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.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are we missing all the clues?

History almost always shows us that before any seismic event there were in fact lots and lots of clues that it was about to happen. Check out Hitler invading the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. It really does seem that the whole thing caught Stalin completely by surprise. Fair enough, Uncle Joe was barking mad in every sense, but being a psychotic mass murderer didn’t stop him from being pretty shrewd. Imagine how many clues there must have been pointing to the fact that Operation Barbarossa was about to be unleashed. The Germans moved three million men up to the border compete with tanks and planes and artillery pieces. For two months the shelves in the grocery shops of every German city, town and village were running on empty. So where had all the food gone? And why was it all but impossible to fill your car up with fuel? And why were there no policemen on the beat any more? And why were the trains running 24/7 out of the stations on the east side of Berlin whilst there was barely a departure from the western side of the city?

No doubt Uncle Joe was fed these snippets on a daily basis and no doubt his in-house experts read the tea leaves and came up with the answers. Three million guys need feeding. Enough vehicles to give three million guys a ride to Moscow need a hell of a lot of fuel.

So how did he miss it? We have always put it down to the fact that he was a complete and utter nut job. And maybe that was it. But Uncle Joe was hardly alone in missing clues about something that in hindsight would seem impossible to miss. I mean, look at the recent financial crisis. Real wages fail to go up for twenty five years and yet property prices treble. How does that make any sense? It doesn’t and it didn’t. It is completely illogical in very respect. For years and years there was a successful rule of thumb that determined that you could get a mortgage worth three and half times your salary. So when average wages are £20,000 a year the price of an average house should be £70,000. So when the price of an average house went all the way up to £170,000 whilst wages never moved an inch, it should have given us all a pretty good clue that something wasn’t right.

Did we smell the coffee? Like hell we did. The Government rubbed its hands together and raked in record levels of Stamp Duty and Corporation Tax from banks who were breaking all profit records. Were the people any wiser? Of course we weren’t. We borrowed every penny the banks offered us and watched endless hours of TV where slick presenters went all gooey about how much we could all make by becoming property tycoons. Everyone was more than confident that the whole thing was going to last forever. Nobody much was suggesting that the whole thing was a completely artificial and unsustainable bubble. Well apart from Uncle Vince of course, but nobody was in the mood to take good old Uncle Vince all that seriously. Who was he when compared to all those super slick Masters of the Universe in the glittering square mile of the City?

Once upon a time a first class degree in Maths from a blue chip university meant a career in something hands on and scientific like designing trains or inventing new medicines or getting a man on the moon. That all stopped around the turn of the century. Now we needed our mathematicians to find ways of making the bubble last forever. We needed new equations and theorums. We needed guys with lots of letters after their names to persuade us that the good times would last for ever. There was an inconvenient fact that kept quietly nagging away at the back of everyone’s mind: if you keep blowing and blowing into a balloon, at some stage the balloon will pop. But the bankers were in no mood to stop blowing. The bonuses on the table were just too big for caution. And so when the time came when there was really nobody left to lend money to, they got their tame mathematicians to come up with a whole lot of fancy equations that proved that lending a load of cash to someone without any remote ability of paying it back was indeed a great idea. Good old Sub-Prime. One broke guy with a dodgy mortgage is bad. Four broke guys plus one guy with a job all bundled up together is good. And everyone actually bought into that absolute tosh for no other reason than it was expressed in maths formulae they couldn’t begin to understand. In the end the truth comes out. It always does. The empty shelves in Berlin are empty for a good reason.    

All of which has got me to wondering as to whether or not we are missing a whole lot more little clues that something genuinely huge is about to happen. I guess I am more tuned into this than the average Joe having written my book ‘Mere Anarchy’ a couple of years ago. For those who haven’t read it – which basically is the vast, vast majority of humankind! – the book takes a fictional view of Britain in 2016 when the money really HAS run out. In order to make the books balance a 25% cut in Government Spending is required and the solution is an immediate end of all benefits. The idea of the book was to take a ‘What if?’ look at how such a drastic scenario might play out. For the last twenty something months great chunks of the storyline have been coming true with a somewhat alarming regularity. It times I rather wish I hadn’t written the bloody thing.

