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.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Are we becoming East Germany?

It is odd to think that neither of my sons has any conception of East Germany. When the whole rotten house of cards fell apart back in 1989, one was three and one wasn’t born yet. It was of course a bizarre, brief invention of a country born out of the catastrophe of 1945. The borders were haggled out at Yalta when Uncle Joe Stalin stamped his feet and threw his tantrums whilst Churchill took him on in a drinking contest and more or less got a draw.

A quarter of the Germans who were left alive were earmarked for the new communist version of Germany whilst twice their number were to become model capitalists. Once the Americans and Russians fell out and started aiming their nuclear missiles at each other, both Germany’s became case studies. The Americans poured in cash to prove that the wonders of capitalism could help a bombed-flat basket case to become a thriving, productive democracy in less than twenty years. On the other side of the fence, the hard faced men of the Kremlin followed a similar path and were hell bent on showing the world how a bombed-flat basket case could be transformed into a Socialist Paradise.

I was only three when Kennedy and Kruschev took us to the brink of the End of Days in 1963, but I grew up with the legacy. Throughout my childhood, East Germany was always there as a kind of half seen Mordor of a place. East Germany meant the border: the fence: the very edge of Western Civilisation. Beyond lay a place of tyranny, and crumbling concrete tower blocks and smoke belching factories. We were sometimes reminded that our soldiers were stationed by this particular fence and should the men in the Kremlin ever decide to let their thousands upon thousands of tanks roll west, then the average life span of a British infantryman would be measured in minutes. I remember days in my 70’s class room where the walls hadn’t been painted for years and the desks still carried carved names from the 40’s. We would be heads down in our books of logarithms when the dismal howl of the air raid sirens would come up the hill and into the classroom from the town centre in the valley floor. Teachers would give us a sort of wincing smile and assure us that it was merely a practice. A test. And each of us would quietly consider the Government adverts that were on the tele from time to time instructing us what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Get under a table. Get God.

The word was that Crewe was target three on the Kremlin nuke list. The logic was that American reinforcements would get off the boat in Liverpool and jump on a train down to Dover. And all trains went through Crewe. Nuke Crewe and the Marines were going nowhere fast. Nuke Crewe and Blackburn would feel the blast. So get under a table. Get God.

East Germany strutted its stuff in the 70’s, mainly at the Olympic games. I was 12 when the Munich Olympics played out on our newly rented colour tele. ‘Great service you get renting your colour set from Granada!’ Jingles last forever whilst memories fade. My memory of those Olympics, apart from the carnage at the airport, was of Renate Stecher. She was the East German sprinter who blasted her way to gold in the 100 and 200 metres. And she was some woman with shoulders like a docker and legs to match. She probably needed to shave at least twice a day. The fact that Stecher and the rest of the East German women were so weirdly transformed by steroids was an open secret. It only deepened the whole Mordor thing. What kind of evil regime could create such mutant humans merely to win a few medals?

Later in the years after the Wall crashed the truth emerged. As early as 1960 it was abundantly clear that the new Socialist Paradise was an economic basket case. The people unlucky enough to live there knew that only to well and they were voting with their feet and walking into the West. There was a quick fix to that one – build a bloody great wall, and in 1961 that is exactly what they did. But how can an economic basket case use its meagre resources to cut a dash on the world stage? The communist bosses came up with a canny answer. They stopped splashing the cash on weapons and instead spent heavily on pumping steroids into their athletes to ensure that they punched above their weight on the world stage of the Olympics.

1972 was always going to be a big deal for both Germanys as they strived to be top dog. In the end it was a close run thing. The fifty million West Germans won 10 golds whilst the twenty million East Germans won 13. The steroids came through. By 76 the race wasn’t even close. Stecher and the steroid girls and boys grabbed 40 golds whilst the Wessies once again only managed 10. We by the way got a mere 3. But we never felt envious of the Socialist Paradise that could chemically engineer these deformed looking uber-athletes. Instead we were scared by the totalitarianism of it all. Here were people who would stop at nothing. No wonder the average life of a British Para up by the fence was expected to be about three minutes in the event of World War 3. Mordor.

By the time I was in my early twenties curiosity replaced fear, and along with a couple of pals I took my old VW Beetle east for a first hand look. It was some learning curve. We crossed the line at a small border post somewhere in Thuringia. Memories are a bit blurred. I recall a cheap night ferry and a long drive down the autobahns in the wee small hours. Cassettes of the Clash and The Specials and The Doors. It was winter and stars sparkled down onto snow covered fields. We stopped at dawn in the last village in the West where a just open newsagents sold fresh bread, cheese and sausage. The village was like the cover of a chocolate box, all timbered houses and smoother than smooth roads. For those of us used to the litter and pot holes of recession Britain, it seemed a world apart. Those were the days when everyone who returned home from a visit to West Germany would bore everyone to death with stories of super neat, litter-free streets. Every car seemed to be a Merc or and Audi and every car was brand new and shiny clean. That early morning Thuringian village oozed an easy wealth that was alien us children of Thatcher in our beat up Beetle.

