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Fall of giants, p.42
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       Fall of Giants, p.42

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 42

  CHAPTER FORTY-TWO - December 1923 to January 1924

  Earl Fitzherbert got up on a platform outside Aberowen town hall at three o'clock in the afternoon on the day before the general election. He wore formal morning dress and a top hat. There was a burst of cheering from the Conservatives at the front, but most of the crowd booed. Someone threw a crumpled newspaper, and Billy said: "None of that, now, boys, let him speak. "

  Low clouds darkened the winter afternoon, and the streetlights were already lit. It was raining, but there was a big crowd, two or three hundred people, mostly miners in their caps, with a few bowler hats at the front and a scatter of women under umbrellas. At the edges of the crowd, children played on the wet cobblestones.

  Fitz was campaigning in support of the sitting M. P. , Perceval Jones. He began to talk about tariffs. This was fine with Billy. Fitz could speak on this subject all day without touching the hearts of Aberowen people. In theory, it was the big election issue. The Conservatives proposed to end unemployment by raising the duty on imports to protect British manufactures. This had united the Liberals in opposition, for their oldest ideology was free trade. Labour agreed that tariffs were not the answer, and proposed a program of national work to employ the idle, together with extended years of education to prevent ever more youngsters coming into the overcrowded job market.

  But the real issue was who was to rule.

  "In order to encourage agricultural employment, the Conservative government will give a bounty of one pound per acre to every farmer-provided he is paying his laborers thirty shillings a week or more," said Fitz.

  Billy shook his head, amused and disgusted at the same time. Why give money to farmers? They were not starving. Unemployed factory workers were.

  Beside Billy, Da said: "This sort of talk isn't going to win votes in Aberowen. "

  Billy agreed. The constituency had once been dominated by hill farmers, but those days were over. Now that the working class had the vote, the miners would outnumber the farmers. Perceval Jones had held on to his seat, in the confused election of 1922, by a few votes. Surely this time he would be thrown out?

  Fitz was winding up. "If you vote Labour, you will be voting for a man whose army record is stained," he said. The audience did not much like that: they knew Billy's story, and regarded him as a hero. There was a mutter of dissent, and Da shouted: "Shame on you!"

  Fitz plowed on. "A man who betrayed his comrades-in-arms and his officers, a man who was court-martialed for disloyalty and sent to jail. I say to you: do not bring disgrace on Aberowen by electing to Parliament a man such as that. "

  Fitz got down to ragged applause and boos. Billy stared at him, but Fitz did not meet his eye.

  Billy climbed onto the platform in his turn. "You're probably expecting me to insult Lord Fitzherbert the way he insulted me," he said.

  In the crowd, Tommy Griffiths shouted: "Give him hell, Billy!"

  Billy said: "But this isn't a pithead punch-up. This election is too important to be decided by cheap jibes. " They became subdued. Billy knew they would not much like this reasonable approach. They enjoyed cheap jibes. But he saw his father nodding approval. Da understood what Billy was trying to do. Of course he understood. He had taught Billy.

  "The earl has shown courage, coming here and stating his views to a crowd of coal miners," Billy went on. "He may be wrong-he is wrong-but he's no coward. He was like that in the war. Many of our officers were. They were brave, but wrongheaded. They had the wrong strategy and the wrong tactics, their communications were poor, and their thinking was out of date. But they wouldn't change their ideas until millions of men had been killed. "

  The audience had gone quiet. They were interested now. Billy saw Mildred, looking proud, with a baby in each arm-Billy's two sons, David and Keir, aged one and two. Mildred was not passionate about politics, but she wanted Billy to become an M. P. so that they could go back to London and she could restart her business.

  "In the war, no working-class man was ever promoted above the rank of sergeant. And all public schoolboys entered the army as second lieutenants. Every veteran here today had his life needlessly put at risk by half-witted officers, and many of us had our lives saved by an intelligent sergeant. "

  There was a loud murmur of agreement.

  "I'm here to say those days are over. In the army and in other walks of life, men should be promoted for brains, not birth. " He raised his voice, and heard in his tone the thrill of passion that he knew from his father's sermons. "This election is about the future, and the kind of country our children will grow up in. We must make sure it's different from the one we grew up in. The Labour Party doesn't call for revolution-we've seen that in other countries, and it doesn't work. But we do call for change-serious change, major change, radical change. "

  He paused, then raised his voice again for his peroration. "No, I don't insult Lord Fitzherbert, nor Mr. Perceval Jones," he said, pointing at the two top hats in the front row. "I simply say to them: gentlemen, you are history. " There was a cheer. Billy looked over the front row to the crowd of miners-strong, brave men who had been born with nothing but had nevertheless made lives for themselves and their families. "Fellow workers," he said. "We are the future!"

