5: FACING THE ATTACK
Ruth Rendell tells us that she writes her crime stories with one killer in mind, then changes the identity of the murderer and rewrites with minimum alterations. The function of the genre is to deceive [Lydon & Cook, 1976], and here the writer is taking the point to its logical conclusion by deceiving herself. (J Thomson, Uncompleted PhD thesis on detective narratives)
The Goose was a public house which stood some three hundred yards away from Del Morecambe University and was widely patronised by staff and students of the institution. Roger Kenge had asked staff directly involved with the organisation of the conference to meet him here at one o’clock on Saturday, in order to discuss any last‑minute problems and to ensure that everything ran smoothly.
John Thomson had arrived early, and was sitting glumly at a table with a small whisky. There was a battered, untidy briefcase full of papers by the side of his chair, and he was slowly twisting and demolishing a paper-clip with his finger-nails when Roger Kenge came in and joined him.
‘You don’t look very cheerful,’ said Kenge, trying to be jocular, something he did with his usual incompetence. ‘Not looking forward to being in the public eye.’
A meeting three weeks earlier had decided that John should act as chair of the conference. There had been no great enthusiasm for this among the committee members – John was bad-tempered, absent-minded and prone to use an incomprehensible academic vocabulary. But the only alternative had been Roger Kenge, whose propensity for answering questions other than the one asked had led some to fear that he would end up addressing the assembled audience on organic gardening or the iconography of the Orthodox Church.
John himself had not welcomed the proposal; he suffered badly from stage‑fright even before his routine teaching commitments, and today he was obviously in a state of extreme anxiety. Kenge would have been quite happy to take over the responsibility if John or anyone else had suggested that he do so; but nobody did.
A moment or two later Pete Allsop arrived, carrying two thick library books under his arm, each with several pieces of rather unhygienic paper sticking out of them to mark references.
‘I’ve got some very interesting points on social class here,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll call me to speak.’
By now the pub was beginning to fill up. A group of students including Seamus O’Hara walked in and queued for drinks. O’Hara waved cheerily at John Thomson, who gave a cursory nod in reply and carried on demolishing his paper‑clip.
Roger Kenge looked at his watch. ‘Where’s Jane got to?’ he said. ‘I did ask her to be here by one and it’s turned ten past.’
At that moment Jane walked in. She greeted her colleagues but made no pretence of an apology, going straight past their table and standing at the now crowded bar to buy a drink. When she eventually obtained her half of bitter, she brought it over to the table where the others were sitting, put it down and disappeared into the ladies’ lavatory. It was several minutes before she reappeared and sat down to join them.
‘Anything else you have to do, Jane?’ enquired John. ‘Clip your toenails? Perm your hair, perhaps? We are supposed to be having a sodding meeting.’
Jane ignored this. She had not wanted to be on the organising committee and was determined to show as little enthusiasm as possible for the task in hand. John realised this; it merely served to intensify his rage against humanity in general and Jane in particular.
Roger Kenge felt the role of conciliator now fell onto his shoulders, so he played it as badly as any other that fell to his lot. Although there were only three other people around the table, he began to make the sort of speech that might have been appropriate in a gathering of fifty – assuming that none of them had heard any of it before. He explained that it was an important day for the Faculty and that the public image of the Faculty was extremely important in the current educational climate; he enjoined them all to take good care to enhance the public face of the Faculty and indeed the whole University.
Only then did he suggest that they might consider any problems that were likely to arise. The technical question of making a tape of the entire proceedings – possibly with a view to an eventual publication – had been resolved. Apparently the budget would stretch to overtime payments for the media services staff.
‘So, no more problems?’ said Kenge brightly.
‘I can see one over there,’ said John, pointing at O’Hara.
Roger Kenge, who had not taught for some years, was not familiar with any of the students in the Faculty he headed. ‘Who’s that?’
‘Seamus O’Hara. He’s a trouble-maker. He’s always arguing in seminars, always questioning things.’
‘I thought that was what education was about,’ observed Jane tartly.
John ignored her. ‘He’ll probably make some long, irrelevant contribution – defend Marxism, or something of that sort. He’ll certainly lower the tone of the whole thing. And if I don’t let him speak he’ll start protesting and yabbering about free speech.’
‘Surely,’ said Pete Allsop, ‘the answer is to have a number of contributions lined up in advance. Then you can call those and say that you’re very sorry but there wasn’t time to call everyone.’
‘Fine,’ said John, ‘but it’s a bit late now. Who do I line up?’
‘Those of us round this table for a start,’ said Pete. ‘I’ve certainly got a few points I can make.’
‘And I’ll chip in something if necessary,’ said Roger Kenge. ‘But, of course, if there are speakers from the local community we must let them contribute.’
John avoided looking at Jane; on balance, he felt he would rather let O’Hara speak for half an hour than allow Jane to come into the debate. But before Jane could taunt him about the embarrassment he was so obviously feeling, the pub door opened and two newcomers walked in.
‘Excellent, excellent,’ said Roger Kenge, ‘our speakers have arrived.’ And he bustled over to the bar to greet them. Steven Sadler and Terence Wicklow had been deep in conversation as they arrived. ‘I hope you’ve not had the debate already and come to an agreement,’ said Kenge jocularly. ‘We’re all waiting for what promises to be a spectacular confrontation. Now what can I get you two gentlemen to drink?’
He led Sadler and Wicklow over to the table where he had been sitting, pulled up a couple of extra chairs, and proceeded to make introductions all round. Wicklow sat down next to Jane, who winced as he did so. But Wicklow turned towards her and said in a voice oozing with bonhomie:
‘Miss Jane Summerson. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame in the press recently, I believe.’
Jane made no reply, not even a nod. But Wicklow showed no inclination to take the hint and carried on. ‘But of course, we have met before, many years ago. I believe we were involved in a campaign against racism together, when we were both a lot younger than we are now.
‘A terrible thing, racism. We’ve nothing to be ashamed of in what we did in those days, even if we didn’t always see eye to eye. But, you know, racism has terribly deep roots in the working class. It’s one of the things that proves that poor old Karl Marx was wrong.’
Jane was looking ahead of her, her face so strained with pain and repressed passion that a passing observer might have thought that she was going into labour underneath the pub table. Wicklow resolutely refused to interpret the signals. Quarter of a century as a professional politician had made him totally incapable of listening to anyone else or understanding their feelings.
