MARK FRANKLAND

I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Monday, December 31, 2012

My marks for Liverpool FC 2012. Fans 10. American owners 0. How dare you treat Kenny like that?


 
Since I kicked off this page in the summer I have knocked out a few blogs on the subject of Liverpool Football Club. In this I am far from alone! Twitter and the Bloggersphere really do show the absolute jaw dropping hugeness of the club’s worldwide following.  I got a taste of this when I posted a blog on the eve of the Prime Minister getting to his feet in the House of Commons and finally lifting the lid on twenty three years worth of lies and cover up. Within a few minutes of posting the thing it was retweeted and retweeted again and within 48 hours it had been read five thousand times.

This is it in case you are interested
 
 
Now 5000 reads might be small beer for some but for me it was staggering, especially when the comments poured in from all corners of planet earth. There were about 10,000 of us in the Leppings Lane End on that desperate sunny April afternoon back in 1989. For years and years the rest of the country dismissed us as bleating, whinging Scousers who were not worth listening to. When we attended away games we were taunted as ‘Murderers’. ‘Always the victim, it’s never your fault…’ But over those very same years, Hillsborough has become our glue. And the ten thousand who lived through it were joined by millions of others who saw behind the curtain of lies.

And we got there in the end.

There was a classic moment during the home game against QPR last season. Joey Barton trotted to the corner flag by the Kop to take a corner. The day-trippers armed with handfuls of carrier bags from the club shop booed him because that is what Sky Sports had told them to do. Joey Barton = Pantomime Villain. When they do a feature on him before the Super Sunday game they set the pictures to a back drop of bad boy rap music. Good old Rupert Murdoch knows the commercial value of the bad boy. They set those tills a ringing don’t they Rupe? But here’s the thing. As the day-trippers booed, the vast majority of those on the Kop rose to their feet and applauded. They were not remotely interested in the Sky Sports bollocks. They knew the truth. Joey is one of ours. He had helped us get over the line when we needed 100,000 online signatures to force the issue onto the floor of the House of Commons. And I have no doubt that the day-trippers must have gone home and done a bit of online research and soon found their way past the Murdoch poison to the truth as told by those who know it.

It occurs to me that all my football moments of 2012 are fan related. Obviously right up there at the top of the list was the sight of David Cameron telling it straight. He went up a mile in my estimation that day. He spoke like a Prime Minister should speak.

Next up. It has to be our neighbours from across Stanley Park and the absolute class they showed before their home game against Newcastle. ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.’ Too bloody right. Memories of that epic Cup Final back in 1986 when 100,000 of us emptied the city and headed south to the old Wembley. The real Wembley. For a real Cup Final. And someone sprayed graffiti onto one of the signs on the M62: ‘Last one out switch the lights off’. Another time. Another place. Three years before the sky fell in. What a contrast our fellow Scousers at Goodison offered to the pondlife from Old Trafford who sung out ’Murderers’ to an empty Anfield 24 hours earlier. Wankers.

Number three. Getting to the Christmas Number One. That was the moment when it became clear that the realisation about what went down that afternoon had spread way beyond the Liverpool family. Joe Public became our brother and Simon Cowell was shoved to one side.

Number four was the brilliant moment when the fans of Young Boys of Berne unfurled their huge Hillsborough banner and the whole of Anfield rose as one to acknowledge them. It was football beyond Sky sodding Sports and all the redtop hype. It was a fan thing and it counted.

Something that has added a new dimension to my life as a Red of 41 thick and thin years is my bi-weekly dose of The Anfield Wrap. There will not be many who are reading this who are not already familiar with this bloody excellent Podcast. Just in case you have never tuned into the lads, then here is where you need to go.
 
http://www.theanfieldwrap.com/

If you want the genuine voice of Liverpool Football Club this is where you need to tune in, not the commercialised anodyne dross that makes up so much of LFCTV. So keep it going lads. We might not be up to much on the pitch but we are the reining European Champions when it comes to Podcasting!

One final fan moment and one that harked back to the days when the humour of the Kop was legend the world over. Suarez is brought down on the edge of the box. The ref blows up and gives a free kick. The Kop spontaneously rises to its feet for an ironic standing ovation and within seconds the whole of Anfield joins in. Bloody brilliant.

So much for the fans. What of the club? A little earlier I mentioned the fact that I have been a season ticket holder at Anfield since 1971. Sure, it’s a long, long time. Lots of highs and lows. In August 1986 and 1989 there was a decision to make. Twice being a football fan had become a matter of life and death. In 1985 it was a matter of death for 39 Juventus fans and of course in 1989 it was our turn. The decision? Do I really want to keeping going? Is it worth being a fan when going the match means witnessing people having their jackets thrown over their lifeless eyes? You know what? On both occasions the decision was made in seconds. Of course I was going to keep going. To have stopped would have seemed like a betrayal. Being a Liverpool fan means more than merely shouting for 11 blokes in red shirts who I have never met. It is something indefinable; impossible to get a real handle on; important. No way was I ever going to walk away from it.

Instead it was last summer that for the first time in 41 years I really wondered if I wanted to renew my season ticket. Why? Because it seemed like Liverpool Football Club was no longer my Liverpool Football Club. Instead it had been made plainly obvious that our treasured club has become an item on the balance sheet for a few blokes in Boston. They had snapped their fingers and told Kenny Dalglish to drop everything and jump a plane across the Atlantic and then they sacked him.

Let’s just give that sentence a paragraph of its own.

The bastards made Kenny get on a plane to Boston and they fired him.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a blind sentimentalist who will blindly demand that Kenny is unsackable simply because he is Kenny. Of course our league position was crap and of course the cash he splashed on the likes of Stuart Downing and Andy Carroll was ridiculous. Fair enough I am old fashioned enough to see a season where we won one trophy and got to a final in another and hit the bar a million times wasn’t actually all that bad. Basically a Wembley final and a trophy is a bloody big deal to the fans, especially when it comes in a season when the bastards at the far end of the M62 win nothing. The fact that it doesn’t do much for the bottom line profits of a bunch on American carpetbaggers is of no concern to me. Should a manager who has just taken us to two Wembley finals be fired? Of course he shouldn’t. Should the only working manager to have won the league with two different clubs be fired after a year and a half? Of course he shouldn’t. And should he be replaced by a guy with no kind of record whatsoever? Be serious. They wanted a ‘yes’ man and they got a ‘yes’ man. End of story.

But in the end my dithering about renewing my season ticket wasn’t about the football rights and wrongs of the decision to fire Kenny. It was about the way it was done. These arrogant bastards proved they are not remotely close to getting what Liverpool Football Club really means, just like the day-trippers who booed Joey Barton didn’t get it.

In 1989 Kenny and Marina Dalglish attended EVERY funeral and a couple of years later those endless harrowing events more or less pushed him into a nervous breakdown. In the weeks and months after Hillsborough, Kenny Dalglish showed himself to be much more than just a great player and a great manager.

He showed himself to be truly great man.

Our great man.

One of the lads on the Anfield Wrap put it perfectly. This wasn’t just a question of firing Kenny Dalglish. It was a question of firing OUR Kenny Dalglish.

Here is what you should have done you bastards. YOU should have got on a plane and come to see Kenny in HIS office at Melwood. You should have treated him with the respect a dignity he has earned more than any person on this planet. But you didn’t. You clicked your over privileged fingers and made him come to you. Well shame on you now and forever more. I don’t care if you win the league one day. I for one will never, ever forgive you for that.

I heard Kenny’s son Paul on the podcast and he said that his dad doesn’t feel welcome at Anfield any more. Can you believe that? Kenny Dalglish doesn’t come to Anfield any more because a bunch of Americans who have made a few bob on Wall St have made him feel unwelcome. Quite frankly the thought of this puts a feeling of black murder in my heart. How dare you? How bloody dare you? You absolute bastards.

So it was for a while I seriously considered chucking it in. Do I really want to give £800 to people who have made sure that King Kenny Dalglish doesn’t feel welcome at Anfield any more?

