March 08, 2005

Pipes of unease

A few minutes after I saw the ferret, I saw a man playing the bagpipes, and I nearly fell apart.

I hadn’t been feeling at my most resilient. I'd been ill for a few days, off sick from work on the Friday, burdened by a cold presumably fostered by waiting at too many bus stops in the freezing cold of the last fortnight. Topped up by a dose of food poisoning I seemed to have picked up at a training session in Tooting on the Thursday. That, and the experience of being rattled around in the buses and Underground trains I took to and from Tooting, which wore me away until the contents of some malignant sandwich struck me down.

By the time I got home I could hardly move, other than to go upstairs and lie on my bed for hours, watching Groundhog Day (for the nth time) with my eyes closed, getting up only in order to throw up. Even by Saturday, I couldn't go much further than it took to walk to the shop for a paper and as much expensive orange juice as I could carry home. I carried it home on the bus. It is a journey of one stop.

By Sunday, though still fragile, I was well enough, come the afternoon, to go into town and buy myself a couple of conservative sweaters at Marks and Spencer, which is how I came to be passing through Soho Square, on my way to Oxford Street. There are two branches of Marks on Oxford Street, and I was still too dozy to notice that I'd missed the first of them until I got into a bus at a stop just beyond it and saw it out of the back window. I wasn't entirely sure where the other one was, but I got off the other side of Oxford Circus, and started walking down the north side of the street, towards Marble Arch. And outside Debenhams was an old man playing the bagpipes and I nearly fell apart.

I had been reading, just a little earlier, a dreadful, pious, two-faced article by Will Hutton, mourning and celebrating the defeat of the miners' strike, which had ended twenty years before. It was written in the spirit of this-hurts-you-more-then-it-hurts-me. (Or the tears that Castlereagh, when he was Eldon, wept when he sentenced prisoners to death.) It made me feel worse than the food poisoning had done. It was just as poisonous, but rather more fond of itself and less ready to disappear after a couple of stomach movements.

It was the sorrowful voice, the voice of Tony Blair, the voice of one whose patience has been sorely tried by our unreasonableness but who has soldiered on nevertheless. I can't bear to hear that voice, any more than I could bear to hear Mrs Thatcher’s during the strike itself. Sometimes it enrages me. Sometimes it just drains me. It tells me that everything is going to be like this forever, and that everything I have ever said or done to the contrary has been futile, a waste of time, an entire waste of my entire life. It can do that - it can have that effect, it can have that tone, it can have that authority – because the miners lost their strike in 1985. And with that loss, though I was not yet twenty, I lost all my sense of purpose. My whole sense of purpose, when I had only just discovered it.

So my unhappy head was already all wrapped up in 1985, when I heard the piper playing - and all the twenty years between us collapsed and landed on me all at once. Because I remember the bagpipes. I remember them playing - I wish that I did not - in Hyde Park barely a few hundred yards from the old man’s spot on Oxford Street. I remember, as I wish that I did not, the rally in London, at the end of February in 1985, the last gathering, the last protest of the miners and their supporters, barely a week before the strike was finally called off.

We didn't expect the end to come so swiftly. Even the BBC were not yet claiming that a majority of miners had returned to work. But we expected the end to come all right. Everybody knew the game was up. The lights had not gone out, the power stations had not closed down, the coal from abroad had continued to arrive and the lorries had continued to run. We knew the game was up. We were defeated. We didn’t know how dreadful the defeat would be, but we knew that it was dreadful. We didn’t know for how long its effects would last, but we know they would last for a long time. And perhaps for this reason, as well as for all the experience of the twelve months of the strike, there was such anger and bitterness among the people there. The people who had supported the miners, as well as the miners themselves.

I remember that bitterness very well - as I wish that I did not. I remember the insults being shouted at the police, in that park, in the cold wind of February, by Scottish miners waiting to set off on their march. Wth their band playing, and their pipers. I remember it, dear God, as I wish that I did not. For twenty years, all those feelings of futility, of anger, of the pointlessness of defiance, of the feeling of a wasted past and wasted future, have been mixed up in my mind with the sound of bagpipes. I heard them play, on Oxford Street on Sunday, in Hyde Park twenty years before, and after that, we marched off to Trafalgar Square, the miners fighting with the police - and after that, everything I had hoped for disappeared forever and it seemed there was no point to anything any more.


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