He laid his arm on Jane’s shoulder. ‘Whatever disagreements we may have had, we’re on the same side in the last resort. Why don’t we have dinner together and discuss it one evening?’
‘Because I’d sooner eat dog turd off the pavement than have dinner with you,’ said Jane in a voice that could be heard in every corner of the bar. ‘And get your fucking hands off me!’ She stood up, jerking the table so that Pete Allsop’s beer spilled over his library book, and ostentatiously walked over to join the students grouped around Seamus O’Hara.
O’Hara smiled at her. ‘Hi, Jane. What was that about?’
‘I just didn’t like sitting next to our MP. He thinks his years of service for the labour movement entitle him to maul me. Well, they don’t.’
O’Hara tended to admire anyone who made a bit of trouble, whatever the issue. ‘Fair enough. Would you like me to go over and smack him in the mouth?’
‘No, thank-you very much,’ said Jane. ‘I can look after myself, even though I am a frail little woman. If any violence is required I can administer it myself.’
‘Maybe you should. He’s a nasty piece of work and seems sorely in need of a bit of physical correction.’
‘You’re absolutely right there,’ said Sue Norman who had come over to join the group. ‘I just wanted to say “Well done!” to you, Jane. I don’t know exactly what he did, but I can imagine, and he deserved everything he got and more. That man isn’t fit to be an MP, and he won’t be one for much longer if I have anything to do with it.’
Sue was still telling Jane and Seamus of Wicklow’s alleged crimes when Roger Kenge walked over. ‘Jane,’ he said, in the most severe tones he could adopt, ‘your behaviour there was most unhelpful. You know what an important day this is for the Faculty.’
‘So I should put up with sexual harassment? Lie back and think of the University?’
‘This is political correctness run mad. I’ve never heard an invitation to dinner described as sexual harassment. Most women certainly wouldn’t regard it as such.’
‘And who appointed you to speak on behalf of most women?’
Sue and Seamus smiled with pleasure as Jane laid into Kenge.
‘Jane, I’m well aware that we are not on University premises and that your behaviour off the premises is not a matter for University discipline. So you don’t need to put your trade-union hat on and recite the rule book at me. But you are here carrying out a University function, so I am quite entitled to reprimand you in my capacity as your head of department. And if you do put one foot wrong when we are on University premises I’ll crucify you.’
A few moments later Steven Sadler walked past Jane on his way back from the lavatory. He stopped and said: ‘I hope I’m not included in your feeling of hostility against the world.’
‘You’re no worse than the rest.’
‘Good,’ said Steven, ‘Mr Kenge wants me to go over to the conference hall now, but I must have a word with you later. You don’t have to rush home to a loving husband, do you?’
Jane grinned despite herself. ‘No loving husband; I got put off men some time ago, I wonder why. Nothing but a lonely evening watching Casualty for me.’
Steven looked thoughtful. ‘Then I must have a word with you before I go. I hope you enjoy the debate.’ And he went back to rejoin Roger Kenge.
The conference was to be held in a large hall at the base of the tower block. By one thirty a small group of people had begun to gather outside the entrance. At one side of the door stood a couple of Socialist Worker sellers; their paper bore a large headline saying: DON’T TRUST BLAIR – TAX THE RICH.
At the other side of the door stood Val Hawdon and Mike Applegarth. They had a couple of large placards reading SUPPORT THE KIDZPHUN STRIKERS – SEVEN WEEKS ON STRIKE, a pile of leaflets outlining the strikers’ case, and a large collection bucket. Mike took the leaflets, ready to hand them out to everyone who came in, while Val took some coppers from her purse and threw them into the bucket so that she could make as much noise as possible when shaking it.
‘I think we should do quite well today,’ said Mike; ‘even though the publicity from the picket wasn’t quite what we planned, it means people have got to hear about the dispute.’
‘Too right,’ said Val, ‘ no publicity is bad publicity.’
‘I don’t know if Jimmy Hale would agree.’
‘Jimmy spends too much time at conferences and not enough time on picket lines,’ replied Val. ‘He listens far too much to the Labour Party and not enough to his own members.’
Mike had no desire to get into an argument where he might find himself being critical of his own General Secretary, so he was glad of a diversion. A young woman, whom he vaguely remembered from the picket line, had just arrived. She had bought her Socialist Worker and was getting details of local meetings from one of the sellers. Then she came across to Mike and Val.
‘So how is the strike progressing,’ she asked in a pronounced American accent, ‘I was at your picket the other week.’
Mike gave her a leaflet, telling her that it contained full details of the present situation. She took it, folded it neatly and put it away alongside her Socialist Worker, tossing a small coin into Val’s bucket.
‘I gather our picket caused a bit of a sensation,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said Mike, ‘typical of the British press and the way they report industrial disputes.’
‘But do you think they were right? Were there left-wing infiltrators stirring up trouble?’
Val put down her bucket and began to roar. ‘Infiltrators. Infiltrators. What nonsense. I’ve worked in Kidzphun for nine years. I don’t do it because I like it, or because I was told to do so in Moscow. I do it because my children have to eat. I have to eat. I’m left-wing. If you earned what I do you’d be left-wing. The people at that picket were trade unionists. That poor Miss Summerson who they put on all the front pages. I’ve talked to her. She’s a trade unionist in this University. She tells me it gets more like a factory every day. From what she tells me I believe her. She isn’t infiltrating – she has to eat too. And she wants her students to get a decent education. If my son comes to study here I hope there are more like her. Don’t talk to me about infiltrators.’
The American woman looked embarrassed, threw another coin into the bucket, and went inside.
A steady stream of people were now entering the hall. Most were giving money, and Val felt pleased with the response; but she was a bit disappointed she had not had more time to talk to Mike Applegarth. She had hoped to take the opportunity of getting some information about the state of negotiations in the strike. A rumour had been circulating that Jimmy Hale wanted to do a deal with the management behind the strikers’ backs, and she wanted to find out if Mike knew anything about this. But he was being very defensive, and refused to respond to her various indirect attempts to elicit information.
A burly man in his fifties walked in, not looking at either the Socialist Worker sellers or the Kidzphun collectors. Mike turned to Val and said in a low voice: ‘Frank Drutt.’
‘The Nazi!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’d like to gouge his eyes out.’
