Friday, 25 February 2011

Andrea I – Politics

‘You don’t think you need to be especially intelligent to get rich?’ says Andrea, bemused. She’s a gorgeous curvy white-skinned redhead and she also happens to be my guide this time around.
‘Have you met these people?' I say. 'Smug, arrogant nonentities the lot of them.’
‘That doesn’t seem to me very likely, considering...’
‘They’re only in charge because half the time they’re so obnoxious nobody wants to argue with them.’
She looks at me very sceptically.
‘Oh look’ I say, ‘no doubt some of the rich are very clever and charming but I don’t think there’s any particular correlation. They know what they need to know. They know how to make money.’
She looks away and huffs a bit.
‘You naively assume’ I continue, ‘that knowing how to make money out of a thing necessarily implies some real aptitude for the thing itself. Do you imagine the bloke who runs a vast chain of, I don’t know, shoe shops for example, has any particular talent for making shoes?’
In the course of our debate her expression veers from polite attention to cool indifference to wry disdain to, as time goes on, intense irritation. I don’t like it but it doesn’t make what I’m saying wrong. I press on.
‘Of course he hasn’t. He simply takes the credit. “Look at these wonderful shoes I’ve made” he says. Bollocks he hasn’t so much as touched them. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought that the people actually on the shop floor, the actual craftsmen, the artisans got paid properly – you know “a fair days pay for a fair days work” and all that’ I look into her face. ‘That’s Marx in case you were wondering.’ She appears unmoved. ‘How revolutionary is that?’ I add sarcastically.
She gives me a tight little smile in return, humouring me. ‘You’re surely not going to tell me you’re still a Marxist’ she says.
‘I have certain sympathies’ I say, ‘but no. I reject all labels, as they say.’
‘But I’d have thought, after Stalin and the gulags and all that...’
‘I’m in little doubt that Marx would have been spinning in his pit if he’d seen what became of his ideas. Actually I suspect Jesus would feel the same way about some of his followers, but anyway, as I was saying, in my humble opinion...’ (I used to use that phrase a lot, although despite my frugal lifestyle I refused to be humble.) ‘In my humble opinion the individuals I’ve come across who earn the most are the ones doing the most completely pointless jobs...’
‘I suspect my father would have had something to say about that.’
‘What did he do?’
‘He was a doctor.’
‘Well, that’s a grey area. Do you know, the most highly paid person among all the people I knew wrote press releases for a firm of accountants? How bloody crucial a role in society is that? And I knew quite a few teachers and nurses too. A dustman does a more useful job of work.’
She sits forward, making an obvious effort to engage with me.
‘Well there’s the stress I suppose...’ she offers, ‘the long hours, years of training...’
‘So, pay them for their hours. I don’t have a problem with that – double time for weekends and bank holidays if you like.’
‘Ok, but it’s not just that is it Gabriel? There’s all the responsibility. I don’t know why I’m even trying to explain – you must know all this.’
‘Stress and responsibility?’ I laugh, pretending to be amused. ‘Everybody has stress and responsibility. My dad had so much stress and responsibility it killed him, and he was just a bloody gardener. The only stress and responsibility is screwing up and losing your job. And that’s the same for everybody.’
I catch myself jabbing hard with my finger at her, making the point. It’s an ugly, intrusive gesture. I don’t like it. I put my hands down and take a deep breath.
‘But some people have more to lose than others’ she says quietly.
And I’m off again.
‘Oh, right’ I laugh sarcastically. ‘So if you haven’t got anything much in the first place you won’t mind if you lose it. Interesting theory.’
‘Oh you know what I mean.’
‘No I really don’t.’
‘But if you’re a manager there’s all the other people under you who might also lose their jobs, and the customers...’
‘With all due respect, that’s rubbish. They don’t give a toss about anybody else, these people. Something goes wrong they just find some insignificant underling to blame. Top executives only get the sack as a last resort. And you know this Andrea. I don’t know why I'm trying to explain. Losing their jobs is all that scares them, and that’s universal. Anyway, these executives – they love all that wheeling and dealing, risk taking... It’s what they do.’
‘I’m sorry’ she says, huffing somewhat ‘I can’t agree with all this. Some of them work bloody hard and...’
‘And nurses and teaches don’t?’
‘Look, let’s cut to the chase. These people get paid what they do because they are in a position of power – they control things, they can dictate terms. You may or may not want to justify that but lets not kid ourselves that they earn all those millions in bonuses because they do something a hundred thousand times more important than a dustman. Come on, they make money and money is power.’
‘You make it sound like some sort of extortion racket.’
I give her my most infuriating grin ever. Clever girl. My point exactly.
She sits and frowns at me, her arms crossed over her (rather lovely) bosom.
‘Well, I don’t know’ she says, shrugging. ‘I thought they were supposed to be creating wealth, and growing the economy...’
‘Ah, the jolly old trickle-down effect. I saw a lot of that in my time. Also known as getting pissed on from a great height. You know the only thing scarier than a revolutionary communist is someone who truly believes in the free market economy. Seriously.’ (That’s not my line – I read it somewhere but I always like to quote it when I get the chance.)
She looks impassively at me from her chair across the room. Her legs are crossed, Buddha style, her toes tucked under the arms of the chair. I warned her at the beginning she’d soon be heartily sick of me. She said ‘Why’s that?’ and I said, ‘Oh, any number of reasons.’
