‘I hope you’ll excuse me for asking, but were you not formerly a Socialist?’ said Barrington.
Even in the semi-darkness Barrington saw the other man flush deeply and then become very pale, and the unsightly scar upon his forehead showed with ghastly distinctiveness.
‘I am still a Socialist: no man who has once been a Socialist can ever cease to be one.’
‘You seem to have accomplished that impossibility, to judge by the work you are at present engaged in. You must have changed your opinions since you were here last.’
‘No one who has been a Socialist can ever cease to be one. It is impossible for a man who has once acquired knowledge ever to relinquish it. A Socialist is one who understands the causes of the misery and degradation we see all around us; who knows the only remedy, and knows that that remedy – the state of society that will be called Socialism – must eventually be adopted; is the only alternative to the extermination of the majority of the working people; but it does not follow that everyone who has sense enough to acquire that amount of knowledge, must, in addition, be willing to sacrifice himself in order to help to bring that state of society into being. When I first acquired that knowledge,’ he continued, bitterly, ‘I was eager to tell the good news to others. I sacrificed my time, my money, and my health in order that I might teach others what I had learned myself. I did it willingly and happily, because I thought they would be glad to hear, and that they were worth the sacrifices I made for their sakes. But I know better now.’
‘Even if you no longer believe in working for Socialism, there’s no need to work against it. If you are not disposed to sacrifice yourself in order to do good to others, you might at least refrain from doing evil. If you don’t want to help to bring about a better state of affairs, there’s no reason why you should help to perpetuate the present system.’
The other man laughed bitterly. ‘Oh yes, there is, and a very good reason too.’
‘I don’t think you could show me a reason,’ said Barrington.
The man with the scar laughed again, the same unpleasant, mirthless laugh, and thrusting his hand into his trouser pocket drew it out again full of silver coins, amongst which one or two gold pieces glittered.
(Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists)
1: OPENING THE ACCOUNT
Post-Lacanian psychologists have studied the pleasure afforded to the young child by disruption and reconstitution, for example by constantly scrambling and reassembling a jig-saw puzzle. [Clapton & Beck, 1963] A similar pleasure is available to the reader of the detective story, moving from confusion to clarity. Thus the opening chapter contains much extraneous detail – often the author is quite simply settling personal scores with former bosses or ex-lovers or using material left over from other works. The aim is purely to confuse the reader, in order that the pleasure of enlightenment may be more acute. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
Nowadays there is much talk of Britain as ‘one nation’. Modernisers of left and right alike still cling to the comforting phrase from the Victorian Disraeli. But at 9.00 a.m. on a warm morning in early October 1996, several different nations were embarking on their separate ways of life, work and survival.
In the luxurious conference suite of a central London hotel, about twenty-five senior police officers were gathered for a seminar on the topic ‘Political Issues in Modern Policing’. Inspector Rosemary Stoddart, one of the three women in the room, was looking forward to the day as a welcome break from the monotony of her routine duties. She had entered the police as a graduate because she aspired to be a detective; but she had found little challenge in her work. Most burglaries were given up as a bad job before investigation had even begun; at forty she was too old to be used in undercover drug enquiries. Above all murder was a grave disappointment; in the vast majority of cases the culprit was all too obvious. For most murders are committed in the family; as she had once been told by a rather too candid guest Sociology lecturer (she had not been invited back), if you really wanted to cut the murder rate, the simplest solution would be to abolish the family. Political policing seemed to open an avenue of hope – spies, terrorists, saboteurs, Carlos the Jackal, the IRA …
Rosemary’s musings were interrupted by the chair, who called for order and introduced the first speaker, Mr Steven Sadler. The audience looked distinctly unimpressed to learn that Sadler was a regular contributor to the Guardian, and author of a best-selling autobiography, I Chose Reason.
‘I should start by making a confession – if that isn’t too risky a thing to do in present company.’ Sadler paused, awaiting a laugh that did not come. ‘You probably only come across left-wing extremists on picket lines, or demonstrations. I had a rather closer acquaintance. You see, I used to be one.’
He gave a brief account of his involvement in extreme-left politics in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘So you see, I know something about it all from the inside.’
Rosemary looked at Sadler with interest. Her calculations, on the basis of the brief biographical information provided, revealed that he must be in his fifties; but he did not look it. He was tall, well over six foot, slim and athletic, with a full head of hair, dressed smartly in a dark suit. As he picked up his notes, she observed that he was wearing black driving gloves.
