The Historical Museum was an imposing complex, occupying several hundred acres of land in North London. Some of its buildings rose to a height of six storeys. Its staff of twelve hundred guild-registered historians all participated in each of the three areas of activity that the Museum was devoted to – displays, education and research.
The Museum’s displays were many and varied. There were, of course, the usual glass cases containing relics, monuments, artefacts and documents. But beyond that there were hologrammatic reconstructions – an English peasant’s dwelling in the thirteenth century, a Liverpool slum in the twentieth, and so on. Then there were the films; for the more recent periods authentic material was used, for the earlier ages reconstructions based on meticulously detailed research. Special film theatres allowed audience participation; you could watch the events of the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution, joining in the debates and electing or recalling your delegate.
The Museum was linked to the network of education centres that stretched across the whole of South Anglia. The education centres served all ages. For the under-sixteens, of course, attendance was voluntary, but there were few young people who did not turn up at least three days a week. For those over sixteen an accredited training course could be deducted from labour-hours, but the great majority of study was taken on as a form of leisure. The Museum provided courses and demonstrations at all levels, and every day groups of young people would visit to see the displays and participate in organised discussions. As Rhedyn used to say: ‘Young children love stories; and as they get older they move on from stories to history.’ There were theatres where pupils could stage their own dramatised versions of the Matins of Bruges, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolt or the Canadian Revolution of 2047. Older students were given access to documents and allowed to conduct their own research projects.
As for research, the Museum had, not only a massive library of microfilms, tapes and videos, but a huge collection of unpublished manuscripts – letters, diaries, handwritten autobiographies – which were still largely unsorted, awaiting the coming of more research staff, but which could provide the basis for an understanding of everyday life and individual biography in the past.
One fine May morning Rhedyn was walking through the Museum, accompanied by a group of eight twelve-year-old pupils, four boys and four girls; they had come for a class on the ‘history of democracy’, but in order to get to know them and establish a relaxed dynamic within the group, Rhedyn was first wandering around the Museum with them. They came to the Atrocity Gallery, or, as it was more properly titled, ‘Foundations of Civilisation’. Here a series of hologrammatic representations had been ingeniously arranged to produce striking optical effects. Visitors travelled on a slowly moving strip and as they approached the exhibits, the changing angle of vision caused each image to disintegrate and give way to a quite different picture. So a representation of Greek philosophers placidly discussing the nature of justice amid Doric columns gave way to an image of a slave in the fields being mercilessly flogged till the blood ran down his back. The glorious spires of a Renaissance cathedral faded to show the sweat running down Giordano Bruno’s face as he was burnt alive by order of the Inquisition for the sheer insolence of suggesting that the earth went round the sun. An elegant scene of flirtation from one of Jane Austen’s novels fragmented to reveal the hold of a slave-ship, where dead and living lay side by side amid their own excrement. Massive portraits of Marx and Lenin evaporated to show Russian purge victims queuing up by a lift to await execution and gaunt figures trudging through the snow in a Siberian labour camp.
Filmed images endlessly repeated the same pictures of anguish. Trains full of Jews were unloaded in Hitler’s death camps. A Vietnamese girl with burning napalm stuck to her flesh tried to tear it off with her bare finger-nails. British soldiers raped women in Malaya and shot children in Northern Ireland. For those who wanted further information there were screens by each image on which it was possible to dial up a succession of texts – relevant statistics and the rhetoric by which each and every atrocity was justified in the name of necessity and eventual good.
Rhedyn’s group came out of the Atrocity Gallery and moved into a hall labelled ‘Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century’. ‘Boring old twentieth century’, Rhedyn heard one of the boys say, but she made no comment. Here too there were hologrammatic images: a car-worker never-endingly fitted identical left windscreen-wipers to identical cars as they moved past him; a queue of unemployed women and men waited for their benefit in a squalid office; an old woman in ragged clothing wandered round a railway station looking for food in the refuse-baskets; a bunch of white youths set fire to a house where a black family was sleeping; a group of police beat up a homosexual man. Between the images were displayed pages from contemporary newspapers, showing drunken actors and smirking princesses.
