Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Christmas Encounter


We walk along the lane for a while towards the old gate where we passed so many evenings in our youth. Matthew walks in the road while I take pleasure in crunching the frosty grass of the verge beneath my feet.

As we reach the gate he pulls the spliff from his pocket and passes it to me to spark it up. It’s been a long while since I smoked one, and almost two decades since we stood here together at the cattle grid getting drunk or high with whoever passed by and cared to join us.


The spliff crackles delightfully in the cold, and each exhalation produces impressive billows of smoke and condensation in the chilly winter air.


After a minute or so, and well before any real conversation has arisen between us, we hear the creaking of an old unoiled bike chain. “No way” my brother mouths silently, before Frank Scorton even rounds the corner.


Frank was one of the lads who used to hang out at the gate with us. One of the friendliest, and funniest too. This afternoon he’s off the local for a few Christmas drinks. He stops beside us with a massive grin. “Bifter ey lads?” he says, as if seeing us back here again after all of these years is a perfectly unremarkable situation.


Matthew passes him the joint and he takes big greedy drags on it, turning the previously neat round tip into a disaster of a sideburn, but nothing can detract from the marvellous sensation of the three of us reliving our youthful misadventures for a few moments.


After some casual chat between Frank and my brother about family and business, the spliff makes it back to me, not just sideburned, but with a horribly slobbered roach too. Frank has just about made it to asking where I’ve been and what the hell I’ve been doing for the last two decades when we hear the sound of approaching hooves.


They’re a long way off in the distance, but the sound is carrying through the still winter air. It seems we all have the same simultaneous thought; The Hobson sisters. My word they were magnificent. How our hearts raced when they stopped by the gate to chat with us for a while, and how our hearts broke on the occasions they passed us by like the silly stoned boys that we undoubtedly were.


But the Hobson sisters must be as old as us now. It’s obvious. Greying hair, ageing skin, and likely rotund atop their horses. The grace and beauty of youth hollowed out of them by the passing of the years. I feel a twinge of regret, not just that the Hobson sisters must have lost so much of their graceful magnificence by now, but that my own youthful aspect has been replaced with a rapidly greying beard and this fucking beer belly.


However what emerges around the corner of the lane is very much worse than the extinction of glorious youthful memories with the harsh reality that even the most beautiful of us have been conquered by age. It’s fucking Howard.

Beside him is another horseback toff. One I don’t know. A handsome chap no doubt, his posture proud and confident next to Howard’s slobbish slouch.


There’s still some left on the spliff but I hastily scrub it out beneath my foot, grinding it hard into the dirt so as to obscure what it used to be.


Frank was never the smartest kid in school when it came to academic things, but he was always lightning-quick when it came to covering. He whips out the tabs and passes them around. It’s been years since I smoked a factory cigarette either, but it certainly makes sense that we’re standing here on a cold winter’s afternoon to smoke cigs, especially since we were clearly shrouded in billows of smoke as the horseback toffs rounded the corner.


“Afternoon lads” says Howard, as if he’s the benevolent lord of the manner, and we’re his loyal and admiring serfs. 


A pretence for his toff friend? Or an act of pure self-delusion? Who knows?

Aside from the unknown toff we all surely know the truth of the situation.


Howard went to the same primary school as the three of us. He had to slum it with the oiks because there were no private primaries in the area. At 11 Frank and I went to the local comprehensive and the obnoxious little prig went off to join his elitist peers at an exclusive fee-paying private school. He never looked back, and neither did we. Glad as we were to be rid of the fat greedy sod.


Matthew opens the cattle grid gate for the horses to pass through, but instead of proceeding Howard’s toff friend dismounts and hitches the reins over the top rung of the gate in one graceful and seamless arc of coordinated movement. He then grasps each of us by the hand. The same performance for each of us. Firm handshake, disarming eye contact, and meticulously practiced smile.


I’ve met dozens like him before so his fake sincerity has no effect on me, but he’s clearly been well trained in comparison to fat Howard who remains seated up on his horse looking down at us as if his obdurate laziness is some kind of adequate substitute for the superiority he clearly imagines he has over us.