But before she could do anything about organising the gouging, the party from The Goose arrived, headed by Roger Kenge. When he saw the sight outside the entrance his reaction was like that of a man emerging from an expensive restaurant who fears the starving beggars on the pavement will give him indigestion.
He turned first to the Socialist Worker sellers. ‘Clear off!’ he barked. ‘This is University property.’
‘So is this,’ said one of the sellers, producing a student identity card.
‘I’ll get the security guards to clear you off.’
‘They won’t have time; they’re too busy inside. We were chatting to them earlier, and they said you were too mean to pay overtime for more than two of them. They’re taking it up with the union.’
‘I’ll call the police.’
‘Call away; by the time they get here everyone will have gone in and we’ll have finished the sale.’
Meanwhile Val Hawdon had shaken her bucket vigorously under Terence Wicklow’s nose. ‘Like to help your constituents on strike, Mr Wicklow,’ she shouted.
Wicklow brushed her aside, saying ‘Sorry, haven’t got time’, and strode into the hall. Val ran after him shouting. ‘Not got time, Mr Wicklow. You’ll have time when it comes to the election – if you haven’t been booted out by then. You’ll have time for us then. Maybe we’ll find some time for you – sooner than you think.’
Steven Sadler, meanwhile, had walked up to Mike. ‘Nice to see you. It’s been a long time. Yes, do give me a leaflet. I don’t know enough about the dispute to decide whether I want to give or not, but I’ll certainly study it carefully.’
Roger Kenge had now come over to try and chase the Kidzphun collectors off University property. But Jane and Sue were standing right in front of the bucket, slowly fishing in their handbags for change. Realising he was letting himself in for more obstruction, he gave up and walked inside, calling to Jane to hurry up as an impatient dog-owner might do to a recalcitrant pet.
Jane took her time, but eventually came inside and took her seat in the third row. On the platform John had taken his position in the middle, with Sadler to his left and Wicklow to his right. In a brief introduction not marked by any exceptional conceptual clarity he explained why the Faculty had decided to hold the debate, and introduced the two speakers. Wicklow was to go first, explaining why socialism was still alive. Jane felt a faint retching at the base of her stomach as Wicklow stood up, but she tried to concentrate on the argument, such as it was.
Wicklow began by enumerating the reasons why people might well believe socialism was dead. On the one hand, the command economies of the Eastern bloc had collapsed; on the other, the nationalised corporations and social services introduced by the Attlee government were no longer appropriate to the demands of the new millennium. He warmed to his theme and developed these points at some length; any latecomer to the meeting might well have been forgiven for imagining that he was speaking in favour of the proposition that socialism was dead. He had been speaking for some fifteen minutes out of his allotted thirty when he caught Jane’s eye in the audience, noted the almost gleeful expression on her face, and realised that he ought to get on to the argument he had been commissioned to deliver. Jane noted that John appeared extremely nervous and irritable
With the practised skill of a long-standing parliamentarian he made the transition by means of a little joke about ‘crossing the floor’ and putting the other side of the case. If he was at all surprised that this caused less amusement than it might have done at Westminster, he put it down to the fact that the audience was probably soberer.
He began by asking what socialism was not. It was not, he asserted, an economic doctrine – economic policies changed and necessarily had to change according to changing circumstances. It could not be identified with nationalisation of the means of production, as Clause Four – ‘ a splendid thing in its day, but no longer for our day’ – had required. Nor was it necessarily identified with a welfare state, something which would have to be radically rethought over the next few years.
Nor, he insisted, getting enthusiastic as he moved on to what he felt was safer ground, could socialism be identified with the interests of a particular class. In the earlier years of the century the working class had undergone terrible suffering, and the fight of labour was something we could all feel proud of. But it was no good fighting yesterday’s battles – Jane, who had been counting clichés, found she was running out of fingers.
So what was socialism? He looked round his audience, as though he was about to bring them to their final climax with a stunning revelation. In fact two thirds of them looked bored to tears, having naïvely expected a self-styled ‘University’ to provide something of a slightly more intellectually satisfying quality, while the other third were busy planning the speeches they intended to make in the open discussion session, and trying to work out how to link it to what Wicklow was saying – rather like sticking a hook into butter.
It was time for the great mystery to be unveiled. Socialism was not an economic or a social doctrine, it was an ethical tradition. Socialism was all about morality. At the mention of the word morality Jane felt the retching begin again, but she forced it back down into the pit of her stomach.
Socialism, Wicklow was declaiming, was part of an ethical tradition that went back to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t dwell on this point, not being very well up in classical philosophy. The only Greek book he could actually remember having read, Plato’s Republic, with all that stuff about state control, was probably a bit too radical for the modern Labour Party, so he hurriedly moved on.
But where should he move to? His notes were a bit thin at this point, as he had not left himself much time for preparation, assuming this sort of performance was something he could do with his eyes closed. Oliver Cromwell was a bit dubious, since he had something to do with executing the king, and despite the general contempt now felt for the monarchy, he didn’t want to get involved in anything that might suggest Labour was disloyal to the crown. The French Revolution was better, since although Robespierre was decidedly dubious, few people knew much about it.
Socialism, he proclaimed, was the embodiment of great moral principles, the principles that had inspired great reformers in the past, principles such as Justice, Decency, Liberty and Fraternity. A bit of Shelley would not come amiss, since this was a university – ‘What bliss it was to be alive in that dawn’. The age of Liberty and Fraternity, principles that still inspire us.
Jane was frantically mouthing to herself : ‘Equality. Equality. Go on, say it. Get your fucking tongue round it. E-Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y.’ Wicklow, as though feeling the force of Jane’s willpower, repeated, ‘Liberty, Fraternity and Equal Opportunities’. Halfway there, thought Jane, and probably as good as we’re likely to get.
The guided tour through human history continued. The Chartists got a name‑check, but little more, since Wicklow couldn’t remember much about them. The suffragettes were dragged in to appeal to the feminist lobby, but there was strictly no mention of breaking the law. And then a roll call of the great names in ethical socialism. Jane, having given up counting clichés, started to note missing quotations. RH Tawney – but no mention of the bit about how you could peel an onion leaf by leaf but not a tiger claw by claw. Nye Bevan – but not his threat to travel throughout the coal-fields and provoke strikes in the middle of the Second World War. And finally, Orwell, the last refuge of a scoundrel. Nothing, of course, about supporting the worker against his natural enemy the policeman. Decency. Decency didn’t commit you to anything, so a socialism based on decency was pretty safe.
