D J Taylor: Union men puff under the weight of history

The workers' champions are unprepossessing, but there is a lot to be said for poppy-wearing, August babies and rude acronyms

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Watching Mark Serwotka of the PCS union coolly dismissing the Government's proposals for public sector pensions reform on television the other night, I found myself wondering why it is that middle-aged men of a certain background always respond to the sight of a trade union leader in full, uninhibited flow with such instinctive contempt. It is not Mr Serwotka's fault. He is only doing his job, and trying to advance his members' interests, and the suspicion with which he and fellow showmen – one might mention Mr Bob Crow and Mr Dave Prentis – is viewed by people of my age is not so much personal as historical.

Broadly speaking, if you were brought up in a God-fearing, Daily Telegraph-reading middle-class home in the late 1970s, you were taught to regard a trade union leader as on a par with a plague rat. It was not just that the TUC, although notionally aligned with James Callaghan's Labour government, seemed to be doing everything in its power to destabilise it. It was not just that the ironies of the block vote were becoming sharply apparent. It was simply that the titans of the 1970s union movement – Hugh Scanlon, Mick McGahey et al – when presented to the public at their annual clambake seemed so desperately unprepossessing. Who on earth had elected them, I used to wonder, in the course of my teenage stake-outs before the televised conference proceedings, and who on earth had imagined that they had any chance of striking a chord beyond the world of Brother Bootle and the Salford branch of the Wheeltappers and Shunters?

The latest clutch of social histories from the postwar era has tended to take a revisionist line on these 1970s hate-figures. In his State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, Dominic Sandbrook suggests that rather than having too much power concentrated in their horny hands, the Scanlons and the McGaheys spent most of their time trying to restrain an unruly membership, darkly conscious all the while of the spectre of Tory union reforms prowling the horizon. As I say, it is not the fault of Mr Serwotka, or Mr Crow or Mr Prentis, if they appear charmless, hectoring or inflexible. It is merely the weight of history pressing down on their shoulders. All the same, you can see why Ed Miliband wishes they would shut up and leave the job of constructing a meaningful opposition to him.

***

Glimpsing the cluster of Remembrance Day poppies worn by the people waiting on a station platform last week, I was reminded of the significance of the poppy-seller in recent British culture. A glance at some of the novels written in the aftermath of the Great War is enough to demonstrate how early this took root. Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930), for example, has a rather symbolic chapter in which louche, rootless Adam Fenwick-Symes sets off for the country to extract a cheque from his fiancée's father. It is Armistice Day, Waugh adds, "and they were selling artificial poppies in the street". After a day spent hurtling through a modern version of Alice in Wonderland, Adam returns to London, just as the legion of homeward-bound commuters are boarding their trains. In pointed contrast to Adam's frivolity, "they were still wearing their poppies".

In Angel Pavement, published in the same year, J B Priestley even created a character with the rather implausible name of Poppy Sellers. But the later pop-cultural landscape is arguably even more fascinating. Take, for example, the famous line in The Beatles' "Penny Lane", in which "the pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray". Is the song set on a day in November? Paul McCartney also sings about "blue suburban skies" and cloudbursts. As the late Ian MacDonald points out in his wonderful Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, the song is effectively a kaleidoscope of various aspects of English life.

With Armistice Day 2011 so near, we have reached the stage at which people write anguished letters to newspapers wondering if they should wear something which might be thought to symbolise supposedly dubious campaigns in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan. The point, surely, is that we are remembering the dead and the lives they sacrificed. There are better ways of advertising your conscience than declining to wear a poppy.

***

No news story awakened in me a greater degree of fellow-feeling than the revelation, courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that a summer or autumn birth is a key determinant to a child's well-being. Children born at the start of the academic year, it appears, do better than those born in August. Worse, August's progeny are less likely to go to a "top university" and have less belief in their ability to control their own destiny.

As someone born in the fourth week of August, I always thought this handicap was at its most injurious on the sports field, where at the start of each rugby season you would crawl on to the pitch to be taken apart by some brawny a thug 11 months older than you. On the other hand, an August birthday had the inestimable advantage of not taking place in term time, which meant you were spared the ritual assault of the playground, in which the birthday boy was scooped up by a baying mob, grasped by hands and feet and flung repeatedly into the air. In further mitigation, I note that Ted Hughes, Martin Amis and A S Byatt were born in August. It's us creative types, you see. Somehow we have the ability to transcend the cruel disadvantages of birth date.

***

Still with Martin Amis, the book I most enjoyed reading last week was Richard Bradford's Martin Amis: The Biography. Although keeping track of the succession of fragrant and well-connected young women who passed through the subject's life was sometimes a touch tricky, I was enchanted by Bradford's account of conditions at the late 1970s New Statesman, where Mart was employed as literary editor, and in particular by a spectacularly obscene weekend competition in whose devising he is thought to have played a part.

The competition was for randy acronymic letter sign-offs, attracted such entries as Nice (Nine Inches Coiled Expectantly) and Lyons (Let Your Organ Naturally Seep) and was cancelled on taste grounds by the somewhat puritanical editor, Bruce Page. As an undergraduate, I contributed to this salacity fest with the acronym Babbacombe which I wouldn't dream of inflicting on the IoS's sensitive readers, and always wondered about the exact circumstances in which it had been stymied. Now, thanks to Professor Bradford, I know. It is nice to think that, however indirectly, one had a role in this footnote to literary history.

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