It was a bright cold day in April, and all over London clocks showed that it was exactly eight o’clock in the morning. Kulina rolled out of bed, went to the window, looked out at the strips below, still relatively empty, and then at the fine panorama of the city beyond.
Drowsily, Kulina thought of the story that could be told about London. To anyone who had known the city in one of its earlier avatars – in the days of the great plague and fire, when the filthy Victorian slums were shrouded in fog, when German bombs were tearing the city apart, or during the repeated rioting of the last two decades of the twentieth century – its appearance in the year 2117 would have presented some surprises. Some familiar landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, St Pancras Station – still stood, and the Thames, almost transparently clean, still flowed across the city, but much of what had given the city its character in earlier days was now erased. The area that housed London’s two million inhabitants had the appearance of a gigantic chess-board coloured in grey and green. Clumps of grey buildings, clean and geometrical, alternated with large patches of open green – parks where, even at this early hour, children and adults engaged in informal sport, and farms where large herds of animals grazed. And all across the city, like arteries bringing blood to a living body, ran the strips.
To those who had known London in the days of stage-coaches, broughams or festering traffic-jams, the strips would have represented the most striking innovation. Sometimes still known as the Heinlein strips – in honour of their inventor who, in the early twenty-first century, had pioneered their use against the vicious opposition of the car manufacturers and the road transport industry – they had replaced, with a few minor exceptions, all other forms of transport in the city.
Alongside the clumps of buildings five strips, or moving pavements, ran in parallel. The first, broad enough for two people walking side by side, moved at a sedate ten miles per hour, so that it was easy to step on to it from stationary ground. The second strip ran at twenty miles per hour, the third at thirty, and the fourth at forty. The fifth strip, considerably broader than the others, carried covered cabins and seats. Beyond the fifth strip was a softly padded bank, so that anyone who should fall over the rails need fear no serious injury. The bank was surmounted by a wall, which citizens were allowed, and indeed encouraged, to decorate with designs and slogans of their choice. On the far side of the wall ran similar strips going in the opposite direction. There were frequent underpasses for anyone wishing to change direction. Where one set of strips ran above another at right angles, a set of escalators made transfer simple. In the open spaces only the fifty-mile-per-hour strip ran. By means of the strips, which, except in the rare case of accident, never halted by day or by night, it was possible to go from one side of London to the other in no more than half an hour. Airports and railway stations (St Pancras now being a museum) stood on the periphery of the city, and were easily reached by the strips.
Kulina withdrew from the window in favour of the demanding task of dressing up nicely for what looked like being a rather special occasion. At this hour the strips were relatively empty. Coming along the thirty-mile-per-hour strip was an old woman, sprightly and erect but looking rather fragile. Ahead of her there appeared out of the park two boys, apparently about thirteen years of age, who leapt on to the strips and began to cavort about in boisterous fashion. They had, it transpired, invented a new game; running along the twenty-mile-per-hour strip, then leaping sideways right across the intervening strip to land on the one going at forty miles per hour. On the first few occasions they succeeded, with a considerable display of agility, in preserving their balance, but then the shorter of the two boys stumbled on landing and lurched back on to the thirty-mile-per-hour strip, colliding with the old woman who collapsed with a cry of pain.
She had scarcely hit the strip when four figures, two male and two female, appeared on the scene. Their red armbands showed that they were Strip Guards. The two men rapidly but gently slid a collapsible stretcher under the old woman and lifted her clear of the strips on to a patch of flat ground. One of the two gazed up into the sky for an instant, then pulled a small flat box, the size of a pocket calculator, from his pocket and jabbed the buttons on it.
Meanwhile the other was examining the old woman.
‘Are you in pain, citizen?’ he asked.
‘My leg,’ she answered, clearly but feebly, ‘just my left leg.’
‘How old are you, citizen?’
‘Eighty-seven. The trouble is that I’m supposed to be at work this morning, at the power-station. Can you let them know I can’t come? The name’s Yarnscombe.’
By now an ambulance helicopter was hovering a few feet overhead. Straps were lowered and attached to the corners of the stretcher, which was raised into the helicopter. As the ambulance disappeared into the sky the Strip Guard who had examined the woman turned to his mate and said:
‘Looked like a broken leg to me. At that age it can take a week to mend. Anyhow, I’d better let the power-station know. She’ll only be doing three hours a week, so I expect they’ll get by without her.’
So saying he pulled a small mouthpiece from his pocket, prodded a few buttons and proceeded to pass on the message.
Meanwhile there had been some more lively action back on the strips. When the old woman had first fallen, the two boys responsible for the accident had simply stood and stared in a rather bemused fashion. Then, when the two female Strip Guards approached them they suddenly took fright, leapt over to the fast strip and began to run away as fast as their legs would take them. One of the Guards cast a rapid eye along the strips, which were virtually empty, and produced a small box similar to that her colleague had used to summon the ambulance. She jabbed a few keys, and immediately the whole stretch of fast strip slowed down, halted for a second, and then began to move in reverse. Before the boys had realised what was happening, they found themselves vainly trying to run away on a strip that was moving in the wrong direction; within a few seconds they were in the waiting grasp of the Strip Guards. They were led to the adjoining pavement, and the strips were put back into normal motion. Then one of the Strip Guards, firmly but with no trace of viciousness, began to question the two boys as to how the accident had happened.
