In which The Author chooses a side
‘There’s a war coming, Charles. Are you sure you’re on the right side?’
– Magneto, X-Men
It seems that my recent foray into the world of Industrial Music (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane
) might not have been an accident after all. As I mentioned towards the end of that entry, my Rhythmbox set-up has turned up far more pieces by the bands involved in that scene than probability theory might suggest. Since then, things have happened to make me think that maybe some external factor might in fact have a bearing on matters. Or, maybe, as Glen suggested in work many years ago, we as a species are hard-wired to seek out patterns where no patterns really exist. We shall see …
This particular episode began about a month ago.
Actually, it didn’t. It seems to have started about a year ago.
Then again, it might have begun about five years ago.
Even while I’ve been typing this, I’ve remembered an incident which took place the best part of ten years ago.
Come to think of it, it possibly started nearly thirty years ago. It’s hard to tell, considering how long it takes some particularly vile diseases to incubate.
Anyway, I first became aware of the warning signs of this particular condition when I was still working in Cardiff. I was walking home from the station one evening with Shanara. It was a nice summer’s evening (we used to have them in those days) and we’d decided to walk up through the park. I spotted someone I knew across the way, walking his dog towards us. Shanara’s not keen on dogs, so I knew she wouldn’t be too pleased if the beast in question jumped on her (as was its wont).
Anyway, I waved to him. He didn’t respond, but turned away and headed towards the Three Trees instead.
A few days later, I saw him in town and asked him why he hadn’t waved back.
‘Because you were with her …’ he replied.
But I’ve jumped ahead here. The first inkling I had of the early stage of the illness was when Ross D. and Richard B. were down from London from the weekend. We’d arranged to meet up for Sunday lunch in the Cambrian and embark on beers from there. Matt H. was planning to make it down from Yorkshire. It would have been a nice reunion and a chance to catch up for the first time in ages.
The Sixth Man, whose identity will be revealed in good time, had also agreed to join us. I booked a table for ‘possibly six, but maybe fewer’ on the Friday night and all was well.
In the event, only Ross, Richard, Rob and I made it on the day. Matt was still stuck in God’s Own County. It was a regular occurrence. Every time he booked a coach or a train, something happened to put the mockers on it. I kept telling him, never reveal your travel plans for fear that the Goddess of Chaos will stick her oar in. He didn’t listen, and every trip went supine as a result. (Please note: the phrase ‘to go supine’ was first brought to my attention by Vicki F. ‘Supine’ means ‘lying flat on your back’ – or, as she pointed out, ‘tits up!’)
Anyway, the Sixth Man also failed to show. I’d rung him in the morning to see whether he’d remembered. The conversation had gone something like this:
‘Are you still on for lunch in the Cam later?’
‘Oh … Um … I dunno. Who’s coming?’
‘Ross, Rob, Richard and me.’
‘Ross’s other half.’
[Audible pause.] ‘Oh. [Long pause.] I never knew Ross was … Er … Um … [Extremely long, almost Pinteresque, pause.] No, I can’t come. I’ve got to take the dog out.’
And then there were four. Anyway, we few, we happy few, had a very pleasant lunch before a William Hague-style session in various pubs. We returned to the Cambrian at about eight o’clock, at which point the Sixth Man walked in. On spotting Ross he came over and they shook hand like old friends (which, of course, they were).
While he was at the bar, Richard leaned over to me and whispered, ‘He’s very good looking, isn’t he?’
‘Don’t let him hear you say that, for fuck’s sake,’ I whispered back. ‘This is a big step forward for him.’
After a pint and a chat, once the Sixth Man had reassured himself that neither Ross or Richard would try and drag him into their debauched homosexual lifestyle, he relaxed and we had a good evening.
But the Shanara incident rankled with me. It didn’t matter that even after they’d met (in the Cambrian, watching Ireland vs England in the Six Nations a few seasons ago) and got on reasonably well, he still wouldn’t use her name to me. He used to say, ‘that Paki girl you know’. I pointed out gently that she was in fact Bangladeshi (ethnically, anyway) but had been born in London. At least, in contrast to some of his friends, he knew that they were two different countries. He didn’t know why they were different, or why the old bitterness still existed between them (especially on the cricket pitch), but he was considerably more informed than a lot of people.
