issue 213 - November 1990
Fred's never really known what to do with it. Suspended animation between classes. Trying to catch up - with work. He'd be at a loss without work. He tried it once. It's not just the money. You need a sense of purpose and belonging, too.
Fred finds out how to do something beautiful.
Sheila Rowbotham goes with him.
Speed was imperative. There's a pace when you're almost running yet technically walking. Fred had perfected it during his time at the school.
He was heading for a particular corner seat in the staff common room, The eccentric shape of the room made a cranny, and here he could create the illusion of solitude. The window caught the sun. He could munch his tuna fish sandwich, lapse into reverie and cut out both the music of Soul II Soul wafting through the window and the endless, fragmented tales of classroom woes exchanged obsessively between the other staff.
He rounded the corner. His seat was empty, lie sat down and closed his eyes.
'Sorry! I thought you were asleep!'
He was gazing at a pair of round glasses. His heart sank. It was Carol Andrews, the young revolutionary humanities teacher. She thought of him as an aging hippy. These sixties men were a joke. All that personal politics stuff had left them tied up in knots. The gloss of reconstructed masculinity, carefully polished through the 1970s, was now peeling off like old paint.
'Heavy morning?' she asked.
Irritation overtook guilt. He winced at the insinuation that he was past it. He found it difficult to respond with even formal politeness.
How could anyone ever manage to chat up Carol'? She was so fierce! If only these young women would see how feminism could make them more womanly. There'd been a beautiful poster in the early 1970s showing a pregnant woman in a flowing dress and headed 'WOMAN POWER'. He really must try to explain to Carol about the mixed consciousness-raising group he'd been in. But it was so difficult to find the right moment.
'This is Subhadra,' Carol announced. Around the corner came another small woman. Her smile in greeting made her seem genuinely delighted to meet him.
Fred felt more amiable. He started fussing about for seats. The routine structure of his day suddenly faded. He was alert, engaged.
'She is going to speak to my class about women in India. Want to bring in your lot?'
So he had been churlish to Carol after all. She had invaded his cranny to do him a favour. It was beginning to get crowded. He stood up to take less space. Towering above Carol and Subhadra he decided he was a clumsy, cumbersome giant. He tried to shrink into his scholar's stoop.
'Should we take a walk?' Subhadra said unexpectedly.
As they got away from the school he straightened up. There was another Fred, too - distinguished, in an informal kind of way.
Subhadra began speaking intensely, without preliminaries. She reminded Fred of his former self - in the days before small talk. He felt a touch of the animated earnestness that had carried him through so many meetings.
'I've been working on the unionization of women in Kampur for several years now, she said. Fred could hardly conceal his surprise. He had never made any connection at all between Indian women and trade unions.
'We've managed to organize an association of about forty thousand home workers, small vendors and contract workers, by combining a trade union approach with co-operatives.'
Fred glimpsed Carol wrinkling her face. Would she tell Subhadra that this was all wrong'? He was amused. Carol's Left Union had no place in its catechism for this kind of organization. But on the other hand, anti-racism definitely did have a place. Carol faced a dilemma. This was going to be amusing. He prepared to defend Subhadra. But she carried on without him.
'We talked to women in groups about their problems. Some of the most enthusiastic were quite skilled workers. We thought we might have a chance. We suggested they form a co-op. It took a bit of explaining. They were puzzled about how workers could have their own business.'
Carol was scowling by now and muttered 'I'm not surprised'.
'A charitable woman who had been active in the Nationalist movement gave us rooms in an old house and collected money from her friends. We bought sewing machines. When the modern one arrived, the one that could do fancy stitching, all the women gathered round, talking at once. We bought better materials and began to do higher quality garments to a basic design of loose T-shirts and floppy trousers. We have contact now with Twin Trading. I suppose you've heard of them?'
Fred hadn't but didn't want to admit it.
'The women's confidence increased by leaps and bounds,' she continued. 'People in the area were really looking up to them.'
Carol had been gazing gloomily at the lake. She asked if their earnings had improved. Subhadra said they earned more or less the same. But they were working longer hours. She found the co-op and its meetings took up all her time.
'What about the rest of your political work'?' Carol asked.
