“The hour of the proletariat is upon us brothers and sisters,” announced the silver-haired speaker standing on his box platform. “Never before has the working man had so much weight behind his advance toward equality…”
“Wot’d he say?”
“He’s explaining Marxist philosophy, Grandad. Saying how the bourgeoisie class has had their day in the sun.”
“This is fucking England, Tommo. Nothin but bloody rain all the time. If his bourgeoisie have had their day in the sun, it was probably on a business trip to fuckin’ Corfu.”
Contradictory to Reggie Harris’ comment; accompanied by his grandson, Tom, the two men were enjoying a warm, mild Spring afternoon hanging out together at the north-east corner of Hyde Park in London – in an area more commonly known as Speaker’s Corner. In a time-honoured tradition dating back to the 1860s, each passing Sunday; people have stood in front of inquisitive crowds, asserting their opinions, or just openly talking about all things topical or religious – without fear of retribution but with the big expectation of receiving highly vocalised mass rebuttals. Eliminating profanity, hate speech, and avoiding any incites of violence in your orations, your corner was yours to talk endlessly – whether anyone was listening or not. No bookings needed. Just turn up and rant.
“You know ‘ow all this started, don’t you, Tommo?”
Reggie’s working-class, Cockney rhetorical way of asking a question was commonplace among certain educational levels. Londoners have the wonderful gift of asking you something they already know the answer to. It’s akin to involving someone in a conversation you’re having with yourself, like the question is asked mainly to make a statement.
“They used to hang people near ‘ere. It was called the Tyburn gallows.”
“Wot…? in Hyde Park?”
“You just might be standing right over the spot where three ‘undred years of neck snapping took place.”
Uncomfortable with that thought, Tom took a cautious step backwards.
“Yeah, I reckon if we came back with a couple of shovels and dug down about twenty feet, we’d probably discover the old gallows still standin’ with nooses looped, the ghosts of swinging London’s past still choking away.”
“Are you ‘avin me on, Grandad?”
“…Of course I am, you plonker…!”
“…Very funny, Grandad… I suppose you were born…”
Tom’s interrupted retort comparing his grandfather’s age to the time of the Tyburn gallows was unexpectedly drowned out by the nearby crowd disagreeing with the soapbox speaker.
“Wots he sayin?”
Tom strained to listen to the speaker’s stretched vocal cords, trying to outshout the loud protestation.
“…He’s on about how the working man… is being exploited for his skills… and forced to accept meager wages…”
“I said, he’s… Hey, where’s your hearing aids?”
“Wot are they doin' there?”
“They keep fallin owt… Anyway, my hearing is better without them…”
Tom waited for the expected punchline that didn’t come. Being used to his grandfather’s teasing wit, Tom had learned from experience that if Reggie considered something not interesting, he would adopt a flippant levity in his style of speaking - that if unaccustomed to, would catch people completely off-guard, pondering the validity of every subsequent statement that escaped from Reggie’s mouth.
“He does realise that this is two thousand and fucking twenty-two, right?”
In a swift put down of the speaker, another rhetorical question answered itself in the same sentence.
“…If he wants to take power from the capitalist class and create a socialist society - free from class structure, he’ll first need to…” Using his hands to resemble a megaphone around his mouth, Reggie loudly offered up his own personal opinion, “GET A FUCKIN’ JOB, YOU MARXIST!”
“Grandad! Keep it down, please. You’ll get a breach of the peace order.”
“I’m using fucking adjectives. Don’t you teach proper English in schools anymore?”
“I don’t teach English. I teach history.”
“Well, you didn’t know about the gallows, did-ja…”
“…It somehow skipped the part of the curriculum set out for year two students - describing the gory history of capital punishment. They see enough violence playing their video games.”
“Dunno why you want to teach snotty-faced kids, anyways.”
“I enjoy it…”
“Do you know that he’s buried in London?”
