“That picture”, said the bloke in the Waterloo station pub, pointing to a sepia tint on the wall, “was taken in the 30s.”
“Nah, the engines are all wrong — they’re D3s.”
“They had D3s on some lines in the 30s.”
“They never d — whatchoo reading?”
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“Young Stalin,” I said, holding up the cover.
“Ten sixty six,” said the other guy to someone passing behind us to the toilet.
“Is it psychologistic?”
“Not really,” I said, “Though he has lapses…”
“Ten sixty six” … “Oh thanks”
“I yield to none in my abhorrence of Stalinism,” he said self-parodically, “but psychologistic explanations are bollocks.”
“Ten sixty six.”
“What the — ohhhhh it’s the toilet door keypad code!” I said, “Do you drink here a lot?”
“Actually I’ve written a book on railway station pubs,” he said, “We’re just updating the edition.”
“Another round … ten sixty six.”
The remainder of the conversation ranged over Stalinism, the Trotskyist alternative, further dating of the photo, methods of sepia photography, the physics of eyesight, post big-bang models of the universe with special reference to M-Brane theory, the quickest way to get to Dover and we returned to the provenance of D3 engines before their train came. Post-office-employed-real-ale-enthusiast-scientific-American-reading-socialist workers-party members (one spoke of the decomposition of the cosmos as “a split in the universe” the ultimate factional realignment) they were kind of Britain in one small pub crawl.
We paused only to watch the BBC news which featured the mass strikes in France, and the reporter’s portentous quote: “Could it happen here?” (translated please oh please oh yes).
“We’d have to get out of the pub,” the Kent Two sniggered.
Europe is having a hell of an interesting time, simultaneously collapsing and recomposing. In London, you can already see the gaps on the high street where various chain stores used to be, papered up shopfronts that hitherto would have been filled instantly. In Piccadilly Circus, the prime store that has previously been Virgin, Tower Records, HMV and orginally Swan and Edgars (the department store on which Are you being served? was based) has stood empty since the too-cool chain Zavvi collapsed last year.
The pound is sinking in relation to the euro, a mere few months after Brits were jetting to NY for shopping trips. But at least the UK has the flexibility to float low and improve exports — the euro, covering everything from the quasi-feudal Portuguese countryside to Berlin, has manacled vastly different economies together, meaning that the strength of the currency is less a measure of health than of early rigor mortis. Who would join it?
Well, Iceland, apparently. They are on the fast-track to euro membership (it’s not even in the EU yet) because the Icelandic krona is a dead currency, through the floor, and the country is dependent on imports for many essential goods (or goods essential to modern living in any case). Even if the country accepts the deal, its standard of living will fall dramatically as the euro will price its exports -– fish, Bjork, fish — out of consideration. Let’s face it, no-one with choices eats cod.
Yet just as the EU is taking in the basket cases, actual Europeans are straining at the bonds of supra-nationhood. Back at the hotel, the late news is detailing job losses by reason of redundancies region by region, with the grim satisfaction the British get from bad news, like Blitz casualties. In Lincolnshire, they’re doing something about it — with a strike by two oil-rig crews against the arrival of extra workers from Italy. Note that, extra workers — the yards are expanding not contracting.
British workers have not yet received the memo about One Europe, or the idea that bosses aren’t lying bastards. The workers argue that there are plenty of unemployed skilled workers in the area — from when the region was a big shipbuilder — and that the Italian workers will be non-unionised contractors.
All good reasons, but what it looks like is a protest organised around national and local solidarity, with not much time for European unity — a product of the way in which the EU has been organised as an elite project: from the top down, central bank and set of bureaucracies with a population attached. If the Icelanders do get a vote on EU entry, they will be the only ones offered the chance to consent or otherwise to the EU in its current form — apart from the Irelanders, who rejected it in the only referendum held on the new EU constitution.
The rapid recourse to the streets — in Greece, in France, in Scotland — suggests that the first stage of the global crisis, its purely financial manifestation, is coming to an end. As the dismal prospect of a long slow recession and anger over the nature of bankers’ bailouts takes hold, much of the past period may be retrospectively revealed as one of false calm and assumed consent — even, or especially, in Britain.
If that is, they can get out of the pub.