Which brings us to September last year. I was going up to London for a few days to stay with Matt’s sister Paula. We’d agreed a reasonable barter scheme. She’d put me up for a couple of nights in her twenty-first floor flat overlooking Primrose Hill, with incredible views across the capital. In return, I’d lug my tool kit up with me, put up some mirrors and a cooker hood, and entertain her two-year-old son for an evening. It was an eminent plan.
I was on the train up (in Cathays station, in fact, just alongside Cardiff University) when my phone rang. It was Mother. All hell had broken loose in Aberdare and she wanted me to step in and try and sort things out. When I tried to explain that I wouldn’t be around for a few days, she hung up on me. I didn’t have credit to call her back, so this led to a break in diplomatic relations that lasted a good six months.
The cause of all this (as you might have guessed by now) was my brother. His girlfriend had left him to go out with one of our friends – his old schoolmate, in fact. It wasn’t that straightforward, actually, because they’d been seeing each other for a while before this all erupted. In fact, they’d got back together. They’d gone out with each previously, before she left him to go out with my brother. It was a bizarre love triangle, with the female apex oscillating between the two males for quite a while.
Anyway, the evening before I was due to travel, my brother had been extremely stupid. He’d got pissed and put a brick through his erstwhile friend’s window, with a threatening note wrapped around it. To cut a long story very short, the police had got involved and the whole thing went to court. He was lucky to escape a custodial sentence, but ended up on probation. Since then, he’s been nursing the most amazing grudge against the other two. She told me last week that she’s dreading the time when ‘it all starts up again’.
But I said that the initial symptoms had manifested themselves about thirty years ago. He chose to take CSE History, rather than the O level which would have been worth more as a qualification. The O level course involved topics like the Corn Laws, the Reform Acts, and the Chartist Movement. Good stuff if you’re interested in the way in which present-day Britain started to come together, but a bit dry. By contrast, the CSE syllabus dealt with the build-up to the Second World War, from the Treaty of Versailles to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy.
The course content hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. If someone tells me they studied history (either GCSE or A level) I usually say, ‘Oh, Hitler and Henry VIII – not necessarily in the right order!’ When Jasmin from Stuttgart was working with us, it was this time of year. (It had pissed down the whole time then, too, come to think of it.) We used to order all the school textbooks for the forthcoming term in mid-August, so that the schools could receive their bulk orders in time for the new term. One day, Jasmin was helping Glen to raise the invoices when she noticed a disturbing theme emerging.
‘Is everyone in England obsessed with the war?’ she asked him. *
It was no wonder she’d come to that conclusion. We had literally hundreds of books on Germany between 1919 and 1936, waiting to be despatched to schools all over South Wales.
Note the period involved – it deals exclusively with Hitler’s rise to power and the establishment of the Third Reich. Nowhere are our schoolchildren taught about the war itself, the fight against Nazism and Fascism, and the downfall of Hitler. (I could construct an elaborate conspiracy theory about this fact. I could suggest that the reason our kids are brainwashed with this stuff is to prepare them for life in the global fascist state that’s coming into being with each month that passes. But I’ll skip over that and come back to the main story instead.)
Since he’s been out of work, my brother’s been hanging about with ex-squaddies who regard the right-wing bile of the Sun and the Daily Star as the Revealed Truth of God; a bunch of old men who, until they retired, had only seen a non-white face on TV; and the sort of barely educated pissheads who only go out of Aberdare to visit the court or the probation office. Half of these people have never left the UK in their lives. Those with passports only go to some trendy resort in Spain or Greece, filled with English theme pubs and the British working-class abroad, continuing the great tradition of colonial Empire by not mixing with ‘the natives’ unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Their outlook on life is as limited as the view they get from the pub window in our little valley town. They’ve never had any non-white friends, or taken the time to learn about other countries or other cultures. In microcosm, they’re the people I wrote about in No Future
. And he’s been absorbing their twisted beliefs. He’s spent hundreds of hours watching the
History Channel on TV. I spoke to his ex-girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. She confirmed my suspicions that he was starting to sympathise with the Nazi ideology. It was a second opinion of a diagnosis which I’d made a while before.
Which brings us pretty much up to date. About three weeks ago I had to borrow a tenner from my brother. I told him he’d have it back when I got my Giro, but I didn’t see him until the following Monday lunchtime. I was in the pub with Helen R. She wanted to pick my brains about something, and bought us a pint each while we chatted. Then my brother walked in, looked around, and left without saying anything. If he’d asked me for the cash then, I could have gone to the Post Office and drawn it out. I assumed that he wasn’t in any great rush and carried on talking to Helen.
