‘This evening,’ began Malcolm Wells, ‘I’m going to talk about narrative structure in popular fiction. When we read a text, it isn’t so important what it says; what really matters is how it says it. The examples I’m going to take will be from the Sherlock Holmes stories – I expect some of you are familiar with them.
‘Now detective stories have a structure which is essentially epistemological…’
The twenty-odd students in the room looked blank.
‘That is, they are about knowing. When we read a detective story, we want to know who committed the crime.’ Fair enough, thought George Cook, but not exactly earth-shattering.
‘There are,’ Malcolm went on, ‘various modes of narration. There is the first-person narration, the I-form. With this, the reader knows no more than is known by the narrator, we know what he or she thinks, but all the other characters are seen from the outside. With a third-person narration there are two possibilities. One is a third-person narration that is really a first-person, so we have access to one central character’s thoughts, but all the other people are seen from outside. The other possibility is an omniscient narrator…that is, a narrator who knows everything. He can tell us the private thoughts of two different characters, in two separate rooms, at the same moment. There’s a passage in George Eliot where she tells us a horse is surprised. The omniscient narrator even knows what a horse is thinking.
‘In the Holmes stories the narrator is Dr Watson. Now Watson is not a fool, as he is presented in the films. He is an ordinary human being, who observes appearances but nothing more. But Doyle is very much concerned with a reality that is behind and beyond appearances. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that he ended up a spiritualist.
‘Now one of the most frequent devices in the Holmes stories is the way in which the narration sets the terms of the investigation in a misleading fashion. It isn’t that we are looking for something and eventually we find it. We are encouraged to look for the wrong thing. We are looking for a murderer but the killer is a horse. We try to solve a murder and it turns out to be suicide. The mysterious man in the lodging-house is a woman. The missing suitor is non-existent.
George was taking notes, frantically trying to keep up. He was half-way through the second year of a part-time degree course at the local Polytechnic. He was finding it fascinating but hard work. Often he had to spend the entire weekend reading, but he did not resent this. Since Rachel had gone George had let part of the house to students, and he often compared his diligence to their apparent idleness and disorganised apathy.
‘Now let’s look at the figure of Holmes,’ Malcolm went on. ‘Holmes personifies omniscience. By looking round a room, he can tell us the height, age and sex of a murderer, what size his feet are and what sort of cigars he smokes. He discovers the reality behind the appearance. And what is crucial is that Holmes is an isolated individual. There is no space in Doyle for a collective solution. Human affairs are in confusion; the individual of genius arrives and sets them right.
‘And this means that a closure is effected. In the beginning there is a mystery; we feel anxious because there is something we don’t know. But at the end Holmes solves the problem; all the details fit into place. We, the readers, now know everything. We feel satisfied, complacent.’
Very interesting, thought George, but where does it lead to? He’d taken up the degree course when his political activities had waned, after he’d become very demoralised by the performance of the Labour Government. He still worked in the engineering industry, and until recently had been a steward, but the Labour Government’s Social Contract – or Con-Trick, as George always called it – had meant there was far less struggle on the shop-floor. He could have become shop stewards’ convenor in his factory – a full-time post, but the job held no charm for him. If you went up the stairs past the switchboard you came to two identical doors, leading into two identical offices. In each a man sat behind a desk – one was the Personnel Manager, the other the convenor.
‘Now why is all this important,’ Malcolm asked, as if repeating George’s silent question. ‘Every text has an ideological sub-text. A reading of a text has to bring out not only the things we are consciously aware of, but also the unconscious assumptions we make, the things we take for granted. These have to be made explicit and questioned. For example, we can see that Doyle makes many assumptions that are pro-imperialist and even racist.’
Malcolm Wells now went into a detailed analysis of Silver Blaze and The Adventure of the Red Circle, illustrating the points he had made. When the lecture ended, after about fifty minutes, he invited questions and observations. Eric Miles raised his hand: ‘May I?’ he asked. Miles was a mature student in his fifties, about the same age as George. He had taken early retirement from a minor managerial post and was now immersing himself in philosophy and literary theory.
