A Quiet Drink at the Local

“I’d emigrate myself if I was a younger man. There’s no initiative left in this country.” He sipped at his half-pint of bitter, put it back carefully on the bar and stared straight ahead at the row of upside-down spirit bottles.

Maurice always start like this. He pretends he is not speaking to you, really, just in case you don’t answer him. And I didn’t. There is no point in arguing with him. His mind is as set as one of the pickled eggs in the jar at his elbow.

“After all, let’s face it, we’re all mollycoddled by the Welfare State.” He half turned to the youth with the bad complexion who was standing behind him and beginning to look uncomfortable. “I admit it,” Maurice insisted with a magnanimous smile, “I’m just the same. I’m soft! Why should I save for a rainy day? The state will take care of me if I’m ill. If I get myself the sack from work I can get nearly as much from the dole and National Assistance as I can for working. Why should I bother to work?”

“Have you tried it?” The young man had a Glasgow accent which made his question sound curt.

Maurice’s eyes widened and he really turned round to look at him now. “Tried what?”

“Getting the ‘labour’ money and National Assistance instead of working? Two chappies in the paper last week were fined £90 apiece for it. Able-bodied y’see. They should have been in a job.” The cigarette in his hand trembled.

“No, well of course most of us don’t try it, do we?” Maurice laughed implying that he had only been joking. He turned back to his glass, including me in his laugh. “We are the mugs that keep so-and-so’s like them in idle comfort.” He switched off his laugh as abruptly as he had switched it on and was beginning to bristle with enough indignation to warn anybody that he did not like being taken up on what he said. “Sixteen and a penny a week you pay, National Health.” He glared at me.

“Well,” I said, trying to produce a jovial smile like his, “they want to make sure you don’t waste it on beer.” The sarcasm missed him completely. He never drinks more than three half pints. He almost choked on the last drop in his glass, and his neck went red. “Look here!” he said, “If everybody spent as much as I do on beer, they’d be all right, let me tell you.” The barman had a faint smile at the corners of his mouth as he filled Maurice’s glass again. “I know how to save my money, which is more than a lot of ’em do these days.” He kept pressing down the short bristles of his moustache with his fingertips. “They’ve got no right to make you pay out—what is it?—about £40 a year just in case you need a doctor. I’ll decide whether I need a doctor, thank you very much. When I need my doctor’s advice, I pay, privately. I want proper attention and a bit of respect, and that’s the only way to get it.”

The youth scowled behind him and said, “It’s your sort that keeps it one treatment for the rich and one for the poor.”

Maurice turned round on him, almost crouching. “That’s the way it always will be, my lad, and the sooner you get it into your head the better. If you’d got money, would you queue up with that crowd of coughing bronchitics and snivelling kids just to get a five-minute once-over and a chit for the chemist’s shop?”

“You’re lucky you can afford it.”

“Look! I’m not rich, you know. That’s just the trouble—I can’t afford it—now. Since this bloody health service came in, it costs the earth to be a private patient. Now it really is lone law for the rich and one for the poor.”

“You can’t win, can you, Maurice.” I think he knew I was digging at him, because he didn’t even look at me.

“At least everybody gets some treatment now,” the youngster insisted, “even if it’s not the best.”

“You shouldn’t have picked a Sunday to say that,” I said. I shook out the newspaper I had been trying to read and showed him the Personal column. “Here you are: ‘R.S.V.P. You are invited to help 3,000 children whose only help is the National Children’s home . . . ‘ Here’s another: ‘The British Heart Foundation . . . urgent research needs your generous support . . .’ Look, they are all down this column. Royal London Society for the Blind, the Army Benevolent Fund, British Empire Cancer Campaign For Research, The Royal Association in Aid of the Deaf and Dumb, the British Epilepsy Association, the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, the Chest and Heart Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis. They’re all appealing urgently for charity. All this is supposed to have been taken care of by the Welfare State.”

“Oh, no! That’s not fair! Give them time. They’ve got to deal with the main things first . . . “

Maurice wouldn’t let him finish. “Give ’em time!” he said in a loud sneering voice. “They’ve been at it for 20 years now, and it’s a damned sight worse than when they started. The surgeries got fuller, the hospitals get more out of date and understaffed. The whole thing’s running down like an old car.”

The young Glaswegian just lowered his heat and waited for it to pass. I don’t think he really heard what Maurice said. “Look, you say it’s one law for the rich and one for the poor, but what you forget is that poor people never had proper medical treatment before. When they had the ‘flu or bronchitis or lumbago they couldn’t afford to call in the doctor. They just had to stay in bed and wait for it to get better—if they were lucky.”