‘We were only having a bit of fun,’ said one.
‘There’s nowhere much you can have fun round here,’ muttered the other.
‘Fun,’ repeated the Strip Guard. ‘You think it’s fun sending old women to the health centre. I’d have thought there were plenty of opportunities for having fun. There’s the park just by here, and two museums not far away.’
Museums,’ mumbled the first boy. ‘Boring.’
‘Well,’ continued the Strip Guard,’it’s up to the Jury what will happen to you. But I should think it’ll be a hundred hours of community labour each.’
The boys gave their names – Kurgan and Asslar – and their identity numbers, and were sent on their way. The Strip Guard turned to her mate with a worried look and said:
‘That’s the third accident in London this year. There’ll be an enquiry.’
‘No-one killed, though. No-one’s been killed in London for four years.’
‘No, but one old fellow had his arm off. Getting used to a plastic arm and a computer-hand can’t be very enjoyable when you’re over ninety.’
‘Do you think they’ll bring it up at the Assembly this morning?’
‘Oh no, it’s not that serious. But we’d better call a meeting to discuss safety improvements.’
By now the strips were beginning to fill up with people going to work for nine o’clock, and the four Strip Guards disappeared back into their control room.
* * *
It was nine o’clock. Kulina had bathed and breakfasted, and was clad in a striking red and green gown. A few dabs of unobtrusive perfume, a glance in the mirror at neat curly hair, and all was ready for what looked like being an interesting day.
The music being played on the juke-speaker came to its final bars. Like most music nowadays, it was the product of a collective who had written and played it; the old distinction between composer and performer had virtually disappeared. Kulina reached out a delicate wrist to the control buttons, then hesitated. Was there time for another tune? (The juke-speaker had a hundred thousand listed pieces of music which it would play as soon as the appropriate five-digit code-number was pressed. The list included the classics of the past, from Berlioz to Diana Ross, as well as the more popular pieces of contemporary music. Anyone could make a recording and deposit it at the central Music Library; if the record was requested for copying more than a certain number of times it would be incorporated in the juke-speaker list. If you wanted something more esoteric – say Scarlatti or Major Lance – you had to call up the central computer at the Music Library, and that meant waiting two or three minutes for your music.) No, there wasn’t time. It was past nine o’clock; the Assembly started at ten, and there was some shopping to be done first.
There was a food-store just opposite Kulina’s home, so there was no need to take the strip. There were three grades of butter on display, of which Kulina chose the one with the lowest fat content, and put it in the bag alongside a frozen kebab which could be cooked in thirty seconds in the revitalising oven. Eggs were graded by size; Kulina took four, then realised that was probably too much and put one back. Grapes were stocked in a dispenser, alongside which stood a notice reading: ‘Due to poor harvests in the Middle East citizens are allowed a maximum of one pound of grapes every two days. Please insert ration card.’ Kulina had been in London for only two days, and had a clean card. The dispenser quickly scanned the plastic for previous acquisitions, coded in a magnetic record of one pound of grapes, and delivered the neatly wrapped fruit.
The store attendant watched Kulina leave. He was so bored he almost wished someone would start deliberately smashing eggs or try to cheat with a ration card. Fortunately the week was nearly over, and next week he was on cake design, which was considerably more fun. As more customers came and went with full shopping-bags, his head began to fill with pictorial designs in multi-coloured icing.
* * *
Having unloaded the shopping, Kulina rode the strip to the hall where the Assembly was to meet. It was only quarter to ten, but already quite a large number of delegates and observers were gathering outside.
At the top of the steps Kulina recognised a burly figure, dressed in a red shirt and black trousers. It was Rhedyn, whom Kulina had met the previous day on arrival at the Historical Museum.
‘Hello,’ called Rhedyn, ‘Come and join us.’
Kulina went up the steps and greeted Rhedyn.
‘This is Huelva,’ said Rhedyn,’ who’s working with me on the Cook Project. There are four other delegates from the Museum, who should be along soon.’
Kulina grinned at Huelva, who smiled back rather unenthusiastically.
Rhedyn continued: ‘I hope you don’t find the Assembly too boring. I thought with you being new to London it would help you to get a feel for the community. And of course the discussion after lunch is particularly important for the Museum. There’ll be plenty of room in the observers’ gallery; most people who want to see the Assembly in detail prefer to watch a video, then they can speed up the boring speeches.’
‘I’m sure I’ll find it very valuable,’said Kulina. ‘Is there anything special I should know, about the procedure, or the people who’ll be there?’
‘As far as I know the structure’s pretty much the same as in Yorkshire. Delegates are elected by plenary meetings in the various workplaces, on the basis of one per two hundred. Everyone over twelve votes. So we’ve got six delegates from the Historical Museum. There’s a large food preparation and distribution centre just down the strip from here, and also quite a big health centre. And a major power-station, relaying electricity in from the tidal power-plant on the Essex coast. Quite a few park-workers – I don’t suppose you’ve seen the floral display just over the road; people locally are very proud of it. And of course there are a lot of Strip Guards. And several other smaller workplaces, Altogether there’ll be about two hundred and fifty delegates here today. And at the end of the afternoon we elect our delegate to the Central Assembly. I think Huelva has some ambition in that respect.’