‘A few facts,’ he said, ‘just a few facts. Watson doesn’t narrate all the stories; Holmes tells The Lion’s Mane himself, and The Blanched Soldier; His Last Bow is in the third person. Holmes is not omniscient; he fails several times, notably in The Yellow Face. And Holmes is not always an isolated individual; remember the “Baker Street irregulars”, a horde of kids who looked all over the river for a boat in a way an individual could never do. And these so-called racist assumptions. How about The Yellow Face again? The woman who has a black child by her first husband, and says she was proud to cut herself off from her race to marry him. I think that’s a rather effective anti-racist story. No, Sherlock Holmes is a bit more complicated than you give him credit for being.’
Malcolm Wells conceded Miles’s points in a rather embarrassed manner. He’s good on ideas, thought George, but he hasn’t read the stories properly. And what good’s a theory if it doesn’t fit the facts?
George decided to get his own oar in. ‘Could you say a bit more about what you called the “closure”? Surely every story comes to an end, sooner or later.’
‘Yes,’ said Malcolm, clearly relieved that George was not going to drag him into a debate about whether The Valley of Fear was set before or after The Final Problem. ‘Every story comes to a conclusion, but the conclusion is not necessarily a closure. What I’m talking about is the way all the loose ends are tied up, like in those nineteenth-century novels where all the long-lost relatives come to light and we hear news of all the characters in the final chapter. It’s very closely linked to the belief in Progress current at the time, the idea that human history was working up to a happy ending. That is a specifically bourgeois mode of narration, which reaches its peak in the Victorian age.’
‘So a proletarian novel wouldn’t end like that?’ asked George.
‘Oh, I’m not advocating proletarian culture,’ said Malcolm.
‘But if it isn’t bourgeois, it must be proletarian.’
‘No,’ Malcolm explained. ‘I’m contrasting the classic realist text, which is archetypally bourgeois, with the modernist narrative. In the latter there is an endless play of signifiers; each signifier evokes another signifier, and there is no ultimate signified.’
‘Fine,’ said George, ‘but is it a good read…?’
* * *
George had had a couple of drinks with some of his fellow-students after the lecture, and it was quite late by the time he was walking home. It was a cool March evening and the road, lined by terraced houses, was quiet. In the distance behind him he heard the sound of a car. He hated cars, because he had spent a good part of his life making bits of them, and because they killed people. He’d once read a science fiction story where cars were abolished and replaced by moving pavements. Obviously impossible, but a nice idea.
The car was getting closer. He’s driving like a bloody maniac, thought George. About fifty yards ahead of where George was, on the same side of the road, the car screeched to a halt. Immediately the front passenger door opened and a man stepped out. He paused for a moment, apparently lighting a cigarette. Then he hurled something at the house in front of him and George heard the sound of breaking glass. Obviously some crime was being committed. George hesitated to rush up to the car, since it must contain at least two people, but he took a careful look at it – a white Austin with a dent in the rear left door – and he noted its number. By now the man had jumped back into the passenger seat and after a moment the driver started the car up again; it roared off at the same maniac speed and disappeared.
George hastened up to the house and saw with horror that the front room downstairs was already ablaze. He remembered a newspaper article about how furniture-manufacturers were pushing up profits by filling chairs with highly inflammable material that gave off noxious fumes. George hammered on the door of the neighbouring house; a woman appeared. ‘Get the Fire Brigade, quick,’ he gasped, ‘the house next door’s on fire.’
He turned back to the burning house. There were no lights to be seen. Hopefully the residents were out, but more likely they had already gone to bed. He banged on the front door and shouted ‘Fire! Fire!’ at the top of his voice. A moment later a black woman’s face appeared at the upstairs window. ‘What’s happening?’ she asked. ‘The house is on fire. Get out – and get everyone else out – immediately.’ She vanished, but reappeared a minute later. ‘The stairs are burning; there’s no way out. I’ve got two young children here.’ She looked very frightened.
‘Drop them out to me,’ said George. ‘I’ll catch them.’ The woman returned to the window with a two-year-old boy, whom she dropped into George’s arms. A four-year-old girl followed. George set them on the ground. They began to whimper.
