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

Monday, October 29, 2012

The centre cannot hold.

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

Well it is most of the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balkan Café.

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

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

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

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

In his Arran jumper.

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

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

‘Things fall apart.

The centre cannot hold……’

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In this land of broken dreams.

As the plane eased down to the tarmac of Athens airport I guess most of the non Greek passengers would have been thinking the same thoughts. So what is it going to look like? The Athens of the news has been all about petrol bombs bouncing and skidding along the road making riot police hop and jump. Clouds of tear gas. Eyes streaming tears. Scarves wrapped around faces. Burning Nazi flags. Blazing graffiti. But of course the news always focuses on edited highlights. On the news Athens seems on the verge of being the next Beirut. How would it be in real time? Well for us it looks like picture which is the view from the terrace of our hillside apartment. And hell, this is what Athens really should like, for when all is said and done this as the cradle of democracy. So the gleaming, sparking city of white marble sweeping up and down sun baked valleys under a blue, blue sky is absolutely on message.

One day in and it has to be said that on the surface everything seems remarkably normal. I have yet to see a riot policeman and the air is filled with the aroma of kebabs, not tear gas. Sure there are many, many boarded up shops but not as many as Dumfries High St.

As is so often the case it is the little things that give the game away. Over the last couple of years it has been more and more common to see people stoop down to collect a cigarette end from the Dumfries pavement: if there are a couple of last draws to be had out of it. The body language is still all about embarrassment. The picker up will cast a quick look about to check if anyone is watching. Then they will be up and down and moving away in quick, edgy steps. Picking up a fag end is still a thing to be embarrassed about. They have gone past that stage here. If you sit out at a table in a pavement café you will not have to sit for very long until you see someone stop and reach down for a fag end. There is no subterfuge. No nervous haste. They simply pick it up, brush it down and light it up. On maybe salt it away in a breast pocket for later on. There is no reason to feel embarrassed any more. Everyone knows that everyone else is flat broke. It has become the norm.

The supermarket offers a similar set of undramatic clues. Pink Floyd took Henry Thoreau’s words and came up with the line ‘hanging on in quiet desperation is the Engish way’ and yours truly has followed suit and half inched his words as the title of my latest book which will be available on Kindle in the next day or two. Plug, plug! Well a Greek supermarket is indeed very much a place of quiet desperation. You can just feel it. You see it in the way that it takes punters forever to put four items in a basket. They are weighing what to put in and what to take out and how the hell to make it add up to about 75p. And when they reach the checkout they pay in coppers. And there is something unspoken about the whole thing. No pleasantries from the checkout assistant. No small talk from the shopper. Heads are kept down. Meagre supplies are stowed away in a shopping bag which leaves the store seemingly as empty as when it came in. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. But for many here, there are no pounds any more. The day to day economy is all down to pennies. Counted pennies. Pennies which are not remotely enough. Quiet desperation.

Time in a pavement café people watching. An endless steam of young black guys walking from here to there and back again. Sometimes talking. Mostly not. For what is there to say? They have shelled out their $5000 dollars to be people trafficked to the dream of Europe only to find themselves marooned and hated. Then there are the mothers with their wide eyed young kids. Every worldly possession is contained by a couple of cheap PVC bags from China. Maybe they are walking. Maybe they are sitting. Maybe there is a husband looking for the price of a meal. Maybe not. They are off the map. Statistics to be resented. The stats boggle the mind. The are 10 million Greeks here. And 4 million illegal trafficked immigrants. It is equivalent to about 20 million illegals in the UK. These are people with not a penny to their name, not a prayer of work and nowhere to sleep but a park. Not surprisingly many are driven to crime to come up with the next meal. And the more crime they commit, the more they are hated by the locals who resent the fact that geography has deemed that Greece is the first stop for many of the world’s most desperate. And sure as eggs are eggs, the whole thing is a recipe for the head bangers of the far right to have a field day. The blatantly Nazi Golden Dawn party got 15% in the last election. They even have party shops where wannabe Nazis can pick up their balaclavas and baseball bats to prepare for a good old night’s fun clearing the parks of sleeping illegals. But that is the news. As yet there are no Golden Dawn stormtroopers goose-stepping their way up and down the narrow streets of gleaming white buildings. All you see is the endless procession of slowly walking young black men. Walking and walking and walking and never arriving anywhere. Stuck. No way forward and no way back and everyone just knows that things are only going to get worse.