John was passing Wicklow a little note to remind him he had had thirty minutes. Time for a summing up. Time to repeat the points he had made before, leaving out the weaker links in the argument. Socialism, he declared, was a moral crusade. (An aptly chosen word, thought Jane; a brutal war waged by bigoted, superstitious nationalists.) He sat down, lukewarm applause ringing briefly in his ears. John, however, was not clapping. He looked as though he had been utterly devastated by Wicklow’s contribution, and for a moment he seemed to forget where he was before suddenly awakening from his trance to introduce Steven Sadler in a few hesitant and occasionally incoherent words.
From the very first sentence, Jane recognised that this would be a more up‑market contribution. The first sentence was in fact no more than a polite acknowledgement of Wicklow’s contribution, but it was spoken with an edge of irony that indicated that Sadler was well aware of its intellectual mediocrity. As he complimented Wicklow on his excellent exposition of the basic principles of socialism, it was possible to sense an unspoken contempt, a noting of the fact that there had not been much sophistication there.
Sadler then moved straight into his main argument. What was socialism? Of course socialism had been identified with many thinkers, but there was only one intellectual tradition that deserved to be taken seriously, that of Karl Marx. As Sadler briefly paid tribute to Marx as one of the great thinkers of Western philosophy, who had triumphantly refuted and demolished all his Utopian rivals, he made clear the ground on which he would argue. He would reject Marxism and with it reject all forms of socialism.
But what was Marxism, he went on to ask. So many had laid claim to it that it was hard to tell. One Marxist regime had fought against another – Russia against China, Vietnam against Cambodia. Who were the true Marxists? He went on to make clear that he was not taking the easy option – again with just a hint of irony suggesting that Wicklow had precisely taken this easy option – of identifying Marxism with Stalinism. On the contrary, he pointed out, some of the first and the most effective critiques of Stalinism had been made by Marxists. He named Leon Trotsky.
There followed a short roll call of Marxists, designed not to give insight into any of them, but rather to establish that Sadler had read a few books and knew what he was talking about. Marx, Engels, William Morris, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Walter Benjamin. What, Sadler asked, had they all had in common? He answered his own question. Amid all the complications and contortions of Marxist theory, there was one principle which stood out as essential. And he quoted Marx’s own words; ‘The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.’ The essence of Marxism was that the working class was the agency that would transform society.
Having got this far, Sadler was preparing to deliver the coup de grâce. Marxism was a nineteenth-century philosophical and economic doctrine, one whose historical importance no intelligent person could deny. (Since Wicklow had scarcely mentioned Marxism at any point in his exposition, this was a clear though understated slight on Wicklow’s intelligence.) But it could scarcely be expected that it would be of much interest or relevance to the twenty-first century.
Yet – and here he turned to Wicklow with an almost triumphal smirk – Marxism was the only serious basis on which socialism could be argued. Marx had refuted all his predecessors and rivals, and no new version of socialism had ever done anything but revive the errors of Marx’s defeated opponents. The Labour Party had always been – and remained – a Marxist party. There was a slight gasp of surprise from several of those in the room, especially the Labour Party members.
Sadler paused for effect, a far more accomplished platform performer than Wicklow. ‘How do I prove that?’ he asked rhetorically, ‘it’s very simple.’ After a few remarks that revealed at least a nodding acquaintance with the history of the constituent organisations that had formed the Labour Party – and left Wicklow gaping in bewilderment – Sadler pointed out that the trade unions had a central role in the constitution of the Labour Party. The trade unions were the organisations of the working class. Therefore the Labour Party saw the agency of the working class as essential to the task of social transformation. And therefore the Labour Party was a Marxist party. QED.
Sadler again paused. He acknowledged that there were forces in the Labour Party that wanted to break the Party completely free of its links with the trade unions, to transform it into something comparable to the Democratic Party in the United States. ‘I salute those courageous souls’, he said, again smiling at Wicklow as though to remind him that he was not one of their number. ‘But they cannot succeed. The Labour Party was born of the working‑class movement, and now that a working class, in any meaningful sense of the term, has disappeared – as even a farsighted Marxist like André Gorz can admit – then the Labour Party must die along with the class that gave birth to it.’
Having buried Marxism, Sadler moved into his conclusion. It had been, he pointed out, one of Marx’s greatest insights to recognise that capitalism was a thoroughly revolutionary system. Marx had seen how the power of modernisation introduced into the world by capitalism had radically changed the world; and he quoted a few well‑selected sentences from the Communist Manifesto.
Where Marx had been wrong had been in his analysis of the so-called contradictions of capitalism. Although capitalism had indeed been through many crises, it had succeeded in staying afloat; far from creating its own grave-digger in the working class, it had in fact itself been the grave-digger that had buried the working class. Capitalism continued to expand throughout the world. 1989 had shown that the command economies of the Eastern bloc could not face up to the competition of capitalism. Not, he added, that those regimes were socialist, but neither were they capitalist. ‘Like Max Shachtman,’ he said ‘ I would call them bureaucratic collectivist’ – thus dropping another name unknown to 95 per cent of his audience.
Now capitalism was still moving out, taking more and more of the world into its embrace. The rise of the new capitalist economies in the Far East – which we should all have to take into account – showed what a wonderfully revolutionary system it was. And he concluded by saying that Wicklow had been quite right to speak of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality of Opportunity – but these were not socialist values, they were the values that the French Revolution had brought on to the stage of history, and as Marx had quite rightly pointed out, that was not a socialist but a bourgeois revolution.
‘When I was young,’ said Sadler, ‘I was a revolutionary socialist. A lot of people’ – and there was just a suggestive nod towards Wicklow – ‘lose their zeal as they grow older. I haven’t. I am not a socialist any longer, but I am still a revolutionary – a capitalist revolutionary.’ And he sat down to applause that was, given the composition of the audience, less than wholehearted, but which was certainly more vigorous than Wicklow had obtained. As any impartial observer judging on technique alone would have confirmed, it was deservedly so.
After Sadler’s contribution John threw the discussion open. The first person to raise a hand and ask to speak was Val Hawdon. She strode to the microphone, looking aggressively at all around her.