‘But you can’t catch me; I can’t jump’, moaned the woman. ‘Shut the door of your bedroom,’ called George, ‘and push the mattress against it. That’ll keep the fire out for a little while; the Fire Brigade’s coming.’
By now a few people had begun to gather on the pavement. Has anyone got a garden ladder?’ asked George. No-one had. ‘Then we’ve got to go down the street, and knock on each door till we find someone who has.’ George organised two people to go in opposite directions down the near side of the street, and two more to cover the other side of the road. George stayed in front of the house, holding the hands of the two sobbing children.
He listened anxiously for the sound of an approaching fire-engine, but as yet there was nothing to be heard. The woman looked very frightened. If nothing else can be done, George thought, she can jump on to me and I’ll break her fall, but we’ll probably both end up in hospital. The woman shouted frantically that the bedroom door was now on fire. Then George heard one of the men he’d sent down the street shouting that a ladder was coming. A moment later the ladder was propped against the front of the house and the woman began to climb down. Already flames were visible in the upper window. She reached the ground and her children ran to her. In the distance the sound of a fire-engine could be heard. Only now did George realise how fast his heart was beating – so fast, it seemed, that it could not go on much longer without coming to a halt.
* * *
As George was going to do his shopping the next Saturday morning he noticed a group of people outside the shopping centre giving out leaflets. He’d done that sort of thing often enough himself to be curious, so he went over to them. They were members of the local Anti-Nazi League, advertising for the Carnival to be held in Victoria Park on April 30th.
‘You ought to come along,’ said a lad of about nineteen, ‘it’ll be great. The Clash are playing.’
‘What’s the Clash?’ asked George.
The two younger leafletters looked at him as if he had asked who Winston Churchill was.
‘They’re number 35 on the chart this week,’ said one.
‘Never mind the fucking chart,’ said the other, ‘they’re the greatest band in the history of the universe.’
George felt old and out of touch. Here was a new generation of political activists in his own locality and he didn’t even know them. But what sort of politics was it? They didn’t even seem to be speaking the same language as him.
At this moment a tall, balding, shabbily-dressed man approached. ‘What a lot of wankers! Wankers!’ He repeated the term, as though delivering himself of some deep sexual hang-up. The leafletters pretended to ignore him. He stood in front of one of the two lads who had been talking to George. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘come over here and fight me. Man to man. If you are a man.’ The lad studiously kept his eyes fixed on a hardware shop on the other side of the road. One of the young women smiled. ‘Don’t fucking laugh at me!’ the man snarled. Then, seeing there was no trouble to be had, he walked away, kicking over a refuse-container which rolled against George’s legs.
As he picked it up, George felt very impressed by the discipline these young people had shown. It would have been easy enough to have a punch-up. The man had been heavily outnumbered. But that would merely have interrupted the leafletting and probably brought the police along. These people were, he decided, serious, despite their enthusiasm for the Bash or whatever it was called. He stayed and talked to them for a few minutes more, and was invited to their next meeting. It would mean missing a class at the Poly, but it would be worth it.
* * *
George looked round the small pub room in which the Anti-Nazi League meeting was being held. There were about fifteen people there, all unknown to him, though one young woman looked vaguely familiar. George was a little taken aback to see a young man with green hair and a safety-pin through his ear, but he realised he was going to have to live with the younger generation.
The meeting began. There were no minutes, no matters arising. The secretary, a very efficient Scotswoman, simply gave a report of what had been agreed last time and what was being done about it. An appeal for support was being circulated to all local trade unions. George was asked to raise it at his branch; he agreed, rather non-committally. The normal attendance at branch meetings was seven – three on the left, three hard-line right-wingers, and a retired member of eighty-five, whose heart was in the right place but who was stone-deaf. How any motion went depended entirely on how much could be communicated to the deaf member before the vote was taken.
It was pointed out that the Treasurer, a Labour councillor, had not turned up, and that this was the second consecutive time that this had happened. Someone proposed that he be replaced and this was agreed. George was struck by the absence of formal procedure. He recalled that when he had been Secretary of the local Trades Council, the Minutes Secretary had moved out of the area. Everyone knew he had gone, but he had omitted to send a formal letter of resignation and he could not be asked for one because no-one knew his new address. It had been six months before it had been possible to replace him. But these people realised that democracy only mattered if it got things done. You elected someone to do a job; if they didn’t do it, you replaced them.
