‘Look out,’ said Ginnie Cowles, ‘here comes Goebbels.’
It was a cold morning in February. George Cook, Ruth Storer, Malcolm Wells and Ginnie, an activist from the local Labour Party, were standing at the edge of the shopping centre with a plastic bucket, collecting money for the striking miners.
The aforesaid ‘Goebbels’ was the uniformed superintendent of the shopping centre, who made it a weekly practice to come and harass the collectors and inform them that they must not collect within the boundaries of the shopping centre. The problem was that he didn’t seem very sure where the boundaries were, and each week gave conflicting information about the line they were not allowed to trespass over. This had led to a number of confrontations with George, whom the superintendent always went for first; presumably, since George looked older than the others, he assumed that it was a case of bright-eyed idealistic youth being misled by a sinister agitator. George had several times been invited to come up to the office and inspect the plans, but he had always turned the offer down.
Goebbels arrived. ‘I told you last week you weren’t allowed to stand here.’
‘No,’ replied George, ‘last week you told us we couldn’t stand there.’ He pointed at a spot about five yards away, in front of a newsagent’s shop. Malcolm Wells was already shuffling backwards to a place that was clearly outside the borders of the shopping centre, but was also away from the main path taken by most shoppers. Ginnie was talking to a man who was contributing a pound note. George and Ruth stood their ground and refused to move.
‘Come on,’ Goebbels said, ‘you’re breaking the law.’
‘It’s not the law,’ retorted George, ‘it’s only the local council regulations for the shopping centre. That’s quite a different thing.’
‘We’ll have to see what happens when the police come, then,’ said the superintendent. He had called the police twice before, but the collectors had shifted their ground before the constable arrived, and presumably the superintendent had got a bollocking for wasting police time.
Goebbels glared at George.
‘You’ve got some sort of sexual hang-up about wearing a uniform, haven’t you?’ said George.
‘What?’ growled Goebbels, ‘you a psychologist or something?’
‘That’s right,’ said George, ‘Professor of Psychology, down at the Poly.’ Malcolm Wells, who was within earshot, looked very embarrassed.
Goebbels turned his attentions to Malcolm. ‘Now you look an educated man,’ he said, ‘surely you can understand this.’ Malcolm looked even more embarrassed and said nothing. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘on your own heads be it.’ And he stalked away.
‘Support the Miners. Don’t let Thatcher starve them back to work,’ shouted George in a voice that could be heard at the far end of the shopping centre. Ruth and Ginnie joined in. Malcolm muttered ‘support the miners’ almost inaudibly.
A frail old age pensioner dropped a ten-pence piece in the bucket. ‘They should strangle that Thatcher,’ she said. ‘It’s a pity that bomb didn’t blow her arms and legs off.’
A passer-by walked up to them. ‘Why didn’t they have a democratic ballot?’ he demanded. Malcolm started to give a convoluted explanation about the National Union of Mineworkers’ rule-book. The passer-by stalked off, muttering something about ‘Communists’. ‘You should just have said that nobody has a right to vote somebody else out of a job,’ said George, thinking to himself: Why is it that people who are paid to talk for a living are so bad at it?
Ruth looked at her watch. ‘Only another five minutes. If PC Plod doesn’t get here by then he’ll be too late. We’ll see him next week.’ She sighed. ‘If the strike’s still going by then.’
They gave a final round of vigorous shouting, collected another two pounds and decided to call it a day.
‘Are you coming for a drink?’ George asked Ruth.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I’ve got to get home. Pat’s with the children and he’s going out this afternoon.’
George, Malcolm and Ginnie made their way to the pub over the road. As they went in, they saw Anita, Malcolm’s girl-friend. She was prone to talk at great length about how wonderful the miners’ wives were, but never actually came on a collection. She looked up at Malcolm: ‘Oh, you poor darling,’ she said, ‘you must be frozen.’ Malcolm gave a sheepish smile, as though he was some sort of hero.
While George was standing at the bar he heard a voice to his left say: ‘It’s George Cook, isn’t it.’ George turned and saw a man in his late thirties, with a wrinkled face but a rather wild look in the eyes. George’s memory for faces had not improved with approaching old age.