“Karl Marx… Highgate Cemetery. Anyone can go see him. Can’t miss that big-bearded head sitting on top of a big block of granite. Workers of all lands unite; it says on the headstone. It’s one thing theorising about equality, but I mean, someone’s got to lead, don’t they? Otherwise, you’d just end up wif a bunch of headless chickens runnin’ round the streets waving red flags.”
“Socialists do have leaders, Grandad. Without structure, there’s no organisation.”
“Listen to you, Mr. Confucius. You pick that up at your dancing karate classes?”
“It’s called Tai Chi…”
“More like Tai Chi, Cha-Cha-Cha.”
“…Innit funny how a German who was kicked out of France and Belgium, spent the rest of his life living ‘ere in abject poverty. The thing is, he grew up in a rich family. Must ave been a long fall from grace. Did you know he was so poor, that his missus had to pawn off his trousers to buy food for them. He couldn’t leave the house until she got them back. I reckon he must have hated seeing people with money, reminding him of how much he used to have and how little he really had.”
“Wot, you think his philosophy was fuelled by resentment?”
“Bloody right, it was… He was a racist, too. Hated Jews, dark skin, and when his housekeeper gave birth to his illegitimate son, he kicked them both out into the streets. Fuckin’ wanker.”
“How are you so knowledgeable about Karl Marx?”
“YouTube, Tommo. Plus, I read a lot.”
Reggie found himself being drowned out by several angry opinions aimed at the orator. His curiosity peaked, Reggie grabbed Tom’s sleeve and pushed their way to the front of the crowd, just in time to hear a heated argument between a religious zealot and the socialist.
“This should be interesting, Tommo. A bible thumper arguing philosophy with a Marxist. Someone tell ‘em that two wrongs do not make a right.”
“Wot!? You aven’t gone all religion on me, ave ya?”
“No, but if I had, that would be my choice, wouldn’t it.”
“Wouldn’t be a worse choice than teaching… What’s that he’s sayin?”
“He’s calling religion the opium of the people.”
“That’s just paraphrasing Marx. Ain’t he got nothin’ original?”
“Says, he follows a material philosophy, and that materialism means that thought does not occur without a brain.”
“Bet it took him a while to think that up…”
“…Without a body, there is no brain and without food you get no body.”
“He’s talkin’ in circles, innee…?”
“…And food would not exist without a material environment…”
“Bollocks! Food would not exist without the fucking supermarkets… Wot’s the Jesus freak sayin’ back to him?”
“He’s just waving his bible in the air, praying while being told that… religious idealism is a dualist ideology that thinks it exists above nature, and its biggest idea is God.”
“He’s got a point.”
“Nothing is supernatural, he says. Otherwise, it’s beyond nature and nothing is beyond nature.”
As the defeated revivalist scurried away clasping his bible closely to his chest, Reggie decided to engage the victor with an opinion.
“You’d better watch out for lightning bolts, mate. Judging by the look on his mush, he’ll soon be on his ‘ands and knees, prayin’ to his almighty to turn you into stone.”
The speaker surprisingly said nothing, but just stared blankly at Reggie, slightly unnerving him.
“Just a joke, mate. He’s a dying breed, anyway…”
The speaker continued to study Reggie’s face meticulously, then after a few moments, his eyebrows raised, followed quickly by an expression of recognition on his face, echoing his vocal exclamation…
Perplexed as to how this man knew his name, Reggie squinted his eyes, in an attempt of recognition.
“…Hold tight, please! Ding Ding!” The man imitated the pull of a bell cord.
Memory jogged; Reggie laboured to respond through a breathless voice.
“Arthur? Arthur Higgins?”
“Reggie Harris, as I live and breathe.”
Tom interestingly watched in silence at what appeared to him a long-lost reunion of two old friends.
“Well, fuck me,” Reggie blurted out. “The last time I saw you, you were at the front of a strike action in Peckham, shouting less hours more pay.”
Arthur chuckled at the memory now unveiling forgotten images in his brain.
“I remember… We marched on to Trafalgar Square singing, you can’t touch me, I’m part of the union, till the day I die.”
“If my memory serves me right, we ended up with the total opposite.”
“The power of the oppressors, Rej.”
