Some new blood at last, thought George. Thank God for that!
For months meetings of the Labour Party General Management Committee had been getting more and more depleted. There had been a spate of resignations – Vietnam, immigration controls, the Prices and Incomes Policy, Rhodesia: each had taken its toll. And last year, at the time of the Middle East War, there had almost been a fist-fight between the pro-Russians and the pro-Israelis on the GMC because of the question of town-twinning with a Moscow suburb. Altogether four councillors and an unknown number of ordinary members had left the Party.
George had rejoined the Labour Party at the end of 1960 and had been active ever since, even standing, unsuccessfully, for the Borough Council in 1964. Although he agreed with a lot of what the critics had said, he had determined to stay in and fight for what he believed in. He had torn up a party card twice in his life and he didn’t want it to become a habit.
But all in all, Labour Party meetings were very depressing. Even the fact that it was a delightful May evening had not cheered George up as he walked down the road. So to see two strangers at the meeting was a pleasant surprise – especially when one of them was a very pretty girl.
The meeting began in its usual dreary way. Minutes took ten minutes, matters arising another twenty. Then the agent reported on the recent Borough Council elections. As everywhere in London they had been a disaster. The solid rock of Labour support that had existed only a couple of years earlier seemed to have evaporated. This provoked a lot of discussion. Some people thought it was ‘those students rioting in Grosvenor Square’ who had lost the Labour Party votes, others thought the blame should fall on Harold Wilson personally, while one – more plausibly -thought the steep rise in council rents might be the explanation. For most delegates who spoke, however, the problem was an organisational one. There had not been enough canvassers, the postal vote had not been good enough. George kept his head down, thinking of his own conspicuous lack of success as ward postal-vote officer. He had been supposed to go and visit elderly and sick people and persuade them to go through the appropriate formalities. But the very first person he had visited was a woman of seventy-five, due to go into hospital for an indefinite period with cancer. She was worried and distraught and clearly did not want to be bothered thinking about how to fill in the postal-vote form. After that he had simply given up.
At last the election discussion came to an end. Then the chairman said: ‘We’ve had a request to speak from two students from the Tech who are apparently in dispute down there. Will the meeting agree to hear them?’ There was acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, and a Mr Shann was invited to explain the situation.
It appeared that the Principal of the local College of Technology had decided to impose a quota on the number of overseas students to be admitted to the College. The students had held a mass meeting to protest against the policy and when the Principal had refused to discuss with them they had occupied the College. This was five days ago and the students were still in occupation; now they were seeking support from the local community. Thus far George understood and sympathised. The problem was that the student was speaking a language that meant nothing to the vast majority of delegates. For instance, he had a great deal to say about ‘racialism’. Now obviously, George thought, racialism was an issue. But to this student everybody seemed to be racialists – the College Principal, the Governors of the College, the officials of the Students’ Union (which was not supporting the occupation) and even the Labour Government. And again he was saying a lot about imperialism – on one occasion George counted the word being used five times in a single sentence – without ever making it clear what he meant by the term. He ended up by calling for a Student-Worker Alliance. I wonder if he’s ever sat next to a worker on a bus, thought George.
The Management Committee looked bored and bewildered by the whole performance. The girl, who had sat quiet until this point (I suppose she’s his girl-friend who’s come along with him when she really wanted to go to the pictures, mused George) leaned over and asked the Chairman if she could add a few words. He was clearly reluctant to let it go on any longer, but he didn’t like to be impolite to ladies, so he let her speak.
The girl stood up and said, softly but clearly: ‘I just wanted to say that in the College we’re all united. We don’t care if people are black or white or green. We don’t care if people come from England or Scotland or Africa. We’re all students together and it’s wrong to divide us. We don’t want quotas; we don’t want labels sticking on people as if they were different. These students from overseas need an education and they can’t get it in their own countries. Often they come from countries that used to be British colonies, and it’s because we didn’t do enough to build up education in those countries that they have to come here. We know the Labour Party believes in equality and international brotherhood, so we’re very much hoping that you can give us your support.’
She’s a shrewd girl, thought George admiringly. She saw that her mate had screwed it up so she managed to put it right again. She sounded so simple but she’s not simple-minded. She knows how to judge an audience and how to swing a meeting. I thought she was just a nice looker but she’s a clever operator.
