3: CAUGHT OUT
In principle the crime story is based on a simple moral structure – ‘good’ detective unmasks ‘bad’ criminal. But a number of recent studies [e.g. Frey & Henley, 1977] have shown that things are more complex. Even Sherlock Holmes became a burglar to defeat an extortionist. Yet if the detective is also a criminal, we find ourselves without any firm moral point of reference. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
Jane swung the monkey-wrench back behind her head as though it were a cricket bat, and smashed it into Thatcher’s left eye-ball. The eye exploded in a mass of blood and jelly, and Thatcher began to scream like a banshee. ‘No! Stop! Please! I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Lenin was right! Please don’t hit me again …’
Without the slightest trace of remorse Jane again raised the monkey-wrench and began to take careful aim at the right eye. As she did so she heard the bleeping of the alarm signals. Determined to strike her second blow before leaving, she tensed the muscles in her arm. But the muscles refused to obey her brain; her whole body was paralysed. Thatcher’s bleeding face began to crack and fade as the bleeping of the alarm got louder and louder, echoing in her ears.
Suddenly she was awake. Already the dream was fading, leaving only the memory that it had been the most satisfying night’s sleep she had enjoyed for many weeks. Her arm, no longer paralysed, reached out of bed to silence the still braying alarm clock. As she did so she caught sight of the time on the clock face. 6.00 a.m. – an hour and a half earlier than she normally got up. Slowly she became aware that today was the day of the picket at Kidzphun, the picket she had promised to attend in a fit of enthusiasm which she now deeply regretted.
Her head rolled over on the pillow which should have been washed weeks ago, if not replaced years ago. Her mind, still unfocussed, threw up the fact that if a pillow was five years old, at least twenty-five per cent of its mass consisted of the excrement of dust mites. A fact whose piquancy was somewhat blunted by the fact that she had read it in a press release from the Pillow Marketing Board.
Finally Jane dragged her brain to the level of moral awareness where she realised that she could not simply roll over and go back to sleep, and with a jerk so sudden that it could not be halted halfway she flung off the bedclothes and projected herself into the freezing air. Lurching across the bedroom, doing her best to avoid the pile of books and the broken television set which took up most of the floor‑space, she switched on the light. The brightness made her eyes itch with pain.
While she drank a cup of very strong black coffee she reflected that even when she had been young and enthusiastic, she had always felt this bad about getting up early. For years it had been a regular habit; at least once a week she would be down at the factory gate with a bundle of Red Republicans, getting at best a couple of sales and ten times as many obscene comments. Unless there was a dispute building up, in which case sales would rise and the otherwise surly or lecherous workers would greet her with a smile and a few confidences about the dispute, only to relapse a week or two later. She didn’t regret her youth – not that part of it – but she did feel far too old to be reliving it.
Finishing her coffee, she made her way into the bathroom. Rapidly she showered, washed, cleaned her teeth and flossed them. The used dental floss she carefully dropped into the waste bin. Until a year or two ago she would have flushed it down the lavatory without a second thought, but recently she had developed scruples, thinking of the danger of strangulation that it offered to innocent fish who had quite enough problems with a diet of turd and hormones. Sadly she reflected that in twenty‑five years she had made the transition from steel‑hard Bolshevik to sentimental eco-freak.
* * * * *
Rosemary Stoddart stood in the drizzle, watching the gate of the Kidzphun factory. The picket had been called for 7.00 a.m., the time at which the women were normally due to go in. It was now 6.45, and as had happened every day for the last six weeks, Val Hawdon and a few of her workmates had taken up their positions just outside the gate. They had two chairs and a small number of placards proclaiming that this was an official strike against victimisation.
Rosemary had had responsibility for the Kidzphun strike from the beginning. For six weeks she had organised a constant police presence to ensure that there was no trouble at the picket. Not that there had ever seemed to be any such possibility. Two or three women had gone in to work, but they had received no more than mild recriminations from their fellow-workers. Des Hardy made a point of walking through the picket line several times a day, often making offensive remarks and challenging the women to harass him, something which the women had the good sense not to attempt. In fact, Rosemary could not help acknowledging that the women had behaved with extraordinary restraint and discipline. She had had several long conversations with Mr Applegarth, the full-time official from the trade union which had rapidly recognised the strike and made it official. He had assured her that good order would be preserved and agreed to consult with her whenever necessary. In short, none of the excitement which Rosemary had hoped for when she made her career shift into political policing.
This morning, she thought, might mark a break from the monotony. In order to draw public attention to the strike and win moral and financial support, NUTMEG had called a demonstration in support of the strikers. She had met Mr Applegarth, and carefully arranged for the demonstrators to assemble where they would cause no obstruction; technically it would not be a ‘mass picket’ since only six Kidzphun workers would be actually picketing.
Only last week Rosemary had attended a seminar at which a film was shown of the famous Grunwick pickets from the 1970s. While Rosemary applauded the wise legislation that had made such scenes of public disorder impossible, she could not help feeling a twinge of regret for what seemed a more heroic age. She imagined herself directing operations against the insurgent demonstrators, manoeuvring the horses, sending in the snatch squads to seize Trotskyist agitators, deploying all the skills of a Second World War general. Apart from the poll-tax riots and a couple of anti-fascist demonstrations, the nineties seemed to be offering no opportunities for adventurous policing.