Nominations were called for and the name Ruth Storer was put forward. So that was the familiar face. A shudder of long-buried lust revived in George’s loins, then faded as if it had never been born.
There was a discussion of preparations for the Carnival, and the meeting moved on to the main topic of the evening, the recent fire-bombings. There had been three attacks on houses in the area, including the one George had witnessed. Fortunately no-one had been killed or seriously hurt, but houses had been badly damaged. In each case the victims were people known to be active in ethnic minority organisations.
A middle-aged woman (a school-teacher, thought George; I know the type from the Communist Party) said that it was important to persuade the police to take these attacks more seriously. Maybe a delegation could be sent or even a joint committee set up with the police through the Community Relations Council.
George asked to speak next. ‘I’m sorry, sister,’ he began, ‘but I don’t think you’ll have a lot of luck persuading the boys in blue. Let me tell you what happened to me last week. I saw one of these fire-bombings happen. The police came just after the Fire Brigade. The woman who’d been rescued was standing in the street, with her pyjamas on and somebody’s coat round her. Do you know the first thing they did? They asked her for her passport. She said: “I work in Hackney. I didn’t know you needed a passport for Hackney.” I’d seen the two men who did it, but they didn’t get round to me for a while. I told them the car number and they just laughed at me and said there aren’t any numbers in that form so I must have got it wrong. Myself, I think they must have used false number-plates. But after that they didn’t take any notice of what I told them. One of the police said to me: “It’s probably another bunch of coons who did it. We know these different tribes hate each other.” I’d seen the man who threw the bomb, and he was as white as the snow in an Eskimo’s igloo. I told them that but they didn’t even write it down.’
The young man with green hair now made a very earnest speech, quoting Trotsky at several points, about the necessity for setting up defence patrols. Ruth Storer followed this: ‘Of course Hugh is quite right in principle. But look round you. There are fifteen of us. If we all gave up work and stopped sleeping we could only patrol each street in the Borough once a fortnight. It’s irresponsible to promise to defend people when you haven’t got the resources to do it. We have to build on the ground first, and build contacts with the local ethnic communities. We haven’t done nearly enough of that.’ George looked round and noted that there were in fact only two black faces in the room.
He was very impressed by the discussion. Whether or not he agreed with any particular contribution didn’t really matter. What was important was the serious spirit with which things were being discussed. After all, if the bombings went on, someone was bound to die. Britain in 1978 wasn’t the Weimar Republic in 1932 and it was silly to pretend it was, but there was a real threat in the air, and these young people were making a sensible effort to face up to it. After years of passing meaningless resolutions calling on someone else to do something that they were obviously incapable of doing, years of organising jumble-sales and persuading people to put crosses on pieces of paper, this was like a new life.
After a few minutes George asked to speak again. He began by talking about racism in the factory where he worked and went on to say that racism was being used to divert attention from things like cuts in the Health Service. Racism, he said, was not just a moral issue; it was a question of class. ‘And that’,he continued, ‘is the key to how we’ve got to deal with these bombings. We have to take it to the whole labour movement. This bombing is being done by a small group of people – maybe just the two that I saw. If we can mobilise the local community, the local labour movement, to be on the look-out, to watch for the car I saw, for any suspicious actions, we can identify these scum. We’re not asking people to patrol, just to keep their eyes open when they’re living their normal lives. And if we identify the bunch who are doing it, then we can bring the police in…or deal with them some other way.’ One or two of the younger ANL members had gaped with incomprehension when George mentioned the labour movement; but in general his proposal was accepted, and various people, George included, agreed to follow up particular contacts.
At the end of the meeting a girl, no more than fifteen, came up to George. ‘My name’s Irene Wiggins,’ she said. ‘I’m organising SKAN – School Kids Against the Nazis. We’ve got groups going in five of the schools round here, with quite a lot of members.They don’t come to the meetings – because they’re pretty boring. But they’re doing a lot of work for the Carnival. And I thought that if you’d give me the details of the car you saw, I’d put them round. We have members living all over the Borough – one of them’s bound to see it.’
