ORAN BURKE

Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

Who owns all the oranges?

“I met Mr. Kane outside. He said they came again last night,” Cassie said as she walked through the door and flopped onto a chair in the living room.

“Yeah,” I said.

“What did they want this time?”

“Oh, the usual, do I still think the way I did ten years ago, am I a member of any protest group, what colour is my underwear?”

“Dad!”

“Sorry sweetie, it’s just getting a bit ridiculous now, that’s all.”

“Why are they still doing this if you haven’t done anything wrong?”

“It’s more about letting me know they’re there.”

“Why?”

“The kind of things I used to write are not appreciated anymore. They want to make sure I understand that and don’t get involved in anything.”

“Are you?” she said, getting up to go to the kitchen.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know anymore, what we’re taught at school suggests that anyone who ever disagreed with the government should be shunned.”

“Is that what counts as learning these days? Are you going to spurn your father because of his supposed mistakes?”

“I guess not,” she said, smiling as she walked back in with an apple, “but it is a bit confusing. I sometimes don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.”

“That’s not unusual at your age you know. You’re still growing up, trying to work out the world for yourself. True, life in today’s Britain can be a bit bewildering but you’re just going to have to get on with it I’m afraid.”

“That’s not really the puzzling part. I remember hearing you and Mum talk when you still lived at home. You often spoke about how things were in the old days, how you wouldn’t have had to go through all of this just to do your job.”

“You were much younger then, maybe you didn’t understand everything.”

“Yes, but I’m seventeen now so you can probably stop patronising me. I think I’m old enough to get it.”

“Perhaps it’s time we chucked you out on the street to fend for yourself as well then.”

“Hah hah, you’re so funny.”

“Alright, settle down now. How’s your mother?”

“She’s fine.”

Cassie ruminated for a few seconds before speaking again.

“Dad?”

“Yes, my dearest darling daughter?”

“Why are things the way they are?”

“How do you mean?”

“You both talked all the time about politics and the economy and how bad life was getting for people, or how much the country had changed from the one you grew up in. I don’t really get it, what’s so different now?”

“Some of it is just age sweetie. People often yearn for more carefree times, which tend to be when they were younger, but the last thirty years or so have seen some big changes in how everyone lives. We don’t have the same opportunities we once had. It depends on your point of view I suppose, but I think we’ve moved in the wrong direction.”

“How?”

“The increasingly wide gap between us and our rulers, both socially and financially, or the lack of faith most people have in the organisations that are supposed to protect us. Those ideas weren’t always so ingrained. It’s hard to pin down to specifics but having lived through the shift, it’s difficult not to feel a bit nostalgic.”

“That’s what I really don’t understand. I’ve heard almost nothing about this glorious past and at school we learn about the splendid present, so I can’t connect the two. It’s like everything that happens to you. I sense something isn’t quite right and I constantly feel like bad things are going to happen.”

“I think you should worry more about your final year in school, which isn’t too far away.”

“Why, there’s not much to look forward to afterwards.”

“What do you mean? You’ll be off to university hopefully and ...”

“Don’t change the subject. Why won’t anyone tell me?”

“Who have you asked?”

“Just you and Mum.”

“Ok, let’s keep it that way.”

“Why?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just don’t go questioning people too much about this sort of stuff.”

“See, that’s the problem. All you ever say is not to worry about it. It’s like I can’t think for myself. You’ve always said you need all the information to see the truth. Why is this different?”

“That’s not what this is about. It’s just ... better if you don’t know.”

“Really? I’ve lost one of my closest friends and my father disappears regularly, sometimes for days at a time, just to point out a couple of things I know for sure. What frustrates me is why. Why are you the enemy?”

“I’m not the enemy Cassie. I’m just another convenient scapegoat.”

“See, let’s start there, I’ve no idea what that means.”

“Cassie, why do you think I get bothered so much? It’s because I know too much. I don’t want to put you in the same position.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Maybe, but this is different.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone what you told me.”

“I know sweetie, I trust you. That’s not the problem.”

“Then what is?”

“No matter what I tell you, there will always be information out there that will try to disprove what I’m saying. I’m not sure it’s going to help you deal with anything.”

“Dad, I need to decide what I’m going to do for the rest of my life sometime in the next few months, and everything we get taught is about what we can bring to the future of the country, what part we can play in the next great steps of our nation. How can I decide what the best choice for me is if I don’t understand exactly what kind of place I’m supposed to be working for? Shouldn’t I know what I’m getting myself into?”

I sat thinking for a few moments.

“Ok. Look, I can tell you but there are two conditions.”

“What?”

“Firstly, you never tell anyone. Not your mother and especially not any of your friends. I think it’s right that you know so you can make up your own mind, but there are not that many people around that admit to knowing this stuff anymore and it can mark you out as being different, and that’s enough for the authorities to ask questions.”

“Ok. And the second?”

“You have to listen to it all, every last thing I say. If you want to know why The Stability System exists, then I’ll tell you, but no getting bored and giving up half way through.”

