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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 March 2006, 01:02 GMT 02:02 UK
Ex-Rover workers strive to move on
By Lucy Lunt
Producer, Radio 4's Life After Rover

MG Rover Longbridge plant
MG Rover's closure was predictable, but still surprised the workforce
In 1905 Herbert Austin produced his first motor car at Longbridge in Birmingham. In 2005 production came to an abrupt end with the closure of MG Rover.

Longbridge was a family business.

That is the overriding sense that I have after following the ex-Rover workers for a year.

We're in mourning. It's just like we've been bereaved
Giovanni, former Rover worker

It may have been a huge corporation, with more than 30,000 people working there in its heyday, but there was a real community spirit to the place.

Sons followed fathers into the plant, to join sisters, uncles, grandparents and cousins.

Giovanni explained it to me the first time I met him, just three weeks after the closure.

He said: "It wasn't just that we worked together, we socialised together. We went to each other's weddings, christenings and funerals. Most of us lived within walking distance of the plant. It lay at the heart of our community."

Gio joined Rover, or British Leyland, as it was then, as an apprentice 25 years ago, straight from school. Longbridge had provided him with a well-paid and secure livelihood: it was all he knew.

He described the closure as being "like the death of a close family member. We're in mourning. It's just like we've been bereaved".

Grief and disbelief

Rover had been on death row many times before. But there had always been a last-minute reprieve. The workers expected that, even up to the very last minute.

Many found out on local TV or radio news, which added to their sense of betrayal and disbelief.

The Longbridge plant in Birmingham
Almost 6,000 jobs were lost at Longbridge

On an April day last year, immediately after the closure, it looked like the whole world was converging on a crossroads about half a mile from the plant, the location of the local job centre. Most had never been inside. Many had only ever worked at Rover.

For many of the people I talked to, overcoming the grief was harder than they had ever imagined.

One man explained how he spent the first three months half-heartedly applying for jobs, only to finally realise that subconsciously, he was just waiting till he could go back to his old job, at the same desk, with the same group of friends.

"My comfort zone," he called it. Only by acknowledging that this was gone for ever was he able to start to move on.

Maurice, however, was resolutely positive when we first talked last spring. Like so many of the ex-Rover workers, Maurice had followed his father into the plant 32 years ago. He clearly loved the car manufacturing business.

Despite being 57, he was absolutely determined to find himself another job as quickly as possible. It was with real pleasure that we went to see him again last November, back at work, in Swindon with Honda.

New career

But, despite his qualifications, Giovanni decided to take this as a unique opportunity to try to make a living out of something he had only ever pursued as a hobby.

For the last year, with the help from the Work Place Learning for Adults scheme, he has been making a career as a singer and poet.

His song, Last One Out, is about the demise of Rover and is featured in the series. He is trying to make a living from his writing and live performances, recalling the lifetimes of work at Longbridge.

I've lost my way - can't find the track/Waste of time just looking back/My drive's all gone - I've got no spark/Dip the lights, I'm in the dark
Lyrics from Last One Out

Whether he can make a long-term living from this, he has yet to decide. Certainly the research suggests that those who have become self-employed are the healthiest and most content.

More than half the workforce are back in work and more return every day, but it is clear that for the majority, those jobs do not bring the income or the satisfaction they gained from their work at Rover. While life goes on, the pain of their loss is still apparent.

At clocking-off time, it was almost impossible to get into the Longbridge plant or out of it. In the old days, the area was crammed with bicycles and people catching trams and buses. More recently, the workers had cars.

Around the plant today, there are massive empty car parks with weeds growing through the cracks. As one Rover manager reflected: "Finally the No Parking signs are being obeyed."

Life After Rover is on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST, Monday, 27 March to Wednesday, 29 March 2006.


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