Sadly Paul Boskett, a youth work stalwart across the years, has passed away. We are privileged to post Doug Nicholls’s moving and revealing obituary.
Paul Boskett – leader from the middle with a rod of humour.
Paul Boskett 1954-2014.
CYWU/Unite President 2005-2014
CYWU/Unite member 1974-2014.
Paul was a lifelong trade unionist. For four decades he was a conscientious activist in the Cheshire Branch of the Union. He was dependable and supportive. He was first on the national scene as Branch delegate to our Special Conference in 1980 when we debated the name change of the union and its direction. He had many heroes and heroines in the trade union movement, amongst these were Tony Benn and Jack Jones.
He was President of CYWU as it merged with the T&G and then the T&G and AMICUS formed Unite. He had to manage the transition in which the identity and purpose of our specialist section could either flourish or fade in new structures unfamiliar with our form of strong craft unionism and lay member democracy.
His Presidency coincided also with the period of the wilful demolition of youth services and the very survival of youth work as an emancipatory educational practice. CYWU had a tradition of electing just the right President at just the right time and Paul continued this perfectly. Amidst all of these presidential duties Paul never stopped giving casework advice to dozens of distraught members. He was a union leader with his feet on the ground.
Sometimes people can use the trade union movement to pamper their own egos, or feather their own careers. Not so Paul. He was a trade unionist out of necessity and a deep commitment to others. He saw CYWU as the main force in promoting empowering youth work by raising the social status, pay and conditions of professional practitioners and asserting their professional standards. Political campaigning and the rights of young people were all interwoven in Paul’s consistently hard work for the union.
Paul started out as a language teacher in a secondary school, but became disillusioned with the lack of impact of traditional teaching on the wider social life and position of young people. He threw himself into youth work and became JNC qualified. He devoted himself to enhancing the lives of young people in many economically disadvantaged communities and was a key player in the growth of the once great Cheshire Youth Service. He ended his illustrious career in the British Youth Council as the development officer for the UK Youth Parliament enabling young people to articulate their crucial voice on the national and international stage.
Relationships between General Secretary’s and lay Presidents have to be close, yet I would never pretend to fully understand Paul’s full complexity. I often wondered how I would describe him in what I had hoped would be a hearty vote of thanks one day for all he had done for the profession and the union. How would I analyse his rich combination of interests, knowledge and skills? He fought strongly against injustice all his life, he organised Gang Shows in the Scouts year after year, he admired Bob Crow politically, but also had great private reverence for the monarchy, although there was a tinge of playfulness about this as some of the pictures of his antics in Buck Palace when he got his MBE demonstrate. He was a great bass guitarist with the Papa Bears, a brilliant DJ, an amusing social compere. He knew popular music inside out as well as football and trains and the industrial economy of Britain. He had some kind of ecumenical mission from his Baptist Church and was pained by religious divisions and wanted for example to see Ireland as one. He liked to be respected by the JNC employers, but was contemptuous of their contempt sometimes for our members and the profession. He loved nothing more than to assist working class young people to achieve beyond their expectations of themselves. He was very instrumental in establishing the UK Youth Parliament annual sitting in the House of Commons. He was proud of his MBE, but equally proud of the unseen moments of progress and happiness in the young people he worked with. As a youth worker and trade unionist he was of course a natural internationalist.
Paul’s vast range of knowledge and activities gave him a depth of experience to draw on in dialogue with young people. He had that rare ability to make everyone he conversed with smile and feel good about themselves. This is a quality as essential in youth work as in trade unionism where human relationships are so central. The fact that he shared this approach in organisations as diverse as Unite, the Scouts, the UK Youth Parliament, his church, his band, his amateur dramatic society and many other places is quite incredible.
Paul mentored many along their journey in trade unionism. He had no airs and graces; he would chair a Conference or rally as President, deal with the Press, then help organisers clear up the room at the end.
Paul’s acute colour blindness was the cause of mirth and misfortune. When he was a night club bouncer the boss would identify a trouble maker for eviction by the colour of their clothes and Paul would invariably ask the wrong innocent happy clubber to leave, causing more trouble than had originally been spotted. When drawing raffles at CYWU’s Conferences Paul’s “Green 146” was usually pink. However, for Paul, as an avid railway enthusiast it was his eyes that prevented him from becoming a train driver, a childhood ambition. Paul’s love of the railways made him a particular friend of the RMT and ASLEF unions and a passionate advocate of a nationally owned transport system based on rail. To prove the point of his commitment and to raise money for charity, just before railway privatisation Paul won an entry into the Guinness Book of Records for travelling (dressed as Dracula) the most number of miles in 24 hours on different lines on the UK rail network. Sadly, rail privatisation means this record will not be broken until the network is re nationalised.
Paul’s quirky and purposeful record was typical of the fun-loving bravado that he used to make a serious point: “Some lead with a rod of iron” he told me when he became CYWU President, “I try to lead with a rod of humour.”
Paul’s legendary speaking style when under pressure, chairing conflicted meetings, or speaking to power was something that intrigued us. I thought he had a rare form of oral dyslexia. It was most marked in tense situations where decisiveness and clarity were most needed. I’ve often thought about why his sentences could be so unusually structured. Apart from the fact that that was how his brain functioned, it was also I think to do with a couple of other characteristics. He could barely comprehend why trade unionists could ever disagree amongst themselves and he preferred a style of leadership from the middle of the collective rather than at the front. He could feel out of place being looked up to or when comrades were divided amongst themselves and his feeling of discomfort affected the way he spoke. When he was under the spotlight he and his words would go into melt down as he would prefer to be an anonymous member of a united collective. Equally often though, his elliptical expression conveyed some profound leadership wisdom that we found ourselves considering for weeks afterwards.
Anyone who saw Paul’s diary would know it reflected part of him. It looked like pages of random squiggles and drawings and each day’s entries somehow committed him to multiple meetings in various parts of the country. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway timetables meant he could efficiently be in several parts of the country at once it seemed! He was like a time traveller and such a busy bee knew no sorrow.
There was only one time each year that Paul fiercely reserved for himself without interruption. He protected his personal visit to Lindisfarne with his dog to walk, think and reflect for a few days. These were hours of solitude in a life spent entirely with and for others. His annual recharging through private seclusion powered an unrelenting torrent of energy and life giving activity that characterised Paul’s life-work. His enthusiasm and positive manner inspired all he met.
So kind of heart, so committed, so caring, Paul made our union and us all much better, much stronger. Thanks Paul, your energy made our eternal delight.
Doug Nicholls, CYWU General Secretary 1987-2007, Unite National Secretary 2007-2011.