Most people speak pretty good English here and they all want to tell you what a nightmare everything is. ‘Where are you from?’ asked the bloke in a sun glasses shop. I told him and he shook his head and gave me a rueful smile. He told me never to forget how lucky I am because I live in a country where there is no Euro. I got the feeling that he hadn’t sold a thing for days. The shop had an end of the line feel to it. Meagre stocks were stretched thin. He had a couple of pals sitting with him. They were meandering though the empty hours. I doubt if he had been able to pay any rent for a while. And every morning he must have been tempted to say stuff it, I ain’t going in today. What’s the point? I will just sit there all day and sell nothing because nobody has any money any more. Well not for sunglasses. All they have is a few coppers for four items in the supermarket. But if not the shop, then what and where? Another day watching TV at home all day? And maybe, just maybe someone might call in to buy something. A long shot, but what else is there? And all that is left is a small collection of goods to try and turn into cash before the bailiffs come to change the locks and board up the windows. Quiet desperation.

Youth unemployment has passed the 60% mark here. If you factored in the 4 million illegals, it would be up in the 90’s. Which quite frankly beggars belief. At the moment it means endless thousands of young people walking up and down streets where more and more widows are boarded up. And when they scoop up a fag end and light it up, they do so without a trace of unease. And later they will be fed by a grandmother who has made the pennies of her pension stretch to an ultra plain meal of starch and little else.

The new book is Quiet Desperation.

The last book was Mere Anarchy.

The question is when does one title become another?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Will the dismal bleakness of the Jimmy Savile revelations get us any closer to the real truth of sex abuse and its legacy? Doubtful. Very doubtful.

Over the coming weeks and months and probably years we are all going to wail and gnash our teeth as the Savile scandal plays out. How could we not? It’s going to be another Hillsborough, except that this particular cover up spanned half a century as opposed to a mere 23 years. At Hillsborough 50,000 of us saw the whole thing play out in front of our eyes and then we saw the authorities tell a completely different story. And for 23 years we basically kept on and on saying ‘That’s not right! That’s total shite!’ But we were merely little people and the powers that be laughed their socks off at the lot of us. It isn’t hard to see how many parallels are about to appear as we are taken deeper and deeper into Savile’s depraved world. I would happily bet on the fact that the ongoing enquiry will throw up a pile of evidence that will show that any number of people have in fact stepped forward to report what was going down over rhe last half century. But they, like the 50,000 of us at Hillsborough, will turn out to be the kind of little people nobody ever wants to hear. Not when the truth we have to tell is of the inconvenient variety. Not when the truth offers a clear and present danger to the big people and their treasured pension funds

On the subject of which….

Norman Bettison was one of the cover up kings at Hillsborough.

Norman Bettison was promoted to be a Chief Constable – OF MERSEYSIDE!

Norman Bettison was made SIR Norman Bettison.

And now that the truth has been prised out and it has become clear that he is a conniving, scheming, conspiring, amoral, stop at nothing twat, he is trying to retire early so he can wriggle himself clear of the consequences.

He must have Googled ‘Fred the Shred’…


Duck out

And get paid £88,000 a year for the rest of his disgusting life.

£88,000 a year from the people of Merseyside.

It is all so utterly, completely, rotten, stinking bad to the core that it makes you want to tear your teeth out. Oh, and by the way. £88,000 doesn’t represent the whole of his pension. The good folk of South and West Yorkshire are also chipping in to get him up to the £200,000 a year mark.

There will be a whole host of names we haven’t heard about yet who will be fingered over the coming months as we get to the bottom of just what a horrible bastard Jimmy Savile really was. It will be Sir this and OBE that. Good old boys who were deemed to offer a safe pair of hands. Salt of the earth types schooled in the age old art of sweeping under the carpet and smoothing over. Of course they didn’t want one of the BBC’s ‘National Treasures’ to be unveiled as a serial sex offender. You don’t get the OBE and the gong and the six figure tax payer pension when that kind of nastiness gets shovelled into the public view on your watch. No way Hose. So you make sure the voices of the inconvenient little people get shut down.

Shut right down.

The tabloids of course will love every second and revel in the utter horribleness of it all. The fact that these were the very same tabloids who threw down the red carpet to good old Jimmy is neither here nor there. The world moves on, and a favourite Celeb becomes much better box office as a piece of 'Paedo Scum Celeb!' (i.e. Headline - not me) as far as those magnificent men at the redtops are concerned.