But if the girl had swung George she had failed to swing most of his fellow party members. The first speaker was Ken Chapman, a former mayor. He’d been an old bloke when George first met him, just after the war, and now he was well over eighty and should, in George’s view, have been put away in a home for the senile some time back. When he intervened in meetings he generally talked about something quite remote from the topic under debate. ‘Well, Chairman,’ he began, ‘I was listening to the radio this morning, while I was having my breakfast, and they were talking about this drain-brain. It seems a lot of these students are getting an education here at the taxpayers’ expense and then going off abroad where they can make more money. So I’m against these students going overseas; I don’t think we should support it.’
The second speaker was nearly as old. ‘I’ve served as a school governor for over twenty years,’ he began, and continued by reciting the notes for guidance on the powers of school governors which he had clearly learned by heart to assist him in the execution of his duties. He concluded by saying ‘So I’m very glad these young people have come to us for advice, and if there are any Labour members on the governing body of their school I’m sure they’ll do their best for them.’ He sat down, clearly expecting a round of applause for his long service on behalf of the community.
The Chairman was obviously anxious to get on with the agenda but he could hardly ignore George’s hand which was being waved violently. ‘Comrades,’ he began (George often addressed the delegates as ‘comrades’, not because he thought of them as such, but because it annoyed them). ‘We have to put this occupation in context. Last month we had that arch-Tory Enoch Powell stirring up racial hatred with his speech. And far too many working people couldn’t see through his poisonous lies. Racial prejudice isn’t just evil; it’s a terrible threat to the whole labour movement. If we don’t stand up against it then it can destroy our Party. So I applaud what these students are doing. I want to propose that we express full support for their action and that we send along a delegation to one of their meetings.’
Councillor Bill Ellison was on his feet immediately. ‘Chairman, this is an important argument, and there’s a lot to be said on it, but we don’t have time to deal with it tonight. Can I propose that this matter be referred to the next meeting of the Executive? Remember we have a bazaar coming up at the end of next month, and that must be discussed tonight…’
* * *
ENGLISH : REVISION ESSAY TOPICS
1) ‘The Merchant of Venice is a play which exudes a profoundly compassionate view of the human situation.’ Discuss and illustrate.
2) ‘Jane Austen is remarkable above all as an acute social critic.’ Do you agree?
3) ‘The law court in Bleak House has nothing to do with any existing legal system. It is a symbol of the conundrum of human existence.’ Discuss.
Bewildered, George turned away from the notice-board. On the blank wall opposite someone had written: DOWN WITH THE PEDAGOGIC GERONTOCRACY. THE MORE I MAKE THE REVOLUTION THE MORE I WANT TO MAKE LOVE.
When the Labour Party meeting had finished, the girl (her friend seemed to have vanished) had come up to George and said, very shyly: ‘You seemed to be the only person who was interested in what we were saying. Would you like to visit the occupation? It’s only just down the road.’
George had agreed only too gladly, and had walked down the street with the young woman, whose name, he discovered, was Ruth Storer. But as soon as they had entered the College, she had disappeared into the ladies’ cloakroom like a rabbit going down a burrow, leaving George feeling as if he was a spaceman marooned on an alien planet. What were these students after, he wondered? Were they all hippies? He remembered an appalling record everyone had been playing last summer, about going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair. George had no sympathy with flower power. There was an old joke about a Marxist who said ‘flowers are bourgeois’. That was George’s feeling exactly.
Fortunately Ruth now reappeared and led George into the main hall of the College. ‘We’re having a strategy meeting now,’ she told him. It was nothing like any meeting George had ever experienced, and there was precious little strategy about it. The issue, apparently, was that since the occupation had begun the library had been kept locked. Quite a lot of students had external examinations in three or four weeks time, and they wanted to negotiate an arrangement whereby the library could be reopened while the rest of the building was occupied. As a trade unionist George understood the problem and recognised that it was the sort of thing on which there would have to be some sort of compromise with the management. Which was more than most of the students did.
A young man with shoulder-length hair declared that the library should be kept closed as it contained nothing but ‘bourgeois culture’. Students must be prepared to turn their backs on reactionary books and create a new culture, based on the toiling masses.
