Thursday, 24 September 2015

Standing room only to send a fond farewell to Shelia Robin

So many people attended the celebration of Sheila Robin's life at Golders Green Crematorium that many had to stand at the back and in the aisles. The ceremony 'chaired' by Sheila's friend Ian Saville reflected Sheila's many interests from book club to yachting, from comedy nights to folk clubs, from campaigning for justice for Palestinians to attending pop festivals.

The crowd wore many colours in accordance with Sheila's wishes and as people arrived they had no difficulty at all in locating Sheila's friends and comrades.

A rendition of  Billy Bragg's version of the Internationale was led by Leon Rosselson on guitar. Ian urged everyone to join in, even if they had a problem fitting Bragg's words in with the music. After a spirited, if sometimes slightly out of sync rendition, Ian remarked that it was rather like the state of the left - not quite united but then drew laugher when he said that if Jeremy Corbyn had been leading the singing then everyone would have been singing together.

Ian Saville's eulogy and contributions from family and Sarah Cox of Brent Stop the War painted a picture of someone with a strong commitment to living life to the full as well as a commitment to fighting for social justice.

That will continue to inspire those who loved and respected Sheila.

Even more people joined the celebration at the Windmill in Cricklewood after the cremation and the Brent Stop the Wat banner had pride of place.

Kate Mclean, who was unable to make the funeral, contributed this tribute on the Brent Stop the War Facebook page: 

I first met Sheila on the Grunwick picket line nearly 40 years ago. Since then we have both joined very many campaigns in and around Brent. We worked together in the campaign against the bombing of Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s. We leafleted and had street stalls in Kilburn High Rd, we arranged public meetings and organised a large benefit in the Library, with a great line-up of entertainers. When the ‘War on Terror’ was announced in 2001 there was a core of very experienced local activists from different groups who had worked together over a long period. Earlier campaigns from the days of the Miner’s Strike onwards had been marked by fierce divisions and bitter argument. Many of us, and Sheila in particular, saw that this was no way forward. Brent Stop the War set out to do things differently. We concentrated on what we had in common. I believe that this is why it has been so successful and has held together so long.

After 9/11, Sheila was instrumental in organising the first Brent Stop the War meeting. She contacted everyone she could. We were united by abhorrence to the response of Bush to the attack on the twin towers, and were watching in horror that Blair could so enthusiastically follow. I think ours may have been the first organised local Stop the War group in the whole country. The first meeting I went to was so full that we were only just able to get in. Right from the beginning Sheila struggled to make the group as inclusive as possible. She battled against any attempts of what she thought were moves by different factions to take over, and as a strong feminist she would get particularly angry if any of the men were over dominating. Very soon we had elected a committee and a strong team and Sheila and I took on much of the day-to-day organisation, assisted by so many others and later substantially by Sarah.

We organised regular monthly meetings (going continuously since 2001 to the present day) produced leaflets and newsletters, leafleted for national demonstrations and events, petitioned and held street stalls. From the start it was clear that we needed money. It was Sheila who got some badges made – these well before the national organisation were selling them. I don’t know who designed them, but they were lovely and went like hot cakes. She then got me to make a banner, the one here today. (Roughly made, we never thought we would still be using it 13 years later!) With her eye for detail she had discovered that if the poles were over a certain length they could stop you taking them on the tube. She warned me to make them short enough and she suggested it be light enough for people like her to carry - not be like those mighty trade union banners. 

Whoever was to take it back was sure to receive a warning from Sheila of dire consequences of failing to do so. She also took such delight when this and also our large puppets of Bush and Blair were photographed in the press.