Pulling on Tom’s arm, Reggie introduced the two.
“This is me youngest grandson, Tom.”
“How do…” Arthur cordially responded.
“One of seven, he is… His mum and dad ‘ave always been at it like rabbits.”
“My youngest daughter, Shirley, married a Mick, an Irish Catholic. Tommo’s the runt of the litter. How he ended up a teacher, I don’t know.”
“What do you teach, young man?”
“Don’t mind him, Tommo,” Grandad interrupted. Arthur’s always been on the side of the trodden on.“
“The Proletariat, Rej. The people. Me and your grandad, Tom, have a bit of history, don’t we…”
Again, Tom waited for a follow through, but realised prompting was required.
“Where’d you both meet?”
Reggie offered up his answer first… “On the buses.”
“Wot!? On a bus?”
“Nah, you plonker,” teased Reggie.
“Your grandad and me worked on the buses,” Arthur cut in. “We was a team. I was the conductor collecting fares and he drove the bus.”
By now, the crowd, unfulfilled with the break in the action, began to disperse, some heading towards the recent religious interloper, who had positioned himself on a wooden crate and was dramatically preaching his gospel interpretation of the seventh day. As one listener shifted camp, he innocently enquired as to why Arthur had stopped speaking, to which the curt reply was, “I’m exercising my worker’s right to a break, brother…”
“Still fighting the system, I see,” noted Reggie.
“Once an agitator, always an agitator,” was Arthur’s quick reply. “I wasn’t always, Tom… In those days, we didn’t have Oyster cards or travel cards, or even credit cards. Unless you ‘ad a bus pass, you paid cash for your ticket to ride. The problem with that was we were always running out of coins to change notes or split larger coins. Bus fares then were fairly cheap, and most people carried the right amount of fare on ‘em. It was a ritual with some. Others, it was the only bit of cash they had readily available. I mean, back then, wages were atrocious. Unless you were in management or ran a business, you were paid horribly.”
“So,” enquired Tom. “What was a normal wage as a bus driver back then, Grandad?”
Scratching his head, trying to recall what he earned, Reggie took a brief pause, before his memory returned.
“…On a good week – and I mean a week where we were paid a passenger bonus… After tax, I was lucky if I took home… thirty quid a week.”
“More than me, you rich bugger,” protested Arthur.
“Yeah, but I was the driver and more skilled than you.”
“And you think it was easy havin’ to deal with the public every day – mostly on my feet. Anyway, let me finish my story, cause it’s why my eyes became finally opened to the oppression of the lower classes.”
“Sorry,” said Tom.
“…Well, on this one day, this bowler-hatted toff gets on, sits on the back bench seat by the entrance, and hands me a one-pound note for a 20p fare. It was near the end of our shift and on a Friday – you know, pay day for most. I’d taken a lot of paper money on our route and had run out of small coins, so I politely asked this geezer if he had the exact change an’ he come back all sneering with, Exact change? What an oxymoron… Well, not knowing then what that meant, I took it as an insult and threw his rude arse off the bus. By the time we arrived back at the depot, he had been on the blower to our inspector and complained of my treatment of him, saying he had never been more humiliated in his life.”
“So, what happened?”
“He was put on report,” Reggie explained.
“Yeah, but you see, I was the local union rep, so I called for a walk-out until management promised to protect the rights of its employees to unfair disciplinary actions and to also allow appeals. Management not wanting more lost revenue to an already existing bus strike, capitulated and expunged my record, giving us all autonomous roles to manage ourselves as we saw fit…. And that, young Tom, was my first taste of rage against the machine, cementing my place in the pursuit of socialism.”
During his story, a few curious onlookers crowded around the three men in the hope of hearing something sensational. But after a quick, “Bugger off you nosey bastards” from Reggie, they quickly dispersed.
“You see, Tommo,” explained Arthur. “At the time, there was a social struggle goin’ on. As always, the rich were getting richer, while us peons regressed into abject poverty, counting every penny we earned… I mean, today, it seems everything is changing constantly. Petrol prices, house prices, the cost of food, the cost of living… but in a way, young people like you are better off, because technology has created many high paying jobs. Yes, there are still a lot of undesired jobs out there that no-one wants, but there’s a better chance of getting a higher education than when me and Reggie was your age.”