‘You mean the Beatles?’ someone shouted out.
‘Why not,’ he answered. ‘The Beatles are more popular than Chairman Mao.’
This brought some boos of disapproval from a small group of hard-faced students to the left of the hall. One of them rose and strode to the front.
‘Comrades,’ he shouted. ‘We have to be serious. We cannot get ourselves enmeshed in details like examinations. The whole system is crumbling. In two years time a degree certificate won’t be worth the paper it is printed on. Lin Piao has taught us that the peasants must encircle the cities and liberate them. In Britain that is the role of the students. We have to encircle the working class and liberate them.’
As the next speaker came to the front, Ruth whispered to George: ‘That’s Malcolm Wells. He’s a friend of mine. He’s awfully clever.’
Malcolm was concerned with the fact that an earlier speaker had suggested that the policy on the library could be settled by a vote. ‘Voting’, he declared, ‘is bourgeois. We have to reject bourgeois democracy as a sham and a fraud. Lenin taught us that the revolution will mean the transcendence of democracy. Remember they don’t vote in China. With the revolution there’ll be an end to all this fraud of voting and meetings and debating.’
And what the fuck, George wondered, will we do all day long?
After about an hour of this he turned to Ruth and asked: ‘How long does this go on? I have to be at work in the morning.’
Oh,’ she said, ‘It’ll probably last all night. Let’s go outside.’
In the corridor they met Keith Shann, the other student who had been at the Labour Party meeting. ‘What did you think of it all?’ he asked George.
‘Well,’ said George, anxious not to be too rude when he had after all been invited, ‘it’s very impressive to see so many young people who’ve got opinions and are prepared to stand up and argue about them. But you’ve got a lot to learn about procedure. It was a bit of a shambles.’
‘It was more fun than your meeting,’ snapped Keith.
‘Now that I grant you,’ George replied. ‘I don’t think many people go to a Labour Party GMC for a fun night out.’
‘Then why do you bother?’ asked Keith. ‘Surely you must recognise that the Labour Party is a social-fascist party.’
George clenched his fists. ‘Now come on. Nobody calls me a fascist. I’ve seen real fascists; I fought against them.’
‘I don’t mean rank-and-file Labour Party members,’ said Keith, hurriedly. ‘But you’ve got to admit that the Labour Party has played a counter-revolutionary role. Look at the way Wilson attacked the striking seamen. Look at the way Labour kept the old system going when there was a real chance of revolution back in 1945.’
George thought of 1945, of the people dancing in the streets, of the huge hopes that were to be disappointed. But had there really been a chance of revolution? In Italy maybe, but in Britain…?
‘I’ll admit the Labour Party hasn’t made much progress,’ he said, ‘but what alternative is there?’
Ruth joined in the argument. ‘Of course the Labour Party isn’t fascist,’ she said, ‘but it quite clearly isn’t doing the job it set out to do. Harold Wilson won’t bring socialism in a million years. We need a new party that’ll break with everything Labour stands for and really fight for socialism.’
George looked at her. That girl is bright, he thought. Her politics are just as sharp as Keith’s, but she has twenty times more idea how to handle people. ‘Look,’he said, ‘I was in the Communist Party for eleven years. But we got nowhere. And more and more people kept leaving to join the Labour Party. They didn’t see the point in staying in the Communist Party to talk about fighting elections when they could join the Labour Party and – well sometimes – actually win elections.’
‘Yes,’ said Ruth, ‘but you’re still talking about elections. I’m talking about a party that breaks with all that stuff about Parliament and elections.’
‘But if you don’t work through Parliament how are you ever going to change things…?’
* * *
‘There’s a letter from our Jenny,’ said Rachel when George came in from work the next day, tired and irritable after his late night at the occupation.
‘I’m glad there’s one of them still remembers we exist,’ muttered George. He sometimes felt very bitter that neither of the children had shown any interest in his political ideas. Michael had left home a year ago to join a rock and roll band. He’d started taking drugs and they heard from him only once or twice a year. Jenny was a student, currently spending a year studying abroad in the South of France. During their last years at home relations between the children and their parents had become increasingly strained; the children simply could not understand George’s obsession with a never-ending cycle of meetings. For his part he couldn’t comprehend the unthinking hedonism to which they seemed to be devoting their lives. When they clashed, as they did frequently, their favourite term of abuse was to call him an ‘old puritan’.