George gave her the description of what he had seen – a white Austin with a dent in the rear left door – and the number, while warning her that it might well be false. ‘I didn’t see the driver,’ he said, ‘but the man who actually threw the bomb was quite tall and didn’t seem to have much hair.’
Then Ruth came over to greet him. ‘Hello’, she said, ‘it’s nice to see you again.’ There was nothing in her manner to suggest that their last-but-one encounter had been entwined together in bed. George asked what had been happening to her.
‘I was with Keith for two or three years; we went to the North of England, and then we split up. I’ve been teaching for a few years, and last autumn I got a job just down the road from here – teaching history. I don’t like it that much. It’s mostly kings and queens – and not too many bloody queens at that – and great men. And all sorts of racist undertones. One of the books I have to use says “In the eighteenth century we were a great trading nation.” Half the kids in the class are descended from the people “we” were buying and selling. How about you? Are you still in the Labour Party?’
‘No,’said George, ‘I left after they wouldn’t support that occupation of yours, and I’ve never been able to stomach going back. I’ve been tempted a few times. If Michael Foot had got to be leader a couple of years back I think I would have rejoined. That would have been a real election winner.’
‘Do you remember that conversation we had at the occupation,’ asked Ruth, ‘about a new party, a real socialist party? Have you changed your mind about that?’
‘No,’ said George, ‘no, I haven’t. There’s all these little groups about, all promising to lead the revolution, but none of them get anywhere…’
* * *
‘The trouble is, George,’ John Mitchell said, ‘that you’re trying to skip stages. You can’t do it the way you want to. You can’t turn the working class into teams of vigilantes overnight. If you want to mobilise the labour movement, then you’ve got to go through the proper channels. There’s a Racial Harmony Committee in the Borough – and it’s been going a lot longer than the Anti-Nazi League. We have to try to get trade union affiliations to that. That’s the first stage. We can’t go charging off after fire-bombers till we’ve done the ground-work.’
‘So you’re saying no?’ asked George.
‘Look,’ said John Mitchell. ‘We’ll co-operate with the ANL where there’s agreement, though I think it was wrong to set up the ANL at all; it was a split in the broad anti-racist movement. But on this hare-brained venture there’s nothing to discuss..’.
* * *
‘No,’ said Councillor Ellison. ‘It’s just not what the Labour Party’s about. Our members are at home watching television in the evening, not prowling the streets playing at Sherlock Holmes.’
‘Couldn’t you even take it to the ward meetings, to the people who are active?’ asked George.
‘Now listen,’ said Bill, ‘as you well know I have no racist sympathies myself. But it’s a sensitive issue; we could lose members over it. The National Front are picking up a lot of support from people who used to vote for us. We can’t go at it like a bull at a gate…’
* * *
As George walked home from Bill Ellison’s he felt depressed. He’d spent the last fortnight trying to get something going about the fire-bombings and nobody in the local labour movement wanted to listen. He remembered how he had admired John Mitchell and Bill Ellison back in 1945, how ignorant he had felt when he listened to them talking. And now how he despised them for their shoddy arguments and their evasions.
Irene Wiggins hadn’t delivered the goods either. Not that she hadn’t tried hard enough; she had been to his house twice to report progress. But the results were useless – too much and too little. White Austins with dented rear doors were two a penny; as many as seven had been spotted; was there something in the nature of the sort of people who drove white Austins that they couldn’t stop themselves from ramming their rear doors into things? But none of them had the right number. George knew he’d been accurate in noting it, so the two Nazis must have been well enough organised to use false number-plates.’
George was walking down a street he didn’t know when he smelt fish and chips. He was hungry; he had gone to Bill Ellison’s straight after work and hadn’t eaten. He saw the sign: ALBERT STOCKDALE : FISH, PIES AND CHIPS, and went in to join the queue. The man serving behind the counter was a tallish individual, in his late thirties, with receding hair. Despite his white coat he looked unpleasantly unclean. There was something vaguely familiar about him, but George couldn’t place it. What a rotten memory for faces I have, he thought; I didn’t even recognise Ruth.