Sadler’s brief was to introduce his audience to ‘the revolutionary left in Britain today’. ‘Doubtless you have many encounters with these people,’ he went on, ‘on demonstrations, on picket lines, or simply causing obstructions selling their newspapers in shopping centres. This morning I just want to make a few points about them, which may help you in some of your encounters.’
Sadler then entertained his audience by handing round photocopies of a diagram which looked like the family tree of a particularly lecherous monarch, but was in fact a historical sketch of the British revolutionary left.
Rosemary took copious notes as Sadler developed his argument, not so much because she wanted to learn as because she was determined to find some questions to ask, something that would bring her into closer contact with this man who was beginning to fascinate her.
* * * * *
While Rosemary was balancing curiosity with lust, a new day was beginning in Del Morecambe University. Until recently this had been a Polytechnic, called after the North London Borough in which it was situated. Sir Del, millionaire arms dealer, educational benefactor and confidant of the Labour leadership, had been his usual rumbustious, drunken self at the opening ceremony. Six months later he had slashed his wrists in his room in a five-star hotel. It transpired that when a major contract with Iraq had collapsed just before the Gulf War, he had made good his losses by borrowing extensively from his company’s pension fund. Since the new University had just pulped four tons of stationery bearing the old name, and spent £50,000 on a flag with the distinctive DUM logo, a further name change seemed inadvisable, despite a high-profile court case leading to a seven-year jail sentence for his secretary/mistress.
From the outside the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of the University looked like a factory, and had at one time been indistinguishable from the factories that surrounded it; now, however, most of these were derelict, and many had been demolished. In fact it was a converted secondary modern school to which a ten-storey tower-block had been added. On one of the pillars of the front gate someone had painted ‘overcrowded, underfunded’ – a message which had been left to greet visitors for the last two years – perhaps because it was recognised as indisputably true, but more probably because the institution was too underfunded to have it painted out.
Among those creeping unwillingly through the front gate was Jane Summerson, lecturer in contemporary history. She was in a bad mood this morning because her car had broken and she had to come in by train; but the difference was only marginal. She had worked there for over twenty years and she was always in a bad mood when she came to what she still thought of as the Poly. The day after the institution had changed its name she had found herself wiping water off the desks in a classroom with a leaking roof, just as she had done when it was still a Polytechnic, so she was profoundly unimpressed by the metamorphosis.
Coming through the gate, she glanced at the large skip on the pavement, full of sporting equipment, most of which appeared to be in a good state of repair. This had been placed here by the building workers who were currently demolishing the gymnasium as part of a programme to expand facilities on the site. However, it obscured the view for incoming cars and as a union officer she had already complained about it.
On impulse Jane pulled one of the cricket bats from the skip. It was many years since she had played cricket, but the game still fascinated her. Gripping the bat firmly with the fingers of both hands, she took guard. She was a tallish and powerfully built woman and she felt she could still hit a cricket ball pretty hard.
She visualised Devon Malcolm hurtling towards her, but as she prepared to hook him for six a car-horn blasted in her ear and one of her less loveable colleagues enquired with wearying irony whether she imagined she was Brian Lara.
In embarrassment Jane dropped the bat back in the skip, hurried to collect her mail and made her way to her room on the eighth floor of the tower-block. She unlocked her office, entered and sat down at her desk. Yawning copiously she took an aspirin from her handbag, crunched it between her teeth, and then, as the bitter taste filled her mouth, spat it into her handkerchief.
She turned her attention to the pile of correspondence on her desk. Hurriedly, she tried to sort out which items had an ‘academic’ significance – if one used that term so loosely as to give it an ironic meaning – and which were addressed to her in her capacity as union branch secretary.
In the latter category there was one letter of some importance. Roger Kenge, her head of department and Dean responsible for the site, had replied to some matters she had raised with him a week earlier.
Kenge was a man who had once had some minor talent as a philosopher, but who had gained promotion to a managerial grade which gave him no time to read anything relevant to his academic interests. As a manager he had one skill only – but that he had developed to the point of near genius. If asked a question he would respond with a reply that was fluent, prolix to the point of tedium, well-informed, precisely documented and colourful. The only problem was that he would be answering some quite different question which nobody would have wanted to ask in the first place. Thus if he was asked about overcrowding which meant that students were physically unable to gain entrance to lecture-rooms, he would respond with a detailed account of student admission policy, giving precise references to decisions of the government and of the University’s Academic Board, and conclude with an impassioned statement about how he had always believed in the greatest possible access to Higher Education. An unwary questioner would find herself being typecast as a new Kingsley Amis, insistent that more would mean worse and anxious to deny enlightenment to the flocks of young people eager to sit at the feet of their professors. (And that is precisely where they would sit, given the extreme shortage of chairs.)