‘I just want to say that I think it’s a disgrace for Mr Wicklow to speak as he has done. He’s been the Member of Parliament for this constituency for a good many years – for longer than I can remember – but he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on down on the ground here. I think he spends too much time eating and drinking up in Westminster and not enough talking to his constituents.
‘I’m the shop steward at the Kidzphun toy factory. I got sacked. What for? For exercising the right to strike. We’ve been standing on that picket line for seven weeks, demanding our rights. We’ve got no money to feed our families, except the bit we get through the union and what people have been kind enough to collect for us.
‘How many times have we seen Mr Wicklow on our picket line?’ She held up a large, vigorous hand with all the fingers extended. ‘Five times? Four times?’ She folded the fingers down one by one. ‘No, I’ll tell you. Not one bloody time!’ And she clenched the hand into a fist, as though she would like to smash it into Wicklow’s mouth – which indeed she would very much have liked to do.
‘And the man tells us that there is no working class any more, that socialism is all a question of morals. My good God! Tell us about the morals of employers who have left workers on the pavement for seven weeks without enough money to feed their children. I don’t know about Mr Wicklow’s morals …’
She paused for the moment of laughter she predicted, since Wicklow’s morals were a matter of widespread speculation and comment.
‘I don’t know about Mr Wicklow’s morals, but my morals wouldn’t let me treat an insect the way the Kidzphun management have treated us.
‘Mr Wicklow says it’s difficult to define the working class nowadays. Well, I’ll give you a definition. It’s a simple definition. Those who don’t work, don’t eat. If you wake up in the morning and you know you won’t eat in the evening if you don’t go to work first, then you’re working class. It’s as simple as that. And if Mr Wicklow can’t see that, he must be as good as dead.’
And Val walked back to her seat, looking down modestly but undoubtedly relishing the fact that she was getting the most enthusiastic applause of the afternoon so far.
She certainly got considerably more applause than the next speaker, Pete Allsop, who droned on for what seemed like twenty minutes about heuristic and non‑heuristic definitions of class and cited large numbers of statistics about percentages of workers in the service sector. Jane had realised as soon as he stood up that this was an appropriate time to go to the Ladies’, but although she had spent several minutes in front of the mirror looking at herself in a leisurely fashion, she still returned in time to hear the last five minutes of his contribution.
As Allsop received a few claps from the well-mannered minority of the audience, Sue came up to the microphone. She began by saying that it was a disgrace that at a conference on the future of socialism nobody had spoken about race or gender. If morality meant anything, it meant opposing oppression; yet though both speakers had talked of the need for equal opportunities, neither of them had spelt out what this meant. It was no coincidence that the one speaker who had defended the idea of the working class was both black and female. Class could not be separated from race and gender – the three things were intertwined.
Then she turned slightly and waved her hand in the direction of Terence Wicklow: ‘A previous speaker said that Terence Wicklow had been Member of Parliament longer than she could remember. Well, I can remember how long he’s been representing us – if that’s the right word – in Parliament – and some of us feel that it’s been quite long enough. Mr Wicklow knows that there’s a move afoot in the local Labour Party to get him replaced as candidate. He claims it’s too late to have him removed, but we have new evidence and we are going to make it an emergency matter…’
At this point John started banging on the table, saying that this was a conference on general social and political questions, and it was not appropriate to raise matters internal to the local Labour Party.
Sue, with confidence born of the fact that the audience were bored to their arseholes of general social and political issues and wanted a bit of blood, cheerfully ignored the chair and went on to her peroration:
‘We don’t want Mr Wicklow, and before the election comes we shall get rid of him – one way or the other! By any means necessary!’
And she sat down to the cheers of some of the audience – notably a group of students round Seamus O’Hara, who seemed to have dropped his principle that all politicians were the same in favour of the even more fundamental principle that anyone who causes a bit of trouble can’t be all bad.
Things calmed down a bit when Mike Applegarth came up to the microphone. He adopted a more measured tone than either Val or Sue had done, but for all that he made it quite clear where he stood. Jane was muttering to herself ‘two-faced bastard’, but even she had to admit that for the moment Mike was wearing his left-wing face. He endorsed everything that Val had said about definition of the working class, scorning Allsop’s disquisition on the service sector.
‘Anyone who makes goods or provides services that the community needs – a miner, a car-worker, a docker, a teacher, a nurse – are all workers. They sell their ability to labour. I deplore the fact that our local MP is lining up with those forces in the Labour Party that want to weaken the Party’s links with the trade‑union movement.
‘Mr Wicklow knows very well that he has received loyal support from the trade unions in this constituency for well over twenty-five years. I hope he doesn’t want to abandon that support. If…’
Mike stressed the word if and paused very briefly, just long enough to bring out the menace implicit in the word.
‘… if he is the candidate in the next election, he will get the loyal support of all trade unionists in the area. Unless he tells us he doesn’t want it. But if he cuts off the support of the labour movement, he’ll be cutting his own throat – and I should hate to see Mr Wicklow with his throat cut.’
As Jane noted to her quiet satisfaction, Mike was thus the third speaker that afternoon to use imagery that could be construed as referring to Wicklow’s death.
John winced with alarm as Seamus O’Hara came to speak. He had been ignoring his waved hand since the beginning of the discussion period, but now felt he couldn’t refuse to call him at all.
O’Hara didn’t disappoint. He denounced both speakers for their vagueness and equivocations, and made it quite clear that in his book neither of them had the first idea what socialism was all about. ‘Let me quote Karl Marx: “No nation that oppresses another can itself be free”. You can’t have freedom, you certainly can’t have socialism in Britain as long as you continue to enslave the North of Ireland. Hypocrites like Wicklow, who supported the Prevention of Terrorism Act when it was introduced, who wouldn’t lift a finger to save the hunger strikers, have nothing to do with socialism. I say beware, Mr Wicklow, you won’t get away with this hypocrisy for ever. Your lies and deceptions will catch up with you – and then you’ll be dead meat.’
And that makes four, thought Jane, who now had something new to count on her fingers. O’Hara sat down to the applause of a few of his mates, and the shocked silence of the rest of the audience.
