Low life

Modern capitalism has failed my son

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

A light was on in the caravan site office so I went over to try and buy a gas canister. Come Easter the little Cornish seaside resort will be heaving. Now a stiff north wind blew in off the sea and it felt like the dregs of winter still. The site office was shut but a woman came out and said she was expecting a delivery tomorrow but she didn’t know yet how much a canister would cost. Nor did she know of anywhere open where we could get something to eat. She thought there might be a place down by the beach. Nobody had managed to get any seasonal staff yet and everything was a bit uncertain, she said.

So me, my son and my two grandsons went down to the parade of seaside shops with our chins in our collars. There were no lights on or any people about. But I was very happy that after a year I could be with my son and grandsons in reality instead of via a video call, and I couldn’t have cared less. We stepped on to the darkened beach and listened to the sea, then retreated to the caravan for beans on toast and snooker on the little telly.

It was Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Neil ‘The Thunder from Down Under’ Robertson in the semi-final. My son and grandsons are O’Sullivan fans. Ronnie is a snooker player of genius but a mercurial individual. One of his nicknames is The Two Ronnies. Another is The Rocket. Tonight he was The Rocket. We four sat in a row on a semi-circular cushioned bench. The potting was sublime. Even the safety play was thrilling. The boys, aged ten and 12, watched attentively and commented intelligently. If the high standard of play briefly dropped, one would get the other in a headlock and try to strangle him. As the century breaks went down, my son drank himself into a stupor: gin and tonic in a pint glass, no ice or lemon. Every 15 minutes he stood up and went outside for a fag.

Between each frame of snooker there were adverts. I hadn’t watched an English advert for two years. Jack Daniel’s whiskey, online gambling firms, erectile dysfunction pills, ‘gourmet’ quality cat food, cheap cremations: always these same fantastically idiotic few. By baldly stating that the less you spend on your loved one’s funeral, the more you have left for a party, the cremations advert was at least open about its cynicism. Then it was back to the snooker hall, where the players, with adverts sewn into their clothing, were waiting for a signal from the television producer to begin playing again.

The next morning saw us back on the wide beach kicking a too-light football in the teeth of the Arctic wind and stinging hail showers. Between showers the sun poured down with a terrible glory on the sea and shining sands; and on my son, hunched in his thin coat and cupped fag; and on my grandsons, skinny and ardent; and on their grandad staggering after the wind-blown football like a wounded elephant.

During a lull in the action, when the football had to be retrieved from a great distance, my son approached, grimacing against the cold wind. ‘I’ve got to go back to the caravan now,’ he said. ‘I’m expecting an important phone call.’ ‘Majestic?’ I said. ‘I’m consolidating my debt,’ he said. ‘And I’ve got someone negotiating with the creditors on my behalf. He said he’d call in an hour or so with a decision.’ ‘How much do you owe?’ I said. He named an astounding figure. My stupid fatherly advice was to try not to be frightened by a number.

I watched the cheap thin coat recede towards the caravan site. My boy started work in a shop on his 13th birthday and has worked ever since. His wife works. Whenever I ring up, either he or his wife is out putting in a shift. They rent a tiny former council house. They work, eat and watch the telly. They obey the law. If they don’t know what the law says they find out. He drinks. She doesn’t. As a treat he rings up for a takeaway meal twice a week. Francis ‘The End of History’ Fukuyama in his latest book Liberalism and its Discontents cites England as both ‘the birth nation of modern individualism’ and ‘the birthplace of modern capitalism’. If the united efforts of a prison officer and a nurse with very modest expectations can’t make any headway, maybe it’s time we invented something else.

I bought Cornish pasties for our lunch. Nearly £16 for four. We carried them back to the caravan to eat them. My poor boy was sitting there with a can looking shell-shocked. The bin was overflowing with crushed cans. His acute sons are practised diplomatists. ‘The snooker final has just started,’ proposed grandson Oscar brightly. ‘Shall I put the telly on?’

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