Despite an early start, dawdling had put me at risk of missing my train. Then things got worse when I broke the habit of a lifetime and got involved in a discussion with a street vendor – this one ‘selling’ ideas.
A tall, snappily-dressed, woman stepped out in front of me as I entered the station, pushing a leaflet under, almost up, my nose. Why she chose me I don’t know but I soon learned her mission. She wanted to enlist me in the local MP’s campaign to curtail London Underground workers’ right to strike. Striking was, she said, no longer acceptable. I declared that I was totally in favour of striking, and my comment, which was clearly taken as a challenge, triggered a volley of reactionary clichés. According to her, strikes were disruptive, irresponsible, contemptible and counter productive. What’s more they held the traveller to ransom. I tried to step around her to get to my train but she would have nothing of it and continued – rights like these are archaic and must be curbed.
What this lobbyist did not know was that in front of her was a long-standing believer in the right to strike. As I see it, the withdrawal of labour is the ultimate negotiating tool open to workers, an inalienable part of British industrial relations and far too precious to be threatened. In keeping with these beliefs, I have, over the years, never crossed a picket line and picketed myself on occasion. In 1985, along with many others of a like mind, I hosted the family of a striking Yorkshire miner at our home in London. And my views have not changed, so currently I see no disgrace in young doctors threatening to strike to defend their employment conditions.
With all this personal history whizzing around my head, I repeated my opposition to her claims, but back came her view, “Striking is an abuse.” Now rather panicky as I was about to miss my train I surprised myself by saying, “With all respect, your views reflect those of a fascist pig.” Then I turned and headed for the platform.
During the whole of this altercation I had been aware of a small, anonymously-dressed, female figure on my right almost clinging to my coat tails. I had no idea who she was or why she was there, perhaps she was just nosey. I found the same figure close by me again as I ran towards the train and she was still nearby when I jumped into the carriage.
By this time, I had begun to feel guilty about my rather forceful final comment and I decided to ask my new-found companion a question. “Did you hear the conversation that took place at the entrance to the station?” “Yes,” she replied with a smile. “In that case, what did you think of the women handing out leaflets?” Without any hesitation my companion said with a strong Scottish accent, “She was a fascist pig”. I could hardly believe my ears and repeated my question. Now she offered a little more detail,“The woman upstairs arguing for the abolition of the right to strike was a fascist pig.” I thanked her as she sat down in a seat by the door and I walked further down the train.
I sat savouring this oddest and most reassuring outcome, and thinking how lucky I had been to have a witness, who, by dint of her accent, I assumed was a dyed-in-the-wool Scottish socialist. Several stops later I got out. I noticed that my comrade-in-arms was continuing her journey and as she went by she gave me a wave and a smile.
I often, almost reflexively, blurt things out and on this occasion what might have turned out to be a horrible mistake had become a legitimate retort. There can’t have been many people on the train who would have shared my views but fate had conspired to have such a comrade close by in a moment of need, and it was a great relief.
Illustration: Masthead of The Link, Annie Besant’s campaigning journal of 1888. The Link drew inspiration from Victor Hugo: “The people are silence. I will be the advocate of this silence.” [Wikimedia Commons]