Usually when one sex offender emerges from any institution of the 70’s and 80’s, it means that many more will inevitably follow. It was the case with the Boy Scouts and Childrens’ Homes and the Catholic Church. Probably Light Entertainment is about to be next in line. And no doubt there will be more much loved National Treasures who will emerge as something entirely different. We will revisit the issue of taking away knighthoods and OBE’s and those who manage the charitable legacies of these tainted legends will wish they had never volunteered for the job. But the Bettisons of this world will no doubt slip quietly through the net. There will of course be calls for their gold plated pensions to be taken away. And there will of course be politicians with their faces creased with concern telling us that the law is the law and we don’t do that sort of thing here in Britain. So we will continue to pay Fred the Shred his £700k a year. And Bettison his £200k a year. A the right honourable whoever who happened to shove the Savile complaints to the back of his filing cabinets back in 1976 his however much a year.

And grouse will still get shot on windswept moors and Pimms will still be slugged down at Henley and strawberries and cream will still fly off the shelves at a tenner a pop at Wimbledom.

Because in the end this is Great Britain and once you are admitted to the club you get to stay in the club. And the little people who try to tell the inconvenient truth will be forever hushed up.

The Jimmy Savile saga will play loud and long and the focus of media attention will be on predatory sex offenders who look a bit weird. And once again we will miss the real story because the real story is so ugly and nasty that hardly anyone ever wants to look at it.

At the First Base Agency we have little choice but to look at the real story. Why? Because we are a drug agency, that’s why. Before we opened our doors back in 2003 someone told me that 70% of those among us who have become dependent on heroin will have suffered some sort of abuse as kids. Surely not. 70% has to be an exaggeration, doesn't it? But it isn’t an exaggeration. It is another of those nasty, inconvenient truths. It is the sad and sorry career path of many a lost soul who discover the ever warm embrace of heroin. At eight they get abused by someone in the house who threatens to kill should they whisper a word about it. Or kill their mum. Or kill their little sister. Or kill their dog. And if they do tell their mum, their mum whacks them one and tells them to stop lying. So they bottle it up and bite their lip and suffer night after night of degradation until they are old enough for the abuser to lose interest in them. And the boiling shame, anger and despair they feel inside shows itself to the world in the form of anti-social behaviour at school and out on the street. They get thrown out of lessons and fall behind in their work. And they fall in with others who have been thrown out of lessons. And they play truant together. And they steal booze and swig it down in parks together. And they try street valium together. And they burn wheelie bins together. And they rob shops together. And they serve time in Young Offenders Prisons together. And they are bounced from hostel to hostel together. And they in the end find the only thing that takes away the nightmares about what happened when they were eight years old and their mum would have none of it.

It’s a well trodden path believe me. The long and winding road from the hell of abuse to the heaven of Smack.

And not many get abused by weird looking national treasures who strut their stuff on Top of the Tops. And not many are lifted from the playground in the park by weird looking types offering sweeties and a ride in the nice car for fish and chips. Instead the vast majority are abused by someone who lives in the house where they live. A father or a stepfather or some bloke their mum tells them to call uncle or an older stepbrother or a grandfather. It’s bleak and it’s ugly and it’s the way it almost always plays out.

Inconvenient truth. Ugly truth.

The real ugly truth is that among us there always have been and always will be some who crave the chance of taking their sexual pleasure with kids. At times this is deemed to be OK. In the days of the Roman Empire, having grown women as wives were deemed a dreary necessity to produce kids. Real pleasure was to be had from pre teen slave boys and girls. Mostly boys. Three or four hundred years ago in Britain it was considered perfectly right and proper for a man to marry an eleven year old. In India right here and right now, over 200,000 kids are abducted from the streets every year. No prizes for guessing how the organised criminal gangs who manage the abductions make their cash from the little girls.

The laws of our land have changed over the years and thank God for that. It has become harder and harder for the Jimmy Saviles among us to get their kicks following traditional methods. They have had to change their ways. Their Modus Operandi. Forty years ago, there were a number of career paths open to those who wanted access to vulnerable young people who nobody would listen to. Become a scout master. Work in a Childrens’ Home. Take your vows and become a Catholic priest. Light entertainment at the Beeb? Maybe.