By now a small and slightly bedraggled crowd was beginning to assemble. About half a dozen members of the local Labour Party had arrived with a banner. Rosemary noted a short, plump woman of about fifty who appeared to be the driving force in the group. Why, she wondered, would such a woman turn up at an event like this? The Labour Party nationally was distancing itself from the unions, and preparing to make a complete break with its trade-union links. Terence Wicklow, the local Labour MP, had not given a shred of support to the striking women.
The crowd was building up. There were small delegations from various local trade unions, and a bunch of about ten students from Del Morecambe University, also carrying a large banner. Rosemary noted that one of them was a certain Seamus O’Hara, who had a couple of minor convictions for disorderly behaviour on demonstrations, and was on her list of local trouble-makers to be kept under observation. She also noted Mike Applegarth, deep in conversation with a shortish, elderly man whom she presumed to be a senior union official. In total there were some eighty people, including about five Socialist Worker sellers. A television crew had also turned up.
It was now turned 7.00 a.m.. There were still a few late arrivals. Rosemary saw another woman of about fifty arriving, quite a bit taller than the other one; she too was clearly a professional of some sort, yet she looked scruffy and dowdy; she was sturdily built, with broad shoulders, and her mousy hair had streaks of grey in it. She looked tired, bad-tempered and half-asleep, peering out of the corners of her eyes to make out what was going on, resentful of all around her. To Rosemary she seemed a typical trouble-maker, a woman who was discontented with herself because she was drab, ugly and growing old, and thus determined to take it all out on the world around her, no matter who else might get hurt.
* * * * *
Sue presented herself to Val Hawdon and gave her fraternal greetings from 1200 members of the local Labour Party. Val thanked her cordially. As she turned away, she was approached by a young woman. She was in her mid-twenties, and dressed rather more smartly than most of those present. She had a long, earnest face and wore glasses with thick black rims.
‘Good day,’ she said in what Sue immediately recognised as an American accent. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing what you were saying just now. Could you tell me one or two things about your Labour Party?’
Sue, who had been the victim of one or two press exposés of the ‘loony left’ a few years back, was immediately suspicious ‘I’ll do my best to help’, she said rather stiffly, ‘but perhaps you should introduce yourself first. Are you a reporter? If so, can I see your press card?’
The American woman giggled nervously. ‘Sure. I’m sorry. I guess I did sound a bit suspect. No, I’m not a journalist. My name’s Lisa – Lisa Schwarz. I’m from the States – as you probably gathered. I’m living over here for a while and I want to find out more about your British way of life. I mean, I support these women on strike. I support them a lot. But I’d like to know more. Just curiosity. Nothing more. Nothing at all.’
Sue was intrigued that anybody should imagine that factory‑gate pickets were part of the British ‘way of life’ in the 1990s, but she gave her questioner the benefit of the doubt. ‘So what do you want to know?’
For a moment there was a blank look in Lisa’s eyes, a look almost of panic, as though having been allowed to put questions, she suddenly found herself without anything to ask. Rapidly she pulled herself together.
‘What is the political orientation of your Labour Party? Is it a Marxist organisation? Do you do a lot of strike support work?’
Sue looked genuinely bewildered at these rather bizarre questions. ‘I suppose we’re pretty much of a run-of-the-mill party. Perhaps a little more left-wing than some, but nothing like so left-wing as we were ten years ago. You might find odd individuals who would call themselves Marxists, but not more than that. I think most of us would be sympathetic to strikes where there is a genuine grievance, but there haven’t been that many strikes recently.’
‘So is this strike Marxist-led? Would they be Moscow-line Communists, Maoists, or possibly Trotskyists in the leadership?’
Sue gaped at Lisa. ‘I doubt if most of the women on that picket have ever heard of Marx. They’re on strike because their shop steward was sacked. She was a very popular woman and she was victimised by the management in an unjustifiable way. They’re very angry and they’ve made a huge sacrifice by striking for six weeks. That’s what you need to understand, not a lot of gibberish about Maoism. There haven’t been any Maoists for twenty years.’
Lisa winced nervously at this diatribe, but somehow summoned up the resolve to pursue her questioning. ‘As for your Labour Party, does it have ‘entrists’? Are they of a Trotskyist persuasion – Militant Tendency, Fourth International or possibly the followers of Juan Posadas?’
At this Sue’s patience finally exhausted itself. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I don’t know who you are or why you’re asking these questions. But if you’re trying to organise some sort of witch-hunt, then you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m not going to finger anyone else in the Labour Party, even if I don’t agree with them all the time. In any case I think you’re about ten years too late. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone over there I have to speak to.’
Sue had just caught sight of Jane Summerson, and she marched over to meet her, muttering to herself: ‘Why do nuts always pick on me?’
Undeterred, Lisa looked around for someone else to latch on to. Then she pulled a small notebook from her coat pocket and rapidly scribbled a few words in it. Having done that, she walked up to Val Hawdon and introduced herself, this time taking good care to give her name immediately and to assure Val that she supported the strike and was outraged by the management’s behaviour. Indeed, she expressed her outrage in virtually the identical words she had just heard from Sue. Val, however, was immediately impressed. She was, for better or worse, a far less suspicious person than Sue, and she accepted Lisa’s solidarity at face value.
