The Young Conservatives, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and me

What follows is our second extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Portrait of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The perfect antidote to an evening’s political entertainment at the Young Conservatives meeting was going home to my favourite television show of the moment, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – the story of a group of unemployed building workers who’d ‘got on their bikes’ to find work abroad. Dad was a fan of the show because it reminded him of his time in Germany, and because there was some swearing in it. When he picked Stephen and myself up from the meeting he was usually excited from having just watched it, and I was paranoid that he may not have recorded it.

“How was the ‘twits’ tonight?” Dad called my Young Conservative friends “the twits”.

“Yes, good. Did you remember to tape Auf Wiedersehen?”

“Of course I did, it is all set up for you when you get in.”

“Was it good?”

“Yes it was, Oz insulted the ‘erics’ and said ‘Bollocks man’.”

“Why was he insulting the ‘erics’? They’re not in Germany, they’re in Spain in this series.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right, but he still said ‘Bollocks man’. I love the Geordie accent, don’t you? We’re gannin’ doon the toon like. Why do they always say like? We had some Geordies in the army you know, canny lads like.”

And all the way home with Dad continually muttering to himself, “We’re gannin’ like, we’re gannin’ yem – that means ‘we’re going home’.” “They call women Pet, so it translates to ‘Goodbye love or dear’. “I still remember some German.”

“Yes we know.”

Stephen’s nose flared sarcastically.

As soon as we got in, Dad loaded up the video, whilst Mum made me a sandwich. “Why don’t you watch it as well Mum?”

“Oh, I don’t understand their accents so I wouldn’t be able to follow it.”

“Oh, it’s easy,” interjected Dad, “if they say ‘gannin’ yem’ that means going home, and they’re fond of saying ‘bollocks man’, or ‘bollicks man’ a lot. Yes, that’s it ‘bollicks’ not ‘bollocks’. We ‘ad a lot of ‘em in the army y’knaa, y’knaa.”

“Well I won’t enjoy it if I can’t understand them, and they spend all their time swearing. Anyway, I have the wiping up to do, bring your plate out when you’ve finished the sandwich.”

Oh I loved this show, from the opening credits right through to the theme song at the end. Three Geordies from Newcastle, Barry from Birmingham, Bomber from Bristol, Moxy from Liverpool, and Wayne from London, living together in a wooden hut on a building site in Dusseldorf, Germany. All victims of the recent economic changes, yet these men continued to eke out a human existence in straitened circumstances forming strong bonds of friendship and solidarity as they went along. None of them wanted to leave their homes and families, but had nonetheless followed Norman Tebbit’s advice, and not only ‘got on their bikes’, but caught the ferry too. As ‘boring’ Barry from Birmingham, the group’s ‘intellectual’, put it, “I think Thatcherism is a misguided policy. That’s why I joined the SDP.” But even Oz, a big rough Geordie who was more likely to use his fists than his brain, was still human enough to care for his friends when it was needed. He hated the Germans with a passion, and considered himself a supporter of Arthur Scargill. His constant anti-German jibes often got him into the kind of trouble that only one’s friends can get you out of. Most of the group wanted to get along with the ‘erics’, as they referred to the Germans, and make the best of a bad situation, even educate themselves in aspects of German culture. But Oz rejected all of this, preferring to spend most of his spare time drinking and being socially obnoxious. As fellow Geordie and group ‘leader’ Denis put it, with words to the effect of, “I‘ve seen men like you before Oz, working abroad for the first time, getting all patriotic for the country that couldn’t employ you in the first place.”

And this last sentiment struck me as self-evident: if there was ‘work out there if you want it’, as Dad so often insisted, and unemployment was caused by laziness, why were these people abroad in the first place? Dad never questioned their need to be there, it was obvious – there was no work in England. One time, I was watching an episode with Dad and ‘uncle’ Paul was there. Oz was complaining about why all foreigners don’t speak English and Denis rebuked him with, “You would have made a good imperialist Oz”, to which Paul gave a nodding chuckle, but I had not understood the joke. I was now at the stage where pride prevented me asking Paul what an ‘imperialist’ was. Later, I looked it up in a dictionary and Denis’s comment became clearer. It was another political type word I could throw into conversations along with the distinction between monarchy and republicanism, and fiscal and monetary policy.

In one episode, the lads decided to paint the interior walls of their hut to make it as homely as possible. The problem was that they couldn’t decide upon which colour they wanted, until SDP member Barry suggested they use a form of proportional representation – the single transferable vote – to decide. The joke was that after an extraordinary labour on Barry’s part, to organise the election as democratically as possible, the colour which ‘won’, pink, was nobody’s actually first choice (aside from Barry’s). Such comedy only reinforced in me that the First-Past-the-Post system that we had in the UK was the only way to ensure effective government. This said, I fully appreciated that the likes of the SDP were discriminated against in this regard.

