When I was about 13 years of age, four men came to the house. I am confident still that I had never seen any of them before. They were hearty but grey, sitting at the table until John joined them. Then he suddenly shuffled into the room, sat down and put his head in his hands. No, he did not want to go out for a walk or join them downtown for a drink. This was my grandfather, frail, monosyllabic and dying. The men tried to tease and cajole him. But the encounter was brought to an abrupt, wordless end and the men left. I believe that I never saw them again.
On 25th August 1951, the company had given John a silver platter to mark his 50 years continuous service. It seems that he joined as a thirteen year old and continued as a labourer – walking to the factory every working day – even after the 50 year anniversary. I was told – not that I asked very often – that he worked, using his hands, with household ceramics. But he never seemed to achieve any rank and when his wife died he moved from the next street along into our house. Short of bedrooms, my mother installed a wheelie spring-mattress collapsible in the front living-room downstairs. And there he slept until he died.
From my memory, he had only two hobbies. Wearing but an ordinary raincoat and mail-order shoes, he would walk miles to distant towns and then turn round to walk all the way home. Otherwise, immobile in an armchair for hours, he would read travelogues, library hardbacks by adventurous botanists, safari lovers, Armand & Michaela Dennis. The book would be held, in a silence I took to be representatively adult, at a virtually statutory 14 inches from his face, never in his lap. I do not recall one exchange with him that would ever meet the rubric of a conversation. He never talked about what he read or what he had done in the past and he never talked about his children : Jacky who had emigrated to Australia, Tom who, having fought as a regimental private to free Europe after D-Day, lived nearby and Mollie, my mother. Having married a local girl, John worked and died in the town where he was born. I do not think that he ever went abroad; the farthest I think he ever got was the Strangford Loch. It is easy for me to say now that I never liked him and that he had no obvious regard for me. Whatever wattage it may once have had, his light had gone out by the time we met one another.
And so, it is in no spirit of nostalgic affection for him that one elevates here the ideological significance of John’s life. For that life is still, as it were, politically true. His days were dedicated – perhaps rather too spiritual a way of putting it – to keeping himself and his immediate family away from poverty, the kind of poverty that would be positively anaphylactic if it crept up on you. His early adulthood was spent in Riccarton where homes had no inside bathrooms. His schooling was poor and the opportunities to escape upwards to a better life threadbare to the point of invisibility. Ambition was his enemy. He had no room for adventures; that hand on the tiller had, as the years and tears passed, to stay steady. For it was the grind that held the promise, the promise of a possible stability, something to mean that the family would be no worse than OK. The policy, thus conceived, would have to be sustained for decades and the line held against all vicissitude and upheaval. Sober wishes were, by definition and by discipline, never allowed to stray. Little wonder that he never said much. What was there to say?
There were millions like him then and there are – you can maybe feel the vibration of the deeper point here – millions like him still. Yes, both the definition of poverty and the quality of public institutions have emphatically changed. John was never really to enjoy the raising of the school leaving age, access to further education, the flowering of a national health service, the devastatingly advantageous commitment to municipal housing, the rise of what we now call health-and-safety, better shops, serious real-terms rises in take-home pay…. For he lived a life in which the purchase of an outsize bag of Liquorice Allsorts could well be considered downright flash.
As was the custom back in the day, John would undoubtedly come home every Friday evening to hand over his weekly pay packet to his wife. The packet containing cash would be unbroken, ie the thread which closed the packet – firms had a machine for this – would be intact. (If any man stopped at a pub on his way home to spend some of his fresh earnings on a pint then the broken thread would, later at home, be a tell-tall giveaway sign of his villainy). In the course of that evening, the lady would divide the money across immediate household needs – food, gas, rent. Something would be set aside for the insurance man who came to the back door every month and for longer-term needs such as a new winter coat or a possible doctor’s visit in the flu season. Only then would the gentleman be told how much money for manly beer or football spectating was permissible. Those Friday-night family budget meetings, so fraught with friction and frustration, must have been such a proletarium of broken dreams, lip-bitingly awful for hiding/listening kids, with contiguous neighbours providing their own unavoidably shouty version, absolute hell for all concerned.
And, we can safely assume, hell they still must be.
