Sing like you know the w.., p.15

Sing Like You Know the Words, page 15

 

Sing Like You Know the Words
 



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  The young man grunted, but did not seem much enlightened.

  -And it’s bloody important, added Bill, because if we don’t improve productivity, the bloody Germans will beat us. They are beating us already. That’s why we have to put the unions in their place. They are wrecking our productivity with their strikes.

  Jack leaned forward and spoke quietly.

  -My brother in law used to say that a lot of what we hear about days lost to strikes is rubbish. He said that when his company had produced more cars than they knew what to do with, management would get the men out on strike. It was easy enough to do, he said. They just had to pick on someone or mess about with the shift patterns. Within a week there’d be a dispute and then the union would have to back its members. Then you had a stoppage and no need to pay the men who are on strike. It was a good way of saving money, he said.

  -Your brother in law was a shop steward I suppose, said Bill.

  -No, he worked in personnel at Dagenham. For the mighty Ford Corporation, as he liked to say. Bit of a shit, he was, to be honest.

  Bill snorted dismissively.

  -That’s all very well, but once we get rid of strikes and tame the unions, Britain will start to be a world leader of industry again, like when we were boys. Exporting to every country: finest products in the world. Best steel, best ships, best engines. You’ll see it happen. Productivity is the key.

  -But Bill, if there’s more productivity around, how does it help me, the young man asked.

  -Well if productivity goes up, the company you work for makes more money, and so you benefit, Bill explained.

  It seemed that the boy’s questions were beginning to exasperate him.

  -How?

  -Well you’ll have a bloody job for a start.

  -But if everyone is working harder, won’t they need less people to do the work?

  -It’s not like that at all. You and me have to work hard because we’re down the road if we don’t. But if you’re in a union, you can just show up and they have to pay you whether you graft or just sit on your arse all day.

  -Mining isn’t an easy job, Jack observed.

  -Granted, said Bill. It’s not easy, but it’s nowhere near as hard as it once was.

  -I’m still confused, the young man admitted.

  Bill sighed, but he was not ready to give up and leave his young friend in a state of ignorance.

  -Give me strength, he said. Where’s the tea service on this train? Look; say you are in a union, and they decide you should go on strike: you have to do it. It’s the rules. And then, no money for you when you’re not working.

  -I couldn’t do that. Me and Julie just bought our house from the council, and there’s a kid on the way. I got a mortgage

  -And you got the house cheap didn’t you, thanks to Maggie? Bill’s smile was encouraging.

  -Which is fine, except they aren’t building any new homes to rent to the young ones that come after him, Jack observed. That’s how come we have to come two hundred miles down the line at the start of every week to find work.

  -There won’t be no more need for council housing in the future, Bill told him. Everyone will be able to buy their own house, once the building trade gets back on its feet.

  -No, I wouldn’t be able to go on strike, the young man repeated. Couldn’t afford it.

  His point finally won, Bill turned triumphantly to Jack.

  -And you know what’s coming, he said. Like it or not. It’s might be all talk at the moment. Whether the law should say this, that or the other. That’s all a load of crap. You know it will be the government against the miners, and all out scrap. She won’t back down, not her. Not if it means closing every pit in England, and leaving all the coal under the ground forever. We’re in for a right old battle.

  He was smiling. Matthew looked again at the battered copy of the “Sun” that lay flat under his huge palm.

  Two days later the man from London phoned to tell Matthew that the job was his. Matthew thanked him, but said that after thinking it over, he’d decided to stay with the Examiner for the time being. He said the time wasn’t right for him and they talked briefly about if he should change his mind later, but Matthew was sure that they both understood that he was turning down a chance that wouldn´t be offered twice.

  ***

  So in March 1984 Matthew James was still working as a junior reporter for the Examiner. On bad days, he already he felt like he’d squandered his one shot at life. He´d had the opportunity to make his way in the wide world, and the more he thought about it, the more it seemed to him that cowardice rather than principle had made him stay curled up in his little provincial life. But then, if Matthew had run away from the national news, it seemed that the news was about to seek him out.

  The miner’s strike had started, as everyone had known it would. There were almost two hundred thousand men employed in the pits and most of them had downed tools. When it had happened before, the country had ground to a halt, and the government had fallen. But this time would be different. The miners themselves knew that they had walked into a trap, and that the government was determined to break their power for good. It was no time for striking: spring, with warm weather on the way, and the coal stocks high. Power stations would continue to supply electricity for months, so long as the coal that was already above ground could be delivered to them.

  The union leaders had been left with no choice. The bosses had announced that twenty pits must close and twenty thousand jobs would go. It was a declaration of war and there was no line of honourable retreat. The union would have to rely on solidarity and help from other workers to prevent the movement of coal. But already all the unions had been battered by legal attacks, and the resolve of its own members in some regions had been softened by offers of local concessions.