Well now she knows.
Light is streaming in through the windows above us. I lean back in my chair, one leg over the arm, nursing my glass of water in my lap. This is our third session. I always seem to end up going on about politics. I want to talk about other things but it always comes back to this. I know she thinks I believe the world is out to get me. And I do actually, but not just me – millions like me – misfits and weirdos. I’ve always believed in political analysis more than psychoanalysis where people’s problems are concerned. I mean, I had my faults like anyone but that doesn’t explain everything. And anyway, why should it always be me who has to change?
‘It always seems to me’ I resume and I see her take a deep breath, readying herself, ‘that the people who get the money are merely the ones who are good at looking good, saying the right things, playing the game – not the ones who actually know how to do things, who actually make things, or have to deal with actual people. I understand this is not an original observation but somehow you still don’t hear it said often enough.’
Andrea is obviously not convinced. Do I really imagine I am changing her mind? Do I really imagine she even gives a toss? After all, all this stuff is in the past. What does it all matter here?
‘You don’t believe that you can have what you want if you put your mind to it and buckle down and work hard?’ she says.
‘Oh come on. Seriously?’ I laugh. She lets it go with a smile and a shrug. I sense she doesn’t really believe in that particular fairy story either. Well that’s something.
‘So you considered yourself an “artisan” as you put it?’ she says ‘one of the ones who actually does the work...’
‘Not me so much. I was a bit of a slacker. But my dad, millions like him, my sister Justine...’
‘And these “bosses” are somehow conniving to prevent you from getting rich like them?’ She’s getting weary and impatient but I don’t appear to be able to let it go.
‘No, A, they are not conniving and B, I merely wished to make a living. I never said anything about getting rich’.
‘Well, you seem to have thought of everything. So how come you were unemployed most of your life?’
Later on I work out what I should have said to her at this point, but at the time it hit the target and disabled me. I should have said that that was because I refused to play their greedy egomaniac games. But I feel like a fraud. I really did never want to be rich, but somehow pressing the point seems like protesting too much.
‘It didn’t work out for me, no’ I say, looking at my hands.
‘You feel like you missed out – didn’t get a big enough slice of the cake.’
I look up at the smug cow. I hate all this.
‘I can see why someone like you would have to assume that envy would be my motivation’ I say, a little nastily I admit.
That shuts her up. I feel mean for taking such a low shot, but I think she’s been just as mean for implying that I have the same cynical motives as the people I’m complaining about – people who like to find little ways to catch you out, to show you that deep down you are just as cynical and compromised as they are, people who find that this somehow makes them feel better about themselves.
Except her view is, of course, common sense – the politics of envy and all that bollocks, and therefore, she believes, not offensive. She just thinks I’m naïve for not admitting it to myself. She after all was the one who went to Uganda or some such place in the middle of a war, with Medecins sans Frontiers or whoever it was, to look after AIDS victims. What did I do? I kept up with my recycling, bought free-range eggs, signed a petition about an incinerator they wanted to build locally. And yet I’m certain, deep down, she really believes the poor are that way basically because they are stupid or lazy (she could excuse the children – they knew no better). I know there are a thousand reasons why the poor are poor – laziness and stupidity, in my experience, least among them. I’d have thought Africa (not that I’ve ever been) would have at least demonstrated that to her. Still, what can you do? She had a rich daddy (a consultant in IVF or something) from a ‘good’ family. Before she went to Africa she used to practice reiki and tai chi, and had her own practice in Hove apparently, plus working all the hippy festivals in her tee-pee with her massage table and her essential oils and wot-not. She did quite well I gather. Nobody in my family ever went to university or owned their own business. Andrea went to med school, I suspect, not because she was particularly bright, or compassionate, but because she could. She went to Africa because it would look good on her CV and, to hear her tell it, as a brand of extreme sport. I overheard her tales of the sons of American investment bankers and lawyers, supposedly there to save the planet, running about the forest in the dark, giggling, stoned out of their heads, dodging bullets, playing Heart of Darkness. At about that time I’d have been in my garden, struggling to keep the slugs off my brassicas without the use of chemicals. Could I have done better than them? Abso-bloody-lutely, except my folks couldn’t have afforded to send me off on a ‘gap year’ even if they’d known what a bloody gap year was. Shit heads. I bloody hate the lot of them.
So anyway I want to press my point. What do I have to lose? Andrea’s good opinion of me, that’s what. It’s probably best not to fancy your guide if you can possibly help it.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I really did just want some job satisfaction, some security, enough to live on, a bit extra for fun...’ I know it sounds a bit feeble. I’m trying to be reasonable, but it comes out submissive.
‘That’s all?’ she says humourlessly.
‘That’s all’ I say. ‘That and a good woman...’
I didn’t mean to flirt with her but she’s clearly unimpressed anyway.
‘I just didn’t fit in I guess...’ I add, conciliatory, backing down. Why am I always the one to bloody back down?