'Here we go!' thought Fred, bracing himself for rescue.
'Well, the co-op is my political work,' Subhadra replied firmly.
'But it's politicizing only a few women. How could you give it such priority?' demanded Carol.
'I think it depends what you mean by politics,' Fred observed confidently, feeling that here his experience was relevant.
Subhadra smiled graciously and turned to Carol. 'We've had precisely the same argument in Kampur and in Bombay, in Delhi and in Madras. When I was a member of the Revolutionary League's study circle I agreed with you. We were working as Marxists in the textile union. But there were few women involved. As the textile factories closed, what were we meant to do? Give up?'
For once Carol was at a loss. This was an unfamiliar situation for her. She would have to talk to one of the comrades, Ranjan. 'Bourgeois philanthropy!' she could hear his voice saying contemptuously. But Subhadra's question troubled her.
Fred, typically, was lapping it up. He'd be offering to sell the clothes to his friends next. They were all middle-class types.
'We set up a series of trade union and community centres,' continued Subhadra.
'We have those too!' Fred felt a flash of recognition.
'I know,' grinned Subhadra. 'Some of my best friends in Britain worked for them and were suddenly on the end of fax machines. Let's sit down, shall we?'
Fred was struggling to think of ways he could help. Perhaps Beth could sell the clothes, sort of feminist Tuppaware parties. But he suppressed this suggestion. Many of their rows had come from him volunteering Beth to do things.
Carol cast him a Cassandra-like look and asked Subhadra what problems they had encountered.
'It's been time, really. The men got resentful of the women working all hours in the co-op. One woman was really severely beaten.
'Then one of the women, Geeta, had an idea. She met a woman from Bombay who told her they had a food co-op there to earn money. She suggested we try and cook in turns and bring the smaller children to play together in the workshop. There were two spare rooms there,'
'That sounds like even more work to me,' remarked Carol, 'But how else can women earn?' Subhadra was growing impatient.
'Couldn't you force the State to do anything?' Carol retorted.
Fred was now fully wound up for an argument. 'We can't get the State to do enough here. Couldn't the men do more'?'
'Well, that's always difficult,' Subbadra replied. 'Even I wondered sometimes whether we were being utopian.'
Subhadra smiled disarmingly at Carol. Fred glimpsed the sophisticated politician effortlessly combine with the utopian.
'But amazingly the process of setting up the co-op really did involve some of the men, and even the older boys. They helped us to transport the food.'
She looked at her watch. 'Good Lord!' She was up in a flash. 'I said I'd go and see some designers about doing a catalogue of our clothes. I'd better go.' 'I'll show you the quickest way, offered Carol.
'Don't worry. I'll be back by 2.30pm. We can discuss all the co-op's problems with the class! Perhaps they'll have some suggestions.'
Fred shook his head ruefully. 3B never had suggestions. Only grievances. He sat pondering the ducks. He wasn't used to all this political discussion. He'd got into a rut. There was no energy any more.
A sudden noise made him turn, It was Subhadra, reaching into her bag. 'I forgot. Would you have a quick look at this'? I'd like to give a copy to the school library.'
He looked at the small yellow novel in his lap. It was by someone called Rohini. The blurb said it was set in Bombay. It was published by a feminist press called Sheba, and the title was To Do Something Beautiful.1 He began to read.
Time passed ... and passed.
'I'll go and get him,' Carol told a disgruntled Deputy Headteacher, alarmed that her staff were lapsing into truancy. 'I expect he dozed off'.'
She found a very strange Fred indeed. There was a light in his eyes when he looked up from reading.
'It probably never occurred to you, Carol,' he said, 'that you ... we all could do something beautiful.'
She led him back to school kindly. She thought: 'He won't last much longer in teaching'. Fred's generation were going down like flies. If he was lucky he might start a wine bar when he left. She wished Fred could make a go of something.
She prepared some challenging questions for Subhadra. The only co-op 3B were ever likely to form, she thought to herself cynically, would be some kind of protection racket.
Sheila Rowbotham's most recent book, The Past is Before Us, a record of feminism in action since the 1960s, is published by Penguin.
1 To Do Something Beautiful by Rohini, Sheba. 1990.