* * * * *
Jane was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and trying to make out if there was anybody here that she knew, when she was greeted by a cheery cry of:
‘Hi, Jane, does this mark a return to the class struggle?’
Jane peered through the drizzle and saw Sue Norman, whom she had not met for several years. As she forced her memory synapses to work, she decided that the last time must have been at a social in support of the miners’ strike.
‘I thought it was your lot that had given up on the class struggle,’ snarled Jane. ‘Hasn’t your new leader instructed you to drop that sort of thing in case it frightens off the middle-class voters?’
‘There are still a few of us trouble-makers left,’ said Sue. ‘The odd one or two eccentrics who would sooner pay a couple of pence more tax than see hospitals being shut down. They haven’t rooted us all out yet.’
‘I’m glad to see it,’ said Jane. ‘I hope you’ve brought your MP along with you. I’m sure Mr Wicklow would want to express his solidarity with the toiling masses.’
The smile faded from Sue’s face, to be replaced by a hardness that shocked Jane and made her regret her jocularity. She recalled her own outburst against Wicklow a few weeks ago. Obviously she was not the only person who thought that he was no joking matter.
‘Listen,’ said Sue, looking around to see that nobody else was listening, ‘don’t confuse the Labour Party here with rat-face Wicklow. It’s not my fault he’s our MP – and I’m doing my best to see that he won’t be in six months time.’
‘Are you trying to get him deselected?’ asked Jane.
‘It’s too late for that, unfortunately. He got himself reselected a while ago. He knew some of us were building up a case against him. So he got himself reselected before we had it ready. But that’s not the end of the story. I’ve got a dossier on Wicklow as thick as your arm.
‘We’ve got sexual harassment. Half a dozen women prepared to testify what Wicklow has done to them. Of course, they’ll try to brush that aside as “political correctness”. But even New Labour draws the line at rape.
‘And that’s only the half of it. I’ve been looking into Wicklow’s business interests. He has plenty of them. It’s a wonder he has time to be an MP at all. But then we don’t see all that much of him in the constituency.
‘There’s something very nasty going on. I can’t prove it all yet, but there’s a lot of corruption. We may even be able to nail him for extortion, if we can do it without involving the victim. Terence Wicklow MP is as bent as a nail, and within a few weeks I’ll be able to prove it. He was tied in with your patron saint Del Morecambe, you know.
‘So we’ll put up an emergency resolution of no confidence. If I can drive that bastard out of public life I shall die happy.’
Jane nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’d love to see the swine go. But it won’t do your party any good, will it, so near to the election?’
‘To be honest,’ said Sue, ‘I don’t really care about that. If it meant losing the seat to the Tories it would be a price worth paying. He’s worse than a Tory. He’s got to go, one way or the other. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll give all my material to the press during the election campaign. They’ll throw me out of the Party, but I’ll take him with me. I won’t be happy till he’s back in the rat-hole he belongs in. In fact I shan’t be happy till he’s rotting under the ground.
‘But once I make it known that we’ve got the evidence, I shouldn’t be surprised if Party headquarters doesn’t step in and get rid of him quietly. You know, it’s easy enough to make fun of the new leadership, but on things like corruption and equal opportunities they’re pretty good.’
Jane looked unconvinced. Sue went on:.
‘And then we can select a new candidate. Some of us think it’s high time we had a woman representing this constituency.’
‘Putting yourself forward?’ enquired Jane.
For just a second Sue began to blush. But her embarrassment soon disappeared and she sniggered. ‘No, I don’t think so. We have someone very capable lined up for the job. But that’s another battle. Let’s take them one at a time.’
Quickly changing the subject, she enquired how Jane was getting on. ‘I haven’t seen you for ages. Are you still working in the University?’
‘Oh yes, who else would employ me at my age? But I tend to drive in and drive out as soon as I can get away from the miserable slum. So I don’t have much sense of the locality.
‘By the way,’ she added, ‘ the Poly – er - University is going to have the pleasure of Wicklow next week. We’ve got a conference coming up on the ‘death of socialism’. Wicklow and Steven Sadler. John Thomson chairing.’ She paused reflectively. ‘We know them all. I expect it’ll be the unedifiying shambles you normally associate with Del Morecambe events.’
‘I don’t know’ said Sue, ‘it could be quite interesting. I think I shall come. Who knows what might come out of it. In any case it’ll be like a reunion. Remember Paris?’
Jane preferred not to remember Paris, and launched into a lurid description of the miseries of working in Del Morecambe University. Since there are few things more boring than listening to how unhappy other people are in their jobs, Sue rapidly made an appropriate excuse, and returned to her small bunch of Labour Party members.
* * * * *
Jimmy Hale, the General Secretary of NUTMEG, a dour Scotsman of about fifty-five, was making his first appearance at the Kidzphun picket. He had a long record in the labour movement, and was known to be on the left, but never too much so. He was standing on the fringe of the picket, talking to Mike Applegarth:
‘This strike’s going to be a bit of a problem, you know,’ he said. ‘We can’t win it quickly. In fact, I don’t think we can win it at all.’
‘The girls think they can.’
‘I know the lassies do, but they’ve no experience, ken?’
The General Secretary ended almost every sentence with the query ‘ken?’ When Mike had first met him he had thought he was under a misapprehension about his name.