As they came out of the Twentieth Century gallery, the party passed a small corridor leading off to the right. There were railings across the entrance and a notice reading ‘NO ENTRY TO UNAUTHORISED PERSONS’. Inevitably the pupils found this prohibition more intriguing than all the available displays. ‘What’s down there, Rhedyn?’ they asked. ‘Can we be authorised?’
‘There’s not a lot to see,’ said Rhedyn. ‘It’s the hunger simulator.’
‘What does it do?’
‘Well, I don’t suppose any of you have ever been hungry.’
‘Oh yes we have,’said a rather tubby girl. ‘I fancy my lunch now.’
‘Not like that,’ said Rhedyn. ‘I mean going for days without food, never having a proper diet, or even dying because there just isn’t any food. Now of course that doesn’t happen to people anywhere any more. But for hundreds and hundreds of years it happened to millions of people. So if historians want to know how people really lived in the past and what made them act the way they did we have to experience hunger. People go into the simulator entirely of their own free will; but once they’re in they aren’t allowed out again for the agreed period, and they get absolutely nothing to eat except for the agreed diet – whether it’s nothing at all, or one bowl of rice a day or a single fish finger for your evening meal. Of course there’s a medical adviser to make sure no-one actually dies or comes to serious harm.’
‘Is there anyone in there now?’ asked one of the boys.
‘Yes, there are two researchers in the simulator at the moment. One is a woman who’s writing a life of Bobby Sands. He was an Irish national liberation fighter who went on hunger strike in prison and starved himself to death. She hasn’t eaten any solid food for twenty-seven days so she’s a bit fragile. That’s why they don’t want sightseers wandering round.
‘The other’s a man who’s studying the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, when millions of people were starving. Some days he has nothing but bits of wood to gnaw.’
‘What did people in the rest of the world do when they were starving in Ethiopia?’ asked one of the girls.
‘Some rich singers organised a concert to persuade not-so-rich people to give money; and the not-so-rich people went to the concert to persuade themselves to give.’
‘Have you ever been in there, Rhedyn?’ asked another.
‘Yes, just once, but only for a week. I was studying a woman -Rachel Cook – whose husband was on strike. They had very little money, and she didn’t want her children to go short, so she just didn’t eat very much. I spent a week living on the same diet that she must have had. It was pretty rough but I survived. So did she.’
By now they had reached the room where the class was to be held. The eight pupils sat down in a semi-circle.
‘Right,’ said Rhedyn, ‘I’m going to show you a film.’ As the three-dimensional image appeared on the screen they saw a large, drably painted room with a few pictures, obviously drawn by young children, on the walls. A man in a long shabby grey raincoat walked in and approached a table behind which two women were sitting. He announced his name and address. The women found his name on a long printed list and gave him a small piece of paper. He walked across the room to where there was a shallow, open cubicle with a shelf running across the back wall. He stood in the cubicle for a minute or so, with only his back visible. Then he turned round and, dropping the piece of paper into a metal box, walked out of the room again.
‘Well,’ said Rhedyn, ‘what was he doing?’
One of the girls looked up and said, ‘I think he was having a piss.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said a boy. ‘The shelf was far too high up. He’d have ruptured himself reaching it.’
‘And how about all that stuff with the name and address? What was that for?’ asked another.
‘Well,’ said the girl who had spoken first, ‘everything was in short supply in the old days. Maybe you had to book in advance for when you thought you’d need it and then go and get a ticket.’
The girl sitting next to her winced. ‘I’m glad I didn’t live in those days.’
‘Come on,’ said Rhedyn, ‘this is serious. Have another try.’
One of the boys now spoke. ‘It must have been something they thought was disgusting, some dirty little secret, or why would he have stood in the cubicle with only his back showing? I think he was having a wank.’
‘No, no,’ Rhedyn smiled. ‘You’re all on completely the wrong strip. He was voting.’
The young people looked bemused, then began to laugh.
‘Voting? How can you vote all on your own?’