He quizzes my brother and Frank who both still live locally. Family, business, the November floods in the village, nothing of any real importance either to him or to us, but all the while his beady black eyes keep flicking back to me. I can see he’s spoiling for a fight, even after all these years. And I can see too that the slow-wit has forgotten that despite all of the expensive schooling that was wasted on him, he was always way out of his depth when trying to belittle anyone of substance.


“So you studied eco-noh-mics at uni-ver-sit-eee then did you John?” he said, pronouncing the words as if they were utterly bizarre alien concepts.


“Yeah.”


“So what do you think about eco-noh-mics then John?”


Everyone can see the fucker is trying to patronise me. My brother can see what’s on the horizon and he’s glowering. In contrast Frank is grinning from ear to ear. I’m his boy in this fight and he knows he’s backed the winner, even after just one word out of me so far.


Howard’s uber-charming toff mate can see something is up too, and some of his seemingly infinite confidence seems to have evaporated as he leans on the gate to create a perfectly deliberate façade of casualness.


“Well Howie” I say, deliberately using the diminutive form of his name that he always hated so much. “It’s complicated isn’t it?” displaying a massive false smile and handing him the opportunity to step back before it’s too late.


There’s a long pause as he figures out what to say next. It seems that even after all of these years he’s still pitifully unaware of his own slow-wittedness.


Perhaps he somehow imagines that he’s in possession of some kind of amazing rapier wit? But what comes out after the long discernible pause for thought is an even clumsier lunge than any of us could have imagined.


It must have been inspired by some long-forgotten argument between us, for I can’t even remember having explained my political position to him in the past. Or perhaps he’s just heard rumours about me through the ever-exaggerated village gossip.


“So now you know about eco-noh-mics you’ll have given up your communist delusions ey John?”


My brother’s glower has turned to resignation, Frank seems a bit taken aback by the accusation of communism, but he’s clearly eager to hear my retort, and the unknown toff has one eyebrow raised and a faint trace of amusement on his face.


“I’m not a communist Howie. I never was. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’d rather be a communist than a bloody Tory!”


Howie’s podgy face visibly quivers with outrage that anyone could dare to criticise his beloved Tory party as I continue talking.


“We’ve all seen how they’ve been screwing the economy into the ground for the last seven years, and all of us, even the ones who voted for Brexit can see what a God-awful shambles they’re making of that too can’t we?”


A long pause, and then:


“Well what’s the alternative? IRA-lover Corbyn?” Howie scoffs.


Unlike the painful drawn-out silences as Harvey dredges the thoughts out of his mind, the pause I leave in the conversation is deliberate. I don’t need time to grind a retort out of my brain. I leave the pause there to emphasise the sheer stupidity of what’s been said.


For a moment a look of immensely self-contented smugness on Howard’s podgy face displays the fact that he actually imagines he’s won the argument with this idiocy.


When I respond I don’t address Howard. I don’t address my brother or Howie’s companion either. I address Frank. “Did you see what he did there?” I ask. “He deliberately evaded the subject didn’t he?”


Frank nods.


“I was talking about economics wasn’t I? Just like he challenged me to, but he didn’t like what I said, so he just suddenly started jabbering about the IRA didn’t he?”


Frank nods again, smiling.


“Do you know what that’s called mate?” Frank shakes his head no to indicate that he doesn’t. He’s enjoying playing his part in the drama.


“Whataboutery”.


Frank mouths a silent “oh!” and puts on his exaggerated “tell me more” face.


“It’s a fallacious debating tactic” I say, turning to address fat Howie directly, still up on his high horse. “It’s used by people who don’t know how to debate properly when they’re losing an argument and want to change the subject ... and it’s not very gentlemanly is it Howie?”


Howie is furious now. He couldn’t have looked more furious even if I’d lobbed my cock out and pissed all down his horse’s leg!