Huelva scowled and said nothing.’
‘There are a hundred and ninety-eight Local Assemblies altogether in the South Anglian Republic,’ Rhedyn continued,’ and they each send one delegate to the Central Assembly, which makes the final decisions…in the context of the World Plan, of course.’
‘How often does the Assembly meet?’ asked Kulina.
‘On average, every couple of months. We had quite a lively meeting in February on local facilities, but today the whole meeting has been set aside for the draft budget. Then in June we’ll get a report-back from the Central Assembly. Then there’s nothing scheduled till October. But there are special meetings if there’s an emergency…or, of course,’ Rhedyn added as an afterthought, ‘if ten per cent of the delegates demand one.’
‘By the way,’ Huelva interrupted, ‘I have a message for you from Old Squeaky. The 1965 tapes are apparently ready now.’
‘Excellent,’ said Rhedyn, and seeing Kulina’s puzzled look, added, ‘One of our colleagues at the Museum. His real name’s Greenock,but we call him Old Squeaky. He was castrated for rape under the old laws about sixty years ago, but he’s a harmless enough old boy now.
Delegates had now begun to take their places. Kulina easily found a seat in the observers’ gallery, and at about three minutes after ten the session began. A young citizen came up to the table at the front and asked for nominations for someone to chair the morning session. Kulina had seen similar situations before, and expected two or three minutes of embarrassed silence while individuals nudged their neighbours and asked them if they wanted to do the job. But immediately from three different parts of the room voices called out: ‘Nominate Chilgrove.’ The young citizen asked if there were any other nominations. Kulina could see Rhedyn frowning unhappily, but no other names were put forward. Chilgrove, a tall figure in a dark suit, strode self-confidently to the table and opened the meeting with the practised air of one who had done the job many times before.
‘You’ve all received the agenda for today’s Assembly,’ announced Chilgrove. ‘If any citizen wishes to propose an amendment to it, hearshy should make hisrer proposal now. Otherwise I’ll call Groningen to introduce the budget report.’
There were no changes to the agenda, and Groningen, a cook from one of the artisan restaurants, came forward to introduce the debate on the budget. She did not, it must be said, do it very well, spending too much time repeating cliches that were undoubtedly familiar to everyone in the room – the need for conscious economic planning as the only way to rationally maximise the use of resources; the importance of getting a balance between maximum centralisation in drawing up a broad plan and maximum decentralisation in implementing the details; the fact that planning was impossible unless all those engaged in production – the whole population – were actively involved in formulating the plan. Some people were beginning to yawn at these tired platitudes, but fortunately Groningen did not go on too long. Then she stepped aside and a huge screen was raised over the table so that the budget video, prepared by the statistical office of the Central Assembly, could be seen.
The video,which combined vivid diagrammatical presentations with film extracts from around the world, was rather more entertaining. It began with an outline of the World Plan and its major objectives. On the first item, food supply, the news was generally good. The Fifty-Year Plans for agriculture in Africa and Asia were due to reach completion in 2123, and although there were still some short-term difficulties – like the recent poor harvests in the Middle East – it could now be said that the very idea of food shortage was an out-dated one that belonged back in the twenty-first century along with electric cars.
The second major international programme, the Depollution Plan, was causing more trouble. The restoration of the ozone layer was proving trickier than had been thought, and it was going to be necessary to increase the budget in this area. Nuclear decontamination was also turning out to be surprisingly intractable; the legacy of ninety years of nuclear power and nuclear testing was not easy to dispose of. A technique had now been found for neutralising radioactivity, but it was expensive in time and resources. The level of background radiation was still unacceptably high and, worse still, some of the nuclear waste dumped a hundred years ago had not yet been located. The international programme was therefore being stepped up, and there would be an increased levy on autonomous republics.
Then the video moved on to present the budget for South Anglia. It was now two years since the Forty-Year Plan had been completed, but production was still continuing within the general framework set out by the Plan. Food supplies were entirely satisfactory, and apart from a few items that came from long distances there would be no need for rationing. Clothing supplies would be slightly up on the previous year; since the housing stock was now adequate only renewal and maintenance work was necessary. It had been agreed two years ago that the population should remain at roughly the same level,and birth and death figures up to the start of April indicated that this aim was being achieved. On power too the news was good. About fifteen years ago it had been decided to wind down the Solar Power project (the method had been highly successful in Southern Europe and Africa but had proved unsatisfactory in the British Isles); this task had now been completed and a series of tidal power-stations provided all the energy needed in South Anglia.
