As Time Goes By - Paris in Dec 1981
Saturday night, chewing the cud with Studs life, love, destiny, ambition, the vagaries of the human heart, that kind of thing — small talk. Nine o'clock comes round and she heads off to the night shift and I'm on my own and trying to figure some thing to pass the time. Long winter evenings, you can have them. By Gene Kerrigan
Sleep is a nice thing to do — but it gets boring after a while. Could head off and join the social whirl — but I've tried that, and in this town it doesn't so much whirl as creak at the pace of an old windmill propelled by the breath of a heavy smoker. And one can't spend all night elbows down at the bar, contemplating life's broad tapestry. (Well, actually, you can, and one often has — but one becomes embarrassed when the bartender stops bothering to bring water for the whiskey as he reckons the flow down the cheeks and the plop plop into the glass suffices.) There's always romance, I suppose (no, let's be honest, not always just about often enough to make one hesitate before taking a rope into the woods). However, this weather I'm not so much chasing as chaste.
Which is why I killed that particular boring winter evening by digging out my old collection of newpaper headlines. (It's not much of a hobby, but these days stamps are too expensive to stick on a letter, let alone into a book — and you have to run after butterflies. I haven't run anywhere since April 1967.) There have been some nice ones lately. British Police Tingle With Admiration For R UC, for instance. It conjures up a lovely image of Hammer McNee approaching orgasm at the thought of all those lovely revolvers and sten guns. The frosting on this headline is that it comes from Fermanagh's improbably named Impartial Reporter. (“Hello, the Impartial Reporter here ...““Oh, yeah? No such thing”.)
Then there was the recent Irish Times effort: National Crime Drive Urged. Can't wait for it. Little adverts in the papers with pictures of the Minister urging support for the Crime For All Day. RTE Radio 2 sponsors marathon mugging contest. Community Crimes Day. AnCO courses for burglars. IDA grants for jemmies and oxy kits.
I have one from The Kerryman that says, Gene, have a heart — and from The Corkman a gratifying riposte, Gene is OK. (That they refer to some one called FitzGerald is neither here nor there.)
However, there is a gap in the collection resulting from my absence from the country for a couple of months last year — and missing a certain Irish Times headline of that period almost caused me to jack the whole thing in. It announced, I have been told, that the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, was setting an example by voluntarily limiting his salary to £26,000 a year. Five hundred a week — now, there's patriotism for you.
We've taken the long way round, but what we're talking about is not long winter evenings, hobbies, news paper headlines or even preorgasmic coppers — what we're talking about is money.
O ddly enough, Charlie's self-sacrifice was in vain. Though it is well known that both he and his successor, Garret FitzGerald, are terribly concerned about the inequality in society their battle to hold down their own wages came to nought. A Taoiseach's salary, much to the chagrin of the aforesaid gentleman, is now £33,000 a year. £634 and small change per week. Shucks, they did their best.
Given all this one would imagine that Garret would be a little more sensitive when the subject of wages conies up, as it does all the time these days. Much as the rest of us on a third or a fifth or a tenth of his screw would like to hold down our wages we find it just as difficult as he.
The argument for wage restraint currently rests on Garret's obsession with the budget deficit. If we keep on borrowing, he says, the international financiers will declare us bankrupt and foreclose on the joint. Which just goes to show that while Garret may be a whizz with economics he doesn't know very much about money. Inter national financiers are no different from any other species of loan shark. Take, for instance, Quids Whelan, one of the better known characters in my neck of the woods. Quids is a sleeping partner in a certain supermarket chain and has a controlling interest in a small but thriving contract cleaning business — and has built a rather exotic extension to his house, all on the in terest from the money he has had circulating in this town for several years. And only once in living memory did Quids threaten to break someone's legs for defaulting on a debt. (Even then, it is said that the guy in question had had a hand in fixing a dog race in which Quids had a financial interest.)
“If someone is into me for a few grand or even a few hundred”, explains Quids, “I'd be a fool to interfere with his health. If he goes into intensive care how's he going to keep up the interest, let alone pay back the hook? So he's a bit late, so I got to maybe help him out again, so good — I got more coming back. I need to have the money out there working for me, and the more the better, so why would I call it in?
“What am I going to do with it? Buy a sports car? I got one. Buy a politician? I got two.”
As long as we borrow big we're doing fine. So, the international sharks lean on Garret — and he tells them either back off or send in the heavies to break our national legs. And that way they lose the lot. It's when we cut back borrowing and the sharks don't have so much to lose, and realise we're a declining source of interest that's when it gets dangerous.
“A guy starts easing out from under”, says Quids, “then I know it's time to squeeze. He's not going to be much use to me once he's wiped the slate — and the sooner I get hack the hook the sooner I can throw it out to someone else”.
Maybe it sounds a bit simplistic but Quids is the one with the exotic extension. Garret can't even manage to hold his own wages down.
T here are, of course, other argu ments for wage restraint. It helps the lower paid. I love that one. Every Friday yod can see the managing directors of big companies getting on their bikes and peddling down to the local sweatshops — here you are, folks. this is the money I saved because my workers didn't take an increase, and I want you lowly paid people to have it. Yeah.
But it's a lot more complicated than that, says -Garret. The money not paid in higher wages goes into investment and that helps.
Yeah, show me.
Then there's the unemployed. Al ways good for a bit of tear jerking. Offer it up for the unemployed. Funny thing, though — remember Brutal Bruton's little budget, and prices going up with a lot more speed and efficacy than a space shuttle? The unemployed got 3% — which was more than wiped out by price rises long uefore they got it. If you're on Unemployment Assistance that's worth 60p a week extra. Let's hear that bit again about how you grieve for the unemployed.
The Dublin Unemployed Action Group spent 60p on a loaf and a can of beans and left it at the gate of Leinster House to show their appreciation.
We were talking about newspaper headlines. One small story back in March caught my attention and has a certain relevance here. The government had just paid out £80 million to redeem a maturing stock. It needed the money back, so a tranche of new government stock was issued and the banks were asked to do their job and buy it up — with a comeback to them of over 13% interest.
No, says the banks, we ain't buying. There was a week of negotiation and the government upped the ante to 14.25%. Even then the banks weren't happy and only coughed up half of the £80 million.
The thing is — where were the head lines screaming about how the country was being held to ransom? Who stood up for The National Interest? When did the FUE or the government complain about a small elite group motivated entirely by self interest? About how the unemployed, lower paid and pensioners would suffer?
They didn't, for the very good rea son that there was nothing wrong with what the banks did — or what the money people do all the time. It's called initiative, free enterprise, get up and go — coin it while you can. But how come the same rules don't apply to nurses, dockers, petrol lorry drivers, teachers, farm labourers, bus workers?
But then, we're not talking about long winter evenings, or hobbies, or newspaper headlines, or crime drives — and we're not really talking about money, either. We're talking about morality. And in politics, economics, wage negotiations and such its like they say to the Impartial Reporter – oh yeah? No such Thing.