George was still sunk in a reverie about Ruth when he had nearly reached the head of the queue. Just ahead of him a Bengali asked, very distinctly but with a perceptible accent, for cod and chips. ‘Can’t hear,’ snapped the man behind the counter, ‘speak English.’ George was just wondering how to respond to such obvious racism when a very old man shuffled out of the back of the shop. ‘Don’t be rude to the customers, Ted,’ he croaked, ‘you youngsters have no manners.’
The man behind the counter cringed. ‘Sorry, dad,’ he mumbled, and served the Bengali without asking him to repeat his order. The old man shuffled away again. The reprimanded son looked over the counter to George and muttered: ‘He’s eighty-seven and he won’t let me run the place on my own.’
* * *
A young woman bumped into George. He was about to ask her why she couldn’t look where she was going when he saw why she couldn’t - she was wearing a pair of sun-glasses with Rock Against Racism stickers obscuring both lenses. It was the day of the Victoria Park Carnival. Over the last few weeks George and all the ANL members had worked hard to get support for the event. The massive crowd was certainly a reward, though George still had to try hard to come to terms with the idea that people should be having so much fun on a political demonstration.
As he walked across the park he met Mervyn Clifton. ‘Hello,’ he greeted him, ‘I think you and me must be the oldest here.’
‘I hear you’re a student in my Department now,’ said Mervyn, who was Dean of Humanities and Social Science at the Poly.
‘That’s right,’ said George. ‘Though we don’t see a lot of you.’
Mervyn muttered something about the administrative load and serving on various national bodies, then changed the subject. ‘I find the idea of this Carnival fascinating,’ he said, ‘it’s an attempt to implement a theory of cultural politics that derives from Gramsci. It’s very impressive the way they’ve succeeded in mobilising support from different cultural sectors. There are a number of leading opera singers have backed the ANL, and of course some very distinguished academics – Professor Ian Boyd, for example; his work in hermeneutics is really seminal.’
‘I don’t think all these kids have come for opera and hermeneutics,’said George, but Mervyn was so involved in developing his theoretical disquisition that he wasn’t listening. He continued to ramble on about the necessity of intervening in the sphere of cultural hegemony, completely ignoring the music that was being played behind his back. George had lost track of the argument – if indeed there was an argument there. For someone paid to talk for his living, George thought, he does it awfully badly.
George’s next encounter was a much more agreeable one; it was Rachel. ‘What a crowd,’ she said, ‘it’s worse than the Aldermaston marches.’ George and Rachel saw each other quite frequently; the relationship between them was much better than when they had been living under the same roof. On one occasion they had even gone on holiday together with a party of friends.
After leaving George, Rachel had originally taken a job at the check-out of a supermarket; and she had managed to unionise most of the staff before being sacked. Thereafter she had got increasingly immersed in the women’s movement, and had worked in a battered wives’ refuge, a rape crisis centre and a local women’s centre. She was, George thought, always terribly sweet to him, although in theory she ought to have been trying to slice his bollocks off.
There was a growing air of expectancy in the crowd, reaching its climax as the Clash appeared on the open-air stage. It was not the sort of music that appealed to George, but the sheer energy seemed to compensate for the apparent tunelessness.
I get violent when I’m fucked up
I get silent when I’m drugged up…
grated the singer. That just about sums up life in the modern world, thought George.
Then the band moved into White Riot. This tune George had heard before. Originally he had believed it was a racist song, but he remembered a black schoolkid at an ANL meeting explaining to him: ‘What I like about that song is that there’s none of that patronising shit about equality – it’s saying they want to imitate us.’
George looked round at the huge crowd as they absorbed the music. Nearly all were young enough to be his children. He thought sadly of his own family. Michael had failed in his effort to be another Eric Clapton, and had given up performing to become a technician with a record company; he was now slowly working his way up the management structure. Jenny was married, had become a teacher in the North of England and was totally absorbed in her work. Why, George thought, had they failed to communicate their ideals to their own children? But as he stood with Rachel looking at the swaying orgiastic mass, he thought: these young people, who hate racism and believe in mass action, they’re our real children.