  The country anticipated an epic struggle, of historic significance, and as such it was a story that the Examiner would normally ignore. Its circulation base was geographic, rather than political, and on such a polarized issue it was certain that any comment reflecting the views of one section of its readership would be hugely offensive to another. All the same, it wasn’t easy for the paper to pretend that nothing reportable was occurring, because many of the coal mines and storage depots were located in its heartland, and it was clear that these sites would be the battlefields of the dispute, in a literal sense.

  Still, most of the paper´s readership lived in a city which had no working pits of its own left, even if it was in the heart of a mining region. In the streets, nothing was different apart from the bills posted on walls by fringe socialist groups and the men and women standing on corners and outside pubs with buckets, collecting for the families and asking for support. They would rattle the bucket and a supporter would drop some money in and the man or woman would grin, and maybe wish on Margaret Thatcher the same slow and painful death she was trying to inflict on the coalfields, and the citizen would smile and agree, and go about his business.

  But for Matthew the sense of history taking place on his doorstep was accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling of obligation to be part of it in some way. He couldn’t believe it when word came through of the confrontation that was looming in the south of the county, and Richard told him that there were no plans for them to cover the story.

  Police lines will be that thick, you wouldn’t get within a mile of the place, press pass or no, he said.

  -Ralph turned and winked at Matthew.

  -Not that he’s scared to go of course.

  -I’m scared, do I look daft? It will be carnage.

  -Would you go, Ralph? asked Matthew.

  -Young Matthew, you have a lot to learn. Any journalist worthy of the name would put the pursuit of the truth, wherever it may lie, above considerations of personal safety. On the other hand, there seems to be a reasonable chance of getting your head kicked in, as they like to say around these parts, and it would be pointless.

  -Pointless? What does he mean Richard?

  -H
e means lad, that you could risk life and limb and bring us a great story back and no one would print it. It’s a subject that is a little bit controversial for us.

  Ralph nodded.

  -And I might add Richard, that some of the facts as young Matt would see them, might not accord with the settled opinions of our employers.

  Matthew tended to defer to his experienced colleagues, but now he was outraged.

  -Controversy is what a newspaper is for. Our readers must be sick of hearing about garden fetes and round table meetings. I’m not talking about a political essay. I just think we should give them the facts; what they could see with their own eyes if they were there.

  Ralph smiled.

  -Ah, Richard. Simple facts, simple truths. It makes me long to be young again. If only facts were not impotent in the face of what people prefer to believe.

  -Shut up Ralph. Er, you are right Matt, independence and objectivity. Vital for a good reporter. That’s the proper spirit and we can use it. This week for example, sports reporting, you need some of that in your CV. How about this Saturday. The once mighty Leeds United face Chelsea, at Elland Road, and frankly Eddie’s lads haven’t a chance. There’ll be more action off the field than on it. What do you say?

  -A bit nervous about that one too, Richard?

  -Shut up Ralph

  Matthew had no interest in football, or even in football violence, He decided to cover the miners’ dispute instead, on his own initiative. No one else from the paper was going to do it, not even the staff photographer who was supposed to accompany him. Richard was right though; he couldn’t get near the place. He drove round the area in his battered, ancient car, being turned back at successive checkpoints by policemen who looked more than ready to dispense summary justice if he should choose to object.

  He retraced his route, looking for a way through. All the villages and unfamiliar roads began to merge in his mind. He drove without a plan, only trying to get closer to whatever might be happening. He kept hearing tantalising fragments of sound; shouting, cheering, undecipherable voices issuing from loud hailers: sounds that were unsettling but somehow exciting.

  He was crawling down an estate road in low gear. At the back of the estate, the housing gave way to fields. There was a railway line running across land at the top of the road. He thought he may as well abandon the car for the moment and see if it was possible to walk get closer to the scene on foot.

  Outside the car, the area was strangely quiet. The shouting was distant and muffled: it reminded him of visiting his aunt, on match days, in the little terrace house near to the football ground. There was no one about; just a kid playing in an old pedal kart in one of the gardens. It was a street something like the one he grew up in. He imagined net curtains in the front rooms twitching. Were the people frightened to come out, he wondered?

  A few moments later, the street was filled with sounds of shouting, and men, began running into the lane from the adjacent open ground. Wild eyed men, yelling incoherently, some with clothing ripped, others bleeding, some stopping to pick up bits of bricks and stones that were lying about; hurling them at their pursuers, who seemed to be policemen. Matthew assumed they must be police, though he thought they seemed like a futuristic version of Viking raiders. They were bearing round perspex shields and long batons, wearing strange helmets, and they seemed full of fury. He saw a group of them fall upon a man who had been picking up stones and left it too late to run. The man went down in a flurry of boots and batons. Matthew didn’t see him get up.

  Matthew himself remained perfectly still, as if frozen. The wave of pursued and pursuers broke over him leaving him untouched. Some of the officers passed close enough for him to see their faces behind the plastic visors. They had the faces of hunters, shining with the excitement of the chase; eyes locked on their prey.

  The main body of strikers fled up the road with the police at their heels, and Matthew lost sight of them. A few of the miners had turned the other way, into a cul de sac, and there they regrouped and stood their ground. Some more police arrived, but it was clear that they were outnumbered by the stragglers. The uniformed men hesitated, and the miners were at them immediately. The scuffle was short and the officers began to run in panic, back across the fields, but one or two of them were left behind.

