How best could I describe the mood in Cape Town? Upbeat with reservations, I think. Mike was pleasantly stunned to find his early / mid-season prediction that he wouldn’t be watching Champions League football next season had proven shaky with a sudden resurgence which had moved his beloved Manchester United up to a tight four-way battle for third and fourth places. Of course, this was still soured by the confirmation that first and second were being fought out by the club’s greatest rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool.
“Remarkable turnaround indeed,” commented James, who was equally from the red-half of Manchester.
“It looks like most of your other footballing predictions are coming true, doesn’t it,” added John in a tone which suggested he was envious of his friend’s accuracy or, more likely, depressed by the inevitability.
“Yeah,” responded Mike in a voice which reflected the latter of John’s possible motives. “PSG had won the one-team French league by November, Juventus had won the increasingly one-team Serie A by December, Barcelona finally shook off the attentions of Atlético and Sevilla by January and now Man City and Bayern look like they’re powering past the almost hapless Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. One surprise might have been nice.”
“Although preferably not Liverpool,” said James, reducing the options by fifty per cent in one fell swoop. Glasses were clinked in approval and three half-full glasses become more than half-empty as three Manchester United fans reflected on the sin of hoping Man City would win the title just to prevent Liverpool from doing so.
The above-mentioned Mike was, despite mixed emotions on the football front, feeling more than a little chuffed by the recent formation of The Independent Group, an event he had actually predicted within the confines of my café just a few months previously, although he had given it the provisional name of the Central Democratic Party. Other than the fact The Independent Group were currently denying it was actually a party, Mike saw the name as a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other, to coin a slightly outdated phrase.
Three more beers were ordered and sampled before the conversation took its highly predictable turn.
“So, erm, are you feeling about The Independent Group now?” asked John, with the customary tentativeness experience by those on the verge of prising open a can of worms.
“Well,” began Mike, “it’s not expanding or developing as quickly as I might have hoped, but it’s there and it’s a start. I mean, it proves I’m not the only person in the country who is sick to death of the new extremism which is increasingly rife in British politics. Corbyn remains deaf to the majority on the one side in his attempt to drag the country to the far left, and the ERG, despite its low numbers, is dragging the Tories ever-rightwards.” This was not, as James and John and any eavesdroppers from 2018 knew, not a new argument.
“The funniest thing I saw in the press this week,” mused James with a chortle tinged with despair, “was Jacob Rees-Mogg declaring himself to be a member of the centre right and warning of right-wing extremism if Brexit is delayed or thwarted.” Mike, who was used to knowing everything about this particular nemesis and his unfounded ramblings, picked his jaw up off the floor and was too stunned to put an interruption into a coherent utterance. James was placed in the unusual position of being able to continue a train of thought. “It’s so absurd I had to wonder if someone had made it up. I tend to believe that he’s the public face of right-wing extremism and will be cheering them on, however silently”.
“Now, that you might just be tempted to call ‘Project Fear’!” John uttered with a shudder, while Mike half-laughed at the ‘joke’ while wincing at the prospect, a combination which rendered his face as a whole indecipherably contorted.
James decided to pursue his analysis of Rees-Mogg as the father figure of the alt-right. “Do you think he has a black shirt?”
“Probably one for each day of the week,” responded Mike quickly, finally regaining the power of speech and clearly aware of the historical significance of the question.
“Says you who has two for each day of the week!” muttered John, although clearly intending his comment to be heard.
“Fair point!” admitted the fashion-victim. For obvious reasons, I have never seen the inside of any of my customer’s wardrobes but Mike was once obliged to open his suitcase in my café on his way to the airport and it was akin to staring into the Black Hole of Calcutta.
“I suppose,” said James, who was on the trail of Rees-Mogg like a terrier pursuing a rat down a hole, “he isn’t the only hypocrite in the Brexit debacle is he?”
“Absolutely not!” responded his fellow drinkers in unison.
“Just look at the way some politicians and wealthy Brexit supporters are making sure their beds are nicely feathered outside of Britain for when it all goes wrong,” growled Mike, and the anger was anything but feigned. “It reminds me of the Captain of the Titanic jumping ship just as it’s about to sink, or in this case, jumping ship into other parts of the EU just as their own country is about to sink into the abyss of Brexit crapness.”