One by one, we have managed to close these windows of opportunity. Thank Christ. Back in those dark days, an abuser’s own family offered a poor option. An abuser could take a wife, have kids and abuse those kids. But it wasn’t all that easy. Families were closer knit back then. Uncles and Aunties and Grandparents all lived in the streets nearby. There were more people for a young person to tell. People who loved them. People who were inclined to believe them. People willing to make sure things were nipped in the bud. And even if the abuser got away with it with their own kids, eventually their own kids would grow up. And that was that. Because marriages lasted for life back then. That’s why the Childrens’ Homes and the Catholic Church and the Scout groups made offered a more attractive option.

So where are we now? Well things have changed. Changed utterly, as Yeats once said. Now barely one in three marriages lasts the course. Online dating sites offer potential abusers literally millions of single mothers of one or two or three. And they have perfected the art of being Mr really, really nice who is ever so good with the kids. And they get asked to move in. And they move in. And the kids are asked to call the new guy uncle this or uncle that. And when they have taken the opportunity to use and abuse the kids on offer, they simply move out, log on and start over. Are there as many people to tell? No. Families are no longer nearly as close, either emotionally or geographically. And as a society, our leaders have encouraged us to despise the single mother with three out of control kids and forty fags a day and tattoos everywhere and a 42 inch widescreen TV and an ever open door for any bloke down the pub who will ply her with Blue Wicked all Friday night. Do we listen? Will we listen? Of course we don’t. We make Schemie jokes and Chav jokes and we silently cheer when George Osborne promises to come down on the spongers and the dissolute like a tonne of bricks.

The inconvenient truth.

Our miserable excuse of a society has become a veritable playground for the abusers who are forever among us. No longer do they have to go to the trouble of getting a job in a dismal Childrens Home or studying theology or learning the words of Ging-Gang-Gooligong. Not necessary. Now they simply have to log on. Play nice and find a single mum with no support network. And when they are done with that one, they can log back on and find another.

And will anyone listen? Of course we won’t. We’ll read about Jimmy Savile instead   


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.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Please, please, for Christ’s sake let’s keep Anfield and stop all talk of a new stadium.

A week ago I was walking the dogs and listening to the podcast of the Press Pass. One rather throwaway sentence was true music to the ears. They said that the club had announced that there were no longer any plans to build a new stadium in Stanley Park. Instead the decision had been made to redevelop Anfield. It was a punch the air moment. Thank Christ. After so many years of chopped and changed plans and a sickening £50 million down the plughole, it seemed that common sense had finally been allowed to prevail.

The feeling of relief didn’t last long. I logged onto Twitter fully confident that all the usual LFC sites would carry links to the story in more detail. But there were no links and there have been none since which makes me suspect that the lads on the Press Pass must have made a bollocks of it.

So it appears that the nightmare goes on. This is something that has got me more and more hot under the collar as the years of the new century have rolled by. Every time a panel of experts discuss the long term prospects of LFC they always gravely agree with each other that until we build a new stadium we are going nowhere fast. Then of course they will run through the same old tiresome list about how City and Chelsea are richer than God and how the matchday income from Old Trafford and the Emirates makes us look like trailor trash in comparison. Oh no. Liverpool will never sniff the big league until they build themselves a new stadium and ratchet up the old matchday income. More corporate boxes. More Executive areas. More wine and dine facilities for bankers. And on and on they go until I could bloody scream.

I have often wondered if this new ground fascination is the sole preserve of panels of experts or do large numbers of match going fans actually agree as well? It seems inconceivable, but maybe I am in a minority in dreading the thought of the some American accountant issuing a kill order and letting loose the wrecking balls on the Kop.

Maybe it is time to start a list and try and make the case for keeping Anfield come hell or high water.

1. Anfield is Anfield, stupid.

 Well, obviously. It says so as the players make their way to the pitch and it has said so for half a century since Shanks put up those few iconic words. ‘This is Anfield’. Just like that. No frills, no bollocks. This is where it goes down, and every now and then, these old stands achieve the kind of magic that nowhere else can match. Cruyff and Barcelona in 76. St Etienne in 77. Arsenal in 89. Back from three down against the Mancs in the 90’s. Olympiakos. Chelsea. On and on it goes. Bricks and mortar that can transform into the 12th man. A wall of all consuming sound that can eat into the soul of the most grizzled of old pros. There is nowhere quite like Anfield when that unique thing happens when crowd and players become a single, unstoppable entity. After the epic Chelsea night on the road to Istanbul it has been noticeable that visiting European teams almost always sell out their allocation of tickets. They come early and they do the museum and the Hillsborough memorial and the stadium tour. Hundreds of millions tuned in for that epic night of mind numbing magic when the Twelfth Man got the lads over the line and gave Mourino his Waterloo. The sheer intensity of the noise that poured down from the stands made hair stand up on the back of necks from Shanghai to Sydney to Seattle. The world tuned in and the world gasped in amazement. Basically this is indeed Anfield and there is nowhere quite like it. Knock it down?