‘I expect I’ve changed more than you have,’ said the man. ‘My name’s Keith Shann. We met during the occupation at the College. You were kind enough to support us.’ He looked at George’s Solidarity with the Miners badge. ‘Still supporting good causes, I see.’
What a change from the handsome boy who pinched Ruth from me, thought George. He got his drink and sat down with Keith. So where have you been all these years,’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’ve seen some rough times,’ said Keith. ‘As you probably know, I was with Ruth for a couple of years. We went up to the North, and then she decided I was drinking too much and wasn’t serious enough about politics – what she called politics; going to union meetings and standing on the street-corner selling newspapers. So we split up. I met another woman, Leslie, and we settled down. We didn’t actually get married, but it was going to be permanent. I had a job in local government, nothing much but enough to live on. We had a baby, a little girl…Rosie. When she was about three she started being ill. Crying a lot, losing weight, pains in her stomach. We took her to the doctor, to the hospital, time and again. Nothing serious, they kept saying. Give her an anti-biotic, she’ll grow out of it.’
Keith stared at the floor as though he was about to smash his beer-glass onto it, then thought better of it. ‘She had cancer. She died…rather horribly. I don’t blame the individual doctors. It was just when the Labour Government had started carving up the Health Service. It’s the whole system that’s rotten.
‘After that Leslie and I couldn’t stand the sight of each other. There were Nazis strutting about on the streets. I decided to get out of this filthy country. I went to Italy. I got work in a language school, teaching people to speak English. It’s not well-paid, but you can live on it. My qualifications aren’t that hot – too much politics when I was at college.
‘In Italy I met some really interesting people. People whose ideas of politics were more like mine. They’d no time for parliament, for sitting around in boring union meetings. They saw what a filthy system it was and they were willing to fight it on its own terms. When you’ve seen someone you love die a painful death because of the capitalist system, then you wouldn’t mind seeing one or two of them die the same way. Yes, it’s love that teaches you to hate.’
‘You mean the Red Brigades?’ said George, very quietly.
‘That orbit,’ said Keith. ‘I didn’t meet the big people. They were too far underground. They’ve taken a fair hammering in the last few years. The revisionists in the Communist Party have played a terrible role. You can’t tell the difference between them and the police.’
‘Some people,’ said George, ‘have suggested that the Brigades were penetrated by the secret services. What do you think of that?’
‘They said some of the bombings were provocations,’ said Keith, ‘but I don’t believe that. I supported everything they did.’
‘But,’ George persisted, ‘if some people could reasonably think that a bombing was a right-wing provocation, even if in fact it was done by sincere left-wingers, doesn’t that suggest that the politics behind it was a bit dubious?’
Keith didn’t seem to grasp the point, so George changed the subject. ‘What are you doing now?’
‘I decided to come back to England and look for a job,’ said Keith. He grinned bitterly. ‘Silly idea. It’s like looking for gold in a shithouse.’
‘What do you think of the miners’ strike?’
‘It’s clear Thatcher wants to smash the trade unions once and for all – and the union leaders are helping her do the job. This country’s already a police state and if the miners lose then we’re halfway to fascism. There may never be another election. That’ll disappoint you lot in the Labour Party. You seem to enjoy writing crosses on bits of paper. Myself, I gave up noughts and crosses when I was a kid.’
‘We collect just over the road, every Saturday morning,’ said George. ‘Come and give us a hand next week if you’re around.’
‘Oh no,’ said Keith. ‘I’m not a Lady Bountiful. You don’t beat bastards like the present lot by going round with collecting boxes like Oxfam. There’s only one language they understand.’
George took his leave of Keith and went over to join Anita, Malcolm and Ginnie. Malcolm pulled a magazine out of his bag. It was a copy of Radical Semiotics, a journal of whose editorial board he was a member. ‘There’s an article here by Mervyn Clifton. I believe you’re an old friend of his. He was mentioning you when I last saw him. He said militants like you were the salt of the earth.’
‘Patronising fuckpig,’ said George.
Malcolm ignored this and went on: ‘We were very pleased to get him to write for us.He’s quite a big name since his book on The Evaporation of the Proletariat.’
George looked down at his hands and the black thumbnail that had been crushed in a minor accident at work. ‘What’s the article about?’ he asked.
