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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS




 ‘The hand that signed the paper felled a city’
Dylan Thomas wrote the line. Years and years ago in a time when cities indeed got themselves felled on a regular basis. Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima…
Thomas gave the eye of a poet to the industrialised destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
The poetry of course is in the disconnect. One the one hand, there is the image of a wavering, liver spotted hand wielding an expensive fountain pen. On the other hand, there is hell falling to the earth from a thousand Lancaster bombers.
Or one bomber called ‘Enola Gay’
The death by a thousand cuts that so many are now being forced to endure is thankfully considerably less dramatic than the destruction of Hamburg and Hiroshima. But there are similarities.
And there is is the same disconnect.
And as is so often the case, it is the little people who are being forced to carry the can.
We start our journey in the very same building by the River Thames where Churchill gave Bomber Harris the nod set the air itself on fire by raining millions of incendiary bombs down onto the great cities of Germany. You know. The crumbling Neo Gothic building with the famous clock.
In 2008 the banks collapsed and the money ran dry. Cuts were required and bright eyed types with starred first degrees were dispatched to find the nooks and crannies where cash could be saved.
It was deemed that every penny counted.
Every last one.
And soon a twisted, malign infant came screaming into the world and was duly christened ‘The Bedroom Tax’.
The principle was classically Neo Liberal. If you are so poor that you need the State to keep a roof over your head, then don’t expect the State to stump up for any more rooms than you strictly require. The State will only pay for the bare minimum. And so it was deemed sensible that anyone guilty of being too poor to pay their own rent was to be fined £15 a week for that poxy little box room with the view onto the settee strewn waste ground out back.
That’ll teach the wretched blighters to be poor!
And so the hand signed the paper and the bright eyed young things licked their lips in anticipation of a £100 million a year saving.
But things never tend to work out the way the bright eyed young things think they will. Oh if only they did work out that way, we might still be a shining city on the hill.
The bright young things never quite managed to spot a single fact which really should have been blindingly obvious.
The problem was that the Housing Benefit money wasn’t paid to the poor person who needed help with their rent. Instead the Housing Benefit was paid directly to their landlord. Usually their social landlord.
Well it didn’t take all that very long for the social landlords to start to view the future with fear and trepidation. Because if you have a thousand social houses and the Government goes and cuts its payments to you by £15 a week for these houses, well you suddenly find a gaping £15,000 a week hole in your business plan.
As in £750,000 a year.
‘The hand that signed the paper felled a city’
Oh my God, what the hell are we going to do!!!!!!
And so it was that the social housing providers hired in their very own bright eyed young things to advise them on how to keep their business model in tact.
Two answers were found. 
One, shed staff and cut costs!!
Surprise, surprise. The answer is always to shed staff and cut costs and it looks like it will continue to be the case until all of the staff in the world has been shed barring the board of Goldman Sachs. Housing officers bit the bullet and hit the dole queue.
Communication between tenant and landlord became less and less about face to face communications between fellow human beings and more about computer generated letters.
The second answer was to stamp down ever more vigorously on any tenant who fell so much as a few seconds late with their rent. The very nanosecond any account slipped into arrears, a computer generated letter from a computer generated firm of virtual solicitors would be winging its way.
Once upon a time when times were different and kinder, rent arrears would provoke a visit from a housing officer to take a look at the problem over a cup of tea. One human being would converse with another human being. The problem would be examined and broken down into bite sized pieces. A compromise would be sought. A solution would be found.
After all, we all have short term cash flow hitches, right?
But with so many housing officers on the dole, these old fashioned conversations are becoming ever rarer. In their place are millions of computer generated letters from computer generated virtual solicitors.
The hand that signed the paper……
