In Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward the main character, Oleg, in all his unnerving belligerence, asks “Why?!” He questions the motives of the man who, in a zoo in the middle of a stolen Asian Republic that is clinging onto the fringes of the USSR, threw tobacco in the Macaque-Rhesus monkey’s face, blinding him; a fatal act. Oleg asks “Why? It’s senseless! Why?”
Yet Oleg, in his questioning of this futile deed, is attempting to get beyond this individual act, beyond the specificity of the crime to the sullied heart of the Soviet machine. He isn’t merely questioning the action, he is questioning the system, the whole senseless, broken system.
And now I ask “Why?” in a situation that is most personal to me, yet it encompasses so many people and so many places. I ask why Newcastle, my city, is being chipped away at, little by little, by a council who put party politics before people. Bit by bit they pick at the city like a crow at a corpse, slowly consuming. Like the government, the council are scavenging the city and its possessions under the cover of rhetoric, thinking that we can’t see, that we won’t notice, that we’re fooled. Yet when stamping your feet and shouting at the TV won’t do any good, and when jumping ship isn’t an option, you stay and try to fight it, try to protect it. But when the council have their ‘consultations’, come knocking on doors asking what ‘they’ can do for ‘me’, I want to ask them where democracy is hiding? Because it’s not here in this city, it’s gone. You can shout as loud as you want, you can sign as many petitions as your hand, shaking with anger, will take, you can sit at boundless meetings supporting every cause, but we’ve still got a dirge on our hands. Write the ode and erect the monument to the death of democracy, to the passing away of the state. Let’s immortalise it in memory. Let’s cry for its destruction after it’s gone, because we’ve made our point to the councillors: “The people of Newcastle reject your budget, you have gone through with your ‘consultations’ and we reject it”, yet they turn their heads, pretending they didn’t hear and with straight, obedient faces tell us they must go through with the cuts, or face breaking the law. I don’t have the facts, the figures, you can see the budget, laughably named ‘Fair Choices for Tough Times’, here or, perhaps it’s best reflected in Lee Hall’s speech for Save Newcastle Libraries here and here.
Even the councillors themselves aren’t convinced, yet aren’t prepared to put their heads above the parapet and go against the ‘party line’. I’ve seen the shame on a number of occasions over the past few months. The first at the council consultations, with not one councillor present. The man giving the PowerPoint presentation on the cuts to the social services, eyes fixed on the back wall terrified like a child in a school play, could barely read his own statistics – ‘statistics’ meaning ‘people effected’. He asked whether we could read it ourselves, but someone shouted, “No, I want you to read every line, every single cut, one by one”. Someone else piped up, “Shame on you”, and the man, his eyes glazed and wide, replied, “I know. It is shame on me. I’m sorry.” And the councillor for South Heaton, Sophie White’s crocodile tears fell as she voted this disgraced budget through, just one in a glut of Labour councillors. The ancient anecdote of the serpent weeping whilst consuming its human prey, crying for its victim, is all too close to reality in this city. And the ‘New Labour Team’ when they came knocking on my door like a lost lover begging to be taken back. Practically on their knees they told me “Not to give up”. Thanking them for their concern, I replied that I had no intention of stopping fighting, stopping hoping. I said that it wasn’t me that was crumbling under Cameron and his cronies and that it might be a good idea to watch their backs, that the generation of traditional Labour voters are getting older year by year: ‘safe Labour seats’ may be a thing of the past. In all their complacency the New Labour Party can’t see what’s creeping up on them. The North East may still be a firm Labour controlled region, perhaps for a lack of a consistent or valid other, but the cracks are beginning to appear. If only the trade unions would stop running the New Labour gravy train and turn the cash tap off.
But what is to be done? Yelling at the TV won’t do, it isn’t enough. Moaning in pubs won’t bring services back, neither will meekly accepting the situation. Too often people won’t take the time, won’t stick their neck out for those that can’t find the words, that don’t have the power or the means. For me I feel that this is a very personal attack on my city, yet perhaps you need to put the personal into a situation to get the collective out; to create the collective. Formed of trade unions, teachers, writers, artists, academics, speechmakers and peacemakers, the People’s Assembly sees the possibility for a collective approach. I don’t know what the outcome will be for this, but the Assembly seems to realise that we are all part of the jigsaw, and working together is the only option to make change. We can’t let them pin us against each other; theatres against swimming pools, galleries against libraries, socialists against communists, the poor against the rich. We have to start believing that the system can and will fall – that all its inequalities will one day rot it from skin to core. And we have to keep perspective: we aren’t asking for much, just a place to exercise, a place to play, a place to learn, a place to meet – places that exist because of the people not in spite of them. We all have a right to services, education and leisure facilities and we must never forget that. We must never see swimming pools and libraries as luxuries; if we do that then they will never again be for all, they will be lost in the rhetoric of cuts. They will become costly private enclaves only for those that can afford them. And the children won’t swim and the children won’t read and the young and the old will be locked up in estates, staring at TV screens, shouting at the local news, powerless and useless. So, like Oleg in Cancer Ward, we need to start asking “Why?” and we need to start acting upon this questioning.
Check the People’s Assembly website out and register for the event on 22nd June if you’re in London.
As a final word, my Dad showed me this speech a few weeks ago, made by Neil Kinnock in 1983, two days before polling day. Prophetic in so many ways, it could have been written yesterday:
“If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.
I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.
If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.”
(Speech in Bridgend, Glamorgan, on Tuesday 7 June 1983. Thursday 9 June 1983 was polling day in the general election.)