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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is there Methadone in their Madness?


I can’t say that I have ever been much of a fan of Russell Brand. Up until last week I always reckoned he was a representative of the kind of over hyped celebrity that our tabloids so love to waste news print on. He certainly never made me laugh, but maybe that is because I am a grouchy old git from the north. However I was intrigued to tune in to his documentary about drug addiction in Britain and what answers we might find to this endless crisis. Before the programme I probably shared Peter Hitchins’ world weary cynicism about the BBC signing up a wayward celeb to make a supposedly serious piece of work.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised.

Russell used his hour well and came up with an eminently balanced and rational view of the god awful mess we have got ourselves in over these last forty years.

The big question is always the same one: what in the name of Christ are we going to do about heroin? Throughout my adult life the very word ‘heroin’ has had the ring of unspeakable badness. It is the daddy of evil drugs. Wicked and dirty and deadly. It’s odd to think that this sinister sounding word was once upon derived from a German version of the word ‘heroic’. Mankind has dabbled with the sap from poppies for hundreds and hundreds of years. We have learned it can do things for us that no other plant can come close to. It can take away pain from both our bodies and our minds. In the time of the Industrial Revolution when science was all the rage, the pharmacists seemed to conquer a new Everest every year. They discovered cures for most of the diseases that had kept the average span of a poor person’s life to well under fifty. One by one the mass killers were cracked – Dyptheria and TB and Rickets and Cholera and Typhoid. The new drugs that were brought forth to send these diseases packing were nick named the 'heroic' drugs. And so it was that in 1898 the Bayer Corporation of Germany came up with what they were sure would become the most heroic drug of them all. Heroin. Diamorphine. The ultimate version of the poppy plant's magic. A hero of a drug that could master the very worst of pain.

It was tested to the maximum degree in the field hospitals of the Great War where it brought relief to the millions of men who were burnt and shrapnelled and blown up in the trenches. And it worked. Just like it still works. Try telling someone in the last gasp of cancer that heroin is a bad thing.

From the very get go, the pharmacists figured out that heroin could also have a pretty profound effect on the brain. Back in those days chemists sold concoctions for the over worked housewife. Old Ma Betty’s Pick Me Up! Elegant bottles filled with sweet, syrupy liquid. A spoonful a day to give a bit of a lift! And some lift it must have been as many of these potions were laced with heroin and cocaine. It soon became apparent that all too many grand ladies were getting a tad over fond of their potions and the pick up mixtures were made illegal.

For the next seventy years heroin was mainly the preserve of artists. Just like opium always had been. Smack addicted artists have always tried hard to harness their talents to tell the rest of the world all about the nirvana of the poppy and let’s face it they have done a pretty good job all the way from Coleridge to the Stranglers. Never a frown on Golden Brown. Comfortably Numb. Oh, it’s such a perfect day..I’m glad I spent it with you…..

Then in the early 70’s the great and good, lead by the visionary Richard Nixon, decided to launch an epic War on Drugs and thereby put a stop to all the wickedness. In 1970 we had under 500 registered heroin addicts in Britain. Then we declared war on the poppy and threw the kitchen sink at it and what a towering success our four decade war has been: we now have over 300,000 addicts.

The mess we have got ourselves into simply beggars belief. Conservative estimates suggest that the drug problem now costs us upwards of £20 billion a year. The organised criminals who we have handed the franchise to end all franchises now control one of the mightiest industries on the planet. Only oil and weapons command a greater share of world trade than illegal drugs. In a recent UN report, it became clear that on the day after Lehman Brothers crashed there were a number of other banks that were about to go the same way. Someone, somewhere had to go to the counter and stick the thick end of a trillion dollars into a deposit account. On that desperate day it became clear that there was only one set of people on the planet who had that amount of ready cash – the drug cartels. And so a dirty deal was done. They were given a once in a lifetime opportunity to launder all their cash in one go whilst a blind eye was turned. They duly took the offer with both hands and rescued the banking system. Over the last few weeks the extent of the abject corruption in the City of London has slowly started to come into focus. Once upon a time Britain doubled its national treasure by punting opiates to the Chinese. Now we focus our skills on being the finest money launderers money can buy. No wonder London is such a magnet to those at the top of the crime cartels. The concept of My Beautiful Launderette is now represented by the shiny glass towers of Canary Warf.

In the 80’s we all started to get scared to death by heroin. By now it had moved from the artsy parties of Soho into the sink estates of Thatcher’s post industrial wilderness. And it became clear that with heroin came Aids. Edinburgh was the epicentre and Trainspotting brought it to national attention.

And so it was that two words entered the lexicon of the war on drugs. Harm Reduction. To stop the spread of Aids, we tore up the rule book and reluctantly decided to offer heroin addicts a free of charge substitute care of the NHS.

Methadone.

Methadone is a synthetic version of heroin that offers many but not all of its unique qualities. It will take away physical pain but it does not provide the kind of mental nirvana that Lou Reed captured in ‘Perfect Day’

The NHS methadone mantra has never really changed over the last twenty five years or so. Methadone saves lives. The theory is really quite simple. Heroin is really, really addictive. Once you get a habit you need a hit every few hours or so. If you don’t get what your body needs, you will get really, really ill. A rattle. Cold Turkey. You’ll vomit and shit yourself and feel sicker than sick. And very few human beings have it in them to get through these gnawing days of hell so they will go to almost any lengths to get that next fix. They’ll shoplift and rob their families and commit fraud and prostitute their bodies. Anything for the next dunt. No clean needle? Doesn’t matter. The guy you are sharing with is HIV positive. Doesn’t matter. There is a chance that the smack you have just scored is contaminated with Anthrax. Doesn’t matter.