Well I didn’t and I don’t. But what other choice is there? Our Anfield is now their Anfield. The fact that I am still there every week is probably largely down to the lads at The Anfield Wrap. They are a constant reminder that in the end it will always be OUR club and not THEIR club. One day they will be gone but we will still be there. They try to turn ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ into a tacky marketing tool to punt overpriced tat to gullible dickheads. Well so be it. Those of us who have been around longer than they have know better. We know the true worth of those words. None of us had to walk alone on the long road to the Ataturk Stadium. And those of us who survived the Leppings Lane have ever had to walk alone for 23 years. That is what joins up Joey Barton and the Young Boys fans and that show of ultimate class at Goodison Park.

That is why I decided to grit my teeth and send my £800 across the Atlantic. I didn’t want to walk alone and why should any arrogant Yanks with dollar signs force me to walk alone.

My wish for 2013? Simple. I wish Kenny would buy himself a season ticket for the Kop and come along every week. And all the millions of Liverpool fans all over the world could trumpet it from the rooftops. They might make you feel unwelcome Kenny but we never will. Because Liverpool Football Club is not and never will be THEIR Liverpool Football Club. It is OUR Liverpool Football Club. It is YOUr Liverpool Football Club. Just like you are and always will be OUR Kenny Dalglish. They say that form is temporary and class is permanent. Bang right. Well let’s just hope that the Yanks are temporary. Because the fans and Kenny are what is truly permanent.

Monday, December 24, 2012

'He Ain't Heavy' is much more than a Christmas Number One: it is a kick in the teeth for everyone who tried to cover up what happened that day.


What a bloody marvellous moment it was yesterday to log onto Twitter to be greeted by tweet after tweet celebrating ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ making it the Christmas number one slot. I guess there must have been millions like me who have never had the remotest interest in who occupies the festive top slot suddenly becoming fully engaged in the whole thing. When I downloaded my copy I was fairly sure that it was the first time I had ever made such a purchase and then I remembered Band Aid all those years ago.

Two records.

 Two desperate memories from the Eighties.

 One I watched unfold on the TV as Michael Burke revealed the extent of the human catastrophe in the Horn of Africa. And one I was very much a part of.

What do the two events have in common? On the surface of this not a great deal. The loss of 96 football supporters thanks to the incompetence and arrogance of a police force that had been allowed to become a law unto itself was a tragedy the likes of which we have seldom seen on these shores. Let us never forget that the actions of the South Yorkshire police that day accounted for eight times as many fatalities as the Bloody Sunday Massacre, four times as many as the Real IRA killed with the Omagh bomb in 1998, and almost twice the death toll Al Queda achieved in London on 7/7.

And people used to wonder why we wouldn’t give up on our demands for justice...

However the situation in Ethiopia all those years ago was a whole different ball game. It wasn’t the lives of 96 that were at threat: it was the lives of millions.

So what do the two events have in common other than the strange 80’s feel to the old news footage?

Well, plenty.

The famine in Ethiopia was primarily caused by a drought just like the catastrophe on the Leppings Lane end was largely down to cages and a shamefully dilapidated stadium that wasn’t up to the job. The real question was how these problems were allowed to turn into tragedies and why the tragedies were so appallingly handled. Why couldn’t the Ethiopian government get emergency relief to its own people? Because for years it had been tearing itself to shreds in endless civil war. And like many civil wars from those dimly remembered times, it was also a part of the Cold war. The West backed one side whilst the Soviets backed another. The Cold War Warriors in the White House and the Kremlin shipped millions of dollars and roubles worth of weaponry into the meat grinder and nobody cared much about the civilians stuck in the middle of it all. So when the rains never came and the earth turned to dust nobody either cared or noticed: they were all too busy fighting their ideological games.

And then Michael Burke turned up with his camera and the world sat up and noticed. A record was made and we went out and bought it and it made the Christmas number one slot and the politicians were forced to look beyond their death games.

The South Yorkshire police were also born out of ideology. In the early Eighties they were given a free hand and overtime by the truckload to beat the living daylights out of the striking miners. A blind eye was turned by the media and politicians alike as the Conservatives exacted their revenge for the downfall of the Heath government in 1974. For a while policemen in South Yorkshire were allowed to do anything they liked and there were never any consequences: merely a pat on the back, a round of drinks, endless jokes about kicking the shit out of the lads on the picket lines. And so when they were given the job of ensuring 50,000 citizens of Great Britain could watch a football match in safety they completely blew it because they had been allowed to completely forget that it was their job to serve the public. They had become accustomed to their special status. They were Maggie Thatcher’s very own Republican Guard. Looking after people was beneath their dignity. Just like the dictators at the helm in Ethiopia considered feeding their people to be beneath their dignity.

What is truly heartening in both tragedies is how the public can react when we are finally given the truth. Before the Michael Burke film we didn’t do anything about the kids starving in Ethiopia because we didn’t know there were kids starving in Ethiopia. Similarly for 23 years the vast majority of the British Public dismissed the claims of those of us who lived through that afternoon on the Leppings Lane because they were completely brainwashed to dismiss our claims. But once the curtain of lies and cover up was at last ripped down the public have come through in spades. If only we could be told the truth more often, our world would be a much better place.

Over last few years we Liverpool fans have learned that people power can actually work. We used every tool in the new media box to get rid of Hicks and Gillet and then honed those same skills to force Parliament to finally have an open debate on what really happened on 15 April 1989.

Maybe times are changing and changing fast. Let’s not forget that it was partly down to Joey Barton and his legendary Twitter following that we were able to force the doors of Westminster. The fact that a lad like Joey was able to rattle cage of the Establishment is surely evidence that we might be about to enter something of a Brave New World.

Just look at how those arrogant pricks at the helm of Starbucks are hopping about like scalded cats now that millions of us have decided to buy our Cappuccino elsewhere. They thought they could treat us all with disdain and that we were too stupid to do anything about it. Well think again you greedy bastards, because if we choose not to buy from you then you have nothing except a worthless, tarnished brand that has become toxic. That ultimate example of human pondlife Kelvin McKenzie thought he was a master of the universe. He thought it was his divine right to spout his poison on Question Time and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Well think again Kelvin. I reckon Tranmere will win the Premiership before you get on Question Time again.

Here is where there might be more to ‘He ain’t heavy’ than meets the eye. Maybe it is yet another example of how we can all find ways of doing stuff together to kick down the walls of the Establishment and get the truth and justice we crave.

For years Governments of all colours successfully spun the line that the IRA were nothing more than common criminals: murderous thugs who commanded hardly any public support at all. Then a young lad called Bobby Sands went on hunger strike and before he starved himself to death he stood for Parliament. On 9 April 1981, 30,493 people voted for him and for a few weeks he was the youngest MP in the House. Everything changed that day. You simply can’t spin the 'common criminals with no support' line when 30,493 people turn out to vote for one of those common criminals. Thatcher had the rug yanked from under her feet. She was forced to start talking instead of sending out her beloved SAS execution squads and seventeen years later there was peace after 300 years of war.

Every last copy of ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ represents a clear message to the Establishment. Don’t you dare assume that your nasty little cover ups will hold forever. Sure you got away with it for 23 years and my how you must have laughed at us as we beat away at the doors. But the last laugh is ours. The time has come for the bill to be settled and all of a sudden you have nowhere to hide any more.

There is a great deal of talk about the dominant hold the new celebrity culture has over 2012 Britain. The X Factor stands at the epicentre of this tawdry state of affairs. The X Factor overlords no doubt considered the Christmas number one slot to be their divine right just like the South Yorkshire Police were utterly certain that their cover up would stay in place. Well think again. A whole bunch of bothersome Scousers has just bucked the trend. In fact Scousers have a pretty decent track record when it comes to using music to get people to look at the world in a different way. Once upon a time a Scouser wrote the following lyrics.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

And did anyone listen? You bet they did. They named an airport after him.        

Monday, December 17, 2012

Faith in human nature wrecked: faith in human nature restored.


