A land fit for ghosts and pimps

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SIX AM on train strike day, heralded the day before by a chumbling union man with a voice like sludge, and a meat-fed rotter yapping away for the ludicrous "management". So I took the dog for a walk (not my dog; I just somehow have it) and there was the little man plodding along Theobald's Road, already weary in the torpid London swelter. His shoulders were hunched. He was grey-faced, balding, much too thin, too old too young. In the middle of summer - the city all about him, quiet, deserted and turning privately behind closed doors - he looked desperately sad: not the sadness of a bad night and a hot day to come, but a sadness driven deep into his face by the sheer weight of disenchantment: a mid-Nineties Everyman in a chain- store suit.

You wouldn't have noticed him, except that, today, he was carrying not only his briefcase but also a bedroll, tucked under his arm: a powder- blue sleeping-bag and an Acrilan blanket with a washed-out Navajo pattern. You could see his story: a good, hard-working man who, rather than fail to arrive for work, had spent the night on someone's floor. After a hot night, unable to sleep, his jaunty blanket wadded up for a pillow, he had decided to forget the idea of rest and get an early start.

I said "Good morning," but it wasn't. He gave me a piercing stare of hatred: didn't I know that this was a business street, for people who wore suits and had offices to go to? Who did I think I was, in my shorts and Hawaiian shirt, freshly-shaved and smoking a cheroot, the inexplicable dog prancing at my side?

To hell with him, I thought... but he stuck in my mind. He had so clearly been cheated. His suit was a cheat, its cloth too flimsy, its fusible interlinings puckered after one cleaning. His thin, polycotton shirt was a cheat, too tight and too hot. His puffy grey shoes were a cheat, and his mail-order briefcase, its heat-stamped vinyl monogram flapping on its last remaining stitch. I wanted to cheer him up, buy him a lovely cappuccino, then beat him to death for being so sad and so cross; for having connived so artlessly at his own defeat.

I used to be thrown into regular rages at the sight of these office-ghosts. They haunt the eerie regions between Bloomsbury, Holborn and Clerkenwell, where I live, materialising each morning in a nimbus of deodorant, then vanishing at dusk in a hot puff of desk-rage. I, too, was once seduced, just like poor John Birt, by the android deceptions of "management science" and cost-efficiency. What did these people make? Was it not true that they just slowed everything up with their systems, their little forms and their no-can-do attitude? What the hell were they all doing?

Then, without warning, they started to disappear. Rent-a-Crate would move in and proud Victorian headquarters buildings fall empty overnight, "relocated" to Peterborough, Birmingham or Hell. Post-mortem filth would film over the windows; drink cans, newspapers and burger cartons would accumulate in the boarded-up doorways. Then smaller businesses began to fail in their wake: little enterprises which set out their nets to catch the sandwich-eating, shirt-buying, lunchtime clerks and were now drawing them in again, empty. I had taken no notice of these places, but now that they were going I realised that each of them had been magically supporting lives: a spouse, children, grandmas with bad legs; putting food on tables, piling clothes in wardrobes, sending everyone off for a fortnight by the sea once a year.

But now the magic had become perilous and was fading. There were more and more blackened, dusty windows and hopeless signs: "To Let"; Prometheus bound; Samson shorn. And I realised what all these people had been doing. They had been keeping their end up.

Politicians who puff about teaching our children to be British should understand what being British has become: an unlovely struggle against the cost-accountants, who believe that money is the only motivation, profit the only measure, and that an enlightened pianist would play all the notes of a Beethoven sonata simultaneously, in one cacophonous crash, in the name of efficiency.

The accountants have won, but missed the point. Our deepest need is not money, but a sense of belonging. Make a man useless and he falls away from the pack, becoming negligible and of no account, ineligible even to breed; and so his genes pass away into dust. This is a biological imperative, without which there is nothing. "Market forces" have stolen human dignity, and good and decent people are stumbling along Theobald's Road with their bedrolls under their arms, bowed down with sadness. Good and decent people are slumped in the doorways of High Holborn, are sitting stunned in the Lysol purlieus of the Bankruptcy court, are lying, obliterated, behind closed curtains in respectable suburban streets. Meanwhile, the preposterous Eddie George denies suggestions of an old boy nod-and-wink, the fat cats cover their backs, and 14-year-olds are to be sent out to see what work would be like if there were any, like a cheap date who thinks that showing his girl a good time consists of pointing through the window of a restaurant and saying "Look: there. They're having one."

What we should do with the Millennium Fund is this: we should use it to buy, for every city in the land, a 100ft statue of a management accountant perched on a pile of jargon, a phoney cashflow forecast in one hand and a laptop computer in the other, frozen in the process of calculating the Modified Internal Rate of Return on a human life, the motto to read "Credo in cervum rapidum". Because, when the Pimps' Charter under which this country has for so long been governed is finally torn up, we will need something to overturn as all the sad people tear off their jackets, hurl away their bedrolls, straighten their shoulders, and dance in the streets. !