I was driving around town the other day doing nothing of any great importance. The radio was on but I wasn't really listening. Some kind of news. A guy was working his way through the well worn '5th largest economy in the world' routine. Just background. Same old, same old.
Why had he bought it up? The fifth largest economy in the word thing?
I think it was the EU referendum. Was the fact we are purportedly the fifth largest economy in the world a reason to stay or leave? No idea. It is just one of those facts which are wheeled out over and over again until they mean nothing at all.
Lights on red. A queue of six or seven. Few enough to mean I would be through and on my way at the next change. A grey sort of a day trying hard to shake off the morning frost. Pedestrians in clothes advertising the fact that Spring was with us in name only.
And my eyes were drawn to a bizarre figure standing on the pavement by the lights. He was clad in a strange sort of jumpsuit. What the hell was it? Hard to say. It had the look of a Superman outfit that an over enthusiastic dad might hire in for his son's fourth birthday party. Maybe. The reds and the blues were faded from years of wear. This was certainly not a Superman jumpsuit of 2016 vintage. Instead it was a Superman jumpsuit which had been tucked away in the back of some cupboard for many a year.
From the neck down the guy was Superman weird. From the neck up, he was full on terrorist sporting a balaclava which left only his eyes exposed to the cold air. Well that isn't really right. Not any more. In the days when the Bogside and the Ardoyne hit the news every night, it only tended to the the terrorists who went in for the knitted head gear look. All that changed on the day when the SAS did their stuff at the Iranian Embassy live on prime time TV. Now it seems to be a requirement for any cop or soldier doing anti terror stuff to go for the eyes only balaclava look.
It was however abundantly clear that the man by the traffic lights was neither cop, soldier nor terrorist. Well I am pretty sure he wasn't, because his outfit was capped off with a large sandwich board announcing to the world that any Domino pizza could be had for the sum of £6.99.
Is £6.99 supposed to be good? I have no idea. I have to admit that I have never eaten a Domino pizza in my life. Maybe £6.99 represents the kind of unmissable bargain that is guaranteed to get any Domino fan changing their dinner plans. £6.99 actually seems quite a lot to me. For a pizza. I guess it's just me showing my age or something.
Well £6.99 may or may not be a hell of a price for a Domino pizza, but it still didn't explain why the message needed to be delivered by a guy in a faded Superman outfit and headgear to take us back to Belfast street scenes in 1973.
The lights changed. I drove through and the sandwich board guy slowly raised a gloved hand and gave us a wave as we passed him.
A few streets later there was another of these strange figures though this time his balaclava was rolled to the forehead to reveal a face that hailed from somewhere in North Africa. His jump suit didn't ring any superhero bells in my head. It was kind of mustard yellow and had probably come from the same dusty cupboard.
Over the next couple of days I clocked two more of these lads. Neither had recognisable jumpsuits and by this time I was secretly hoping for either Spiderman or Batman. You know. Superheroes I grew up with. But no such luck, Both had opted for the eyes only terrorist/ anti-terrorist chic head gear.
The locations they chose to announce £6.99 Domino pizza to the gold folk of Dumfries had been carefully chosen. Main junctions and roundabouts. Traffic hubs. The places where most cars would pass and pass slowly enough for the drivers to have time to take in the great news from Domino. It occurred to me that most of these junctions had once upon be home to factories where men and women worked in their hundreds. Back in the day when we did that kind of thing in Britain. You know. The whole factory thing.
Once we stopped doing that kind of thing, we bulldosed the factories and leveled the land and cleaned up the soil and came up with the dream of out of town shopping where we could all pretend that we were Americans living the suburban dream just like the Americans on the tele. And oh how truly marvelous it would be if we really could be like those American TV families with kids with blue eyes and corn stalk hair with their dad telling them how much he loves them every three minutes and their mum pulling an impossibly perfect turkey out of the oven. Or maybe they might give mom a break for the night and settle down together on an impossibly large and comfortable settee to laugh and hug each other as the kids slaughter the bad guys on the Playstation powered impossibly large TV.