I leave a deliberate pause for Howard to wrack his brain for another slow-witted retort, and just as he’s about to open his mouth and blurt it out, I continue “… and besides, when Jeremy Corbyn was openly meeting Sinn Feín in Ireland, Margaret Thatcher was secretly negotiation with the actual IRA terrorists wasn’t she?”


“What was that thing she used to say Howie?”


Another pause. He doesn’t know what to say.


“We don’t negotiate with terrorists” I say, mimicking Thatcher’s tone as best I can.


“That’s what she used to say when us lot were young lads in primary school together wasn’t it Howie?”


He stares furiously, jowls wobbling, clearly indignant that I’ve made reference to the shared education he had with ordinary plebs like us, because it’s embarrassing him in front of his toff mate.


“So you condemn a guy who spoke openly and honestly with politicians on both sides of the conflict to ask them to find peaceful solutions” I continue “yet you won’t condemn a woman who secretly negotiated with actual terrorists whilst repeatedly lying to the British people that she would never negotiate with terrorists?”


I glance at the other toff, and to my surprise he seems to be enjoying this evisceration almost as much as Frank is.


I leave pause for Howard to compose another lame thrust, and when it eventually falls out of his mouth it’s extraordinary in its dim-wittedness.


“Well you can’t know much about economics if you like Diane Abbott, she can’t even count!” he scoffs.


I laugh. My brother momentarily breaks his grim countenance to let out an involuntary chuckle too. Even the unknown toff stifles a smirk, turning slightly so there’s no chance of Howard seeing it.


I turn to Frank’s beaming face, realising just how much I’ve missed his big genuine grin all these years as I do. “He just did it again didn’t he?”


Frank’s grin is so wide by now I just want to hug him.


“He didn’t like the economics stuff so he switched the subject to the IRA, and then he realised he didn’t actually like the IRA stuff either, so he’s switched it again to Diane Abbott’s maths!


I leave the same pause for Howard to dredge a retort out of his porridge-brain and suddenly interject again just as he’s about to speak.


“ … I’ll make no excuses when it comes to Diane Abbott’s brain farts, she made a fool of herself alright, but I didn’t see the same level of orchestrated hate aimed at Spreadsheet Phil when he accidentally knocked £20 billion off the cost of HS2, or at Michael Gove when he didn’t even know the cost of the Immigration Skills Charge, despite wanting to double it”.


A confused look from Harvey betrays the fact that he knows fuck all about either of the other incidents I’m referencing. In fact I have my doubts that the fat over-privileged Tory idiot even knows who Hammond and Gove actually are.


“There’s only one explanation really for why a black left-wing woman was bombarded with a tide of hate for getting her numbers muddled up, while white Tory males who made comparable blunders were let off scot free isn’t there Howie?”


Another deliberate pause for Howard to think of a reply …


“Well at least we’ve cut the deficit”


A quick glance to the other three is all it takes to register the fact that they’ve all clocked that he just did whataboutery again, despite having been schooled on it only moments previously, then I fire back.


“You’ve cut the deficit a bit have you?” I say in my best patronising voice.


“And you think that’s something to be proud of after almost eight years do you?”


Howard nods, somehow completely missing my patronising tone and imagining that I’m agreeing with him at last, rather than setting him up for another savage counter-punch.


“Didn’t your beloved Tories say they were going to eliminate the deficit completely within five years though Howie?”


A look of confusion from the fat entitled dolt.


“Yet here we are, nearly eight years down the line and it’s not gone, and the latest budget report is projecting that it’s not actually going to be cleared before 2031 … So that’s twenty one years to do what you said you’d do in five, and you’re championing that as some kind of success story are you Howie?”


Nothing but glowering indolence from Howard.


“ … And at what cost too Howard?” I ask. “The longest sustained decline in the real value of workers’ wages since records began; the worst productivity crisis since the 19th Century; catastrophic under-funding of the NHS and other emergency services; education cuts; soaring trade deficits; GDP per capita almost unchanged since before the bankers’ crisis trashed the economy; the lowest level of infrastructure funding anywhere in the developed world; massive increases in child poverty and in-work poverty; and 86% of the burden of Tory austerity dogma loaded onto the shoulders of women.”


