Monday, 14 March 2011

A parable.

There's an old guy who drinks in the local. Nice avuncular chap who enjoys a good yarn (this isn't the parable yet, by the way) he's cerainly had an interesting life, mainly as a result of his life in the military, having enjoyed his national service he decided to stay on and spent most of the next couple of decades in Germany, Cyprus and Hong Kong. He is the master of the shaggy dog story, much of what he says is based in reality, but the stories have obviously been tweaked with the line between fact and fantasy becoming blurred in places.

This doesn't make him a Walter Mitty type, his yarns aren't designed to relieve people of money or to make him seem grander than he is, they are a form of entertainment over a pint, and very entertaining they are too. There's a great one about the time Princess Margaret came to visit the base and saw an exhibition of tank formation dancing, the upshot being that someone managed to cross the channels between the microphone over the PA system with the radio comms between the tank commanders, and the less than regal language that was used by the commanders to cajole their charges inside the tanks was broadcast to the crowd. There's also a good story of him and his mates, on a 48 hour pass from base in Germany, encountering a very obnoxious, fresh faced American private in a bar in the Netherlands, and how in conspiracy with the locals they got him drunk to the point of unconciousness before taking him back over the border and dropping him in the middle of some woods on the banks of the Ruhr with nothing but his underpants and a copy of Das Kapital. All good stuff.

He very recently recounted this story, which is certainly apocryphal at best. I present it as a parable.

John had managed to fall through the cracks whilst the country was busy fighting the war. He'd come out of school and was functionally illiterate, he could write his own name but beyond that really couldn't read or write. He'd spent his national service term in Germany. As an NS conscriptee he had no desire to remain the military, whilst he did what was required of him without issue, he couldn't wait for his demob papers to come through. He'd made it clear to his CO that he would do his very best whilst he was there but wasn't interested in being 'developed' as modern parlance would have it. His CO understood and John was as good as his word, when his demob papers came through he was repatriated with a glowing reference from his CO as he had been a model soldier. However due to his lack of military ambition his illiteracy had never been identified or addressed. He left the army and came back to the UK in the late 50's no better off academically than he had been when he left. John just wanted to work.

He'd pimped himself about his native east end with his glowing discharge report held proudly in hand, but as soon as it became clear he couldn't read or write, prospective employers didn't want to know. He eventually went to the Labour Exchange to see what they had on offer. One of the people at the exchange informed him that there was a vacancy as a street sweeper and that given his record he could probably start next week, all he had to do was fill this form in. He struggled with the form in the waiting area for ten minutes, but he had no hope of completing it and his pride would not let him ask for assistance. He left the Labour Exchange despondent and threw the incomplete form in the bin on the street before meeting up with an old comrade in the pub as arranged.

His former brother in arms had left the service and started working at his family accountancy firm. John asked his friend if there was any work going there. His friend, who was aware of John's illiteracy, was apologetic but gave the same answer as all the other potential employers. However, John's mate hit on a plan, he loaned him £20 (pre-decimalisation) to enable him to get a barrow and some stock from Covent Garden. John thought this was a great idea and set up a pitch near Brick Lane. John was good at this and had repaid the loan due to his friend in a matter of weeks. Within four years he had a staff and three fruit and veg shops.

Back in the pub with his mate he was asked how business was going. He replied that it was great and that he was making money hand over fist by catering for the new immigrants coming in from the West Indies. John's mate was delighted to hear this and was touting for his friend's business in the accountancy firm so he could ensure that John's tax affairs were up to date. His jaw hit the floor when John said he didn't know what to do with all the money and that it was all stored in cash, in boxes under his bed.

'We've got to get you to the bank.' His friend said, it isn't safe having all that cash in your room. They went back to John's little flat, bagged some of the cash up and went to the bank. The manager was summoned when he said he wanted to open an account.

When the manager came out he saw this scruffy man in dungarees, overall and flat cap and looked down his nose at him. 'You'll have to fill these forms in, how much do you want to deposit?' he asked, expecting something in the region of a few shillings.

'I can't fill these forms in, sir.' He replied. 'I can't read or write. But I am looking at paying in about £500 today with another couple of thousand to come.'

The manager inspected the contents of the bag and became suspicious that this was the proceeds of some Post Office job. When he asked how John came to be in possession of the cash, John gave his story, with confirmations from his friend who was with him. The manager's attitude changed immediately. 'I shall complete the forms for you, sir.' he said, asking John for the information as he went along. When the formalities had been completed, and the cash safely transferred to the bank's vault he said to John, 'You know Mr. Brown, this is most impressive, despite being illiterate with minimal start-up capital you've managed to grow a robust and successful business. I can only wonder what you could have acheived if you'd been able to read or write.'

'Oh, that's simple boss.' replied John. 'I'd have been a fucking street sweeper.'

What's the moral of story? I'll leave that up to you.

But I'll leave you with this, if this story was set in 2011 rather than the 1950's, he'd have had someone to fill the forms in for him at the Job Centre. He'd have been fed into training to improve his literacy. He'd have been sent off to a parade of dead end jobs that wouldn't have made it worth him coming off the dole. Clearly John is no fool, and he'd realise pretty quick that it would be better for him financially to balls up the interview or perform poorly if he got the job. The exercise is to get him into work, yes, but not for his benefit, it is for the benefit of the government employment figures.

Yes, people need and deserve support to establish themselves, everyone deserves a chance to make a go of it, but John would have found himself wholly dependent on a system which suits its own ends not that of the user. What we have now would crush his acumen and his spirit.

This simply couldn't happen in 2011, I doubt it happened (well, knowing the old boy's stories perhaps not exactly like that) in 1958, but it does have a kernel of credibility when set in the late 50's, in the present day? Not a chance.


Angry Exile said...

Excellent story and made Oi larf at the end. And just as good as a parable too.

Mac said...

This tale is actually a lovely, very old movie. Sadly, I have no idea what the title was. I would love to see it again!
The differences to your friends story being the 'hero' was the verger at St. Bartholomew's Church who was 'let go' when a new vicar discovered our 'hero' couldn't read or write.
The closing scene is the 'hero' being summoned by his bank manager to discuss his finances and the manager discovering our 'hero' can't read or write.
"Good heavens, you've built your business and amassed this considerable sum of money and you can't even read or write? Have you any idea where you could have been today if you could read and write?"
"Yes Sir, I'd be the verger at St. Bartholomew's Church.

Ken said...

The origin is a short story, 'The Verger', by Somerset Maugham, and the film referred to above is Trio.

Mac said...

Thanks for that. I had it firmly lodged in my brain it was St. Bartholomews. Then again, I don't have much of a brain for lodging stuff. Thanks again.

Snowolf said...

Excellent, I've not read any Somerset Maugham since my days of English lessons in school, I'll have to track the short and movie down.

I thought it was a little fantastical, even for this old boy's yarns.

A cracking tale though.