‘You can’t. It’d be like playing football on your own.’
‘Why was he so ashamed of it?’
‘What was he voting for, anyhow?’
‘Look,’ said one of the boys, ‘when you vote you have to have everybody together. We had a vote at the education centre last week. We decided to have classes later in the afternoon, so we could have Fridays off. We talked about it for a long time, then we all put our hands up and we all knew how everyone was voting because you’ – he pointed at one of the girls – ‘voted the wrong way.’
‘Yes I did,’ she replied, ‘I get headaches if the classes go on too long, and I don’t want to go cycling on Fridays.’
Gently, Rhedyn stopped them squabbling and started to explain, in simple terms, how parliamentary democracy had worked, with particular reference to the two-or-three-party system in Britain in the twentieth century.
When she had finished there was a flood of questions.
‘But what if you agreed with part of what one party said and part of what the other said?’
‘That,’ said Rhedyn, ‘was just bad luck. But it was worse than that. Both parties wanted to win elections; they weren’t trying to persuade people to think differently, but to adapt to what people thought already. Say the party that won the election thought nuclear energy was a good thing. The other party would say: Look, they won the election by arguing that. We must argue it too and maybe we’ll win the next one. So after a while you’d find both parties agreed on nearly everything.’
‘Did they keep the promises they made during elections?’
‘Hardly ever. There was always some excuse. Usually it was what they called economic circumstances. They used to think the economy – that is, how production was organised – was quite separate from politics, and that it was like the weather, you couldn’t have much control over it.’
‘And you couldn’t do anything to make them keep their promises?’
‘No, nothing. Sometimes a person would be elected for one party, and then hearshy would announce hearshy had changed hisrer mind and was joining the other party – or was forming a new one.’
‘And what happened to himrer?’
‘Nothing. You just had to wait for five years, and then you got another bit of paper to put a cross on.’
Rhedyn answered a series of further questions, then began to steer the discussion on to a comparison between the parliamentary system and how democracy worked nowadays. ‘Let’s take an example,’ she said. ‘There was a proposal put up at the local Assembly last month to increase the budget of the Historical Museum. Now that proposal goes forward…
* * *
‘So,’ said Rhedyn, ‘there I was telling these twelve-year-olds how perfect the system of democracy we have is, and all the time the Central Assembly’s meeting and I have no confidence it’s going to make the right decision.’
Rhedyn, Kulina and Huelva were having lunch together in one of the Museum restaurants.
‘I’m sure Chilgrove is putting our case as effectively as she can,’ said Huelva.
‘Chilgrove,’ snorted Rhedyn. ‘I cannot abide that woman. When I was bringing the youngsters down the Atrocity Gallery, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d like to see Chilgrove giving a realistic demonstration in one of those displays; being burnt alive maybe, or working on a slave plantation.’
‘Why do you hate Chilgrove so much?’ asked Huelva. ‘When she came to the meeting at the Museum a couple of weeks ago she was ever so sympathetic to what we’re doing. She promised to support our budget proposal, and she sounded very sincere.’
‘Sincere,’ said Rhedyn, ‘of course she did. She’s an expert at being sincere. That’s why she’s a problem. If people are obvious frauds or hypocrites they’re no danger to anyone. The working-class movement was held back for a hundred years by people who sounded sincere. But the only system that’s any good is one where you don’t have to rely on people being sincere.That’s what I should have told those youngsters this morning, instead of a lot of cliches.’
‘Yes, but what’s wrong with Chilgrove in particular?’ asked Kulina.
‘Well,’ said Rhedyn, ‘to begin with she’s so bad-tempered.’
Huelva and Kulina both began to laugh out loud. ‘I suppose it would be better if she was as placid as you are,’ grunted Huelva.
‘But the real thing,’ said Rhedyn, ‘is that I don’t know what she’s after. I’ve been worrying about this ever since the local Assembly last month. She’s after something and I don’t understand what it is.