Last week one of our Veteran clients was the city that was felled. A couple of years ago he decided to escape the dole queue by going self employed. A loan from Poppy Scotland helped him to buy a van and ever since he has just about managed to keep his head above water.
His van is the key to his business. No van, no work. And so when the van developed a few hundred pounds worth of faults, he had no choice but to grit his teeth and get the thing fixed and back onto the road.
The only way he could finance this was to fall six weeks into arrears with his rent. At first he failed to open the computer generated letters that started to fall on his mat on a near daily basis. When he did finally open one, he discovered to his horror that he was a week away from having his day in court.
He asked for some help and I picked up the phone on his behalf. I called up his social landlord and had a few conversations. These were human being to human being conversations. I worked out how much he could pay and between us we agreed a re-payment plan.
It worked.
As of today he has not a single penny of arrears.
But the hand is still signing the paper and the cities are still being felled.
The bright young things are still doing their thing.
They have now deemed it necessary and vital for the social landlord to hunt down every last, single outstanding debt on its ledger with the same kind of remorseless, heartless ferocity that Bomber Harris once displayed when felling the cities described on the piece of paper that Winston Churchill had signed.
And it turns out that all of those computer generated letters from computer generated solicitors don’t come cheap. And when those same computer generated solicitors go to the trouble of arranging your day in court to account for six weeks of rent arrears which you have since caught up, well….
There are bills to be paid. 
Dues to be collected.
£350 of legal costs to be precise.
Which meant yet more computer generated letters from yet more computer generated solicitors. And yet another day in court. And of course as a self employed person who was earning just about enough to keep body and soul together, my man was not even close to being eligible for Legal Aid.
In the blue corner, a provider of 17,000 social houses across the hills and glens of Dumfries and Galloway along with a team of sharp elbowed lawyers.
In the red corner, one veteran of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the Turf Lodge Estate and the green, rolling  hills South Armargh.
Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!!!!!!!!!!
But of course there was no rumble.
Instead my man met a Citizens Advice guy who told him there was no point even trying to talk to the Sheriff. He had no leg to stand on. He was basically completely screwed. He was advised to grit teeth and ask for time to pay.
And so it was that the bright young things were able to extract a further £350 worth of blood from a near penniless stone. At a fiver a week for the next year and a half. A fiver a week less to be spent on groceries or the occasional pint. Another shoulder chained ever more firmly to the grinding, soul destroying wheel of life that is Britain 2015.
All because some bright young thing in Whitehall decided the Bedroom tax was the right way to mitigate the lunacy of the casino bankers in the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf.
So my man went home.
My man opened his front door.
My man cast his eyes down to the post waiting on the mat.
To yet another computer generated letter from yet another computer generated solicitor.
Four years ago my man was fined £60.
Four years ago my man paid off £35 of the £60.
Four years ago my man completely forgot to pay the other £25 of the £60.
‘The hand that signed the paper felled a city’
In Whitehall the bright young things suggested a 10% cut to Council spending.
The hand duly signed the paper.
Which meant that 10% less was sent North to Edinburgh care of the Barnett Formula.
Which meant that 10% less was sent back South West to Dumfries and Galloway Council.
Which meant that the council duly engaged the services of some bright young things of their own to try and work out what on earth to do.
And the bright young things advised that forensic accountants should be brought in to dig out every single old debt they could find. And once these old debts had been excavated from their subterranean hiding places, they should be dusted down and passed along the line.
To computer generated solicitors.
To generate computer generated letters.
To arrange yet more days in court for yet more blood to be extracted from yet more stones.
And so on and on and on it goes.
Death by a thousand cuts.
I guess the legal bill my man will eventually have to cover for the bright young things chasing his old £25 debt will probably run to over £200.
Which he will pay off at a fiver a week.
For forty weeks
And will anyone either notice or care?
What do you think?
‘The hand that signed the paper felled a city’


