Thursday, 25 December 2008

A Political Child

One winter, the lights went out. Not just our lights but all the lights. Even the street lights no longer shone orange through the window. My mother, who used to live without electricity when she was little, had an oil lamp. While all the other windows of all the other houses showed a few flickering candles, our living-room window glowed with a warm, rich cream light. Above, in the cold sky, the stars were so bright, so beautiful. Inside, the newly-fitted oil fire kept our house warm. When the power was on, there were always a lot of men on the television news. They had placards and would be shouting, shoving and being shoved by policemen in their high, domed helmets. A white-haired man, Mr Heath, was often on the television making speeches. The news would speak about strikes and miners. There was another man, Mr. Wilson, who would also be on the news, telling the public (whoever they were – I didn’t understand that word) why Mr. Heath was wrong. I didn’t like Mr. Wilson. He didn't look like a good man , with his funny-looking nose, his pipe and the long mac he always wore. Mr Heath looked nice, smiling broadly and laughing when the news wasn’t bad. Besides, he was supposed to be a friend of Mr. Chadd, the man who owned the department store where Mum shopped and that was good. Mum and Dad always voted for Mr. Heath’s friend, Mr. Prior. He was another man with white hair and a kind face. At voting times he used to wear a big blue, round kind of badge.

Usually there were just the three of us but, sometimes, Dad would come home. He would bring presents. Dad always wrote to Mum and my big brother when he was away at sea but I was too little to get my own. But Mum would read her letters to me and I would collect the stamps. I had loads from Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil, places in Africa, even Vietnam and China. Anyway, Dad would be at home for a few months then back to sea. At least for a year, maybe more. I always cried when we saw Dad off on the train.

When Dad was at home, he used to do many nice things with us. Play in the garden, take us to places. It was real fun. We sometimes used to play cricket in the back garden but, when I was very little, I used to get scared by the big helicopter that would thunder over the house. It was blue and gray and black. It was carrying men out to sea. I asked Dad if he ever went by helicopter but he said no, he didn’t.

Dad had a friend, Mr. Mitchell. Sometimes at night Mr. Mitchell would come around and drink Dad’s whisky and talk. Mr. Mitchell didn’t look nice and Mrs Mitchell seemed to be a very old lady, much older than Mum, Dad or even Mr. Mitchell. One night, there was something else on the news. Soldiers with long guns. There were crowds, people being carried and a man waving a white handkerchief. They said people had been shot. The words “Bloody Sunday” started to be used. Mr. Mitchell didn’t come around. The neighbours stopped speaking and while Dad was away, Mum bought a little black dog and called him Rex. Rex was very fierce to strangers and wouldn’t let anybody except us in the house unless Mum told him to be good and held his collar. When Dad came home again, he told my brother and me to say we were English, because Irishmen were planting bombs in pubs and killing people.

So, we grew up English, except for Mum who was always Irish. She couldn’t help it. Rex grew up to be very big and fast and a Doberman pinscher. The neighbours didn’t like him but they also stopped coming around in the night and rattling the door handles and stuff like that, so we all liked Rex. On the news there was a war and the good guys wore a blue star with six points. My Mum bought me a toy aeroplane with the blue star on its wide wings. I took it to school and showed my teacher because it was the Star of David, the same David in the Bible, from which we would hear stories from every morning for the first lesson of the day. Miss Denny didn’t like the ‘plane though. I didn’t understand why.

One day there was a picture of a dog on the front of a newspaper. The dog, a beagle, was stood in some kind of frame and it was forced to smoke cigarettes. Loads of them, every day. The newspaper was called The Sun and had a red top to its front page. The pictures were all in black-and-white though. With this poor dog standing there. The Sun was asking its readers to gather signatures and send them in. This would help stop the beagles being forced to smoke. I asked my teachers, Miss Denny and Mrs Wendon whether I could collect signatures at school. They said yes and signed the top of the paper. I asked everybody at school to sign. Most people did but some didn’t. After that I joined the World Wildlife Fund. All their letters had a panda on the front of them.

There always seemed to be lots of wars on the news. Israel against the Arabs. Americans fighting Communists in Vietnam. Soldiers being killed in Ireland. And the Russian threatening to invade Germany. Dad used to sometimes tell us about the bombing he had seen when he was in Vietnam, or the bodies that floated down the river into the harbour when the ship was in Nigeria. War was normal and interesting. The television was always full of war stories. Some were obviously just films – Americans shooting Germans, but others were true. Sometimes I would get to stay up late and see the World At War. I felt sorry for the Germans. They fought the Russians bravely and nearly won. Weren’t the Russians our enemies now and the West Germans our friends? Why did Britain fight the Germans in the Battle of Britain? Why did the Germans bomb us? There was a German lady who lived very close to us and she was always very nice, Annie and her Scottish husband Gordon who was also nice but I couldn’t understand. Also I didn’t understand why the Germans did that to the Jewish people. Weren’t the Jews in Israel our friends, a small country fighting all the Arabs by themselves? It was all very strange and very exciting.Mr. Heath was on the television again. Britain was to join The Common Market. Mr. Wilson said it was a bad idea. So did another man call Enoch Powell. Mr Powell seems very serious and could talk very well but he seems to be liked by a lot of people who called black people “niggers”. I asked Dad about black people. He said that he had met a lot in Africa and that people were people the same all over. It didn’t matter about the colour of their skin. Then he said that South Africa was a nice place because of what the white people there had done. The country had improved, got richer and that made it better for all the people there. Then the lights went out again. Mr. Heath asked people to vote for him but it seems they voted for Mr. Wilson instead. But Mr Prior stayed as our M.P. and Mum was pleased about that. She had a long chat with him outside our front garden. Mr Prior was supposed to be visiting a neighbour’s house, Mrs Stuckey, for a coffee morning. He seemed to prefer to talk to Mum though and Mrs Stuckey had to come outside to look for him. Mum called Mr. Prior “Jim” after that.