“But we all have to make sacrifices or the country would go bankrupt” Howie retorts.


“You know as well as I do that Tory austerity dogma has been an absolute catastrophe for pretty much everyone in this country except for the mega-rich elitists.” I glower at him.


“They haven’t made any sacrifices have they Howie”?


“In fact the Tories have showered them in so many tax-cuts and handouts over the last seven years that they’ve literally doubled their wealth, while your beloved Tories have made sure the rest of us pay the price of it.”


I’m angry now, and well into the flow of it. My brother’s expression makes it absolutely clear that he thinks nothing good will come of berating Howard like this, but I can’t help continuing.


“It’s alright for people like you isn’t it Howie?” I glare at him “You’re so comfortably well off it it’ll never really bother you. You inherited so much wealth that you could live comfortably if you chose to not work another day in your entire life. But you’re also smart enough about how the world works to see that ‘let’s cut our way to growth’ is an insane economic strategy aren’t you?”


Howard looks confused. Why am I suddenly praising his intelligence?


“Just imagine your estate runs into financial difficulty Howard. You get yourself into a bit of debt and you need to find a way to pay it off.”


He nods reluctantly to accept the premise.


“Do you resolve it with across the board cuts in expenditure? 20% less on fuel, 20% less on seeds, 20% less on fertilizer, 20% less on animal feed, 20% less on essential maintenance, 20% less on vet’s bills, and then slash your labourers’ wages to boot?”


“Or do you think smart? Borrow a bit more cash at the currently super-low interest rates and invest in diversification projects. Maybe build some poly tunnels? Set up a small farm shop and café? Some kennels? Buy some rare livestock to breed? Take on a promising young apprentice?”


“You know that in the real world you have to spend money to make money, and that across the board cuts would be a disaster for your business, but somehow you accept this kind of economically illiterate gibberish from your beloved Tories when it comes to running the country don’t you?”


After the long pause for thought he always seems to require, a smug look crosses his face. “Well, there’s something you’ve forgotten” he says with a smug grin widening on his podgy face.


“What’s that?” I ask, genuinely perplexed about what he’s getting at.


“Subsidies” he says with a triumphant smile.


“What?” I snap in the tone of voice that outright demands an explanation.


“It doesn’t matter if I cut back a bit on spending on the estate because I still get my subsidies whatever happens you silly communist prick.”


Everyone is taken aback by the sheer randomness of the way he’s confused my simple farmer analogy for a genuine critique of his business model.


“Well, it’s ironic that you accuse me of being a silly communist prick Howie, because if anyone is the silly communist prick it’s you.”


A look of fury from Howard, a look of resignation from my brother, a tired look from Frank as if he’s getting tired waiting for the kill now because he’s beginning to pine for beer and the warmth of the pub, and a look of genuine intrigue from the unknown toff.


“In the late 19th Century” I begin “a guy called Henry George came up with the concept of a Land Value Tax. His idea was that if the value of land was taxed, then the idle rich would be forced to put it to better use, rent it out, or sell it, because only productive land would generate the income necessary to cover the cost of the land tax. And then the tax money raised could be used for social and technological improvements for the rest of society.”


“The land-rich establishment class hated the idea of paying tax on their unearned wealth so much that they ended up eventually implementing the opposite policy; A land subsidy to reward landowners simply for being landowners, whether they use their land productively or not.”


“An extraction of wealth from the landless, to be distributed to the land-rich.”


“A policy of forcing the poor and ordinary with little or no land to their names to actually subsidise a bunch of unproductive and often downright idle landowners.”


“It’s an outrage and a perfect example of communism for the rich, yet there you sit on your taxpayer subsidised horse trying to make out that I’m the greedy communist intent on robbing you!”


The red mist has descended. Howard is blind furious. For a moment I think he’s going to actually attack me with his riding crop from atop his horse, but in the end he just points it aggressively in my face and yells at me “you always were too clever for your own good John Reeth, but look at you, you’re nothing, you’ll always be nothing. Don’t think we don’t know that you had to leave the village because you can’t even afford to rent a house here. I own half the houses here and I’d never rent one to a commie like you, so fuck you!”