But all this was preliminary. The real issue was the projected budget for the next calendar year. The draft was now ready, although it would not be finalised till September, to allow adequate time for reference-back and consultation if there were disagreements. The proposals were clearly set out, first in figures and then in diagrams. South Anglia had something over eleven million inhabitants. At the present time the standard working-week was twenty hours, with appropriate reductions for those under sixteen and over sixty, or those doing offensive work. Making allowances for extended holidays this gave a total of something under five thousand million labour hours. Productivity increases had been small over the last year, since there had been no major change in the automated processes used. There had been some decline in demand at the health centres, due to better health standards, but this was largely outweighed by the increase in the life-span. As a result the total number of labour-hours required for the coming year would be only a few tens of thousands per week less than the previous year, far too little to permit any overall reduction in the working-week. It did mean, however, that there would be room for some expansion in the cultural and research budgets, and that would be the main topic for the afternoon session. Once the video was over, Groningen made a few remarks, mainly repeating what had already been said in the video. Then Chilgrove intoned:
‘The discussion is now open to the floor. If any citizen wishes to speak, hearshy should indicate in the normal way. In order to get in as many contributions as possible, I will limit himrer to five minutes.’
In fact the limitation seemed to be nugatory, for some minutes passed without any hand being raised. Kulina saw Rhedyn whispering urgently to Huelva, but Huelva just gave an unwilling shake of the head. Eventually two or three speakers came to the front and made short contributions about the depollution programme. One woman stressed the fact that the radiation level was still unacceptably high, and went on to point out that cancer, which was directly attributable to radiation, was still a serious health problem. ‘Just because people don’t die of it any more,’ she said, ‘we mustn’t forget it still causes a lot of misery and distress. A friend of mind was in the health centre for four weeks not long ago. We must give depollution greater priority.’
There was some desultory applause. Then a very old man strode up to the table. The looks of respect he received indicated that he was a long-standing veteran, someone who had been around before the present order was established, and who had been in politics when there was still such a thing.
‘Citizens,’ he said, ‘I’m not going to quote Marx like we used to do in the old days before the party was dissolved. But we have to remember that the changes we’re trying to make in the superstructure all depend on the economic base.’ He went on to give a number of comparisons between production levels and living standards in the first half of the twenty-first century and those just outlined in the budget video. It was familiar material and the applause he received was more a tribute to his personal record than to any interest he had aroused.
The next speaker was a young delegate from the carpet factory where Chilgrove worked. ‘Citizens,’ he began, ‘just because we are legitimately proud of progress in productivity and living standards, we can’t afford to neglect the question of waste. Let me give you some examples. Firstly, at every health centre in South Anglia there are abortion facilities. Yet in many cases these are not used so much as once in a whole year. Surely at least some of these could be eliminated…’
He went on to list a number of other areas of waste, but nobody much was listening. About eight women were frantically waving their arms, trying to catch Chilgrove’s attention. The first one called, a young woman dressed in green leather, stalked to the front and declared:
‘Citizens, it’s true that since we perfected the post-coital pill, and eliminated all the side-effects, there’s been a lot less demand for abortion. But circumstances change and women change their minds. Women still bear children, and until that job’s automated we have a right to control our situation – just like every person here expects to control hisrer work situation. You can’t expect a pregnant woman to trail half way across the country to find a specialised abortion centre as if she had a rare disease like arthritis.’
A few other speeches in the same vein followed; but the young carpet-maker was clearly on his own on this issue, and the excitement soon died down, leaving the meeting if anything more lethargic than before. Huelva, whom Rhedyn had been constantly nudging, finally made a brief contribution about how important it was to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the expansion of the cultural budget, but it was rather a flat little speech, delivered with great nervousness. Nothing, it seemed, could save the meeting from apathy, and although the morning session was scheduled to finish at one, at 12.45 Chilgrove mercifully called it to a halt, reminding delegates to be back at two sharp.
* * *
‘The trouble is,’ Rhedyn explained to Kulina during the lunch interval, ‘that the economic framework we’re working in was decided on a few years back, and at the moment there aren’t really any major alternatives available. That’s why this morning’s debate was so boring. But in five or ten years time, when depollution’s finished, and some of the things that are now being developed in research begin to make an impact, then the options will open up again. We’ll be talking about possibilities like cutting the standard working-week to twelve hours – though that would raise the demand for leisure facilities so much it might bounce it back up to fourteen. Or significantly raising the standard of living – every meal at an artisan restaurant, that sort of thing. Or breaking down the division between town and country once and for all – really tearing the cities apart. Or just possibly, a major space exploration programme. That’s a bit of an outsider, but there are quite a few romantics about – the sort of people who like old movies from the twentieth century. Then we’ll really see some heated debates. What worries me is that we may be taking small decisions now that will prepare the ground for wrong decisions later on. So we may have some fun this afternoon.’
Kulina was about to ask for more information about the afternoon session when Chilgrove approached.
‘Excuse me. Could I have a few words with you, Rhedyn?’
Kulina moved away to take more wine from the tap and another octopus sandwich.
‘So what do you want?’ asked Rhedyn.
‘I won’t mess about,’ said Chilgrove. ‘There’s an election this afternoon for delegate to the Central Assembly.
‘I was aware of that.’
‘And it’s quite important,’ Chilgrove continued, ‘to have someone who can represent us effectively. Especially if there are proposals coming forward from this Assembly which are important to us. We need someone with a bit of experience.’
