Wednesday, November 30, 2011

the time or the place

We’ve been standing outside the ambulance station since six o’clock. The sky is lightening now, but heavy grey clouds keep appearing overhead and soaking us. We cradle our mugs to keep warm, shuffle from foot to foot, wave at the cars that hoot as they pass. Three hours already. The march through town is next. It’ll be good to move.

It was fraught at first. Despite the friendly tone, there was still a discernible charge of something between the crews that were reporting for duty in uniform, and those that had decided to strike.
‘It’s a question of conscience, mate. You can only do what you think is right.’
Everyone knows it. But this business of being in uniform, or out of it – the difference is more than just clothing.

People have been passing all morning, and we’ve chatted to some. About how the public sector is being throttled, the cost of living going up, the pay freeze, the pension hike. A cameraman arrives in a blacked-out van. He waits until the current shower passes, then wanders over to take mood shots of our flags. We wonder when the interviewer will come over to ask us some questions, but nothing happens. The cameraman gets back in his van. They drive off.
The march from a nearby hospital is due to pass by soon and we’re getting ready to tag along, when a shabby looking guy in a hunting cap and combat trousers, a black bin liner over his shoulder, pauses by the entrance, and makes a show of reading the signs. Then as if something he read there has interested him, he walks up and sets his bin liner on the wet tarmac in front of us.

‘Have you heard of *** (a minor celebrity)?’ he says. ‘Yeah? We used to hang out together. He was a mate of mine. Twenty years ago he was up on a murder charge. Did you read about it? It was in all the papers. I gave him his alibi. I lied for him so he didn’t go to jail. Then a few years later I was in trouble myself and I asked him for a loan. Ten thousand pounds. That’s all it was. Ten thousand pounds to set me straight. And him a millionaire and everything. But he was like he didn’t know me. Couldn’t care less. Set his monkeys on me. And now I haven’t got nothing. What do you think about that, eh?’
Frank folds his arms.
‘Mate – I’m sorry, but this is a picket line. We’re striking about our pensions and jobs. I don’t think this is really the time or the place for all that other stuff.’
The man shrugs his shoulders.
‘Okay. Fair enough.’
He picks up his bin liner and walks off.
I finish my tea and tip the dregs out onto the grass verge.
The hospital crowd is coming down the hill, whistling and hooting. We pick up our flags and join them.
The man with the bin liner watches from the other side of the road.

***

In the middle of town. The protest has swollen now, the tributaries of the smaller marches converging into an impressive river of banners, whistles, drums and chants. People hang out of office windows, wave from doorways, the pavements and shop doorways. The atmosphere is good-natured, accommodating.
A man with unlaced boots, a woollen cap tweaked up into a cone on the back of his head, a rucksack on his back, appears next to me.
‘Smash Macdonald’s windows!’ he shouts. ‘Corporate fascism! Batter the police!’
Then he turns to another protestor and says: ‘I’m an anarchist, me. This is all a bit tame, isn’t it?’
His influence is so unsettling it’s hard to think what to do other than blank him out and pretend he wasn’t there. But before we change our mind and summon the courage to confront him, he scuttles on ahead, lacing through the crowd in a curious, loping kind of crouch.

***

When the march reaches the common I listen to a couple of speeches, then hand my flag to a young kid - ‘Cool! Thanks. That’ll go with my collection! - and make my way back to the car. I sit behind the wheel for a minute or two. Another shower of rain rattles across the roof and windscreen. I let my mind drift across the day, trawling for something definite, some article of faith I could hold on to that was as light and clear and tangible as that flag.

It’s just before one.
I put the news on to hear how things went across the country, and turn the engine over.

8 comments:

Jess said...

That sounds very much like my day! Long and tiring, hopefully it's worth it!

Sabine said...

For what it's worse, Spence, believe me, you'd feel worse if you would not have gone. There seems to be so little left for us to do.

Spence said...

Hey Jess!

I'm glad I decided to come out. I must admit I was v conflicted, and even up until the night before I was still dithering. A straw poll amongst my colleagues didn't make it easier; no-one felt good about doing it. The thing that finally persuaded me was the feeling that the union was the only organisation left who was actively fighting my corner, so I ought to support it. I was glad I did. I don't know how effective it'll be, but it felt good to be adding my voice to the thousands who protested.

Hey Sabine!

Completely agree.

At least I feel as if I've done something other than moan and feel generally depressed about the state of things. At least it feels as if there's still a whole crowd of people out there who won't simply take it lying down!

I was a bit worried about posting this blog because I didn't think it gave a proper impression of the day of action. It was a typical SV type of blog entry! Focusing on the weird / slightly crazy aspects. I hope the extent of the day of action - a sense of the thousands of ordinary (and reluctant) people taking part - comes through despite the whacky slant!

Cheers for your comments. Hope you have a good day today. :)

Jake said...

The anarchist might've had a point. Your average Conservative politician has two dominant personality traits, greed and craven cowardice. Which one is easier for us ordinary working men and women to take advantage of?

SallyH said...

I'm proud of you and all the others who joined picket lines and demonstrations.

Spence said...

Hi Jake

I don't know that I agree with you on that one, mate. All I wish is that we had a political party that valued and supported those things most people think of as essential, the things that make society function, and worth living in.

I certainly wouldn't support violence against targets such as the police, or high street businesses. I know that's what the anarchist was trying to stir up - and I'm not sure why. I feel angry too, but I think the protest on Wednesday was all the more effective for being focused and restrained.

I certainly wouldn't call myself a pacifist, but as things stand at the moment I think it's better to fight with words than bottles and stones.

Hi Sally
Thanks v much for that. I know from personal experience what it meant for a lot of those people to walk out on Wednesday.

meninyellow said...

The guy at the station is the perfect analogy for what the government is doing to public sector workers. Taking all the benefit of our hard work & professionalism but then casting us aside when we retire. I don't know many people who would call £8,000 a year pension gold plated

Spence said...

That's an interesting reading of it, MIY! You're right - there's def an air of abandonment at the moment.

I still don't understand how the city gets away with it like that. It wouldn't be so bad if there was a sense of everyone fighting the deficit together.