I have no intention of explaining that inheriting half of the houses in the village was never my objective in life, and that escaping the oppressive atmosphere of this sad Tory-infested village was the main focus of my attention since the age of about 12.


But even if I had intended to put him right, he’s already yanked the reins and jerked his poor unsuspecting horse into action.


The over-confident toff reacts to the sudden furious departure of his companion by treating us to another well-polished smile, and bidding each of us a “Merry Christmas” in turn. Then he unhitches the reins and mounts his horse almost as gracefully as he had dismounted earlier.


Before he eases her into a canter to catch up with Howard he turns over his shoulder and aims a genuine smile and a knowing wink right at me, a move which goes unseen by the other two.


We wait in silence as the horseback figures disappear into the descending twilight mist, then Frank erupts with laughter. “I aint seen fat Howie throw a wobbler like that for many a year, you should come back more often John”.


And then he’s mounting his knackered old bicycle and switching to a much harder Yorkshire dialect. “Well t’ beer in’t gonna drink issen” he says “mebbe ah see yer down thear lay-ah lads?”


“Mebbe” we reply in unison, and he’s off too. “silly communist prick” he laughs to himself as he gets into his stride, creaking and clanking up the hill and into the mist as I close the cattle grid gate.


“Dickhead” may brother snaps at as we turn for home.


I give him a quizzical look in the half-light.


“Fucking know-it-all dickhead”.


I say nothing and wait for an explanation.


“You know Howie and his fucking hunting mates are customers of mine … and you know Frank works for Howie’s cousin Edward up on the manor farm. You can’t humiliate the fat prick like that and expect there to be no consequences John.”


He’s genuinely angry with me for standing up to the fat Tory prick.


“You’ve been away for a long while, but you know as well as I do that these people have all the power. They always have and they always will.”


“Well that other toff didn’t seem to mind” I say.


“That other toff” he retorts in a mocking voice. “That’s Lord Knaresborough you dick”. “You’d better be glad he enjoyed your little display because you definitely wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of that one.”


“Ah well” I say. “How about a walk down the local later then?”.


“I haven’t been there in ten years John, and you haven’t been there in nearly twenty.”


“About time we showed our faces then eh?” I laugh as we make our way back into the warmth of the house.


Epilogue


Millions of us this Christmas will have to deal with a Howard: A father or grandfather. A Husband or an elderly uncle. A domineering boss at the work Christmas party. A sozzled blowhard down the local pub. The obnoxious Tory voter who believes they’re some kind of political expert with the right to belittle and deride anyone with contrary opinions just because they’ve diligently rote learned all of the right-wing political and economic tropes that pervade the mainstream media.


For too many years these belligerent blowhards have arrogantly trampled down anyone else’s right to speak about politics by furiously regurgitating the right-wing propaganda narratives that they’ve never even thought to question for themselves.


All it takes is a bit of basic political or economic education and the will to stand up to them, and you can corner them into performing the most absurd acts of mental gymnastics in order to defend their mindlessly rote-learned right-wing propaganda tropes.


Of course this is easier said than done. These over-privileged right-wing blowhards have become accustomed to browbeating other people into silence. If anyone ever disagrees with them they expect us all to bite our tongues and leave politics out of it, because more often than not, they hold the power to demand silence from others.


Standing up to them is easier said than done because these vindictive right-wing sods can have us sacked from our jobs and blacklisted from our professions, turn the local community against us, or make the family environment utterly toxic whenever we show our faces.


For far too long the older over-privileged  right-wing male has had his own way, browbeating women and younger people out of the political realm with their furious hard-right rhetoric, and the threat of real life repercussions for those who refuse to bow to their political bullying. 


But until more of us have the bravery to stand up to them, they’ll continue to dictate this toxic political atmosphere in Britain.

So if you have to deal with a Howard this Christmas, as so many millions of us will, good luck to you if you intend to stand up to them.


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