‘Like yourself, you mean, I suppose,’ snapped Rhedyn.
‘Last year,’ Chilgrove continued calmly, ‘we elected Groningen as our delegate on the basis of the argument that citizens without experience should be more involved – as I remember you were one of the main supporters of the point. Well, we’ve seen the results. Not only did poor Groningen not open her mouth all year at the Central Assembly, but she screwed up this morning’s session by giving such a boring introduction.’
‘That was hardly her fault,’ said Rhedyn, who was getting visibly angry. ‘There was nothing to debate this morning. A trained sword-swallower couldn’t have made it into a fun session.’
‘I don’t want to moralise about dear Groningen,’ sneered Chilgrove. ‘Let’s get back to the real issue. A number of friends have asked me if I’ll let myself be nominated. I’d very much value your support.’
‘Asked,’ repeated Rhedyn. ‘Were they asked to ask?’
‘They approached me quite spontaneously.’
‘Yes indeed. Just like all those people spontaneously nominated you for chair this morning.’
‘That saved a lot of time. Normally we sit around while everyone’s being modest.’
‘And it just happened to put citizen Chilgrove on public display all morning.’
‘Look,’ said Chilgrove with studied calm, ‘let’s get back to the main issue. You’re putting forward a proposal for the cultural budget this afternoon. It’s obviously in your interest to have an experienced delegate who can fight for resolutions coming from this Assembly.’
Rhedyn was now getting very visibly angry, sinking gleaming white teeth into the flesh at the back of a clenched fist. A number of delegates, attracted by the sound of raised voices, had turned to look at the arguing pair.
‘My position is quite clear,’ said Rhedyn. ‘It’s a fundamental principle of democracy that delegated positions should be rotated to involve as many people as possible. We’re not living back in the age of professional politicians. This is my second year representing the Museum on this Assembly, and I don’t intend to stand again for several years, if ever. You’ve been delegate to the Central Assembly twice before, and that’s quite enough for one life-time. I shall be nominating Huelva. It took a lot of persuading to get Huelva to stand, but in my view reluctance to take office is one of the main qualifications for holding it.’
‘I know you’re a personal friend of Huelva’s,’ said Chilgrove, managing to make the word ‘friend’ sound marginally more discreditable than child-molester. ‘But the citizen just isn’t up to it, as that rather pathetic little speech this morning showed. We need someone with experience.’
‘You fucking self-seeking vomit-sack,’ roared Rhedyn. ‘You and your gang of shit-eating sycophants should clear out.’ Rhedyn’s beer-glass was raised, poised ready to smash straight into Chilgrove’s face. Half the room was now staring at the pair. Huelva, who had fortunately missed the earlier remarks about speaking ability, flung an anxious arm round Rhedyn, begging, ‘Come on, calm down, it’s not that important.’ Kulina, not wanting to get involved, tried to look inconspicuous.
It was Chilgrove who defused the situation. ‘There’s no point fighting about it. This is a democratic assembly and the delegates will judge the case on its merits. And may the best candidate win.’ And with that the erstwhile chair walked rapidly away, leaving Huelva trying to soothe Rhedyn and everybody else pretending that nothing had happened.
* * *
At two o’clock the delegates reassembled. Though drink had not been rationed, they were a responsible group who realised that the afternoon’s proceedings would be much more significant than the morning’s, and all were sober, alert and punctual. A new chair, Portquin, was elected, and he wasted no time in opening the debate. He explained the situation to the delegates. Since there was now the possibility of expanding the cultural and research budgets, the Central Assembly was inviting proposals from the local assemblies. All workplaces had been informed of this and asked to submit proposals in advance. Two had been received, from Pignola and Rhedyn. Each would be given fifteen minutes to explain hisrer proposal. At the end of the discussion elections for delegate to the Central Assembly would be held.
Pignola was the first to come to the front, clad in a garish multi-coloured gown, and with hair dyed half red, half green.
‘Citizens, we’ve heard the budget report this morning, and a very impressive report it was. Let me just remind you of some statistics. Now we work twenty hours a week. In the twentieth century the figure was forty or more; in the nineteenth century people worked twelve hours a day. Our average expectation of life is ninety-three years. Two centuries ago in this part of the world it was less than seventy; in some parts of the world only thirty. And there are things we don’t even keep statistics for. They used to have records of the numbers of people without homes. For us the figure is zero.
‘But citizens, tell me this. How have orgasms improved in this brave new world? How much better is the average citizen’s orgasm today than it was when Queen Victoria was still screwing Prince Albert? Five per cent?’
How, Rhedyn wondered, would one measure it? The memory came to mind of the sex shops and sex manuals that had proliferated in the late twentieth century. They had more or less disappeared during the great upheavals of the last hundred years. Would there now be a revival of such interests?
Certainly Pignola’s arrogant manner, the cultivated flippancy, had the delegates wider awake than they had been all morning, but there was some bemusement. Where was it all leading? Was this a serious proposal about the budget?