‘I wonder if Jenny will be mixed up in this trouble in France,’ said Rachel.
‘No such luck,’ said George. ‘That one won’t get mixed up with anything unless they’re throwing all-night parties.’
George turned on the television. The first item was the news from France. A wave of factory occupations was spreading across the country. Newsreel film showed a series of workplaces, all taken over by the workers. At the gate of each stood a picket of hefty-looking individuals wearing CGT armbands. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to work in the morning and meet that, thought George? Some factories were flying red flags. At the Berliet plant workers had taken down the letters from the sign above the gate and rearranged them to spell LIBERTE. ‘At the Sud-Aviation aircraft factory near Nantes,’ said the reporter, ‘workers have taken captive about twenty members of management. They are being held under strict surveillance and they are not allowed to go to the lavatory without the workers’ permission.’ It’s nice to see the boot’s on the other foot for once, thought George.
He turned the television off. ‘It was the students who started it off,’ he said. ‘When the workers saw that something could be changed, then they had the confidence to act. I wonder if those idiots at the Tech could ever spark anything off. After all, you don’t need to be more than an idiot to strike a match and throw it in a pile of powder.’
Rachel said nothing. She hardly ever said anything nowadays.
* * *
The meeting of the Labour Party Executive Committee was scheduled for a full fortnight after the GMC meeting. George had been afraid (as Bill Ellison had doubtless hoped) that the occupation would be over before the EC was able to discuss it, but George had bumped into Ruth only two days ago, and had a long talk about the occupation, which was still going strong.
The meeting started on time, but spent an inordinate amount of time on matters arising from the previous minutes, including matters arising from the ‘matters arising’ section of the previous meeting. But at last they got to matters referred from the GMC. George immediately moved that the EC offer full support to the occupying students. He repeated his points about the atmosphere created by the Powell speech and stressed the need for the Labour Party to be seen fighting racial prejudice wherever it might arise. When George had finished the chair called Councillor Bill Ellison.
‘My old friend George has made a very high-minded speech,’ he began, ‘and of course in an ideal world we should all travel where we wanted and live where we wanted. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The Labour Party was set up to represent the interests of the people, and we have to put the interests of our own people first. I have no prejudice myself – but we do have to recognise that there are problems. In the area round the Tech it’s very difficult for anyone to get rooms because there are so many lodgings taken by these overseas students. And of course we have to remember that a lot of these people come from very different cultures to our own. I’m not saying they’re better or worse, just that they’re different. In things like hygiene, for example, they have very different kinds of standards.’
Technically, George reflected, Bill’s contribution was not actually racialist. Technically. Which was more than could be said for the following intervention, from old John Barran, who claimed that his next-door neighbours were playing ‘jungle music’ twenty-four hours a day, and that his daughter was scared to send her children to the local school in case they got leprosy. (George had been leafletting with John before the Borough elections; on one occasion he had given a leaflet to a black woman and, when she took it, muttered ‘If you can fucking read’.)
George was now furious. He demanded to speak again. ‘I joined this Party to fight for socialism, against capitalism. Racial prejudice is a product of capitalism, and as long as workers let themselves be divided by race and colour, we’ll never get anywhere.’
‘That’s all very fine,’ snarled Bill Ellison, ‘but those are your own views, not the views of the ward you’re supposed to represent.’
‘I’ll happily stand for re-election at any time of day or night,’ rejoined George. ‘If they don’t want me as delegate I shan’t force myself on them.’
The chairman called for order and proceeded to a vote. The result was predictable. George had not a single supporter, not even the person who had originally seconded the motion. He saw no point in staying in the meeting any longer, and walked out, slamming the door.
* * *
Feeling guilty and frustrated at his failure to give the students any support, George decided that the least he could do was to go down to the occupation and explain the situation to Ruth and Keith. As he entered the College building he saw a figure that looked strangely familiar. It was a man of about his own age – mid-forties – but looking more prosperous and rather better preserved. The other looked curiously at George, as if searching through the depths of his memory, and then suddenly exclaimed : ‘Is that George Cook?’