‘It’s a call for a reassessment of strategy on the left. I’m sure you won’t agree with it all, but he does make some very important points. After all it is beginning to look as though the miners are going to be defeated…’
‘You can’t say that,’ burst out Ginnie indignantly. ‘There was a power-cut only a couple of weeks ago.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Malcolm rather dismissively and turned back to George. ‘After a defeat you surely have to re-evaluate things – your methods, your forms of organisation, even your basic objectives.’
‘I don’t see why,’ said George. ‘Some you win, some you lose. There’s only one lesson from defeat – and that’s do better next time.’
‘Anyhow, have a look at the article,’ said Malcolm, ‘maybe you’d like a copy.’
George took the magazine. ‘Semi-radical idiotics,’ he thought to himself. George was not really a philistine; although he had abandoned his academic ambitions when he rejoined the Labour Party in 1978, he still genuinely wanted to understand theory. The crude remarks he made were often motivated by bitterness at the fact that he did not have the time and the concentration to read as much as he wanted to. If intellectuals can tell us something that helps with the struggle, then all the better, he thought. And Mervyn’s a clever bloke.
He began to look through the article, not reading every word, but trying to pick up the sense of it. His eye fell on the second paragraph:
The working class is thus merely the “other” of a self-questioning bourgeoisie. But as both terms of the pair efface themselves, the difference/differance is displaced into a new antinomy.
Push that through the doors, thought George, and you’d be sure to win the Borough Council elections,
Mervyn went on to argue that with the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, the rise of service employment and the change in patterns of consumption the working class as it had always been understood was ceasing to exist. George found it hard to come to terms with his own non-existence. He remembered how, forty years ago in Italy, the middle-class educated Mervyn had explained the idea of ‘class struggle’ to him in a way that he could never have simply spun out of his own experience.
George read on, as Mervyn quoted statistics and the utterances of music journalists to prove that the working class as we knew it was indeed evaporating. Maybe he’s right, George thought. We’re all on the way out. In another couple of years he and Mervyn would both be due for retirement: Mervyn would get international acclaim, George would get a miserable state pension.
At the end of the article Mervyn argued that if the traditional proletariat was disappearing, then the traditional vision of socialism had to be reconsidered:
We have to face the fact that for many people the socialist vision is boring. The idyllic but eventless future pictured by William Morris holds no charms for the rock and roll generation. Capitalism does offer struggle and excitement – the joys of diversity and difference. The unanimity of the socialist paradise would leave us all in a state of irremediable ennui.
George thought of the refrigerator factory where he now worked; of the identical tasks he performed every day; of the rows of identical fridges in the store waiting to be delivered.
‘No thanks’, he said to Malcolm. ‘I won’t buy one.’
* * *
As he dressed for work, George listened to the news on the radio. As usual the first item concerned the progress of the miners’ strike and the likelihood of a return to work in the near future. ‘Our industrial relations correspondent’ was gloating in a smug voice about the number of pits that were already working normally. George hated ‘industrial relations’ experts; there was one on the television who pontificated about productivity, while his eyes seemed permanently glazed with drink. None of them had ever done a day’s real work, but they always claimed to know what was in the best interests of the trade unions.
George thought of the miners, and their wives and children, whom he had met during the strike. The local strike support committee had been twinned with a pit in Derbyshire where only a minority of workers were on strike. Delegations had come to London, some staying in George’s house, and he had twice spent the weekend in Derbyshire. His body stiffened with fury at the way such quietly heroic people had been crushed. Somebody, he thought, ought to put a bomb under the bloody vermin.
From the next item on the news he learned that someone had in fact done just that – or something very like it. There was a power-station in North London – only a few miles from where George lived – which had been the scene of several angry mass pickets. During the night a small bomb had exploded there; some damage had been done to fencing but nobody had been hurt.
A Tory MP was being asked to comment – presumably he was an expert on either power-stations or bombs. ‘In my view,’ he was saying, ‘this action shows the dangers of the position taken by the Labour Party leadership during this strike. Of course, I’m not suggesting that a member of the Labour Party actually set off the bomb – though there are some very dubious elements in the Militant Tendency. But when the Labour Party refuses to condemn all violence and to uphold the role of law, it opens the door to this sort of thing. If you don’t condemn picketing from the outset, then incidents of this sort – inevitably leading to loss of life – are bound to occur.’