To combat this, we decided offer a choice. Heroin is unbelievably expensive and only available from organised criminals. So here is a way out. You can have a daily dose of methadone which is free at the point of use and available from the NHS: our national treasure.

At first we promised three or four months of methadone. Just time enough to bring stability to a chaotic life. An escape from the clutches of the organised criminals. Then there would be help to slowly reduce the daily dose down to nothing at which point the addict would be abstinent and spruced up and ready to take a place in society. On this basis it has to be said that Methadone can be a genuinely good thing. We have worked with many clients who found methadone helped them to get some stability into their manic lives. Once they were released from hellish daily routines of committing crimes and then frantically seeking out the next hit they were able to put their fractured lives back together. This is when the methadone programme is at its best, especially when there is lots of help available for someone to reduce their daily dose and then become abstinent. No arguments whatsoever with that.

Sadly the reducing and becoming abstinent idea seems to have got lost somewhere along the way. Once the politicians started throwing hundreds of millions into drug treatment they ordered their minions to collect proof that the investment was indeed bearing fruit. The NHS was asked to provide evidence that the cash was making a difference. How many drug addicts do you have in treatment? And this soon became the be all and the end all. In the early days, anyone on the methadone programme was expected to provide piss tests to prove they were no longer using any wicked illegal drugs as well as their legally prescribed methadone. When they failed a test, they were chucked off the programme and they would have to wait a few months to get another chance. The message was clear. It’s methadone and nothing else or it’s nothing at all. Simples, as a Meerkat would allegedly say.

But this presented a problem to the NHS, for a person kicked off the programme meant one less name on the list of drug addicts ‘In treatment’. And that was not good. For in our brave new world, numbers are everything. And without numbers on your side, you put yourself in danger of being down sized. Of being cut. Of becoming an efficiency saving. So a new philosophy emerged. No longer was it deemed a good idea to put a heroin addict on a brief stabilisation programme and then help them to abstinence and a new life. Nope. No good. That meant less people ‘in treatment’. Instead it was deemed a better idea to prescribe higher and higher doses and thereby lock more and more into the system.

At First Base we started to notice this about five years ago. All of a sudden, any client who asked to have their level of methadone reduced was told that such an idea was quite impossible. They were told that they were not ready. That to reduce their prescription would be to put them in danger. Methadone would keep them safe and the more they took the better. We tried to raise this at various meetings only to be shouted down and told in no uncertain terms that we were trouble causing, bumbling amateurs who were pretty well a disgrace to humanity for daring to suggest such a wicked thing.

Then one day we received an invitation to attend a meeting of a Select Committee up at the Scottish Parliament where the methadone can was due to be kicked around the room. The NHS fielded a truly formidable spokesman in the person of a tweed suited Dr Watson. Seldom in my life have I seen a man hold his corner with such unshakeable confidence. Professor Neil Mckegany, who played a role in Russell Brand’s documentary, tried all he could do discomfort the good doctor.

“Dr Watson. In England 29% of those on the methadone programme come off the drug every year. In Scotland that figure is 4%. Why such a difference?”

The good doctor swatted away the question much like King Vivvy Richards once dispatched bouncers over the midwicket boundary. He agreed that 4% was indeed a problem statistic. 4% in his opinion was 4% too many. Nobody should come off methadone. Methadone prescribed to heroin addicts should be seen in the same light as insulin prescribed to those suffering from diabetes. He was also worried that the average prescription of Methadone in Scotland was 49 ml a day. (10ml would be plenty enough to kill you and I in under a minute, unless you are a heroin user of course, in which case you’d be fine and dandy) In his view it would be much better if the average prescription were 200ml a day, enough to flood the neuro-receptors of the brain and drive away the desire to use ant other drugs ‘on top’. The fact that 200ml a day is generally enough to render a human being into a Jeremy Kyle watching zombie capable of nothing more than a daily shuffle to the chemists seemed to be of little concern. At least they were to be safe Zombies.

We quoted the good doctor’s thoughts to NHS representatives at local meetings. We had questions which we felt were perfectly fair. You see, when a heroin addict first visits a treatment centre, it goes something like this. OK. We can help you and this is what we will do. We will get you onto the methadone programme and over the first few weeks we will ease the level up until we find the right mark. Then we will let you stabilise things for a few weeks. Then we’ll have a look at helping you come reduce your prescription and get yourself abstinent and clean. Now Dr Watson had categorically revealed that such talk was in fact a big fat lie. In our view there needed to be a new and different narrative. We felt the conversation should have gone along something like this. OK. We can help you. We can give you a free of charge methadone prescription which means that you can stop robbing shops and prostituting yourself and free yourself from the grip of organised criminals. However there are some downsides you need to consider. If you decide to take this road, it will in all likelihood mean that you will need to visit your local pharmacy every day for the rest of you life. Also you need to know that methadone is very acidic indeed. It will eat away at the enamel on your teeth and in the next two of three years there is a good chance that most of them will go brown and drop out. Now if you are happy with both of these downsides, we can go ahead and get you hooked up. It seemed to us that many might not be over keen on the idea if they were given these facts. Unfortunately the minions of the NHS didn’t quite see it that way and we were shouted down and told in no uncertain terms that we were trouble causing, bumbling amateurs who were pretty well a disgrace to humanity for daring to suggest such a wicked thing. Oh well. So much for that.