Over the years there were very many different people and groups who we worked with including local union branches and Brent Trades Council who gave us considerable support. Others undoubtedly were given confidence to take action themselves because of the strength of our local group. Sheila was particularly keen that younger people would become involved, while recognising that they might want to do their own thing; she was really delighted when a group of 6th formers at Hampstead, friends of her niece Kara organised for hundreds of hand prints to be stuck in Parliament Square, and by the walk-outs of students from Hampstead and Wembley High when the bombing of Iraq started. She also stretched out to involve those from different ethnic groups, linking up with Jews for Justice of which she was a part, Palestine Solidarity, Greek Cypriots, with the Guantanamo Campaign who were particularly active locally, with the Pakistan Workers Association whose hall we often used for public meetings, with an Afghani women’s organisation and in later years with a Muslim group who ran Rumi’s cave where we held our meetings in recent years. This last change of venue suggested by Sheila meant that our meetings attracted many new people. 

Keen not to provoke disagreement within the group and, at the same time, wanting open discussions Sheila had an active part in deciding the content of the meetings and finding appropriate and invariably interesting speakers – speakers chosen were either campaigners, academics, journalists or those speaking from their own experiences – from reports from different countries in the Middle East to more analytical speakers, invariably telling of under-reported important events. The many large public meetings included speakers like Tony Benn, Mark Steel, George Galloway………..and the hustings meetings were very lively at election time.

We will all remember Sheila as an exceptional organiser. She would not rest until every detail was covered. Working with her was not only energising (even though she would wear herself out, and sometimes us as well!) hers was such a creative energy. She was rightly proud of what we achieved and generous in her praise for the efforts of others. Between us we organised so many different things. We mobilised many, many thousands of people to take part in national demonstrations and protests and lobbies. Sheila enjoyed it when we organised large numbers to get on the same trains often waiting with the banner unfurled on the platform at Kilburn tube. The street collections, collections at public meetings, benefits and garden parties at our house when added together raised tens of thousands of pounds. In the bi-election in Brent East in 2003 we had a double decker bus plastered with posters and loud speakers touring the constituency, and if candidates previously hadn’t thought their position on Iraq mattered they certainly discovered then that it did.

Sheila was also sure that it was in response to pressure from us that Sarah Teather, then M.P for Brent East went on a delegation to Gaza and the West Bank, and returned to campaign so strongly for the rights of Palestinians. Working with Sheila was always filled with new ideas – creative but intensely practical ones with impressive results.

When due to a previous serious illness Sheila stepped down from activity of course we understood. Although she told me she really needed to cut down, it wasn’t long before she was taking things on again, leafleting, street stalls, public meetings, sorting out the email lists whenever her RSI did not prevent her using the computer, contacting speakers and helping to decide the content of future meetings. Then when I left for Wales she was back as secretary. By this time most of the other local groups were inactive, but she and particularly Sarah ensured that our group, though now smaller, kept going. Parliament voting against bombing Syria was a great moment. We reckoned that though we had not stopped the war on Iraq, our years of activity had been crucial to this vote. However, Sheila knew as much as anyone that the threat of war had not gone.

Even though she was beginning to complain of feeling physically very tired she was still able to help organise a well-attended hustings meeting back in May this year. The Tory candidate did not appear, but ALL the other candidates stressed their opposition to the War on Terror, so again Sheila felt it was something Brent Stop the War could take credit for. 

At first Sheila felt she wasn’t up to organising yet another garden party this year because it had always been so much work and worry, but in fact in spite of her illness she was instrumental in organising the most successful garden party ever in June, with Julie Felix, her dear friend Socialist Magician Ian Saville, and Finisterre.

I mentioned that she would always go to great lengths to get our banner to appropriate demonstrations. In July, when she was already seriously ill and could hardly walk upstairs, she brought the banner down to the anti-austerity march, meeting us in the thick, jostling, crowd outside the tube, knowing that she was far too unwell to come on the march itself.

Sheila we join your family in missing you terribly. As a friend, as someone to bounce ideas off, as someone to laugh with, as someone so totally committed to building a better world, as someone so inspirational to work with. Our loss is not just a personal loss, it is a terrible loss to Brent Stop the War and to National Stop the War, and a loss to the movement as a whole.

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