* * *
The Miners’ Support Committee met in a room at the local Trades Hall. It was, in fact, George remembered, the very same room as the one in which he had attended his first Labour Party ward meeting some forty years earlier. George was on the Committee as an elected delegate from the Labour Party. He had remained active in the Labour Party since he had rejoined in 1978; in the early eighties he had had high hopes that Tony Benn would transform the Party into the sort of organisation he wanted to see. Now that dream seemed to have faded, but he still saw no viable alternative to Labour. In the last year his main energies had gone into supporting the miners.
He looked round the room. There were about eighteen people present, a fair mix between stalwarts of the local labour movement and some younger supporters. There were two or three students there; George compared them to the students he remembered from 1968. The present crop weren’t as strong on rhetoric, but they had done a good job with factory leafletting. Ruth normally attended, but she was not here tonight – presumably she was looking after the children.
John Mitchell came into the room. George rarely bothered to argue with him nowadays; despite the upsets and splits in the Communist Party, John was too set in his ways to change. But tonight George could not resist challenging him on a sensitive subject: why was coal from so-called ‘socialist’ Poland being exported to Britain while a miners’ strike was on?
‘Well,’ said John, ‘they’ve had a lot of problems in Poland recently.’
‘They have indeed,’ rejoined George. ‘The government had to smash ten million trade unionists. Sounds a bit like Thatcher’s problem.’
‘I know that in an ideal world socialist countries wouldn’t have to behave like that,’ John went on, ‘but Poland has to stay in business. You know your trouble is that you’re always looking for a split. Let’s fight the main enemy, not each other.’
‘You can’t fight at all,’ said George, ‘if you haven’t straightened out what it is you’re fighting for.’ He thought back to that army discussion group in Italy, over forty years ago, when John had first talked about the move from ‘the kingdom of necessity’ to the ‘kingdom of freedom’. The idea had gone to his head with more force than a whole bottle of Italian wine.
The meeting began. There was a discussion of the present, very dismal, state of the strike. Arrangements were made for collections and for a visit to Derbyshire; delegates were elected to a forthcoming conference. Then Alan Baker asked if he could move a resolution. Alan was a delegate from the constituency Labour Party just to the North of the one George was representing.
He read his resolution out: ‘This Miners’ Support Committee condemns the recent bombing at the power-station. It believes that acts of violence, of whatever form, are positively harmful to the just cause that the miners are fighting for.’
In moving his resolution, Alan argued that the miners’ only hope of winning was to gain the support of public opinion; that was what street collections were all about. But public opinion would not tolerate actions like bombings; one had only to read the newspaper headlines to realise that. There had been a number of incidents on mass packets that had not helped the miners’ cause. Those who had the interests of the miners at heart had to have the honesty to say what they believed about such acts.
Several speakers followed. All expressed indignation about the bomb and most went on to condemn picket-line violence. A great deal was made of an incident where a taxi-driver taking scabs to work had been killed. A number of people who had kept quiet when it looked as if the miners might win seemed to be taking the opportunity to get their own hands clean.
George found this performance thoroughly disgusting. He raised his hand and asked to speak. ‘Comrades and friends,’ he began, ‘you probably won’t like what I’m going to say, but I shall say it all the same. First of all, picketing and planting bombs aren’t the same thing, and everyone knows they aren’t, so don’t let’s confuse them. Now I don’t know who planted that bomb at the power-station. It probably wasn’t a miner; it may even have been an MI5 agent. But if it was a miner who did it, then I’m not going to stand here and condemn him.
‘If you’re going to condemn violence, then start off by condemning the violence that miners have been exposed to for hundreds of years, in their own pits. Remember this strike has saved lives. Just ask how many miners would have died in pit accidents if they hadn’t been out on strike.
‘People talk a lot about democracy. For me democracy isn’t about ballot-boxes, it’s about doing things collectively. If the majority of miners have decided to strike, then they have a right to stop the minority from working, and if that means lobbing the odd bottle or brick, so be it.