In the evening, at about seven o’clock, I had a text in which he asked if I could return the money. I texted back, saying that I didn’t have it on me.
All hell broke loose again. What was I doing in the pub when I owed him money? I replied, telling him that Helen had stood me a pint and by now it was too late to get the money that day. Then the flood of abuse started.
‘I’m not interested in Helen whatshername.’
‘Another lesbian loser I suppose.’
I texted back, telling him not to have a go at my friends – especially when he didn’t know them.
Then came the killer text:
‘All dykes and bi’s need a Zyklon B shower.’
And with that, he crossed the line that nobody should ever cross in my mind.
I texted back:
‘You’ll have your money tomorrow. I’m very tempted to wrap it round a brick and chuck it through your fucking window. Then again, you’d know all about that, you evil Nazi cunt.’
He was fighting dirty. I can fight dirty as well.
Then came his reply, in two parts:
‘I am a Nazi cunt, and proud of it.’
‘Britain missed a golden opportunity in 1939. Controversial but true.’
That was the last time we texted each other. I deleted his number but kept the messages so that I had evidence in case things became more serious. Technically, I could have taken them to the police and reported a Hate Crime. I didn’t. I decided to just store them for future reference.
I was in the pub last week when he stormed in and started shouting the odds. Apparently, I’d been talking to his rival on Facebook. (How he’d know that is beyond me, As I’ve mentioned several times, he hates computers and has never been online in his life!) True, his rival and I are friends on Facebook, but he’s online so rarely that he might as well not bother. (The only digital communication we’ve engaged in for weeks was when he texted me a link about old railway tunnels in South Wales.) But my brother wasn’t in the mood to listen to reason. After a couple of minutes Gabi asked him to leave. While all this was going on, Rhian had been outside taking a phone call. After he stormed off, she came back in and asked what had happened. I showed her the texts and she was horrified.
‘Now you know why I don’t want to know him any more,’ I told her.
Last night was quiz night in the pub. I have a reputation like Wolverine’s, in the cage fighting sequence of X-Men. I take on all comers and emerge victorious (although tonight’s margin was narrower than it has been). Afterwards, I was chatting to some of the older regulars – Jeff, Rob and Dennis – and a guy named Paul, a year or two older than me, when my brother came in. He was clearly pissed already, but bought a pint and sat down by the window. Gabi spotted him before I did, and I think she was expecting more trouble, but we ignored each other.
While I was chatting, he appeared at my side and held his hand out.
‘What’s that for?’ I demanded.
‘Peace offering,’ he said meekly.
‘Shove your fucking peace offering up your arse!’ I told him. ‘You overstepped the fucking mark. We’re never going to be friends again.’
I got another pint and carried on chatting to my friends. When I left to walk home he was still sitting by the window, on his own, nursing a pint.
Not my fucking problem.
I’ve decided that it’s time to carry a real-life cull, following on from my Facebook cull a couple of months ago. I’ve wasted too much of my life trying to help people who aren’t worth the time or effort. From now on, I’m going to be as selective in the Real World as I am in the Virtual One.
One of my friends came to me for advice yesterday. A genuine, long-standing friend, she’s stood by me through the years as I’ve stood by her. Last week she’d had a letter from the Jobcentre, querying a vacancy notification which she allegedly received at the start of May 2012. Three months on, she honestly couldn’t remember whether she’d applied for it or not. Could you? I helped her draft a reply which she took to the Jobcentre on Monday, basically saying that to the best of her knowledge she followed up all notifications – when all was said and done, it was their word against hers.
It’s fucking obvious who won this particular argument, isn’t it …?
She came into the pub yesterday afternoon. She’d been called in to account for her failure to apply for the job in question. They weren’t satisfied with her explanation. Consequently, her money has been stopped for three months. She has the right to appeal, so I told her to get her arse to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau ASAP and get them on side. She told me that when she was leaving the office, she said, ‘Fucking wankers!’ (loudly enough for everyone to hear.) Then she looked at Kevin, her adviser, and said, ‘Not you, Kev,’ before walking out.