 
Yesterday was something of a rollercoaster. I woke up in the wee small hours with raging toothache and logged on to check out England’s progress in Nagpur. No problems there as Bell and Trott were grinding it out in a manner to make Geoffrey Boycott purr. Next came Twitter and news from all manner of sources that the Hillsborough Justice Collective had released it’s version of ‘He ain’t heavy’ and Reds across the globe were duly urged to shell out 89p to push it to the Christmas number one slot. No problem there either. Click. Done. It’s actually in my headphones as I write and I would be remiss not to urge everyone out there to help to top up the legal fighting fund of the families of the 96.

Next it was the online Guardian and the tawdry tale of the Barclay brothers. Along with the vast majority of planet earth, I hadn’t heard of the Barclay brothers until yesterday morning and what a pair of charmers they are. I had just posted a blog about my next novel ‘The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha’ which will track the progress of a couple of PTSD riddled vets in waging a revenge war against the top 1% of our Brave New World who are relentlessly bleeding us all dry.

These guys epitomise everything about the hated 1% that will surely mean that one day we will all make like Trotsky and say enough is enough. They own the Telegraph, the Ritz hotel and the Littlewoods catalogue. Guess what. These born and bred Cockneys no longer feel that London is good enough for them: one lives in Monaco and the other lives on the island of Sark in the Channel Isles. Now I wonder why that might be? Maybe the nightlife is a tad more buzzing on Sark that it is in London. Or might it just be down to the fact that they have decided they are just so much more special than the rest of us that it really would be too bitter a pill for them to swallow were they ever to pay a penny of tax. The fact their formative years saw them educated in tax payer funded schools and mended by tax payer funded GPs is neither here nor there to the delightful Barclay brothers. They have heroically ensured that their crafty accountants and lawyers have kept the Ritz hotel from paying any tax whatsoever for seventeen years.

In 2002 they took over Littlewoods and got their clever men in suits to stick their noses into the archives. Ah ha! Great news. Behold. There was a VAT loophole. Goody goody gumdrops. They got all lawyered up and hit the courts. First they bashed Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs into stumping up a £204 million rebate going back to 1970’s. The fact they hadn’t even owned the company back then was of course neither here nor there. Then they returned to court to demand the interest on all that money and the Revenue and Customs duly coughed up a further £262 million. Lovely jubbly. Of course a £466 million windfall care of the British tax payer was plenty enough to give Littlewoods a hell of a shot in the arm in terms of profit. So at least the Revenue and Customs would see of the money back in the form of Corporation Tax. Well actually, no. Of course no. Littlewoods is registered somewhere far from these shores, no doubt in a non descript looking white building sitting back from a quiet road in Bermuda somewhere.

Was £462 million enough for the Barclay Brothers? Of course it wasn’t. Well how could it be? The cost of living on Sark takes some keeping up with you know. So where was the next mountain for their mighty lawyers to climb? Well, is it really fair they are only paid basic interest on the £262 million they were refunded? Of course it isn’t. Fairness and justice demands that they are paid compound interest. And compound interest means a whole fat billion pounds: not a lousy, measly £262 million. So now the Barclay brothers and their merry band of lawyers are now headed for the European Court of Justice to demand that the only way they can be treated fairly is if the British Tax payer hands them an additional £738 million to make up for the fact that a company they didn’t even own at the time had over paid £200 million in VAT.

Take a bloody pause.
 
A company they never owned over paid £200 million in VAT and the European Court of Justice is now about to demand that we all give this pair of shysters £1 billion in compound interest. Let’s just be properly clear about what a billion quid actually means. It would pay the salaries of 5000 nurses for a year. It would pay a year’s worth of dole to 33,500 of the unemployed people the Barclay Brothers slag off for being wasters and scroungers in the Telegraph. We could give every infantry soldier who has done a tour in Afghanistan a one off Christmas bonus of £50,000. Instead European Court of Justice is about demand that every man, woman and child in Britain coughs up £16.50 to hand over a thousand million quid to a pair of greedy bastards to salt away in their off shore treasure chests. Have you ever wondered what got into people on the snowy streets of St Petersburg back in 1917 when they hung the super-rich from lampposts? Maybe the antics of the Barclay Brothers offer a pretty decent clue.

The European Court of Justice.

Justice.

One word viewed through two online windows on a dark December morning. The Hillsborough Justice Collective gathering in enough cash for the families of the 96 to keep paying their legal bills – gathering in the cash 89p at a time. And asking respectfully for that same 89p. Not demanding. Not coercing.

Then there is the European Court of Justice absolutely demanding and coercing us all to give £16.50 to a pair of greedy bastards who pride themselves on never paying a penny of tax.

AggggHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Time to head into work. A cold grey day and the usual tales of woe. A guy from a small town thirty miles up the road comes in for food. He is a single dad with three kids to feed. He lives in a town where once upon a time they had a coal mine and jobs and lives to lead. There is no coal mine now. Time was called on that back in the 80’s. He would love a job. He volunteers to help a local charity six days a week. An appointment letter for the Job Centre got lost in the post. So he missed the appointment and they suspended all his  payments for two months. Do I believe him? Yes I do. Two bloody months, no money, three kids and Christmas a week away. And the Barclay Brothers want a billion quid.  

AggggHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

To be honest by one o’clock my faith in humankind was wearing thin. So much for the spirit of Christmas. Then the bell on the door rang and a spritely pensioner came to the counter and put two £20 notes down with a smile. For the food parcels she said. Keep up the good work she said. And my opinion of the human race went up a notch. Ten minutes later and the bell went again. A couple this time. They told me that they don’t need to buy all that many Christmas presents any more. Instead they like to try to help those who are having a tough time. They gave me and envelope and we chatted for a while. Only when I went back up the stairs did I open the envelope. £200 in twenty pound notes. Unbelievable. Amazing. Humbling.

So it was in the course of a few hours I journeyed from the Hillsborough Justice Collective to the Barclay Brothers to these wonderful people who are so in tune with what being a decent human being is all about.

And all the while the storyline for ‘The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha’ takes on a little more shape. A little more form. Time to type ‘Sark’ into Google images and see what the place looks like……    

Something like this actually

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha


 
It’s funny really, when I re-started this blog a few months ago it was in the wake of attending a sort of writer’s day. The purpose of the event was to give out a few clues as to how authors should look to the brave new world of social media to raise their profile and thereby sell a few books. After ten years of sticking books in envelopes and queuing up at the post office counter I felt more than ready to embrace the whole Kindle thing. Somebody wants a book in Sydney? Click. Somebody’s got a book in Sydney. No more getting hot under the collar whilst the guy at the counter takes about five hundred years to renew his tax disc or to weigh in thirty eight parcels to Dayton, Ohio. No more time at the counter sending out twenty packages myself whilst everyone in the queue behind dreams up new and different ways to torture me to death for wasting so much of their time.

So what’s funny? Well the funny thing is that in all the blogs I have churned out in the months following the event I have not so much as mentioned anything about books and writing. So much for any aspiration to become a dab hand as an online marketer. There is a ‘My books on Kindle’ button to be found at the top of the blog page. I wonder how many have clicked it? The Amazon sales report would suggest not all that many! So much for the online profile. The process of getting the whole of my backlist up and running in the Amazon Kindle store is actually going pretty well. At the time of writing any visitor has the choice of 14 books to download. There are now only four left to get onto the shelf. Here is where things will get more interesting. Amazon give you an option to put any title into the ‘Free’ section for five days in every ninety. Having eighteen books on offer means that I will be able to have one title on offer for free on a permanent basis. The theory goes that you stand a decent chance of marketing something when it is free. I tend to go with this idea. Certainly when I am trawling through the Kindle Store I take little persuasion to download a book fro free. Then I give it ten or twenty pages and if it isn’t up to much I hit the delete button.

The good news is that I have not been tempted by the delete option for about two thirds of the books I have downloaded. And in several cases once I have finished the book I have immediately taken a look to see if the writer has anything else on offer. Then I shell out a quid or two and pay up. It all seems might fine and dandy in theory. I am about to get a feel for the reality over the coming months when the whole backlist is up, running and on sale.

Time for a little experiment. I have no idea if Blogspot allows links to be inserted into blogs. Only one way to find out.

Fancy checking out my books on Amazon? Yeah? Well click here.


So much for the selling stuff.