From my warm bedroom in southern suburbia, I would lay fantasising about the wooden hut from Auf Wiedersehen Pet and how warm and snug it could be. In my version, they had an inside toilet and a full kitchen. In the second series they slept in the stately home they were doing up, before going to Spain. The conditions in the stately home were not fantastic, but it was an improvement upon the wooden hut. For me, these men were living exciting lives, rather than being victims of the free market.

A wanderlust, on my part, was taking a nascent form.

But Oz’s inexplicable Germanophobia continued to grate upon the other characters as well as myself. I couldn’t make any sense of it – after all, Germany had given him work, but all he could think about was the fact that they had lost the war. Besides this, Germany was just about the only foreign country which Dad liked, so I had had no real exposé to anti-German feeling (with the notable exception of my Nan who didn’t really like anyone). But Oz himself didn’t really know either, and on one occasion when he was pushed, all he could come up with, after a few seconds of refection was, “The bastards bombed me granny”.

I found out that my Young Conservative friend Kevin enjoyed Auf Wiedersehen Pet and spent more time discussing this than actual politics. He was fascinated by the character of ‘Bomber’, played by professional wrestler Pat Roach. “He’s six foot five and weighs around 19 stone,” I told him.

“Is that all he is?”

“I thought he’d be more than that, he’s so big!”

“He’s a really good wrestler too,” I proffered.

“I bet he never gets beaten”, returned Kevin.

“No he doesn’t.” I was just relieved I didn’t have to defend pro wrestling from another potential detractor. The premature death of Gary Holton, who played the cockney carpenter, Wayne, provided another talking point. Kevin was almost crying into his beer. “I can’t see them continuing without him,” he said wistfully shaking his head. I thought that it was good that Kevin and I had something to bond over. I had tried him with monetarism, but that hadn’t worked.

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The magic of Danny, the Champion of the World

What follows is an extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Memoirs of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The first thing that happened when I joined the Junior section of Redbridge primary school was the short walk from the main building across the playground to our new classroom. This was a large wooden hut painted dark blue which was set upon wooden legs. That the existence of such a makeshift classroom was possibly related to the public spending cuts being carried out by the Callaghan Labour government was of no interest to me. We had a separate section for our coats and hats and we only had to enter the main building for assembly or to use the toilet.

Perhaps this created an air of freedom for both Miss Marshall and her pupils. We seemed to enjoy being cut off from the rest of the school, and I believe that this was reflected in the lessons – certainly how I experienced them at any rate. One of the things that set Miss Marshall apart from other teachers was her smile – or the fact that she smiled. There was a warmth attached to it, a friendliness that made me want to please her in an unconscious way. Until this point, school had been something I just experienced in an existential solipsistic way. I did not love or hate it – just did it. I was there almost as a spectator, but with Miss Marshall, laughter regularly occurred in the classroom and she hardly had to raise her voice to maintain order. She told us about dinosaurs and I was particularly fascinated by who would win a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops. At one stage, she took us out of our caravan classroom, onto the playground, where she drew a life size Tyrannosaurus, in white chalk, on the playground surface. It was an incredible sight. She also told us about Australia, and how she wanted to live there one day. I think that this was the first time I heard about the Aborigines, and that it took a full day on an aeroplane to get there. When we did sports, she commented on what a fast sprinter I was, which gave me the confidence to win just about every race I entered. As if this was not enough, she introduced me to Roald Dahl.

***

I recall her beaming face, enthusiasm coming from every pore. “Today, we are going to start reading a book in class. It is called Danny – The Champion of the World, and it is written by a man with a strange name: Roald Dahl”. I think she gave us a brand new copy between two pupils, which in itself was strange because nearly all the exercise books we ever looked at were extremely dog-eared and old. This may have been due to the fact that the book had only recently been published (in 1975), and Miss Marshall proceeded to tell us: “If you look at the inside cover, you will see the date when it was written and a little letter ‘c’ in a circle. This means that the story inside belongs to Roald Dahl, and if anyone tries to pretend that they wrote the story, Roald Dahl can go to the police”. Wow – I grasped the concept of intellectual property rights at the age of eight! “And because it is such a beautiful story, that we are going to love reading together, somebody may actually do this, so Roald Dahl has made sure that no bad person steals his story”.