In her memorandum Jane had drawn Kenge’s attention to three problems. The first was the question of the door leading to the roof of the tower-block, which was regularly left unlocked; Jane regarded this as a potential safety hazard and had raised the matter on a number of previous occasions. Kenge merely referred her to an earlier reply.
The second was a circular which he had sent out two weeks ago. This announced that all rooms and offices on the site were to be renumbered. The job of actually affixing the new numbers to the doors could not be done until after the Christmas vacation; however staff were reminded that the new numbers must be used immediately for all purposes, and especially for timetabling. Jane had pointed out that this was liable to cause very considerable confusion.
Somewhat unwisely Jane had remarked in her letter that rooms had already been renumbered in the recent past. Kenge pointed out with heavy irony that it was ‘over three years’ since rooms had been renumbered. The new plan had been considered by the appropriate committee as long ago as last April, and therefore the renumbering scheme was in fact overdue.
Moreover, he added, it was important to get the new numbers in use from the beginning of the academic year. Jane would surely recognise the chaos that could be caused if the changeover were made in mid-year. Besides – and here one could sense the glee at the point which he realised Jane had missed – the majority of students on the site would be first-years who would not be familiar with the old numbering and would therefore not be confused by the process.
Kenge now moved on to his knock-down argument. He reminded Jane that there were severe staff shortages among the non-teaching staff, due to ‘government policies and the prevailing economic climate – which I deplore as much as you do’. He was not willing to impose excessive burdens on the maintenance staff; he was sure that Jane as a trade unionist would appreciate this.
Shaking her head in the hope that her synapses might fall into place, Jane moved on to the third point, the skip at the front gate. She had pointed out that this was an obstacle to traffic and constituted a serious safety hazard; in addition, the dumped sports material – some of which appeared to be in fully serviceable condition – could be removed by any passer-by. Bats and balls, tennis rackets, etc. might be used on the roadway, causing danger to staff and students.
Kenge’s reply began by stating that Jane might not be aware that the University had recently been recognised as a centre of sporting excellence. (Jane reflected that if she had been a deaf illiterate whose eyes had been gouged out she might conceivably have been unaware of this information. It had been the lead story in the University newspaper – a weekly sheet which achieved heights of banality even within its own specialised genre – every week for the last six months.) This, he informed her, meant that it was vital for new up-to-date equipment of the highest quality to be purchased. He was sure most staff would be happy to accept temporary inconvenience in order for these aims to be achieved.
Most of the rest of her correspondence went unread into the waste-paper basket, but one item did briefly attract her attention. When she opened the envelope, the first word that caught her eye was ‘DEATH’. With a little thrill of delight she wondered if one of her colleagues was dead – almost anyone would do. But then she read the full title: ‘THE DEATH OF SOCIALISM’. It was a memorandum from her colleague, John Thomson. John was, to say the least, an old friend of Jane’s and a long-standing lecturer in the department. A dedicated Marxist in the seventies, he had long since succumbed to the charms of post-modernism. For many years he had been failing to finish his doctoral thesis on narrative structures in detective fiction; his basic argument was that all narrative was reactionary, since it imposed a logical form on the shapeless chaos of existence. He was an erratic individual; when confronted with his own inconsistencies, he would respond by accusing his critics of having a ‘metaphysical notion of the unitary self’.
But if John was an intellectual fraud, he was an ambitious fraud. He was anxious to conform to current policy and bring the fresh air of enterprise into the University. Hence he had proposed that the Faculty should hold a public conference to address the topical question of ‘the death of socialism’. That, he claimed, would help to demonstrate the relevance of the Faculty’s work to the local community. Remembering John’s own political history, Jane recalled a phrase from long ago which had stuck in her memory: ‘he’d sell tickets to his own funeral.’
The document was to be discussed at the Faculty Committee meeting planned for that afternoon, which, Jane now recalled, she would have to attend.
The next forty-five minutes she spent reading application forms from potential students, a job that should have been completed several days earlier. Her eyes skimmed rapidly over the forms, trying to absorb in five seconds what an eager A-level student had probably spent five hours composing. One headmaster noted that a young woman was ‘unco-operative and ill-mannered’; Jane scrawled ‘unconditional acceptance’ in the appropriate box. A young man boasted that under the Enterprise in Education scheme he had run the school tuck-shop at a profit, thereby earning a prompt ‘Reject’ from Jane. Another young man stated that his main interest in life was ‘watersports’; Jane accepted him out of curiosity.