And so the madness just grew and grew, all in the name of getting as many names as possible onto the ‘in treatment’ list to be e mailed to the government once a month. In Scotland we now have well over 20,000 citizens ‘in treatment’. It is scary how far this whole thing now goes. A couple of years ago I spent a couple of soul destroying hours in the local Sheriff Court on the day of the ‘Drug Treatment and Testing Order’ hearings. This is a relatively new thing. Let’s say you have been a heroin addict for five years and slowly but surely your criminal record has got out of hand. You’ve been given fines and not paid them. You’ve been given community service and not turned up. You’ve been picked up and told off and ticked off and issued dire warnings and none of this has had the slightest effect. And so the time has finally arrived for you to be sent to prison without passing go and collecting £200. But wait! There is one last chance in the saloon. You are offered the chance of a DITTO – a Drug Treatment and Testing Order. If you sign up to be take treatment and be tested twice a week for wicked illegal drugs for a set period of time, then you can avoid prison. All in all, a pretty sound idea, especially if it can save us the £5000 a month it costs to lock an addict up. Once a month you have to stand up in front of the sheriff to hear a report from the treatment centre as to what your twice weekly tests have shown. Oh dear, oh dear. I’m afraid you tested positive for naughty, wicked heroin. All bets are off! So it is jail for you sunshine and you will not pass ‘Go’ and you will not collect £200.

But it wasn’t like that. There were about 15 cases to be dealt with. The accused would shuffle into the dock and hang their head. At which point their lawyer, thanks to £100 or so from the Legal Aid fund, would stand up and address the Sheriff. They would tell a tale of woe in which their client had got a bit down and depressed and spent their dole money on a couple of bags of smack. But they were quick to assure the Sheriff that their clients were really very sorry indeed and would try harder from here on in. They really would. And the Sheriff would let out a sigh and continue the case for another month. Every single one of them. Not one had managed to stay clean. Not one got sent to jail. A few lawyers earned a few hundred quid for a few minutes work and world moved on. But at least those in the dock were very much ‘in treatment’. They were taking their methadone every single day.

A few weeks after my afternoon in the DITTO court, a lad came into the Agency with a different kind of tale of woe. He had been on the smack for over five years and was sick to the stomach with it. His family had disowned him and he was very much at rock bottom. When he was offered a DITTO, he jumped at the chance with enthusiasm. Here was his chance to put it all behind him and start a new life. Once he had agreed to the offer, he needed to keep two appointments. First he called round to the Criminal Justice people and signed on the dotted line to promise to attend all appointments. He agreed that if he missed appointments he would be sent to jail. Then he made his way to the NHS treatment centre who would look after the day to day treating and testing side of things. They told him that things would be absolutely fine and that they would get him started on his Methadone programme. Oh no he said. He explained that he had always promised himself that he would never go down the Methadone road. He wanted to keep his teeth and not be tied to going to the chemist every day for the rest of his life. No way. Not that. He explained that he wanted to make the very best of his DITTO. He wanted to do his cold turkey and get tested twice a week for a year to prove to his family that he was clean of all drugs. Good idea surely. The kind of outcome we all want.

Nope.

They told him that it was Methadone or nothing. They had a duty to keep him safe. He said he didn’t want Methadone. He just wanted to get clean. And to stay clean. They told him that he was just wasting their time. So he went back to court where the Sheriff shook his head sadly and regretted the fact that treatment had been refused. A refusal of treatment meant that the offer of a DITTO was no longer on the table. And so it was that my man was packed off to jail. For nine months. For refusing to take Methadone. Now if that ain’t scary, I don’t know what is. Doesn’t it smack just a teensy weensy bit of Soviet Russia to you? Or does that kind of thing not really count when it comes to dealing with junkies? Maybe so.

At least over 60,000 of our fellow Brits are being kept safe by the NHS thanks to their daily dose of Methadone. That was what a GP patiently pointed out to Russell Brand when he asked the same questions we have asked over the years. Her body language suggested she considered him a trouble causing, bumbling amateur who was pretty well a disgrace to humanity, but she managed to smile for the camera.

But there’s a problem.

It was highlighted rather vividly last week when the Scottish Government released the annual figures for drug deaths. 585 deaths. A figure that has basically doubled over the last few years. Dead from Valium – 190. Dead from Heroin – 220. Dead from Methadone – 275. Hang on a minute. Run that by me again. I thought the idea behind prescribing all this Methadone was to keep people safe? That’s right, isn’t it? So how come it has killed more people than any illegal drug? How come it has killed almost as many people in Scotland in twelve months as British soldiers killed by the Taliban over the last ten years?  How come the treatment designed to keep people safe ends up topping one in every hundred?  But we mustn’t ask such questions. For the NHS is a national treasure and our doctors are wise and they know best. And they are doing a terrific job. Just look at the figures. Look how many addicts are ‘in treatment’! Over 20,000! Only trouble causing, bumbling amateurs who are pretty well a disgrace to humanity would dare question such an epic achievement.

So that’s you and me both Russell.

It seems there is indeed Methadone in their madness.    

 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

An hour in the First base Agency - A quiet rainy world of fractured lives.


 
You can never guess who will be next through the door of the charity where I work. We do drugs and veterans and food parcels. The hours of the days ease along quietly. Time is broken down into segments by the ringing of the bell over the front door. Door opens and the bell rings. Not an electrical thing. Old style.

Maybe it is someone we have known a while. And maybe they have come to say things are getting better. Life is more liveable. Or maybe it is a new person ringing the bell for the very first time

Some come in with body language screaming with embarrassment. Their eyes tell the story of a life that has unravelled so very quickly: too quickly. One minute things are going along like just they always have done. Then something happens. An event. Some news. Something unexpected. That dreaded first domino that sets off a time of calamity. Expressions ask how has it come to this? And sometimes they will tell us whilst we do the paperwork and fill a food parcel. A sneak preview of a fractured life. The back story to needing a food parcel from a place like ours. Tales of crash and burn. Of a world that has gone dark. Of benefits that haven’t come through and families who have turned their backs.