Then it was down the hill to the border crossing in the valley floor. And the fence. It emerged from the morning mist. Watch towers and electric wire. The West German guy in the hut was middle aged and uncle like. He had a big warm smile and hoped we would enjoy our time in the East. He was being ironic. Then it was a slow drive across No Mans land to the land where nobody seemed to smile: ever.

They made us stand outside and shiver for twe hours whilst they took the car apart. How long you stay? Four days. Which meant we had to exchange four days of money. I don’t remember how many East German marks we got for our pounds. I recall we got ten times more a day later when we did a black market deal with a guy in a battered leather cap in a Leipzig back street. By the time I returned a couple of years later I had learned the Border drill. The dance. The trick was to leave a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label on top of the bag in your car boot. When the border guard opened the boot, he would take a look and the bottle and then he would look at you. You would give him a small nod and he would stash the bottle and send you on your way. Five minutes to cross instead of two hours. But no smile.

At last we drove up the hill and into the first village of the East. Where the West German village was chocolate box, its East German neighbour was a Channel 4 documentary. More pot holes than tarmac. Rusty old Trabants belching early morning black smoke from noisy exhausts. Dismal high rise blocks built from festering, crumbling concrete. A sad queue outside a closed shop. Welcome to the East. Welcome to the Socialist Paradise. Welocme to the land of Renate Stecher.

It made Toxteth look like a village in the Cotswalds. The place was falling to bits. The place was a basket case. I remember thinking that in 1945 both villages which were basically about half a mile apart would have been identical twins. There were no prizes for guessing which system had worked best. The Worker’s Paradise was the grimmest, greyest place I had ever seen.

Four days was plenty. The money we changed on the Black turned out to be more or less unspendable. Beer worked out at under a penny a litre. In the end we found an old hotel in the centre of Leipzig that must have been five stars and then some in the days before Hitler took his people to hell. It was still trying in a faded glory sort of way. We ordered bottle after bottle of Russian champagne until we could barely walk and in the end we gave up trying to spend all the cash and passed wedge of notes to the old waiter as a tip. He didn’t smile. Had we given him a five dollar bill he might have managed a smile. Nobody wanted Ossie Marks. Everyone craved dollars. No wonder they had to build a wall.

And once that very same wall came down, the dismal truth of East Germany came out. It was a nation of nasty little beaurocrats who would gladly shop their fellow citizen’s to keep their meagre little privileges. These were the grey people who would happily consign someone to a few months in a labour camp to get themselves bumped up the queue for a new Trabant car. It emerged that out of a population of twenty million, at least two million were working as informers for the Stasi, the secret police of cheap suits and plastic briefcases. The Nazis created beaurocrats of demonic efficiency who ran a railroad that freighted 5 million souls to the gas chambers of Poland. East German beaurocrats were meaner. More petty. Nasty, nasty little people who did the bidding of a nasty, nasty little State for a new car; a holiday on the Baltic coast: a television. No wonder they had to build a wall.

And so to the title of this particular ramble. Are we becoming East Germany? What a ridiculous notion. Or is it? Have you noticed how many pot holes are appearing in the roads? Have you noticed how shabby all the buildings are beginning to look? And then there were the Olympics of course. These days Germans build all the cars and machines for the whole world and they won 12 golds. We build just about nothing, but we piled ten billion quid we managed to borrow from China into trying to maintain the myth of Britain. And hip, hip hurrah, we won 29 golds! So all must be well in the garden! It feels uncomfortably like the way Stecher an Co were hailed as heroes by Eric Honeker and his merry men back in 1976.

And then we get to the issue of nasty, petty beaurocrats. The public sector has become consumed by an all pervading climate of fear. Hang onto that job and you keep your house and car and bi-annual holiday and wine with your evening meal and a pension to die for. (What an oxymoron that statement is!) Lose your job and it’s negative equity, the bus, the Tesco Market Value Range and the scrapheap. And in every Government office in the land, everyone looks at everyone else and wonders who’s going to be cut next. So when Job Centre Plus workers are tasked with getting three clients a week off the dole, they attack the task with the same dreary zeal as their East German counterparts exhibited all those years ago. And every day we get the stories as newly beaten people come in for food parcels and share the stories of how they have been suspended; hung out to dry: rendered penniless and dependent on charities for their daily bread.