‘And the other thing is, there’ll be an election before too long. Now we don’t want the strike dragging on into the election. Especially if there’s any more mass picketing.’
‘So what do we do?’ asked Mike. ‘Try and do a deal with the employer.’
‘It’s no so simple as that. There’s a lot of our revolutionary friends been hanging round the strike. You know the type, Mike boy. You’ve been the type, Mike. They don’t work like we do. We’ve circulated all our branches for money. But most branches only meet the once in a month – and there aren’t many turn up when they do. Of course, they can vote a donation out of branch funds – but as you remember we changed the rules so that branches don’t have much subs income any more. I’ve asked the TUC to circulate other unions – but that could take three months before we get anything, ken?
‘Now your ultra-left friends don’t play by the rule book. They ring people up, they knock on people’s doors, they walk into meetings without even asking permission, they do collections outside the supermarkets. And of course the lassies love it, ken?
‘So if we try to call the strike off too soon, we could lose control of the whole thing. And that wouldn’t help NUTMEG – and it wouldn’t help the Labour Party, ken?’
Mike looked blank; where was this leading?
‘Do you remember that old song about Nellie swinging on the bell, Mike? First you swing to the left, then you swing to the right.’
Mike nodded, calling up a blurred childhood memory of the Billie Cotton Band Show.
‘So,’ said Jimmy Hale, ‘you just carry on doing the excellent job you’re doing. Come down to the picket every day – I’m sure you can find the time. The lassies are very impressed with you. I’ll drop in when I can, but you know I’m a busy man. Then there’s this conference up at the University on the ‘death of socialism’ or whatever. Turn up there. Take a couple of buckets. Make a speech. Sound as radical as you can – talk r-r-revolutionary, you remember all the right words. You can even criticise me – I won’t discipline you. It all shows willing.
‘But keep in touch; I may need you for a rather confidential meeting.’
* * * * *
Jane glanced up at the sky. Although the sun had doubtless risen somewhere behind the clouds, it was actually darker than it had been half an hour ago. She began to wonder if she could decently consider that she had shown her solidarity with the strikers and go to work. While she was still weighing this up, she was accosted by a young woman with curly blond hair.
‘Hi, Jane, lovely to bump into you. Still at it, I see.’
Jane, whose capacity to remember faces, never very strong, had been blunted by successive conveyor belts loaded with sheep-like students, gazed blankly at the young woman.
‘Tara. Tara Finch. You were on the Miners’ Support Committee. I interviewed you for the North London Tribune.’
Jane had a much better memory for names than for faces, and she now recalled Tara. This picket was beginning to feel like being on ‘This Is Your Life’. Tara had been a young journalist on the local paper at the time of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. She had helped the Support Committee to get a number of items into the local paper, and had written a very sympathetic feature article on the Committee’s activities. Jane had lost touch with her after the end of the strike, though she now vaguely recalled hearing that Tara had got a job on a national tabloid.
‘So what are you doing here?’ enquired Jane. ‘I didn’t know this was national news.’
‘It could be,’ said Tara. ‘The women have been out for six weeks. It’s quite a long time. I might be able to do a bit of a feature on them. Of course, it would have to be wrapped up with human interest stuff. I’ve not changed. I’m with the strikers all the way, just like I was with the miners. But it’s a lot harder to get political stuff into the papers nowadays. You have to compromise. Find a roundabout way of getting the message across. Like you don’t start all your lectures by saying Karl Marx was always right, do you?’
Jane nodded. ‘That’s right. Students nowadays don’t seem to give a toss about anything political. If you want to get anything across you have to wrap it up for them.’
She paused for a second, then added: ‘Perhaps I’m being unfair. There are one or two of my students here this morning. Over there.’ She pointed rather vaguely in the direction of the Students’ Union banner. ‘That’s one of my students, Seamus O’Hara; he’s a bit of a wild man, but he’s very useful to have in a seminar. Always willing to defend the radical point of view, even if means killing a few politicians on the way.’
Tara looked genuinely pleased to hear this, and nodded enthusiastically: ‘It’s so good when you hear that young people aren’t apathetic, that they want to fight back. Like the road protesters. I did a piece about them a few weeks back. Maybe you saw it.’
Jane moved her head in an indeterminate fashion, not wishing to offend Tara, although she regarded the paper she was now working for as being contemptibly right‑wing.
‘Of course, they changed it a lot. Cut out the part where I tried to work in some sympathetic analysis. You know, people on the left talk a lot about the evils of the right-wing press. You should see it from the inside – it’s much worse than you think. You should meet a tabloid editor – sexism, racism, jokes about cripples, any sort of prejudice you can imagine – and pig ignorant into the bargain. Sometimes I feel as if I’m a spy infiltrating the Nazi Party. But we keep on kicking; one day the tide will turn.’
Tara sighed and added. ‘Unfortunately there’s not much happening here. Not much for us to get our teeth into. I don’t know what we can make of it.’
Jane was momentarily puzzled by Tara’s use of the word ‘we’, but then observed for the first time a young man with a camera standing a few yards away. He was obviously Tara’s photographer. Presumably some rule of journalistic etiquette, maybe even a job description, prevented him from engaging in conversation.
