Rodney Hide: One must endure misery before sneering at plenty

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The young student looked like he could do with lunch so I took him across the road to 277's food hall. He had taken the trouble to turn up to my electorate office to explain to me why I was mistaken.

He was dressed in sneakers, blue jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap and had the iPod earphones draped around his neck. We sat there in the warm, clean food hall tossing up whether to eat Japanese, American, Indian, Turkish or Chinese. The service was outstanding - as always - and the coffee divine.

As he tucked into his kebab, the young student earnestly started to tell me why I was wrong. It turns out the market system doesn't work.

He was fired up and peppered me with theories and facts. He knew a lot and was very ardent.

As I was listening to this young man, another part of my mind flashed back ...

It was 1981. I had thought then that maybe all those stories I had heard about communist countries weren't true. Maybe they really were workers' paradises. Fed up with Britain's class system, I decided to find out.

I arrived at the train station in Bucharest, Romania, on a bitter winter's day.

It was the drabbest, most miserable place I had ever been to.

The wind was whistling down the streets and there was nothing bright or warm or smiling to be found.

The misery went beyond the cold and beyond the poverty. I had been in cold places before. And poor places. But this was different. It was a poverty of spirit.

The people appeared broken. Plus, there was a palpable fear. I felt it right across the city. The people were afraid of their own government, of the state police, of neighbours and workmates, all of whom were potential informers.

I had plenty of money. I had been working on North Sea oil rigs and as a construction worker at Sullom Voe, Shetland Islands, building a gas stripping plant. Money was not a problem. I had all manner of currency. But still I could find nothing to eat.

People queued in the driving snow for groceries. I found the places where the people ate. I hesitate to call them cafes. They were bitterly cold inside.

The snow roared in and blew across the floor every time the door opened. No one took their coat, scarf or hat off to eat. You ate standing at a rough, steel table.

Surly old women with whiskers slopped the food straight on to your tray as you pushed it along the servery.

The food was as cold as the snow, it was gristle and hair, water and washed-out vegetables. It was, for me, inedible. The workers were tucking into it. It was stupidly cheap. But it had to be. No one had any money for food.

My young student friend had chomped through his kebab and was pausing for breath to see that I had got his argument.

Profit, you see, is wrong. It's people doing things for their own self-interest. It's not about caring for others. People should be put first, not profits, not business.

Trade, too, is wrong. It exploits people. It uses them. It impoverishes them. I looked at the staff at the 277 food hall.

They didn't appear ripped off to me. I know the kebab man was only running his business to make money - not for the love of feeding the two of us - but he was doing a great job, nevertheless. And we loved his kebabs. He had to be good because the competition for our lunch dollars is fierce.

I asked my student friend if he had ever eaten at a state-run restaurant, where there was no choice, no competition, no profit and no business. He didn't know what I was talking about.

The mind is a wonderful thing. It's always possible to imagine a much better system and to ignore the very system all around us that feeds us, clothes us, houses us, and keeps us warm.


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- Herald on Sunday

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