Over the last few weeks the germ of a new tale has started to rattle around my brain. This is always a question that get’s asked when I attend any sort of bookish event. You know the kind of thing. Book Groups and Rotary Clubs. How do you come up with a story? What is the process? Talking process makes the whole thing seem really together and organised and structured, which in my case it absolutely isn’t. Instead a couple of random ideas emerge and start to bounce around off each other. In the case of the new story there are a couple of ideas which have popped into the grey matter.

Obviously you would have to live in a hut on a mountainside in Borneo not to have noticed the issue of the top 1% of the world completely shafting the other 99%. Among the ranks of the 99% some get shafted worse than others. The unemployed youngster in Britain is getting a pretty severe kicking but it is as nothing when compared to someone working in the living hell of an Indonesian sweat shop. But there is common ground. Almost everyone on planet earth is seeing their life get slowly worse whilst a tiny, tiny minority are sucking in riches in much the same way as Pharaohs and Tzars once did. There is absolutely nothing secret about this. The sickening bonuses paid to bankers and FTSE 100 Chief Execs are published for all of us to see. Russian oligarchs buy up multi million pound homes in Belgravia. Oil Sheiks snap up football clubs. The 1% congregate in predictable places. They hang out in bars where a bottle of Kristal sets you back nine grand. They do the Monaco Grand Prix and the men’s singles final at Wimbledon and the Champions League Final. They are to be found in the corporate boxes and the six star hotels. They love nothing more than to flaunt their ridiculous wealth.

They are public.

It has become increasingly clear that our democracies are quite incapable of reversing the trend where the top 1% drain the rest of us dry. Politicians make all the right noises but when it comes to actually doing anything about what is going down they are completely toothless. Almost every day we are told that the crafty genius of big accountancy firms makes it an absolute impossibility for us to get the 1% to stump up their share. It has become an article of faith that they will always be two steps ahead and there is nothing to be done about it. Well that isn’t quite true of course. Even the fanciest accountant in the world would find it hard to duck the mansion tax, but it is always pretty obvious that someone far behind the scenes is greasing the right palms to make sure such a thing will never happen.

So will this state of affairs last forever? Or will our patience with this constantly flaunted wealth run out. And if our patience does indeed run out, then what can we do about it? Are we on the road to St Petersburg 1917 when the patience of the 99% ran out in a big way and all the big houses got trashed and looted and the 1% wound up hanging from lampposts on snowy streets? Well, never say never, but it seems a way off yet. But maybe things are quietly starting to change. I was in Glasgow yesterday amidst a rather half hearted crowd of Christmas shoppers. On one street there was a Starbucks on one side and a Costa on the other. The Costa was standing room only. Starbucks was all empty tables. It was as clear as day that the Glasgow public was happily voting with its feet and punishing the tax dodger from America. It would hardly get Trotsky’s juices flowing, but at least it is a start. Maybe this is the shape of things to come. Or maybe it is merely the first shot in a war. Maybe we will all get more and more militant in finding new and different ways to register out disgust at the 1% and their tax experts and their grand an hour lawyers and bought and paid for politicians. Maybe we are almost ready to say enough is enough. The Berlin Wall stood for nearly thirty years until enough people got so completely pissed off that they simply got out their hammers and knocked it down. I can happen.

Then came idea number two. This came out of nothing more dramatic than trawling through the TV channels in the wee small hours of the morning whilst the throbbing pain from a couple of newly yanked teeth made going to sleep a complete pipe dream. And there on some obscure channel at 3 am was ‘Apocalypse Now’.

I am one of a generation who will forever name ‘Apocalypse Now’ when asked the favourite film question. The forever word is pretty telling. If I was ever asked what is the best book you will ever read in your life, I would find it impossible to answer. How long is there left and what books might come along in those years? Fair enough, right now it is ‘War and Peace’ and I wouldn’t bet on Comrade Tolstoy getting knocked off top spot before I breathe my last, but I could never say that is a complete certainty that he will stay there. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is different. I find it absolutely inconceivable that there will ever be a film to eclipse it which is pretty powerful Juju. How many times have I seen it? No idea. I lost count years ago. And it isn’t just the times I have watched. When I was nineteen I bought the double album soundtrack and more or less played it to death.

The first time of asking was memorable in a wholly appropriate way. Back in 1979 there had been a deal of talk about the coming movie to end movies. I guess when a host of Holywood superstars go collectively insane in a South East Asian jungle it is bound create something of a buzz. I went along to watch the film at the Odeon in Preston on a wet Lancashire weekday afternoon. I paid up and made my way up the stairs. The lights were already down and the adverts were blaring out. There was no attendant to guide me in, so I made my own way. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the dark and I scanned the seats around me. Nobody. I stood up and scanned the rows of seats behind and at the front. Nobody. Just me. It was the one and only time in my life that I have sat entirely alone in a cinema built to hold over 500.

This meant that I was fully infused with a sense of other worldliness before the thing even started. Lights down. British Board of whatever rates this film suitable for… A misty jungle in the dawn. Shadowy helicopters with whispering ghost blades. Then a napalm strike in muffled silence. Jim Morrison. ‘Lost in a Roman Wilderness of pain and all the children are insane…” Fan on the ceiling. Real helicopters chopping the fetid air. ‘Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon…’

Hooked then and hooked now.   

Why?

The greatest cast there ever was for one. Brando, Martin Sheen, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duval, Laurence Fishbourne… I mean, come on.

Narrative like there has never been care of Michael Herr whose ‘Dispatches’ is one of the 20th Century’s must read books.

‘Everyone gets everything they want. I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up like room service. It was a real choice mission. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Kurtz.’

I have always felt stone cold certain in the knowledge that if Shakespeare had ever heard the ‘snaked through the war like a main circuit cable’ line he would have stood up and punched the air.

The soundtrack. The filming. The acting. The everything.

This was a time when lads of my age were fascinated by Vietnam. We had grown up with it on the news. Haggard soldiers in filthy uniforms paddling through mud with stretchers. Dust off choppers. Blossoming napalm drops. Huge violent demonstrations. And of course no war before or since has had place names like Vietnam. Dac To, Danang, Khe Sahn, Highway One, Mekong Delta, Iron Triangle, DMZee, Gulf of Tonkin,…

Pictures and sound and a music soundtrack that was as addictive as smack. And as a nineteen year old back in 79 it was hard not to harbour feelings of having missed out on the technicolour mayhem of the 60’s.

By accident, the film drew all kind of strands together. A few months earlier I had sat and read Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in a wreck of a bar by the river Congo in Kisangani and now here was the same story transplanted from the jungles of Victorian Africa to the jungles of Indochina. On that same trans-African trip I had also read Bernard Fall’s epic description of the French Foreign Legion’s last stand at Dien Bien Phu which of course was yet another of those names. I had shared a beer or two with some Legionaires in Bangui and I can still picture the scarred face and thousand mile stare of their officer. Where had he been? What had he seen? What had he done? How did he feel about it? What dreams may come….

According to the press, the film was from the anti war stable. But I walked out of the cinema with a guilty sense of exhilaration. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about much. It wasn’t the way you were supposed to feel. But in the lower depths of his temporary insanity, it was in my mind exactly what Coppola was aiming at. I get a bit of this in my day job at First Base when talking with clients of our Veteran’s Project. They show a similar embarrassment when describing the unique uber-high of combat. That is a thing I have never known. The nearest I have ever been to the narcotic hyped up speed rush of a warzone was that afternoon in the Preston Odeon.

For me the legacy of the film has been to watch it over and over.

And of course I am not alone. There are millions in the same boat, all of us with our own memories of watching it for the first time. And as I channel hopped around the wee small hours it occurred to me that among those millions there must surely have been some who decided there and then to get themselves a first hand taste of the cranked up chaos of a warzone.

18 in 1979. Early 50’s now. What must have they seen? Where have they been? And after thirty years of fighting the dark and dirty wars of Capitalism, how must they feel now. ‘They were going to make me a Major for this and I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore….’

And how might they feel about Starbucks and Barclays and the 1%. And it hit me that they probably feel completed used. They have been the blunt instruments used to allow the 1% to rape and pillage the world. Throw in the effects of PTSD and you would have some pretty dangerous individuals. And if one or two decided to go off reservation, then the 1% might have a pretty serious problem.

