Pensioners’ leader George Durack, a fighter against injustice to the end
Tributes are paid to Islington man who ‘saw horrors of war and dedicated his life to peace’
07 September, 2018 — By Samantha Booth
George Durack, ‘a lovely smile’
HE was battling to the very end, a man who spent decades defending the NHS and workers’ rights, and campaigning for pensioners’ causes.
Days before his death on Sunday at the age of 94, George Durack was making his final notes as chairman of Islington Pensioners Forum in defence of his close friend Jeremy Corbyn, who had visited him in his last days in a hospice.
Pensioners Forum secretary Dot Gibson said: “It’s quite poignant that they were his last words.”
George was born in Islington in 1924, the son of George, a merchant seaman, and Teresa, a milliner. He lived in the “slum dwellings” of Beaconsfield Buildings on the Caledonian Road before spending several years on the Kent coast living with a family friend.
Aged eight, he moved back to Islington, attending York Road Junior School, Gifford Street Senior School and, at the age of 14, leaving to become a messenger boy for Daily Sketch newspaper.
George worked as a plumber before joining the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade in 1942 and transferring to the 7th Armoured Division – known as the “Desert Rats”.
After the war, he worked as a postman in Hampstead from 1956 to 1989, delivering mail to Labour figures Hugh Gaitskell and Michael Foot among others. “Gaitskell was a decent man but tended to look down his nose a bit,” George said in 2015. “But Michael Foot was a jolly man and real gentleman. He was an inspiration.”
The young George
He met his future wife Vera at Morgan School of Dancing in Camden Road.
Daughter Elaine said her dad’s interest in politics started as a postman when he joined the Communication Workers Union, where general secretary Dave Ward remembered him as making a “wonderful contribution” to people’s lives.
“Through the union and Labour Party and people he came across, where he saw there was any injustice he took up that cause,” said Elaine.
She said he put his “heart and soul” into being a councillor in 1990 after retiring. “He saw it as a proper job and devoted a lot of time to it and helped a lot of people,” she said.
George saw his fair share of controversy – he refused to pay Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. Both he and his daughter ended up in Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court. “For him it was one of the most unfair things,” said Elaine.
In 2016, George gained unexpected publicity when he was cropped out of a photograph of him walking alongside Jeremy Corbyn at a Remembrance service parade.
Newspapers ran stories accusing Corbyn of dancing – when in fact, as George explained, they were in conversation.
Elaine recalled: “He said [about the stories]: ‘I’m a war veteran, how could you do that to me?’ It was probably one of the biggest insults he’d ever had.
“Their friendship meant a lot to both of them.”
She added about her father: “He was great fun as a dad. He will be remembered as a compassionate man, a man who had time for people.”
In 2004, he became chair of the Pensioners Forum, a position he held until he died, sharing it with Bob Collins in recent years. He was given the Freedom of the Borough in 2015 in recognition of his work.
Pensioners Forum assistant secretary Annette Thomas said: “He could rage about what was being done to pensioners and the world generally, but he was also very caring.”
Phil Kelly, who served as a councillor through the 1980s and 90s, said: “No one could be unaware of the views of pensioners. He made sure issues were never forgotten.”
Paying tribute to his friend, Mr Corbyn said: “George saw the horrors of war first-hand and dedicated his life to peace. He saw injustice and dedicated his life to changing it through his union, through the Labour Party and through his work as a councillor.
“I went to see him on Saturday in Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, a place where he used to deliver letters. As I left he gave me a lovely smile and a message of solidarity.”
George, who lived in Wyndham Crescent, Tufnell Park, is survived by Elaine, niece and nephews David, Mark, Julie and Michael and great-niece and nephews Glenn, Louise, Zoe, Connor and Guy.
A date has yet to be set for his funeral.
‘Stand up for Jeremy, he stands up for us’
Festive pals: George Durack with Jeremy Corbyn
DAYS before he died, George Durack remained defiant in defending his friend and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
He told Pensioners Forum secretary Dot Gibson what he wanted to convey in what would come to be his final chairman’s notes for the group’s newsletter.
He said: “Thinking about the dangerous political situation facing us leads me to say to all my friends in Islington Pensioners Forum: Remember that our president, Jeremy Corbyn, is on our side of the fence!
“When Jeremy visited me recently in hospital, he came straight from getting off the train from a tiring visit to Edinburgh and he was smiling and joking all the time.
“But out of necessity, over many years of responsibility in the Labour and trade union movement, including serving as a councillor when Margaret Hodge was leader of Islington Council, I know the kind of treachery he is facing.
“With him sitting beside my hospital bed, I could see in my mind’s eye the ‘guns’ pointing at his back, not only from the other side in the House of Commons, but also from within his own party and much of the media.
“They all know that Jeremy hasn’t got a racist/anti-semitic bone in his body! But their purpose is to destroy and defeat him by whatever means before the next general election.
“It is difficult to imagine how he is withstanding this constant and unceasing attack, which started as soon as he won the right to be a candidate in Labour’s leadership election in 2015.
“I am therefore convinced that members of Islington Pensioners Forum will join me to reject these attacks and stand up for Jeremy just as he stands up for us!”
Friend, brother, comrade
ISLINGTON Pensioners Forum has remembered its chairman as a “leader and a friend”.
Forum secretary Dot Gibson writes in the group’s latest newsletter: “Throughout his life George shouldered the responsibilities of being the elected representative of working people – as shop steward, committee member, councillor and pensioners’ leader.
“He was a genuine working-class hero: down-to-earth, honest, modest, full of love and understanding, but never backward in coming forward to defend his principles of social and political justice.
“Losing George fills us with great sadness, but we are also filled with enormous pride that we have been led and guided
by a friend, a brother, a comrade.
“We will remember his words and advice as we go forward to build Islington Pensioners Forum, standing up for today’s and tomorrow’s pensioners – generations united.”
One of a golden generation of socialists
WHENEVER I met George Durack he had a wide smile – and a steely determination to make life better for the under-privileged and pensioners, writes Eric Gordon, Islington Tribune editor.
He would have been like this all his life. He came from a poor background, and he never forgot it.
I have known many Labour politicians and trade unionists, but George was of a golden generation of committed socialists who had grown up in the working class.
Labour councils were once brimful of them in the post-war years. But they became fewer and fewer, replaced by youngsters setting out to make a career out of politics, without George’s political zeal and connection with working-class campaigners who had gone before him.
Even seriously ill in Whittington Hospital he displayed the courage that had gripped him all his life – courage he would show in active service in World War II, and courage in defence of his fellow workers as a union leader at the Post Office in Islington.
He was also angry about the demonisation of his friend Jeremy Corbyn, and wanted to know the latest news.
He was the ideal choice as chairman of Islington Pensioners Forum, helping to make it one of the best campaigning bodies in the country.
My recurring memory of him was of a demonstration for pensioners’ rights in Whitehall, where he spotted me as he helped to hold up a banner opposite the Cenotaph.
With a wide smile he called me over for a friendly chat, and no doubt to show that, though he was in his 90s, nothing would stop him from taking part in his own war of resistance against injustice.