This is a re-post of something that occurred to me at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival at the weekend, and threw together on the Billy Bragg Forum on Tuesday.
A dozen smiling happy people stand in a scruffy queue. The low evening sun sets a warm glow on their eclectic collected hats and a sparkle on their badges. The red flag crackles in the westerly wind above, and the dead pig crackles in the fire before them. Vegetarians flash their looks of contempt as they battle through the leafleters to the gateway. It upsets their principles to be in the same field as a prematurely deceased animal.
Michael Simmons stands at some distance leaning against a second flagpole. He wears a black woolen jumper and a black trilby. His face is blotched red and white with age and sun. He ignores the passing crowds, and watches the hog roast with little expression on his face. He waits for ten minutes or so before he sees what he has been looking for. One of the hog roasters, a teenager, scrapes around in the great barrel of chips, and walks behind a canvas partition to his van. Simmons smiles a little. The man soon returns in something of a panic. Now a second hog roaster, and older man, with a blue and white striped hat over his grey hair, disappears behind the canvas. He too returns, but in no panic. Angry, surely. Sad, perhaps. But calm. He looks straight past the queues and crowds and stares at Simmons. Simmons smiles, throws the butcher a polite little nod, and casually pushes himself upright, to turn into the setting sun.
“A sausage and bacon baguette,” says David Triggs, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Amalgamated Bookbinders Facility-Managers and Ancillary Psychic Workers Union (ABFAMP) South West Region. “I don’t know how to make myself any clearer. A baguette with sausage and bacon in it. Not a sausage baguette and a bacon baguette. I just want one baguette, with some sausage in it, and some bacon in it. That’s not too hard is it?”
Maria takes the two baguettes, one sausage and one bacon, and puts them at the back of the van. She looks down at Triggs over the array of sauce bottles. “Is not on menu — I can’t, we–”
“Look, I’m already giving you four fucking quid for this,” says Triggs. “How about a nice sausage sandwich from the menu, and maybe just adding a little bit of that disgusting looking bacon while we’re at it?”
She looks at him for a moment, pouting, and then retrieves the ready made sausage baguette, grabs her tongs, and shoves one pink slice of bacon roughly in. She passes it down to Triggs. “Four pound.”
She puts out her other hand for the money at the moment that the catering van’s flimsy chipboard door is wrenched open beside her. She jumps. The overfilled baguette rolls out of her hand and dismantles itself over the red “Say no to homeworking and the kindle” slogan on David Triggs’s ABFAMP t-shirt. Grilled onion is smeared down shirt, shorts, and sandals.
The blotched expressionless face of Michael Simmons observes the scene, framed by doorway and trilby.
“Watch what you’re fucking doing,” shouts Triggs. He screams a little at her. “Argh. Look what you’ve fucking done.”
Maria stares at him, a shaking hand covering her mouth. There’s a pause for a moment, while they stare at one another.
“Well are you going to fucking do anything about it?”
She turns to Simmons. He pushes past her, the face never changing, and grabs a soft doughy baguette. He hastily shoves in some onions and a sausage and passes it to Triggs, with a pile of napkins. “Very sorry, sir,” he says, dully. “On the house, of course.”
Triggs looks at the baguette, attempting to contain his rage. All he can think to say is, “mine was a sausage and bacon baguette.”
“There must be some sort of mistake, I’m afraid, sir,” says Simmons, turning to Maria. “We don’t do sausage and bacon baguette.”
There is another pause.
“You can be sure I’ll be having a word with the organiser about this place,” snarls Triggs, and marches away down the hill.
Simmons sneers at his back, grabs a set of keys from the back of the van and pushes past his employee. “That’s coming out of your packet,” he says, climbing down from the van. He points at the ground as he walks past up the hill. “And clean that fucking mess up, it’s bad for business.”
A white haired old man in a shirt and a sleeveless jacket full of pens has drifted over to the van. He looks at Simmons angrily. “Excuse me,” he calls after him. “I don’t think you really ought to speak to people like that.”
Simmons half turns, but keeps walking up the hill. “And I don’t think it’s any of your fucking business.”
