Stories are wonderful things, they seem to know when they are needed and somehow find a way to present themselves to you. I was struggling with what to write this month, maybe something about my festival experiences… or the heat… or my festival experiences in the heat. Having done a sufficiency of procrastinative housework to warrant a lunch break, I sat down, put on the Netflix documentary series Myths and Monsters and there it was: the story I needed.
You all know it. A prosperous German trading town is beset with a plague of rats, nothing they do is enough to save them. The stores are being eaten, the fabrics nested in, the ropes chewed in to short lengths. Nothing softer than iron is safe from the sharp teeth of the omnipresent vermin and what doesn’t get gnawed up is covered in the unhealthy spoor of the rodents. The town council is at it’s wits’ end and initiates the age old fairy tale cure all of offering a reward of unimaginable wealth to whoever can save them.
A poor musician, so poor that their clothes are a multicoloured mismatch of patches and replaced parts, appears in the square tootling on a whistle. The music is delightful and everyone wants to listen. Once he has their attention the piper introduces himself as a Rodentia Extermination Operative. The grandees of the city immediately offer him a 1,000 guilder contract to end the plague.
The man in motley strikes up a strange and haunting tune that draws every last one of the rats from their nests as they pour from basements and eaves alike to follow the capering flautist, who leaves the town and heads for the banks of the river. In a scene which has delighted pantomime directors and animators alike, the myriad meal munchers plunge in to the flowing waters and squeak their last.
Job done, the Pied Piper returns to a deeply relieved Hamelin where they give him a big round of applause but, claiming the town has significant expenses to cover replacing the unrealised profits for the rich merchants and there is no magic money tree, they refuse to give him the agreed 1,000G. The melodious rat catcher is unsurprisingly a bit miffed, swears revenge, much to the wealthy traders amusement, and storms out.
The final episode comes a few months later, on a Sunday when the adults are all in church. A man clad in green prances through the streets playing a lively dance on his flute, entrancing all the children who follow him out of the town and away… never to be seen again.
Now, I could go on about the fascinating history of the tale, how the rat infestation element was added a few hundred years after the original mysterious, but probably true, disappearance of a surprisingly specific 130 Hamelin children in 1284. On this occasion though it is the relevance to current affairs that caught my attention. Following a decade of political austerity, a Brexit that promised greater prosperity and a pandemic which clearly demonstrated exactly who are key workers that deserve reward; NHS staff, postal employees and transport workers are all being denied recognition of their essential functions in the meaningful form of getting paid enough to have a house and eat.
Striking is significantly less disruptive than taking away everyone’s children, but it is the only form of leverage available to those who have no magic flute. It may be inconvenient but unless we want it to get worse, it’s time to pay the piper.