He asked for another pint of mild, and I said to him, “Staying in bed is about the best sort of treatment for ailments like that. That’s all we need sometimes—a few days in bed.”

“Maybe, but there’s not the time for that these days.”

“Worse luck.”

He looked at me with a trace of contempt in his expression. “Do you realise how many thousands of man-hours are lost through common ailments like that?”

“Well, I have some idea, yes.”

“All right! You can’t run a modern country by letting people sleep off their illnesses in bed. You need modern drugs—antibiotics, pain killers, tranquilisers—so that they can be back at work in a couple of days, maybe not have to stop work at all.”

“This is what you call dealing with the main things first?”

“Certainly. What you must remember is that this is a country with a steadily increasing number of old people and a high density of population. The only way to increase production is to get more efficiency out of the labour force we’ve got. Take children, for example. Poverty and slums and lack of medical attention used to produce weak or disabled children. But these days it’s being planned. The state can’t afford thousands of invalids. So the mothers get free ante-natal treatment, maternity allowance, hospital care. If they produce more than one child they get children’s allowances. The children get free milk and subsidised meals.”

Maurice looked over his shoulder and said, “It’s all done on the cheap. Hospitals, drugs, false teeth, spectacles—all cheap and nasty.”

“At least it’s something—and that’s better than nothing.”

“It is if you’re useful,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, look here at today’s paper again—this advert signed by Margaret Herbison, the Minister of Social Security. They’ve at last acknowledged that old age pensions are inadequate. So pensioners can now have a supplementary pension—if they apply for it—and if they’ve not got a part-time job earning more than two pound a week, and so on. They can have their income brought up to a guaranteed level. And look at it! £7 2s. plus rent and rates for a married couple; £4 10s. for a single householder; and £3 18s. plus 10s. rent for a single person. Who can live on that at today’s prices? And it’s being brought up to that.”

“But it’s an improvement, isn’t it?”

“Certainly! And it needs to be, because it still isn’t keeping pace with rising prices. Look here at this bit in Michael Frayn’s column: ‘Some 7,500,000 people in this country live below what the National Assistance Board regard as subsistence level . . . ‘ One in seven of the population, as he says. What state of welfare is that?”

“It’s bad, I admit, but you’ve got to agree that they’re a dead weight on the state. Old age pensioners will never produce any more  . . .”

It was my turn to choke on my beer. “What! They’ve had the energy sucked out of them for 50 years of their lives, with nothing at the end to show for it, and you’re complaining that they can’t be worked until they drop dead! Whose side are you on?”

“They should save up for their old age, like I do,” Maurice said. “There’s too much state control, now—too many regulations and forms to fill in, too much interference. There’s no freedom left. That’s the price we’ve paid for all this. If you want a Welfare State, you can’t complain when the state gives you a credit squeeze and a wage freeze as well. It’s all part of the same thing. I mean, your life’s not your own these days.”

“As far as I can see,” the youngster said, “the working man’s life never was his own. Now, I think the ideals behind the Welfare State were good. For the first time, the worker had the chance of a new deal, the chance to live a respectable life. It’s true enough that conditions—inflation and all that—have made a mockery out of most of it, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

Bit by bit, we had all edged closer together, and the barman was leaning his chin in his hands, listening to us. Maurice glanced round to see who he had for an audience before he spoke. “Listen, my lad, I’m older than you. You don’t remember the thirties. If you think this is a bad time for your Welfare State, just you wait until there’s another depression and see how it works then. You’re all right now as long as you’ve got enough stamps on your card, but you wait till you can’t get any stamps because you haven’t got a job even. I’m telling you this: what they give you they can also take away. And they will when it suits them. I’ve told you. I’d get out of this country if I was younger.”

“Do you really think it’s much different anywhere else?” I said. “You’d be in just the same trap.”

“You two depress me,” said the young man. “Don’t they you?” he asked, turning to the barman.

“I haven’t heard all of it, of course, but I must say, I think all this Welfare State business is a load of codswallop. You’re no better off and no worse off, are you? I mean to say, you’ve still got to turn up at work tomorrow morning, haven’t you? And you’ve got to take stingy-paid part-time jobs like this at the weekend to keep going. It doesn’t alter that, does it?”

“That’s the trap.”

“Yeah, well, tell me some way to get out of that and I’ll be interested.”

“You can’t alter that,” said the Glaswegian contemptuously.

“That’s the way it always will be, lad,” Maurice said.

S. Stafford

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