‘Citizens,’ Pignola went on, ‘we’ve come to a turning-point in our history. With the completion of the Forty-Year Plan we’ve set the economy on a sound basis. Nobody is deprived; everybody is able to live a decent life. The social order that human beings fought for over hundreds of years – and they were often ridiculed for even believing it was possible – has been achieved. But where do we go from here? Do we just carry on in the same way – and bore ourselves to death, like we were doing this morning? Or do we set ourselves new norms, new aspirations?
‘Citizens, I want to quote from a historical document. This, by the way, is for the benefit of my good friend Rhedyn, who, as we all know, is very keen on history. A passage from a book written in the late twentieth century: “With the increasing use of robots and automated production, we are rapidly approaching a stage where human beings will not be needed at all.”
‘Citizens, that was the mentality of the age. The function of human beings was to produce. A necessary belief at that stage of human evolution. But are we still prisoners of that mentality? The aim of human life is not production, it is enjoyment. Production is a means to an end. The end is pleasure.’
Pignola paused as a wave of applause filled the meeting-room. Kulina could see that Rhedyn was looking very worried. Pignola now moved on to fill in the details of the plan. There were two concrete proposals. The first was the building of a series of enormous pleasure parks. These would incorporate traditional fun-fairs, with all the most recent innovations. But there would be much more. The technology now existed for colossal fantasy simulations, enabling people to visit the environments of their favourite movies; each person could re-enact the role of hisrer chosen character.
The second proposal was for orgasm research. Sexuality had shaken off the curses of the old order: killer diseases had been eliminated; ‘unwanted pregnancy’ was a meaningless collocation of words; the shackles of marriage had been broken. But all this, Pignola argued, merely brought sexuality back to the state of nature; the task of civilisation had yet to be begun. To fuck ‘naturally’, without anxiety, like the animals was still to be on the level of eating berries and catching your own rabbits. What was needed was a major research project involving psychologists and physiologists to investigate the possibilities of orgasm enhancement.
Pignola recognised that within the current budget restraints only limited moves could be made – one pleasure park could be built and a pilot research programme established over the next three years. ‘But,’ came the peroration, ‘it will be the first step in a whole new epoch of human civilisation.’
‘Follow that,’ Rhedyn muttered grimly as the whole room echoed with applause. Pignola had achieved a balance between high-minded philosophy and a gut appeal to self-interest that seemed to have won over most of the delegates. Fortunately the contributions from the floor which followed, while all favourable to Pignola, did not reach the same standard of oratory. Two older female Strip Guards insisted that women must have the same right to orgasm enhancement as men. Mayo, a delegate from the power-station, went on at some length about pleasure parks he had visited during a recent world tour and described in considerable detail the largest ferris-wheel in the world, located in Ethiopia. So by the time Rhedyn rose to speak, after a few more interventions of similar quality, the mood was still strongly in favour of Pignola, but the temperature of the debate had fallen considerably.
Rhedyn began with an outline of the work of the Historical Museum – its triple role as a public museum, as a teaching institution at all levels, and as a research centre. The tone was calm and measured, as if to impress on delegates that the incident at lunchtime had been wholly uncharacteristic. But the content was familiar to most delegates and largely uncontroversial; scarcely a challenge to Pignola’s ambitious proposal.
It was when Rhedyn began to talk about a major programme of historical research into the twentieth century that delegates began to look surprised; some even began to laugh. When they thought back to the history they had studied in their youth, the twentieth century seemed a supremely boring period, comparable only to the age of the Tudors and Stuarts (whoever they were). Alongside the colour of the Middle Ages, the intellectual advance of the eighteenth century or the great social revolutions of the twenty-first, the twentieth century had little to offer. The Russian Revolution and the Vietnam War were the only memorable spots of colour in an otherwise drab and brutal age, far better left shrouded in the mists of time than exposed to the probing of a research programme.
By the time they had recovered from their surprise, Rhedyn had moved on to explain the proposal in more detail: ‘In the second half of the twentieth century the British police – more particularly the state security services, or if you like the secret police – used to make arrangements to listen in to private telephone calls. Especially the calls of those people who were the most interesting, those who were against the existing order in some way – socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, ecologists, peace campaigners, feminists. Of course, this was known at the time, but it was never possible to discover just how widespread the practice was; the authorities always claimed it was confined to a few “extremists”. Only recently historians have found out just how extensive the operation was; more extensive than even the most paranoid had believed at the time. And the Historical Museum now has in its possession a good proportion of the tapes stored by the police; literally hundreds of thousands of reels of tape.
‘Obviously these tapes are an unparalleled source of information about life – and especially about oppositional currents – during the period. But listening to them is a substantial job. Firstly they’re very boring – even the most ardent revolutionaries seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time calling taxis, discussing football or finding out if there was a party on. Secondly, interpreting the tapes is a highly skilled job. You can’t understand the tapes unless you have an intimate knowledge of the movements people were active in. If you don’t know the difference between GLC and GMC, you’ll screw up the biography of a labour activist to some tune. And because people knew they were being listened to, they were often deliberately obscure or cryptic.
