We learned this week that there is a massive hole of several billion pounds in our university staff pension fund. Well, that's just great. But why am I not surprised about this, despite the reassuring noises the trustees have been making since the financial catastrophe of 2008? If there's one thing I should know, it is put not thy trust in pension-fund managers.
Now, people sometimes say to me -- I'm paraphrasing -- why would someone as talented, well-educated, pacific, hedonistic, well-balanced and modest as you -- as I say, I'm paraphrasing here, maybe even interpreting a little -- ever have got mixed up with those humourless Trotskyists, dangerous Anarchists, and incomprehensible Situationists these files here on my desk suggest you once did? Pray, sir, why did you have such a grudge against the world?
After I have gracefully accepted these back-handed compliments, I give them the shorthand version, which is to explain what happened to my parents.
They were good people, my parents, to an extent I must admit I found deeply irritating. Having done their bit in WW2 (or The Last Lot, as they tended to call it), they settled into a life of obedient conformity. Their faith, as I interpret it, was that if they did what they were asked to do, and maybe a little more on top, and made no trouble or unreasonable demands, then they would be rewarded in the only currency they valued: pensionable employment in clean, safe jobs, housing in clean, safe council accommodation, and education for the kids in clean, safe state schools. That was it. If my parents ever had any ambitions or interests that were out of that ordinary run, they kept fairly quiet about it.
They met before the War, working in the same factory, a manufacturer of cranes and conveyors, a local family-run concern called Geo. W. King, then based in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. He was an engineering apprentice, she was a telephonist. Like millions of other obedient souls, Dad served in the army from Dunkirk to VE Day, via France, the Western Desert, India and Burma. Mum served, too, becoming a sergeant in an ATS heavy ack-ack unit, even seeing overseas action at the notorious V-bomb siege of Antwerp. They were married, still in uniform, in May 1945.
For the next 30 years, they lived the quiet, modest life they, I am sure, felt they had earned. When Geo. W. King moved to Stevenage New Town, so did they. I was born in an upstairs flat rented from the firm. My father stayed loyally with King's, and my mother had a variety of jobs, eventually ending up in the back offices of that most patrician of firms, John Lewis. By the time I left home for university they had established a level of modest prosperity that saw them branching out a little -- meals and drinks with friends, holidays in Majorca, a decent second-hand car.
Then, they received two hammer-blows in succession. First, my mother had a non-fatal but disabling heart-attack, and had to stop working. Always prone to anxiety and a little histrionic, she shut down completely, afraid to walk anywhere, or to experience anything other than placid, medicated emotions. She became impossibly unsympathetic, in my harsh young man's view. The famously patrician John Lewis -- no need for a union here! -- simply let her go. She was grateful to be allowed to keep her "partner's card", which gave a discount in their stores, and to get an annual "bonus" of a few pounds. In those days, of course, married women were not expected to contribute to any sort of pension.
Then, blow number two. Geo. W. King was taken over by the multinational Tube Investments. My father was made redundant, after more than 30 years with the firm. To add injury to insult, TI stole the pension fund. Simply transferred it into their own corporate pockets. In 1973, that was perfectly legal. Dad did get some work for a few years with ex-colleagues, but his faith in the essential contract had been broken: "they" had discarded him, despite being a model employee, and doomed him to lead a pauper's life for the rest of his days. It didn't so much anger him as bewilder him.
Eventually, despite moving from an impractical fourth floor council flat into a supervised bungalow, my parents grew too frail and afraid of the town they had spent their adult lives in. It had changed, for the worse: prostitutes had begun operating in their street, for example, and they felt vulnerable. They moved into a mobile home that my sister installed in her back garden, living entirely off the state pension. I'm ashamed to say that visiting them there depressed me so much that I made the journey there as infrequently as possible. I was far away, physically and emotionally, an angry young man finding his way in the world.
When they died a few years ago, we were amazed to find there was nearly ten thousand pounds in their bank account. It was as if they had refined their lives down to such a Zen-like minimum, hardly moving, barely breathing, that even the miserly state pension was more money than they needed. Or, perhaps in a form of self-harming, more than they felt they deserved.
Corporate Britain had used them, risked their lives, made empty promises to them, and then obliterated them. But it would never have occurred to them to make a fuss. As if somehow to protest might have made things worse. As if somehow their misfortunes might even have been their own fault. It made me feel that original anger all over again.
But isn't that the story of modern Britain, in a nutshell? "Mustn't grumble" should be emblazoned on our national coat of arms. Now, it seems, it may be our turn. Pensions are once again melting away and magically reappearing in the pockets of the rich. The trick is being done a bit more subtly this time round, but the effect is the same. Will we grumble? Will we even be unreasonable, and make a fuss? Or will we resign ourselves to the view that it was all too good to be true, anyway, and probably more than we deserved?