Monday, December 12, 2016

Ghost of Christmas past (1981)

A Short Story from the December 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

During an ambitious interlude, brief but puzzling, in my dreamy mid-twenties I got a job at the famous factory on the arterial road which ran out through the industrial estates of the western suburbs. The architect, now long forgotten, had designed the place with reference to an Aztec temple but I presumed any irony in this was unintentional. A job at the factory was a matter for some envy locally for pay and conditions there were better than average; cheap and efficient canteens, overalls for the factory workers, lavatories of gleaming white tiles with endlessly dispensing Initial towel cabinets.

For a long time the company was consistently successful — consistently profitable — and in no small measure was this due to their skill in persuading everyone who entered the temple that they were part of a big, happy, cooperative family. The work force was divided into several layers, each distinguished by the scope of its privileges. Lowest of all were the hourly paid, who sulked around the place dredging swarf from the oily sumps of machines, trundling grimy trolleys of scrap metal to unknown destinations or renewing exhausted Initial towels. Above them — but not by much — were the weekly paid staff who watched over the screeching machines protected by fantasies about their gardens, car, or next holiday; or who in the office typed invoices or went through lowly clerical jobs like checking credit ratings.

And then there were - at the summit of ambition for most of the employees - the monthly staff who were usually supervisors in administration. They had several privileges, one of them being to eat in a separate dining-room with linen-covered tables and pert waitresses instead of queueing up at the works canteen where the same food was sold at a lower price. Another privilege was the annual invitation to the Christmas Dinner.

This great event, two or three days before Christmas, started early in the evening with the gathering in the factory bar of suited men and sateencd women at a table as long as a cricket pitch, laid out in a parade ground of glasses brimming with sherry, gin and cocktails. Although exuberance was not exactly discouraged, in the monthly staff it was expected to be muted. But there were a few who had decided that their career would prosper better through a reputation for loud candour and they were often quite drunk by the time the assembly was ushered into the company ballroom for dinner.

There they sat down to a menu which never varied. Grapefruit segments. Prawn cocktail. Turkey. Christmas pudding. Mince pies. Cheese. Coffee. Champagne. Port wine. At each table a self-appointed parent beckoned a wine waiter and, with a surreptitious pressure of crackling paper into palm, urged that the diners at that table be “looked after”, under the impression that they alone were capable of such cunning bribery. The waiter pocketed the tip and if he was seen again that evening it was only faintly, in the dim shadows on the far side of the room.

As the last fragment of cheese was finger-dabbed from plate to mouth the catering manager called for silence and the Managing Director rose to speak. It was part of the company’s family Christmas tradition that the MD would now give everyone a present like announcing an improvement in the pension scheme or a shorter working week - although on the occasion I heard him tell the monthly staff about a worsening of their conditions there was no diminution in the fervour of their applause. The MD always sat down amid some tension because it was now time to reveal the identity of the person selected to make the reply and then to propose a toast to the company.

This was a closely kept secret; even the chosen person knew nothing of it until that very morning, which allowed little time to prepare a speech and have it approved by the directors. Not that anyone ever complained, since it was more or less a promise of eventual promotion to the higher ranks of management. The more ambitious monthly staff all considered themselves best qualified to receive this mark of preferment and they went through agonies of suspense on the day waiting for the telephone summons, eventually crumpling their speech into the waste paper basket and composing instead some nasty jokes about their rivals.

After the reply it was all over. Last goblets were drained, disappointments plastered over, hands pressed, backs slapped then out into the night glowing in the lights of the huge tree set up at the temple entrance. For a short time loud banter and seasonal greetings rang out in the frosty air, then there was the revving of sulphurous engines and the Anglias and Morris 1 10s shuddered onto the arterial road, carrying sour cargoes back to the wall to wall neuroses of suburbia.

All that was a long time ago and it will not happen again. The company recently announced that the factory is to be closed. They blamed the world-wide recession, foreign imports, high interest rates. All those monthly staff will be transferring their frustrations to the dole queue where, they once insisted over lunch in their chic dining-room, only the idle or feckless are to be found. “I am incensed” bellowed the local MP when he heard about the closure. “It throws a shadow over this Christmas and next Christmas could be even bleaker” said one of the redundant workers. For him, and for the others, the company is no longer a big, happy family; now it means fear and misery amid the bright lights and the tinsel of the -what was it again — Festive Season.

The realities of capitalist society are harsh and insistent and there is no gentle way in which to face them.

So Merry Christmas folks OK?

And, uh, Happy, er, New Year.

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