‘Now things have been done in this strike that I don’t necessarily agree with. Things that didn’t help the strike forward. But they were mistakes made by people in struggle, people on my side. I’d sooner be in the wrong with them than in the right with the other side. I’m not going to line up with people in comfortable newspaper offices, people who were smirking with delight when that poor sod of a taxi-driver died, because they knew they could use it against the miners.
‘And if you want to know why the miners are losing, it’s got nothing to do with public opinion. It’s because the other union leaders wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. They’re non-violent, you see. They tell me slugs are non-violent; they don’t bite, they just slither around and eat grass. And they don’t win strikes.’
As George sat down a couple of the students clapped him. But most of the people in the room were simply staring in horror.
* * *
Two weeks had gone by. The miners, dignified and courageous, but indubitably defeated, had returned to work. And now George was back in the Trades Hall, this time for a Labour Party General Committee meeting. Each time George attended a Labour Party meeting, he wondered if it would be his last, if something would come up that would make it impossible for him to stay any longer. He felt like a satellite, condemned to go round and round in the same orbit, with the only alternatives a disastrous plunge to earth or a break-out into the empty wastes of space.
There were still several people in the room that George had known since the sixties, but there were also a number of younger people who, George hoped, would liven things up a bit. The meeting began. Minutes. Matters arising. Arrangements for a fund-raising bazaar. Setting up of a Lesbian Advisory Committee. Use of plastic bags for refuse collection.
Then came an item on the miners’ strike. At this point Councillor Bill Ellison rose to speak. ‘I have a very serious matter that I must draw to the attention of the meeting.’ He produced a copy of one of the advertising newspapers that were delivered free in the locality. Right across the front page ran the banner headline: LABOUR MAN BACKS VIOLENCE TO WIN STRIKE. George had already seen a copy of the paper which had been pushed through his front door. The article was a complete travesty of the meeting. No reporter had been present at the Miners’ Support Committee and the whole thing was based on hearsay. The report concentrated on what George had said even though his had been one of only three votes cast against the resolution.
Bill, however, seemed to be relatively unconcerned with what had actually occurred at the meeting. His sole interest seemed to be in the impact that the report would have on voters. He stressed that the Borough Council elections were due only a year from now. And he concluded by demanding that a vote of censure be passed on George for his irresponsible behaviour.
George replied briefly, explaining what he had said at the Miners’ Support Committee, pointing out how the press report had distorted what had actually happened at the meeting, but making it quite clear that he stood by what he had said. The discussion that followed was confused when it was not abject. A number of members clearly felt that the miners had been grossly inconsiderate to their fellow-workers by going on strike when their action could damage the Labour Party’s election prospects. The only person who did not denounce violence was a young man whose main interest in life seemed to be animal liberation. He attempted a rather tortuous distinction between forms of violence that were justified (putting poison in chickens in supermarkets) and those that were not (mousetraps).
After a few minutes the motion of censure was put to the vote, and carried by thirty-seven votes to five. Among those supporting the motion, George noticed Eric Carter, who a couple of months earlier had put up a resolution calling for a general strike in support of the miners, and Eileen Head, the most prominent feminist in the constituency party, who had recently made a stinging denunciation of George for using the word ‘mankind’. As for Ginnie Cowles, about a minute before the vote was due to be taken, she had apparently experienced a totally unpostponable need to absent herself, and had reappeared just as the result was being announced. Among George’s four supporters were Irene Wiggins – now one of the senior members of the Young Socialists – and the animal liberator.
Someone enquired whether the vote meant that George would cease to be a delegate to the Miners’ Support Committee. (The Committee was being maintained in existence to give support to miners who had been victimised for their part in the strike.) The chair was confused by the question; he consulted his Standing Orders, but could find no guidance. A heated altercation erupted between Bill Ellison, who insisted that he had intended his motion to mean that George would cease to be delegate, and Eric Carter, who was equally emphatic that his vote had not been intended in this sense. Eileen Head started to scream that ‘macho’ men were always arguing. The chair waved his arms helplessly and pleaded for order.
Then George stood up, and the room fell silent. ‘I wonder if I might speak; after all it is me that has been censured. As far as I’m concerned there’s no doubt about the question; I understood the vote was asking me to stand down as delegate, and I’m standing down. So that settles the argument. I’ll go on doing my bit for the Committee as an individual.