‘It reminds me of something I only just realised a few days ago, when I was working on some old newspapers. When Labour politicians in the late twentieth century used the word ‘activist’, it was meant as a term of abuse. Somebody who went to lots of meetings and took an active interest in politics was by definition a dubious element; they wanted to put power in the hands of the people who stayed at home and got all their ideas from the television.
‘Now we’re supposed to have broken down that division between an active minority and a passive majority. But in a sense Chilgrove is still living back in the twentieth century. She wants to be an activist, a professional politician – and there’s no place for people like that in our system.’
‘The thing is,’ Kulina said, that she’s good at it. Good at speaking, good at chairing, good at persuading people to vote her way – people apart from Rhedyn, that is. Maybe she isn’t very good at designing carpets. She’d like to retrain as a politician.’
‘But we don’t have politicians,’ said Rhedyn. ‘It’s an obsolete trade, like being a lamplighter.’
‘It’s a pity, though, isn’t it?’ said Kulina. ‘You’d be so good at it yourself, Rhedyn. When I first heard you speak at the Assembly, I thought this is one of the great orators of world history, like Demosthenes or Trotsky.’
Kulina was playing about, and his words were spoken with an obvious irony. But he was also taking the opportunity to flatter Rhedyn in a way which he couldn’t have done straight. Rhedyn laughed. She had taken the argument about Chilgrove as far as it would go and she was glad to let the conversation drift down to a lower level. ‘That’s very kind of you,’ she said, ‘would you like my autograph.’
Huelva, however, glared at them both and stood up. ‘I have to go, I have some students to meet.’
‘Now what’s the matter with her?’ said Rhedyn, as Huelva hurried away. ‘Her students aren’t due for another twenty-five minutes.’
* * *
The Research Wing of the Museum housed vast stores of microfilms, documents and now tapes. The founding principle of the team that had built up the Museum, two generations ago, was that history is made by the masses, but that masses are composed of individuals. Thus, they used to argue, on that fateful day in July 1789, when the Paris crowd stormed the Bastille, there had been no conspiracy, no ‘outside agitators’ who had planned the operation in advance. In that sense it had been spontaneous. But thousands of people had not, by some magical process of thought transference, simultaneously decided to storm the Bastille. Individuals within the crowd had come to the idea and persuaded their fellows of it. Who were those individuals and how had they come to the idea? What had been the factors in their childhood or their work experience that had given them the idea and the articulacy to argue for it? Had they come into contact with socialist or radical ideas? Had they previously been involved in strikes or riots? Did they remember the riots against Turbot thirteen years earlier?
Questions like this could be asked, not just about the storming of the Bastille, but about all the molecules that made up human history, and especially the three centuries of social conflict that had preceded the great social revolutions of the mid-twenty-first century. So the Historical Museum’s research programme centred on biographies – biographies of the rank and file, of the individuals who were unnamed in the traditional histories, but who had constituted the army that fought the class war, who had made the strikes, the riots and the mass demonstrations. The ‘great names’, the Churchills, Stalins, Hitlers and Maos, appeared only as part of the background and as points of reference. At the moment the Museum had four major research projects – on British responses to the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, on opposition to the First World War and on peace and ecological movements in the later twentieth century. The George Cook project, on which Rhedyn, Kulina and Huelva were currently working as part of a team of twelve, was a pilot study for a major research effort on the twentieth-century labour movement, which would go ahead if the budget permitted an increase in staffing.
The Research Wing also provided training for apprentice historians, and regular lectures on methodology and the philosophy of history were held. Kulina was already a guild-registered historian, but he found the philosophy of history fascinating and used to arrange his schedule so that he could attend Boblainy’s lectures. Boblainy was a veteran who had been involved in the Museum since its foundation and never wearied of discussing with the younger historians what the Museum was doing and why it was doing it. This afternoon, after his lunch with Rhedyn and Huelva, Kulina had come to hear a lecture on ‘Theories of History’.
‘Until the eighteenth century,’ Boblainy began, ‘there were two main views of history. One was very simple. It said that history was all planned in advance by God. It was like reading a book where you know in advance that there’s going to be a happy ending. What you decided to do could be very important from your point of view – if you chose the wrong side you might end up being fried in hell for all eternity – but it couldn’t possibly make any difference to history. That had all been stitched up in advance.