Piss off.

2. New stadiums hardly come up to expectations

Well they don’t do they? Try and think of one where the passion of the crowd has managed to survive. Roker Park or Stadium of Light? Highbury or the Emirates? Pride Park or Baseball Ground? New stadiums look nice enough but they never seem to have any magic about them. Google a few pictures of Roker Park packed to the rafters or Youtube a film of Charlie George and Derby dismantling Real Madrid in the European Cup in the early 70s. Check out the packed, ramshackle stands that almost climb on top of the players. No wonder the Spaniards got twatted. Remember what it used to like going to watch the Reds at Maine Rd under the lights. The Etihad will never have that. It is a concrete bowl named after an Arab airline. No wonder the atmosphere has drained away. Old Trafford isn’t a new ground but it might as well be. Back in 70’s and 80’s the wall of sound that funnelled down onto visiting Koppites in the Scoreboard Paddock was enough to make it hard to breathe. They were always bastards, but Christ were they ever loud bastards. Now the place is like a square of dismal shoeboxes with about as much atmosphere as a gathering of accountants. How can 76,000 people be so quiet?

3. And the name IS important for Christ’s sake.

SportsDirectArena. No more to said really. Anfield is a seven letter word that means something all over the world. The thought of the home of Liverpool Football Club being auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder is enough to make you want to smash things up with a hammer. And why? To line the pockets of a few American tycoons whose pockets are already stuffed to overflowing.

4. The nightmare of empty seats

All through the 70’s and 80’s the capacity of Anfield was 55,000 or thereabouts. But it wasn’t very often that we got anywhere near that number in the ground. Maybe once or twice every season. Derby matches always sold out. United games didn’t. Apart from Everton games, it was occasional massive European nights, maybe one every three years. The average crowd tended to be about 35,000 or so. As in 20,000 under capacity. But here’s the thing. It didn’t seem so bad. The seats in the Main Stand and the Kemlyn Rd almost always sold out and the spaces were all on the terraces. And that meant that the bodies were not packed so tight. The place only stared to feel a bit empty when the crowd dipped under 25,000. As in less than half full. It is completely different in an all seater stadium. There is something profoundly depressing about the sight of row after row of empty seats. Remember the Bolton game at the last gasp of the Hodgson reign? The crowd was down to 35,000 or so and there were 10,000 empty seats. In theory the ground was still more than three quarters full, but it didn’t seem that way. It seemed like about 300. It was godforsaken and dismal and depressing, though at least the sheer misery of the occasion helped to get rid of the wretched face wringer from Croyden.

In the 80’s and 90’s all the action was in Serie A. They had all the glamour and all the big players. Then their crowds started to slip. By the turn of the century, Italians had decided they preferred to watch the match in the pub. Juventus were still a heck of a side, as were all their big clubs. But the TV companies walked away from them. Why? Because every time they screened a home game from The Stadio Di Alpi there were about 20,000 lost souls rattling around an 80,000 stadium. 60,000 empty grey seats. It must have been enough to make any poor sod in the ground feel like topping themselves. The football was still great and the likes of Zidane and Del Piero were up there in the stratosphere. But no matter how good the players were, it wasn’t enough to make 60,000 empty seats seem bearable. So what did Juve do? They knocked the 80,000 stadium down and built a 40,000 stadium in its place. And what happened? Once people knew there wouldn’t be so many empty seats they were happy to go and watch. The ground got filled and Juve won the league. I don’t know what the crowd was at the game against Udinese last night. Just over 40,000 I reckon. There were a few banks of empty seats but not enough to dampen the mood. The atmosphere was good and the game responded. What if we were in a shiny new 70,000 stadium over the road in Stanley park? Would we have got any more? I doubt it. So there would have been 30,000 empty seats and it would have been crap. In fact I would bet that the crowd would have been nearer 25,000 in a new stadium because everyone would have known that the ground would be half full and depressing so they would have stayed away and watched it on the TV instead. Just like the Juve fans did.

