“We ought to do something about Henry’s oral history project.”
“I’d forgotten. Why us?”
Penny said, “Now he’s back at a school they want to catch things before they’re forgotten. They say grandparents are suitable. We have a longer perspective.”
“It doesn’t make us more objective. I suppose you mean this.” He gestured widely. “The garden a vegetable plot, mud on the floors, rationing, power cuts, Barnes wrecked and two biscuits a week.” He ate one. “And coffee only on Fridays.”
They were sitting in the conservatory at the back of the house, planks across some of the roof struts where once the glazing had been. They were wearing heavy pullovers and boots.
“He’s going to record what we say if they can charge up a machine. I think we should make some notes, Julius, rehearse a bit. I don’t want to let him down. We must sound sensible, not garrulous. Go and find some paper.”
He stood up and went out to the hall past their dirty bikes and walked into the room they’d used as a study. It was gloomy. Some of the windows were smashed and boarded up. It was a tip of books and boxes and stacked paintings taken off the walls. There was a path through the piles to a desk itself covered with files and old batteries, a torn blotter, scattered pencils and pens. Peering closely into a drawer half open he pulled out a pad. “This’ll do.”
When he sat down again opposite Penny he said, “Where should we start?”
“It’s the everyday they want. You know, what it was like for us who lived through it all.”
“And worked until they purged me. Not committed enough to the will of the people.”
“They’ll have you back now or pay you off.” She looked into the teapot. “There’s another cup. Do you want it?”
“Weak as dishwater. I’d better have it. Waste not want not.”
She poured. “I have to eke it out. The supplies aren’t coming through yet. It’s still rationed.”
“So much for grow British,” he said and made a note. “I’ll have to mention the deficit, and borrowing on the markets, the currency, massive household debt and confidence.” He put the pencil down, then picked it up and crossed out what he’d written. “No, bugger that. We simply couldn’t pay our way and no one would lend to us anymore. We can’t grow enough to feed ourselves, we don’t have enough fuel and we don’t sell enough to buy what we don’t have. He should grasp that.” He wrote quickly.
She said, “We were on our own. No Empire, no great navy, only history. How they gloated, round the world, politely. But Henry doesn’t care about that. He wants to know about us, how it seemed to us living here. No toothpaste, no coffee, not much soap, only basic underwear, rationed.”
“Limited razor blades, don’t forget. It was the shortage of imported medicines which made us third world,” he said.
“Why did we end up fighting?”
“We could explain that people stopped listening to each other, tell him in the old days we could agree to disagree, the normal political discourse.”
“Don’t use words like that. He won’t know what you’re talking about. He’s missed so much education, he’s still a child. Use simple language. He was a lovely little boy; God knows what this has done to him.”
“Suppose I say conventions collapsed, the structures of tolerance, of conversation, the dam of good manners which held everything back got breached, it wasn’t strong enough, and it gave way. We stopped debate and fought each other instead. Will that do?”
“Julius, don’t you listen to me? It’s way above his head. What he knows is that ordinary people went out and got violent. He did himself. It’s awful but I sometimes think they actually enjoyed it. Are you cold?”
Julius was shivering, hunched up.
She said, “Get a coat on. God knows when we’ll get heating. They keep saying we’ll be back to normal. I’ll get you some more tea.”
She went out to the kitchen where a make-shift wood burning stove was set against a wall with a precarious cylindrical rust metal chimney above it bent through a jagged hole in the brickwork to extend outside. On top a kettle was simmering.
She refilled the pot and stirred it.
When she’d sat down and poured for Julius, she said, “Actually do you and I really know what it was like? It’s not like Manchester here. They got really destitute up in the Midlands and up North. Food riots.”
“The whole thing was stupid. It’s wrecked us. He’ll understand that there was a before and after. That it went wrong.”
“That a modern European state should go under: Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, yes, but not Britain.” She shook her head. “We sneered at them. Now look at us. Are you writing this down?”
Julius sighed. “I’m so wound up, I can’t think straight.”
“All right. Let’s go through it. Put it in order. When did it start?”
“The referendum, 2016. The red line. Before and after.”