“Or like making a suicide pact with the rest of the country and then pulling out of at the last minute once it’s all too late,” added John, rather too accurately for comfort, in my view.
“It’s tantamount to committing national suicide but excluding yourself from it by making sure you’ll be OK,” added James, although his point was almost identical in meaning.
“Brexit is like self-harm.” Mike continued the painful analogy. “If you self-harm, the best thing others can do is to stop it somehow and treat the causes. If you don’t stop it, it so often leads to suicide. And that’s the same with Brexit – national suicide.”
“Which is why we need to go back and treat the causes rather than kill the future,” John summarised forcibly.
This was an unusual moment in my Cape Town room. The dialogue was too often a monologue, if that actually makes any sense, with Mike holding forth and James and John nodding and making the occasional comment when the speaker paused for breath or, as was more likely, beer. On this occasion, parity of contribution had almost been achieved. We all knew it was unlikely to last or be repeated in the foreseeable future but James and John were all for making hay while the sun shone (not literally in March, obviously).
“Imagine,” began James, and there was something teasing in his tone and eye as he said the word. “If there was an election in which you were compelled to vote and the only candidates were representing the ERG and Momentum, what would you do?”
There was no question that this possibility, however remote it seemed, was one to cause shock and silence for a few moments before facial contortions became those associated with brain strain.
“Probably take some delusional drugs because I could never, ever in a million years, with a clear conscience support either of them.” Mike’s answer was as definitive as it usually was.
“I can’t argue with that,” concurred John, while James nodded in assent.
There was more synchronised beer swilling for a few moments, during which Mike was seen to shudder, presumably in an aftershock of the unthinkable scenario raised by James.
James was clearly in possession of a proverbial spoon with which he continued to stir. “So, what do you think will happen with the Brexit votes this week?”
“With any luck,” said Mike, clearly with a preconceived vision of upcoming events, “May’s deal will once again be defeated by a huge margin and the only remaining options will be a totally disastrous ‘no deal’ or a People’s Vote. Common sense points to the latter, but there is a ridiculous government and an equally ridiculous opposition at the moment, so common sense might not prevail. That’s my big fear, party politics defeating the long-term interests of the country with most politicians equally culpable.”
You could almost feel James and John metaphorically leaning back in their seats to allow Mike to take up his usual centre-stage platform. I say metaphorically because I have no chairs in Cape Town and the three men all were semi-erect, propping up the bar.
“It’s shameless, really,” continued the would-be political orator. “On one side, Corbyn ignores conference policy and the apparent majority of his support, and almost seems to treat Brexit as an inconvenient irrelevance he just wants done and out of the way regardless of the impact. On the other side, the disgrace of the ostrich, in other words Theresa May, continues apace.” James and John couldn’t hide their amusement at the expression, although not at the implication. “Having bought the DUP’s allegiance by throwing money at Northern Ireland, she is now attempting to bribe Labour politicians in Leave areas in a similar way, just to support her ludicrously bad deal, ignoring the fact that the same areas would actually be better off if we just stayed in the EU!”
“Beggars belief.” John’s almost trademark expression was guaranteed to lighten the mood in most cases; in this particular instance, the respite was brief.
“And you still have the insidious interference from other countries,” continued Mike, two sips later. “And by countries, I mean men.” There was a meaningful pause. “And by men, I mean Trump and Putin.” Knowing sighs ensued. “Did you hear what Putin told Theresa May?” James and John exchanged looks of surprise at Mike’s usual preferred target, ‘the Trump’, escaping his immediate vitriol. “’Stick to your guns, Theresa May; democracy is democracy’, or some similar twaddle. I mean, what does that man know about democracy? It isn’t ‘one man, one vote’, but ‘one vote, one man’ as far as he’s concerned.”
“Yeah, I know,” said James, as John opened his mouth to speak. “It beggars belief!”
I appreciated the lightening of the mood, which I further facilitated by introducing a new South African craft ale from the Cape Brewing Company which I had taken quite a liking to.