5. The even bigger nightmare of empty corporate seats.

            How much do you hate the sight of all those empty corporate seats at Wembley when the game kicks off after half time? It doesn’t matter that it is a Cup Final, those bastards are more interested in getting their full quota of all inclusive champagne. And it means the rest of the ground is made to feel like the game isn’t as big any more. How can it be big when hundreds have decided they can’t be bothered to take up the best seats in the house? Whenever new stadiums are planned, the bean counters always allocate the best view to the suits from the corporations who by an large don’t give a stuff about the match. These are the most visual seats and they remain empty for large chunks of the game. And it makes you want to scream because it symbolises everything that is wrong with the whole bloody world at the moment. Check out the Emirates in the minutes after half time. There is a band of corporate seats that runs all the way around the ground and you barely see a soul there until about the 60th minute. No wonder the Arsenal should adopt ‘The Sound of Silence’ as their club anthem. We don’t have that many corporate seats at Anfield, thank God. I dare say the bean counters from Boston dream about them every night. A new stadium would mean they would get their way and we would have to suffer great empty swathes of red seats for most of the second half. Stuff that.

            6. Has everyone forgotten there’s a recession on?

            This is probably the most stupid thing of all. There is an attitude that if you build a 70,000 stadium you are bound to get a 70,000 crowd. How idiotic is that! In 1982 we had just become the Champions of Europe for the third time. You could pay a couple of quid to stand on the Kop and watch King Kenny, Souness, Hanson, Lawrenson and Rush. Basically £2 gave you ninety minutes with the best football team on planet earth. We were the Barca of the early eighties. That is why we won the league by 11 points that year and we would have won the European Cup but for Brucie having one of his butterfingers moments on an icy cold night in Poland. So what was the average crowd in our mighty 55,000 stadium where you were charged the price of ONE hour’s work to go and watch? 33,000. As in two thirds full. Was that because the people of Liverpool didn’t like football much? Be sensible. We were two thirds full because the city was being taken to the cleaners by a recession that left 3 million on the dole: a recession that hit Liverpool harder than any city in the land. A bit like this one in fact. 1992? Another recession and another season where the average crowd was 33,000. Look at the start Everton have made this season and yet they couldn’t sell out for their home game against Newcastle. Will we still be selling out in a couple of years time when times are even harder? Doubtful. And that is with a capacity of 45,000. And that is with a few thousand football tourists making the trip to come to Anfield to do the whole museum and film the Kop on the mobile phone thing. Would they come to the new 70,000 completely soulless AnyricherthangodArabwithcashtoburn Stadium? Doubtful.

            7. The average age thing.

            When I started going to the match in the early 70’s the average age of the crowd was about twenty. Now it is almost fifty. Which mathematically means that for every twenty year old in the ground there is an eighty year old in the ground. The new generation has no culture of going to the match. They meet up in the pub and watch the big screen instead. Two years ago Bolton had a dead rubber game at the end of the season against Fulham. They were dreading how low the crowd was going to be. So they took the bull by the horns and advertised heavily that it was a quid to get in for under 18s and over 65s. Not a bad deal. A quid for some Premier League Football. How many did they get? 18,000. Just over half full. AC Milan had a similar experience when they had already qualified from the group stages of the Champions League and faced the prospect of a similarly dead rubber against Lille. They worried that too many empty seats in the San Siro would damage brand Milan and so they hit the airwaves to announce that all seats were on offer at 1 Euro a piece and under 18’s could get in free. Now how good deal is that. One lousy Euro to get to go to the San Siro to watch AC Milan. How many did they get? 3000. Oh yeah. You DID read that right. 3000. 77000 empty seats. And no doubt the bars in the city were full as many still preferred to watch it on the box because they knew only too well that the place would be empty and depressing even though it was only a euro to get in. And when all is said and done who wants to shell out a euro to go and get all doomed out? The next generation has never learned the habit of going to the match. They are a big screen Sky in the pub generation and this means that it is likely that crowds will slowly thin out as those of us who got hooked on live football in the 70’s and 80’s slowly become infirm and die off. Liverpool are in a position to buck this trend because Anfield will always be Anfield and therefore we will draw in thousands of football tourists who want to get a first hand taste of the magic. Would they come to a soulless bowl in the park? Would they buggery.

            So will someone please forward this on to John W Henry and company. It seems they are moving to the idea of keeping the place after all and to be fair to them they DID keep Fenway Park. Seriously guys, if you are indeed serious about keeping your treasured brand in tact, then for the love of Christ don’t even think of knocking down Anfield. It would be up there with invading Russia with no winter uniforms in terms of crass stupidity.   

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.