‘It’s a pity. My heart bleeds for those women. They deserve some support, and we could get them some. But my news editor isn’t keen – miserable Tory bastard. I won’t get anything in unless I can find a story to wrap it up with.’ She lowered her voice, as if seeking Jane’s advice on an embarrassing gynaecological matter. ‘Do you know any of the strikers? Personally, I mean? Do you know any stories we could follow up? Anybody’s husband walked out because his striking wife wasn’t there to make his tea?’ As Jane frowned, she added hurriedly: ‘You can use stories like that to challenge the old sexist stereotypes. It just needs a bit of subtlety.’
Jane was unconvinced. Tara was doubtless sincere enough, but she doubted how far such strategies could succeed. The nearest she had to anything that might interest Tara was a story Val Hawdon had told her the previous week about her son – and she certainly wasn’t going to pass that on for exposure in the tabloids. She shook her head slowly. ‘Sorry. I can’t help you.’
‘Never mind,’ said Tara, ‘perhaps I’ll get something out of your ‘wild man’ student. What did you say his name was? O’Hear?’
As Tara left, Jane heard angry shouting and scuffling. She looked up to see what was going on, and Tara quickly rushed into the middle of the action, followed by her photographer, anxious to find out if there was a story here. Jane could not see what was going on but a number of people – mainly a group of students led by Seamus O’Hara – were shouting ‘Nazis! Nazis!’
A van had driven up, very quickly, and stopped just short of the picket; three men, two young skinheads and an older man, probably in his late fifties, had jumped out. They were holding placards reading: DEFEND THE RIGHT TO WORK and giving out leaflets. With a degree of accuracy that indicated some intelligence – though it was hard to judge which of the three might have possessed any – they had arrived right in front of the television cameras.
Seamus O’Hara had been the first to recognise that the older man was Frank Drutt, a well-known figure on the extreme right in the area. For over twenty-five years he had built up a tiny reputation for himself by sending letters to the local press. The tone of these had, of necessity, changed over the years. Scares about leprosy in the immigrant population were no longer as plausible as they had once been and the main target in recent times had been the local Labour council’s minuscule budget for multicultural education. On several occasions Drutt had stood in local and parliamentary elections as candidate of various avatars of the extreme racist right.
By now about twenty or thirty people were standing round Drutt and his close‑cropped accomplices, chanting ‘Nazis Out!’ The television interviewer, however, a very young, vacant-looking woman who would have felt more at home with the opening of a new shopping arcade, invited Drutt in front of the cameras to state his case.
Drutt grabbed avidly at this possibility of publicity. The interviewer thrust the microphone right under his nose and asked him what his grievance had to do with the dispute in question.
Drutt cleared his throat and recited words which he had clearly learnt by heart at some considerable expense of effort: ‘We believe strikes are damaging our economy. We have seen today workers trying to work, as is lawful, being intimidated by the trade unions. Those who are leading the strike are not of British birth and do not have British interests at heart. If they do not like the wages and conditions in British factories they should return to their own homeland.’
Val Hawdon, who had overheard this, started to scream: ‘I was born in this country. It’s my homeland just as much as it is yours.’ At this one of the skinheads accompanying Drutt turned round and said: ‘Fuck off, nigger bitch!’
Although the chanting was still vigorous, nobody had as yet made any attempt to physically attack the three Nazis. But Rosemary Stoddart had leapt from her car to consult with her underlings, and was now urgently radioing for reinforcements. ‘However distasteful it may be,’ she said to the men already there, ‘we have to defend the right of free speech for everyone.’ The policemen did not seem to find anything particularly distasteful about defending Nazis; they pushed into the crowd, telling those chanting that they must stop because it was ‘incitement’.
It was then decided that all the supporters of the strike should be moved to the left‑hand side of the gates while the Nazis would be asked to stand on the right-hand side. Since this meant pushing about eighty people into a cramped area, while giving the three Nazis a large conspicuous position as though they had mobilised a demonstration of equal size, there was some considerable resistance. Jimmy Hale brusquely told Mike to ensure that there was a minimum of trouble, and disappeared from the scene. Tara meanwhile was confiding in her photographer that she wished she could land a job as a columnist so that she wouldn’t need ‘to come out in the bleeding rain’.
At this point Jane was talking to Seamus O’Hara, trying to find out what was going on. He explained the police tactics to her, and she exclaimed in a firm but not very loud voice ‘That’s outrageous’.
The policeman standing immediately in front of her responded: ‘That’s quite enough shouting, madam. Please go where you’ve been told to.’
It was elementary anti-authoritarianism rather than any considered tactical response that led Jane to hesitate, and that only for a few seconds. But in those few seconds the policeman grabbed hold of her and started to push her, and she began to struggle, shouting ‘Get your hands off me. I’m going, but I’ll go in my own time.’
It was scarcely one of the great radical rallying cries, but a little knot of demonstrators formed around her, and these too were jostled by the police. Jane now began to walk backwards – since there was no hope of turning round in this mêlée – as the police continued to push forwards. She was far too concerned with avoiding falling over to notice that Tara’s photographer was snapping away at a frantic rate.
* * * * *
The next morning Jane was able to get up at her normal time, so it was shortly after eight o’clock when she staggered into the newsagent’s to buy her Guardian. As she was bending down to pick up her paper, she caught sight of the front page of a tabloid lying adjacent to it. There was a large picture which seemed somehow familiar; after a few seconds’ bewilderment she realised that it was in fact a picture of herself.
