We remember: an obituary

In Britain and the world, this is a day of remembrance - in grief or in anger. But what should we remember - and who?

David W.
17 April 2013

She was born in the 1920s, with most of her childhood spent at the sharp end of the Great Depression. Though it must be said the economic situation following 1929 probably made little difference to her family, compared to what came before. Through passing autobiographical snippets, and anecdotes frequently cut short, one living in 21st century Britain can only speculate a rawer will to survive that was required to maintain the majority of families. Precarity cut much, much deeper then than it would even now. The welfare state was still, at that point, the stuff of speculation amongst the more discontented representatives of the educated and self-educated. The wounds and transformations of the Great War lingered throughout the 1930s. We should not need reminding that women and mothers were far from exempt from its effects.

When war arrived again, the bombs fell blocks away and evacuation beckoned. In many ways, this would form her fondest recollections of childhood. Rural Britain was a different world to the industrial centres then being incinerated. It was far from a holiday, but one can guess that her sense of freedom was a relative matter during that period. The nation had demands, and the countryside demanded its young guests fulfill them. She worked. She always worked. From an earlier age than any civilized society should find acceptable. First tertiary, later industrial, and perpetually domestic; in accordance with the requirements of her class. For the greater part of her life, she worked in both sectors at once. In that respect, the night would offer scant refuge from the day; in accordance with raising a family – for all intents and purposes, alone – of her class.

Despite a lack of vocabulary for it then, one could describe her political existence as ‘intersectional’. A diaspora of roots, interests, burdens and beliefs lived with considerable difficulty, but little in the way of confusion or failure. A snapshot of Empire measured in terms of time as much as space. From the region when this Empire was generally agreed to have begun, to where we commonly assume it to have ended. Its territories being gradually conceded to its inhabitants made little difference to her sense of identity. The world was expected to move on, and for a time (for better or worse) it felt like it was. For all the destroyed buildings, limited resources and weakened manpower to which she returned, there was enough to work towards some forms of redistribution. For those who would always work, there would be work. For all her life, she would vote for this accordingly: Not in the interests of property, but the survival of herself and her dependents; and that now fragile, rare idea of a sustainable future.

That there was work – always work – didn’t prevent her enjoyment of life, especially in relative youth. For every bombed building and corpse, there would be palaces of entertainment and new people to meet. A community that ebbed and flowed, but always worked. They – rightly – felt they had earned their right to leisure. The Songbook of the day made this clear time after time. As much as it would emphasize a general principle of care; a principle rendered a little more aggressively in later years, until it was largely overtaken by a principle of competition. A culture that would follow the Depression and the Wars that surrounded it with curiously effective illusions of acceleration and change. The kind that paradoxically would, for a time, provide an image of security. An image that the two generations to follow would also be born into; in accordance with the requirements of their class.

Life lived abiding to the letter of the law in no way prevents antagonism or hostility. The social contract always had its small print, its anomalies, and its breaches. Some services, more repressive than many care to misremember, were often best avoided until absolutely necessary; but acknowledging their uses – even grudgingly – remained part of the consensus. Some grew ever more vital with her advancing age. Entering late middle-age, their necessity became more readily apparent to her. There was still work – always work – and, as with most people of her generation, that would be regarded as its own best service. When it didn’t, that was a time to gather together and demand to know why. At the point when no answers were forthcoming, industry thought it best to cease operations entirely. All that remained for her was tertiary – and domestic, always domestic – work. This, at least, would continue until retirement. Indeed, for much longer than the forms of leisure she previously enjoyed. It may have also been the case that the more acute edges of her identity – as it was lived – became more blunt, while the realities of her class sharpened in ways not known since her youth.

So, as could still be the case then, work ceased with retirement. Or rather, waged work ceased. Domestic concerns continued apace, along with her general principle of care. Leisure was gradually replaced by television schedules ever more hostile to her generation, and the progress it once felt itself to be making. She had as much awareness of why this was the case as anyone; and indeed was aware of its aims before it was voted into power on four consecutive occasions. By the time it was voted out (though far from negated), detachment from its promises would be as complete as it was from her religion. It would be the last time she voted. One would assume that images of burning cities, as instigated by the last Prime Minister she would vote for, resurrected subdued memories of the childhood from which she was evacuated. Even at her most advanced years, she had an unambiguous sense of right and wrong. Her contempt may have been less energetically expressed in comparison with previous Prime Ministers, but not entirely softened.Her homes gradually shrunk at a faster pace than her body, but their costs rose in inverse proportion to their size. For as long as she was an adult, she had always rented. She had never voted in the interests of property, only security. In accordance with her class, there were only possessions, and of course dependents. With every health problem that accumulated with advancing years, there came more complications from the services required to deal with them. The worth of a human being – every last one of us – is officially calculated in terms of cost and benefit, and not only by the growing legion of medical accountants and managers that came to conquer the NHS over the past two decades. A working class woman way beyond retirement age is as much a site for pharmaceutical trial and error as she is a patient; but this did not diminish a faith in the medical profession unlikely to continue into the next decade. For the care industry (and industry it undoubtedly is), the greater the number of problems the more sources of funding can be accessed. To her, once “service-user” and then “customer”, this was a minimal concern compared to a need for treatment, care and comfort.

When she passed away, no tributes were made on the front page of anything. She occupied a modest column on the same family notices page she read with increasing diligence the older she got. The closest she got to being acknowledged by those in power was a series of posthumous bills from those same corporations now regarded as our most appropriate administrators, from cradle to grave. A phone call or TV show in hospital is a lucrative source of profit, as much as residences claiming to provide fulfillment in one’s final years. Her minor claims on the state and its corporate partners for which she worked – always worked – were often disputed at degrees of confusion and time outweighing their initial costs. No one stood guard outside her door at great public expense in her autumn years; but unofficial assistance was always available. The best she could hope for was regular visitors; admittedly some more regular than others.

She departed owning (and owing) next to nothing, and never employed anybody in her entire life. Nothing of note was to be inherited by her loved ones, and nor was anything ever expected to be. She was put to rest with exactly the same title as the one with which she was born. She never ruined anyone’s life and never once considered a career in the deliberate, violent immiseration of her fellow citizens. Any anger she may have felt towards classes other than her own was perhaps mild in comparison to how those classes felt about her and her family. Perhaps in accordance with her class, she passed away slightly younger than a woman who married into great wealth, who worked hard to advance the power of great wealth, and at the callous expense of all that mattered to society. To demand respect and ceremonial tributes to the latter, while forgetting the struggles, cares and common everyday triumphs of the former, is not only a slander against the subject of this obituary. It is a grotesque slander against millions of other women who lived and worked through the 20th Century.

Originally Posted on Pere LeBrun. Joint published with many thanks to The Multicultural Politic

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