“Ok, I get it.”

“I hope so.”

“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve listened to the way you and other adults talk about this too many times. It’s always in hushed tones and quiet corners. I get it, it’s secret. It’s a bit dangerous. I have to be careful.”

“I’m beginning to think you should have spent more time asleep when you were younger and less sitting on the stairs listening to conversations that weren’t your business.”

“Then how would I have ended up the well-rounded individual I am today?”

“Shush now smart-arse, and make your father a cup of tea.”

“So where do we start?” she said, getting up to put the kettle on.

“With democracy.”

“Oh, that again.”

“Come on now, it’s important, that’s why I’ve told you a bit about it before,” I said, following her into the kitchen and sitting down. “I know it’s judged now as being unnecessarily cumbersome but at one time it was considered the best way of doing things. It was never perfect, but it was as close to fair as it could be.”

“But surely now we’ve stopped using it, it no longer has any relevance to how we live our lives.”

“Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s a question of history. You need to understand the last system and why it was discarded before you can understand the present one. You’re forgetting that democracy, after universal suffrage in the 1920s, survived for nearly a hundred years and the basic principles had been in use for centuries before that.”

“What’s universal suffrage?”

“Well, suffrage is the right to vote in an election and the universal part came about when women were given the same rights as men. From then on people accepted it as the best way of giving everyone in the country a say in how things were run. Sure, it had its faults but the basic theory of electing a representative for a group of people who would bring their thoughts, hopes and grievances to a central decision-making body was a sound principle. You understand how the country is run now, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But you also know this system hasn’t been in use for very long.”

“Yes, yes. What I don’t understand is why you think it’s so bad.”

“Because I, and everyone else of my generation, grew up with something we consider better.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Why?”

“People had some say in how Britain was governed back then. If you chose to vote, or protest, or sign a petition, you could at least say your views had been recorded and you’d taken an active part in the running of the country.”

“Can’t we still do that? I mean, people still get to vote at least.”

“Not in the same way, not at a national level. You do citizenship classes, don’t you? How do people make their opinions heard?”

“I don’t know. The Central Cabinet make decisions about what‘s best for the country.”

“And what if you don’t agree with what they decide?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Nobody does anymore.”

“Fine, but in school we were taught that it was too slow moving and restricted the ability of the country to prosper.”

“That’s a very simplistic view but unfortunately one that also has an element of truth. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the system though, just how it had been applied. It took hundreds of years to get to a point where everyone was able to have their say, so in some ways democracy was just a blip in the history of Britain.”

“A century seems like more than a brief change.”

“Perhaps when you’re seventeen but at fifty it doesn’t seem so much. To put it in perspective, the first steps towards democracy were taken in the thirteenth century. It took more than seven hundred years to get to universal suffrage but less than a hundred for it to disappear completely. Maybe it’s flippant to describe it as fleeting but the amount of time, thought and effort it took to get to a point where everyone could have a say seems wasted now. How much is written about all this in your school books?”

“Maybe half a page or so.”

“And what did your teacher say about it?”

“Not a lot, he said we only really needed to be aware that it was the old method. It comes up now and again, but not in a very positive way.”

“Doesn’t it surprise you that a system developed over hundreds of years only gets mentioned briefly when you’re learning about how the country works, especially as it was still in use until about a decade ago?”

“I guess that’s a little strange, but isn’t the point that it’s discredited now, that it’s no longer fit for purpose?”

“Well, that’s for you to decide.”

“Why don’t they say more about it in school?”

“I think we’ll probably get to that at some point. We should really start with the Magna Carta though, the set of thirteenth century documents which set out the principle of the rule of law.”

“What’s that?”

“It meant that everyone was entitled to a fair trial and no one was above the law, technically not even royalty. That may not seem important now, but the principle whereby anyone could be sent to jail was the first step in saying that everyone was equal, even though it only applied to an elite group at the time. More than four hundred years later the Bill of Rights strengthened the idea that people should have certain privileges enshrined in law. It was essentially the beginnings of what used to be referred to as civil liberties.”

“What’s does that mean?”

“That you have to ask that question is part of the problem. They were the freedoms the population as a whole had that couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be taken away. They were never really written down in one place but were made up of a bunch of things like the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, new laws, traditions and sometimes even just historical writings from the past that helped develop our ideas of democracy.”

“It sounds a bit disorganised,” Cassie said as she put two mugs of tea on the kitchen table and sat down across from me.

“It was, and it might have been a good idea to write it all down in one tidy document the way other countries did, but in fairness they often based their constitutions on the lessons learnt here.”

“But we have one now don’t we?”

“Not one that sets out the rights of individuals with respect to the state, which is what most do. Ours is a vague wishy-washy document that makes no real promises and was only written to pseudo-legally do away with history. It has no bearing on our ability to hold our rulers to account or any connection with what were once our rights.”

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Who owns all the oranges?
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© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.

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