‘But I’m not surprised that you all got confused about it. Because the right of recall isn’t part of your tradition. Your tradition is one of electing Members of Parliament. Once they’re elected they can join the Tories or run off with the Christmas Club money, and there’s nothing you can do about it until five years are up. That’s because yours is a tradition of leaving it to someone else to do things for you, not of doing things for yourselves.
‘Mine’s a different tradition. It’s the tradition of the Paris Commune, of the first Russian soviets; it’s the tradition of the shop steward, who’s answerable to the people who elected him…or her…at half past seven in the morning every day of the bloody week. In that tradition the right of recall is one of the most fundamental things there is
‘So let me tell you. I’m not sorry you passed this resolution of censure; I’m glad. I’m glad because to me the right of recall is more important than the miners’ strike; it’s more important than violence or non-violence. Those are just episodes, questions of tactics. What it’s all about is workers’ democracy. And the right of recall is workers’ democracy.’
George sat down and remained silent throughout the rest of the proceedings. At the end of the meeting many of the delegates went round the corner to the pub and George went with them. In the bar he approached Bill Ellison. ‘Bill,’ he said, ‘first of all I wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about Jimmy.’ Bill Ellison’s fifteen-year-old nephew had just died after a year in a coma following a road accident. ‘Do give your sister all my sympathy; she must be really heart-broken.’
George bought Bill a drink and they chatted about family matters. He felt closer to Bill at this moment than he had at any time in the last forty years. He remembered lying alongside Bill – Bill who now denounced violence – in the mud at Cassino, killing and expecting to be killed at any moment. George now knew a lot more than he had done then about why the Second World War was fought and whose interests it served; but at the time both of them believed that they were fighting for democracy and that it was a cause worth killing for. He remembered too how passionately Bill had defended the post-war Labour Government, how he had justified everything it did, just because he believed that this was the working class in power and that even its errors must be supported.
After a few minutes George said: ‘You know, I don’t have any hard feelings about that resolution you moved tonight. It was a sharp little argument, but I’m used to that sort of thing. I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of weeks, and you helped me clarify my mind.
‘I think this miners’ strike has been the most important thing for a generation. It’s really drawn lines through the labour movement.’ Ginnie Cowles walked by, carefully avoiding looking George in the eye. And people who stand on lines, thought George, get knocked down by trains.
‘I saw them dancing in the streets in 1945,’ he said, ‘ and like you I thought we were on our way. And just a few years ago, when they introduced reselection of MPs and Benn was nearly deputy leader, I thought we were making progress again. But now I think that the whole Benn operation was just a stunt to pull people on the left into the Party and make them into voting-fodder for the right wing.
‘What I’ve been thinking recently – just this last couple of weeks – is that if, in 1945, we’d not bothered with the Labour Party – or the Communist Party, which was moving further and further up the Labour Party’s arsehole – if instead we’d tried to build something different, something that started off from the idea of working people doing things for themselves – well I don’t think we’d have reached the socialist paradise just yet, but we’d have been a bit further forward than we are.’
Bill didn’t seem disposed to answer George’s argument, so George drained his glass and prepared to go home. As he was leaving he turned to Bill and said: ‘You’re old enough to remember this Party getting two resignation letters from me. I’m still thinking things over, and I want to talk to one or two people. But I may be making it a hat-trick soon.’
As he walked home through the drizzle, George thought over what he’d been saying. A lot of his ideas were only becoming clear to him as he explained them to others. He knew now what he ought to have done in 1945. But what should he do now? Was it too late to start again? Was it ever too late?
In two years he was due to retire. What would he do then? Go back to the Poly? Set up his own party and recruit three other members? And that was assuming he would live that long. He remembered the night of the fire, seven years ago, when his heart began to beat so fast he feared it would stop. He had such spells more and more frequently now. He remembered with a shudder a story he had read in the paper recently. It was of an old-age pensioner whose income was paid direct into his bank account, while all his bills were paid out of the same account by direct debit. When he died nobody noticed for two years; his financial affairs continued to operate just as they had done when he was still alive.
