“As mad as a kipper that thinks it’s the king,” that was my dad’s expression. God knows where it came from.
It was how he described Jan’s first boyfriend, Steve, a leftie type, black donkey jacket covered in badges about banning the whale, saving the bomb, the usual leftie nonsense.
Jan was besotted with him though, and bought completely into the whole Marxism thing. He used to come round every other night, sometimes he take Jan out down the Jackles, but mostly they’d stay in, in front of the TV, where he’d get into an argument with my father about politics, Thatcher, unemployment, the unions.
Then the miners’ strike started. “Mad as a kipper that thinks it’s the king, is that Scargill,” my dad said every night and thus would begin the daily war of words, so intense that the TV would be switched off, newspapers and books would be referred to. Steve was insistent that the miners were right, my dad equally certain that the management had a right to close uneconomic pits. “It’s my taxes wot subsidises your miners,” he say.
I played a minor role in these arguments, backing my dad, just as Jan would back Steve, but we were mere supporting roles, the frontline of the dispute was always dad versus Steve.
Gradually we saw less of Jan and Steve, they’d disappear most evenings to miners’ benefit gigs, marches, speaker events, they even went away for a weekend in Huddersfield for a rally in support of the miners. Dad was furious. “An unmarried woman,” he shouted, “going away for a dirty weekend.”
“It’s not a dirty weekend, it’s a socialist rally, Tony Benn MP is speaking and Billy Bragg is playing.”
“You’ll be sleeping in a tent in a muddy field, it don’t get dirtier than that,” my dad retorted.
As the strike progressed the arguments became more heated and on several occasions Steve stormed out of the house or was thrown out, or occasionally both. Sometimes Jan went with him and didn’t come back until the next morning, dad started calling her a tart and a dirty stop-out.
Then one day Jan never came back. We never saw Steve again either, or heard from either of them. A friend of dad’s said he’d heard Steve had got a job down south somewhere. Once mum thought she’d seen them on the TV news, at the back of a crowd of miners shouting abuse at the police.
That was thirty years ago. Ancient history. Yes I remembered having a sister, but very much in the way I remember that King Alfred had burnt the cakes, or King Harold had got one in the eye.
I left home as well a few years later, got married to a young lass called Sally, the prettiest girl in the town. We had two of our own, worked hard, bought our own house.
A few of years ago Sally started getting stiff shoulders and having trouble walking. After months of tests and meetings with specialists she was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Her medication helped her to stay active, made a real difference to her walking, but none the less her employers decided that she was a health and safety risk because “she could fall over and we wouldn’t be covered by insurance.”
This was a real blow to her, she’d always worked, even after having the kids. She applied for Employment Support Allowance, the first time either of us had claimed anything other than child allowance, but was turned down. “What if she falls over at work?” I asked.
“We can’t give everyone £60 a week because they threaten to fall over,” the medical assistant replied (note they don’t use doctors for these assessments) “we have to think of the taxpayer.”
“I am the taxpayer, have been for thirty years, you don’t fake a debilitating condition like Parkinson’s,” I screamed.
My protests got me nowhere. Through Parkinson’s UK we heard about a rally in London to protest against the cuts to disability benefits (they want to make the system tougher, not easier). It was a trek, we had to take a wheelchair, as though Sally can manage around the house, it’s too much to expect her to stand on a march all day, especially if the police decide to kettle us in. ‘Kettling’ – the pack the organiser sent us included all the terminology and warned us of all the things that could go wrong – we took enough medication to last a week, in case Sally got arrested. It sounds mad, but her involuntary movements (dyskinesia is the medical term) could be taken as a threat by the police – people have been arrested for much less apparently.
We were on the march all day, it was a fantastic event, Tony Benn (former MP) spoke, Billy Bragg played a protest song. We spoke to lots of people in similar situations.
And then I saw them, standing by the side of the march handing out leaflets, Jan and Steve, still together after all these years. They’d aged of course. Jan looked just like mum now and Steve, weirdly, looked just like dad.
They saw me at the same time I saw them and walked over. I anticipated their comments: ‘so how’s your glorious Thatcher now,’ or maybe even ‘how’s dad’, but I didn’t expect so, they must have heard of his death from somewhere.
It was Steve that came up to me and spoke, just a few words, full of bile and venom. “They came for the miners,” he spat, “and I did nothing.”
With those words Jan and Steve turned and walked out of my life, just as they had thirty years previously, but this time it would be for good.