* * * * *
But if Jane and her colleagues thought they were badly done by, it was because they did not compare themselves to those working on what was left of the industrial estate that surrounded them, for example at the Kidzphun toy factory.
To a child of under five years, the inside of the Kidzphun factory would have appeared like a paradise, as though an enormous Christmas party had been held for an entire street peopled by massive broods of children. There were soft toys – bears, ducks, geese, elephants, dogs, cats, lions, monkeys, rhinoceroses – in every size and colour – blue, green, red, yellow, grey, brown, orange, mauve, turquoise and magenta. Dolls of every size were capable of eating, drinking, speaking, singing, weeping, urinating, lactating and giving birth. Dice, plastic counters, boards for ludo, snakes and ladders, draughts and a hundred and one other games were neatly packed in their boxes.
To the sixty or so women who worked in the factory the resemblance to paradise was not so striking. For rates lower than the most parsimonious estimates of a minimum wage, they manufactured, stuffed, assembled and packed the toys for nearly sixty hours a week. Their working conditions almost certainly did not reach the minimum requirements of health and safety legislation; the rooms in which they worked were ill-lit and badly ventilated. Time-keeping was strictly observed – being late by more than five minutes on two occasions was punishable by instant dismissal. The supervisor, Des Hardy, patrolled the work-rooms permanently, ever looking out for evidence of idleness or negligence. Any woman self-indulgent enough to need to go to the lavatory had to ask permission of Hardy personally. The random and arbitrary way in which he refused or granted such permission was explicable only in terms of the covert sexual gratification he derived therefrom.
Yet the women had a trade union. Thanks to the efforts of their enthusiastic and dedicated shop steward, Val Hawdon, all but two of the women were paid-up members of the National Union of Toy-Makers and Equivalent Groupings (NUTMEG). The owner consulted regularly with Val, which meant that for half an hour once a month he listened to her complaints and then did nothing about them. From time to time Val met the local full-time officer, Mike Applegarth, and moaned at length about the owner’s refusal to respond to her complaints on pay, conditions or safety. Mike constantly assured her that the national union would back her ‘up to and including all-out industrial action’ providing the women were prepared to go along with her.
But as Val had to admit, they would not. Not because they were passive or gutless or contented, but because they were afraid. Afraid of losing their miserable jobs and not being able to find anything else at all. They all had friends, relatives, children on the dole. And so, amid the boredom of repetitive manual labour, the squalor of shoddy working conditions and the misery of low pay, life staggered on from day to day.
To Ted Rowsell, the owner of Kidzphun, things looked rather different. He regarded himself as a fervent patriot, preserving jobs for British workers. No meeting with his shop steward was complete without half a dozen references to ‘globalisation’ and the ‘Asian tigers’. (Rowsell would have been hard put to it to name an Asian tiger, though he was pretty sure that Bengal must be one of them.) The main thrust of the argument was clear. Most of the sort of work done at Kidzphun was now carried out in Third World countries, so the women at Kidzphun could hardly complain at working in Third World conditions.
But now Ted Rowsell faced a new problem. It was early October and the Christmas season was well under way. All the orders for the Christmas trade had been packed and delivered, and there was little work for the few weeks ahead. Rowsell knew that in a couple of months things would pick up again. Indeed, since there was an election in the offing there was a fair chance of at least a miniature boom within a relatively short period. Until then orders were alarmingly low.
Ideally, Rowsell thought, he would shut up shop for a couple of months, go on holiday somewhere warm until Christmas, then come back and open up again. But things were not so simple. Although he constantly reminded Val Hawdon of the queues of eager applicants waiting to replace her and her fellow-workers, he in fact knew that the women he employed were skilled and experienced, and could not easily be replaced.
What he really needed was a strike. Let them picket his gates for a couple of months, and they’d come back starving and pleading for their jobs. Maybe he’d get more work and a bit more respect out of them then. It would please Old Mother Hawdon too. She’d been aching to be a strike-leader for so long; now was her chance.
A smirk crossed Rowsell’s face. He could do even better for her. She could be a martyr, a victim of the wicked capitalists. She’d be a heroine of trade-union rallies for years, and all thanks to her generous employer. And he need never see her nasty, moaning face again. He thumped his fist on the desk, said ‘Yes!’ to himself with great self-satisfaction several times, and sent for Des Hardy.
* * * * *
When Sadler finished his lecture, the seminar broke up for coffee and informal discussion. Rosemary had formulated her question and steeled herself to confront Sadler.
