South of the River – Absent Friends


Comment logo 2Compass-SouthOf course it’s nothing to what his family has lost, but this week I lost a very good friend in Steve Williamson.

I think I first met Steve in the 1990s, but I only got to know him after he joined a community reporters course eighteen months ago. He joined the Beeston Festival committee about the same time so there was no getting away from him. My in box would be filled on a daily basis by requests for information and reminders of things I’d agreed to do but didn’t appear to have delivered yet.

How would you sum up Steve? Well the word rude comes to mind. Loud, talkative, irreverent, he always had a witty take on things however serious the issue. He also always had a twinkle in his eye. Of course he took serious issues very seriously, despite the humorous asides and most importantly he got things done.

I don’t know all of Steve’s back story and this isn’t a proper obituary, but I’ve picked up various parts of the story through conversations over the years. His career was in housing and he started in Liverpool with a housing association called Merseyside Improved Homes. In those days housing associations did what they said on the tin, a trait I’m sure Steve approved of. The organisation is now called Riverside, typical of the bland marketing speak of modern Britain.

In Liverpool he became a regular at Anfield during the football club’s glory days, a passion that stayed with him. He also became a shop steward at work, a fact that emerged at our first meeting. By the 1990s he was Chief Executive at Ridings Housing Association in Leeds (now Connect). I was a union branch secretary trying to recruit housing association staff and met to him to ask permission to run a recruitment meeting at Ridings.

His response was something along the lines of “by all means have a go, but I’ve not been able to get them to join. And by the way if only a few join up I won’t be talking to you, I need to talk to the whole staff.” Blunt and opinionated, you always knew where you stood with Steve.

If Steve hadn’t been a southerner, he’d have made a great Yorkshireman.

I got to know him better on the grandly titled Beeston Hill & Holbeck Regeneration Partnership Board. By this time he was running re’new. Not Renew, they were very specific it had to be written with a lower case r and an apostrophe – how did Steve ever agree to that? re’new is a regeneration outfit that grew out of Leeds Partnership Homes, a cunning plan to get round Thatcher’s block on building council houses in the 1980s.

To say he fell in love with Beeston during his time on the Board might be over-egging it, but he bought a house here and moved from the leafy suburbs of York when he retired. I suspect there just wasn’t enough going on in the village for an energetic man with a social conscience.

In Beeston he threw himself into various community organisations. He joined the Beeston Festival committee and took over as chief fundraiser, having first run the barbecue stall with his cry of “Burgers, get your Beeston burgers here!” As a committed Christian, he was heavily involved with the Church in Cottingley and he joined the board of the West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Service at Leeds Prison. He also brought his organisational skills to the local Labour Party branch.

And of course he got involved with South Leeds Life.

I understand his wife Linda had sent him on the course to get him out of the house. She’d also told him to take up golf. I suppose the inevitable result was his series of golfing articles under his nom de plume ‘Old Bamber’.

Steve was organised and methodical. We soon asked him to become secretary of the group and noticed a new discipline to the paperwork. I would go round for what I thought was an informal chat to find he had prepared a printed agenda and a note of the meeting would follow a day or two later.

I gather I can be quite hard to work with. Steve seemed to understand me, perhaps because like me he suffered from depression. He was someone I could talk to about how I really felt and I shall really miss that. Of course having listened he would tell me what I needed to do, I shall miss that as well.

So here’s the thing. Steve was putting a lot of energy into a lot of groups doing good things in South Leeds. He’s gone and we can’t wait around for someone else like him to come along. Everyone else has to step up. That means you, dear reader.

South Leeds Life is about to start a campaign on local volunteering opportunities. This is my request: please consider if you have some time you could contribute to a local community group. Everyone has skills to offer, be they practical or organisational. Think about all the activities you read about on South Leeds Life – festivals and galas, sports events, meals for older people, gardening, etc, etc. Choose one that interests you and go and ask how you can help them.

Jeremy Morton Aug13If you knew Steve and want to do it in his memory, great. If you didn’t know Steve, well you do now so go and do it anyway.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.