* * *
One day a few weeks later there was a knock at George’s front door. It was Rachel. He hadn’t seen her for two years. ‘I’m just in London for a couple of days,’ she said, ‘so I thought I’d come and see how you were. ‘She sat down in the front room and George made her a cup of tea.
‘So what are you doing with yourself now?’ he asked.
‘For the last year I’ve been down at Greenham Common, with the women picketing against cruise missiles.’
‘What, sitting out there in the mud! Aren’t you a bit old for that sort of thing?’
‘No,’ said Rachel, ‘there’s older than me there, and I feel better than I have for years.’
It was true, George thought. He had not seen Rachel exuding so much enthusiasm, so much self-confidence, since…since that first night in 1945.
‘I’m off back in a day or two,’ she said. ‘I can’t stand London any more. Everywhere’s so crowded. You know it would be a lovely city if there were only two million people in it.’
She began to talk about the Greenham women, what they were doing and what they hoped to achieve.
‘I’m not sure about it,’ said George. ‘You’re right about women having an important part to play. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that. But you know nuclear war won’t go away because you sing songs to it. What I think you should have done is sat outside that base for three months, till you were all over the papers, and then sent delegations round all the factories asking for support, trying to get strike action against the threat of nuclear war.’
‘I don’t think so’, said Rachel, ‘I don’t think the working class are interested. We’ve talked for so long about the working class acting, but it doesn’t. If the world’s going to be changed, it’s got to be individuals who believe in something who do it.’
‘No,’ said George, ‘if you give up on the working class then you give up full stop. If we could get the socialist paradise by persuading people we’d have got it by now. The working class may not want to fight, but time and again we’re forced to. Look at the miners. Lots of them had cars and videos and didn’t think much about politics. But they were forced into a fight, and when they had to fight their ideas started to change. There was a young miner stayed here. He told me he didn’t even bother to vote in 1983. But he said when he’d seen the police in action against a picket line he understood what it was like to be black in Brixton or a Catholic in Belfast.’
Rachel was not convinced. ‘I don’t think the traditional left has understood what Greenham’s all about. They write such nonsense about us, even when they think they’re supporting us. What we’re doing isn’t “politics” at all; we’re doing something completely new’.
Agreement seemed unlikely, and for a while they talked about the children. Michael’s career had come to a sudden stop when he was sacked after his company was taken over by a multinational. He was now bitterly looking for another job. Jenny was still teaching – that is, when she wasn’t out on strike.
Then Rachel asked George what he had been doing with himself.
‘This last few weeks,’ he said, ‘since the miners’ strike finished, I’ve been thinking a lot of things over, and trying to sort out all my papers. You know how I hoard things; I can’t stand to throw a bit of paper away. Well, everything was in a complete mess, but I’ve tried to put it all in order. And looking through all that old stuff made me ask a lot of questions about my life, what I’ve been doing with myself. The papers are all neat and tidy now, but I can’t say the same for my life. Come and have a look.’
He led her upstairs to the bedroom. As they went in, she said: ‘I don’t think I’ve been in here since the day of the Carnival in 1978.’ And she flashed him a look of lust that was unexpected on the face of a woman old enough to draw a pension.
‘It’s no use,’ George said, ‘My heart isn’t up to that sort of thing any more.’
And he proceeded to show her the archives he had been sorting over the last few weeks. There were journals and magazines; internal documents from his days in the Communist Party; letters sent and received, neatly put in folders by the year; press cuttings of events he had been involved in. And minutes. Piles and piles of minutes. From the Labour Party,the Trades Council, his union branch and district committee. Minutes and matters arising, he thought. But were there any matters arising from this lot? Thousands of hours of meetings, but had anything been achieved? The miners were beaten and people were dying in Ethiopia. Had all his efforts brought socialism one inch nearer? Or had he simply wasted his life, sacrificing the present to a future he would never see? Yet when he thought about it he realised that no other life he could have lived would have been one tenth as rich and rewarding. Being a socialist had sometimes been bleak and lonely, but without that vision how many books would he never have read, how many people would he never have met?…
On the dressing-table was a pile of notebooks. ‘Those are my diaries,’ he said. ‘I suppose you could say that those’ – he waved an arm at the other papers – ‘tell you what happened and that these tell you what I thought about it all. I’ve kept a diary ever since I came out of the army. I don’t suppose a historian would find them of any interest, but I’m glad I’ve got a record of everything.’