‘The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold and if he’d pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he just kept on going, kept on winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. All they heard were rumours and random intelligence reports, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now and they were scared of it. Kurtz and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia….”

… hit and run all the way into Cambodia

So there were the seeds. And with the seeds came the title.

‘…..Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz's path at Nu Mung Bha, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command’

The words of Colonel Lucus spoken by a youthful Harrison Ford in mesmerisingly honeyed tones. And there is that name thing again. Nu Mung Bha.

And so the title cometh

‘The Ghosts of Nu Mung Bha’

All that is needed now is a book to go with it.

 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

It is the cost of power that makes balancing the books impossible for millions of Brits


 
In the wake of George Osborne’s much heralded Autumn Statement yesterday, the media is in full picking over the bones mode. The main headline seems to be that we are still screwed and we are on target to stay screwed until 2018. I wonder exactly what is supposed to happen in 2018 which is going to magically make everything  fine and dandy again? Maybe there are secret sites up and down the land where superbly funded start up companies are building a new breed of super-factories which will employ hundreds of thousands of Brits at a tenner an hour. Maybe there are already fantastic designs for a new breed of British made cars and phones and all singing and dancing white goods that will wipe German goods off the map in those magical months of 2018.

Well, as a fiction author I reckon I can get a handle on outrageous fiction and the secret factory idea is as outrageous as any fiction can get. The 2018 thing smacks much more of think of a number and hope for the best.

Osborne seems to be hoping for the best in many ways and it is hard not to get the feeling that he has spent many hours fiddling away at his spreadsheets until he managed to make the figures balance. We all know that UK Plc’s outgoings are a country mile apart from incomings and something is going to have to give. In fact, a whole load of things are going to have to give. But fiddling around on a spreadsheet does not always reflect reality.

So what is the reality as seen from the reception desk at First Base? The reality is that the figures simply ain’t going to add up for an increasing number of people who are a hundred percent reliant on State Benefits to keep their heads above water.

Maybe on the surface of things George can make things add up for a bog standard unemployed individual in the Britain of 2012. In most cases they get their rent paid and their Council Tax paid which leaves them with about £60 a week to keep body and soul together. The sums have not really changed much over the last ten years and the news is yet to carry stories of anyone starving to death. So nailing down a 1% per year increase for three years seems just about manageable on the surface of things. Can an individual manage to eat for £3.50 a day? Sure they can. We are really familiar with that figure because it is the budget we work to when buying in stuff for our food parcels. Tesco sell cornflakes for 31p a box which makes a 50p breakfast well and truly possible. Beans on toast is still a 50p meal. A plate of rice with a sauce can still give change out of a quid. It is never going to be the Savoy Grill, but you can still get by at £3.50 a day. £25 a week.

It has become an accepted norm of Western life that having a TV to watch is an absolute requirement to our lives. Sure, we won’t die without the box to fill the hours, but we would probably feel more or less dead without it. Tele costs £3.50 a week for the law abiding citizen who pays up for a TV licence. So that leaves £31.50 a week for everything else. In reality, if all you have in your pocket after eating and box watching is £31.50, the only something else you can afford is power.

Here is the first area where George’s spreadsheet has missed a key reality. If you are working, it generally means leaving the house well before nine in the morning and not getting home until after five. Let’s say you are out and about from 8 to 6. That means 10 hours when the heating can be switched off. Let’s say you go to bed at 11 and sleep until 7. That means another 8 hours when the heating can be switched off. This means that you only have to pay to keep the place warm for 6 hours. This all changes when you are on the dole. Now maybe George expects all the unemployed to walk the streets knocking doors and begging for work for ten hours a day, but that isn’t all that realistic. There just are not enough doors to knock. In reality, unemployed people tend to stay home most of the time and once winter kicks in, that means they have to shell out to keep some kind of heating on. Is that really so extravagant?

So here’s the thing. Is it possible to keep a house warm for say 15 hours a day at £4.50 a day? I don’t think it is, especially when all you have is a Pay As You Go meter which excludes you from doing any deals for lower prices with the power companies.

And that is now.

How does George’s spreadsheet look when we jump into the Tardis and take a trip three years into the future? Well, we now know that benefits will rise by 1% per annum. So in 2015 basic dole will have ticked up to £62. Food? Well it seems pretty nailed on that food will go up by at least 10% a year as a billion and a half Chinamen have more supermarkets to shop in. This means the food bill will go from £25 a week now to £27.50 a week in 2013 to £30 a week in 2014 to £33 a week in 2015. Let’s say the TV licence stays put. This means that in three years time the cost of food and tele will be £36.50 a week. So that leaves £25.50 for everything else.

OK. Let’s just make the assumption that the £31.50 an unemployed individual has right now to pay for power is indeed enough to keep the lights and heaters on. How is that figure about to change? For the sake of easy maths, let’s go for a 10% a year increase. £35 a week in 2013, £38.50 in 2014, £42.50 in 2015. And how much was left after food and tele in 2015? £25.50.

You don’t have to have A levels maths to see that there is no chance in hell of anyone who is unemployed in 2015 being in a position to pay for food AND power. As for clothes, toiletries, cleaning products….. forget it.

By 2015 millions who are unemployed, signed off sick or on the State Pension will have a stark choice to make - do you want to eat or do you want to stay warm? There will be no chance of having both. As things stand now there is no chance in hell of finding anyone who will give you any cash for power. There are however places where free food is available. Already we are seeing this starting to play out. When people have to make the choice between food or power, they tend to choose power and look to the Voluntary Sector for their food. This choice will be made by millions more over the coming months and years. Right now the Voluntary Sector is just about managing to keep up. Will that continue to be the case? Well George’s spreadsheet seems to think that it will be.

Well, let’s all hope that George’s spreadsheet is right.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hallelujah! We live in a time of miracles when millions who are sick are suddenly cured.



 
We are truly blessed to live in such a time of miracles. Not since Jesus did his stuff in the rocky hills and valleys of Galilee have so many sick people miraculously become well. Are we witnessing the hand of God? Are stone statues about to shed tears? Is the Second Coming nigh? Anyone running a B&B in the town of Lourdes must be frantically revising their sales forecasts down and trying to work out what the hell they are going to say to their bank manager. After all, who in their right mind would want to shell out for an all-in package to Lourdes to get well when all you have to do is come to the UK and apply for sick pay. You fill in the form, attend and medical and lo and behold, you are suddenly as fit as a flea. Surely we are missing out on a huge opportunity to boost growth here. Our sudden ability to provide a miracle cure to people who have been too sick to work for ten years or more is absolutely groundbreaking. Why are we not hitting the rest of the world with a blanket advertising campaign?

Cue serious anchor man voice. Probably American.

“Are you sick? I mean really sick? And have you been sick for years? Well help is at hand. Come to the UK and get well soon. Leprosy? Aids? Ebola Virus? No matter. We Brits can fix it all. Just one medical and you can get back to work. Come to Britain where we fix more people than Jesus!”

What a shot in the economic arm. We can pack out every hotel from Paisley to Penzance. Book a flight. Catch a show. Try some fish and chips. Attend a medical and poof! …. you’re well again!

What is hard to understand is why all these people who have been too sick to work for years and years and years are not thronging the streets and jumping for joy and punching the air and skipping about like spring lambs. I mean, come on. If you had been deemed too sick to work for fifteen years and condemned to a life of daytime TV, wouldn’t you be pretty damned cock-a-hoop if you heard that all is now well and highly trained medical staff have deemed you to be fit as a flea?

So what is the problem with these silly people? Every day they come mooching into First Base with long faces and tales of woe. The tale is usually the same. They have been signed off sick for ten years and more. They have depression. Or anxiety. Or a drink problem. Or a bad back. Or all of the above. And their GP has always agreed that work is out of the question and signed on the dotted line to confirm it. And then out come a clear blue sky cometh a letter from the DWP in London ordering them to a medical to be carried out by highly trained folks from France. And the results of the medical never vary. Sick people are miraculously cured. Wonderful. No more depression or anxiety or drink problem. All gone. All better. However, instead of being elated at their new found good health, the miraculously cured are instead morose and bitter and angry. How dare they! They gave me no points! They are saying that I am well!