As she made her way across the room, she asked herself why she had been so enthralled by Sadler’s lecture. Already the details were blurring in her mind; but somehow she knew that Sadler held the promise of romance. Smiling seductively does not come easy to a middle-aged policewoman, but when he turned to her she made a creditable effort.
‘I wanted to ask you about the IRA,’ she said, ‘surely all these groups support the IRA, don’t they?’
‘Well,’ said Sadler, ‘it depends what you mean by support. Most of them want British troops out of Ulster and a united Ireland. But a lot of them are very critical of the IRA’s tactics when it comes to bombings and shootings.’
Sadler explained briefly the leftist argument that individuals could not substitute themselves for mass popular action, something Rosemary did not find easy to grasp. They talked for a few more minutes. As the chair was getting ready to introduce the next speaker, Sadler said: ‘Let’s discuss this further. Why don’t I take you out to dinner?’
Rosemary accepted, trying not to look too enthusiastic. They fixed time and place and in a flirtatious tone she added: ‘I promise not to wear my uniform.’ She was so pleased with herself that she didn’t notice the look of disappointment on Sadler’s face.
* * * * *
By now Jane had finished her correspondence and was teaching. Her seminar today was on the French general strike of 1968. She had read a lot of books about it in the last twenty-five years, but none of them captured the sense of being there. Yet she had little difficulty in explaining the course of events. The student revolt led to a general strike of ten million workers; for a week or two the government was bemused; de Gaulle ran away, but was told to return by the army leaders in Germany. He broadcast, rallied his forces, broke the strike with the connivance of the Communist Party leaders, and won the ensuing elections. A simple enough narrative, yet one which seemed to lose all the concrete excitement of what had actually happened. She tried spicing up her account with a few details from personal experience; several of the younger students gawped at her as though in wonder that she could still walk unaided.
But when she concluded her exposition and tried to stimulate some discussion, she found it difficult. The only student who wanted to argue was Seamus O’Hara. As his name suggested, he was Irish. The fact that he was of Protestant birth only accentuated the fervour which he felt for the Irish republican cause. But apart from his enthusiasm for the IRA, which was largely vicarious since he lived in North London, his politics were fundamentally anarchist. He spoke with equal contempt of all political leaders, professing not to be able to tell the difference between Tony Benn and Michael Portillo. He was slightly older than most of the students, in his late twenties, and could always be counted on to develop an argument. Jane sometimes wondered how she would manage to get through a seminar if Seamus wasn’t there.
Seamus was well informed, but not a wide reader; his skill was therefore to move from the unknown to the known, turning a discussion on something he had not bothered to study in any depth into an argument about familiar territory.
His opening question today was direct. ‘Did nobody try to kill de Gaulle? If not, why not?’ When Jane hesitated Seamus launched into a fuller exposition of his query. On Jane’s own evidence, the French state had been crumbling at the end of May; if de Gaulle had not returned then it was unlikely that the pathetic Pompidou or anyone else could have turned the situation round.
Jane was about to point out that nobody, even on the wildest fringes of the French left – and its fringes had been about as wild as they came – had advocated assassination. But a rather solemn-looking young woman called Lucy Riddell burst into the argument: ‘What a stupid thing to say. You can’t solve anything with murder. Violence never solves anything.’
Lucy’s intervention served O’Hara’s purpose perfectly. It shifted the argument away from political tactics and strategy, on which he was lamentably weak, and onto the ground of moral assertion where he was very strong. Moreover, it took the argument away from the specificities of 1968 – on which he had not done the prescribed reading – and into the realm of generality, on which he considered himself to be a specialist.
He stared Lucy in the eye in a fashion some might have described as intimidating, and enquired: ‘How many people did Margaret Thatcher kill?’
Lucy looked blank. ‘Nobody, as far as I know. Maybe you have some confidential information.’
Seamus held up his hand and began to count on his fingers, as though giving a lesson to a class of particularly backward primary pupils:
‘All the old people who died of hypothermia because they couldn’t afford fuel;
‘all the people who committed suicide because they lost their jobs;
‘all those who died in the Falklands – even if most of them were only Argies and not proper British human beings;
‘not to mention the hunger strikers and all the rest who died in Northern Ireland.
‘I say Thatcher killed them as surely as if she’d done it with her own hands.’
He paused for effect.
‘And if I had the chance I’d put a bullet through her with no compunction. In fact, I’d do the same for any MP, Tory or Labour; they’re all part of the same rotten system and they must take responsibility for what they do.’
