Friday 17 August 2012

Power to the People! (a short story)

As always, it started with a simple enough idea. Hal and Mel were not natural entrepreneurs, far from it. Indeed they’d spent the better part of their post-university years effectively living on handouts. Handouts from the state in the form of various benefit payments-du-jour. Handouts from the public for sitting on street corners, often with a small dog, a sign and an arsenal of three-chord tricks. Handouts from absent homeowners in whose dwellings they squatted, always fully intending to maintain them but somehow letting them fall into what the cynical might call disrepair.

It wasn’t for want of trying; Hal, after all, had a degree in Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation but following a three-year, gap-year had signally failed to find employment that suited his rigorous ethics. He had once decided to set up a landscape gardening business, but without a driving licence, or start-up capital to purchase a van, or any inclination to offer his services to the vile capitalist scum who might be able to afford them, the business plan foundered within the time it took to finish the pint that had inspired the notion.

Mel, on the other hand had once worked ‘for the man’. To supplement his meagre student grant – meagre because his parents were accountants and grants were means-tested – he had held down several part-time jobs during his time at university. Initially studying Economics he had decided after two years, probably quite correctly, that the world would be a better place without more economists and transferred to read Political Philosophy.

There is, of course, only one political philosophy that anybody actually studies, so after two more years and many drunken nights he had emerged, blinking into the new dawn of a greedy world, a fully paid-up and unashamed Marxist. Back in the early eighties it was an important credential for any Union job in the fight against the imagined tyranny of the Thatcher government. Of course, in order to take up a union job he would actually need to join a union and thus risk the round-the-clock surveillance of MI5. He hadn’t read 1984 for nothing, so turned instead to fight the good fight from the underground, which was, coincidentally, where he met Hal, competing for a prime busking spot.

Rivalry had blossomed into grudging respect and eventual friendship and by the end of the decade of greed, during which their peers had embarked on careers, bought houses and raised happy families, Hal and Mel were finding their feet as regular participants of the fringe protestation industry. Since those early beginnings they had banned bombs, freed basset hounds, marched on Downing Street and fought side by side at the Third Battle of Newbury to the unexpectedly unvoiced gratitude of the thousands who daily endured the misery of the A34’s inadequate transit of the town.

In fact it could be said that the Newbury bypass was Hal and Mel’s road to Damascus, for it was here that Healthy Manna was formed. Feeding the five thousand or more protesters under the constant gaze of the world’s media was no mean task and the opportunistic invasion of greasy capitalist catering vans was anathema to the ethically intense and mostly vegetarian denizens of the tent city.

Rapidly running out of Quorn™ sausages for the makeshift barbecue it was Mel who suggested he was willing to scout for more and headed to an outlying branch of Iceland with the proceeds of a whip-round. On his return with the entire shop supply (five packs) and much more change than he’d expected he found the barbecue abandoned and the protesters engaged in a pitched battle with the police. HM’s first profit nestled snugly in Mel’s pocket.

From there it was a small logical leap to attend the protests ‘going equipped’, with farmers’ market-bought stock selling at captive audience retail prices. Healthy Manna became a fixture at any respectable placard-waving events; Hal and Mel’s guerrilla credentials ensured a healthy turnover and raised fists of solidarity greeted them at every venue.

Inevitably the economic imperatives brought forth competition, but now Mel was in his element. For the first time in his life he actually understood this shit! Incorporation, expansion and diversification; suddenly it all made perfect sense. The brand acquired a killer, new-age logo and within a few short years a fleet of state-of-the-art catering trucks brought wholesome hippy provender to festivals, sporting events and marches alike.

To keep costs down and thus feed their happy-hippy followers within the tight budgets of their state-gifted incomes they sourced ever cheaper ingredients from increasingly dubious sources while tacitly maintaining their ethical credentials and ‘right-on’ unwritten mission statement. They were the people’s caterers, but before long, a decision had to be made.

Prosper or perish? No contest. The corporate world welcomed the launch of HM Plc in the heady days of the new millennium and soon they became a global brand with outlets on every city street corner. Anti-corporate sympathisers the world over willingly donned Healthy Manna tee shirts and HM made millions on the sale of merchandise alone.

Hal & Mel were applauded for not having sold out themselves – even though their accountants had skilfully managed to dispose of their shares and any liability in the company, converting their former holdings into multi-million-pound offshore tax-exempt funds – and they still attended as many radical interventions as time allowed. In fact their main reason for selling up was to achieve a better, more wholesome, work-protest balance. Two weeks in Antigua, a week on the picket lines. Fight the good fight.

And so it was that Hal and Mel, painted urban warriors and protest gods in monster 4x4s, arrived in October 2011 to Occupy St Paul’s Square. As their personal staff erected the tents they wandered off to the nearby H&M Plc Solidarity Café. With grande choca-mocha-capa-lattes in hand, they paused for a moment under the clenched fist logo and raised their cups in a toast. “Cheers comrade!” said Hal, “Now let’s go and smash the capitalist running dogs!”

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