Then what happens? Again, the story tends to be the same. The sick person puts in an appeal against the decision they are in fact not sick after all. Their benefits get cut whilst they count down the days to their appeal hearing. The reduced level of benefits tends to cover power but not food and so a support agency sends them along to us for a food parcel. Not many win their appeals to become sick again. Most in the know reckon a figure of about 20% is there or there abouts. And then? Another appeal. And another. One of our guys is onto his fifth. Every time his doctor is adamant that he is sick whilst the miracle cure men from France say he is in the pink.

The bottom line? To be honest the vast majority of the folk we see are more than capable of working and have been so for years. They have had a drug problem and been put on methadone. Those tasked with supporting them know full well that if they go onto Jobseekers Allowance they will miss appointments and be suspended which will mean no housing benefits and subsequent eviction. Much better to tell them to spin a line about being depressed and anxious which means they only need to get their act together to sign on the dotted line once a month. They do not have to go through the bothersome routine of applying for jobs and filling in progress forms. And best of all, they get another £30 a week or so which is incentive enough for them to make that all important monthly appointment to sign on the dotted line. Other than that, they can crack on and top up their daily dose of methadone with whatever cocktail of cider, supa-lager and valium they can afford.

We have had endless arguments with support workers about this nonsense for years. A lad goes to jail for three months, gets clean, fills out on three square meals a day and emerges clear headed and motivated to change his life around. What is the absolute best thing to make this happen? A job! A chance to make a living, meet new pals whose lives don’t revolve around the next score and a chance to regain some self respect. Instead their support workers get them signed off sick and tell them that it is for the best. And when this goes on for years and years, not surprisingly people become quite convinced that they are indeed sick and incapable of ever completing a day’s work. The prospect of not being sick is terrifying. They become hyper protective of their benefits and prescriptions. Mentally they become hard wired to feel sick, for being seen to be well is a nightmare. And if you concentrate hard enough on feeling sick, I guess you will indeed feel sick.

Now everyone is in a lather with the Government about this. We are hearing all the stuff about wicked, heartless Etonian bastards whose big dream in life is to spit roast the babies of the poor and turn them into pate. Surely the real blame lies with governments of all colours going back thirty years and more. In order to pretend they were doing a tip top job, they needed to boast about how far unemployment had fallen. So they took unemployed people, told them they were sick, bribed them with an extra £30 a week and duly signed them off. Hunky bloody dory.

Had this new miracle cure process been carried out back in 2000 when things were not so bad, things could have been very different. The French miracle workers could have told people that they were not sick after all. The newly cured would have gone onto Jobseekers, had to go through the routine of looking for work, and in most cases they would have got an actual job. Because back in 2000 there were lots of actual jobs for them to get. But instead, for the sake of lying at election time, the Government of the day preferred to keep people sick and it didn’t matter anyway because the City of London was coughing up more than enough tax to pay all the bills.

So what happened? A million East Europeans in the very rudest of health came over and filled all the jobs. Well best of luck to them, but those vacancies should never have been there for them to fill. Now there are no vacancies and the sick of 2000 have been convincing themselves of their own sickness for thirteen long years. Can they compete in the work place with some highly motivated and well educated 19 year old from Poznan? Can they hell.

What next? Well many we see will indeed cock it up once they are expected to meet the rigorous routine of the Job Centre Plus and more and more will be suspended from all benefits. And they will get evicted. And for a while we will all stump up £30 a day to keep them in homeless hostels until the Government decides it can’t afford that either. Then it will be cardboard boxes under bridges and jail when they get desperate.

You know what, when Jesus healed the poor things seemed to work out better.   

 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Say it ain't so, Joe



‘They tell us that our leader has played his trump card,
He doesn’t know how to go on.
We’re clinging to his charm and determined smile
But the good old days have done…’
 
Murray Head, ‘Say it ain’t so.’
 

These lyrics pretty well sum up how things have felt at First base over the last couple of weeks. We open the front door and tales of misery walk in and time after time I get that ‘Say it ain’t so’ feeling. Anyone who has read my blogs will be more than aware that I am hardly the greatest of patriots. However I still do retain a core belief that there is a line we British have never really crossed. Of course we have our share of corruption and dark deeds. The way the City of London will launder money for the very worst of humankind is a national disgrace. The way we offer up multi million pound mansions in Belgravia to any tin pot gangster or torturer lucky enough to have stashed a few million away in the gilded towers of Canary Wharf shows how very far we have fallen. The expenses scandal, Murdoch, BAE Systems, Iraq, Leveson, the BBC. Corruption and cover up and feathered nests.
 

Despite all this I hang on to a hope that all of this is down to immoral, greedy individuals on the take. Every society has them and we seem to have always had more from our fair share all the way from Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir Philip Green. Some call them buccaneers. Some call them chancers. Some call them out and out crooks. So long as you make a big enough pile, you get knighted and deemed a national treasure. Let’s face it, a small Island like ours doesn’t just happen to get the biggest empire the world has ever seen without playing fast and loose.
 

And yet through all the rape, pillage and plunder we managed to avoid ever going down the Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin route. Each century saw new checks and balances and slowly but surely we managed to learn how to behave better. We could easily have a done a deal back in 1940. Hitler always had a soft spot for us. He was more than happy for us to keep and expand our Empire so long as we let him have Europe to himself. If we had followed the money, the choice would have been a no brainer. Thankfully we didn’t. Thankfully we had a stubborn old bugger at the helm who saw Hitler for the arsehole he was and told him to stick his offer where the sun doesn’t shine.
 

Would we do the same now? I really would like to think so, but it is hard to be confident. The sense of basic honour and decency that once make us take a deep, collective breath and take on the Nazis seems to have evaporated. The way we are behaving now exhibits barely a trace of honesty, honour or decency.
 

The ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’ line goes way back before Murray Head claimed the words for his song. In 1919 ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson’ was a big baseball star. He was the classic poor boy made good. A Stevie Gerrard figure. His dad was a dirt poor sharecropper from North Carolina who upped sticks and moved the family to a mill town. Joe started work at six and put in 12 hour shifts collecting fluff off the factory floor to do his bit to put food on the table. At ten he caught measles and all but died. Before pulling through, he was paralysed for two months. He never had a day at school and never learned to read and write. But could he ever hit the ball out of the park. By 1919 he was big time and kids the length and breadth of America had his picture on their wall. Then scandal erupted. Several members of the Chicago White Sox were implicated in match fixing. Joe was one of them. He was arrested, charged, taken to court and found guilty. As he emerged from his trial a young fan ran forward, utterly distraught that his hero had been revealed as a common cheat. ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’. Joe had nothing to say. He just walked away into the rest of his life.


The way so many are being treated at the moment makes me feel like the kid outside the court. You know it is true but you don’t want it to be true. Surely this kind of thing cannot become the norm in Britain? Or can it?
 

A case study. Let’s call the guy in question Dave in honour of our leader. Dave is unemployed. He has been unemployed for a while. For years he worked the club doors, but things slipped on the back of a bad divorce. Working the doors is a pretty good way to collect up a few enemies. Grudges are held for a ridiculous amount of time. And in August one such grudge bearer picked up the phone to the Job Centre and told them that Dave had been working on the ‘Black’. He was duly summoned to attend and told that he was suspended from all benefits until further notice. He explained that the allegation was ridiculous. One the day in question he was just out of hospital with a broken arm in plaster. He got letters from his GP and A&E to back his story up. Not good enough he was told. The onus was on him to prove that he was categorically NOT working and proof of an arm in plaster didn’t cut it. He asked if they would tell him who had reported him. No they wouldn’t. He asked if they would tell him where he was supposed to have been working. No they wouldn’t. It was down to him. Absolute proof or nothing.