‘Good God! It’s nice to see you again.’ And as George still looked puzzled he added ‘Mervyn Clifton.’ Now George could place the face. He’d kept contact with some of his army pals for a year or two, but had lost touch with Mervyn after Jenny was born. He wondered anxiously how to address his old friend – ‘Merv’ somehow didn’t seem appropriate any more.
Mervyn enquired after George’s family, and learnt that he was still working in engineering, still a member of the Labour Party. When George asked what Mervyn was doing , he replied:
‘Oh, I work here. Or I do when the students will let me. I’m a sociology lecturer. I moved into sociology from history. I don’t know if you saw the little book I published a year or so back - Class Yesterday and Today; I tried to preserve what’s worthwhile in Marx while bringing in an up-to-date analysis.
‘You may have heard that this College is likely to be part of one of the new Polytechnics the government are setting up. If so, I have a fair chance of being head of the Social Science Department. That should open up the possibility of doing some radical work.’
George asked Mervyn’s view of the occupation.
‘That’s what I’m here at this time of night for. I’ve been trying to mediate between the two sides. I get to talk to the students in a way the Principal couldn’t, because I have a reputation for being on the left. We really have to get this thing over with in the next week or so, or it may damage the chances of getting the Polytechnic established. Fortunately the more responsible students – the ones I’ve been talking to – recognise this. Of course the students have a legitimate point. I’m implacably opposed to racial discrimination myself. But there are various committees they could use to pursue their aims, in particular the Academic Board – well, actually the students don’t have any representatives on that, but they could put their case to it. Personally I believe that in an ideal world students would control the Colleges, and elect and dismiss their teachers.’
George and Mervyn said goodbye, expressing the hope that they would meet again before another twenty years had gone by. George was shocked to realise just how remote he felt from someone by whose side he had once lain in the mud, constantly expecting to be blown to pieces by a shell before the next minute was over.
Then George glimpsed Ruth at the end of the corridor. He rushed up to her and told her, apologetically, of the failure of his resolution. ‘Never worry, she said, ‘thanks for trying so hard for us.’ And she invited him into the hall where yet another interminable strategy meeting was taking place. Ruth seemed really pleased he had come, and introduced him to several other students.
George looked round at the assembly. The numbers were keeping up well, but most of them looked tired and, by his standards, incredibly scruffy. Malcolm Wells was speaking, trying to draw the lessons of the French general strike. His account differed somewhat from the one George had managed to glean from the press and television. According to Malcolm de Gaulle’s regime was crumbling visibly, while the Communist Party was also on the point of collapse. The student vanguard was leading the workers forward. George could only wish that life was so simple.
Then the discussion was interrupted so that the Occupation Committee could make an important statement. A rather smooth-looking young man came up on to the platform; looking at him George could imagine him twenty years hence as a full-time trade-union official. He reported that contacts had been made with the Principal through a third party and that an agreement had been made to commence negotiations. It was understood that the Principal was willing to reconsider the question of the quota on overseas students.
Keith Shann leapt to his feet. Had the Principal given written guarantees that no student involved in the occupation would be faced with disciplinary action and that examinations would be rescheduled? He reminded the speaker that a mass meeting of students had agreed that no negotiations should begin until these guarantees were given.
The aspirant bureaucrat hesitated. He was now joined on the platform by the other five members of the Occupation Committee. Among them George recognised the hard-faced young man who had quoted Lin Piao at the previous meeting. After they had conferred for a moment or two he admitted that no guarantees had been given, although he had been assured that the Principal would take a sympathetic view on both questions. All round the hall students began to stamp their feet and chant ‘Sell-out! Sell-out!’
Keith Shann jumped up on the platform and, without any authorisation, began to address the meeting. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I’ve just been talking to Mervyn Clifton. I think he’s the mysterious “third party” we were hearing about. And I’ll tell you something. He’s scared to death that if this occupation goes on it’ll upset the schedule for the new Polytechnic. And if it does that’ll screw the promotion he’s set his heart on. And the same is true of the Principal. That’s what this new Polytechnic is all about. Promotions galore. So if we don’t lose our nerve in the next few days they’ll cave in. But if we don’t get those guarantees then students will be getting expulsion letters in six weeks time, when the vacation is starting and it’s too late to do anything about it. So I propose that we recall the Occupation Committee – that is, that they resign and a new Committee be elected.’
