People’s capitalism – a short story

A short story

It was that bloody advert in the Observer that started the discussion – well, more an argument. I confess that my ability for abstract thought is zero; my thoughts ascend like a ladder, each rung building on the last. Whatever Harry’s ability in this area, I will never know because as soon as something occurs to him he blurts it out and, when he has said it, he sticks to it.

He called around early for me on Sunday. Because he likes to please Madge, he accepted her offer of a cup of tea – though, I’m convinced, she just offers him tea to punish him. At any rate, I was reading the Sports and he took up the Business section.

“How much were you earning in 1945?” he asked obtusely when I was no longer aware of him. My look having answered his question, he amended, “I mean what sort of wages do you think they would have paid a fitter in your place in 1945?”

“That was twenty years before my time. 1965 . . . time served . . . If I remember right, about fifteen, sixteen quid a week. Forty-five…? Inflation wasn’t as bad as it was in the next twenty years. I would say a fitter would have been getting about a tenner in 1945. Why do you want to know?”

He heard me but now he was mentally absent and when I saw him taking his pen from his inside pocket I knew he was calculating another great discovery. I had learnt that there were only four points seperating Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier when he said, “I reckon that over the last fifty years a skilled craftsman would have earned, top nick, if he was never unemployed during that time a total of about £250,000”. He spoke without commas, which proved I was right about the great discovery.

“Good! About twice the hours and half the annual wage of a decent company director. You should have been a statistician; you’re a mine of useless information. You can be pretty sure of one thing: if your skilled tradesman is still living he’s an impoverished old-age pensioner.”

“That’s what I’m talking about”, he said mysteriously. It was no good, I put the paper down and laid bare my attention. “I mean, if in 1945 our man had invested £1,000, according to this here ad”, he indicated the paper in his hand, “he’d be almost a bloody millionaire now!”

Rising, he placed the newspaper on my knee, folded to show the advertisement around which he had penned a number of calculations. “H’m”, I said, probably a few times for I am slow at figures, but it seemed straightforward enough. I knew I was avoiding the main thrust of his argument when I said, “And where the hell was a tradesman earning a tenner a week and – if he was married – needing twenty – going to get a thousand quid in 1945?”

His brow puckered, troubled. “All the same . . . ” he limped verbally. The idea lurked beneath the surface, cheating his ability to express it. “Just think, if my oul fella had stuck a couple of grand in that scheme for me, when I was born in 1954, I’d be walkin’ in roses now. Jesus! Ma said he had to borrow twenty quid to get married! Just a couple of grand and I’d be telling you how smart I was in my selection of an oul fella!”

Later, when we left for the pub, Harry was still unusually quiet. I say “later” because after the last reported speech he had dried up and I knew that the great discovery was incubating in his head. When we got to the pub, Robert was there; we knew he would be and that should have made us go to the Golden Hind. Robert is truly a pretentious bastard – but old habits . . . Harry remained in quietude and Robert regaled me with exciting snippets from his world of insurance.

“Jim, just listen to this”. I knew the prototype of the great idea was emerging and I knew, too, that Robert was not being invited to consider it. “I have been thinking . . . “

“Always dangerous the first time!'” quipped Robert. Despite being nasty he always tried to be friendly and he just laughed when Harry feigned surprise at his continued presence.

“The Labour Party was wrong to establish the Welfare State in 1945 and nationalise all them industries.”

I said, “That discovery wouldn’t have got you through the Eleven-Plus!”

Robert said, “Still, some marks for twenty-twenty hindsight”.

I doubt if Harry heard us. “No, funnily enough, it was that ad in the Observer today that made me think of it. If the Labour crowd had left things alone and, instead of giving billions to all them rich bastards for their run-down industries, had invested a thousand pounds for every new baby born, from 1945, say, in that scheme that was advertised, within twenty-five years they, – I mean the government – could have started extracting the ongoing baby subsidy from the profits of the scheme, Not only would the government get its money back but, today, all the over-fifties would have enough money not only to live very comfortably but to ensure that their off-spring was looked after”.

Robert’s face flashed his intentions but his comments were stilled by Harry; he raised his arm impatiently: “Oh, aye, and as well . . .” the idea in its unfolding was expanding; “the people as they grew old and died off would be leaving millions to their heirs. Everybody would be a capitalist and none of us would have to work”.

It seemed as though the noises off conspired with our silence to create a requiem for Harry’s confidence. He looked quizzically at Robert and me for a few seconds then he said, lamely, “Well, what’s wrong with it? It couldn’t have been worse than it is now”.

Robert said, “But it could”, and the simplicity of his rebuttal was devastating. “You know what would have happened, Harry?” he continued, “You’d be standing there now with a big box containing thousand pound notes – part of the millions your dad and your uncle left you and – allowing that a pub still existed – when the barman asked you to pay for the drink you’d have to use a ruler to measure the number of notes you had to give him”.

As I said, I don’t think that well away from the ordinary but someone had to ask and Harry wasn’t going to make a greater fool of himself. I looked knowingly from one to the other, “You’d better tell him why, Robert”.

He seemed to accept that I knew and turned to Harry. “Because if everybody was a capitalist there wouldn’t be a working class to produce all the goods and services we need. You don’t seriously think that money produces wealth, Harry? Take the racket I’m in, insurance – or finance, banking, the stock exchange, even most of the other functions that millions of workers have to do to keep capitalism ticking over – these activities don’t produce any real wealth. All the money shuffling business is simply associated with diverting wealth from those who produce it into the hands – or the bank accounts – of a parasite class of non-wealth producing capitalists”.

“But you need capitalists to . . . well, to . . . everybody knows you need capital”. Harry couldn’t find his reasons; he looked desperately at me for support but I was having flashes of insight. Cleverly, I said, “A box of bloody capital on a coal mine wouldn’t bring up much coal”.

Robert, more animated than usual, added, “Bloody right! Anyway, stocks, shares, bonds and all the other paper crap is about winners and losers and if the horses weren’t running there would be no betting”.

Harry was still discomfited. Robert looked knowingly at me and I felt close to him. Funny how wrong you can be about people.

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