When the Clash had finished George and Rachel drifted out of the park on their way to catch a bus back to North London. Rachel was living quite near to George’s home and they were going the same way. Rachel had thoroughly enjoyed the Carnival and was comparing it to the way people had danced in the streets in 1945. ‘When people are dancing for their politics,’ she said, ‘you really have got a mass movement.’
As they neared George’s stop he turned to Rachel and said: ‘Do you want to come home for a cup of tea?’ ‘Only a cup of tea?’ she replied, with a look of lasciviousness in her eyes that he had not seen for thirty years.
When they got in the house George sat down, exhausted after a day in the open air. Rachel sat down beside him and kissed him. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘I’ll cook something for us and then we’ll go to bed.’ When George looked slightly taken aback she added: ‘There’s nothing to worry about; it’s too late for any unintended consequences.’
As they lay in bed George thought of a joke he’d heard in the army about two old people screwing – like putting a marshmallow in a money-box. But in fact it was better than that – very much better. At last came the moment of ecstasy and it vanished all too quickly. Could the ecstasy ever be more than transient, thought George? He had read that in the Muslim afterlife there were copulations lasting six hundred years. And under socialism, he wondered? Maybe if the Labour Party offered that they’d win elections more often. But he knew he was growing old by the pounding of his heart. As on the night of the fire it seemed to go faster and faster, until he could not believe that it would not seize up on its bearings and then stop altogether.
The next morning was a Bank Holiday and George and Rachel stayed in bed late. Lying cosily side by side they talked of the ANL and the previous day’s Carnival. For Rachel movements of this sort were the future of politics. ‘The old parties are finished,’ she said. ‘No-one trusts them any more and you can’t tell them apart. It’s the women’s movement, the ANL and things like that that can really mobilise and involve people. They don’t have all the old structures and boring procedures to hold them back. And I think the peace movement is going to start reviving again.’
‘You’re right about procedures,’ George said. ‘It reminds me of why I finally dropped off the Trades Council. You remember the drought in the summer of 1976. Well, the TUC finally got round to sending out a circular about it. We got it at the November meeting, and the Secretary insisted on discussing it, even though it was raining so hard outside you couldn’t hear what people were saying.
‘But I don’t go all the way with you. Campaigns come and campaigns go. I’ve seen a fair number in my time. German Rearmament, Suez, CND, Vietnam. They’re all good causes, and they draw lots of people in, but then they collapse. But it’s the trade unions – and the Labour Party – that go on and on because they represent a class and not just causes.
‘And I’ll tell you something else. I’ve decided to join the Labour Party again. When I saw all those young people leaping about yesterday, I thought that if we can get them into the Labour Party we can really change it, make it into the sort of party that will get something done.
‘And that means I’m giving up my degree course. It was all very interesting, but it was just an excuse for dropping out of politics. I needed somewhere to go in the evenings. Well now I’ll have somewhere. I’ll do a degree when I retire.’
Eventually they got up and had a late breakfast. Rachel prepared to leave. Though there was no discussion of the question, each of them knew that there would be no repetition. It was too late for them ever to come together again. But as Rachel was leaving she looked round the door and said: ‘If we’d known what we know now in 1946 things might have been different.’
* * *
George went to bed early that night, but his brain did not want to rest; it had taken in too much recently and could not digest it all. He slept only fitfully and kept lapsing into extraordinarily vivid dreams in which his Poly course and his work for the ANL were all absurdly mingled. Malcolm Wells was riding Silver Blaze down the street past Stockdale’s chip shop. Mervyn was playing drums with the Clash. Irene Wiggins was running errands for Sherlock Holmes. The fire bomber, the man who had shouted ‘Wankers!’ outside the shopping centre, and the man from the chip shop were dancing down the road arm in arm, constantly changing places. And again and again, as George dozed off and awoke repeatedly with a start, he saw the car screech to a halt outside the house that was to be bombed. There was something he had to see; something he hadn’t seen yet but which he would see if he looked hard enough. The driver’s face. If only he could see the driver’s face then everything would become clear. He had a rotten memory for faces, but that face he would remember. Vainly he tried to make the car come towards him instead of surging away. And again and again he tried to put a face to the driver; one face succeeded another – Malcolm Wells, Mervyn Clifton, John Mitchell, Bill Ellison,the singer with the Clash, old Stockdale’s cringing son…
At 4.00 a.m. George awoke and knew he would sleep no more. The question of the driver was still obsessing him. But as he regained his lucidity he remembered a point from Malcolm Wells’ lecture. Was he looking for the wrong thing? Had there been a driver? For the more he visualised the horrific scene that was engraved on his memory, the surer he was that he had not seen anyone at all in the driver’s seat. But if that was the case, then there could be, short of the supernatural, only one explanation.