Despite the constant diet of doom and gloom on the nightly news, we all seem pretty well comfortable with the fact that life as we know it is still going to go on. We will simply be a bit harder up. We’ll pay more for petrol and electricity. We won’t go out as much. We might have to listen to the match on the radio rather than stumping up £45 aw month for Sky. We might have to holiday at home.

Is this sense of certainty a delusion? Are the shelves of the groceries of Berlin beginning to look a bit thin? I tend to hoover up news from all kinds of places these days. There is Twitter of course which gives snap shots of lots of little things from lots of different places. Then there are Podcasts which occupy dog walking time. Then there are the tales of quiet desperation that come in through the front door of the First Base Agency five days a week.

The clues.

Not joined up on the surface, but are they joined up under the surface? Is there a Titanic sinking iceberg ready and waiting to take us all down?

Here are a few.

Last week the Catholic Church in Spain announced they are now feeding a million people a day. 2.5% of the total population. Four months ago the Greek Orthodax church announced they were feeding 250,000 a day: again, 2.5% of the population. This is something we at First Base need to take heed of. We dish out fifty food parcels a week. Each parcel feeds on person for three days. So 50 food parcels basically feed 25 people for a week. And fifty is a lot. It is double what we were doing a couple of years ago. So what if we take the same road as Greece and Spain. Population of Dumfries? 50,000. 2.5% of 50,000? 1250. How many food parcels to feed 1250 people? 2500 plus a few. As in completely and totally impossible. So yeah, these are the kind of clues we need to take some heed of. Are the local Council taking heed? I really don’t think that they are.

Greece. An interview with a Grandmother in her eighties. Her pension has been chopped and chopped and now it is a mere hundred euros a month. Even the rent is more than a hundred euros a month, never mind food and power. So she had given up on paying rent and every day letters land on the mat threatening eviction. But she seems able to deal with that. After all she was there to watch Hitler’s tanks drive into town all those years ago; hers is a generation who can take such things in their stride. What has pushed her into the kind of black despair where she yearns to fall asleep and never wake up again are two much smaller events. Her son has come to her desperate to borrow two euros to get something, anything, to feed his family. She doesn’t have it. She has to tell him no. And she never has any money to buy chocolate for her grandchildren. And what worth is there to life if you can no longer buy chocolate for your grandchildren?

Always the small things.

Spain. In the last few months tens of thousands of very old people have left care homes to live with their families. Why? Two reasons. The families have to pay a percentage of the bill and the families can’t afford it any more. But there is a bigger reason. The families haven’t just seen their income cut. They have seen their income disappear. As in down to zilch. They are part of the million who look to the Catholic Church for their daily bread. So once an old and infirm relative comes to the house it is not just the human being who comes, but also their pension. Some money. Any money. Enough for some bread.

Italy. A new party is born. They don’t do structure and organisation and constitutions. They don’t even do leaders. They just offer a place for the disgusted to cast their votes. There is a 26 year old computer programmer, unemployed of course, who stood to be Mayor of Parma. And he won by a landslide. Now he sits in the big chair and has the job of dealing with $100 million of city debt. He has a cunning plan. He says it is like eating an elephant – you do it a little at a time. The new party promises that once they are given power they will order a forensic investigation into the accounts of every national and local politician who has held office in Italy during the last 25 years. How did you afford that yacht? Where did the 20,000 euros in that account of your wife’s come from? How do you afford that nice chalet up in the mountains? Surely they cannot really win power. Or can they? Can the Mayor’s office of Parma merely be the start?  And if they do come to power and delve into the finances of the top 1% and send a whole bunch of corrupt rich people to prison, will the country be governable? Is it another clue?

