1990s >> 1999 >> no-1139-july-1999

Ordinary people

From as far back as I can ever remember, probably from the first time I became aware of my social environment, I have found myself wincing at the term “ordinary people”. Politicians use it when speaking of the electorate. It is used mostly to delineate the working class and it has become a derogatory description either for people who are not members of the establishment, or for those who do not get themselves in the news. What the word conjures up, for me at any rate, is a picture of thousands upon thousands of dull, drab powerless people, hollow-eyed and mindless, trudging to work with no other thought in their heads than sullen obedience to their masters. Perhaps somewhere there are workers who appear like characters from Brave New World, but that is not my experience.

There have always been people who crave attention; they become local councillors, trade union leaders, MPs. Maybe some of them start out with altruistic motives and, are therefore, surprised at how being in the limelight makes them feel extraordinary. Surprise must soon turn to elation because it could be tempting to feel, once you are in the news, that you are in some way an authority, that your every word is received like pearls of wisdom escaping from the lips of the Oracle. Yet it is a myth that leaders know better than we do and possess the God-given right to direct our lives.

I once heard a man on a radio programme announce, when asked a question about the preparation of vegetables before cooking them, that, yes, it is preferable to rinse them lightly under the tap. Now isn’t that something? I didn’t know that, did you? He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t need to. He was an expert. Another time I listened with horror to Paul Boateng telling parents that it was perfectly all right to smack their children, when I had spent most of my life believing that it wasn’t. But he is one of those with the authority (and the audacity) to inform the rest of the nation that a belt round the ear does our kids the world of good. Some people will believe him. He is extraordinary, after all.

My dictionary says: Ordinary—usual, common, normal, not specially good. I don’t know anyone like that. In my street lives a builder. Among other things he builds marvellous flint walls, poetry in themselves. He erected the conservatory which acts as an extension on the back of my house and he worked with a skill which I found fascinating. When Henry plies his trade he does it lovingly and gracefully and so for the first time in my life I began to value people who built things. But that is not all that Henry does. He has an allotment where he grows spectacular vegetables, row-upon-row of whatever is in season. I am on the receiving end of some of those vegetables and they are wonderful to behold. Sometimes he will take a cabbage, a green pepper or a bunch of carrots from the proffered bag and comment on how fine it is. He says it with pride and I know he is remembering buying the seeds and sowing them in the ground. He would have nurtured them as tenderly as if they were his own children until they were ready to be harvested. And at the end of the season he would set about preparing the soil for his next act of creation. Henry doesn’t say much, but is he ordinary? Never. Scratch the surface of anyone you know and you will see what I mean.

My own mother would have come under that awful heading “ordinary”. Though bowed down by poverty and five kids she played the piano. Neighbours would come to our front gate to listen to her. I would be moved to tears at the pieces she played with such feeling. I used to wonder that if she hadn’t been my mother then who would she have been? I felt a little jealous that inside my mother dwelt another person—a woman who could produce such beautiful musical sounds. She wasn’t ordinary.

Ordinary under capitalism means you haven’t been discovered or there isn’t a market for you. It means, too, that you are there to be told what to do. Your opinions are of no consequence unless the powers-that-be have created you or you are rich and powerful enough to create yourself. You are mostly not defined by your uniqueness but by your market value. When I give an acquaintance the Socialist Standard to read and they come across something I have written, they will often ask “Do they pay you?” When I answer in the negative they quickly lose interest in my modest efforts as though there can be little merit in them unless they bring in the filthy lucre. My response to people who ask what I like doing is always that I like writing. They invariably ask “Are you a professional?” So little in life has real value unless it is rewarded with money. Yet the majority of us would surely blossom without the daily grind.

My little daughter once wanted to be a nurse. She spent happy hours heaping blankets upon her father as he snoozed in his armchair, sticking imaginary hypodermic needles into his arms and wiping his brow with a tea towel. All this soon altered as her working life loomed large. True she could have grown out of her desire to heal the sick but in the end what must focus our minds is how much we can get paid for the countless hours spent away from home for the best part of our lives. Most of us do it without understanding that there is another way of organising our time. But that does not mean we are ordinary.


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