This was very impressive. It had never previously occurred to me that words could belong to an individual person, because words were not like things which could be stolen, such as Dad’s Hillman. This was also the first time my attention had been turned to the concept of an author. My ladybird books were predominantly fairy tales so I did not associate the contents with a particular individual and although we had listened to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree being read to us in the infants’ school, it was read by a teacher who had no enthusiasm for the story, and barely referenced that Enid Blyton was an actual person. Subsequently, I hated those sessions (normally on a Friday afternoon), detested the story and would sit there fidgeting, yet fearful of incurring the ire of the suitably named Mrs Cross. Miss Marshall was not like Mrs Cross at all. Whereas Miss Marshall was young and vibrant, Mrs Cross was middle-aged and possessed an angry countenance which scared me. I was so terrified that I may actually end up in her class for the final year of Infant school that I prayed to God on the eve of the September term: “Please lord, do not make me go into Mrs Cross’s class”. My prayers were answered, and I got Miss Kenvin instead; a young benign alternative. My main memory of my year with her was learning all about a cat named Gobbolino, who apparently belonged to a witch. There was an accompanying song which we used to sing, and I can still remember some of the words.

However, everything about Miss Marshall’s class from our physical environment to her expressive face was different. The cover of Danny – The Champion of the World was a reddish orange and it showed a father and son walking through a forest. The love between these two characters was unmistakable. I could tell this by body language, including facial expressions, alone. She then told us to turn the book around and look at the back cover. “When you buy a book, you should always look at the ‘spine’ to see if it looks interesting, then the cover and finally the back cover where there will be a quick description about the story. If you like it, ask mummy or daddy to buy it for you”.

The confidence of how to ‘handle’ a book was possibly instilled in me from this point, and to this day the most natural thing in the world for me to do, when I see a book, is to instinctively and lovingly repeat this procedure. Each book contains a life of its own – its personal universe. It is inconceivable for a book to be on a table, or anywhere I am, without me recognising it, and making some kind of contact with it. If I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is, and if I am familiar with it, or indeed have read it, do everything I possibly can to attract the reader’s attention in the most subtle of ways, in order to signify the secret solidarity which exists between all genuine bibliophiles.

This is the gift that Miss Marshall gave me.

Everything about this process was real and human. She told us a little about Roald Dahl: how he got his funny name, and the fact that he wrote fantastic stories for children as well as adults. This was no longer just a pile of bounded printed paper. Thanks to Miss Marshall’s alchemy, it was alive, and throbbing with the taste of the fantastic. My anticipation was palpable, and I could hardly wait to start.

Unsurprisingly, it was as good as Miss Marshall had suggested. We would each take a turn in reading, including Miss Marshall, and there were wonderful pictures which only further fuelled the imagination. Danny, and his doting father, lived in a gypsy style caravan next to a small garage and petrol station. Danny’s father was a practical man who could fix and do almost anything, particularly when it came to cars. But he was also an extremely tender and loving man. I was so touched by the way he would sit on his son’s bed talking to him about his dead mother, kiss him goodnight, and refer to him as ‘my love’. I was overwhelmed by this father/son relationship; it was both beautiful and magical. From this position of love, Danny was able to learn and absorb practical skills, but most importantly he learnt to love and be loved. I imagined Danny being tucked up in his caravan bed, safe and warm, his father’s workplace next door. Everything felt so contained, so balanced. And indeed it was within itself, but this idyllic cocoon was situated on the edge of a forest that was owned by an extremely obnoxious landowner called Mr Hazel, who was having continual problems with people poaching his pheasants. Miss Marshall explained to us that this was a fancy word for stealing. Needless to say that we were shocked and surprised to find out that Danny’s wonderful father was one of the poachers, as was Danny himself. And then one night, after awaking to find his father missing, Danny demonstrated the wherewithal to jump into one of the garage’s cars in order to drive into the forest to rescue his father who had fallen into a poacher’s trap. His father was not only able to legitimise his stealing, from the hateful Mr Hazel, but won his son’s support for the final big poach which included sowing crushed sleeping pills into raisons in order to drug as many pheasants as possible.

Today I can find many themes in this book that went over my childish head. A good example being class struggle. This must have been the first time in my life that a greedy landowner was cast in the role of villain, with the oppressed petit bourgeois as hero, who also happened to have the support of the local community (including the police sergeant). This book seemed to suggest that stealing was a relative concept, and that poaching was a form of art. There was a complexity to Danny’s father which fascinated me. Like Jesus, he was tender, loving and mild, and like Jesus he was an element of society that could be deemed as ‘criminal’ and prone to a righteousness which may be backed up with the threat of violence. Perhaps this delicate matrix of love, hate, morality and criminality entered my subconscious, but all I knew was that this was a wonderful story, facilitated by a teacher who demonstrated warmth and kindness as first principles.

The magic of the ‘book’ had been revealed.