Sweeping up.

April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

At noon on the first Monday of every month a distant wailing, hooting and screeching surrounds the village in which I live. It is the time when industrial complexes, emergency services and shops test their hooters, sirens and klaxons. I’m not too sure why, perhaps in anticipation of a German or, even worse, a Belgian invasion, or impending Armageddon. It is also the time I get taken back to my childhood. Huddled under the blankets on cold winter mornings listening to hooters going off at 8 am and realising that, yet again, I would be late for school. That was when the factories kneeling along the muddy banks of the river a mile away urged their workers it was time to clock on. (An explanatory note to the post-Thatcher generations, “factories” were enormous building where sometimes hundreds of men and women would meet daily and make things.)

By the time I got to the end of the road the school bells would sound in the distance and yes, I was late for school. Too late to bother hurrying, I would amble by the huddled group of elderly men in their late sixties, early seventies, waiting at the bus stop, inevitably stooped as they coughed over their last roll-up, held in cupped hands, before getting on the bus. You could still smoke on double decker buses but only on the top floor. Few of the old blokes could have made it up the stairs so they always had a hurried smoke before boarding. These stragglers were the final factory shift but they didn’t turn lathes or weld boilers. They swept and wiped the floors. This was the generation who, retiring in the 1950/60s, got “ a little job” to top up their old age pension so they could still afford to buy half an ounce of Old Holborn once a week and maybe even some coal for the fire occasionally in winter.

Every factory and warehouse had two or three old blokes sweeping and wiping the floor and clearing up rubbish so nobody would trip up. One of the first jobs I had as a teenager was in an ancient cavernous wine cellar deep under the city. Sure enough there were two old blokes, Bill and Ted (truly), wandering around in the dim catacombs of the cellar, sweeping up the dust. They would follow each other around, one sprinkling water from an old wine bottle to make the dust settle while the other would sweep up. But not for long. Whenever they spotted one of the lads working there they would stop, make a roll-up, and start telling their tall tales. Ted was around seventy and Bill a couple of years younger. The elder statesman did most of the talking. He had spent the bulk of his (first world) war in the Middle East, or “Mespot” as he called it, trying to stay out of range of the Ottoman Empire’s armies (I’m sure if he were still alive he would survey the contemporary Middle East and sigh with satisfaction at a job well done!) He claimed to have seen the dust from Lawrence’s horse on the horizon and had a remarkable recall of the filthiest Arabic swear words. Bill was much shyer and only confessed, after some prodding, that in 1914 he’d been sent as a boy soldier to Mons and spent the next four years on the Western front. That was Bill and Ted, like thousands of other retirees, making ends meet by sweeping the floor. I guess there’s not a lot of call for that now. Instead, the impoverished elderly get by on a couple of shifts stocking shelves in Tesco’s or B&Q. Not all of them though.

Now, trust me, I have nothing against the elderly, some of my best friends etc… Indeed, I’d rather like to spend as much time being elderly as possible. It’s just becoming increasingly disconcerting that having spent the last ten years adjusting to the fact that the majority of world leaders were younger than me, I now find myself having to come to terms with the probability that the next leader of the United States will be older than me. Do you remember how we laughed (even those with faded posters of Che on the wall) at the decrepit line up of Soviet leaders on the Kremlin Wall every May Day? The sagging jaws and tired eyes that stared down at the parading troops and trundling tanks, yes how we laughed. And yet in the whole history of the Soviet Union, with one exception, when appointed, the Chair of the Supreme Soviet was younger than three of the four serious contenders for the Presidency of the US. The one exception was, moreover, younger than Bernie Saunders.

The presidential race in the States is always an entertaining spectacle, a combination of Gladiators, I’m a Celebrity get me out of here, and It’s a Knockout. However, unlike other circuses the one thing that doesn’t get mentioned much is the elephant in the room: age. Every other personal and political element is discussed. For example, one candidate is portrayed as a cold apparatchik who is not only a cuckold but almost singlehandedly went to war in Iraq. Another candidate, whatever his apparent dignity and integrity, seems to have done little during his political terms in office other than sitting on the sidelines and shouting “Yaboo”. That is when he was not voting for the NRA for fear of losing his seat. The third candidacy seems to be based entirely on the size of both his ego and his pocket book. On the one hand the Hugh Hefner of politics is curiously sensitive about the size of his penis and on the other hand unfailingly sexualises all women, including his own daughter. The final serious candidate (yes, I realise that is an oxymoron) is a knuckle dragging Neanderthal, so instinctively dislikeable that even his own children shrink from accepting his proffered cuddles. Yet he is the only candidate younger than me.

When the 45th President of the United States is inaugurated on the 20th January 2017 the chances are that they will be the oldest first time president in that country’s history. The oldest president thus far was Ronald Reagan who was 69. If elected, Clinton will be a few months younger than Reagan. Both Saunders and Trump will be older. The only candidate who will be young enough to live for long with the consequences of his presidency is Cruz who is 23 years younger than Clinton. For whatever one thinks of the United States, the presidency of that country has consequences for all of us. Whoever is elected will directly and indirectly make the world richer or poorer, safer or more dangerous for us and, more importantly, for our children and grandchildren.

All those years ago I learnt a lot from Bill and Ted, they were wise, funny and worldly. Okay, much of what I learnt from them turned out not to be true but even that I learnt from. I’ve pretty much forgotten all the Arabic swear words Ted taught me but I do remember that, however opinionated and argumentative the two of them were, neither of them would dream for a moment of telling me or any of the other lads who worked in the cellars how to live our lives. Which was just as well, okay they may have faced death in ways that were unimaginable to me, but the silly old buggers didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones were. They’d lived their lives and, apart from their crap pensions, they were pretty happy with them but they weren’t about to tell us how to live ours. Yet there are now three people around Bill and Ted’s ages who are all vying to be in the most powerful position in the world to influence how people live their lives, when they themselves are of an age where they are unlikely to live with the full consequences of their actions.

The other thing that Bill and Ted taught me is that there comes a time in one’s life to accept that you are too old to climb ladders. You may know better than anyone else how to climb a ladder but you still need strong legs and a firm grip. Without those there’s too big a chance that you’ll fall off and flatten the young bloke who’s been holding the ladder steady for you. The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba is remarkable and long overdue, and perhaps each will learn something from the other. A start may be the law just passed by 84 year old Raul Castro that in future all Cuban leaders must retire at 70, naturally effective from the date of his own retirement in 2018!

For all that, I acknowledge that there are a couple of presidential candidates that I wouldn’t be unhappy to see serve a term as president. Given some of the presidents in the last fifty years let’s face it the bar isn’t too high (although Obama has raised the bar considerably higher, and have you seen the way he scampers up the steps to a plane!) Of greater concern though are the standards of Vice-Presidents during that period…only a heartbeat away from the presidency…can you imagine… Even so, perhaps this election will inspire me to start hanging around factory gates (if I can find some) to try and catch the eye of the foreman. I’ll look forward to catching a later bus to do my few hours sweeping the floors. Have a roll up and a natter with mates before boarding the bus and sitting on the lower deck. Of course you cannot smoke on any bus deck now but it would be reassuring to know that if the president of the United States did happen to catch the 129 down to the river one morning, he or she would almost certainly sit on the lower deck with us. Paradoxically the only candidate likely to make it to the top deck is also the one most likely to make the sirens wail and the hooters hoot on days other than the first Monday in every month.

Jan Harden


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