A great black Range Rover — solid, square, and shining — squeaks, and flashes its indicator lights. Simmons wrenches open the driver’s door, climbs in, and is quickly reversing out from behind his catering vans. The car purrs through silver gills, as it reverses into someone’s tent. It swerves past the portaloos as a door opens in front of it. Simmons curses at the child who steps out, and is gone.
The white-haired man turns to the van. “Could I have an, ah, cup of tea, please, I suppose?”
As she fills a paper cup with boiling water, he continues. “Tell me, is your manager often so thoroughly unpleasant?”
She takes a sharp breath, but he continues to look at her expectantly.
“I couldn’t– I just need the– you know.”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes. Tell me, have you discussed this with your union rep?”
She looks blankly as she passes the paper cup. “Is sugar, milk, at end. Pound fifty please.”
He takes the cup and returns the coins. “Which union is it?”, he asks, as he stirs the tea. She returns the same blank look. “I mean, you are in the union? Of course you are. A festival like this wouldn’t be giving contracts to–.” His sentence tails off as he pours in the milk.
“I am not in union,” Maria eventually says. “Mister Simmons, he doesn’t like–.”
“No. No, I don’t suppose he does,” says the white-haired man, dropping the plastic spoon into the bin. “Well, nice talking to, I must get going. Goodbye.”
“Comrades!”, calls the white-haired man. He stands at the head of a flimsy folding table, around which are seated five other men and three women. He holds his head high, and grips the chest of his sleeveless jacket with both hands. They sit in a dimly lit room of canvas, visually isolated from the very audible festivities around. Outside, the crowd cheers an abysmal singer singing an abysmal song about Margaret Thatcher. “Comrades, I call you here this evening because a great travesty is occurring at this very festival at this very moment!”
“Hear hear,” mumbles the secretary of the powerful General Municipal Scribes Union, rattling a paper beer cup on the table.
“A great injustice,” shouts the white-haired man. “At this very festival, at our celebration of the labour movement, we have the poor, downtrodden, non-unionised, migrant workers being bullied — bullied — by fat cat Tory bosses.”
“Shame on them!”, shouts the leader of the Ancillary Intercity Coach Workers Union.
“Comrades,” says the white-haired man, slowly. “We must do something.”
“A boycott!”, suggests the campaigns manager of the recently merged Union of Senior Administrative Nurses and Theoretical Condensed Matter Physicists.
“A marvellous suggestion, comrade,” says the regional secretary of the Mobile Catering Workers Union. “I have members who have been out of work for many months. Members who were born and raised and trained and have lived their whole lives in this county and its neighbours. My members can not afford to be out of work during the season. They have families to feed. These fat cats want to destroy my members’ families just to make a quick buck. We must not let them get away with it!”
“Hear hear,” mumbles the secretary of the GMSU, burping quietly into the back of his hand.
“No, dear comrades,” interrupts the managing director of FamineAid. “That is exactly the wrong approach. We must all start patronising the emporia of Mister Simmons. We must buy all the sandwiches and noodles and sweets and cups of coffee that we can. And we must organise the workers and we must tip them generously and we must help them to help themselves. We must make the revolution possible! A workers’ cooperative, comrades!”
“Nonsense,” slurs the leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport Workers Union. “I motion that we ballot for a general strike. We can shut down this festival! Who is with me?”
He looks around as his silent fellows.
“Bloody amateurs the lot of you. Don’t have a bloody clue what you’re doing. Call yourselves trade unionists?”
“You’re all overcomplicating things,” pipes up the man from the Syndicate of Waste Management Workers. “I can have that man off this site, and a whole new set of vans in their place before anyone’s even out of their tents in the morning. Anything you like. All local labour if that’s how you like it. Just say the word.”
“It has my vote,” says David Triggs, for it is he, though nobody is quite sure who invited him, or when he entered this part of the story.
“Comrades, please!”, says the white-haired man. “We must come up with some proper plans. Now…”
And so they went on, until the music had stopped, the bar beside them had gone quiet, the sun had risen, speeches had been spoken, marches marched, and the music had started and stopped again. And at last they had made a decision: they were to make a fact-finding research expedition! They emerged into the sunlight and looked out over the field. A couple were loading the last parts of their tent into a car, two men were dismantling a marquee, and a woman was putting litter in a bag beside where the red flag lay on the ground. Three cream catering vans and a black Range Rover rounded the corner of the main road, and were gone.