“Then write it,” she said, pointing at the pad. “Make some headings and put dates. Think now. What happened?”
“I can’t. I’m angry already.”
“Give it to me then.” She grabbed the pad and the pen. “Just say what you want and I’ll do the notes. I thought civil servants could hold their feelings in check. And write drafts.”
“Not any more. I’ll get a coat.” He stood up and went out.
Penny looked at the pad and what he’d written so far. She sighed and marked a few places, and crossed things out.
He had wrapped round himself a threadbare old over coat with no buttons.
“That’s your gardening coat,” she said. “What on earth are you doing?”
“I’m not putting on my best and that’s that. Where were we?”
“The red line.”
“The conservatives blew it. To save the party they wrecked the country, simple as that. Some of them had post-imperial delusions, couldn’t see us as other saw us, prejudice against foreigners masquerading as policy, bigoted ideologues-not all of them of course, but they played to the elderly, played to the people who hated immigrants. And the decent ones were too scared about what would happen to the party if they rebelled. No balls.”
She was scribbling quickly.
“The referendum was a botched thing-only thirty-seven percent of the electorate voted to leave yet the Brexiters trumpeted it as the will of the people. You know I think the conservative mind-set is deeply wired into some people, the world is generally inferior, being British is effortlessly superior, we’re a society of social classes, guardians of lesser races, we bear a mission to improve other countries-ignoring the facts of decline.”
She smiled. “Poor Henry trying to understand all that. We’ll have to edit. It was nothing compared with the civil war. He’ll be much more conscious of that.”
“Yes,” he said, “There was that moment when it couldn’t go on, when people had to fight; it was no use writing or shouting, there had to be battles, them or us, physical”
“Julius, it was an odd war really, just organised street rioting, paralysing key buildings, disruption on the grand scale, arson, looting, destruction. Almost every town, even in Bath and Eastbourne. We didn’t have enough police or troops. But no battles.”
“They got hold of troop carriers and some guns. People were killed.”
“Not that many.”
“One’s enough,” he shouted.
“Don’t get cross-it’ll only make your blood pressure worse.”
“There’s a clean-up promised. We have the Reconstruction. The Conservatives have gone. How did they always get Europe so wrong? In the nineteen hundreds, in the nineteen thirties, and now. They simply couldn’t understand. They really are the stupid party.”
“Who said that? Someone said it. Lloyd George?”
“No, I think it was JS Mill.”
She looked at the pad in front of her, and tapped the pencil. “When did the Brexiters become the ‘Boneheads’?”
“I remember that, it was in 2018 when they were trying to get the legislation through. They were stubborn and inflexible and a journalist christened them.”
“Of course. It’s a wonderful name; the Brexiters were so angry, always jam in the old days and lots of jam tomorrow, but never any today. Wasn’t it funny when that satirical magazine ran a series of cartoons, ‘A hundred and one uses for a Bonehead’. A doorstop, a book-end, an ornamental door knocker, a croquet mallet, a Belisha beacon,” she laughed. “None of our friends could take them seriously again. And then on the other side against them the ‘Tshirts’. That’s what the Tories shouted at the Opposition, ‘Go and wash your Tshirts, get a suit.’ The names stuck. Shall I write that?”
“Yes, I think so. They were sort of both sides in the civil war.”
She paused and didn’t immediately put pen to paper. “We’re losing the thread a bit. They want our own experience. I’m not sure we need go into the sides.”
“Context, Penny, context. Where were we?”
She read her notes. “2018 and after.”
“OK. The Government made a cock-up of the negotiations but just in time we got a three- year transition, and it should have taken us past the date of the election last year. I remember thinking, so far so good, people breathed a sigh of relief, life went on, and we hadn’t quite left the EU after all.”
“And fudge. Everything was a fudge.” She laughed and put down her pen. “Do you remember the fuss with Diabetics Anonymous? They complained that there was so much talk of fudge that sugar sufferers had no safe public place. Would commentators and the Tshirts please use ‘obfuscate’ instead.”