During this performance Lucy Riddell had been squawking with indignation. Jane asked her to be quiet until Seamus had finished his argument, and then reply if she wished. Lucy began to scream that Jane was as bad as Seamus, and that they both condoned murder.
At last, thought Jane, it was better than them all sitting pen in hand waiting for her to tell them the right answers.
* * * * *
Des Hardy had been needling Val all morning. Every opportunity he got he criticised her work, told her she was too slow or too careless, and if she so much as blinked she found she was in breach of regulations in some way or other.
Val knew what was going on. If the management wanted a strike, then the workers didn’t. But at the same time, if they were provoked they would have to respond. If they didn’t, then the management would know they could get away with anything they liked. Val was biding her time, weighing up the situation and trying to work out the best line of response.
But that didn’t stop her being angry. At lunch-time she was telling the other women what she’d like to do to ‘that bastard Hardy’. She would, she explained, like to cut his throat, gouge his eyes out, slit his stomach open and pull out his intestines and wrap them round a tree. Or again, hang him over a vat of prussic acid by a rope so that his toes were just above the acid, and then allow his weight to stretch the rope. Val, as may be judged from the above, had a colourful imagination. Her suggestions were passed over the lunch table, each one arousing squeals of raucous laughter.
Yet if Val had a lurid imagination and a bloodthirsty tongue, she was not a cruel woman. She attended church regularly; she had not missed a single Sunday for five years. She loved children, and had been a generous and lenient mother to her three sons and her daughter. She was kind to animals.
If reminded of the fact that Our Lord and Saviour had enjoined us to love our enemies, Val would come over humble and agree that she had fallen below perfection in this respect. But, as she put it, perfection was hard to achieve. ‘Yes, I agree, we should love our enemies. But you’d have to be Jesus Christ himself to love Des Hardy.’
At the end of the lunch-break Val was summoned to Rowsell’s office. He waved her into a chair and then proceeded to read out a list of changes to working practices and wage rates. Although he gabbled through them as fast as he could, it was immediately clear that this would mean a substantial loss of earnings for every woman in the factory.
When he had finished he stared Val in the eye and said: ‘Well?’
Val smiled: ‘You are aware that is totally unacceptable. If you like I will report it back to my members, but you know what the result will be.’
Rowsell snapped: ‘I agreed to consult. I’ve consulted. I’ve heard your opinion and rejected it. The new procedures come in at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.’
Val stood up: ‘In that case I’ll inform my members straightaway.’
Rowsell stood up to: ‘If you attempt to stop production, you’ll be dismissed instantly for gross misconduct.’
Val snapped back: ‘In that case, dismiss me,’ She turned to the door. Rowsell shouted: ‘Fine. You’re sacked.’
Even had Val been so minded, there was no way she could leave the premises without crossing the work areas. As she did so she shouted above the noise of the machines: ‘I’ve been sacked! I’ve been sacked.’
Women abandoned their work and despite being chased by Des Hardy, who was yapping like a sheep-dog, they ran into the other rooms to tell their colleagues. By the time Val had reached the front entrance she was followed by a long line of women.
She assembled them around her on the pavement and outlined what she could remember of the proposed changes in working practices; when she told them she had been sacked rather than accept, there was a cheer.
‘So what do you want to do now?’ she concluded.
Spontaneously and in chorus the women shouted ‘Strike!’
* * * * *
It was about 4.30 when Rosemary, still unable to stop thinking about Sadler and her skill in chatting him up, arrived home and slumped onto the sofa. Her cat, Galore, attempted to jump up on the sofa too, but she pushed him off, mumbling half‑hearted reprimands.
Then she switched on Capital Gold. She reflected that alongside an opera-lover like Inspector Morse, her tastes were pretty down‑market. Did that mean that she wasn’t as good a detective? Almost certainly it did, but she didn’t have the scriptwriter on her side.
R Dean Taylor finished telling the world that he had to see Jane, and the next record began. By the time the first three bars had elapsed, Rosemary’s lips had begun to mouth ‘Four Seasons: Sherry – 1962.’ Her aim was to recognise as many songs as she could from the play-in, before any words were sung; she claimed something of the order of a sixty per cent success rate. She smirked at Galore, as if to say: ‘You didn’t know that, you half-witted mongrel!’
A moment later a savage wince convulsed Rosemary’s face. It was not Sherry at all, but Hang On Sloopy by the McCoys. Three whole years later. Rosemary clenched her fist into a ball and struck herself on the forehead. There was a certain similarity between the play-ins, but they were both classics – the sort of thing she ought to know. There was no excuse. Had she got Alzheimer’s?