There was a wave of applause and a chanting of ‘Resign! Resign!’ The Occupation Committee conferred quickly among themselves, but they had no option other than to concede. Nominations were called for; nine names were proposed for six places. While the voting took place there was a constant hum of conversation, as students sought advice about the candidates and argued as to their merits. A new committee was declared elected, including Keith Shann and Ruth Storer.
George looked at his watch. From the original statement to the recall to the election of the new committee just twenty-five minutes had passed. Less time than the Labour Party Executive had spent on matters arising from minutes. George reflected that he had badly misjudged the students; he had seen more democracy tonight than in eight years in the Labour Party.
* * *
George stayed at the occupation for some time, drinking and arguing with a group of students. After a while Ruth joined them. ‘The new Committee’s met’,she said, ‘and we’re seeing Mervyn Clifton in the morning to convey what’s negotiable and what’s not.’
After a while George said that he must be going as he had to be up for work at six. Ruth asked him where he lived. When he told her she said: I’m going home now myself. We have a rota so we get to sleep at home one night in four. I live just round the corner from you so we can walk together.’
They went out into the moonlight. George felt elated – slightly drunk and happy to be walking through the night with a beautiful young woman. George thought back to the time twenty-three years ago when he had first walked Rachel home. Ruth reminded him of Rachel as she had been then – her independence, her determination, her good looks. How Rachel had aged, he thought. And how she’d changed. He supposed it was bringing up the kids that changed her; that was inevitable for a woman. But recently, since the kids had left home, she had seemed more spiritless than ever.
‘I bet there’s one thing you never even noticed tonight,’ Ruth was saying. ‘The new Committee was claiming to be “totally representative” of the students, yet there’s six of us and I’m the only woman. And nearly sixty per cent of the students in the College are women – that’s because it’s so much more difficult for women to get into University.’
George had nothing much to say, so Ruth began to talk about her own life. ‘One of the earliest things I remember is going into a shop with my Mum and I wanted to buy a toy car, but my Mum said I couldn’t have it because cars were for boys. I expect she was just short of money, though we were never really poor; my Dad was a teacher. Then when I was doing my A-levels I wanted to do Physics, but they told me that wasn’t a girl’s subject. So I ended up doing History. I think the reason I feel so strongly about racial discrimination is that I’m against all discrimination – against black people, against working-class people, and against women most of all.’
‘But men and women will always be different,’ George said. ‘It’s part of nature; that’ll never change.’
‘I read this pamphlet the other day,’ said Ruth, ‘that ended up “There can be no socialism without women’s liberation”. I thought that put it just right.’
George fell silent; this was a totally new idea for him. Soon they were at Ruth’s front door. ‘Do you want to come in for some coffee?’ she asked. ‘My friend Sylvia’s away, so we’ll have the place to ourselves.’ George followed her upstairs to her small, untidy room, strewn with books and records and clothes. She lit the gas-cooker and put on a record which to George seemed utterly discordant and incomprehensible. He saw from the sleeve that it was called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
‘Do you like it?’ she asked. ‘I think “Interstellar Overdrive” is marvellous.’ To George it seemed as meaningless as the essay questions on the College noticeboard.
When the coffee was ready Ruth came to sit on the settee beside him. She put her arm round his shoulders and with her finger-tips began to gently caress the side of his neck just below his ear. After a while the record stopped. Ruth got up to switch off the record-player, and slipped out of the door. She was gone for several minutes and George could hear the distant sound of running water.
When she returned she came back to the settee. It was a hot evening and he had taken off his jacket. She carried on stroking his neck. Then, after a few moments, she began to run her fingers up and down the middle of his back until his spine felt like a live electric cable. Her other hand strayed inside the top of his trousers.
‘You’re not teasing me,’ he pleaded.
‘Would I do a mean thing like that?’ she protested with a shy smile.
In his mind George was still unsure whether he wanted to go on with this, whether he ought to. But below the waist there was no such ambiguity. Rigid with lust, he responded to Ruth’s caresses. The settee turned into a bed; Ruth helped him undress and pulled him to her.