Julius said, “And the right-wing tabloids complained that ‘fudge’ was a good Anglo-Saxon word and that’ obfuscate’ was Latin therefore a European word and should never be used. And then we got headlines, ‘Take back control of our language,’ ‘Out with French, English for the English.’ There was even a campaign to stop teaching European languages in State schools. That’s Boneheads for you.”
She went on, “We could tell him about the collapse. It was so slow to begin with. 2018 with the row over the Irish, and the endless arguments about the Bill in Parliament. People being abused on Facebook and in the streets. No staff in the cafes, no cleaners to be had, the builders disappearing.”
Julius shook his head. “By 2019 it was the pound going down remorselessly, bit by bit. A few big company collapses, bankers moving abroad, almost invisibly, house prices stalling, falling, repossessions up and so on, record bankruptcies. All through the year we could sense it, a slow doom, everything winding down. The shops emptying, hospital wards closing, no staff. Food stripped from the supermarkets. Things like that, nothing enormous just threatening, the tide out before the tsunami, you remember that”
“I do. It was so sad, all those people there for Christmas, standing in the sun watching the tide go out.”
He said, “It came back in all right. Our tide here went out. But it rose back up the beach with a vengeance. Trump was gone by 2020, Macron revoked the Touquet treaty, and we had the migrants at Dover and Folkestone. The French closed the tunnel. They owned it after all.”
“I hated that. To be cut off. It was the last link.”
“Then the Tshirts made it clear they would fight the election on retaining the transition indefinitely-we’d never properly leave the EU but we’d have benefits. The Boneheads took to the streets. They had some unsavoury allies, much as they tried to distance themselves. That was always their problem they gave cover to fascist right wing groups used them as storm troopers until it was too late. And the Tshirts fought back. There was a huge riot in Bradford against the Muslims there, and then everywhere where there were immigrants and they went for the elites, smashed windows, and came over Hammersmith Bridge in a horde…”
She interrupted, “‘Swarm’ is the Cameron term.”
He laughed. “And they were a swarm. Then the World seeing the chaos gave up on us; almost without warning in 2021 there was a run on the pound. It was already well below parity with the euro, in two weeks it was down to less than fifty cents. The Bank of England could raise interest rates, but there were not enough reserves or overseas assets to retrieve the bankruptcy. We couldn’t supply ourselves from abroad. We were close to defaulting on all the Government loans.”
She said, “It was so quick and then we knew we were isolated.”
Julius said, “The Americans refused a loan even though the leading Brexiters went over and practically knelt at the presidential feet. Do you remember the Bonehead who said that he always thought that the Atlantic was a narrower sea than the English Channel? He was one of them and blew it when he asked for political asylum at the same time. They all got short shrift. The Democrats said the collapse was self-inflicted and a European problem. They’d participate in any IMF arrangement. By that time the pound was virtually worthless.”
She interrupted. “Are you going to tell him about FOBIA? What does it stand for? All I remember is that the Chinese, Qataris, Germans and Japanese were furious.”
“They owned most of us. It’s the initials of the Foreign Owners of British Investment Assets. They put down an ultimatum. The Government refused and went on pursuing their Brexit shibboleth. ‘We won’t be dictated to by foreigners’ thundered the right-wing tabloids. When the IMF said that they would support the European Central Bank in a bail-out it prolonged the civil war because the Boneheads wouldn’t agree to a bail out by Europeans, and they went on the streets. Think Greece.”
She put down her pencil. “It’s lucky I learned shorthand once upon a time. I really don’t think this is what Henry wants, Julius. I know we lived through that every day wondering what the world would do. But we had to survive. That’s the interesting thing for him isn’t it?”
“Yes, up to a point. We managed just about, in Barnes. The people rallied, we had some vigilantes and fought off the raiders who wanted revenge on the Remain voters, there are shared food banks, organised market gardens in the largest properties, communal chickens, concerts. But we’re done for. The asset base is gone up the Brexit arses. Tell him that.”
She said, “I was always frightened, we couldn’t go out could we? And there were no phones, no electricity. And the water was usually off.”