He had no proof. His days are split between wandering around town and watching daytime TV. The money stopped on 24 August. His power ran out a week later. No Agency in the town could do a thing about it. He lived off the Voluntary Sector including us. He walked the streets collecting fag ends out of ashtrays in outdoor smoking areas in a polythene bag. He called in to the Job Centre time and again and when he exhibited any anger at his situation they threw him out. Suspended Job Seekers triggered a similar suspension of Housing Benefit. Which meant that no rent was paid. Which meant arrears. Which meant his Social Housing Provider went to court and asked for an eviction notice. They changed the locks whilst he was out and about collecting up dockers. When he returned to his locked home he smashed a window to get back in. There will be a price to pay at some stage.
 

Finally the Job Centre have decided he has been punished enough. They say he will be re-instated next week. Does that mean they have decided there was actually no case to answer? No comment. Will his Housing benefit be back dated? No chance. Which means he now has a debt of £700 and a broken window. He will no doubt be evicted before Christmas and stuck into a Homeless Hostel. And do doubt he will be taken to court for criminal damage for the broken window. And he’ll get fined and if he cannot make the payments he’ll probably be sent to jail
 

All because someone with a grudge made a single anonymous phone call and told a single anonymous lie. It helped someone at the Job Centre to meet their weekly target of getting three clients off benefits.


Is it true? Christ, I hope not. But every day we hear similar stories and it is hard to believe that everyone is lying. This morning I will pass this on to Russell Brown our local MP. I will ask him if he might be willing to contact the Job Centre and ask for a clear list of reasons why people get suspended. Legal reasons. And once we have that list we will be able to advise people if they have a leg to stand on. Or not. And I really, really hope that this new rule of ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is not in fact carved in stone. I really, really hope that it is the work of a few cavalier individuals looking to hit their targets and protect their jobs rather than actual written down policy. Because if it is indeed actual written down policy, then it is hard to accept. Britain isn’t supposed to be like this.

 
‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’     

 

 

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Fascists are on the pavement and the the dogs are on the roof


 
Rooftop space is a big deal in Athens. And balconies. And there’s nothing special about that of course. The same thing goes in most countries where the summer months mean long hours of burning heat. A rooftop is a place to retreat to in the early evening with a long cold drink. A place to watch the sky turn all colours from burning blue to blood red to soft black. And course it is the place to catch the faintest of breezes after a day of pavement cracking heat.

Our place in Athens was perched high on a steep hill and the view from the roof was enough to take the breath away. The city spread out in all directions, a densely packed sprawl of shining white buildings which climbed up through the valleys of the surrounding hills. Stunning, spectacular, scenic; all those view describing words beginning with the letter ‘S’.

But Athens had one rooftop feature that was a first for us.

Dogs.

Lots and lots of dogs. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of them. Some are ultra pampered and the pet sections in the supermarkets are made up of many shelves. Others are of the mangy mutt variety; the skinny strays who compete with the African refugees for anything edible in the over flowing bins. With so many dogs in such a tightly packed space the pavements offer a constant challenge. If you walk the cracked Athenian sidewalks with your head held high your shoes will be in a dire state after fifty yards.

The rooftop dogs spend their days lazily prowling their space. They take an occasional slurp of water from a silver dish. Sometimes they crash out in a shadow. Other times they retire into their rooftop kennel for a more serious kip. Every now and then they will exchange barked conversations with fellow rooftop dogs and from time to time these exchanges hit an enthusiastic pitch and the barking spreads across the neighbourhood.

One day I was sitting out reading and the sky started to turn angry. White clouds became grey clouds became black clouds. All of a sudden the mountains on the horizon were no longer there and slowly but surely the outer neighbourhoods were swallowed by the dark clouds.

Fierce forks of lightening slammed down on the suburbs in much the same vindictive way that Hitler’s Stukkas had once upon a time softened up the city for the jack booted entry of the strutting ranks of the Wehrmacht.

Anyone not watching the scene would have soon been alerted as the rooftop dogs started to howl at the approaching storm. And as the storm drew nearer, the dogs relayed the message with doleful howls. If you were getting ready to head out and your heard those howls you would be fool to leave your coat on the hook by the door.

Many in Athens are convinced that there is another storm on the way and they are trying to howl out a warning. It is a storm that the city has known several times in the past. Way back when in the days of togas and philosophy and stabbing spears, the government took a lurch to the right and cracked down on new liberal ideas. Socrates was deemed to be the problem and he decided to opt for suicide rather than execution. In the forties Greece was part of a big European club of countries who had Fascism pushed down their throats by the Nazi jackboot. The cancer returned in 1967 when the generals seized power and clamped down for seven years.

Now whenever you fall into a conversation with an Athenian is seems that there is an inevitability about the course that it will take. This isn’t a place where a chat tends to end in football. Instead they say that they have that Germany in the early thirties feeling. And to be honest history makes it easy to see why. Unemployment is over 25% in general and north of 70% for young people. Every week sees another 1000 join the list. Dole has been cut and it only lasts for a year. Then nothing. Nada. Zip. And there are not many who think there is a cat in hell’s chance of finding a job in a year. The shops are closing down one by one and people with rusting shopping trolleys wander the streets and root through bins. Anyone with any money is salting it out of the country in case it should be rendered worthless by a forced return to the Drachma. The super rich are getting out of Dodge as fast as they can and doing their bit to drive up the price of property in Mayfair and Belgravia.

Most consider the Government to be complete joke and it isn’t hard to see why. It is a sickly coalition riddled with corruption that in every way apes the bickering Parliaments of Weimar Germany that Hitler was able to shut down with such arrogant ease.

The state is withering on the vine. We visited a magnificent emergency food project where a bunch of volunteers were by hook or by crook managing to feed a hundred and fifty people a day. One of the volunteers had once upon a time been seconded to the project by the Health Board. Then they just stopped paying her. No letters. No redundancy. No appointment with a sombre line manager. Just no pay at the end of the month with no explanation. She still turns out twice a week as a volunteer. Her brother had been a big success in the boom years. He ran a hip club and drove a Merc. It’s all gone now and he lives of his mum’s pension: a pension that gets cut by 20% every three months of so.

The country is held together by strings and one by one they are fraying and snapping. The rich are leaving, the middle classes are being eroded and the poor are just plain screwed.

So, yeah. It has that last days of the Weimar Republic feel to it. The opinion polls show that with every passing week public support for the Golden Dawn party eases up and up. Golden Dawn. How quintessentially fascist are those two words! They put you in mind of those heroic posters that Hitler was so fond of. You know the kind of thing. Heroic looking blond men and women with determined faces and bulging, bronzed muscles all eager and ready to gather in the harvest and breed kids for the Fatherland.

Golden Dawn are up to 14% in the polls now and their message is hardly subtle. Things are crap and it’s all down to the immigrants. They don’t bother trying to put on any kind of gloss of respectability. They just say it like it is. Most wannabe Fascists in modern Europe at least make an effort to pretend that they are vaguely moderate in their hate. Marine Le Pen in France played the power dressed lawyer act and it was convincing enough to get her over 20% in the Presidential election. Even our own beloved BNP do all they can to claim they are more reasonable than the press tries to pretend.

Golden Dawn have no time for such subtlety. They want mine fields along the border with Turkey to blow up illegals before they get the chance to reach Greek soil. They advocate sticking every one of the millions of refugees on planes and flying them back to whence they came. And if starvation, torture and death await them in their homeland, then so be it.

If you want the services of a Golden Dawn stormtrooper for what ever reason, you can hire him in for 1.80 Euros an hour. He’ll no doubt get more than that. The party makes up the balance from their war chest. Who fills the war chest? Who knows, but it isn’t all that hard to guess. Many of those who filled their boots during their good times are no doubt a tad twitchy about things at the moment. If you have a million pound house up a leafy cul de sac and you haven’t paid a penny of tax for years, you are probably feeling a little vulnerable at the moment. It is a time when many in high tax dodging places probably feel the need for friends in low places. A nice cheque to the good old boys at Golden Dawn gets you a few goons at the front gate at 1.80 Euros an hour. It must be tempting to many who have happily sucked the country dry over the last few years.

