When I was a zealous, idealistic youth I used to stand on street corners selling a socialist newspaper, convinced the socialist revolution would save the world from ruin. Looking back to the 1970s its difficult not to see myself as a tad deluded. Not because Ive stopped believing in socialism I still reckon its our only hope but, well, pissing into the wind is a phrase that springs to mind and pretty well covers peoples apathy. An incident, one very cold, wintry afternoon in Dudley, West Midlands, spoke volumes.
My friend, Dave, and I had been standing at a busy street corner for nearly two hours. We hadnt sold a single newspaper. We were beginning to wonder if wed finally lost our minds. Shoppers scurried around us looking for bargains in the January sales, oblivious to the two young men freezing to death in what was quickly becoming a blizzard. We sheltered in a shop doorway. About to give up and go home, in fact rapidly losing the will to live, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned. Before me stood a man carrying two large, bulging bin bags.
Hello, lads, he said chirpily, jet-black hair slicked back flat on his head.
My mouth was so numb with cold I could barely speak. I nodded.
Do me a favour, lads... keep an eye out for the cops will ya?
I nodded again, then looked at Dave who was as perplexed as I was.
The man turned, gingerly, and stepped out into the snow. He opened one of his bags and pulled out what appeared to be a plastic cup with a piece of string coming out of a hole in the bottom. On top of the cup was a single, bright yellow feather. He pulled on the string and made a loud, clucking sound. The cup was, to all intents, a chicken. Within minutes, and despite the increasingly severe weather, he was surrounded by dozens of people wanting to buy his wares. Children badgered their parents for one, or two, or three... to be honest, he couldnt sell them quickly enough.
Dave and I were incredulous. We were out to save the world. Didnt these people know? People were dying in the Third World for lack of just the basics in life. We couldnt give our newspaper away, let alone sell them and yet this guy was making a small fortune out of plastic cups!
Was it symbolic, this little scene being played out before us? Was this capitalism putting it over on socialism? The free market winning out over the planned economy?
After a short while, with his bags almost empty, the guy came over to us.
Thanks, lads, he said.
Actually we hadnt done anything. He looked at the newspaper I was holding up.
What ya selling? he asked.
Its a socialist paper. He looked bemused. Ya, know. Politics? I added by way of explanation.
Oh, he said, still confused. Well, look, Ill come back later and sell some for ya.
With that he left, swallowed up by the crowds and the snow.
He never did come back. But I had this horrible feeling that had he returned he would have sold all our papers and no doubt, pocketed the money!
Dave and I packed up our wares and trudged home, disconsolate and thoroughly disillusioned.
We never did get our revolution. In fact a few years later the world got Thatcher and Reagan. The world got laissez-faire, no-holds-barred capitalism.
And somewhere, in Dudley, there were lots of kids that got plastic cups that clucked, and clucked and clucked!