“It proved that civilisation is electricity.” Julius said. “I went into work and stayed there at night for weeks on end. Ministers panicked. They were still committed to leaving the EU but they had to deal with the disorder, no one would call it a civil war. I was sacked. They had to stop the damage the Boneheads were causing, but going after them meant they were stopping their own side. They completely forgot that the task of any government is to preserve the peace. And in the end there weren’t enough police and not enough troops to pacify the whole country. It’s astonishingly easy to disrupt everything, a few well-placed explosives, demolitions, blockades, strikes. Bingo.”
They reminded each other that there had been occasional radio bulletins, that a ring of steel had been placed round Whitehall and in the major cities. Heathrow and the big airports were surrounded by troops. Clandestine news sheets circulated. The Royal Family had gone to Balmoral at the invitation of the Scottish Government which had closed the border with England using Scots regiments redeployed north. In Ireland the civil war had erupted with sectarian ferocity. With tacit British consent the Irish government sent police and troops north to put the violence down and de facto Northern Ireland began the process of reunification with the south.
She said, “I’ve made a collection of some of the newssheets, and notices. I’ll give them to him. He could make a little display.”
“And ration books and my pass into Whitehall,” Julius added.
“Enough,” she said. “We must have a rest. Henry’ll have to wait. Shall I get some food?”
“Did you bring the parsnips in and the leeks? We could braise them could we? Have we any fat?”
“I’ll see. I got two eggs yesterday. Would you like one? I think we’re due some power at six.”
They were both tired out with the relentless efforts to survive, to accumulate enough to eat, wood to burn, and to remember when there would be power or sometimes enough gas pressure to cook and heat some water, if there was running water. They found themselves in a cold and deteriorating world in which nothing much worked and familiar shops were vandalised, and emptied. There was the constant threat of intimidation and robbery. The elite suburbs were nobody’s friends.
Penny laid out some cutlery and plates for their supper, and brought over a large casserole dish. “I’ve got a bottle of wine left. It was fifteen pounds, I suppose it’s about fifty now, or whatever in euros. Worth every cent.” She put it on the table with a couple of glasses.
Julius slumped in his chair. “I hope you’ve kept the rest hidden.” She opened it.
“I’ve made a sort of vegetable stew. Mrs Pierce found some stock cubes at the food bank. God knows where they came from. Anyway, she gave me a few. Bon appetit.”
He helped himself. “Are we peasants now? One thing’s certain the middle classes have been screwed.”
There was a pounding on the street door. They both jumped. “Not again,” she said. “I can’t take anymore.”
“I’ll go.” Julius stood up and went out. At the door he looked through the spyhole. “Is that you Henry?” he called.
“Yes. Let me in Grandpa.”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes. It’s safer now.”
Julius unhitched chains and drew back the bolts and then undid two locks. He pulled back the door which bore scratch marks and splits where it had been attacked, and burn stains where fire had been tried.
“Come in old chap. How’s school?”
Henry went at once into the kitchen to embrace his grandmother. She put her arms round his neck. “Hullo darling. You’re surviving.”
Henry wore an old duffle coat and a thick woollen hat. He had thick stubble and long hair in a pony-tail. “It’s fucking cold in here,” he said. Penny drew her breath in sharply. He sat down, leaning across to help himself to some food.
“We’re in the middle of the story for you,” Julius said. “It’ll need tidying up. We’ll do it in sections. But it’s coming together. We’ll be able to record something. Is there enough power for your school computers yet?”
“TBH, it’s crap there.”
“Sorry, Gran, but it is. Chaos. How can I go back to school, like, and stand, a little boy in assembly-they want to have assembly- how can I sing when basically I did what I did, saw what I saw and my mates were hammered and I broke a man’s back, and blew up telephone switch cabinets on the streets, set fires, and put home-made explosives down manhole covers and blew up sewers and stuff. Awesome. How can I fucking go back to school?”
“But you’re only sixteen, darling. You’ve missed so much.”
“You don’t understand. I’ve never known anything like it. London was my yard. It was wicked. We liked destroying things. It was a drug, a high, like, seeing the flames lick up, the world smashed.”
For a moment he seemed in a trance.