It was not a paper which she had a habit of buying, but she grabbed a copy and bought it together with her Guardian, shoving it inside the broadsheet so that she should not be seen leaving the shop with it. When she got to her car she opened the tabloid out against the steering wheel and began to read. As she did so a feeling of nausea seemed to penetrate through every part of her body.
The picture showed Jane standing face to face with a policeman, who appeared to be pushing her backwards. More significant was the fact that her left hand was raised in a clenched fist; to any observer it would seem as though she were about to strike the policeman in the face.
But the picture was relatively innocent compared to the accompanying article. This bore a banner headline: RED LECTURER IN PICKET LINE VIOLENCE, and was headed ‘By our special correspondent Tara Finch’. With a growing sense of unreality, Jane continued to read Tara’s account of the events of the picket line.
Picket line violence flared in North London yesterday, outside the Kidzphun toy factory. For six weeks fifty women from the factory have been on strike in protest at the dismissal of their shop steward, West Indian Val Hawdon.
Yesterday morning the women staged a ‘mass picket’, reminiscent of the infamous scenes at the Grunwick factory in the 1970s.
One of those organising the mass picket was Ms Jane Summerson (48), Lecturer in History at Del Morecambe University. She boasted of the fact that she had encouraged her students to join the picket. In particular she said of one student that he was a real ‘wild man’, who openly advocated political assassination.
The violence flared when a small group of counter-demonstrators opposed to the strike turned up to give out leaflets in support of the ‘right to work’. This did not please Miss Summerson and her fellow demonstrators, and they tried to prevent the counter-demonstrators coming anywhere near the factory. The police attempted to separate the two groups, but a bunch of demonstrators led by Ms Summerson and her ‘wild man’ associate hurled themselves at the police in an attempt to break through the cordon.
This is not the first time that Ms Summerson has been involved in picket line violence. During the miners’ strike of 1984-85 she was tireless in her efforts to raise money, and was a frequent visitor to picket lines. Friends say that she is obsessive in her support for strikes, and that trade unionism is like a religion to her.
Detective Inspector Rosemary Stoddart, who had overall responsibility for policing the picket, said that it was extremely unfortunate that events had developed as they did. ‘Unfortunately today’s picket was swollen by a large number of outsiders. I don’t know whether the strikers invited them, but I’m sure they did not intend scenes of violence of this sort. I have been told that efforts had been deliberately made to involve large numbers of students from Del Morecambe University. We are looking into this very actively.’
Mike Applegarth, the full-time official of the Toymakers Union, who has direct responsibility for the strike, said: ‘My union deplores all forms of violence, and we very much regret that this incident took place during a peaceful picket.’
* * * * *
Jane had always had a fairly small circle of friends in the University, a fact which was scarcely surprising in view of her habitually abrasive manner. But once she had been denounced in the press, that circle shrank rapidly. Although the matter was much discussed, few of her colleagues fully articulated the position. But the main theme seemed to be that Jane had helped to get the University a ‘bad name’ and that this would make the institution even weaker in face of the threat of spending cuts. If confronted directly with the question, few of Jane’s colleagues would have attempted to deny her right to participate in a legal trade-union activity; yet most of them felt it was ‘unnecessary’ and that even if she had not been guilty of all the press claimed, she had only herself to blame by being there in the first place.
Jane did not bother to explain herself. The contempt she felt for most of her workmates combined with a sense of futility in face of systematic distortion. She got on with her job and ignored her colleagues. Seamus O’Hara did take the trouble to congratulate her, but she was rather curt in acknowledging him, feeling that any complicity with him might damage her reputation yet further.
Two days after her picture had appeared in the papers, Jane found herself at a union branch meeting. It was surprisingly well attended – or perhaps it was not so surprising, since it was to discuss the proposed introduction of Performance Related Pay.
Jane had been a leading member of the negotiating team which had met management to discuss the proposals. After several months of talks the discussions had broken down, not least due to Jane’s own determination that the scheme should not be put into practice.
The meeting opened and Jane was called on to explain the developments in the negotiations. She described progress so far, and did not miss the opportunity to make a number of uncomplimentary remarks about the Vice‑Chancellor of the University. The latter was pretty generally disliked and normally her jokes would have gone down well. But today they fell flat. Jane applied her normal principle with a class of students, namely that if they didn’t laugh at her first two jokes she would assume they were stupid and humourless and would abandon any further attempt to amuse them. She prided herself on keeping her reports brief, wanting to get as many responses as possible so she could judge the mood of the membership. She got them.
The first to speak was a young woman called Sarah Woodcourt. She had only been in the University for a few months, but immediately declared that she was sure that the Vice-Chancellor was committed to improving educational standards and that he should be given full support.
Sarah was an evangelical Christian who had once invited Jane – known by all her colleagues as a ferocious atheist – to come to a church service. Jane loathed her viscerally, and would have loved to ram a crucifix up her buttocks.
But Jane did have some sense of tactics, though her friends might not always have believed so. So she simply nodded very coolly at Sarah and said; ‘It’s very interesting to have the views of a newcomer who hasn’t had very much experience of the institution’, thus dismissing Sarah as not understanding what was going on. (Jane always referred to the University as ‘the institution’ – it avoided calling the place a university, which she could never quite believe it was, and had all the appropriate connotations of a jail or a mental hospital. If she was accused of snobbery for doubting that the institution really was a university, Jane replied that she had no particular affection for sewer-rats, but she knew a hamster wasn’t one.)
