A Word in Your Ear: Mustn’t Grumble





“Watcha Ted. Howya doin’?”

“Not so bad. Can’t complain.”

To which the present writer’s response is “Why not?” if you can’t complain, what the hell are you supposed to do in the face of the insecurities, indignities and discomforts of life as a wage slave? We are taught to applaud the stoical resilience of retired workers who are old, sick, impoverished and treated like dirt, but refuse to mope around feeling sorry for themselves. “Old Charlie had a lousy life, but one thing you can say about him, he always had a smile on his face.” What was Charlie, some kind of a desensitised imbecile who was scared of expressing the misery of the social reality which was crushing him? Why put up in silence with a bad lot? “How’s life with you?”, they ask, waiting for an inaudible half-grin, half-sigh—the greeting of the complacently hopeless slave. “How am I? I’ll tell you how I am . . .  and I’ll tell you how you are while I’m at it.”


Such thinking was prompted by a recent viewing of one of those old black-and-white films about British POWs in the Second World War who, stuck for years in camps and bullied by Nazi thugs, always kept their peckers up and whistled “There’ll Always Be An England” every time their rations were cut. This drab display of abject tolerance for oppression, combined with deference for the officers (whose main role was to send the men to dig holes which invariably led nowhere) and endless tommy grit, sums up a particular strain of working-class acquiescence which is nauseating to view and worse still to live amongst.


In The Captive Heart Gordon Jackson is blinded in the course of doing his bit for King and Country. Asked how he was by an officer he responds with the slave’s motto, “Mustn’t grumble.” Has John Major considered adopting this as his slogan for the next election? “Stuck in a slum with no job . . . insufficient text books to go round the class you’re teaching . . . waiting in casualty for three hours for admission to a hospital ward which they can’t afford to keep open . . . unemployed and been left by your wife and kids . . . well, what we say is MUSTN’T GRUMBLE!”


Illustration: David Drew
Give me Basil Fawlty as against George Dixon any day. True enough, Fawlty was trapped in a world of endlessly repeated frustrations and impotent bitterness but, for all his cheerless disdain for his small-business, culturally pointless life as a hotel landlord, at least he knew there was a problem. Old George Dixon whistled while he worked, worked till he dropped and never broke the master’s rules. He was poor but he was happy—it was the happiness of the willing slave: a role model for the millions who viewed his ungrumbling antics.


There is much to be said for happiness (not least that it feels a lot better than sadness), but perhaps the price of becoming free to control our lives is to recognise just how unfree to be happy the vast majority of us actually are—and always will be under this lousy profit system. We are surrounded by endless commodities, the range of which grows by the day, offering us freedom from stress, anxiety and sorrow. The phone-in shrinks offer callers and listeners huge promises of release from misery. Everyone is urged to “talk about it” whether it’s the news that your daughter has been forced to go on the game or you’ve just lost your executive job or you woke up this morning realising that life in the rat race is for rats and not humans. Talk long enough, they imply, and you will learn to smile in the face of adversity. Mustn’t grumble, after all.


Simply grumbling is a waste of time. It’s like endlessly scratching an itch without searching for its cause. But it is one step up from refusing to grumble—fearing to scratch the itch in case it offends anyone. The next step is to grumble with a view to end grumbling, and the one after that is to grumble collectively (rhythmic grumbling; could this not become a future Olympic sport?).


All is far from lost. Last week a Gas Board worker came to fit a radiator. The following exchange took place:


 “Morning. Come to fit the radiator? “ “You seen the bloody snow out there? You can bet Cedric sodding Brown doesn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive across town in the snow fitting radiators. All that bastard knows how to do is make fat profits and sack people.”
“You’re right there. That’s what this system’s all about. ”“System? I call it a bloody racket, not a system.”
“Yet people put up with it.”“They shouldn’t. They should complain.”
We should complain. And we need to blow what it is we’re up against.’’
“Well, there’s more of us than them. We should overthrow it, never mind complaining.”

Now, there’s an encouraging thought. Mustn’t grumble—unless, of course you’re a thieving parasite who thinks you’ll forever own the earth. In which case large amounts of grumbling followed by much trembling would seem to be your historic fate.


Steve Coleman