Rachel leaned over and picked up one of the diaries. George saw the date on the cover – 1968. ‘No,’ said, ‘not that one. You can look at any of the others.’
Rachel spent a few minutes looking at the diaries and files. George said: ‘They told me I’d learn as I got older, but I never did.’ And he wondered whether there was in fact something he ought to have learnt
* * *
The day after Rachel’s visit George telephoned Ruth Storer and asked if he could come round and talk to her. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘How about tomorrow. I’ve got a union meeting after school, and Pat’s away so I’ll have to get the kids to bed. But I should be free about nine.’
It was getting towards the end of April, but it had been a stormy day and the sky was dark as George walked to Ruth’s house. Up above he saw the police helicopter which had circled the area regularly ever since the riots four years earlier. George remembered bitterly that last night in the pub there had been a collection-box with an appeal for money to keep the premature baby unit in the local hospital open. Why didn’t they rely on collection-boxes to finance the helicopter, he wondered?
He walked quickly; he seemed to have had a new surge of energy. He thought: ‘It’s never to late to start again.’ He rang the bell at Ruth’s front door. He no longer felt even a trace of lust for her; sex seemed to have vanished completely from his life. But he had a great respect for Ruth’s political judgment; if anyone embodied the political alternative he was looking for, it was Ruth. And above all, he wanted someone to talk politics to. He thought: when I was in the Communist Party we used to talk politics. It was rotten politics, I can see now, but we did talk about politics. In the Labour Party nobody wants to talk politics.
Ruth came to the door. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said. ‘I was just chasing the kids into bed.’ She took him into the front room and offered him a cup of coffee. He started to tell her about how he was determined to leave the Labour Party for the last time, how he now saw the need for a political organisation that could…
There was a loud knock on the front door. Ruth answered it, and came back with Keith Shann. Keith had a wild look in his eye, and he spoke as if he’d been drinking. ‘Hello, George,’ he said. ‘It was Ruth I came to see.’
‘Shall I leave you?’ George asked.
‘No, no,’ said Keith, ‘I’m glad you’re here. I read about you in the paper. Very good. I’m off back to Italy but I wanted to tell somebody before I went. I know you’re a benighted Leninist, Ruth, and you, George, are an incurable reformist, but I don’t think either of you will shop me. I’m pretty sure the police are on to me and I’m getting out.
‘That bomb, at the power-station, it was me that planted it. And I make no apology for it. That bomb got more publicity for the miners than a hundred collections. If only more people had followed my example, the police would have been so stretched they couldn’t have handled it.
‘Anyhow, someone knows what I did and why I did it. I’ll go now. I wouldn’t want the police to come and arrest me in your charming sitting-room, Ruth.’
Ruth had not closed the curtains and they watched him leave, throwing away a cigarette, and walking without a glance behind him. His form got smaller and merged with the blackness. Soon he had vanished. There would be more bombs, thought George. As long as workers are crushed and children die for no reason, anger would explode in the form of bombs.
* * *
It was a warm May evening, and George sat at his typewriter by the open window. He was beginning a letter to the Labour Party.
I am writing to offer my resignation from membership of the Labour Party.
So what do I write next, he thought. To tell them everything I have to say would take a book. A whole book and a video on top of it.
It has always been my belief that the self-activity of the working class is the only road to socialism: ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.
Fine so far, but what comes next? He was distracted by the sound of music. In the street below two young people, a black boy and a white girl, were walking along with a portable radio turned up very loud. George didn’t like that sort of music but the words floated up to him:
You don’t have to take this crap
You don’t have to sit back and Relax,
You can actually try changing it.
The tune grabbed his attention and he listened to the song till it faded into the distance
You see things can change -
YES an’ walls can come tumbling down!
His heart had started to beat very fast, but he was now used to these little attacks and no longer worried that it might stop. In search of inspiration for how to continue his resignation letter he picked up his Labour Party card and tore it into pieces. Once again it seemed as if he was tearing up a part of his own life. Then he felt as if a huge hand had grabbed him and was tearing him across the chest, brutally severing his body into pieces. He slumped forward on to the typewriter…