As the McCoys faded and a new tune began, Rosemary’s lips again moved. ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go.’ No problem about that, and as she was informed that Maggie flew like a bird, Rosemary sighed with relief, and grinned at Galore to show she was back on top.
Or was she? What was the band? The name Pickettywitch floated to the surface of her mind. She clenched the muscles of her brain as tight as they would go, but found no solution. Reluctantly she picked up her Guinness Book of British Hit Singles. No. Of course. Damn! Damn!! Pickettywitch was That Same Old Feeling. Even more reluctantly, because that really was cheating shamefully, she turned to the alphabetical list of titles. Honeybus.
How could any sane person confuse Honeybus and Pickettywitch? As Maggie continued to fly across the sky, Rosemary’s mind slipped back to Sadler. Was it because she was thinking too much of Sadler that her powers seemed to be in serious decline?
As the Kinks watched Terry and Julie crossing the river – she’d got that with no trouble, but then if she couldn’t get ones like that she might as well pack it in – Rosemary reflected that her love of music from the sixties and seventies had very little to do with the normal sentimental connections that people are supposed to feel towards songs associated with the time of a particular romantic attachment. She’d never really been in love – probably the sort of people who got to be senior police officers didn’t have the capacity for that sort of thing.
Then the phone rang. Her heart throbbed in the hope that it might be Sadler; perhaps he could not wait till next week to speak to her again. But she was greeted by the acerbic tones of the Chief Superintendent, who reminded her of her employers’ generosity in sending her to the seminars on political policing, and then went on to tell her that she would no doubt be delighted to have the opportunity to put what she had learnt into practice by supervising an industrial dispute at the Kidzphun toy factory.
* * * * *
The meeting to discuss the ‘death of socialism’ conference had been called for 4.30, but it was nearly quarter to five when Jane staggered into the room carrying a cup of coffee. Roger Kenge was looking extremely impatient. Also in the room were John Thomson, nervously shuffling a pile of papers, a very ponderous sociologist called Pete Allsop, a post-modernist philosophy lecturer called Barbara Baralipton; and HettyBrandler. Hetty lectured in Cultural Studies and was a convinced Freudian; she specialised in analyses of westerns which turned every gun into a phallic symbol. As Jane often mused when listening to Hetty, if all guns were penises, the world would be a safer but damper place.
Jane slumped wearily into a chair and Kenge snapped ‘Can we get going now?’ Jane muttered softly: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? – Then we’ll begin.’ Of those who heard all were too young to pick up the allusion, but Kenge glared at her irritably.
Kenge now spent a full ten minutes introducing the discussion, explaining that the conference had been called to show that the Faculty was doing work in an area relevant to debates in the broader community, and that a successful conference could enhance the public profile of the Faculty quite considerably.
John, meanwhile, was looking very nervous. He had a small pile of paper‑clips on the desk in front of him, and he was stretching these out into long strips of metal and then winding them tightly round his biro until they formed little spring-like coils. This was a regular habit of his; he did it while lecturing, much to the entertainment of his students. When asked about it he would merely observe that it was cheaper than smoking and more ideologically sound than a rosary.
Eventually Kenge handed over to John, who had been deputed to make detailed arrangements for speakers. John twisted furiously at his paper‑clip and explained that he had looked for someone who could make a defence of socialism both in intellectual terms and in relation to practical politics; after considering a number of academics and politicians, he had decided to invite Terence Wicklow, the local Labour MP.
Jane thumped her fist onto her desk with a crash that made everyone in the room turn to stare at her. Her half-empty coffee cup tipped over and its contents poured to the floor. Barbara Baralipton rapidly moved her feet to avoid the pool of cooling coffee that spread across the floor.
‘Jesus fucking Christ! Not that bent bastard,’ she snarled.
John tortured his paper‑clip and began to shout: ‘For God’s sake, Jane, if you only come to wreck things, sod off and leave us to get on with it!’
Roger Kenge glared at them both, and tried to calm the atmosphere by remarking that Wicklow was a very appropriate choice because of his long-standing links with the University; indeed, he had been a close associate of Del Morecambe himself. Jane recognised that she had not exactly enhanced her credibility as a spokesperson of reasoned opposition by this outburst; but she proffered no apology and simply continued to scowl at everyone in the room.