And what does the impossibly perfect American family do on the nights they give their impossibly perfect mum a night off from cooking impossibly perfect turkeys? Why, they get on the phone and order in Domino pizza of course.
For £6.99. Any size. Super size.
And who needs factories when you can have your very own version of the out of town American dream. Tesco and Homebase and Currys and Matalan and …..
And, And, And.
And the sandwich board guys in their faded suits and balaclavas.
Fifth largest economy in the world? Really? All of a sudden it didn't make any kind of sense. How on earth can we be the fifth largest economy in the world now that we have bulldosed all the factories in favour of making like Dayton, Ohio?
We have replaced places where hundreds of men and women would actually make stuff the rest of the world actually bought off us with oddly dressed guys wrapped in sandwich boards.
Once I was in front of a screen I repaired to Google. Largest economies in the world? Ah. It looked a lot like the guy on the radio had been telling a few porkies. The consensus of the first few sites was that we were actually the sixth largest economy in the world. Not the fifth. So why lie? Oh that one is easy. Guess who is the real fifth largest economy in the world? You got it in one. France. And it wouldn't do to own up to the fact that we are behind our much loved neighbours in terms of our place in the global pecking order.
But what the hell. Fifth? Sixth? We are still bigger than the likes of India and Brazil and Russia and South Korea. So that's all right then. Who needs factories anyway? Factories are just so 20th Century. Best to leave all that kind of retro nonsense to the Germans and the Chinese. We are way too hip to do factories any more. We do service industry. Lots and lots and lots of it. We do out of town shopping and nail salons and costume drama and sandwich board guys.
So we're fine and we're dandy and any Domino pizza can be had for a mere £6.99 and one sunny day we will finally arrive in the promised land where paper boys on bikes sling the Daily Mail onto our doorsteps.
I remember hearing an interview with a customs guy. He was bringing the listeners up to speed on the art of money laundering. He said that every high street in every town is home to a restaurant where nobody ever seems to go. Night after night the view though the front window is one of lots of empty tables watched over by terminally bored waiters glued to their mobile phones. How can these places stay open we wonder? Of course we do because human beings are naturally inquisitive animals. Well the customs guy had all the answers. You buy a big restaurant. And you employ staff and you switch on the lights. And maybe if you are lucky you put a hundred quid or so in the till every night. But that doesn't matter because once you have closed, a quiet sort of a guy will turn up with a bag of dirty cash and a hundred quid becomes two thousand. And the next day you take it all to the bank and the dirty money is rendered clean. And the only way for HM Customs to catch this kind of operation in the act is for an undercover guy to sit in the empty restaurant for night after night taking notes of how many living breathing customers actually eat and pay. But of course the undercover guy will stick out like a sore thumb and on those nights the books will remain uncooked. So everyone knows exactly what is going down but nobody can prove it and in terms of turnover the ever empty restaurant can boast that it is the fifth biggest restaurant in town. Though in reality the French restaurant has the larger turnover, but nobody is about to own up to that embarrassing fact. Well of course they aren't.
The Panama Papers have maybe given us an insight as to how the land of the sandwich guys can claim to be the fifth largest economy in the world whilst not actually making anything. We follow the same playbook as the ever quiet restaurant. Only in a rather bigger way. In a truly massive way. For in the world of Mossack Fonseca, we are much more than the fifth largest economy in the world. In the world of Mossack Fonseca we are the largest and the finest launderette in the world. We are the go to place for anyone with a suitcase of dirty cash in urgent need of a good clean. It doesn't matter that we don't actually make anything any more. Once upon a time 70% of the British Government's income flowed in through via the Customs House in Liverpool. Those were the days when the goods of the world flowed in and out of Britain. Now we don't bother with the goods. Instead we just do the money. Land or hope and glory, money launderers to the world by appointment of the Queen.
Land of hope and glory where we like to pretend that sandwich board guys and out of town shopping mean we do more than South Korea and Brazil.
A faded superman outfit. A balaclava. A scripted wave. Any Domino pizza for £6.99. It is what we are.
It is what we have become.