  One of them lay in front of Matthew, stretched on the ground. He looked more winded than injured, as if he’d tripped while running. One of the miners stepped over him; a big man with the left arm of his denim jacket all but ripped off. He had longish hair, lank with sweat, and his eyes were staring out under heavy eyebrows. He picked up a heavy top stone from the garden wall, raised it with one arm as if it had no weight, and dropped it onto the officer’s helmeted head. The prone man groaned and tried to move. The miner picked up the stone, as if he was about to drop it onto the man’s head again.

  -No. Don’t.

  The man looked up angrily at Matthew’s shout. It seemed as if he would attack Matthew instead of the officer, but Matthew couldn’t say any more: his voice seemed to have vanished. Instead he pointed beyond the garden wall, where the kid was still sitting in his pedal car, with his mouth open, not moving or making any sound. The big man’s expression changed. He seemed choked with emotion, that he had no words to express. His body sagged. He shook his head and tossed the stone aside. Matthew found another word.

  -Why?

  -You wouldn’t ask me if you’d seen what’s going on back there. They won’t let others see it though, only we have to see and feel it. It’s a battle. And these bastards are her storm troopers. They’re killing us. Like Bloody Sunday. Aye, like over in Ireland. Bastards are killing us, and taunting us about getting paid double time for doing it.

  He turned and ran after his companions. The police were not many minutes after, in greater numbers. Some of them wanted to arrest Matthew. It was clear that the state they were in, his press pass meant nothing to them. Lucky that he had not tried to run. He’d been too frightened to try. In the end they told him to piss off home before they stopped being nice to him, and not to come back where he wasn’t wanted. He was happy to oblige.

  Matthew wrote up the story of his day, only including what he’d seen and heard. The article was rejected. Later he saw photographs of the main action that people braver than him had been able to take. There were seventeen local newspapers in the area and none of them ran the story or used the pictures. Richard said that his piece was well written and did him credit. Ralph said that he hoped Matthew had learned a valuable lesson.

  If there was a lesson, it was wrapped in the sense of outrage and disgust that Matthew felt for the next few weeks, even though he couldn’t exactly explain the reason for it. He even fell out with his friends over it, when Patricia started talking about being for the miners, but they were not above the rule of law. Respect for the law was more important than any one issue, she said.

  They were meeting in a pub called the Woolpack. It wasn’t exactly a local; more the place they had used to get together in the college days. Patricia said it had a good atmosphere, meaning that you could talk seriously about subjects other than work or football without having to get blind drunk first. David said it was a student bar. They didn’t really fit with the company any more, but they hadn’t quite realized it yet.

  The pub was full of little groups sharing earnest conversations about themselves and their ideas, without any apparent sense of irony. It made them feel nostalgic. Probably it was also the reason that they started arguing about ideas between themselves. Matthew said that it was stupid to trust in the rule of law if you were someone that the laws were passed specifically to repress. David could see things getting heated and suggested that they didn’t need to start a debate when they had come out to relax with a quiet drink. Patricia took exception.

  -I understand that it’s normal for English people to become too crippled with embarrassment to talk seriously in public, but this is important David.

  It was the first time that Da
vid had noticed that she sometimes talked like her mother. She went on to say that the papers were right about this at least. Without respect for the law and honest lawyers to make sure the system worked fairly, there wouldn´t even be a right to peaceful protest. The only authority would be brute force. Then Matthew lost his temper.

  He said that the law was stuck in eighteenth century constitutional theory that was even more ridiculous in a country with no written constitution.

  -You are talking absolute bollocks Pat and you must know. Might is right; it is that simple. If you don’t believe me, it’s a short drive to South Yorkshire. Go ask the boys in blue what they make of your right to peaceful protest. At least they don’t have any doubt it’s about sides and which one they are on. They don’t imagine that their levels of pay and their pension rights and their double time for bashing strikers have anything to do with catching criminals.

  -You talk about a rule of law as if it came down from god, or has anything to do with justice. Laws defend property and they depend on force. The state has to claim a monopoly on violence to exist; that’s from one of your eighteenth century philosophers. The only difference between us and the Soviets is that in England we’re allowed to pretend that our opinions matter. We can say what we like, so long as we do as we’re told.

  David decided to let the storm run its course. They were as bad as each other. It was always the same with Matthew, unfortunately. Too shy to speak when it was a social situation, then someone would make a comment that he disagreed with and he had to rise to it. And because life for him was more about ideas than people, he didn´t know when to stop. Before you knew where you were he’d fallen out with someone and then he’d be mortified about it. Now he was sitting in silence, slightly red in the face, and David could imagine his thoughts; frustrated that he had not expressed himself well, anguished by his missing social grace, embarrassed at making a fool of himself.

  He could be so much happier if he would just try to lighten up, David wanted to tell him. Talk about serious things if you like, but without raging as if the world depended on what you think about them.

 
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