Eventually he got up and, on his way to work, dropped a note through Irene Wiggins’ front door.
* * *
On the Thursday evening of that week there was due to be an ANL meeting. The night before George phoned Ruth Storer and asked if she and the man she was living with, Pat Crowe, could be available for an hour or so after the meeting.
The meeting itself was generally successful. They discussed the impact of the Carnival and how to follow it up with systematic work in the locality. When the meeting was over George, Ruth and Pat went to the pub for a quiet drink. At ten to eleven they got into Ruth’s car and she drove them to the street where Stockdale’s chip-shop was situated.They sat in the car for a moment or two and then made their way to the shop. There was a CLOSED sign up, but there were still two customers inside. As these came out George, Pat and Ruth pushed through the door.
‘We’re closed,’ said Ted Stockdale. ‘Can’t you read? We shut at eleven every night except Friday and Saturday.’
‘We don’t want your chips,’ said George, ‘we want to talk to you.’
‘What about? growled Stockdale. ‘It’s not my job to make conversation.’
‘Fire-bombings,’ said George. ‘That’s what we want to talk about.’
‘Stockdale went pale, then muttered defiantly, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Yes you do, Stockdale,’snapped George. ‘I saw you petrol-bomb a house a few weeks ago. Now I look at you I recognise you. You did it all on your own, didn’t you? In that left-hand drive Austin you keep behind the shop.’
Stockdale said nothing.
Pat Crowe looked at him: ‘Do you deny it?’
Stockdale spat: ‘I don’t answer questions from niggers.’
George stepped forward with his fists clenched, but Pat said coolly: ‘Never mind. He’s too ignorant to know better.’
Stockdale seemed to be perking up a little. ‘Are you going to the police?’ he asked. ‘They’ll laugh in your faces. You haven’t any proof you saw me. Did you get the car number? I bet you didn’t. Not my number. And I’ve got friends at the police-station.’
‘I’m sure you have,’ said George. ‘I’m sure you and they have a lot in common. But tell me this. Do you read the papers before you wrap chips in them? Did you see about the Carnival last Sunday?’
‘Lot of wog-lovers,’ muttered Stockdale.
‘Yes,’ said George, ‘a lot of wog-lovers. An awful lot of them. Eighty thousand of them. And quite a few live in this Borough. And if there are any more fire-bombings, they’ll be coming down to see you. And they’ll tear your bloody shop to pieces.’
Stockdale began to whimper.’First those bloody Greeks take half my trade with their bloody kebabs. And now my old Dad’s gone into hospital.’ It was clear that he was not concerned about a parent’s suffering, but rather that he now had the long awaited prize in his grasp and was terrified of losing it.
‘So be warned,’ said George. ‘Any more attacks and we’ll be back – with a few hundred wog-loving friends. So if any of your mates have similar ideas, you’d better talk them out of it. Otherwise you might get the blame.’ By now Stockdale was sobbing quietly. George, Ruth and Pat went out onto the pavement.
‘That’s sorted him,’ said Pat. ‘But he’s only a symptom, a little tiny bit of the problem.’
‘That’s right,’ said George. ‘If you’ve got one spot on your face you can slice it off with a razor. But if you’ve got measles it’s not much good.’
‘Fair enough,’said Ruth, harking back to the discussion they’d had in the pub earlier, ‘but joining the Labour Party to fight racism is like rubbing flour in your hair to cure dandruff.’
‘Come on,’ said Pat. ‘let’s stop mixing metaphors and go home.’