‘The other view was that history was a shambles, just a collection of meaningless accidents. This was summed up by Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century – one of the most intelligent reactionaries that ever lived. When Oliver Cromwell died Pascal wrote that a grain of sand in his ureter had changed the course of history.
‘Now the important thing to remember is that this was a religious view too. If history was a set of accidents outside our control, then there was nothing for us to do but pray for divine Grace. Remember that Pascal was an arch-reactionary who had been terrified by Cromwell and was very glad he was dead. If the apparent accident was an act of God, so much the better.
‘The philosophers of the Enlightenment began to sketch out a third view. For them history made sense, even though it wasn’t planned by any superhuman agency. They developed what was, admittedly, a rather naive notion of Progress. Hegel took the argument a step forward. He introduced the concept of contradiction into history. Things weren’t simply getting better or getting worse. They were getting better and worse at the same time. For instance, it was the really bad things that industrial capitalism produced – war, pollution, huge ugly factories – that made it possible to go beyond that economic system to something better. And then Marx took the argument even further.’
Boblainy paused briefly. He was over ninety years old, but he was still an agile lecturer, and spoke without any notes to guide him. He had paused for dramatic effect, not because he was having any difficulty in keeping going. Kulina looked round the hundred or so people in the lecture-hall. Perhaps half were apprentices and other Museum staff, the other half interested outsiders. Kulina noticed in a corner a young cook from an artisan restaurant where he had eaten the previous week.
Boblainy looked up and continued: ‘Now you probably all know Marx’s famous formula – I’ll quote from one of the new translations:
Human beings make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.
‘Now, unlike the religious view, this means that what human beings do is important. History is invented by people, just as a story is invented by its narrator. So history is the sum total of human actions; of choices made in particular situations, but just because they’re in situation, they’re meaningful.
‘Now, of course, this still leaves us with a lot of problems. If history makes sense, if it’s logical, then is it inevitable? Could things have been different to what they were?
‘In the old days people used to argue about whether socialism was inevitable. Perhaps wisely, they decided to wait and see, to leave it up to history to produce an answer. But on that score history had no answers for them. The arguments simply continued. If the Russian Revolution had spread to Germany in 1923 would history have simply jumped a hundred years, avoided a whole brutal and boring century, and moved straight into the stage we were at about fifty years ago? For that matter, were the great social revolutions of the twenty-first century inevitable, or could they have been postponed more or less indefinitely? These are questions on which historians have had a lot to say, and I’m sure that when some of the apprentices here are qualified, they’ll want to join in the argument.
‘So I won’t try to resolve it now, but simply take up one point. If Hegel and Marx were right, if history is a single, interconnected process, then the past and the present are all part of the same totality. We can’t understand the past without the present, and we can’t understand the present without a knowledge of the past. That’s why some of us worked to build up this Museum. Not because we were running away into the past, as they used to accuse us of doing, but because we wanted to understand the present; understand it in order to change it.’
Boblainy now went into a set of detailed examples, showing how the past could illuminate the present and vice versa. Kulina listened to the rest of the lecture, still wrestling with the problem his own research was throwing up: had George Cook been an agent of history or simply its victim?
When the lecture was over Kulina went back to one of the rooms set aside for the Cook project. Rhedyn was already there, but she was immersed in a pile of papers and he did not speak to her. Switching on the small telescreen on his table, he scanned a long list of titles and numbers, then pressed a few buttons on a panel to his left. Seconds later a small capsule popped up from a tube attached to the table. It was a reel of microfilm labelled North London Weekly Standard, 1967. Kulina fitted the reel into a slot behind the screen and jabbed some more buttons. The date Friday, 19 May, 1967 appeared on the screen. Then the mechanism behind the screen whirred and clicked for about fifteen seconds, and out slid a printed facsimile of the required newspaper, on off-white twentieth-century paper, neatly folded, looking exactly as it must have done when the paper-boy shoved it through George Cook’s front door a century and a half before.
