Writing for that
intimate stranger Posterity, I try to avoid the week's momentous issues
for I know that by the time they've turned yellow they might has well be
in Hindustani. "Mr Smith Snubs Mr Wilson" roars my Sunday Telegraph
headline for October 25, 1964; and across the page, "Mr Brown's Economic
Medicine Tomorrow." You wonder who they were and how it all turned out.
Even so, two recent events
must touch the fiction writer's interests, if only to rouse his envy
at their presentation. The first is the necessary overhaul of the police
force following the appointment of a new commissioner.
The second is the necessary slaughter of 15 thousand seagulls to make way
for home-coming terns in a Scottish sanctuary. Both events were presented
to the public with such frankness and dramatic shape that any television
script editor would have accepted them for entertainment apart from one fatal flaw... "Sorry old chap, you'll have to change the
ending. We simply can't
let anyone get away with murder..."
The one vital change needed in the police system is that complaints
against the police should be dealt with by an independent body. This is
not a part of the overhaul. "Only the police are trained to deal with
these complaints," a police spokesman explained on the radio. Then he made
the rather charming confession: "Most people are surprised how efficiently
their complaints are dealt with." Most people, if they've had
my experiences, would be thunderstruck.
The overhaul, then, is necessary not for the public but for the police.
The slaughter of the seagulls (not to
mention the poisoning of the
eggs) is necessary not for the terns but for the bird sanctuary keepers
who must have at least as many varieties as the next bird sanctuary. From
fantasies and fictions the public is well protected, but in the land they
inhabit the cry of the Goebbels is heard. The Industrial Relations Act is
good news for those minorities who suffer police brutality for soon they
will have brothers.
Meanwhile, back in the schoolroom, tomorrow's citizens are sidetracked from
the big bamboozle by lesser issues. I was approached by a sweetly serious
schoolgirl in a Saffron Walden bookshop. This sort of thing happens all
the time now since they've had to pay for their own school
milk. "Do you think
contraceptives should be made freely available to everyone, young and
You know how quiet bookshops are, everybody getting a free read. "Pardon?"
I said. I felt really guilty. She'd caught me in the middle of shifting
all my books to the front and all Harold Robbins's to the back. "Yes, if
they happen to want them," I told her. Some people prefer gardening. "Oh,
smashing," she said. "And do you believe in trial
marriage?" I do, of course; all
marriage is a trial.
"What about black immigration?" she asked then. I said: "Just a
minute, dear - what have you
got in mind?"
We educationalists have to draw the line somewhere.
She was conducting another school survey. Oh, she was quite genuine. In
Hampstead they often use such a device to break into your flat. Well, I
don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for these things. How often is
anyone listening for your opinion with a quivering biro? In those market
research inquiries I'm the one who looks profound and gives intellectual
answers like "Definitely!"
"What about comprehensive education?" she asked next. What about it? So far all
my answers had
delighted her and I didn't want to let her down. It takes a personal
crisis, losing your milk or spending the night in a police station, to
rouse a sleepy social conscience.
According to my sixth-form inquisitor the comprehensive school is a stream
system in which the posh and the privileged own the fishing rights.
"Super," she said, when I'd given her the answer she wanted. "Now how
about legalising pot smoking?"
Eh? You could hear books going down all over the shop. I don't have any
opinion about other people's personal pleasures and I hope they've got
none about mine. I expect it'll be decided by some great Christian ethic.
For instance if you replace tobacco with a herbal cigarette who's going to
pay for the defence of the realm? As a habit I should think pot is about
as dangerous as touching lamp-posts or jumping lines on the pavement.
"Whereas if it's not legalised," she pointed out, "it's a danger to
She wasn't looking at her questionnaire any more. You got the feeling
she'd got out of bed that morning needing the world's support. So we
legalised pot, okayed abortion (only for women), abolished pongo-British
thinking in Ireland, reversed a number of recent Government decisions and got rid of policemen's
boots in favour of something more comfortable. I asked her if she's
forgotten anything and she had: "Do you think 18-year olds should do jury
I don't have much enthusiasm for that. British justice depends so much on
the legally substantiated lie to separate the innocent from the guilty, I wouldn't want children of
mine to get corrupted by it.
"And what about voting at 18?" That's only useful if there's somebody of
18 to vote for.
"But there is," she said. "I shall vote for Trevor Barraclough. Instead of
parliament he's going to run the country with a sales
manager and a few good reps
like my dad. He leaves school this term. Though he may decide to play
What will they grow up to be? The noisy minority or the silent majority?
Or, to put it another way: the articulate few, or so
many hats on sticks invented by Bob Hope's script writers for
frightened heads of state. "Trouble with democracy,
my dear," Marx once told my mother, "that's riddled with dictators. Ah,
most of 'em bad taters." Old Fred Marx that was.
(The Guardian, Saturday 10 June, 1972)