After that it was downhill all the way. The platform speakers had given the audience little or nothing to get their teeth into, so the debate rambled on with each speaker following their own obsessions with little reference to what had gone before. Kenge gave a singularly incoherent exposition of Karl Popper’s critique of Marx. Eventually Jane dragged herself to the microphone. She was not at her best, but she said a few words about France in 1968, and how the memory of that time should not be allowed to fall into the ‘dustbin of history’. As she used the phrase, she saw Sadler smile; it was from him she had learnt the expression, many years ago.
The atmosphere was pretty dismal, and a good half of the audience had left before the two platform speakers came to deliver their concluding remarks. They did not miss a great deal. Since little of the discussion had addressed the original contributions, both speakers were able to repeat, in abbreviated form, what they had said the first time round. Thus a rather undistinguished conference drifted to what it would be grossly misleading to describe as a conclusion, since everything about it was so wholly inconclusive.
As the final, not very enthusiastic applause was dying away, Steven Sadler stepped down from the platform and accosted Jane, who was just rising from her seat in the third row. They exchanged a few words, and as Jane was turning to go, she felt a tap on the shoulder and turned round to see Sue, a beaming smile on her face.
‘Jane’, she said, ‘are you coming over to The Goose? I’m trying to organise a reunion – we can commemorate our trip to Paris in 1968.’
Jane was tired and felt mildly nauseous; she had changed her plans for the evening once already today. But Sue’s gushing enthusiasm contrasted so sharply with the world-weary cynicism which seemed to surround her for so much of her life that she felt she couldn’t say no, and she nodded her acceptance briefly.
‘Oh good!’ gurgled Sue. ‘I’ve got Mike already. Go over to the pub and we’ll all meet up there. I’ll chase down the others.’ And she ran towards the exit, trying to catch Steven Sadler, who was already on his way out.
Jane had no particular desire to be involved in coercing either Steven or John, so she spotted Mike, whom she had not spoken to for some ten years, though she had glimpsed him at the Kidzphun picket, and went over to him, offering to accompany him to The Goose.
They walked down the road together somewhat uneasily. As a full‑time union official, Mike felt little enthusiasm for picket-line violence. On the other hand, having accepted Sue’s invitation he could hardly pick a row with Jane. He hesitated between the anodyne ‘It’s a bit cold for November’ and the equally anodyne ‘What did you think of the conference?’ and opted for the latter.
Jane was scarcely likely to open up with her true views on a conference she had regarded with contempt since it was originally proposed several months ago, so she responded with platitudes that would have fitted equally well into a conversation about the weather. Soon they arrived at the pub and Mike, chivalrously but grudgingly, offered Jane a drink and bought her a half of best bitter. The pub was quite crowded with people who had been at the conference, but they found a table and sat down to await the others.
Sue, meanwhile, had not managed to persuade Steven Sadler to join them in the pub; with a gush of charm he had assured her that he would have loved to and that he had never repudiated the ideals of his youth, just the false understanding they were based on. But he had an important appointment and couldn’t wait around.
So Sue went to find John, who was still in conversation with Terence Wicklow. At all costs Sue wanted to avoid confronting Wicklow, so she stood aside, impatiently tapping her toe on the floor, until John had finally finished; then she grabbed him and made her proposal for a reunion drink. John was far from pleased with Sue, since she had made what he perceived as a highly disruptive contribution which had lowered the whole tone of the conference. But his head was aching after the strain of chairing, and he needed a drink very badly. So he decided to spare himself the strain of having an argument with Sue, who, he knew of old, could be a very voluble and persuasive lady, and accepted without a quibble, somewhat to Sue’s surprise.
They too walked towards the pub somewhat uneasily. John didn’t want to reopen the dispute about the conference, yet he knew that virtually any remark he made might do so. And John was the sort of person who didn’t even notice the weather, let alone make conversation about it. Sue, however, could make conversation as naturally as breathing, and while she was quite willing to listen to a companion’s replies, didn’t have any need of response to keep going. She had the good sense to steer well away from any reference to Terence Wicklow, so she kept up a steady stream of observations about the continuing existence of poverty and how she saw so much of it in her work for the council, while John was required to do no more than interject the occasional ‘Yes’ or ‘I agree’.
They reached the pub, where Sue insisted on buying John his drink, even though he wanted a double whisky. She looked round the now crowded pub and saw, sitting apparently on her own in a corner, the American woman who had accosted her on the picket line with such strange questions. She wondered briefly whether she had derived any enlightenment from the conference, but then she saw where Jane and Mike were sitting, and led John over to join them.
‘Steven couldn’t come, it’s a real shame. It would have been nice to have a proper commemoration. Maybe now we’ve all got together again I could set it up some time. We could all have dinner or something.’ And she continued to suggest plans for such an event, in no way deterred by the fact that her three companions were radiating a positive absence of enthusiasm.
Indeed, it was only Sue’s bonhomie that seemed to be holding the four of them together around the table. Without it they would all have rolled away like a blob of mercury separating into distinct globules. Such was her concern to keep them together and extract at least a modicum of enthusiasm from them all that one could have been forgiven for suspecting that she had some ulterior motive in doing so.
The pub door opened and for a moment a shadow fell even over Sue’s joie de vivre. Roger Kenge had entered, accompanied by Terence Wicklow. Sue’s face, which a second earlier had been smiling and willing her companions to smile too, creased up and appeared contorted with hate. Gritting her teeth, she willed her smile to reappear, studiously ignoring the newcomers. But Kenge and Wicklow, having looked around the pub, had decided it was too full for comfort, and left again. The relaxation that passed through Sue’s body was such that the table almost seemed to rock with it.
It was clear that while both Mike and John had been happy to accept Sue’s invitation to come to the pub, they were far from happy to be in each other’s company. They found themselves sitting opposite each other, glaring in silence. John, who for once did not seem to have a paper‑clip about him, was picking at the cap of his biro, while Mike was listening to Jane and Sue’s conversation and looking at his watch repeatedly, as though he were an amnesiac who forgot the time as soon as he saw it. .
Eventually Mike seemed to feel the compulsion of bourgeois courtesy, and decided to speak to John. He looked across and said:
‘So did you feel the conference was a success?’
John grunted, as though in surprise at being spoken to. ‘It was all right, I suppose.’ And then, after a pause, as though working out a particularly complex intellectual conundrum: ‘What did you think?’
Mike opted for blandness as the safest course: ‘I found it quite interesting. There were a number of very important points came up, though of course it wasn’t possible to go into them very deeply.’
