Having a Rotten Christmas
“I suppose”, said Tomlinson, waving his hand-rolled Old Holborn as if it were a large, expensive cigar, “you’ll be spending it at home with the family?” I looked at him with a wary surprise; for three years in that office I had been working under, or perhaps I should say had been terrified by, him — by the huge temper which sparkled behind his pebble glasses, by the rage which he regularly turned on me when he knew he had made a mistake. If I could find the courage, I would hand in my notice. Now, on this Christmas Eve, I was unnerved by his unaccustomed affability, with its hint that he saw me as a human being who might after all live in a home with a family.
Without warning he lunged to grip my shoulder, bared orange teeth and coaxed across his face, now very close to mine, an expression I had not seen there before. This was it, I thought — the physical attack I had feared for so long, and with wing-like gyrations of my elbow I tried to dislodge his hand. But his grip was strong (he had once been an Olympic gymnast) and for some seconds we writhed wordlessly at his desk until, as he panted “Merry Christmas”, it dawned on me that he was smiling.
Tomlinson was shipping manager to a small firm which had begun its life in an office and warehouse in the City of London, importing and selling chemicals. There was, to put it mildly, a resistance to change there; the management was entrenched in a traditional formality which, among other things, ensured that you had to work there for years before you could earn the prefix “Mister” to your name. Nobody, of course, ever used their first name and if one of the secretaries got married the rest of the staff simply continued to call her by her maiden name.
The post-war property boom had blasted the firm out of the high rents of the City into a modern, bleak building in a west-suburban industrial estate. Quite a few of the employees lived in the East End and beyond; before the move they had had a simple journey to work but now each day they had to travel from one end of the Central Line to the other, reading their Daily Express and telling each other jokes using their surnames/ Whatever the reason for such loyalty, it could not have been that the firm were paying high wages. I know that I was paid well below the going rate and, after one fearfully sneaked look at his pay packet, I knew that Tomlinson, for all his airs, was treated no better. Twice a year we got a bonus which was handed out, after weeks of coy reminders from Tomlinson, as if the firm was swamping us in generosity.
It was in this mood that Tomlinson approached me that day. We had just received the Christmas bonus and I suppose he expected my usual enmity would have been disarmed by gratitude. It was, he may have reasoned, the season of good will (although there was never any celebration in that firm); time to repair some of the damage he had done during the rest of the year, perhaps to catch me off guard with an admission that the firm was a relaxed, friendly, caring bunch and that Tomlinson was an impulsively warm and festive personality.
In my gloomier, more penetrative moments I could see that what might be called right was on their side. Far beyond the passages and courts of the City, beyond the gimcrack suburbs, the popular Christian festival of Christmas is offered to us just as Tomlinson was offering his hand to me. In the midst of a war, with thousands dying each day in unimaginable fear and pain, Christmas is the time for monarchs and statesmen to place special emphasis on their obscenities about peace and human dignity. A social system in which an abundantly rich minority live off a grindingly poor majority is justified, when Christmas comes, in soothing words about the good times which will come when we have had a change of heart. As millions die each year in famine, Christmas feeds us with its special brand of hypocrisy. Its festivity is a time to try to escape an inexorable, horrible reality, for workers to disguise their impoverished homes in tinsel and coloured paper and to anaesthetise their tensions at the prospect of the exploitation process waiting to swallow them again, when the holiday is over and the decorations are a dusty heap in a corner.
Christmas exists on the delusion that capitalism need be as it is — indeed, at times that it is not as it is. But this society is not a matter of human defects. Poverty exists, not because the working class, who suffer from it, are morally deficient and their masters morally perfect. War lays waste to life, not through human aggression or acquisitiveness. Society is blighted by repression, not because its people ignore moral instruction.
It cannot be said too often, or too emphatically, that the effects of capitalism are unavoidable as long as the system endures. Capitalism inexorably produces war, poverty and human degradation and these problems will not be abolished by seeking a change in hearts but through a revolutionary upheaval. Anything — like the Christmas interlude — which attempts to persuade us otherwise is an episode in hypocrisy and delusion.
All of this was apparent, as it always was with me, as I faced Tomlinson that Christmas Eve. I would like to be able to say that I shook off his hand and told him what I thought of him, of the company he adored, of the country he gave his loyalty to, of the social system he regarded as the ultimate in human rationality. But I wasn’t up to it so I muttered and shuffled my feet. reached out for the bill of lading file and immersed myself thankfully in what Tomlinson called work.
And yes, I did spend it at home with my family, where all good wage slaves go at Christmas. But there was no escape there; for the family is not, as the queen so often tells us, a haven of warm security. It may not be too obvious, around the Christmas fireside, but the family has a role in capitalism — to socialise us from childhood into an acceptance of capitalism’s privilege-based morality. There was no escape there nor anywhere; the Tories were not long back in power and Suez lay in the not-too-distant future. It was still possible before reality set in, for the media bandits to talk about a new Elizabethan age. I gloomily contemplated capitalism’s future and the immediate fact that after Boxing Day everyone would stop being talkative and replete and go back to the deprived and furtive personalities of wage-slaves.
I had a rotten Christmas.