5 JANUARY 1974, Page 5

k Spectator's Notebook

Shortage of staff'

;ince this is the theme-song to which modern !ritain has apparently decided to dance to lestruction, it may be worth a few words of 'tifnment. ?Poll cannot get your radio fixed. Shortage staff. Nobody is available to mend a pair of ,I)oes. Shortage of staff. The mini-cab people ,u° not answer the telephone, there is nobody 7,„rving in the saloon bar, the 6.40 train has 711 cancelled, the cats have to wait for their nlections, all the books in the public libraries 4tre, on the wrong shelves, the weeds swarm in th" Public gardens, the litter proliferates in parks, the shrubs you ordered are six reks late, the cats have to go on waiting for Lileir injections, it takes ten minutes to buy a tage stamp, the newspapers do not arrive, 'le bus conductress is obviously on the verge a nervous breakdown, the income-tax °Ple spell your name incorrectly and assess Your last year's income at £47,000, and it looks a,s though the cats will have to face the rnaining rigours of the winter in a state of 'rnost total unpreparedness.

All because of shortage of staff.'

• rAnd all, of course, a howling lie. If by ,sflortage of staff' we mean shortage of °rkrnen,' there is no shortage at all. There is 1Y a shortage of men who work, which is a erY different thing. Consider the vast complex of the building w4cle, which is a key industry, if ever there es one. In the not too distant past, I had the :Pious privilege of watching the employees this industry at work on my own house. silleY took eight months to do a job which uid have been completed in eight weeks. 2or eight months, from my study window, I :atched ' workmen ' begin to drift on to the de at 9, when they were due at 8.30. At 9.30, i;11 ,.en most of them had arrived, they began to 'elk' tea, which they sipped, with languid stures, till 10. Then, reluctantly, they put O'n their cups, and drifted off for an hour's dr?rk. At 11 they were back in their sheds, 111Iting more tea, to replenish their depleted `gergies. jot. eight months, from my study window, I dratched them scurry for shelter from a few wcIr's of rain, or huddle over braziers if there ibas a slight nip in the air, or lie prostrate in shade if the sun was too bright. For eight ...4f2hths, I watched them sitting on ladders, 1:,gring into space, or lying on the grass, lost thought. When they worked at all, they 21ked in slow motion. Their energies were qcilusively reserved for their own pursuits — „,ling with their cars, repairing their radios allin 'working' hours.

14 Or eight months I watched them wander

off to the pubs or slouching away to the

age. I made detailed notes of some of the 14"„re scandalous episodes, dated and ePendently witnessed, but I was warned an"at any formal protest would be followed by iMmediate strike. Admittedly, among the erms who milled around, there were two or bu`tee who were conscientious and industrious, a w the majority were a lot of .. for once in

words really do fail me.

eese personal experiences, which will be II:tdorsed by thousands of infuriated 4:vilseholders all over the country, have a very le. et bearing on the 'shortage of staff' tierid. It is a matter of elementary arithme

If it takes three men to do the work of one, of course there will be a shortage of staff.' Why are bricklayers worth their weight in gold? Not because there is a shortage of bricklayers. No exotic disease has suddenly. decimated the ranks of the bricklaying fraternity. Bricklayers are worth their weight in gold for the very simple reason that they take! three times too long to lay bricks and charge. three times too much for doing so. Unless yout consider that £12 a day, free of tax, is a legitimate wage for these gentlemen.

Still optimistic

In spite of these lamentations I remain an unashamed optimist and refuse to accompany Bernard Levin to his Wailing Wall, in whose shadow he seems to have decided to take up permanent residence. I am an optimist, not in spite of the fact that things are bad but because they are very good indeed and because they are probably going to get worse. When that happens the people of our country are going to experience, on a very large scale, a salutary and tonic emotion which has been denied to them for far too long — the emotion of fear. Which reminds me to tell you what the archbishop said to me about Shakespeare.

William Temple, who was among the greatest of all the archbishops in the history of the Anglican church, once shocked me by observing, in the most dulcet of accents, that Shakespeare, of course, wrote for money. I was a schoolboy at the time and we were going for a walk over the Marlborough downs. (I had won some sort of literary prize which entitled me to this distinction.) Shakespeare? For money? What could the Archbishop be thinking of, saying such dreadful things to the head of the Upper Fifth? Particularly when the head of the Upper Fifth had only .just announced that on leaving school he proposed to adopt a literary career?

The Archbishop elaborated. Shakespeare, he said, wrote for money because he was afraid. Of what? Of being poor. In short he had the economic urge. But what, demanded the head of the Uppper Fifth, had the

economic urge to do with Hamlet? Everthing, replied the Archbishop. He wrote Hamlet because he needed the money. It was the

economic urge that forced him to his desk.

Admittedly, as soon as he had sat down, and dipped his pen in the ink, splendid things had a habit of happening. But without the economic urge he would not have gone to his desk at all. Why? Because there are a great many pleasanter ways of spending a summer afternoon then sitting at a desk. Such as picking wild thyme from a bank, or feeding the local swans.

This was the Archbishop's contention, and though it was intended to be taken with a pinch of salt — of which the Upper Fifth in those days was in short supply — there was a grain of truth in it.

A sharper spur

Fame, as Milton suggested, may be the spur that the clean spirit doth raise, to scorn delights and live laborious days, but fear is a spur with a sharper edge. And the reason why Britain is not yet receiving this salutary stimulus is because — let's face it — the. British have never had to suffer exceptional -hardship. I was always faintly repelled by the war-time slogan, "Britain can take it." Compared with what Berlin had to take scarcely a bomb fell on London. Compared with what Russia had to take the Battle of Britain was merely a tiresome interlude. We have never been invaded, our streets have never run with blood, we have never really had to tighten our belts. Maybe the reason why these things have never happened to us is partly due to the fact that we have never been able to imagine them, and as Oscar Wilde once observed, in one of his moments of profundity, a man cannot suffer any experience, including a descent into hell, unless he is first able to imagine it. There is no reason to suppose that we are about to descend into hell, but it might not be bad for us if, from over the distant horizon, there drifted an occasional 'whinof sulphur. Then we might get a move on. And a few bricklayers might even begin to lay a few bricks.

Nature note

Yesterday a charming acquaintance, temporarily absenting herself from the shadow of Bernard Levin's Wailing Wall — ( she not only reads the Times at breakfast but practically eats it) — paid a visit to the garden. I took her out to the little annexe, which I hire from my neighbour, in order to show her a magnolia that had suddenly lost its head. No — the wind had not blown off any of the branches; it had merely decided that this was the moment to go mad, and had produced a solitary blossom, under the illusion that 'spring had arrived. If men could go mad, and dogs go mad, why not magnolias?

However my friend was uninterested in the mental disturbance of the magnolia; her eyes rested on a trench that had been recently dug. She gave an exclamation of approval. Ah — this was excellent! This showed the Dunkirk spirit! Doubtless I was turning the annexe into a vegetable plot in preparation for the imminent siege? Not at all, I informed her. The trench was for sweet peas. And the rest of the ground had been planted with lilies, montbretias, and various experimental exotics which were not intended for human consumption, though I might perhaps send a bunch to Bernard Levin to relieve his hours of vigil at the Wailing Wall.

There are many ways of showing the Dunkirk spirit. Mine is to shelter behind a rampart of sweet peas. With which shameless reflection I shall bid you au reuoir.

Beverley Nichols