Short story: Dropped bricks
“Ladies and gentlemen”, said the Chairman, putting down the glass from which he had just taken a fastidious sip, to match his well-groomed suit, his smooth hair and his immaculate cuffs. “May I have your attention, please?”
The other members of the Board adopted poses which suggested, for the benefit of the shareholders who were present, a concentrated fascination with the Chairman’s words which none of them felt.
“You have,” said the Chairman, “All been supplied with a copy of the Statement of Accounts, the Auditor’s report and the Board’s comments on last year’s operations. I should now like to add a few words of my own which will, I hope, help to clear up any misunderstanding and confusion which may have arisen from certain irresponsible press reports and politically-inspired propaganda.
“As you know, your company—Planall Ltd.—was formed some time ago with one object—to promote the idea that the problems of contemporary society can be substantially solved by planning them out of existence. The founders of the Company felt that there was a need for it when they saw which followed the collapse of other firms whose business was to promote other ideas—Lassayfayre Ltd. was one and the Freeforall Company another.
“Both these companies had their uses, in their time—indeed some of their shareholders are now investors in Planall Ltd. —but a series of unfortunate events persuaded the electorate —I beg your pardon, I mean the public—that there was some doubt as to the efficacy of the remedies they were promoting. Their collapse left something of a vacuum and this dangerous situation was remedied only by the courageous and far-sighted action of the people who founded our Company, to put about another delusion—I mean solution.”
The Chairman was visibly uneasy at his slips of the tongue. He sipped again at his glass, smoothed his hair and fingered his cuffs.
“Planning,” he resumed, “Is the greatest idea ever. There is no problem it cannot solve, no social ailment it cannot cure, no confusion it cannot bring to order. Why did the Industrial Revolution impose such dreadful conditions upon the people of this country? Why did the South Sea Bubble burst? What is the real explanation of the General Strike, the Crash in 1929, the rise of Hitler?
“The—answer — is — there—was—no—Planning! ” he shouted, emphasising each word with a blow of his fist on the table. These blows rattled the Chairman’s glass and, as if reminded by this of its existence, he raised it once more to his lips.
“Things are different now. There are fertile fields for an organisation which works to convince people that Planning is the answer to our problems. And in this work your company, I say with due modesty, is in the forefront. I shall now review one or two of the situations which have faced us recently and consider their effect on the principles which Planall Ltd. is devoted to spreading.
“The election of a Labour government was, of course, a great help to us. It is perfectly true—I don’t want to upset any of our shareholders, ha, ha,—that the Conservative Party is also strongly committed to Planning, although they may pretend otherwise and although they find Mr. Enoch Powell useful in persuading some people that on this issue they are different from the Labour Party.
“But what is so warming, to me, about the Labour Party is that they stand for Planning openly and unashamed. Why, their last election programme was full of promises about it. Hardly a week-end goes by without some Cabinet Minister making a speech somewhere about Planning something. There has never been a time like it; we’ve had Plans for regional development, for housing, for transport, and a host of other things. And, last but not least,”—the Chairman switched on what he liked to think of as his winning smile—“We have had the National Plan.
“Whatever other effect these Plans may have their very existence is bound to convince a lot of people that Planning is desirable and that is not only good for tile Labour Party but good for the whole sacred idea of Planning, and good for Planall Ltd.”
The Chairman, in full oratorical flood, felt his confidence rising. With a sound like a distant wind on the horizon, the Board let out a collective sigh of relief. The Chairman, recklessly, drank again.
“Perhaps I could now mention something about Planning and Housing,” he continued. “The Labour government have promised to build half a million houses a year, all by the simple trick of Planning. Most people, I am happy to say, accepted that this is feasible but others allowed themselves to be unduly disturbed by an unfortunate situation which has recently developed.
“I refer,” he said loudly, “to the matter of the Bricks.
“About a year ago, one of the problems confronting the British building industry was a shortage of bricks. In July 1964, in fact, the stocks of bricks in this country had fallen to the lowest level for four years. Building Plans were being frustrated by the lack of bricks. Of course every Right Thinking Person”—he beamed around the room, casting upon all of them the benediction of being a person who thought. right—“knows that only remedy for this sort of situation is to get another Plan going and this, I am happy to say, is what the government and the brick companies did.