Obviously he had not been bland enough. His innocent words seemed to draw forth the incandescent rage which had hitherto been simmering just below the surface. John rammed his fist into the table with such force that Sue’s glass jumped up from the table and splashed her.
‘You’ve got a bloody cheek!’ he shouted. ‘I work for six months to set up a serious academic conference, and you come along and try to turn it into a trade-union rally. Some sort of antiquated museum-piece of folklore from the seventies. And then you have the damned impertinence to accuse me of not going into things deeply enough.’
Several people had turned round to stare at John. He seemed to feel oppressed by thus being transformed into a public spectacle, and his anger subsided. Sue beamed down the table and said cheerily: ‘Don’t fight, boys; this is supposed to be a reunion.’
Mike, however, having been attacked, was not going to let things go. In a measured tone he responded: ‘If I was organising a serious academic conference I wouldn’t invite Terence Wicklow. He’s not exactly Bertrand Russell, you know. If he’d set the thing off on a decent level, instead of making a speech that would have been low level even in the House of Commons, then a vulgarian like me wouldn’t have spoiled it completely.’
To everyone’s surprise, John, whose anger seemed to have evaporated as rapidly as it had arisen, nodded warmly in agreement. ‘You’re right, of course. I shouldn’t have asked the stupid sod. There’s a real argument to be had there, and he threw it away. Just a string of platitudes. I thought Steven was rather better, but it never really got going properly. Just another wasted six months. I could wring Wicklow’s neck.’
And he seemed to curl up into himself like a hedgehog, as though he wanted no further conversation. Then he glanced at his watch and mumbled: ‘Sorry. I have to go. Goodbye, Sue; it was nice seeing you again.’
‘So where are you off to?’ enquired Sue in a cheery but slightly vulgar tone. ‘You’ve not settled down, have you? Got a lady-friend who rules you with a rod of iron?’
John looked profoundly offended and somewhat embarrassed at this suggestion. ‘I have no domestic ties,’ he said.
‘So it’s a night of riotous fun, is it?’ continued Sue, who seemed oblivious of any embarrassment she might be causing. ‘An all-night rave? Dancing till you drop? Or perhaps something more discreet in a night-club?’
‘I have an … an appointment’, said John, and picking up his bag walked smartly to the door before he could face any further interrogation about his private life.
‘So where’s he off to?’ Sue said, turning to Jane, as though reluctant to abandon her investigation. ‘I asked everyone here so I could get a bit of gossip. Do you know what John does with his Saturday nights?’
‘I’m afraid,’ said Jane, ‘that although John and I work in the same institution, we’re not exactly great mates. We don’t get on at the best of times, and there’s been a lot of friction about this conference. I was pulled in to helping organise it, though I didn’t want anything to do with it. Thank Christ it’s all over now. I certainly don’t take any interest in John’s personal affairs – if he has any. I’ve always thought that old phrase about Gaitskell – desiccated calculating machine – fits him perfectly.’
‘A bad-tempered calculating machine, though,’ said Sue, who still had a damp patch on her jersey where John had spilt her drink.
Mike, meanwhile, was emptying his glass and looking at his watch.
‘You’re not going too?’ asked Sue. ‘It’s not been much of a reunion. What have you got lined up for this evening? Back home to Liz and the kids for an evening in the bosom of your family?’
‘I’m afraid I do have to go,’ said Mike. ‘But I’m not going home, unfortunately…’ He stopped, as though he had said too much.
‘How are the family?’ asked Jane. ‘It’s years since I saw you. The children must be quite grown up.’
‘Liz’s fine. David’s just started at university…’
‘Not Del Morecambe?’ asked Sue.
‘No, we haven’t sunk that low.’ Mike caught Jane’s eye and mumbled ‘Sorry’, but she merely smirked. ‘Sara’s fifteen and a bit wild.’
‘So what have you got lined up?’ persisted Sue, ‘Nothing you wouldn’t want us to know about, I hope.’
Mike looked impatiently at Sue’s grinning face, as though he felt the past had come back to haunt him. ‘I have to meet someone. I must go. It’s quite important.’
‘It’s not NUTMEG work at this time on a Saturday night, is it?’ asked Sue, who seemed quite incapable of taking a hint. ‘If they make you work unsocial hours like that, you ought to join a union.’
‘I must go. I’d rather… I’d rather not go into it’. Mike made his way sheepishly but rapidly to the door.
‘Well’, said Sue to Jane, ‘what do you reckon? An illicit girl-friend or rigging the union ballot? Knowing Mike I’d put a fiver on the latter.’
When Jane grinned and nodded, she went on: ‘Well, that was a disappointment. I was hoping for some lurid gossip, but everyone’s clamming up. There’s nothing for it. You’ll have to tell me your most intimate secrets.’
Sue offered Jane another drink. Jane asked for an orange juice, saying she would be driving later. As Sue went to the bar, a tall young woman emerged from the far end of the pub, took the chair where Mike had been sitting, and said rather diffidently in an American accent: ‘Is it all right if I join you for a few moments?’
Jane couldn’t think of any good reason for saying ‘No’, and indeed welcomed a distraction from Sue’s probe into her private affairs.
The woman sat down and said: ‘My name’s Lisa. I saw you at the conference this afternoon. I found it quite enthralling, but I haven’t been in this country very long, and I found some of the finer points difficult to pick up. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?’
At this point Sue returned with the drinks. Lisa looked at her and started for a moment; then quickly regaining her composure, she said: ‘We met before. At the picket.’
‘We did indeed,’ said Sue, in her most acid tone. ‘Have you got some more questions?’
Lisa gave a rather forced giggle. ‘I’m afraid I must seem awfully inquisitive. But as I was telling your friend, I’m new to this country, and I’m trying to make the most of my time here. So if it isn’t an awful nuisance, I did just want to ask one or two things about the conference this afternoon.’
She took Sue’s sigh as an indication of consent, and continued. ‘I got the feeling that Mr Wicklow wasn’t very popular. He’s the local MP, isn’t he? Doesn’t he have a local following?’
Sue and Jane looked at each other, each willing the other to reply. But Jane’s look made it clear that Sue was the obvious person to answer this particular question. ‘Obviously, I can’t speak for all his constituents. But as I’m sure you picked up this afternoon, there are a lot of us in the local Labour Party who feel that Terence Wicklow doesn’t represent us and he doesn’t represent the Labour Party. We’d like to be rid of him – once and for all.’