Penny said, “That sounds absolutely dreadful. I should be shocked. But I can’t feel shock anymore. In the old days I would have called you a vandal, a hooligan and loved you and wanted you to be arrested and not to be. Now I’m numb, no feeling left. All the same I don’t want to believe it’s true what you did, that you were part of it.”
Julius said, “Of course it’s true what he did. I told you. There came a point when the people went berserk, tearing things down for the sheer bloody joy of it. Whose side were you on, Henry?”
“I was against; whatever it was at the time. And keeping the Boneheads away from the immigrants. We did that all right. In the end we had the Boneheads on the run in the places where it mattered.”
Julius leaned towards Henry and said, “They’ve opened the schools now to help you catch up. Don’t you want to learn?”
“Yes, but not being treated like a school boy. Basically, I’ve been a street fighter, OK? Anyway, not all the teachers have turned up and Brexit kids, like, are removed from classes and have special re-education. But they know they’re beat.”
“What do they teach them?”
“I think it’s history and geography.”
Julius smiled. “Good for them. Boneheads didn’t know any.”
“There’s talk of me going to Amsterdam for Uni next year for an intense catch-up. I’d do that to get out of here. It’s awful. Look around, most of your street is still boarded up. The war’s over you know, you could make a start. There’s food coming in. I even saw a bus, everyone cheered. Anyway, I’ve brought you something.” He fished around in his coat pocket and brought out a small rectangular box which he placed on the table almost reverently.
Penny and Julius peered down at it.
“Eureka,” she said. “A puncture repair kit.”
“It’s like gold,” Julius said. “Where did you get it? I haven’t seen one for years.”
Henry smiled. “My sources. Imports may have stopped but there are still stocks in places, if you know where to look. And know people. I know people.”
She said, “Thank you, thank you. We can inflate again. We must get on now and finish this for you. Do you want to hear it now? We could try it out.”
“Don’t I know it already?”
Julius said, “Listen. We’ve just had 1066 without Hastings.”
Penny interrupted, “We must have another tapestry.”
Julius ignored her.” Domesday. You know that the IMF and ECB presented an ultimatum. Parliament was to disqualify all the Brexit Boneheads and enact emergency legislation to pave the way for the election in which no Bonehead candidates would be permitted to stand. Sterling ceased to be legal tender or the future currency. The euro has replaced it at two pounds to one Euro. And we are to be bailed out.”
“All our assets are devalued by a half, “Julius went on. “ Though of course the people who owned most of Britain were given special terms. FOBIA rules in every sense. There is to be exchange control for an indefinite period and no one can try and leave Britain to seek work in Europe; there are camps to detain them at Folkestone and elsewhere. Sangatte in reverse. And now a Reconstruction on American post-civil war lines.”
Henry said, “What I don’t get is French, Polish and Scandinavian troops policing the ports, stations, warehouses, they’re everywhere. We’ve been invaded.”
“Not quite in the traditional sense. The owners and creditors have taken possession. It’s distraint, foreclosure, impounding, forfeiture, sequestration,” Julius said. “Entirely comprehensible to a liquidator, or a landlord or a pawnbroker.”
“We didn’t fight about that,” Henry said. “We weren’t told.”
“We were if we listened. But a lot of people didn’t want to hear, Henry, it was ‘project fear’. And now we have a new Parliament, a rump parliament some say.”
Henry said, “Is it a revolution? Can we change things?”
Julius said, “Oh yes. It really is 1066 again. And don’t forget for starters we’ve got the trials. The Tshirt Government asked the International Supervisory Committee for the Reconstruction if they could punish the most prominent Boneheads. The Committee said only if there was a properly constituted tribunal and that the defendants had representation.”
Henry said, “I suppose that’s better than a lynching. Most of my street friends are bloody angry with them.”
Julius said, “With every right. The people were deceived and then made mad and terrible things were done to neighbours and people whose only crime was that they were different, liberal elite or immigrant. The new Government argue that the Bonehead leaders must be punished. They weren’t just politicians who made a mistake; they didn’t just make errors of judgement. They were delusional, and deliberately hostile. They incited violence directly or indirectly.”
Henry said, “I have heard people say the bankers, like, got away with their mistakes. These people mustn’t.”
