Happy Christmas, Mr. Marples!
By VICTOR ANANT oR as long as I remember come Christmas- "' time my normal state of social inadequacy is- sharpened into a perverse sensation of being singled out for assault •by the world around me; The roots, I am sure, are in the railway-junction town in which I grew up, a solitary Hindu heathen in a tightly corked community of Anglo- Indian Christians. They all sent us currant cake. My mother never let me eat it because 'eggs and alcohol corrupt the Brahmin breed,' and I would, stand by biting my nails as slice after slice was carefully dropped into the lavatory and drowned in an irrevocable flush of angry water. I envied the three Parsee children in that neighbourhood, who took everything in their stride, Christmas, Hindu Divali, Muslim Bakri-Id and their own New Year, Pateti, and whose mother washed the front-door steps four times a year, then drew flowery designs with rice flour, and sent us sugar- coated cui-cuts (crispies) which went the way of the cake.
This Christmas, since coming to London, I have also been particularly unemployed and particu- larly broke. It is a distressful state for a Brahmin to be in. He is born to order and to sanity. To preserve my sacredness I decided to go to the Employment Exchange ('It's porter's work, you know,' said the green-introduction-card-giver with a sad playwright face). A queue of students at the recruitment centre at Barbican nearly put me off. The clerk handed us forms as an officer from inside came and asked, 'Who's the boy from Siam here?' I nearly ran away when a giggling group of LSE boys were told, 'Some of you chaps from the university can't even read your forms correctly. It says here to' note down what you've done for the last THREE years. If you want a job you want to read, mate,' he sneered through a kindly gap of missing front teeth.
The pay : 4s. 2d.; 6s. 3d. for Sunday work. Fourteen days, two Sundays, right through to Christmas morning, twenty-eight quid in all. The work : at Maiden Lane goods yard, King's Cross, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., unloading mailbags from Post Office vans. I have always had a loathsome desire to do manual work at night.
Last Wednesday week my sealed sense of com- munity was already beginning to drip inside me as I walked from the tube station into a railway yard where white GPO bands with red tally-sheet numbers and green and yellow bands for separate regiments (the Loaders and the Unloaders) were being handed out. In our yellow batch of twelve there were six students and six unem- ployed, including me. Two of the students were Indians and one a Ceylonese with an Osborne flock of hair and an undenying mouth.
With the instinctive nostalgia I have for the working classes I knew I was right to stick with the non-student six. Their vocabulary, I soon dis- covered, was robust, and had a fixed four-lettered centre. It was incredibly literary, and expressed the totality of their hopes for a better living wage as when they said, 'They ought to pay us two pound four-lettering ten a night for this four-lettering job.' The students cribbed about night duty and long hours. My six were dressed naturally in dirty clothes, and, although two of them came to work in cars and the other three had tellies, there was the honest odour of labour about them. The students had obviously borrowed their working clothes, except the boy from Ceylon who beautifully remained in his new duffle coat and yellow scarf.
I have worked five nights now. What an eye- opener it has been for me ! Five years I have lived in London shut to the great heart of this Christian island, blind to the fat foreman who sits at the neck of the narrow black stocking of a railway yard, warming his hands by a brazier, keeping the vigil for the vans while his counterpart on the shift takes his turn to snatch an hour's sleep; dead to the driver who tears from one end of town to the other, from Liverpool Street to King's Cross, three times up and down a cold, café-less road, working four hours over his normal eight; deaf to the dutiful thuds with which the student volunteers get into the vans and throw the Dartmoor-made canvas bags furiously on top of each other at the rate of (I have calculated) one a minute.
It is true that each of us does not work at that rate more than an hour a night.
It is true we start an hour after we sign on and leave an hour before we are booked to leave. It is true the foreman himself ar- ranges for us to have two hours a night in turns in the canteen. It is true that after every fifteen minutes we have to take it in rota- tion to lie down on the pile of bags. And it is true that on Sunday night not one –van came in. But the Christ- mas of the GPO is a gift for the whole nation. And even though it may sound scandalous to those who still have feudal minds that I am being Paid (I have calculated) at the rate of a shilling and a tanner for each bag I have handled so far, what of the price of keeping awake all night, spending ten shillings in teas, smokes and snacks? And then is that price not ridiculously low for the ritual of participating in one good communal act in my whole lifetime?
canteen is a disused railway wagon. One corner is dope-black with Jamaicans, Africans and a glaring young man from British Guiana Who goes to the counter and sings, 'All I want, baby, is a damn good roll.' Around the fire in another room the argument is high, and I can hear, 'Marn, Busta don't sell 'em bananas to Britain, marn.' A group of medical students, one The of them wearing green corduroys, lies sprawled in a completely dissectible state on the tables.
Within the wide circle there are concentric circles, clusters, groups, but for once I have be- longed to those who make this annuat celebration of the millions possible. I shall do it eleven nights more. When you feel a mailbag in your grip and when you have felt your mate give you a hand with it, and it suddenly drops on your toes because you are not handling it as one man, then you have sensed comradeship. Those who live by day do not know the secrets of the night. To- day, the order my mother taught me (good Brahmins work during the day and sleep at night) is reversed and I have learnt the complete act of civilised communication. Happy Christmas, everyone, and thank you, Mr. Marples!