  He got down from the platform.

  When the votes were counted, he won by a landslide.

  {II}

  So did Ethel.

  The Conservatives formed the largest party in the new Parliament, but they did not have an overall majority. Labour came second, with 191 M. P. s, including Eth Leckwith from Aldgate and Billy Williams from Aberowen. The Liberals were third. The Scottish Prohibitionists won one seat. The Communist Party got none.

  When the new Parliament assembled, Labour and Liberal members combined to vote the Conservative government out, and the king was obliged to ask the leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, to become prime minister. For the first time, Britain had a Labour government.

  Ethel had not been inside the Palace of Westminster since the day in 1916 when she got thrown out for shouting at Lloyd George. Now she sat on the green leather bench in a new coat and hat, listening to the speeches, occasionally glancing up to the public gallery from which she had been ejected more than seven years ago. She went into the lobby and voted with the members of the cabinet, famous socialists she had admired from a distance: Arthur Henderson, Philip Snowden, Sidney Webb, and the prime minister himself. She had her own desk in a little office shared with another female Labour M. P. She browsed in the library, ate buttered toast in the tearoom, and picked up sacks of mail addressed to her. She walked around the vast building, learning its geography, trying to feel she was entitled to be there.

  One day at the end of January she took Lloyd with her and showed him around. He was almost nine years old, and he had never been inside a building so large or so luxurious. She tried to explain the principles of democracy to him, but he was a little young.

  On a narrow red-carpeted staircase on the border between the Commons and the Lords areas, they ran into Fitz. He, too, had a young guest-his son George, called Boy.

  Ethel and Lloyd were going up, Fitz and Boy coming down, and they met on a half landing.

  Fitz stared at her as if he expected her to give way.

  Fitz's two sons, Boy and Lloyd, the heir to the title and the unacknowledged bastard, were the same age. They looked at one another with frank interest.

  At Tŷ Gwyn, Ethel remembered, whenever she encountered Fitz in the corridor she had had to stand aside, up against the wall, with her eyes cast down as he passed by.

  Now she stood in the middle of the landing, holding Lloyd's hand firmly, and stared at Fitz. "Good morning, Lord Fitzherbert," she said, and she tilted her chin up defiantly.

  He stared back. His face showed angry resentment. At last he said: "Good morning, Mrs. Leckwith. "

  She looked at his son. "You must be Viscount Aberowen," she said. "How do
you do?"

  "How do you do, ma'am," the child said politely.

  She said to Fitz: "And this is my son, Lloyd. "

  Fitz refused to look at him.

  Ethel was not going to let Fitz off lightly. She said: "Shake hands with the earl, Lloyd. "

  Lloyd stuck out his hand and said: "Pleased to meet you, Earl. "

  It would have been undignified to snub a nine-year-old. Fitz was forced to shake.

  For the first time, he had touched his son Lloyd.

  "And now we'll bid you good day," Ethel said dismissively, and she took a step forward.

  Fitz's expression was thunderous. Reluctantly he stood aside, with his son, and they waited, backs to the wall, as Ethel and Lloyd walked past them and on up the stairs.

  Historical Characters

  Several real historical characters appear in these pages, and readers sometimes ask how I draw the line between history and fiction. It's a fair question, and here's the answer.

  In some cases, for example when Sir Edward Grey addresses the House of Commons, my fictional characters are witnessing an event that really happened. What Sir Edward says in this novel corresponds to the parliamentary record, except that I have shortened his speech, without, I hope, losing anything important.

  Sometimes a real person goes to a fictional location, as when Winston Churchill visits Tŷ Gwyn. In that case, I have made sure that it was not unusual for him to visit country houses, and that he could well have done so at around that date.

  When real people have conversations with my fictional characters, they are usually saying things they really did say at some point. Lloyd George's explanation to Fitz of why he does not want to deport Lev Kamenev is based on what Lloyd George wrote, in a memo quoted in Peter Rowland's biography.

  My rule is: either the scene did happen, or it might have; either these words were used, or they might have been. And if I find some reason why the scene could not have taken place in real life, or the words would not really have been said-if, for example, the character was in another country at the time-I leave it out.

 
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