Here is the case of a couple from this week that made me wonder if we really are becoming East Germany. She is 26 and she needed a place to live. Well, we all need that. For her there was a sense of urgency for she is four and a half months pregnant. Social housing meant too long a wait so she sought out a private let. The only one she could find had two bedrooms and a shared bathroom, kitchen and lounge. I should have mentioned that she has no job. So the only way she can pay rent is if Housing Benefit pays her rent. And these days Housing Benefit will only pay for one room. Fair enough. She found a pal who also needed somewhere to live to move in and her pal took the other room. And the Housing Benefit paid for both rooms. Tickety Boo. But then her pal moved out which meant she needed to find another pal. OK. A problem, but not an impossible problem. The grapevine told her that another pal was needing somewhere to live, so she got in touch. They had known each other a while and always got along. He is 32 and looking for a job. He was more than happy to take the second room. So all was fine and dandy.

But then all of a sudden all wasn’t fine and dandy. Both had their benefits stopped. And the housing benefit was stopped. Why? The beaurocrat made the case for the State. You have no right to claim Housing Benefit for two rooms because you are a couple. You can only have Housing Benefit to pay for one room. As a couple you can share one room. And we will only pay for one roon. But we are not a couple! Yes you are. No we are not! Of course you are. You share a flat. That means you are a couple. No we're not. Yes you are.
She asked if they would make a similar decision if she was sharing with a female. She was told not to be ridiculous. She asked if it was really so impossible that two lesbians night share a flat and each have their own room? She was warned not to be provocative. Being provocative would only make things worse. The beaurocrat was not for turning. Well obviously not. This after all was two for the price of one. Two off benefits with one tap of the keyboard. Why would they change their decision? They have a target to reach and there is no way that they are about to jeopardise paying their mortgage and having two holidays a year and driving a nice car and quaffing wine with their evening meal.
And how very reminiscent of the old East Germany is the judgement at the heart of the system. Guilty until proved innocent. You’re a woman, he’s a man, therefore you have to be a couple because you share a flat. How do you prove otherwise? How do you come up with the cash to install a Spooks style CCTV system to monitor where everyone sleeps when you’ve had your dole suspended and you can’t even buy groceries any more?

They went to get advice and there were basically three options. Option 1. Share a room and a bed and get someone else to move into the other room. Ouch. Share a bed even though you are not a couple and one of you is four and a half moths pregnant? It’s a big ask. Option 2. Both keep your rooms whilst pretending to share a room and get someone else in to pretend to share the second room whilst in reality they sleep on the couch. Well it’s possible in theory, but such a compliant individual would be hard to find. Option 3. Do nothing, get evicted and wind up in a homeless hostel.

And here is where the whole thing really does have that Leipzig 1976 feel about it. Yesterday we saw Cameron wrapped in the flag telling us how great Britain is because we won 29 golds in the heady days of summer. Just like Eric Honecker must have said much the same in the wake of Stecher and her teammates’ Herculean efforts in Montreal. But behind the bluster are the nasty little games that get played when countries run out of cash. And the nasty little games are played out by nasty little beaurocrats who will do the bidding of their cheapskate bosses for a meagre set of perks. Honecker’s lot got Trabant cars and flats five square feet larger than the average and the chance to buy bananas in a Western Currency shop. Our lot get to pay their mortgage and plan a retirement with a caravan and the chance to watch Celebrity Come Dancing on a 42 inch tele from Comet bought on a credit card.

Hannah Arendh was an Israeli writer who sat through every day of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960’s. Eichmann was Hitler’s favourite beaurocrat who did the flow charts and time and motion studies that allowed five million souls to be collected up from all corners of Europe and be shipped to the gas chambers of Aushwitz and Treblinka and Chelmno and Sobibor and Madjanek. He was one of the worst men in history, but that was not what Anna saw in the dock in Tel Aviv. She saw an insipid little man with a pidgin chest and a bald head complete with comb over and a cheap suit. He played the ‘I was only following my orders’ card. And no doubt if Adolf Eichmann was alive and kicking today he would feel right at home following his orders in the Job Centre Plus and making the small print work in his favour to meet his three a week target. And no doubt he would return home to eat a meal made from the Tesco Finest range and to watch Celebrity Come Dancing on his 42 inch tele from Comet.

In 1963 Anna Arendh wrote a book about the trial she had witnessed of the non-descript, grey little man who had dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s of the Holocaust. She came up with a title for her book that will forever echo through history.

‘The banality of evil’

It was Germany in 1942

And it was East Germany in 1976.

And sadly it seems to be creeping into Britain in 2012.

Lots of gold at the Olympics and widescreen TV’s for the beaurocrats. And stuff the rest.


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