The next to speak was Roger Kenge. He had retained his union membership when promoted to management, although he was not a frequent attender at meetings. Jane suspected that he had been sent along by his superiors to disrupt proceedings. Her suspicions were in fact quite correct; it did not take any great insight to work that out once he began speaking.
He reported on discussions that had taken place among senior management and assured staff that if they would accept Performance Related Pay immediately then they would all get a bonus before the end of the term. A number of snouts began to look up at this information.
Jane felt that she could be a bit heavier in this case than she had been with Sarah. Kenge was pretty widely disliked as a sanctimonious incompetent. So she pointed out that she was very pleased that Kenge had been able to pass on this information, which had not been made available to the negotiators. Perhaps senior management were not communicating among themselves as effectively as they might.
This got some sort of response from those in the meeting, since the management were well-known for their gross incompetence. Kenge was obviously stung, and resorted to his normal tactic of changing the subject.
‘That may well be,’ he said, ‘but at least we attempt to discuss in a rational and orderly fashion rather than taking our disputes onto the streets.’
Jane was horrified when several members in the room began to clap. She was realising just how unpopular her reported behaviour at the picket had made her among her colleagues.
* * * * *
Every week the local newspaper carried a column by Terence Wicklow in which he commented on local and national political questions and aired his many prejudices. This week he had had no problem finding a topic.
Our Borough has been on the front pages this week. Not, unfortunately, because of commercial or educational achievement, or because of the splendid work of our new Labour council, but because of the so-called riot outside the Kidzphun factory.
I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the dispute. I’m sure that both management and unions have a case. That’s why the situation needs negotiation. People forget that unions were first set up to negotiate, not to go on strike. And if outside conciliation or arbitration is needed, so be it. Much more sensible than fighting in the streets, sixties-style.
Because I don’t know all the ins and outs of the situation I’ve refrained from pronouncing on it. Fools rush in, as the wise old song says. Unfortunately one of our local University lecturers thinks she knows better. She was in the middle of it all – and afterwards boasted to the press that she’d brought her students along for a punch-up.
It makes you wonder whether these so-called intellectuals really are cleverer than the rest of us. Perhaps they know all about astronomy or Chinese poetry, but they don’t know much about the real world. Do we really want people like this teaching our children?
Two days later one of the broadsheets carried a commentary on the same events from the pen of Steven Sadler, under the headline: A SLIPPERY SLOPE.
Recent events at Del Morecambe University need to be put into a historical context. But though the lady at the heart of the affair, Ms Summerson, is said to be a lecturer in history, I doubt very much whether she appreciates the historical significance of her actions.
Ms Summerson supports the strikers at the Kidzphun factory. That, of course, is her inalienable right in this democracy which she doubtless despises as ‘repressive tolerance’.
If she chooses to express those views in a letter to this newspaper, or to expound them at a well-conducted public meeting, then she is contributing to the process of democracy.
But Ms Summerson took with her to the picket a number of her students, young people who have been encouraged by the university authorities to look to her for intellectual objectivity and sound guidance. Far from seeking to establish herself as a role model for impressionable young people by the use of reason and sober analysis, Ms Summerson apparently boasted openly that one of her acolytes was a ‘wild man’.
I bear no grudge against the young man in question. Adolescence is a time for insubordination, and it is nothing new for students to show a bit of wildness. Student revolt has centuries of history. But in the past students revolted against their elders and betters. Even in the annus mirabilis of 1968 it was only a tiny minority of lecturers who sided with their students.
But what help is it to the ‘wild man’ in question if it is his lecturer who, far from exercising the sobering influence of maturity, takes him along to a situation which can only inflame his passions and put him, not her, in the path of danger?
Happily no great harm was done at the Kidzphun picket. We may not be so lucky next time. Those who seek to solve social grievances, real or imagined, by the use of violence, are embarking on a slippery slope which, in times of genuine economic and social tension, can lead all too rapidly to dire consequences.
Since Ms Summerson is a historian, I commend to her attention a serious study of the March Action in Germany in 1921, when revolutionary Communists tried to provoke the working class into action against its will. They got their reward twelve years later, when Adolf Hitler came to power.
If Ms Summerson can learn the lessons of history, well and good. If, as I suspect, she cannot, then Del Morecambe University will have to ask itself very seriously whether she is the sort of historian it wants on its staff.
Jane, of course, read both articles on the day they appeared. But if she hadn’t, at least four generous colleagues anonymously put photocopies into her pigeon-hole. Several more copies appeared on the staff-room notice-board. The criticism of her by Terence Wicklow had caused particular alarm in view of the likelihood of a Labour government in the near future. Of course there was little possibility that Terence Wicklow would be in a position to determine the educational priorities of such a government, but such was the general feeling of powerlessness and anxiety that nobody wished to risk offending him. So Jane was scarcely surprised when a large envelope appeared two days later, containing yet more copies of the articles in question, and inviting her to an interview with Roger Kenge, her head of department.