We interrupt this broadcast to address a pivotal post-modernist argument. It might well be said that John and his family were beneficiaries of latent privilege. Working class institutions, such as trade unions and the Labour Party, were over the century busy cutting better deals for workers – a little at the beginning and a lot by the end. Such prosperity that they were able to grab and distribute was made possible by the fact that Great Britain had grown rich on the back of many unsavoury practices across the globe. Grandpa John, after all, drank tea with refined sugar, products only an Empire could make available. In this argument, it matters not a jot that John did not consider himself privileged. But his hope for a better life was silently built on colonial jaundice and corrupted accordingly. So what if the really big rewards – pensions, overseas holidays, office jobs, university access, wines with dinner – came a couple of generations later? Come they did.
There is a lot in this tone of voice, none of it to be dismissed. One can guess that, for those first 50 years on the job, if John had one day found so much as a fresh orange or tomato in his lunch-bag he would have thought it the most orgasmic consumerism. But truly the question is whether subsequent generations, schooled in global perspectives and ready to absorb non-linear histories, have done enough in compensation / have incorporated wider human experiences into their propositions for social improvement and poverty-elimination in the UK. It might seem a cheap elision but we note that the UK spends ca £14 billion each year on official development assistance – a figure which has risen steadily since the days of the Pearson Commission and the Brandt Report. The World Bank puts total aid from wealthier to poorer countries at a figure of roughly $170 billion each year. If there are around 32 million taxpayers in the UK then the mean income before tax is but ca £35.5k. Only around 10% of the tax-contributing population pay the higher rates. Public spending, including ODA, is driven largely by families who are not wealthy. Is this enough for our debate here?
Well, perhaps this is an answer in the making…. Too many global institutions and activisms have, over this century so far, either lost or dropped the focus on individual financial dereliction. Absolute poverty used to be defined as : a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency. As we write, the UN tells us that some 13 million people are facing “acute starvation” in the Horn of Africa (Spring 2022). By the Summer of 2021, over 40 million souls in over 40 countries were “teetering on the very edge of famine” (UN). The merest glance at the IMF Data Mapper will highlight those dozens of countries where GDP per capita is less than $10,000 (aka gruesome deprivation for millions of earthlings) – cf (from the same source) a figure for the UK of over $50,000. In so many directions and however nuanced and adjusted the definition, the urban and rural proletariat has never been more numerous.
Put another way, there are many alive today who find much to commend and indeed envy in John’s 20th century Ayrshire existence. They would swap with him, even now, if they possibly could. This is a strange and disturbing way to view the struggles of the British working class, struggles launched and sustained ever since the ragged-trousered brigade first began plastering. But it is the way we live and the way we see now.
Meanwhile, the deeper you travel into the third age, the greater the chances of pauperisation. This at least we can say is universal. ONS UK will tell us that the average weekly AHC income of single pensioners – those with quite possible a deceased spouse – is but £231. Average weekly incomes of pensioners over 75 are roughly 80% of the incomes of the under-75 pensioners. With so many dependent for their very survival on the state pension here, prospects for massive consumerist guzzling are non-existent. We dread to think about the prospects for the over-65s living in so much of Africa and the Far East – specially if even their most benevolent governments are told not to generate an economic surplus, not to encourage tourism or migration, not to provide certain foods, not to favour anything but autarky .
So, back to that silver plate. As far as I know, John left nothing in his will, if he even had such a thing. I am fairly sure that there were no debts outstanding against his name. He had made no mark; he had left no stain. Do not even recall a post mortem box of possessions. Little to be retained; little to be discarded.
There is though a nagging paranoia inhabiting any attempt to make sense of the old man’s life. His later days were proof of, well, the decline and fall that awaits us all, the graduate just as much as the school-leaver, the smart-alec as much as the silly-billy, the voluble as much as the mute. Those who keep saying that ageing is basically wonderful – “just a number”, that kind of thing – presumably do not want to be driven, infarctus upon them, to A&E by a 92 year old paramedic or to have any laparoscopics done by a nonagenarian doctor (no matter how strong her bi-focals). Old age comes with a declension of the natural powers. And, not going gently for as long as it is dignified, it makes sense to prepare accordingly – with whatever tools the state or the career puts at one’s disposal.
John had nothing. Those like him need agitators and advocates and decision-makers to be mightily on their side, wherever they are to be found and encouraged. Meanwhile, I am privately glad that I was able to drive away from him and become a version of someone else.
But I cannot find a totally appropriate label for his life now and I do think I hear him laughing at me. Like an overlooked twin. In the great beyond.