‘Of course the tapes aren’t the only source. The Museum has also been accumulating diaries and private archives, and everything has to be cross-referenced with the press of the period. We now have the material to carry out a really major research project on grass-roots opposition in the second half of the twentieth century. But such a project is very labour-intensive. As you know, staff are recruited to the Museum by the Historians Guild, which is an autonomous trade union – like the unions everyone here belongs to. But the number we can recruit is fixed by the budget. We need to increase our staffing by at least three hundred if we’re going to carry through this project. And that will mean a training programme involving a lot of our existing staff, so we’ll have to recruit some additional workers in other areas. So altogether we’re asking for at least 400 thousand labour hours a year. We know from the visitors to the Museum that there are a lot of people interested in this sort of work. We can certainly recruit the extra workers if the Central Assembly will let us. There are people in South Anglia and all over the world who’d like to do it. We’ve just recruited a very able young researcher from Yorkshire, but that was only possible because one of our existing staff decided to retrain as a chiropodist.
‘Maybe you wonder why this is important. Let me give you an example. A group of us at the Museum are currently working on the life of a rank-and-file trade unionist, George Cook, born in 1922, died in 1985. We’re using the phone tapes, but also his diaries and papers which his wife preserved when he died. A team – including my colleague Huelva – has been processing this material for some time, and we’re hoping to produce a biography, in the form of a video-book, by September.
‘Why George Cook? George called himself a “socialist”; he believed in a society rather like the one we’re living in now, though he didn’t live to see it and never really expected to. George spent his life fighting for better health care, better education, better working conditions, more democracy; fighting against war, poverty and racism. If it hadn’t been for people like George Cook we shouldn’t be having this debate today; we’d be slaving over boring jobs or queuing for food.
‘You see, when Pignola says we’re at a turning-point in our history I agree completely. But how can we face that turning-point if we don’t know how we got here? The present is a product of the past. If we don’t understand the past we can’t deal with the present. That’s why we need this research project. And that’s why we need the resources.’
The applause as Rhedyn sat down was not so loud as that for Pignola, but it was sincere and substantial. If a vote were to be taken immediately Pignola would undoubtedly win, but Rhedyn would not be humiliated.
The discussion now became considerably livelier. A number of speakers came to the front to defend one or other of the two proposals. Huelva made a short contribution – mainly a summary of the work being done on the Cook project – which, while still rather halting, was a considerable improvement on the morning’s effort.
Then, just after four, Chilgrove indicated a wish to speak and was called to the front.
‘Citizens, I want to begin by saying how much I welcome Rhedyn’s proposal. It’s an interesting and exciting proposal, which I really hope can be put into practice. Those of us who visit the Historical Museum regularly know what a high standard of work goes on there and I’m sure we all hope it can be expanded.’
(Clever, thought Rhedyn, very clever. After the incident at lunchtime Chilgrove comes out looking very magnanimous.)
‘However,’ Chilgrove went on, ‘While I have some detailed reservations I also think there’s a lot of merit in Pignola’s proposal. I therefore want to propose that we don’t take a vote between the two proposals at this stage, but that we forward both proposals to the Central Assembly. After all, neither of them would consume the whole of the cultural and research budget, and it’s possible they could both be adopted – though of course there are nearly two hundred other local assemblies which might put up proposals.
‘In the event of my being put up as a delegate I should support both proposals, but I have to say that if I were forced to choose between them I should choose Rhedyn’s.’
Chilgrove’s proposal – that no vote be taken – was agreed without dissent. Obviously after the debate neither side felt sufficiently confident of winning to push the issue. The time now being four fifteen Portquin closed the debate and moved on to the final item of the agenda, the election of a delegate to serve for twelve months at the Central Assembly. Nominations were called for; if there were more than two candidates, voting would be by rounds, with the candidate with least votes dropping out each time.
Voices from three different parts of the room called out ‘Nominate Chilgrove’. ‘Fixed in advance’, muttered Rhedyn, before calling out ‘Nominate Huelva’. One of the power-station delegates nominated Pignola; but Pignola, with a flamboyant wave of the arms, declined to stand. No further names were put forward, so tellers were appointed and the vote was taken, by show of hands.
There was little doubt about the result. Chilgrove was elected by 184 votes to 53, with a handful of abstentions. While Portquin went through the closing formalities, Rhedyn thought ruefully that Chilgrove had pulled off a clever manoeuvre, getting all the votes of Pignola’s supporters and a fair proportion of those who supported the Historical Museum. Only those who knew the Museum well, or who, for some reason, distrusted Chilgrove, had voted for Huelva. Very, very clever. But what, Rhedyn wondered, would have happened if Pignola had stood?
* * *
As the delegates were leaving, Kulina caught up with Rhedyn and asked if they could talk for half an hour or so. Rhedyn willingly agreed but expressed the intention of first of all going for a piss. A little further down the corridor they came to two doors, marked respectively WOMEN and GENERAL (the compromise result of a heated debate on segregation a few years back). Rhedyn disappeared through the door marked WOMEN. Kulina decided to piss too and went through the GENERAL door. Lifting his gown he stood at the urinal, still thinking of Rhedyn and how pleasant it would be to work alongside her; but the feelings of lust which had been slowly accumulating all day frustrated his purpose and he had to rapidly switch his thoughts to a different theme.