George was not a sexually experienced man. A week celebrating survival in the brothels of Rome after Cassino; a couple of rather squalid liaisons at trade-union conferences – apart from that George had been faithful to Rachel; a fidelity which, in recent years, had been defined negatively rather than positively.
But as they lay side by side a thought stabbed into his brain like a knife. What if Ruth got pregnant? How would he maintain her and the child? And how could he explain it to Rachel? He was dimly aware that abortion was now legal, but he had no idea how to go about such things; he was not even sure if he thought it was right. The lust drained out of him.
Ruth put her hand on his now flaccid prick. ‘What’s the matter, love?’ she asked tenderly.
‘Nothing,’ he stuttered. A pause. ‘Are you on the pill?’
‘No,’ she answered. The hope and the lust continued to ebb out of his body. ‘But I’ve got a Dutch cap in. That’s what I was in the bog for.’
And I suppose she might have VD, thought George, but the revival of lust was too strong for that particular anxiety. She held him; he penetrated her; they merged. But even during the brief moments of pleasure there was a part of George’s brain from which fear would not be dismissed – what if the cap leaked? what if Rachel found out? And when the liquefying climax came, George felt like a man trapped under water who breaks free to raise his head above the surface and fill his lungs with air only to be pulled back into the depths again.
Neither of them spoke. George lay half-asleep. And into his mind strayed an article he had read in a Sunday newspaper. A scientist was putting forward the theory that when the universe had finished expanding it would start to shrink in again; that time would be reversed, and that we should all live our lives again, but backwards, from death to birth, sucking in shit and spewing out food. If that were true, thought George, then his life might make more sense backwards; for tonight he would be drawing in sustenance from Ruth’s young body to keep him going through the long years of isolated militancy.
* * *
It was a quarter to four when George arrived at his own front door. Only two hours sleep and he had to be up for work. At least he could be fairly sure Rachel wouldn’t be making any amorous demands on him. He fumbled for his key, but couldn’t find it. It must have slipped on to Ruth’s floor when he undressed. What was to be done? He pushed at the front door in the vain hope that it might be open, but no such luck. One of the front-room windows was slightly ajar, but it was too high to reach. He dragged the dustbin across the tiny front garden and climbed up on it, but the opening was too narrow. He could not even reach through to open the window wider.
The front door opened. Rachel stood there, unsmiling, in pink pyjamas. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’ve lost my key,’ he stammered.
‘Why didn’t you knock instead of playing at Spiderman? The din woke me up.’
George thought he had better get inside before she decided to slam the door in his face. ‘Where have you been?’ she demanded, staring at him. George felt as if his forehead was one of those electronic newsboards you saw in central London, with lights running across it spelling out I HAVE FUCKED ANOTHER WOMAN.
‘I was down at the student occupation,’ he mumbled. ‘They go on all night, you know.’
Rachel gazed at him, then said quietly: ‘I know what goes on all night.’ For a moment he thought she was going to fly into a fit of screaming rage, but she simply burst into tears and ran back upstairs. George slept on the sofa in the front room and went to work next morning feeling like a cardboard box that had been left out in the rain.
* * *
I am writing to present my resignation from the Labour Party. As you know, I have had many differences with Labour Party policy, but until now I always thought I should stay in and fight for my position. But the openly racialist opinions expressed at the last meeting of the Executive mean that I cannot stay in the Party a day longer. If I were to commit a minor fault, like advising people to put crosses on their ballot papers against a candidate other than the Labour one, I should be promptly expelled from the Party. But Labour Party members are allowed to come out with racial abuse and suffer no consequences.
Since Enoch Powell made his evil speech in April there has been a tide of racial hatred sweeping across the country. Yet the Labour Party is so obsessed with winning elections (obsessed with but not very good at) that it has done nothing to resist this tide. The only people willing to stand up and fight have been the students. To you they may not be part of the labour movement. To me they are allies.
In the factory where I work there are men of many races – Jamaicans, Bengalis, Irish. The management exploit us all equally. If equality is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
Over the last four years I’ve watched as the Wilson government has frozen wages, slandered strikers, shut the door on immigrants and licked out the arsehole of a warmongering American President. I bitterly resent the fact that a Labour Government from which we hoped so much has done this. I have opposed these policies inside the Labour Party and I shall go on opposing them outside. Like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing.