“Goodness, Henry. What are they teaching you at school?” Penny said.
“Huh. The teachers are almost scared to open their mouths, looking over their shoulders. I put myself about. I’m feral.”
“Is that a new party?”
Henry laughed. “No. It’s a style. What was it when you were kids?”
Julius smiled, “When I first saw your grandmother she was a punk.”
“I wasn’t.” Penny said, smiling. “That was another girl-friend of his. He’s getting forgetful. Anyway, the trials; they’re extraordinary. They’re going to be in Westminster Hall, that’s where all the old treason trials were held, and the gunpowder plotters and Warren Hastings, and so on. And of course Charles the First.”
“That’s why they’re starting with David Cameron.” Julius said. “By no means the worst, but the symbol of the whole foolishness. Just like Charles the First. And then about sixty others including the editors of some of the tabloids, and millionaire supporters and all the cabinet Boneheads and MP’s. There’s a list, a little list, there’ll none of them be missed. They’ll be tried like the post-war Nuremburg criminals.”
Henry yawned at length.
Penny said, “Henry, hand please, front of mouth.”
“Sorry, Gran. Can I have some of that wine?”
“Just one,” she said. “Get yourself a glass. It’s worth pounds and pounds in the old money; so don’t knock it over.”
Julius was looking over his notes. Putting them aside, he said, “There are some risks in the trials. They’ll become martyrs. They won’t accept the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, they’ll say it’s victors’ justice.”
“Or lack of,” Penny said.
“And they’ll say what they did wasn’t a crime. They may admit mistakes, that some of their followers overstepped the mark, in which case prosecute the followers, but they were politicians pursuing a political objective which appeared to have public support. That can’t be criminal. What do you think, Henry?”
He was engrossed in the wine. He drank a little and put down the glass very carefully.
“I dunno. I don’t see politics as different. If you drive carelessly it’s a crime. If you govern badly it’s the same, don’t you think? The Brexit thing was a fucking disaster, stupid. If you crash a train you can be done for something or other, if you crash a country why can’t politicians be tried the same?”
“Oh, Henry,” Penny cried. “How clever. Did they teach you that at school?”
“No, I learned it on the streets, Gran.”
Julius said, “And if the Boneheads are found guilty, what punishment?”
Henry leaned forward confidentially. “I’ve seen a leak. There’s always secret stuff circulating. It comes my way.”
“Goodness. And?” Penny said.
“They’re going to ask for a dispensation to bring back the death penalty.”
“Never!” Julius and Penny spoke as one.
“And here’s the clever bit. It says they’ll have a referendum run exactly like the European referendum in 2016. No turnout requirement, no majority threshold, a simple question, no alternatives.”
Julius said, “That means they could bring back the death penalty on a tiny majority and with only a third of the electorate actually voting for it. That doesn’t seem quite right.”
Henry smirked. “It is, Grandpa.. The EU referendum wasn’t fair either for the same reasons but that didn’t stop them pretending it gave them a mandate.”
Penny said, “Would it mean hanging?”
Henry said, “No one has thought about the consequences, just like the EU referendum. Hanging perhaps for a transitional period, and then negotiation, with options, like electrocution, garrotting, chemical injection, a firing squad, or in the event of no agreement, the guillotine.”
“A short sharp shock, a cheap and chippy chopper, a big black block,” said Julius. “You can’t be serious. I don’t believe it.”
Penny said, “I can. That’s how some of the Boneheads appeared, cross, frivolous and reckless. Someone else has to have the last laugh.”
Just then the lights in the house came on, flickering, then with more certainty.
Julius shouted, “Power. The telly. Get it on.”
They’d missed some of the news, but there was David Cameron, pale and in a prison suit standing in a dock surrounded by glass and with armed guards, the great wooden roof vaults of Westminster Hall just visible. He faced the Tribunal judges who sat on a dais in a row and a variety of colourful robes. He was speaking.
“I do not accept the legality of this tribunal or the authority of the undemocratic rump Parliament which has purported to create it. I do not accept that the offences with which I am charged are crimes in the law of this country.”
“How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”
There was a power cut.