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.
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.
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.