History tells us that Fascism thrives when the State has all but given up the ghost. Almost everyone we met told us that there is no Government any more. There is a big fat vacuum that offers a perfect breeding ground for the headbangers of the right. What is left of the State seems to have little appetite to take them on. In the last elections Golden Dawn polled at its strongest in the areas immediately around major police stations. Nothing new there then. Instead of taking on the Fascists, what is left of the State seems to be using its energy to hammer down on anyone being too loud in their criticism of the austerity measures. Two years ago, before she became head of the IMF, Christine Legarde sent the Greek Government a list of 2000 citizens who had cash stashed away in a Zurich bank. She suggested they might look into the list and send out a few tax demands. Successive ministers managed to mislay and forget the list until a freelance journalist who has recently set up his own magazine decided to publish. My goodness me that got the engine of the State running at full revs. He was arrested and charged in days and spent a weekend in custody. In the end the charges were so laughable that they were thrown out, but the whole dismal episode showed where the government’s loyalties lay. Who was on the list? The usual suspects – politicians, big businessmen and gangsters. Oh, and their wives.

Twitter worked at its absolute best for us whilst we were in Athens. I tweeted an activist and freelancer who is at the forefront of the anti austerity campaign. I asked if we might meet up to find out what is happening and to get an intro to a food project. A reply fizzed in straight away. Sure. No problem. There would have been no way of making such a meet happen a few years ago. No wonder Fascists and dictators hate Twitter with such a visceral passion.

So we met and she proved to be a very impressive individual, if a little shaken. Golden Dawn ring her regularly to threaten all sorts of nasty stuff: as often as not it is her mum who picks up the phone. The day we met, she told of how as she was writing an e mail that afternoon, the lines on the computer disappeared as fast as she could type them. No matter how she tried, she could not seem to register as a follower of my Twitter site. She wondered if I would be flagged up on any shared MI5 lists? God knows. Probably. To cap it all her mobile phone was behaving in a distinctly peculiar fashion.

So there it was. A story that would seem so familiar to any well meaning liberal who tried to stem the Nazi Behemoth back in the late 20’s and early 30’s. They failed of course, and those who had spoken out against the brownshirts got beaten to a pulp in Buchenwald and Dachau. That is when you know a real storm is a coming. It is when the State, the gangsters, big business and the pavement Fascists start to work together. Try to shine a light on it, and you get locked up at best and beaten black and blue at worst.

We like to think it could never happen again. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it won’t. But when you hear those rooftop dogs start to howl, it is worth looking out of the window to see if a storm is on the way.

And they are howling right now.    

 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The centre cannot hold.


 
We take a Saturday afternoon stroll from our apartment up on the hill all the way down to the centre of the city. After a decent number of years on the planet you get hard wired as to how such a journey should play out. The edge of town is leafy and quiet. And as you are drawn to the centre, the pavements fill and the traffic thickens. Shops get bigger. Crowds form. You need to wait for the green man to cross the road. It’s the old hustle and bustle thing.

Well it is most of the time.

Other times the hustle and the bustle is little more than a faded memory. Nostalgic black and white photos on the walls of pubs where twenty years of nicotine lines the ceiling. As you walk down the hill to downtown Athens nothing gets busier. Sure, few years ago the shops would have indeed been bigger. Now they are simply buildings with bigger sheets of plywood making a home for graffiti. The traffic thins and you have to pinch yourself and make a conscious effort to realise that it is four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.

After a while even the shops that are not closed forever are closed for the day. A few kebab joints. A few lost souls standing out smoking and gazing into space outside their few square feet of customer free retail space given over to cigarettes and fridges of coke and magazines and bizarre plastic toys from China.

Waiters sit at the tables outside cafes and smoke and wait to wait on. For how long? Will there be any kind of an evening rush? It seems hard to believe there will.

Down and ever further in. Lots of rubbish now. Rubbish stacked in alleyways. Rubbish bursting free of metal wheelie bins. Rubbish blowing in and out of the gutters on a lonely wind.

People on pavements with eyes cast down to the cracks. Some with all their worldly goods in cheap plastic bags. Others with bin liners filled with collected empty drinks cans. Most have the lost air of people far, far away from anything resembling home. A piazza of graffiti and cracked concrete. Plants growing out of the gutters. Boarded shops staring at each other. And a group sitting on concrete ledge that would be at home on the wrong side of town all the way from Toronto to Glasgow to Sydney. Empty cans and bottles and eye sockets. Shared fags. Charity shop clothes hanging off coat hanger thin bones. And the zoned out empty stares of those under the thrall of badly cut opiates.

Ah. We’re in that part of town. The part the landlord had told us to avoid at night at all costs because when you have 4 million illegal immigrants looking for their next meal you get crime and prostitution and way too many dark corners.

By now the only shops open are Asian owned. They nestle in clusters of two or three on corners well on the way to being derelict. Suitcases for fifteen euros a pop. And faces that look like they haven’t cracked a smile since 1975. Carol is a problem to them. For Carol is black and right now being black in downtown Athens means that every Asian shopkeeper assumes that you are there to rob them blind. If she is on her own do they tell her to take a hike? Maybe. Probably. But I complicate things. And when we converse with each other in English it complicates things. And when she buys a scarf it complicates things.

Onwards and downwards. And where the hell is the city centre? Is this in fact the city centre? And above the peeling walls the sky is easing from grey into the blackness of night. And sometimes when people warn you not to be out and about after nightfall you take their words with a pinch of salt. But other times there is a hard to define sense of threat that hangs in the air that makes such warnings seem a smart play.

Now one every other corner there are parked police cars but barely a person to police. Just a few passing cars and buses and fleeting shadow people. Six o clock on a Saturday night in October and the wind is softly moaning up and down the litter strewn alleyways.

Time to rest the legs. A thin yellow light leaks out from the window of a small café down a side street. And people. Not many, but some. A sign of life. Twos and threes around old tables that won’t sit straight on the uneven pavement.

Two expressos ordered and delivered. And the other guests are looking us over with detached interest. Black woman. White man. English voices. What are you doing here on a greying Saturday evening? The men have that air about them. A certain style of clothing. A certain way with their hair. An amused hardness of the eye. Glasses of local brandy. Ash trays overflowing with filterless fag ends. Not worried to look you over.

Familiar somehow. And once we pay and leave a last look back explains the familiarity.

Balkan Café.

News reels from the 90’s. Sarajevo and Bihac and Vukovar. The same effortlessly hard eyes and casual way of carrying themselves.

And suddenly we are in a street that is bursting with life. The cafes are open and there is light everywhere. A bus terminal is like a film set. Coaches here, there and everywhere and the pavements are crowded. And the cafes are crowded. And the line of travel agents are crowded. And every garish advert speaks of the same service. For here is the place where you get the bus to Tirana. Here is the place to find a little piece of Albania in the dead heart of Athens.

And by now the guys are more obvious. Lean and mean and designer clad with eyes like big cats. Putting people on the bus to Tirana who aren’t wanted any more. Collecting people from the bus from Tirana who have a purpose to serve. The air is filled with the smell of cigarettes you can only buy in Eastern Europe. What is it with the gangsters of the East? They love to play it large in their western designer clothes and cars, but they can never give up the superstrong filterless fags of their youth. They have to make room for us as we walk by. The white man and the black woman. Who are they? What are they doing here? One of those moments when that spot between your shoulder blades seems to itch. We’re through and past and away but all of a sudden the road ahead is industrial and emptier than empty.

A U turn. A second journey through the ranks of Albania’s finest. And Carol is shown money by a boss man clad in a spanking new Arran jumper. She is black so she must be for sale. I am middle aged and white and have a greying pony tail so I must be a pimp. It is black and white in every respect. Carol doesn’t know ho much? She only gives the note in his hand the briefest of glances. Her gut feeling is that it is five euros. The value of a life on the streets of the city centre: as measured through the hard, hard eyes of a gangster from Tirana.

In his Arran jumper.

We say nothing. We walk on. They have a laugh and refocus on the next bus.

A drink and a cab back up the hill. Downtown Athens at seven o clock in the evening. It is well on the way to becoming another Detroit. A Brooklyn. A Mogadishu? Surely not. But the shops are closed forever and the only people left are the gangsters and the desperate.

‘Things fall apart.

The centre cannot hold……’