Mr.Wilson didn’t like the Common Market so he asked everybody to have another vote about it. Another neighbour, Jon-Jon’s dad, stuck up a poster in his window supporting the Common Market. This poster was a bit odd, for it was neither red nor blue. It said “The Liberal Party”. Their leader was Jeremy Thorpe, a thin man with long black hair and a very high forehead. A few years later, I saw his picture on the front of a magazine called Private Eye. They were making fun of him. Mr. Thorpe was in court accused of trying to murder another man. They said this other man was his lover. They got that wrong didn’t they? How can two men be in love?

Mr. Wilson retired and there was a leadership race. In the Daily Express they had a cut-out game. There was a little cartoon of each of the people in the race. I liked the look of Mr. Benn but my brother told me he was a lefty and probably a communist. Another Jim, Jim Callaghan became Prime Minister instead. Mr. Heath had gone too; to be replaced by a blonde lady called Mrs. Thatcher. Mr Heath didn’t like Mrs. Thatcher after that so I too had my doubts.

Mr Callaghan and his friend Dennis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer, were in charge of the country. When parliament first came on the radio I used to listen, enthralled and appalled. What a noise! I couldn’t believe it! “Hear hears!” from the supporters; the braying of their opponents. The shouting, “Order! Order” from the Speaker. Incredible! How can a country be run like that? And it was clear, even to me that things were not going well for the government. During the Budget speech, Dennis Healey sounded like a man under siege, being attacked from all flanks. Why did Britain have to go to a foreign bank for money? Then the strikes returned. The news reported rubbish left on the streets, the dead left unburied, and still the soldiers in Ireland getting killed. The Conservatives led by Mrs Thatcher promised to sort it all out and leave people more of their own money in their own pockets. Dad said the unions were out of control and that tax was far too high. So come 1979, out went Mr Callaghan and in came Mrs Thatcher.

Mr. Heath was right about her. Things didn’t get better, they got worse. Unemployment went sky-high. Four million? The Specials had a song “Ghost Town.” “This place ..aaahaaa.. comin’ like a ghost town.” Sung in rich dark accents. There was inner-city riots in Liverpool and Brixton. Things were bad for the country and bad for Thatcher. It looked like Labour was going to get back in. But Michael Foot as Prime Minister? The old man who wore the donkey jacket to the Cenotaph? Oh well… and then the Argentineans invaded the Falklands. The country felt good again when victory had been won. The Archbishop of Canterbury was even criticised for remembering the Argentinean war dead during the service of thanksgiving and remembrance. My brother, now in the military, firmly kept his arms by his sides when volunteers were asked for, so we didn’t even have to worry about the campaign.

I left school and went to work part-time in a supermarket. I also went to the local college part time. I didn’t have any friends at the shop. But the college was better. I liked studying history: I had a great deal of unlearning to do. My new friends there seemed to like me but didn’t care for my politics at all, especially the views on South Africa. They said I was right-wing. I was, but I wasn’t proud of it. If you weren’t a socialist, what else could you be? I voted Tory in my first election in 1983 but I didn’t feel happy about it. What other choice was there though?

Things got interesting with the splitting of Labour into the SDP. Thatcher’s treatment of normal people had appalled me. She obviously didn’t care about anybody. The miners’ strike finished any loyalty I had for the Conservatives. I could understand the reasons for wishing to avoid the fate of the Heath government, but to bring such hardship and violence to ordinary British people? One-nation Tories like Jim Prior and Edward Heath would never have done that. Maybe it was about this time I started to think for myself. I still thought the anti-nuclear protesters at Greenham Common were a bunch of nutters though.

During the next election I voted SDP. One night, maybe 1990, there was a knock on the door. It was a canvasser from the Liberal Democrats. I invited him in and joined the party.It was my trip to Russia though in 1992 that really opened my eyes. God! These were the people that we had been told were the enemy? These were the people whom our government were willing to annihilate with nuclear weapons? We were told that the men all looked like Brezhnev and the women were shot-putters? That there lives were worthless? Such lies! The extent of Cold War propaganda lay open before me. 1992 saw my parents move back to Ireland. There too I had a lot to unlearn.

* * *

So when I’m asked the question “Why are you involved in politics?” the short answer is “because I cannot stop caring.” The long answer is that I have never been out of it.

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