* * * * *
Rosemary Stoddart had read Sadler’s article about the picket. It had been some weeks since their dinner date, and, to her profound chagrin, he had not contacted her again. She noticed from the local newspaper that he would be in the area the following Saturday, speaking at a conference at the University. Should she go? It would give her a chance to renew their acquaintance. For a few moments she was in two minds. But surely it would look too ostentatious. She would feel very out of place in a conference like that. She desperately wanted to see Steven again – but equally she was terrified of looking as though she were throwing herself at him. Rosemary sighed and turned on the radio.
* * * * *
Jane knocked on the door and walked into Roger Kenge’s office. Kenge was, as usual, crouching over his computer terminal. He was obsessed with ensuring that computer material in the Faculty was constantly updated, with the result that it was scarcely ever in a state to be actually used.
He smiled at her benignly, inviting her to sit down, and informing her that this would be a purely informal meeting, with no disciplinary consequences. He sat back smugly, as though he had done her a great favour.
Tartly, Jane pointed out that she was well aware of the status of the meeting, and that had it been otherwise she would not have attended without a union representative to accompany her. Moreover, she pointed out, no mention had been made of any misconduct on University premises, and unless such charges were made, she could not conceivably be held to be in breach of any disciplinary code.
Kenge smiled wearily, having been the target of many similar diatribes from Jane. He went on: ‘As you know, I’m sure, I have always been a devotee of Karl Popper’s idea of the open society, and I believe very profoundly in the principle of the freedom of speech.’
He gave a brief laugh. Many people have the irritating habit of laughing at their own jokes when they have made them; Kenge had the even more irritating tendency of laughing at remarks he was about to make, even if nobody else was likely to find them at all funny.
‘As Voltaire said, I may disagree totally with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ He glared provocatively at Jane, who was about to point out that Voltaire had never said any such thing, and that it was only the ignorant – those who took their knowledge from second-rate dictionaries of quotations – who believed that he had said anything so foolish. Realising that this would be a diversion from the disagreeable but necessary confrontation that was taking place, she held her peace.
‘I don’t have any sympathy for your political views, but I defend your right to hold them. But I would do the same for people at the opposite end of the political spectrum. These so-called “Nazis”’ – the massive inverted commas he put around the word seemed almost to acquire physical form as he spoke – ‘may be very misguided, and I have no sympathy whatsoever with their views, but as John Stuart Mill pointed out, that is no ground for seeking to deny them the right to speak. Indeed, I think that the more they are allowed to speak, the more they will discredit themselves and bring themselves into disrepute.’
Right, thought Jane, the problem with Hitler is that he didn’t hold enough Nuremberg Rallies. If he had had more, then he would have discredited himself and there would have been no need to bomb Dresden. Again, she held back the retort with great difficulty and allowed Kenge to continue.
‘So I’m afraid that whatever my heart might tell me, my head does not allow me to sympathise with your anti-Nazi demonstration last week.’
Jane’s initial speculation as to which of the two organs mentioned was the smaller was brutally interrupted as she realised what Kenge was saying. This could not be allowed to pass. He had obviously failed to read the newspapers with any degree of care and imagined that Jane had been involved in some sort of anti-Nazi protest. Interrupting Kenge – not an easy job when he was in full moralistic flow – she pointed out that she had been taking part in a legal demonstration in support of a trade-union picket connected with an official strike – indeed, a full-time union official had been present. There had been no violence until a group of Nazis had attacked the picket.
‘Of course, of course,’ mumbled Kenge, in no way embarrassed that his ignorance had been shown up, ‘but we don’t want to get bogged down in questions of detail. It’s the principle I want to talk about.’
Jane pointed out that the principle was whether she had a right to engage in legitimate and legal trade‑union and political activities off the University premises and outside her working hours, and whether the University management had any claim to interfere with such rights.
‘None at all,’ said Kenge, ‘of course you are fully entitled to exercise your right of free speech, as I pointed out at the very beginning of our conversation. But that right must not be abused.
‘As I said,’ he went on, ‘this is not a formal or a disciplinary matter. But we do have to remember that we don’t live in a pure ivory tower of academic study, much as we might like to. We have to consider our paymasters – and our probable future paymasters. I’m sure you read what Terence Wicklow had to say in the press.’
As before, Jane’s previously balanced response was totally undermined by the mention of Wicklow’s name.
‘Yes, I read his illiterate rantings. Mr Wicklow is the MP for the patch of ground this particular bit of the University sits on – and will be until the local Labour Party have the decency to throw him out for corruption. He’s hardly likely to have very much influence on a Labour government’s spending policies – I think even the rest of the Labour Party recognise him for the nasty little rat he is.
‘And since you’ve made it clear that this is not a formal meeting and has no disciplinary consequences, then I assume I am free to leave at any time…’
Kenge tried to smile as he nodded, but failed conspicuously to do so.
‘… and since I’ve heard enough maundering nonsense for one day and since unlike management I actually have to teach students, I’ve had enough.’
She walked out, slamming the door behind her. She had a vision of Kenge, lying in a hospice, rotten with cancer, his sight gone and vomiting up his stomach, crying out in extremity of pain, while a nurse explained to him that the budget for painkillers had been used up, and that he would have to wait until the beginning of the next financial year. It was a vision that lacked plausibility, since all staff on Kenge’s grade got BUPA membership as part of their Conditions of Service, but it was one that gave her intense pleasure.