On the beach at Calais I was thinking of something that was said when Solidarity started in Poland in 1980. Perhaps it was just a throw away remark. The sort of casual conversation that happens a million times a day but never crystallises into something more solid. It was just an observation along the lines of this.
That for years the people – this is an important category; it suggest kindness, people who work, people who live in the underbelly of the system and experience it’s most foul smells and most viscous behaviour but struggle on, trying against the odds to hold their heads up with dignity and pride; who work – those people.
‘The People’. It has connotations. It implies class divisions.
Of those who struggle out of bed at 5am, who work all week and come home exhausted and live on cheap food and try to comfort their children who go to bed hungry. The ‘people’ are also skilled workers, craft workers, who have great skills and create expensive cars, aircraft, machines that make machines, computers, microchips, kidney machines, precision instruments. They build huge towers of glass and concrete and steel. They drive the buses and trains and organise the railways and sail the ships.
They have friends and relatives who work in the warehouses where machines and robots and artificial intelligent shout orders; lift the box, move the box, carry the box to aisle A. The box is moved, it slips along the conveyor belt. To the waiting lorry. The driver is tired. He started in Exeter at 1am. It’s now 2pm in Ebbsfleet. He drives all day and all night. Up onto the M25, take the junction for the A13 after the Dartford Bridge. He is vaguely aware of a ship in the Thames loading up with cars that will be exported to the United Arab Emirates. He has no quarrel with the workers in the Middle East. Phew, if they have to work like this, how can we organise it so we can all just stop?
Those sort of people.
They clean up, wash up, sweep up. They lift, dig, carry. They measure, they count, they weigh the sacks and move the containers. They add figures to spreadsheets, they add figures to the databases and applications. They move the steel and grow the food and teach the children and nurse the sick and care for the elderly and those who need help. They go home and look at their wage slip and count up what they have and what they owe and what they need. And none of it fits. There are gaps. A gap where they need to buy some shoes, a gap where the rent money should be, a gap where …well, it would just be nice to go out and have a drink or two and forget about all these worries and cares which don’t add up to much at all.
Those sort of people.
They are always working. At 3am you will find them in the factories in the Thames estuary and in the hinterlands of the Mersey and the the Tyne and the Wear and the Clyde. They are half asleep guarding the offices of money-greed-power. They are driving through the night, an endless night of dark and movement. They are in warehouses sorting out the boxes, in the railway yards moving the trains, in the underground cleaning the tracks and stations. They can’t sleep because they have work tomorrow and worry about the bullying manager and the thing they feel they got wrong and will they get sacked and can they stand another day of all of this? And how are they going to pay for gas and electricity and why do prices keep going up all the time because their wages certainly aren’t.
Those sort of people.
Ah yes. For years, those sort of people had felt crushed and oppressed and fed up and ground down and it never felt like anything would ever change.
And the person who had joined Solidarity said matter of factly.
‘When Solidarity started we all felt like a huge weight had lifted. We felt free. We felt like it was our time. And everyone felt better. A lot better’.
And the people who had benefited in the time when we were crushed and oppressed – and who had helped to crush and oppress us – well they didn’t feel so good at all.
Or something like that.
I felt it on the breeze. The sun didn’t do much at all, just blazed away and sent golden colours into the sky. The sand was wet and soft under foot. A young woman jumped into the sea and started swimming to the sunset. She might have been a mermaid. It was getting dark and the sea was cold. I could see her head bobbing up and down in the waves. She swam some distance and then came back to the shore.
The light sparkled on the sea. It felt like something was set on fire again.