Kulina looked through the pages of the paper: ‘Arsenal centre-half strains tendon on South American tour’; ‘North London man meets the Queen’; ‘Flower show winners – full list’. At last he found what he was looking for – a small press statement issued by George Cook, Secretary of the local Trades Council, deploring the decision of the Labour local authority to make substantial increases in council rents. Kulina cut out the item neatly, and inserted it into a loose-leaf volume in which he was accumulating similar cuttings. Then he picked up the rest of the newspaper and turned to the right of his table, where there was a large oblong slit protected by wire grating. Kulina lifted the flap and dropped the paper in, whereupon it was whirled away on a current of warm air to the paper recycling machinery hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
Kulina carried on with similar work until about five o’clock. Then he caught Rhedyn’s eye, and since she was weary too they stopped work and began to talk.
‘Have we got the next batch of phone tapes sorted yet?’ Kulina asked.
‘Yes, said Rhedyn, ‘We’ll be able to call them up on the tubes as from tomorrow. There’s an awful lot of work here; I’m glad we’ve got you on the team to share the burden. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – George didn’t have a phone until 1961, so we only have tapes from that period of his life on. They seem to have started tapping almost immediately. Of course before that there were the calls he made from public kiosks to John Mitchell. He was the local Communist Party organiser, so his phone was tapped all along.’
‘Have you listened to any of them yet?’ asked Kulina.
‘Only a sample,’ said Rhedyn. ‘It’s going to be a laborious job, you know. After George’s father died his mother moved to Surrey, and he used to spend about an hour every Sunday talking to her on the phone. She did rather ramble on. I feel a bit sorry for the cop who had to listen to it all.’
‘Yet I suppose,’ Kulina said thoughtfully, ‘we ought to be grateful to the police. In earlier periods people wrote letters. Voltaire wrote twenty thousand, and Lewis Carroll wrote and got ninety-eight thousand. Invaluable historical documents. Once the phone was invented people stopped writing letters. If it wasn’t for the phone-tapping we’d have less sources of information about the twentieth century than about the eighteenth.’
‘Yes,’ Rhedyn agreed, ‘but it must have been pretty horrible knowing you had no privacy. Imagine making an erotic phone-call and knowing there was a policeman listening – even jacking himself off. When you think of the extent of the phone-tapping, and the other forms of surveillance they developed later – bugging, long-distance cameras and so on, you wonder what it must have been like. Activists had to live on the assumption that every sound they made was overheard and every movement scrutinised.
‘But,’ Kulina said, ‘it didn’t do the police a lot of good. That came out of some of the work I was doing on the late twentieth-century miners’ strikes. The police had an awful lot of information, but some people at the time overestimated them enormously. First of all, they had much too much information. They were watching three million people by the late twentieth century, just in Britain. Now as historians of the period we know very well there weren’t three million dangerous revolutionaries around at the time. Maybe there were three thousand, but the police didn’t know which ones they were. Even if you had a fascist coup, like in Chile in 1973, you couldn’t round up three million people. They probably didn’t even have time to listen to half the tapes they recorded.
‘And what’s more, the ones they did listen to they couldn’t understand. Because the police could never understand how left-wingers operated. They thought in terms of conspiracies and corruption and infiltration – because that was how they operated. The things that really mattered for the left – ideas and collective action – they just couldn’t understand.’
‘How about you?’ asked Rhedyn. ‘You’ve been working on George Cook for five weeks now. Do you think you’ve begun to understand him yet?’
‘Some things,’ said Kulina, ‘but I’m still finding it difficult. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with an awful lot of pieces. How about you? You’ve been on the project since the beginning? Do you understand him?
‘Some things I still find hard,’ Rhedyn replied. ‘Like why he stayed with one woman for so long – or rather why she stayed with him. Cooped up in a tiny house. Maybe it’s easier for you to understand something like that, having been brought up a in a nuke. But in general, yes, I think I know what George was after. In fact, I think I understand him a lot better than I do Chilgrove…’
* * *
At eight thirty the next morning Rhedyn was on the strips. She was in a good mood; the previous evening she’d seen the video of the Central Assembly, and the news was reasonably good. She had a class later on in the morning, but first she was due to interview a young man who wanted to become an apprentice historian.