So it is for an hour on a dead and buried rainy afternoon. Outside the pavements are quiet. Gutters gurgle. Shopkeepers dream of the holidays they had once taken when times were better. Buses with three passengers splash by. Like Paul Newman said in ‘Cool Hand Luke’.

“You know how it is. Small towns. Nothing much to do in the evenings. And mainly we’re just settling old scores…”

Ring a ding ding.

Two women. One in her forties. One twenty or so years her junior. Both in clothes that speak of better times. Both give off a sense of dejection. The older one steps forward first, a slip of paper in hand. The referral slip is from Women’s Aid. The paper tells the usual story. So very usual in fact that it is barely worth telling. Benefits delayed. No money for food. And of course it is hard to be sensible and make a solid contingency plan for the moment your partner flips out and beats the living daylights out of you. She apologises and requests no chicken meatballs. She just can’t eat any more chicken meatballs. Which suggests that this isn’t the first time she has been in for a one of our food parcels. The benefits must have been in the post for a while. Long enough for her to for her to come to hate chicken meatballs from Lidl. Now the younger companion chips in. Can I have mine without chicken meatballs as well please? Same story. And no doubt in the years to come the sight of a tin of meatballs will bring forth memories of the dark time.

The bell rings as they depart with their meatball-less carrier bags. And the phone rings. A veteran client. His life was fractured in a split second on a Belfast street corner in the early 70’s. Maybe it was raining. He has never said. One minute he was counting down the slow hours to the end of road block duty. And then the crack of a sniper’s rifle turned his life on its head. The bullet went straight through the neck of his pal who was standing a foot away. Then it was chaos and panic and gushing blood and a frantic fireman’s lift. All to no avail. Just another young dead British squaddie added to a list that grew and grew for another quarter of a century.

And time passed.

The IMF saved our bacon. Bobby Sands faded away. Maggie Thatcher had her hour upon the stage. People got mobile phones. But the memory of the slit second never went away. It came back every night. Over and over and over and over. Until the man on the phone could live with it no more and sought help. Which of course is a good thing. More to the point it is working, And now he feels the way to at last walk clear from that fateful street corner in Belfast is to return to that very same street corner in Belfast. To look it in the eye. To finally try to fix a fractured life. To do what Humpy Dumpty couldn’t manage. The call is all about arrangements. Details. One of our lads is making the trip across the water with him. To share it. They will be two middle age guys on a street corner and no-one will think to give them a second glance. Because the world always moves on.

The call ends and bell on the door says ‘next’.

He more or less marches in. How old? Impossible to say. Might be forty. Might be sixty. He carries that smell of alcohol every day. All day. His clothes are outdoor clothes. Well worn. But not as well worn as the face. It is one of those faces that has seen a lot of weather. And a lot of life. He has a well filled rucksack on his back and kind eyes and a ready smile. I wait for the food parcel slip but none is forthcoming. Instead he is in the market for advice. Things have taken a turn for the worse. At first he was sure that landing in Dumfries had represented a step forward. Finding a place on the edge of town to pitch his tent had not been a problem. Even better, he had discovered a church where free soup and bread was served every afternoon by people who were as kind as any he had met. Life was on an up. And then just like everything that goes up, it had gone down. Some kids have set his tent on fire and burnt it to ash. Someone at the church has come good and given him a replacement tent. But he has lost confidence. Lost faith. How can you pitch your tent in a place where the kids come along and burn it down? How indeed. He has heard of a Buddhist place in the hills. A sanctuary far away from arson hungry kids. Would he be able to go there? Would they let him camp? I have no idea. I make a call. The answer is maybe. It all depends on what skills he can bring to the table. Has he any skills? Not really. Just a willingness to graft. He explains he is a man of the islands of the north which goes some way to explaining that face. He used to dig peat for a living. Long days out in the unforgiving Atlantic wind with the distant cries from a Kittiwake colony.

And our discussion is broken by the bell, more urgent this time.

A young woman with trauma written all over her. I know her. I’ve known her for a while. Two years ago she was one half of what looked like being a happy ending. She had hooked up with one of our regulars and had helped him defy all expectations and turn everything around. For a while things had looked so very promising for them both. A nice house. Two lovely kids. A future to step into. Then came a lapse and too many blue valium and my client was gone before he would see twenty three candles on his birthday cake.

One life gone. One life fractured.

Kids away to family and everything coming apart at the seams. And now here she is with the kind of eyes that once upon a time kids from small American towns had when they returned from week long search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta. She says she doesn’t know what to do. Everything is garbled. She says she needs help. What kind of help? She can’t seem to work out what help she really needs. Maybe a food parcel or something? But it is pretty clear that a food parcel ain't going to cut it. Maybe a cup of tea? A few deep breaths and time to calm down a bit? OK. Maybe that. I give my Island Man in the rucksack a kind of ‘is that OK with you’ look and he nods to say ‘course it’s OK’. We get half way up the stairs when the front door crashes open.

How old? Maybe 25. A baseball cap and a face to chop wood with. Angry eyes and angry words. He shouts her like he is shouting a disobedient dog taking a shit on the pavement. What the fuck does she think she is doing? She looks at me and shakes her head. Trembling now. So I leave her on the stairs and return to the counter. My Island Man is making a show of studying our shelf of second hand books on sale to the public at £1 each. The angry baseball cap demands to know what is going on and I tell him that is confidential and maybe he might like to tone it down a bit. The veins stand out on his bony face and I am glad the counter is high enough to make a lunge tricky. Island Man is tensed and ready. I suggest to the baseball cap that maybe the best thing is if he waits outside? He obviously doesn’t rate this idea much at all. But what else to do? He wonders aloud what the fuck is going on and then exits with a crash of the door. Island Man grins and gives me a ‘phew’ sort on a look. I nod in agreement and go back up the stairs. Tea? Sugar? But she never gets to say how many sugars because the door has slammed open again and her master's voice is demanding she gets the fuck downstairs. I tell her that she doesn’t need to go anywhere. He can be sent outside and we can see what we can do to help. But the moment has passed. She is just too beaten. It is thank you, but no. Every square inch of her is shaking as she tip toes back down the stairs whilst he demands to know what the fuck she thinks she is doing. I remind her that we are always here and she nods and says she knows and follows him out of the door like a beaten dog.