George reread the latter. When he got to the last sentence, he thought: I bet the agent tries to move the expulsion of Edith Piaf. Then he picked up his Labour Party card from the table and tore it into two pieces, then four, then eight. He seemed to be tearing up eight years of his life.
* * *
George had made friends with quite a few of the occupying students, and one evening after work in early June he decided to drop in and see them. They were gathered in the hall for yet another strategy meeting and he sat down at the back. Despite all their practice at speaking they didn’t seem to be getting much better at it. Then it was announced that there would be a special report from the Occupation Committee. Ruth appeared on the platform.
‘I have to tell you,’ she said, ‘that we’ve just concluded a meeting with the Principal. He has agreed to drop the quota on overseas students, and to reschedule internal examinations. He has also given us a written undertaking that no students will be disciplined for any actions during the occupation.’
There was a moment of stunned silence; a few students began to clap.
‘For the thicker ones among you,’ Ruth said, ‘that means we’ve won.’ A huge cheer went up, lasting for some minutes. When it died down, Ruth carried on:
‘I want this place like a new pin. Every beer can, every used Durex, every suspicious cigarette end into the rubbish bins. I don’t see why the cleaners, who get shit-poor wages, should pick up the pieces for us. And tomorrow morning you’re back at your lessons.’
The meeting broke up. Ruth came down from the platform and passed close to George. He turned to her: ‘That’s good news. It’s wonderful.’
‘Yes,’ she replied in a very cool tone. ‘We’ve done very well. Thank-you very much for all your support. I must go. There’s a lot to see to.’
A few minutes later as George was helping some students sweep up he saw Ruth coming back down the corridor. She was arm in arm with Keith Shann.
I suppose I’m too old to hold a younger woman, he thought bitterly. I mustn’t have been up to standard that night. But why did she lure me on? I suppose with those kids talking about uniting with the proletariat all the time, it must have been a bit of a thrill to be fucked by a worker. For once. But she wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. Never mind. She’ll probably be a bank manager in six months time.
* * *
When George got home later that evening he found the house dark and empty. Slightly surprised, for Rachel didn’t go out much, even though there were no kids to mind any longer, George went into the kitchen, realising he would have to make his own tea. On the table was a letter addressed to him in Rachel’s handwriting. He opened it.
This is to let you know I’ve left and I’m not coming back. It’s not your little flirtation the other week that has led to this. That was just a tiny little insult on top of a bloody great injury, the final straw for a camel whose spine was already terribly bent.
For twenty-three years I’ve heard you talking about the oppressed, the wretched of the earth – miners, dockers, railwaymen, Koreans, Algerians, Vietnamese. But you never talk about the oppression of women. Women are half the human race, half the working class.
When I married you, twenty-two years ago, we both had dreams we thought would come true. They didn’t. You blame Stalin and the Labour Party leaders for that. Who do I blame? When I married you I was pushed into domestic labour, cooking, cleaning, minding the kids while you went to all those meetings that were so important for the future of humanity. If I did have a job it was never anywhere with a union so I didn’t really count as a worker.
So I lost my dreams and eventually I lost my spirit. But I’ve got the rest of my life to live. You may think I’m a battered old cow (don’t deny it) but I’m going to salvage something.
I’m staying with a friend of mine; you don’t need the address. She’s been in the USA and she’s got some really exciting ideas about groups of women – women on their own, doing things for themselves. In a few weeks, when you’ve got used to the housework, I’ll come and see you and we’ll talk about financial arrangements.
By the way, I expect you were so busy gazing at the French Revolution on television that you didn’t even notice that the women sewing machinists at Fords had gone on strike for equal pay. But I’ll bet historians in the future see that as a lot more important than your precious student vanguard.
George went into the front room and sat down. He didn’t want to eat, he didn’t want to sleep. In just over a month – the merry month of May – he’d lost his wife, his lover and his party.
He picked up the newspaper and read it in a desultory fashion. The revolutionary groups in France had been made illegal. But in Italy students were on the march. The Americans in Vietnam were on the defensive. The reform movement in Czechoslovakia was gaining ground. In Northern Ireland they were trying to launch a Civil Rights Movement. And the Fords women had brought the whole Dagenham works to a standstill. What was it Galileo had said? It still moves.