Meanwhile Rhedyn, as she pissed, was still preoccupied with the afternoon’s events. Chilgrove had certainly arranged things very neatly, but why such anxiety to become delegate yet again? Unknown to Rhedyn (but like the Thought Police the omniscient narrator is a voyeur who can penetrate the privacy of mind and of body) Chilgrove was pissing in the very next cubicle and brooding over Rhedyn’s hostility, wondering why someone so obviously intelligent couldn’t grasp the importance of experience. Equality must be respected, but equality was not sameness. We couldn’t all be equally good at everything, and some people had a natural flair for public speaking and conducting meetings. That didn’t give them any privileges, but they did have a responsibility to use their talents for the common good. Meanwhile Huelva, also easing a distended bladder, was fretting about whether the arrival of Kulina would upset the happy working relationships that had been built up over the last few months.
As she washed her hands, Rhedyn saw Huelva beside her. ‘I think that young man Kulina is trying to chat me up,’ she said; ‘it’s rather flattering in a way.’ Huelva scowled and was about to say something noncommittal when they realised Chilgrove was standing just behind them. ‘No hard feelings, Rhedyn?’ she said cheerily. ‘No,’ said Rhedyn in the surliest manner consonant with elementary decency and strode out to rejoin Kulina.
Rhedyn and Kulina walked out of the hall, through the subway below the strips and into the adjoining park. ‘I wanted to talk to you in a bit more detail about the Cook project’, said Kulina. ‘I got a good picture from today’s discussion of the way you see the overall work of the Museum, but I’ll be starting on the Cook project very soon and I’d like to know what the problems are.’
So, as they walked through the floral display, Rhedyn told Kulina something of George Cook; his childhood in the slums of North London during the depression, his war service, his marriage, how he got involved in politics, his time in the Communist Party and his long love-hate relationship with the Labour Party. From the picture she painted it was easy to see that Rhedyn felt deeply familiar with this man she had never met, but whose voice on the telephone she had spent many hours trying to decipher.
Eventually her account came to an end. ‘Thanks very much for that explanation,’ said Kulina. ‘It’ll help me a lot. I do really feel very lucky to have got a position at the London Historical Museum when the staff levels are so tightly fixed. There are a lot of historians in the Socialist Republic of Yorkshire who’d like to work at the London Museum, because it has such a good reputation. I thought you might have preferred to take someone local.’
‘Oh, we never discriminate between republics of origin,’ said Rhedyn. ‘The Renaissance department just took on two women from Uruguay.’
‘If you do get the increased staff levels you want, then there’ll be a lot of applicants from Yorkshire.’
‘Well, it’s two-way traffic,’ said Rhedyn. ‘I know quite a few medical researchers who’d like to move to Barnsley. You were in the Sheffield Museum, weren’t you?’
‘Yes, working on the Yorkshire miners from the 1970s to the 1990s.’
‘Of course, that impinges on the work we’re doing here, because of the impact of the big strikes. For instance, George wrote in his diary that he didn’t trust any trade-union leaders, but that Arthur Scargill was the best he’d seen in his lifetime.’
‘That’s the trouble, you know. Everybody’s heard of Scargill, but Scargill didn’t run those strikes on his own. The fascinating thing is the involvement and creativity of the rank and file. We’ve done about seven hundred and fifty short biographies of strikers – and their female companions – and there’s thousands more to do. I don’t know whether any of the tapping tapes you have cover Yorkshire, but if they do Sheffield will be in touch with you. There was massive phone-tapping during the 84-85 strike.’
‘Have you found a cluster to live in in London?’ asked Rhedyn.
‘Oh yes, no problem. As soon as I got to London I went to the accommodation computer and filled in my details – you know, male, grey eyes, hate cats, don’t like gardening… – and I got an address within five minutes.’
‘That’s good; sometimes it keeps you waiting up to half an hour. Are the people there all right?’
‘As far as I know so far. Although I’ve lived in a cluster for quite a few years it still feels a bit funny. You see, I had parents who were nukes.’
‘How did you get on with them?’
‘Oh fine. I know some people sneer at nukes, but I think everyone has the right to live how they want to live.’
By now Kulina and Rhedyn had walked right round the park three times and were back near the strips. It had been a fine day, but it was starting to get cooler.
‘What are you doing this evening, Rhedyn?’ asked Kulina; his tone had suddenly become ingratiating, almost wheedling. ‘Perhaps we could go and eat at an artisan restaurant.’
‘Sorry,’ said Rhedyn. ‘I have to go back to the cluster. It’s my turn to look after the children tonight.’
‘What are they like?’
‘All right, basically. There are five of them, but they aren’t much trouble. Except for one young lad of four who’s a bit wild. He takes a lot of watching. I bore him, so maybe it’s my fault.’
The two of them were going in opposite directions, so they said goodbye and made their way on to the strips. Despite his most recent disappointment Kulina felt pleased with himself; he’d had an interesting day in more senses than one. He stood out on the uncovered part of the fast strip and let the cool evening air whip his face; he’d never realised before quite how erotic it was to travel at speed.