“The government appealed for higher brick production and the brick makers were quick to respond. Almost the entire industry launched into a Plan to step up production. Members of the National Federation of Clay Industries planned to invest more than £25 million in new plant over the next four years; the London Brick Company, which already has advanced techniques like mechanical handling, promised more big increases in production. Everything was being nicely Planned.
“But today we find that, before these Plans have had time to take effect, before the brick industry has even been able to invest all the money it planned, the brick market is shrinking rapidly. Bricks are being stockpiled all over the country—some works are putting by nearly half their production. The London Brick Company is finding that lovely mechanical handling equipment a bit redundant, because stockpiled bricks have to be manhandled.
“Month by month, brick production is falling. The firms who thought such a short time ago that the future was so rosy are now on the point of laying off workers”.
The Chairman was plainly upset at the prospect of a lot of unemployed brick workers lying uselessly all over the country. He consoled himself with a large gulp from his glass.
“Why is this happening?” he demanded, and one or two of his audience observed that his eye was unsteady. He leaned forward, as if to take his listeners into his confidence.
“Because while the government has been stimulating the brick industry it has also been pepping up the prefabricated building firms. And these firms have been pinching a lot of the market.
“The Prime Minister has publicly given his support to industrialised building methods; Mr. Crossman is aiming at a hundred thousand factory-built houses a year; the G.L.C. is going to put up blocks ol flats made of steel and plastic; one firm recently built an eleven storey block of pre-fab flats in ten weeks.
“Now nobody is going to accuse me of getting worked up about people living in a lot of mass-produced, hurriedly built, plastic Flats”—the Chairman’s voice was noticeably thicker, and he swigged once more at the glass—“But what has happened recently in the brick industry is liable to undermine peoples’ confidence in Planning and then where will we be?
“And we’ve not got just bricks to worry about, They’re busily closing coal mines and sacking miners now, although a few years back they were crying out for higher coal production and for men to go into the pits. Not men like me, of course, who are too valuable to the country in the jobs we’re already doing to waste our time down a coal mine. They wanted other types for that sort of work.
“But the whole thing looks bad for Planning. And if the government, with its resources, its information, and the control it’s supposed to have over the economy, can’t plan, who can?
“Private Industry? Ha!” The Chairman snorted, and emptied his glass. “What about the ships built to carry cargo which never materialised? The office blocks which can’t find anybody to rent them? The refrigerators which are unsold in a bad summer? The car firms who lay down expensive factories in the hope—the hope, I say—that they can sell the cars which come out of them?”
The other members of the Planall Board were becoming uneasy. The Chairman was wandering a long way off the notes which had been so carefully prepared for him, and he had filled his glass from a dark green bottle which he had taken from his despatch case. They remembered how candid he became with the typists when he drank too much at office parties, and wondered what he would reveal next.
The Chairman ignored them.
“The truth is,” he shouted, “That whatever we try to plan, we can’t control the market. Nobody knows how long a market is going to last, or whether it’s going to appear at all. Who knows what, next year’s weather will be like? Or what new sources of energy may be found? Of what new productive process developed?
“Industry today produces to satisfy the market and as it can’t plan or control the market then it can’t plan or control its production. That’s the explanation for the bricks fiasco, for the crisis in the coal industry and for all the other examples I could think of if only I could get rid of this confounded drumming which has suddenly started in the back of my head.
“Production for the market is at the very heart of modern society. And this means we can’t plan this society at all. Basically it is unplannable, anarchic. It mocks at all efforts to control it. It is true that politicians, and some other people like the Board of Planall Ltd.”—he stared belligerently around the table, his eyes flaring—“Say that Planning is not only possible but desirable and necessary. But the facts say that they might as well rely on a crystal ball.
“The talk in favour of Planning is a lie. It is all a big trick to convince people that we can control a society which is out of control, and which will stay like that until all you mugs wake-up and do something about it”.
The Chairman groped for his glass and, misjudging the distance, upset it over the tablecloth. In the confusion the Company Secretary saw his chance and jumped to his feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he cried, “I am sure we are all grateful to our Chairman for his—ah—stimulating remarks. Shall we now vote on the motion to approve the Company’s Report and Statement of Accounts?”
The shareholders sat unmoving for a bewildered moment. Could they support Planning now, after all they had heard and seen? The turmoil raged in them, but only briefly. First one, then another, and finally all of them, raised their hands.
The Company Secretary beamed. They were, he thought, people who had their principles and their loyalties—and a lot of money invested in the company.