My Friend Nigel Todd

I have a packet of Northumberland Wildflower Seeds given to me by Nigel Todd. The mix contains flowers that will thrive in harmony with our local ecosystem. It speaks to his ecological sensitivity and profound sense of place.

High on the wall of Newcastle’s Stowell Street is a stone carving of a sheaf of wheat, a spade and a sickle. “Labor and wait” reads the motto. It’s on the side of the old Co-operative warehouse. “It’s a reminder,” Nigel told me, “that prosperity is about long term sustainability.” The fruits of our labour would take time, and hard graft.

His sudden death this weekend has opened a void in my heart. I can only begin to imagine what his family must be feeling.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. Nigel’s work in Wingrove and Arthur’s Hill was about building that new world. Here and now. In the mess and madness of the old. And he was both a genius and an expert in what he did.

Where others would rail at injustice, Nigel acted. He had little patience for vainglorious committee meetings, and once remarked quietly, “we’re just actors in a play that has neither audience nor script.”

He was Chair of the Co-operative College. This was never about co-operatives in the abstract. His home was part of a housing cooperative. He was the driving force behind Greening Wingrove , a community cooperative, owned and run by the people who live there.

The Bike Garden and the events in Nuns Moor Park are part of that new world. Nigel had been working with the team at the North of Tyne, on our sustainable funding for communities to tackle climate change and food poverty. Everything from vertical veg growing to generation of clean community energy was in the mix.

Tommy Tankie, his topiary steam train sculpted from privet, brightened up the terraced street right outside his home. Talking about it would raise that characteristic smile of warmth and sparkle of gentle subversion in his eyes.

Nigel served his community as a Newcastle City Councillor since 1980. I asked his advice before I became a councillor. “I’ve always taken the approach,” he told me, “that a councillor should not be a cheerleader for the council out in the community, but a shop-steward for the community inside the council.” I hope the Labour Party honours Nigel’s commitment to democracy by allowing local members to select their candidate for May’s elections.

He held a total belief in shared humanity across race, gender and ethnicity. Greening Wingrove uses the “Rainbow Ward” logo as a symbol of its diversity. He campaigned for international justice, and visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and educational trips to Auschwitz.

His daughter Selina wrote that “like most children in the so-called post-war ‘golden age’ of social mobility, Nigel failed his eleven-plus examination and attended a secondary modern school until the age of fifteen.” And owed his education to the Labour movement. “In his late teens he became a clerk for the Workers Educational Association, an adult education organization founded by trade unionists and socialists in 1903. The WEA sent him to Ruskin College, a trade union-funded adult education college in Oxford, where he met my mother.”

A historian and adult educator by profession, he published three books. For him, education was about enrichment. It was history from below – not the kings and queens, but the ordinary heroes on the front line.

In Excited Times is about Tyneside’s struggles against the Blackshirts and British Fascism. Indeed I first met Nigel thirty-odd years ago as part of TWAFA – the anti-fascist movement. At that time there was a spate of violent attacks on anti-racist campaigners from organised fascist groups. I remember teaching Nigel some self-defence techniques. It’s fair to say his talents lay in other forms of struggle.

He was a gifted storyteller. He had that gentle, “gather round and listen” voice, and an air of infectious calm. Nigel never sought glory or recognition. But he was a legend and a giant. With wise counsel and subtle wit he was mentor to so many.

“He was just so calm, all the time. I always found that remarkable and so unusual. He was one of the first people to welcome us into politics and I think nearly every socialist would be able to say the same.”

Nigel spent his life planting seeds, and watching them bloom.

(First published in The Chornicle and The Journal on 29th March 2021)