The Island Man returns to the counter with sadness deepening the lines of his all weather face. He says that he thought it best not to leave. Just in case. I thank him. I tell him that we are well enough used to this kind of thing. But what can you do? He gives the closed door a thousand yard stare and shakes his head.

“He’s a very angry man so he is. He’s going give that little girl a real beating so he is.”

A statement of fact.

But what can you do?

And with a last shake of his head he reaches out a calloused hand for shaking and leaves to take a bus to the place where a small piece of Tibet lives and breathes in South Scotland.

On a quiet rainy afternoon.

In a quiet rainy world of fractured lives.     

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

We all seem to have become addicted to Victory - But Is it Speed or is it Smack?



Well it has to be said that we’re all feeling pretty good about ourselves. Oh what it must be to own a Union Jack factory. Every hour on the hour we are told how fantastically blessed we are to be British. Twenty six million of us tuned in for the final ceremony which took a lead from the Jubilee and showcased our dizzying array of celebrities to an audience of billions.

Ah the joys of a good old fashioned feel good factor. And in this regard we are doubly blessed for we have had a summer of two moments of rampant national feel good. First we were able to take to the streets in our millions and chomp away at Tesco drumsticks served up on paper plates to cheer our monarch to the rafters. How we all waved our little made in China Union Jacks. And why not! It’s not every day that the offspring of German immigrants can so categorically make it to the top table. And stay there. For fifty years. So let’s wave away. Nothing like a good balcony scene. And course we all knew in our bones that we were witnessing something really big because the big guns of Celebland were wheeled out. When McCartney, Barlow and Elton John and the much worshipped Beckhams turn out, we know that there are huge events afoot.

Then of course it was the Olympics. And once again the celebs strode the stage and King David sped across the night-time waves of a neon lit Thames. Before the games we were maybe just a tad unconvinced with the whole thing. Would we make a complete dog’s dinner of it? Would we look like charity shop types in comparison to regimented massiveness of Beijing? Would our magnificent array of National Treasure celebs be able to pull things out of the fire and make a watching world gasp with awe? It was a helluva big ask for a struggling nation, but of course we are tremendously good at this kind of thing. Adversity is Us. When Hitler kicked our arse like it had never been kicked before we merely got the kettle on and planted spuds.  

And so as the magical fortnight unfolded we heard more and more of the Blitz spirit. As oars wielded by magnificently committed women from small, unnoticed towns splashed home for yet another gold medal, we were reminded time and again of those glory days when we sang music hall songs in the caverns of the London Underground whilst bombs made in the Ruhr rained down on the city above. I guess the Germans must wonder how long all of this will keep going for. I mean it’s been seventy two years since St Pauls had its epic photo shoot in the midst of a burning city. I never get the feeling that they are particularly bothered about it. They’re just used to it I suppose. I thought the fly past at the Jubillee was rather telling. The Queen has notched up fifty years. As in 1952 to 2012. And 1952 was of course 7 years on from the end of the war. So it seemed a tad strange that we decided to fly a Lancaster bomber over Buck Palace. I don’t recall the venerable Lancasters ever having much of a role to play between 1952 and today. They were of course pretty integral in the firestorm that did for 20,000 entirely innocent civilians in Dresden. But what the hell. Old habits die hard I suppose. Whenever something goes right for the country it is always taken as an excuse to go all dewy eyed about bashing up those wicked Krauts. I was wondering if we might get a glimpse of some Sea Harriers which very much did their stuff over the South Atlantic in the very heart of the Queen’s reign. But I guess that would have been pushing it a bit with the all the diplomatic tensions surrounding the Falklands at the moment. And South America is a backwater no longer. They buy stuff. So it's best not upset them. Hot blooded Latino types might not be quite so tolerant of this sort of jingoistic posturing as the Germans.

All of a sudden 29 has become a magic number. The top of news is all about the number 29. Those wonderful, magnificent Gold Medals forged in the spirit of the Blitz. How can we fail to be proud to be British on the back of 29 golds? How many did the Germans win? Or the French? Or the Aussies? Or the Argies? Or even the Russians! Go stick that where the sun don’t shine Mr Putin. We got 29!

Take a step back and it can seem a little strange. Why on earth does the country suddenly find a way to feel so good about itself simply because an athlete we have never heard of wins a medal in a sport we have never had the slightest interest in watching?

I certainly wouldn’t have the front to be critical about this kind of bizarre behaviour. As a Koppite of 40 years I was there on that epic night in Istanbul when Liverpool showed their very own Blitz spirit and came back from the dead. I have never met a single one of those eleven players who were drawn from all corners of the world and paid ridiculous salaries for kicking a football around. And yet any Liverpool fan who was there will tell you that it was the night of nights. 40,000 of us made it all the way across Europe by hook or by crook, and the men in red conquered against all the odds. A Spaniard was our leader and a Pole from coal mining stock made the match winning save but who cared. We were all as one. We were all a part of it and we made our voices lift the clouds of the Turkish night. Did I get anything out of it myself? Nope. Just a maxed out credit card. Did it mean a lot? Be serious. Will it always mean a lot? Come to Anfield and ask. Istanbul was and always will be the very greatest of nights. Which all means that I would have to be a supreme hypocrite to smirk at the pensioner in Rochdale who puts a Union Jack in the front window of her terraced house when a privately educated rower from leafy Rickmansworth wins a gold medal.