At nine o’clock she was seated in one of the small interview rooms when Richmond came in. He had fair, undyed hair, bright eyes and a slight down on his unshaven cheeks. I’m old enough to have borne him, thought Rhedyn ruefully. He has eighty years ahead of him, perhaps even, if medical science goes on advancing the way it has been, a hundred or more.
Richmond explained the situation. He was just sixteen and was due to move on to a full twenty-hour labour schedule. He was keen to become a guild-registered historian. This would take four or five years, and until then he would have to do eight hours a week of general unskilled work, but if he was a supervised apprentice at the Museum that would be credited as twelve labour-hours – in addition to which, of course, he could spend as much time as he liked using the Museum’s resources.
Rhedyn welcomed him. ‘Hopefully,, if we get our budget increase, there’ll be no problem about finding a job for you when you’re qualified. But take it slowly. You have your whole life ahead of you. Of course we’ll let you look at the documents we’re working on and you can give us a hand. But don’t try to specialise too soon. Read as widely as you can – the Babylonians, the Mayas, the Comintern, everything. Get a sense of history as a totality. Then you can specialise. You’ve got time.’
‘You’re right,’ said Richmond. ‘I’ll try and do as you say. But I’m fascinated by the twentieth century and I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about it. Though there are some things I’m finding it hard to grasp. Can you spare a few minutes to help me with them?’
‘The first thing I can’t get the hang of is names. I know everyone had two names, one was their own and one was their family’s. But I don’t understand when you used which name.’
‘It is complicated,’ said Rhedyn, ‘because it wasn’t just a question of names; it was a question of power. So the factory manager might call a worker ‘George’, but the worker would call the manager ‘Mr Patterson’. If you got it wrong you could get into a lot of trouble. Women, of course, used to have their husbands’ names. So when we’re researching into Rachel Cook we have to remember that until 1946 she was Rachel Sale, then Rachel Cook – then in the 1970s she started calling herself Rachel Sale again. Some women never used their husbands’ names, but that was usually if they had their own job. Mervyn Clifton’s wife always called herself Ruth Walder. Once when she was in hospital she saw a label saying ‘Ruth Clifton’ and she thought she’d got into the wrong bed.
‘And of course some names were more important than others. Political leaders – like Stalin or Molotov – had towns and mountains and rivers named after them; and then when they fell out of favour the names were changed again. Of course that’s the exact opposite of what we do now. They called places after people; we call people after places. With no bosses and no families one name is quite enough – and that comes out of the gazetteer computer as soon as you’re born.’
‘The family’s another thing I find confusing. I mean, I grasp the technicalities of the structure, but I don’t see the point of the whole thing. I understand how: I don’t understand why.’
‘I’m sure,’ said Rhedyn, ‘that you’ve known some people who were brought up in nukes.’
‘Oh yes, there were a couple of girls at the education centre.’
‘Well. you simply imagine a world where almost everybody lived in nukes. The real reason behind it was child-care. Just think what it was like looking after children in the old days. Feeding them, scraping the turd off them, stopping them sticking their fingers in the electric sockets, sitting up all night when they were sick. For the parents – and ninety-five per cent of the time that meant the mothers – that might be forty, sixty, eighty hours a week. How do you get them to do it, without even paying them for it? There was only one way they could be persuaded; they had to believe in something called Love. Parents loved their children; children loved their parents. Any woman who didn’t love her children, or who didn’t want children to love, was supposed to be abnormal. And it was supposed to stay with you all your life; wherever you were, you wrote home to your mother and longed to see her again. It’s hard to understand, isn’t it? I’m in touch with one man who was in the cluster I grew up in; where the rest of them are I’ve no idea.