‘Yes,’ said Lisa, ‘ I’d pretty well picked that up from what you were saying this afternoon. It was quite a fierce outburst, if you don’t mind my saying so. I guess there are some pretty strong feelings in play. But I’m not clear what the policy issues at stake are.’
Sue sighed again, and embarked on a brief outline of the current situation in the Labour Party. She made clear the reasons why she differed from Wicklow, while playing down the accusations of sexual harassment and corruption on which she had been so outspoken to Jane a couple of weeks earlier. Lisa sat open-mouthed, listening intently, and nodding her head vigorously to indicate that she was understanding it all.
When Sue had finished, Lisa enquired: ‘How about international issues? The Common European Currency? The Middle East? Does he have any distinctive positions there?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Sue, ‘I’ve not heard him speak on anything like that for years. I think he’ll go along with whatever the Party leadership happen to be saying at the time. He’s not a man to stick his neck out for a principle. In fact I don’t think he’d know what a principle was if it ran up his trouser leg and bit him on the balls.’
Lisa seemed somewhat bemused by Sue’s colourful metaphor, but she continued her interrogation.
‘And the Northern Ireland peace process? Has he made any particular statements about that? I understand that this constituency has quite a large Irish community living in it. Does he have any particular political orientation in their direction?’
Sue shook her head. ‘I’ve told you. He isn’t a man to push his neck out on political questions. It’s a trade for him, a means of meeting people and lining his own pockets. I bet when he wakes up in the morning he can’t remember which party he’s a member of. I doubt if he knows where Northern Ireland is. Of course, there was the time a couple of years back when a bomb went off just down the road from here. It was only a little tiny thing, no bigger than a firework. But you’d have thought North London had been nuked. He was on every television channel he could find denouncing the “men of violence” and calling for condemnation.’
‘And how did the Irish community react to that? I would imagine they would be very hostile.’
‘I don’t suppose’, said Sue, ‘that they’re any keener on being blown up than the rest of us are. So it probably didn’t bother them too much. Of course, there are a few hard-line republicans around. I shouldn’t suppose they think much of him, but then they don’t think much of any British politicians.’
‘So they wouldn’t be too sorry if he was removed? They wouldn’t mind if something happened to get rid of him?’
‘I don’t suppose they’d be heart-broken’, said Sue, ‘ but then none of us would be.’
‘But you don’t think they would see him as a potential target?’
‘I think they’d regard it as a waste of Semtex,’ said Sue, ‘and they’d be quite right. Rat poison is what he deserves.’
Lisa glanced at her watch. ‘I’ve taken up enough of your time,’ she said, rising to leave. ‘Thank-you for talking to me; I really am most grateful to you.’
As she walked out, Sue turned to Jane and said: ‘Pretty weird. What do you reckon?’
Jane scowled: ‘Pretty boring, certainly. That conference was quite enough of a drag without having to do a test on it afterwards.’
‘I reckon she’s CIA’.
‘Why would the CIA bother with a twopence ha’penny conference in a rat-hole university?’
‘They’ve run out of Russians. They’ve got to do something to justify their existence.’
Jane shrugged. ‘Perhaps.’
‘Anyhow’, said Sue, ‘let’s get back to those intimate disclosures about your life and loves that you promised me.’
In order to provoke Sue, partially so that she might leave the question of Jane’s subsequent arrangements for the evening severely alone, and partly because it made for a more lively discussion, Jane changed the subject by immediately launching into a vehement attack on the leadership of the Labour Party.
She could not, she said, under any circumstances stomach being a member of the Labour Party as long as Blair was its leader. She agreed that previous Labour leaders had been crooks who betrayed every principle they ever claimed to have stood for – but at least they had been ‘our crooks’. Blair was trying to turn the Labour Party into something which was totally indistinguishable from the Conservative Party.
It was idiocy, Jane argued, even in its own terms. The aim, as Blair stated at every possible opportunity, was to win the election. So presumably the idea was that, since the Tories had won a lot of elections, Labour should make itself more like the Tories. If people were given the choice between a Labour Party trying to look like Tories and real genuine Tories, they would choose the real Tories. At least they were honest. Sooner butter than margarine. Sooner a real wolf than a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
As Jane continued with this diatribe Sue became increasingly irritated, twitching about on her seat and trying to interrupt. When Jane finally concluded, she burst out at her, not knowing where to start in her indignation.
‘That’s typical of a bloody intellectual,’ she said, ‘you don’t have the first idea what ordinary working-class people feel about things. They want to see some real changes now – they want better schools, better hospitals, not some revolution two hundred years in the future. I’m still on the left, don’t get me wrong – I made that clear this afternoon; but the first priority is winning the election, and that means winning it with the present leadership. Wicklow’s an exception. He’s got to go; the rest I can live with.’
And she continued, asserting her privileged knowledge of what the working class felt, presumably informed not by her own rather comfortable way of life, but by the number of people who thronged into her office to complain about the inadequacy of services offered by the council. Jane reflected that she had changed very little from the days when she used to launch similar tirades against Mike Applegarth, though she noted with mild pleasure that she had at least dropped the appeal to her erstwhile outside lavatory.
‘You can’t do everything at once,’ Sue concluded. ‘You’re still living in 1968, when we thought everything was possible. It isn’t, you have to deal with what’s possible.’
‘I don’t want to grow old gracefully, thanks very much,’ snapped Jane.
‘You’d rather stay among the dreaming spires, like Peter Pan, I suppose,’ said Sue, cheerily mixing her metaphors.
The idea of dreaming spires on the campus of Del Morecambe University was so grotesque that Jane did not bother to pick it up. And at that moment she noticed that the clock had passed seven. The conversation had served its purpose – she had elucidated Sue’s current political stance.
‘Doubtless we’ll see,’ she said, ‘not long now till the election. In any case I must be going.’ To forestall any further query about her destination, she added, ‘and what are you doing this evening?’
Strangely, Sue seemed as reluctant as Jane to discuss the evening’s arrangements, and they parted rapidly, exchanging phone numbers and promising to keep in touch. Both had taken pleasure in the reunion; but each was now glad to be free of the other. They both had other commitments for the evening.
* * * * *
Jane awoke late the next morning. She turned on the radio for the news, and learnt that Terence Wicklow had been found dead. It was apparently murder.