I had an odd Wednesday last week. I was off to London in my best to participate in an Industry and Parliament Trust dinner entitled ‘Fast Food Nation’, but my primary concern was to sidestep any particularly nasty riots associated with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. I got on the train in pouring rain in Glasgow and got off it in sunny, 18 degree London and, like sensible socialists, most potential rioters seemed to be enjoying the lovely weather, rather than making themselves look stupid and, let’s face it, tactless at what ultimately was an old lady’s funeral.
As a Canadian, I couldn’t help remember the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 2000, and the outpouring of grief it released, even in Alberta, where crown corporation PETRO Canada will forever stand for Pierre Elliot Trudeau Rips Off Canada. As someone who felt that Trudeau was something special even as a kid (he resigned when I was 10 or 11), and who grew to appreciate both the politician and the man evermore as I learned more about him and his Canada (and as a litany of flawed and, worse, bland and ineffectual prime ministers followed), his death, which shortly followed the tragic death of his youngest son in a mountaineering accident, hit hard. I don’t know if I blubbed like George Osborne as I signed the registry at the Alberta Legislature on a rainy September evening, but I might as well have. This was the loss off someone who may not have saved Canada (as Maggie’s supporters claimed of Britain) or broken it (as the rest of Britain counter), but who represented it in many ways. Aristocratic, perhaps, but also intellectual, adventurous, environmentally-minded, multicultural (in both genetics and outlook), tough when necessary, but also willing to change (let’s not forget he started out as a Separatiste) and, to the core, passionate about a country that many take for granted, to me he believed in the sort of Canada of which I could be proud. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who most likely died in the numbing haze of dementia, Trudeau died of a broken heart, mourning the most free-spirited of his three sons. The enduring image of his funeral was his son Justin, weeping openly over his maple-leaf-draped coffin. Ironically, that same Justin took the leadership of his father’s party a week after Thatcher’s death.
I mentioned the parallels between Trudeau and Thatcher to a few people at the Industry and Parliament Trust dinner, partly because I can’t resist saying what comes into my head, even in the heady environs of House of Commons Dining Room B, but also because the dinner was a rather tense affair. The IPT events are intended to bridge government and industry (God knows why I was there), building partnerships and fostering cooperation, but this one seemed doomed to failure from the get go. This was chiefly because it pitted academic nutritionists, who blamed industry for causing the obesity epidemic, against one of their chief targets: Coca Cola.
As luck would have it, I was sat beside one of the Coke guys, a true believer in his corporation and others (MacDonald’s, for instance) who were simply trying to please their loyal customers. He reminded me somewhat of a scientologist, except it was nutrition science, not psychiatry, with which he had problems. My efforts to be polite went over pretty well, I think. My admittance that, although it had been a while since I had a Coca Cola product (a cherry coke when I say Side Effects – see last post), I had enjoyed it went over well; my suggestion that, instead of sponsoring the Olympics they should support physical activity by building bike paths in car-crazy Atlanta didn’t.
By the end of what was a fabulous spread, we had pretty much agreed, without saying as much, to disagree. Then, just as we were getting up, a forty-something woman with a strong southern-US accent came up. Sure enough, she was a Coke exec from Georgia, now living in the UK. She cannily determined that my accent wasn’t ‘from around here’ and I admitted my heritage, explaining that I now lived in Scotland. ‘The only country in the world’, I exclaimed proudly, ‘where Coke isn’t the number one soft drink. We Scottish prefer Irn Bru.’
The smiles disappeared. ‘I’m afraid you’re mistaken’, the woman said, my dining companion nodding vigorously, ‘they’re close, but we’re number one.’ I proceeded to assert that she was in fact incorrect, but we were soon ushered out; apparently the MPs present had to go and vote for something.
One of the MPs, Mary Glindon from North Tyneside, had said to me that if I wanted a tour of the Palace of Westminster, to wait in the lobby of the House of Commons and that she’d show me around after she voted. As I waited in what ended up being the wrong place, reading about the history of the Palace, Team Coke walked past, failing to make eye contact. Fine, I thought, next time I go to a film, I’m smuggling in Irn Bru. Maggie might not have approved, but I’m damn sure Trudeau would have given me two thumbs up.
Epilogue. After waiting and waiting for Mary, the MP, she turned up just as I was about to leave. I was waiting in the wrong place, of course, but I was so glad I waited. She proceeded to give me a spectacular tour of St Mary’s Chapel Undercroft (where Maggie had been the day before), the Shadow Cabinet room (I sat at the table), Ed Milliband’s office (open for some reason and apparently very unused, though there was the requisite family picture – no David to be found) and many, many other places that gave a colonial commoner such as myself a great thrill. The highlight was the surreal experience of sneaking into the Gallery of the House to listen to the fag end of a debate, when who was speaking but my very own MP, Jo Swinson of East Dunbartonshire. What are the chances? About 650-1, actually. I am forever grateful to Mary Glindon for tracking me down and giving me, someone who will never be able to vote for her (well, who knows? I’d live in North Tyneside), a helluva great tour of one of the world’s truly great places.
So, for me, Wednesday the 17th of April, 2013 won’t bring to mind a funeral, but it will remind me that in this world of crass commercialism, greed is good and conviction for conviction’s sake, there is also kindness, generosity, serendipity and magic. And, yes, there is also Irn Bru.