John went on to say that he had been particularly struck by an article by Wicklow in The Guardian during the recent controversy about Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution. Wicklow had argued that Clause Four represented all that was best in the ethical tradition which had characterised the Labour Party throughout its existence, and was its essential contribution to British political life. On this basis he had concluded that he wholeheartedly supported the deletion of Clause Four, since socialism was a question of morality and not of legalistic constitutions. John said he had been very impressed by this, as it showed an intellectual subtlety – dare he say grasp of dialectics? – that was rare among politicians engaged in the day-to-day activities of practical politics.
He then went on to the question of the second invited speaker. Here he wanted someone who could put the case against socialism vigorously and clearly, yet had sufficient knowledge of, and sympathy with, the socialist movement to be able to put an informed case. Glancing nervously at Jane, he announced that he had decided to invite Steven Sadler, the well-known authority on the far left, who had, of course, been an active Marxist in his younger days.
The others in the room also looked at Jane. Those who had heard rumours of her past links with Sadler expected that there would be some reaction. But Jane said nothing, and continued to stare disconsolately down at the pool of coffee which was slowly seeping into the floor.
Roger Kenge invited responses from those present. Jane felt no enthusiasm for the discussion, but after her earlier intervention she had no alternative but to make a contribution. She said, straining to sound moderate and dispassionate, that Terence Wicklow equivocated so much that he would not make a good protagonist for a debate. What was needed was someone who could put a clear and vigorous case for socialism, so as to polarise debate around the main issues; she therefore proposed Ossie Dix, the veteran left Labour MP. The whole thing sounded half-hearted, as though she was well aware her suggestion would not be adopted. She did not improve its impact by her final, half-muttered words: ‘He may be senile but at least he’s straight.’
Roger Kenge then explained that a previous meeting (held during the examination period the previous summer when virtually nobody had been able to attend) had delegated full powers to John to select and invite speakers, and that, in consultation with Kenge, John had already invited Wicklow and Sadler.
‘So what the fuck are we doing here?’ mumbled Jane, yet further reducing her credibility among her academic colleagues.
It was turned six o’clock when the meeting finally ended. By now Jane felt physically exhausted and emotionally drained. She trudged out into the car park, facing a light drizzle. It was not quite wet enough for her to put a raincoat on, but quite wet enough to make her uncomfortable.
To make things worse, she couldn’t remember where she had parked her car. Although many people had gone home, there were still a considerable number of cars left; she wandered dejectedly up and down the rows, increasingly irritated by the fact that she could not find it anywhere. Hod it been stolen in the crime epidemic which she had read about in the newspaper on the train that morning? Eventually, after about ten minutes of searching, her fuddled brain grasped the contradiction. The car was in the garage for repairs.
Glancing at her watch she realised that she had just missed a train. On the other hand sitting on a damp station platform seemed a preferable option to going back into the staff common room, where she would probably encounter one of her less agreeable colleagues. She might even meet someone who wanted to talk about the conference.
The rain was now falling more heavily, so she pulled on her coat and set off to walk towards the station. She emerged through the front gate, where the skip full of sports equipment still stood. She glanced at a cricket bat and thought with grim delight of bringing it crashing down on Terence Wicklow’s skull.
The road to the station led through a small industrial estate. The few factories that were still functioning had mainly finished their work for the day. The whole area radiated the decay that seemed to characterise nineties Britain; on more than one occasion when walking this way Jane had observed rats strolling sedately across the roadway.
As she turned the corner, she observed a group of about fifteen women standing outside the Kidzphun factory. At first she assumed that they were simply chatting before going home, or perhaps waiting for a company minibus to take them home. As she got nearer, walking along the opposite pavement, she saw that they were holding placards.
NO VICTIMISATION! REINSTATE VAL HAWDON! AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! she read printed in felt pen on the home-made placards. Near them stood a solitary policeman, radio in hand, ready to call assistance if the women suddenly turned into a howling mob of rioters.
Jane carried on her way. Twenty years ago she would have run across the road with joy, delighted to have found a struggle in which she could intervene, anxious to offer help – collections, propaganda, mobilising support. Ten years ago, she would have gone over reluctantly, muttering ‘Not again!’, but feeling it was her inescapable duty to assist workers in struggle. Now she was just too old, too tired to care any more. She had done her bit, fought her battles, and these strikers must fight theirs. All she would concede to her nagging conscience was that she would look over to them and give them a thumbs-up sign. It would be good for their morale; she couldn’t be expected to do more.
But as she looked over the road her eye fell on the woman at the centre of the group. Across a gap of thirty years the recognition was instantaneous. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t possibly be, but it was … Josie Wade. Older but unmistakable. Unmistakable but impossible, absolutely impossible – Jane thought of another autumn night, in 1968, and shuddered. All resolutions were abandoned. She ran across the road.