‘What changed it all was technology. The cooking and cleaning was done by machines, there was better health care and educational provision. So nowadays we reckon that in an average cluster with twenty adults and five children the adults spend about five hours a week each on the children – and some of that’s the more pleasant jobs, like talking to them, playing with them, teaching them… That’s why people who opt to live in childless clusters have to do an extra five labour-hours a week.’
‘I keep forgetting how important wealth and poverty used to be,’ Richmond said. ‘It’s so hard to grasp. I’ve spent a lot of time in the twentieth-century galleries, looking at all the different films and photographs, and the contrasts are just incomprehensible. All those flashy decorations in banks and children living in filthy slums. And beggars on the streets. I can’t understand what someone would think if a beggar came up to himrer.’
Rhedyn shuffled through a pile of papers on the table beside her. ‘It’s funny you should say that. I just took a note of a passage in George Cook’s diary where he mentioned meeting a beggar:
‘On Tuesday evening a bloke came up to me. He said he had no job, no benefit and couldn’t afford a meal. I just said “Sorry mate”, because I was a bit short myself. But afterwards I felt really guilty. I know you can’t give to everyone and I know it isn’t the answer, but I did have enough for a pint of beer that evening. I kept thinking about it all the next day.’
‘Unemployment’s another thing I can’t get my head round,’ said Richmond. ‘There were unemployed building workers at the same time as people with no homes. I mean, I know there was a clash of interests in society, but I don’t see how that was in anybody’s interests.’
Patiently, Rhedyn began to explain how everything had been determined by competition and the profit motive. And how people had believed that without the profit motive the whole system would fall to pieces. Richmond’s face started to go blank as she tried to explain the concept of ‘incentive’ – how the rich were said to need huge incentives, far more than they could ever consume, before they could be expected to compete successfully. Yet at the same time the poor were lectured about the need for sacrifice. Obviously, Rhedyn pointed out, the poor were recognised to be much more virtuous than the rich…
* * *
Rhedyn’s class this morning was with eight-year-olds – ‘Introduction to Inequality’. The main point of the exercise was to explain what money had been. Rhedyn did this mainly by means of a game; she distributed toy money in sharply differing quantities, and then the children were able – or in some cases not able – to buy sweets from each other. As usual the children had large numbers of questions to ask.
‘Is it true,’ one rather earnest little boy enquired, ‘that two hundred years ago people got treated different because of the colour of their hair; that if you had dark hair you got less money and people called you nasty names and you couldn’t get some jobs and in some countries you had to go on different buses and…?’
A smile spread across Rhedyn’s black face. ‘You’re nearly right,’ she said, only it was skin, not hair.’ And she started to tell the children about racism, about slavery and apartheid, about the German Nazis and their British imitators. Rhedyn, as we have seen, was prone to anger easily, but she rarely became enraged when teaching. Now, however, as she recounted the squalid, brutal history of racism, the fury welled up inside her and during the pauses when the children were asking questions her sharp teeth bit into the patch of hard skin on the back of her right hand.
* * *
Rhedyn had calmed down somewhat by the time she joined Kulina and Huelva at the lunch-table. Huelva, looking excited, greeted her:
‘Have you heard the news?’
‘I’ve seen the video of the Central Assembly, if that’s what you mean,’ Rhedyn replied. ‘Our proposal is on a short-list of four for further consideration.’
‘No, not just that,’ said Huelva. ‘You know Pignola’s also on the short-list.’
‘Well, he’s really getting organised. He’s formed a campaign group to support his proposal. They’re called the Hedonists. They’ve done leaflets explaining their proposals which are being given out all over the place. And Pignola was on television last night arguing his point of view; and as you know he can be pretty impressive.’
Rhedyn looked glum. ‘That’s bad news. How can we compete with that sort of tactic? Because Pignola’s proposal is obviously a lot more superficially attractive than ours.’
Kulina looked up enquiringly: ‘So it isn’t only individuals that you don’t trust. You don’t seem to trust democracy either.’
‘No,’ Rhedyn answered, ‘I didn’t say that. But it’s going to be a hard argument to win…’