The weekends of my life are non-stop writing, drinking and exercise, ending with me on a Sunday evening falling asleep in front of Deadwood. This one was a little different as it was sunny and we had a barbecue in the back garden. This was a sedate South Manchester Saturday night: children and dogs running around, burgers and kebabs and bottles of Peroni, the light flickering on the stone wall of our garage and making it look like something old and strange.
I live with two Polish people and their friends were mainly Polish and East German. The talk got on to communism – I think someone brought up the film The Lives of Others – and the Poles and East Germans engaged in some Four Yorkshiremen-style one-upmanship regarding who had the worst public transport system. (I had the winning entry with Network Rail in 2011.) A guy told me about the old regime. Like many of the guests, he had been born in the mid to late seventies and it had touched him – not with force, but the swirled and bloody thumbprint was there.
He told me that before ’89 you would not be able to get to England unless you were a spy. He told me that he grew up in a village where there was one shop to serve 180 people, and it often ran out of luxuries – luxuries being things like meat and toilet paper. He told me that his father had been taken aside at work one day and told, in a friendly way but with ominous emphasis, that it would be best not to discuss politics as he did. It was weird to hear these events related through what Edward St Aubyn called ‘the wild banality of childhood’.
Vinegar and sugar were the only things you could count on getting with any regularity, they said. A bar of chocolate was an event. A woman mentioned the first time she went to West Germany and saw chicken in the shop window. I said I couldn’t imagine.
But here’s the interesting thing. Post ’89, the guy told me, something was lost. People just started buying cars and TVs and working towards faster cars and bigger TVs. ‘In the old days, people would knock on your door, to borrow sugar, and there’s not like that sense of community now. You don’t get that now.’
And that made me think. Maybe materialism does lack that warmth. Maybe freedom has made us alienated and lonely and soulless. Maybe Lord Glasman is right, maybe there does need to be a strong community. Maybe we do need to build our lives around family, faith and flag.
That thought lasted around a quarter of a second. Then it broke, and I got myself another kebab, and another bottle of Peroni.
As Orwell said: let the belly come before the soul.