This ‘not fitting in’ has always been my problem. I always say to myself that I have a right to be the way I am. It’s not like I’m a psychopath. I have my talents. I’m not evil (not usually). I wash. But deep down I’m not convinced. I don’t fit in, it’s true. I never did. I tell myself it’s their loss, and I genuinely believe it is. Who knows what I could have achieved, given the chance, but they don’t miss me, the employers, the managers and so on. My face didn’t fit. I wouldn’t play their stupid game. They could do without me. They’d rather have had someone who’d do as they’re told than someone who actually cares. Bosses hate to employ people who actually know what they’re doing because it shows them up.
‘I’ll tell you the difference’ I say, resuming suddenly. I’ve had these conversations so often before – it’s just a matter of getting the lines in the right places. ‘Someone like me would say “This is what I love doing – I wonder if I can make a living at it?” The businessmen would say “What can I do to get rich?” and he wouldn’t much care what it was.’ I sit back to catch my breath.
‘Live and let live’ she says glibly shrugging.
‘But that’s it – they won’t let you live. They’ll put you out of bloody business if they can. And no, before you say it, it’s not a game. It’s never a game. Games are things you do for pleasure. You don’t have to join in if you don’t want to. This is real life I’m on about – health, housing, education. Play the game? Be a team player? They’ve completely changed the meanings of the words to make conformism sound like fun. Can’t you see what I’m talking about? It’s the new totalitarianism – free-market, global, corporate bloody dictatorship...’

Sometimes, when I get going like this I find I can’t breath. Maybe I’m hyperventilating. I’m not sure. Andrea looks at me uncomfortably. I feel the need to break the silence. Can’t stand silences, never could. ‘I’m sorry’ I say. ‘Got carried away... again.’ She smiles coolly and says it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s fine. I tend to get into these rants during our sessions. She’s actually a lovely girl, and she doesn’t deserve to sit and listen to this boring old fart going on at her.
The reality is, in any case, that I achieved bugger all in my life. I fondly imagine, in theory, that I had/have talent, that, given the chance, I could have done something exceptional – make myself a living as an artist, be respected, ‘important’, but I really don’t know where I got that idea. It wasn’t a result of anything that happened in this life – that much I can tell you. I was a big disappointment and an embarrassment to my mum and dad, and although at some level I know there’s good reasons why that was and I did what I could, at another, more insistent level, I agree with them. I just didn’t try hard enough. People have said they think I’m smug, or arrogant even but I’m not. I didn’t make a difference. I didn’t stand up to be counted. I copped out, that’s what I did and I’m ashamed of myself for it. I couldn’t beat them and I couldn’t bring myself to join them, so what did I do? I went and played with myself at the bottom of the garden, as I’d always done.
But who can you make a stand against these days anyway? Faceless functionaries and government wonks, shop assistants and call centres – never the real villains – torturers and despots and profiteers. Terrorists? Who’s ever even met one of those? So people take it out on the poor bloody immigrants and even the kids and teenagers these days get blamed for everything.
Child molesters – that’s who’s left – the last legitimate target, the final bogey man, about whom we can all get royally self-righteous.

I retire to my bunk and look out at the sea. It’s a bright but misty day outside but I want to stay inside and think about Andrea.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.