Kevin’s a nice guy. He was married to Julia’s oldest sister back in the day. We’ve known each other for twenty years or more. We always say ‘hello’ whenever I’m in the Jobcentre. Aberdare’s a small town. People know each other.
My friend’s relatively fortunate in that she still lives with her mother. Even if she does have to go from now until the middle of November with no money, she’ll still have a roof over her head and food in her stomach. If I had to go three months without money, I’d lose literally everything – my house, all my stuff, everything I’ve ever worked for, would be gone in an instant at the stroke of some bureaucrat’s pen. So, I’ve had to choose a side. After all, we all know the words of Nazi victim Pastor Martin Niemoller, don’t we?
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
I went to the Jobcentre earlier. I’ve been a model client. I’ve been nice and polite and friendly. I don’t go in there stinking of cheap cider, wearing knock-off trainers, a tracksuit, a baseball cap and a hoodie. I don’t have umpteen facial piercings, crappy tattoos everywhere, and slouch about mumbling incoherently, like some fuckwits I’ve seen in there. The people working there are genuine people. They’re not stupid. They know that the double-dip recession isn’t going to affect the South Wales Valleys. How the fuck can it? We’ve been in an economic depression since the end of the Miners’ Strike in 1985! Banks can crash and currencies can crumble, interest rates can plummet and inflation can soar – round here, it’s business as usual. Even the pound shops and charity shops are closing. We’re a one-horse town with the knacker’s man on his way.
But we’re still expected to apply for every job listed. I don’t drive, I don’t have an accountancy qualification, a CSCS card, or a Basic Food Hygiene Certificate. I can’t type 100 wpm, I don’t have at least five years’ supervisory experience, I can’t do stupid unsocial hours in the next valley when there’s next to no public transport … That rules me out of at least two thirds of the vacancies on their books.
The clerk who signs me on is a very pleasant, very understanding lady who knows the score. We have a natter and talk about dog-walking and what we’re going to do at the weekend. My new adviser has at least one foot in the real world as well. We were talking about the shambolic state of public transport in the Valleys last week. I told her that I’d ruled out applying for a job in Neath (about fifteen miles away) because it would have been literally impossible to get there.
I said, ‘It’s fucking ridiculous!’ It was a direct quote from a mate, when I showed him the results from Traveline Cymru. She didn’t like my use of ‘industrial language’ as the BBC call it these days. I apologised and we carried on talking as though nothing had happened. They’ve got their jobs to do. For fuck’s sake, I spent two decades at the Customer Service frontline. I know the score.
But the Jobcentre staff are answerable to their bosses, and the Tory Government seems hell-bent on returning Britain to the way it was in the eighties. The 1880s, that is. Earlier this week, the Department of Work & Pensions call centres staged a one-day strike in protest at the new strictures imposed on them by the government. Even the staff know the system is unworkable. But when you’re only a fag paper’s width from being on the other side of the desk yourself, you have to play the game.
My future attitude in the Jobcentre might change. I could be the pleasant, polite, amenable chap she met last week. I could become the sort of stroppy bastard that she’s used to. It depends on what happens to my friend. They’ve fired the opening salvo in the Class War, as far as I’m concerned. If the worst happens, I’ll continue to play the game, of course, but there’ll be no more Mr Nice Guy. There’ll be no first-name terms, idle chit-chat about the weather, or banter about the rubbish jobs on offer. It’ll be business all the way. I won’t be accused of collaborating with the enemy, at least.
In the words of Neville Chamberlain) we are at war. And, as Throbbing Gristle once said, it’s nothing short of a total war. I know the men and women in the Jobcentre are only doing their jobs, but so were the people who herded millions of people into the extermination camps. The Nuremberg Defence is no defence at all. Adolf Eichmann proved that. William Calley proved that. As the Doctor once told someone who’d protested that he was only following orders, ‘With that sentence you’ve just lost the right to even speak to me.’
Like the English Civil War, the events of the last month have set brother against brother. The Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother has already made it clear which side he’ll be on. I’ve chosen my side as well. Some friends of mine think I’m over-reacting. Others think I’m doing the right thing. I’ve heard all the cliches over the past couple of weeks. Some of them are true. After all, you can choose your friends. And I don’t care whether blood is thicker than water. Alcohol is thinner than either of them, and that’s the main substance in his veins at the moment.
* This was before I persuaded Jasmin that England and Wales were different countries, of course! (SeeWhy Am I Here …?