Let’s face it we seem to have a deep, primordial need for victory. Maybe like much of human behaviour it all goes back to those long lost days when we lived in caves. When another gang of fellow Neanderthals turned up there was never a doubt as to their intentions. They were looking to kill every man, woman and child in the cave and then steal all the food. This was the time when the champions of the group were required to take a step forward. To be Olympians. To be heroes. They would collect up their clubs and enter the life or death fray. So no wonder we are hard wired to feel a deep seated satisfaction at the feel of victory for once upon a time it genuinely was the be all and the end all. Was the feeling of a win in such a life or death struggle Smack or speed? Hard to say. I have never been to the wire and so I can only guess.

This is yet another of those generation questions. In my half century, the only time I have ever witnessed anything approaching such a national life or death event was the war in the Falklands. And yet the biggest threat we all faced then was a calamitous crash in national pride. Actual bodily harm was down to the under equipped and soaking wet squaddies who were shipped south on the Canberra to slug it out.

The 29 fevour has got be to wondering how it must have been when the news made it back home from El Alamein? That have been a remarkable time. This really was very much the real deal and then some. For three years Hitler had appeared to be genuinely indestructible. His armies absolutely marmalised everything in their path. And there he was. In Calais. A mere twenty miles away. And nobody was under any illusions as to how things would be if he managed to make it across the Channel. It would be a nightmare to end nightmares. Hindsight kind of makes us look back on those days with the idea that it was always odds on that we would win in the end. No way would it have seemed that way at the time. Everything was in the David v. Goliath zone, and Goliath was in Berlin and he was a force of nature. Word must have spread across the country that our lads were lining up to take on the Africa Korps. Now this wasn’t just any old army group. This was Rommel. As in Mr Never Lost a Battle. As is completely unbeatable. So just imagine what the national mood must have been like on November 4 1942 when the news hit the airwaves that we had defied all the odds and gone and won. It must have been fantastic. For three long years the Nazis had been undefeated and they had left millions of dead people all over Europe. They were a constant nightmarish threat. It must have seemed as if that would last forever. In our heart of hearts, we must have felt that it could only be a matter of time before Hitler’s stormtroopers came goose stepping their jack boots up our High Streets.

And then it all changed.

We won.

For the very first time.

And we won big.

Huge.

I guess that must have been a Mo Farrer moment times about a thousand.

And was that euphoric feeling of the Speed or Smack variety. Who knows? But it must have been truly something. I’m going to get unashamedly arty here. This is the last line from King Lear. In typical Shakespeare fashion it kind of says it all.

‘The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long’

Thursday, August 9, 2012

BEWARE THE MEDAL TABLE!


 
We are living in the time of the medal table. It seems to be omnipresent. Examined, and pored over, and predicted and basked in the glow of. And of course we are third! I heard an analyst preeningly stating that in terms of medals per head of population we are absolutely the best. Well, that’s the thing with all those millions and millions of pesky Chinamen, always has been. Lots and lots of ‘em. So all those golds don’t really count it seems.
 
The medal tables of the modern Olympics tend to tell the story of which countries were vying to be the top dog of the day. And over the last hundred and twenty years this has basically meant which country is pumping cash and resources into trying to keep up with America.
 

With hindsight, when we put on the Games in 1908, the writing was already on the wall. Sure, a quarter of the world was painted red and the Empire was more or less at its height. So nobody would have been particularly surprised when we the hosts topped the medal table. We absolutely murdered the Americans with 56 golds to their 23. Sure the steelmills of Pittsburgh and cotton mills of West Virginia were already taking us to the cleaners, but we could still look down our noses at the upstart colonial types across the pond because when it came to Gold medals we did them 56-23. And when it came to square miles of Empire they were a complete joke. We topped most things back then. Nobody could have seen how many of the young men who stood on those podiums would be end up hanging on the barbed wire of the trenches just a few years later.
 


In ‘Chariots of Fire’ we were thrilled to see our heroic amateurs of Empire putting one over the all conquering Yanks whilst Vangelis came up with the soundtrack which is now tannoyed out in the Olympic stadium when medals are hung around necks. The carnage of the Western Front had turned us into flat broke underdogs. And the film told no lies. By 1924 we had taken the road from top dog to underdog in a big way. Without the lads who were wiped out in the trenches we got absolutely smashed by the barnstorming Yanks. They beat us 45 – 9. Ouch.
 

In 36 Hitler made his big pitch on home turf of Berlin and like us in 1908, he pushed the Americans back into second place. The strutting Austrian corporal romped home with a 33-24 over the Americans. And like the Brits of 08 he must have felt that such a pile of medals was evidence that his Thousand Year Reich was going to run its full course. Thankfully having his nose rubbed in it by Jesse Owens was just a sneak preview of having that very same nose rubbed in it at Stalingrad. Maybe there’s a message coming through here. Lots of medals can give you a sense of invincibility and end up in millions of dead guys? Maybe.


 

Hitler’s mayhem shut down the Games for a while and by the time bombed out London put the Games on again in 1948 everything had changed. The big World War winner was once again America and they topped the table by a country mile. Second on the list was Sweden who kind of proved that staying neutral in a World War is a smart play. Switzerland rubber stamped this idea by coming ninth. And Britain? After all, the first time we hosted the Games we came top of the pile and then we went on to win two world wars. It must have meant something? Nope. We limped in twelfth with three golds. At least we had enough young guys who were alive and kicking to raise a team. Russia and Germany don’t even appear on the list.
 

