March 3, 2010

Of no fixed address

Filed under: Back story,BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 4:11 pm

My electrics have, to use slang my New Zealand grandmother favoured, been giving me gyp lately.  I replaced an alternator, disconnected the adverc, and ripped out the split diode thingy (and I barely know what any of this stuff is).  Nevertheless the batteries complain.  They reward my careful evening attention with nothing more grateful than red warning lights each morning.

The Grumpy Mechanic has had it up to here with my batteries.  He says his back has never been the same since he hauled mine out to test them last year and he isn’t doing it again.  I’m not complaining, he says, though he is.  Replace the lot, Girl, is his advice.

Since I usually do what I am told, I have.  That is, I ordered new ones, to be delivered to the pub today, because that’s our boaty poste restante.   Just after eleven o’clock opening time I trundled up the towpath with my computer and my dongle, ordered a latte, and set up camp.

On Twitter I read that Michael Foot, Labour Party leader 1980 – 1983 died this morning, aged 96.  I tweeted that I bet every obituary mentioned his donkey jacket and the longest suicide note in history.

In January 1979 I had just won a scholarship to Oxford, starting the following fall.  The US news was full of the Iranian revolution and what British journalists (an educated lot, on the whole) had dubbed their Winter of Discontent.  The UK Labour government was at war with the unions who had been their backers.  Despite beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, everything was going badly wrong.  

My friends said, You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

It sure looked like it from the television news.  Rubbish collectors, gravediggers, ambulance drivers and other public sector workers all were out on strike.  I watched films of mounds of garbage on the streets and heard dark reports of dead bodies piled up in morgues.   Inflation was only just down from a peak of 26.9%.

For the first time I took an interest in a UK election, called that spring.  Margaret Thatcher, Conservative, was elected, the first and only woman Prime Minister. 

The following year, 1980, the Labour Party lurched to the left and Michael Foot, a kindly maverick (really a maverick – he lost the party whip for two years because he was an inveterate peacenik) was their candidate for Prime Minister.  I am reluctant to say he was already elderly when he became party leader at 67, but it certainly seemed so to my much younger self.  An intellectual and wholly unworldly Socialist, he reminded me of my grandfather.  Of course, he was also wholly unfit to lead a political party.

He was ridiculed for his scruffy clothes, and particularly for the coat he wore on Remembrance Sunday (Veterans’ Day).  The press called it a “donkey jacket” and were outraged by what they claimed was disrespect to our Glorious Dead.  It was quite in vain that Foot repeatedly pleaded that the Queen Mother herself had admired his jacket as they both waited to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph.

1983 was my first general election in the UK and I was a little puzzled at first to find that here politicians published election “manifestos”.  My high school history lessons had led me to believe that manifestos were strictly for commies.  I bought the full versions for all three main parties and read them closely.

Michael Foot’s party manifesto went into extraordinary detail.  I laughed out loud when I came to the bit that said “The Labour Party supports the wishes of women in childbirth.”  I was then expecting my second baby.  I adore my children once they exit the birth canal, but my wishes in childbirth generally involved mass murder.

That year the Labour Party suffered the worst general election defeat in 50 years, and the manifesto came to be known as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Meanwhile, back at the pub, I was the only customer, still nursing my latte two hours on.  Stematos, the Greek landlord, and I both had our laptops open on opposite sides of the bar.  I thought of telling Stematos that Michael Foot had died, but I wasn’t sure he would know who I was talking about.  Stematos was googling plant stands. 

There was no sign of the battery delivery, and after a while the punters began to arrive for lunch: the chatter was about pension fund bailouts, bowel cancer, birthdays, and how the Grumpy Mechanic might be getting on in his new flat.  No one mentioned Michael Foot.  I made Stematos happy by ordering feta cheese, olives, bread and a small glass of wine.  He thought I was going to sit there all day on the latte. 

Just as I was about to give up, five spanking new batteries were delivered to the pub porch.  I hauled them in two loads to the boat, a little less than half a mile from the pub, three batteries on the first journey (when I was fresh) and two on the next, when I was tired.  I needed to rest a lot on both trips.  Lifting them inside was pretty hard, and I was afraid I might drop one into the canal, since I was already exhausted from getting them there.

They cost £100 each, and I really did not want to lose any in the water.

3 batteries - the 1st load

Three batteries - the first load

When I got them onboard I put them on my scale, just out of curiosity.  Each battery weighed 62.8 pounds, meaning the load of two was almost exactly as heavy as I am (on a good day), and the load of three was a whole lot heavier.  I felt like one tough Duchess.

Batteries waiting to be installed.

All five batteries safely in the engine room, waiting to be installed.

By the time I had pushed the empty cart back up the tow path it was 5 pm and I thought I deserved a big glass of wine.

I turned on the radio.  It was all about Michael Foot.  I wasn’t wrong.  Every report mentioned the donkey jacket and the suicide note.  You can read the BBC obituary here.

I haven’t quite forgotten that once I get the new batteries installed, I’ll have five old ones to haul up the tow path, but sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Or so I am told.


  1. Oh lord, I remember Michael Foot and the longest suicide note in history! Footy was a sweet old duffer but, as you say, definitely not cut out for party leadership. It’s a sad reality that only utter snakes can succeed in politics; just look at the current lot. It makes me cringe to read Blair and Cameron eulogising him. I’m quite sure he would have despised both of them.
    Lulz on “wishing mass murder” during labour. Me too! I swore like a trooper throughout and my poor wee son arrived to a fusillade of four-letter words.

    Comment by Tessa — March 3, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

  2. I love reading your posts about British life and politics – now I’ll spend the evening Googling Michael Foot.
    You are indeed one tough Duchess, but I’d suspected that for some time now.

    Comment by Jan — March 4, 2010 @ 6:36 am

  3. Strikes…I remember going about with candles in my pocket for when the power went out. And the mistake I made buying those crabs (in shell) to eat the day the garbage guys went out. That was a long time for crab shells to be sitting in the back garden.

    Comment by Jane Gassner — March 4, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  4. That’s a great weaving together of batteries and obituary, Duchess.
    Michael Foot was a damn sight more than a sweet old duffer. He was, at a crucial time, the eloquent conscience of the Labour Party and the fact that he was a completely ineffectual leader was testimony to his unswerving loyalty to socialism. Tony Benn has been a much more useful loose cannon since leaving Parliament. Maybe Foot should have done the same and spoken truth to power from outside that most compromised of places.

    Comment by Dick — March 9, 2010 @ 5:23 am

  5. Don’t want to take issue with you, Dick, but maybe “most compromised” overstates it by one if you’ve been looking at the U.S. Congress lately, where even members are saying out loud, as they leave, that they can have more impact and do more good working outside it. Is there a well-governned country anywere in the world? That’s a serious question, I’d really like to know.

    Comment by T P — March 9, 2010 @ 5:39 am

  6. I wouldn’t want to moderate the question of whether the US Congress or the UK Parliament were the more compromised. But Dick reminds me how very much we in the UK will all miss Tony Benn when he is no longer there to keep us honest.

    Comment by Duchess — March 9, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  7. Jerry says that the obit in the Economist mentions neither the note nor the coat. I didn’t read it; yours was good enough.

    Comment by Old Woman — March 10, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  8. Some very interesting things you mentioned here! I’m not the biggest fan of politics, but I did enjoy your talk about British life. Thanks for stopping by my site and commenting!

    Comment by Michelle H. — March 13, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

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