Greece again. A middle level sort of football team. They must be reasonably decent because they have had a two million euro sponsorship deal. But that has gone now. Their corporate sponsors have gone bust. The club hunted high and low for a new company to step in. But there was nobody. Every company they approached was a bankruptcy waiting to happen. Well. Not quite all. There was one business in town who were more than happy to take up the sponsorship. The local brothel. Ah, the oldest profession proves itself to be recession proof. Now the team bears the name of the home of the local ladies of the night written big and bold across their shirts. It wouldn’t have happened two years ago. It has now. A clue?

Madrid. The top brass of an Asian car manufacturer are in town. The Chief Exac is a lady and the city bosses are doing all they can to make the right impression; to get their Asian guests to say yes, why not, this is indeed a great city to build a car plant. They are wined and dined and no doubt trips to watch Real Madrid and visit the Prado gallery are pencilled in. After a fine meal in the very best of restaurants, the party is ready to return to their hotel. Would they like a taxi calling? Oh no. We would rather walk. It is such a lovely evening and the hotel is close by. And Madrid is a truly beautiful city on a warm, balmy autumn evening when the heat of the day has all but drained away. But it isn’t such a beautiful place to be when a full scale riot is in full swing. As the car makers step out of the restaurant, the riot police are chasing a ragged band of protesters into the night. Tear gas fills the air. As the Chief Executive looks on in horror she feels a thunderous pain in her thigh. She has been shot by a rubber bullet. They fly home the next morning and she gives a press conference from a wheelchair. Guess which city won’t be getting a new car plant any time soon? Once upon a time Europe was seen as a safe bet and Latin America was a basket case. Is that the really the case now?  

Oh the joys of democracy. Who would want the job of governing Spain? They must yearn to do like Monsieur Holland and whack the rich with a 75% tax. That would calm the demonstrators a tad. But there’s a problem. Spain hasn’t got a lot at the moment in the way of feel good factor. But at least they have the two stand out football teams on planet earth: Barcelona and Real Madrid. These Uber-clubs attract the absolute greatest of great players and always have done. Why? Because they are glamourous and they pay the biggest wages. And here is where the problem lies. The going rate of pay for the Messis and Ronaldos of this world is £200,000 a week AFTER tax. The club pays the tax on behalf of the player. Top rate tax in Spain has been running at 30% which means that Real Madrid cough up £15 million a year to give Ronaldo his £10 million net. Put the top rate tax up to 75% and all of a sudden Real Madrid have to pay £40 million a year to retain the services of their pouting Portuguese diva. And they can’t afford forty million a year. So what does the government do? Hit the rich and please the mob? But hitting the rich to please the mob drains their iconic football teams of the great players they have become so very accustomed to which will displease the mob. Just another rock in another hard place. Another clue.

And in the years of the distant future what might these missed clues tell us? Western Europe has ruled the roost for hundreds of years until America joined in and hijacked the party. Then we ruled the roost togther. And all of us lucky enough to have been born and bred in the West have naturally assumed that this established order of things will last for ever. We don’t work in sweatshops for a dollar a day. Of course we don’t. That is done by the other people. The ones we like to ignore. The other five billion who we have kept firmly in their place for four hundred years and more. The ‘Third’ World. The ‘Developing’ World. Our subjects who we have dominated with our gunboats and rampaging free trade capitalism.

But maybe all of these clues suggest that the cracks are widening. People are starting face starvation in Western Europe. People in their millions are now wholly dependent on food aid for their next meal in Western Europe. Governments are printing money and losing control of their people in Western Europe. Everything that has been tried and trusted for those four hundred years doesn’t seem to work any more. Before we learnt to rule the world, the people of Western Europe DID used to starve and freeze to death and work for nothing and live under the rule of tyrants just like the so called ‘Third World’ has done under our watch. We assume that this can never happen again because it hasn’t happened for a very, very long time. We assume that the natural order of things is a permanent order of things.

Maybe the clues which come in thicker and faster by the day suggest otherwise. Maybe when we all look back we will see that these were the signs that our four hundred year bask in the sun was finally drawing to a close.




No comments:

Post a Comment