“Have you seen teacher’s wages?” Tom complained. “It’s not easy street.”
“Well, you did have to pick a fuckin’ useless career path, didn’t you,” Reggie criticised.
“You got a teachers union at your school, Tom?” Arthur probingly asked.
“No… there’s been talk of forming one, but the principal and the board have threatened dismissal, if we go in that direction.”
“That’s oppression of the Proletariat,” Arthur exclaimed loudly, causing some of his earlier crowd to return and listen in. “Here, take my business card. When you’re ready to talk union, call me. You do know it’s illegal to dismiss you for joining a union.”
Without losing stride, Arthur turned to address the growing crowd.
“…It’s 2022 comrades, and the machine continues to run over the wants and needs of the pedestrians.”
“Wot’s he sayin?” Reggie asked Tom.
“He said, the machine continues…”
“I heard that, you parrot. What fucking machines? This is a car-free zone park…”
“It’s a metaphor, Grandad. He’s using an example to describe the situation.”
Reggie’s face scrunched in a frustrated expression of exasperation at Tom’s failure to understand that his grandfather was not stupid.
“I’ve got an enlightening metaphor for you Tommo… Act like a sheepdog and get the flock out of here…”
Gradually surrounded by an audience of approximately fifty-plus listeners, Arthur took up position on his makeshift podium to preach a doctrine combining socialism with reinterpreted Marxism.
“We may think everything is changing,” Arthur began. “The times, our attitude, our sensitivity to all things not woke. But in reality, nothing has changed in our society since we shipped government undesirables off to Van Daemon’s land…”
“Australia, you history failure.”
“..I’m amazed he knows what woke is.”
“Yeah, it’s wot you should do every morning before breakfast…”
Pausing to allow Reggie and Tom their moment of indifference, had the desired effect of quietness, allowing Arthur to continue.
“…Our struggle for a classless society continues brothers and sisters. We may live in a modern world, but as long as minimum wage is less than government benefits, the only ones that prosper are the boots in your faces, pushing your oppressed minds into the dirt.”
As Arthur built up a head of full steam Marxism, Reggie was curious as to what information was on the business card.
“Give us that… Arthur Higgins,” he read. “Bermondsey Textiles… Where’d I hear that name before…?”
“Isn’t that the sweatshop that was in the news recently, Grandad? Where immigration raided and found thirty-five illegal workers living in squalid conditions in the factory.”
Reggie’s expression morphed into a look of disgust.
“That dirty little… You’re right, Tommo… Oi, Arthur…! You fucking hypocrite! You know the problem with Marxism?”
“What’s that, Reggie?”
“The problem with Marxism, Arthur… Is that like religion, it can be interpreted in many ways…. and like religion, it can be used as a weapon of fear.”
“That’s your opinion, Rej.”
“It’s also my opinion that you’re just here to make yourself feel better. You talk about low wages and poor working conditions for workers, yet you run a sweatshop full of migrants too scared to complain about their own plight, for fear of deportation. I know all about your little operation at Bermondsey Textiles. In fact, the whole fucking country does, coz you’ve been all over the news.”
The sudden disclosure caused an uproar with the crowd, who began hurling abuse at Arthur, followed first by eggs being hurled at him, then jostling him like a bunch of schoolground bullies. Calling for Reggie to step in and help him went on genuine deaf ears, as Reggie and Tom backed away from the melee, watching the police arrive.
“See you later, Arthur,” shouted Reggie. “Hold on tight… Ding Ding!”
Noticing the look of distaste on Tom’s face, Reggie felt it necessary to defend his actions.
“Wot? He’s a fake, Tommo.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to set the crowd on him.”
“Maybe, but he always was a mouthy bugger. Cost us all a pay rise back when he was marching on Downing Street. Worse union rep we ever had… Exact change, pfft… Fucking Oxymoron…!”