And so came the Olympics of the Cold War where the Americans and the Soviet Union threw the kitchen sink at each other. There were 10 Olympiads between 56 and 92 and the Soviets topped the table six times whilst boycotting the event once. This must have made them think that the big dreams of Lenin and Stalin were well and truly on track. In Montreal in 1976 they topped the table with 49 golds. But it was even better than that. The USA wasn’t even second! Second on the list were the steroid pumped East Germans with 40 golds. The States limped home with 34. The Soviet Block countries stormed to a grand total of 120 golds. Jim Morrison’s statement in the ‘The End’ that ‘The West is the Best’ seemed like a sad pipedream. The men in the Kremlin must have felt pretty good about life back then. All the weapons they had poured into Vietnam had resulted in Uncle Sam’s greatest humiliation on the roof of the Saigon Embassy in 75 and New York was sliding into a state of apocalyptic anarchy. So what did the hard faced guys in the fur hats do? They only went and invaded Afghanistan didn’t they! I mean, talk about failing to learn the lessons of history on two counts or what. Number one, never launch a big war on the back of topping the Olympic medal table. Two, never invade Afghanistan. Well the might of the Red Army was duly bled dry in the dry hills of Central Asia. Just like the Brits on the Somme. Just like the Germans on the steppes of Russia.


 

So business as usual was restored as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave saw off yet another Empire. In 96 they were top dogs again beating the Russians by 44 to 26. The Brits by this stage were more or less a busted flush limping home 36th will just the one gold to our name. Thank god for Steve Redgrave. No wonder we knighted him. 2000 was much the same and the NeoCons in Washington took this as yet more evidence that Uncle Sam would be top dog forever and ever Amen. So did they learn a lesson or two from history? Course they didn’t. They only went and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t they? And now? Well, now there is another wannabe Empire on the block and it is now the Yanks and Chinese who are scrapping for top dog status.
 

History might have a lesson or two for us here. Tell you what, if China manage to mirror their achievement in 2008 and come top again I wouldn’t much fancy my chances if I lived in Taiwan.
 

What is really quite extraordinary is the fact that we Brits have managed to drag ourselves up from the nadir of 1996 to sit third in the table. It goes to prove that chucking money at the thing can pay off. In the last four years we have piled £26 million into our cyclists and by Christ have they ever come good. £27 million on rowing wasn’t a bad idea either. The Medal Table of today is something of a national relief. We don’t seem to be losers any more. Not only have we proved that we are still capable of doing something right, but we have won a few kilos of metal to boot. Our politicians are doing their best to bask in the reflected glory and the Union Jack is appearing in front gardens up and down the land. There is nothing like a taste of victory to make us all feel better about ourselves. The message from the great and the good is that we need to use this feel good factor to re-launch ourselves as a world player.
 

A few minutes with the history books might well prove to be time well spent. Thankfully our utterly exhausted army is in no way, shape or form in a fit state to invade anywhere though it would be rather nice if Cameron dispatched the SAS to Jersey, The Isle of Man, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands and shut down all the tax havens. Not very likely though.
 

Instead our great leaders will attempt to convince us that being third on the medal list is evidence that things are OK. Never mind the fact that one in five of our young people is on the dole. Never mind that the economy is sliding into the mire. Never mind that every year sees us slip down the league table for literacy and numeracy. Never mind that every year sees us climb the league table for addictions, grinding poverty and teenage pregnancy. Never mind any of that. We came third! Things can’t be that bad! Well sorry guys, but they can. Medal tables almost always lie. Just ask Mr Asquith, Herr Hitler and Comrade Brezhnev.
 

Basically we’ve done our doe. We’ve stuck £10 billion on the credit card and splashed it out on a two week party. And it has been quite a party. And we all know how things are after a great party. It’s a trashed house and a sore head and a drained out bank account.

Third is nice but the cracks under the paper just get wider and wider.          


Saturday, August 4, 2012

A pulp fiction writer's plan to turn around the world economy in half an hour



I am a fiction writer. A pulp fiction writer. I do thrillers and thankfully most readers give me ‘couldn’t put the thing down’ type feedback. What I am not is an economist. Like most of us on planet earth I find all the noughts that are kicking around in these troubled times a hard thing to wrap my head around. Yesterday RBS announced they had lost £1.5 billion. So how does that pan out? We own 70% of that particular basket case. So just over a billion is down to us. Let’s make the maths easy. There are about 50 million of us which I guess means that yesterdays news means we are all £20 poorer somewhere along the line. However it seems unlikely that some character from the Treasury is about to knock the door and order me to hand over my £20 to keep RBS trundling along.

At least £20 isn’t too much of a big deal. When we get to the National Debt things get a bit more twitchy. It seems that Great Britain Plc is in hock to the tune of a trillion quid. Now that is a seriously big number – one of those where you lose count of all the noughts if you have a pop at tapping it into a calculator. As a fully accredited British citizen I guess my share is about £20,000. Now that would be a problem if the bankers decided to call the debt in and sent around a few skinhead types wielding baseball bats and demanding twenty grand or else. I sometimes wonder how this works for new British citizens. Do they automatically find themselves £20,000 in debt the very minute they swear allegiance to the Queen? And would they run a country mile is they knew that was the price of life membership of this fading club?

The big numbers we hear the most about are the ones describing the good old ‘structural deficit’. This dreaded figure seems to be somewhere in the region of a hundred billion a year. Am I right in thinking that each of us is adding £2000 a year onto the credit card to make sure that hospitals stay open for business and civil servants get their pensions? I think I am. And things threaten to get seriously twitchy if the credit limit is breached. At the moment it seems like we have one of those sensible credit cards where the interest rate isn’t all that daft. Sure we have a few maxed out store cards that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to build schools and hospitals. These are classic 40% APR things where you pay the interest on a direct debit and try not to think about it. But the day to day credit card seems to be OK. In household terms it seems we owe about £5000 and the limit is £7000, so if it goes up by £200 a year and we pay the minimum charge every month then we will be kind of OK. And this is lucky because the monthly salary never covers all the bills. The nightmare scenario comes if the bank reduces the credit limit and all of a sudden we join Greece in trying to blag payday loans from Wonga carrying an interest rate of 2000% APR.

This in a nutshell seems to be the nub of the problem. All the western governments have binged out on their credit cards and one by one they are getting maxed out. The days of getting a new store card and loading it up are long gone. All over the world the likes of Blair and Brown borrowed tonnes of money to build stuff in order to curry favour for votes. And now the credit limit has been reached. And it would appear that this is absolutely no good for anyone. We are miserable because the economy is shrinking and we are all worried so we daren’t spend any money. The Chinamen are miserable because less and less people are spending any money on their stuff and their factory workers are getting pissed off and rioting. The Germans are pissed off because the Chinese are not in the mood to treat themselves to new Mercs and BMWs. The Brazilians are pissed of because all of a sudden the Chinese are no longer in the mood to pay top dollar and more for their iron ore. And so it goes on. Pretty well everyone in the world is completely pissed off apart from a few Arab Sheiks.

So it’s time for a bit of pulp fiction ‘What if?’
Here’s how the ‘What If?’ plays out. The countries of the G20 meet up to have a collective moan. But instead of merely moaning they come up with a cunning plan to turn around the world economy in one day flat. A delegate brings along twenty photocopies of an article that appeared in the Guardian on 20 July. It tells the story of research undertaken by an economist called James Henry who has been looking into how much cash is stuffed away in off shore bank accounts. And those around the table let out a collective sigh when they get a load of all the noughts. Jesus H Christ! Its £13 trillion. Maybe even £20 trillion. As in more than the combined annual GDP of the USA and Japan. As in about £2000 for every man, woman and child in the whole bloody world. Now that is some very serious amount of the folded stuff. Enough and more to solve every problem in town.

Where the hell can such a ridiculous lump of cash have come from? The dark corners of course. The real black economy where cash is king. Drugs and illegal weapons and sanction busting and tax dodging. Drug cartels and Robert Mugabe and Philip Green and Glasgow Rangers Football Club and Jimmy Carr.

And this time there is a difference when the twenty who are round the table read the article and blow out their cheeks. A proposal is made and accepted unanimously. A cunning plan is hatched and everyone in the room swears a solemn oath to keep the biggest secret in history.

The twenty leaders fly home and call their meetings. The Cobra committee meets under conditions of historic secrecy in the bowels of Downing St. The Prime Minister explains the plan and reveals that Britain’s two nominated targets are Jersey and the Isle of Man. A tough faced officer from the SAS base in Hereford lays out his plan which is simple in the extreme. Two teams of 200 guys will be dispatched to the two island tax havens. At an agreed time they will simultaneously enter a number of banks and put a gun to the manager’s head. In almost every way they will follow the tried and trusted bank robbing methods that go back to Bonnie and Clyde. The manager will be required to turn on a TV where he will see the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland announcing that all deposits held in offshore accounts are about to be electronically transferred to the International Monetary Fund. At the very same moment Delta Force guys will be issuing the good news to bankers in the Cayman Islands. French Foreign Legionaires will scare the living daylights out of all and sundry in Monaco. German Special Forces will return to Luxembourg 68 years after being chased out by the Allied armies. Switzerland is a joint effort.

Within half an hour the IMF has £13 trillion of hard cash at its disposal. All over the world the super rich log onto their computers and scream in horror. In Harare Mugabe rants and raves. In Bogota hard pock marked faces register dumb horror. In Belgravia the super rich from all points north, south, east and west shed tears of desperation.

Then what? Will Philip Green close Top Shop and lay everyone off in a fit of pique? Probably not. Surely he will simply carry on. What else is he about to do now that his treasured nest egg has been taken away? And what if he makes £200 million this year? What to do? Does he pay up £90 million of tax and try and eke out a living on a piddling £110 million? Or does he risk salting it away and then losing it all should the special forces guys come calling again? I guess he would grit his teeth and pay up. And no doubt all the bankers, footballers, hedge fund managers, oligarchs and celebrities would be forced to do much the same. Because where the hell is there in the world that can ever be safe from a co-ordinated strike by the special forces of the countries of the G20?

So then what? Well it would appear that the tax take in Britain would go up by plenty enough to get rid of the structural deficit. The IMF would have plenty in the tank to sort out the woes of Greece and Spain and Italy. And the tax take in the belleagured countries of the Eurozone would shoot up as well. And the war chest could be used to get the young baby step democracies of the Arab Spring up and running. And should there be a famine in the Horn of Africa, the aid bill would be easy enough to cover. And my oh my, wouldn’t international drugs running and arms selling and sanction busting be so much trickier to achieve without those ever helpful off shore banks to oil the wheels.

So. Am I just a na├»ve writer of pulp fiction here? I have no idea. What would £13 trillion look like? It wouldn’t be a mountain of notes. It would be virtual money moved from one computer to another: at gun point. Would it turn the world on its head and for the better? Or would it completely melt down the financial system? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe you have. I would love to hear.

Oh and by the way, if anyone wants to take a copy of this blog along to the next G20 summit please feel free to do so. Consider copyright waived.