If you have enjoyed this blog then you might well enjoy one of my books. There are twenty of them waiting for you in the Kindle store from £1 to £2 each. Here's the link.

http://goo.gl/J5byy


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A GROTESQUE PICTURE OF INEQUALITY IN THE BACK OF AN ARNOLD CLARK HIRE VAN




Inequality tends to get a lot of air time these days. Quite right too. But it isn’t very often that you get the chance to see the grotesque extent of global inequality laid out in the back of an Arnold Clark hire van. Well that is exactly what I saw yesterday. You see, I was the white van man in question.
I guess this all sounds a little bizarre. Let me explain.
From time to time my eldest son Dyonne does some work for a mate of his from London. Adam is a good lad, a Luton boy working his socks off to carve himself a niche. His company – Holy Water – do the drinks at the events where the world’s 1% gather to show off their bling and discuss how many noughts they have in the currant balance columns of their off shore accounts. The 1% like a spot of wide boy charm and Dyonne and Adam both have wide boy charm by the wagon load.
This week Holy Water have taken on the task of watering 60 guests who are attending a wedding in Scotland. It would appear these 60 gilded individuals can expect to be watered rather well. The budget for the wedding is $2.16 million. Unless I have got my maths wildly wrong, that looks a lot like a budget of $36,000 per head. Now you need to work hard to physically spend this kind of wedge. The wedding is in Scotland and most of the guests are American, so of course whisky is always going to have more than a walk on role in the unfolding drama. There is a very particular whisky required and of course Holy Water have secured its services. £700 a bottle. £144 a shot. I guess the same kind of telephone number barcodes will also to be found on the Champagne, fine wines and brandies.
The venue for the great event is a bizarre Victorian pile set in the midst of 300 acres of drop dead gorgeous Scottishness on the Isle of Bute. I didn’t see inside, but I took a look at a leaflet for the place which I picked up on the ferry. Mount Stuart was the work of the 3rd Marquis of Bute who went to town on spending his ill gotten gains during the dying years of the nineteenth century. It looks like the kind of place Edgar Alan Poe might have dreamed up on the back of a particularly bad acid trip. King Ludvig who was doing a similar thing back then might have been barking mad, but his Bavarian fairytale castles certainly have the edge as far as I am concerned.
Anyway.
I am digressing all over the place here.
Adam decided to break the long journey north with a Sunday night in Dumfries. He was in his car whilst two of his lads were driving a hire van filled to the gunnels with all those fine beverages. The two lads stayed in town and at ten o clock on Sunday morning they set out to complete their journey to the Firth of Clyde.
They didn’t make it very far. 
Two of Dumfries’s finest didn’t much like the look of the axles on the van and duly pulled them over for a wee chat. Then it was a wee drive up to a weighbridge outside of Lockebie.
And then…
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear….
Not just a bit over loaded. One point three bloody tonnes over loaded!
It has to be said that Adam’s face was a picture when his mobile rang with the news.
Problems, problems, problems.
By now the van was very much impounded on the car park of Lockerbie police station and by hook or by crook Adam and the lads needed on Bute that night to start doing their stuff. We learned that there is no way that a van of any description can be hired in Dumfries on a Sunday.
But problems are there to be sorted. Dyonne and I drove up and transferred half a tonne of stuff into my van and drove it up in to the hills to enjoy a night on a pallet in the yard of a disillusioned Man City fan called Paul who still finds it impossible to get his head around all the petro dollars swilling around his club.
Then we re-filled my van with enough weight for the boys in blue to give their assent for the Holy Water lads to resume their trek north.
I volunteered to hire a van the next morning and drive the left behind bottles up the next morning. And so it was.
I duly signed on the dotted line for a Mercedes Sprinter from Arnold Clark and loaded on board the troublesome 1.3 tonnes with the help of my youngest son Courtney.
Then we went to First Base to add a second cargo to the consignment. Ten food parcels for Action for Children.
In Kelloholm.
Regular readers of this blog will have become familiar with Kelloholm and all that sail in her. Once upon a very different time, Kelloholm was a coal mining village. Maybe in its Victorian heyday, the 3rd Marquis of Bute might have owned a piece of the action. Maybe profits from Kelloholm coal helped to fill the coffers that he tapped to build his Neo Gothic island fantasy.
But the glory days such as they were are now long gone. Kelloholm is a place of unemployment and mould on the walls. Pebble dash and too much rain. People get sanctioned and generally screwed. All too often cupboards are rendered bare and an emergency First Base food parcel is required for body and soul to be kept together. Buying one of those fancy bottles of Scotch would require two and a half months worth of gross income from most of the residents of Kelloholm.
And yet on the floor of my rented Arnold Clark van, the ten boxes of emergency Kelloholm food sat snugly next to all of those boxes of fine wine.
Different contents. Different end users. Different worlds.
I gather the wedding is an American affair. The groom is a one of those American Dreams come true in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. It seems he has dug out some Scottish roots. Maybe the Third Marquis of Bute evicted a relative of his back in the day in order to farm a few more sheep.
The word is that he is a big time billionaire. The word is that the $2.16 million he is laying out to get himself through the hoop is little more than loose change as far as he is concerned.
Well good for him.
As I drove north past Kilmarnock and out into the staggering beauty of the Clyde Basin, I started working a few sums through my mind.
I have recently started what will probably be an ultimately doomed campaign to persuade the Scottish Government to offer some meaningful and permanent support to the nation’s foodbanks. My argument goes something like this.
It is now abundantly clear that foodbanks have become a part of the Welfare State. We are the new safety net. We are the destination of last resort. If we do our thing well, it has become clear that the community is more than willing to support what we do. So long as we spread the word, most of the tins and packets that make up our emergency food parcels will be donated.
But that of course is not the whole story.
There are elements of running a foodbank which are not covered by donated tins and packets. Rent needs to be paid. And wages. And the phone bill and the electric bill. And all of those many niggling costs which cannot be avoided.
I would like to see the Government hire one person and give them a car. Their job will be to tour the land to check out the foodbanks. It would only take them a couple of hours to make sure that any foodbank is kosher. Once the foodbank in question is added to the official register, they are thereby allowed to raise an invoice once a month to the Government in Edinburgh for £5 per parcel issued.
For First Base, this would mean £30,000 a year to make sure we can cover all the nuts and bolts bills and focus all of our efforts of helping the poor buggers who come through the door rather than scratching about to keep the door open.
Maths.
There are 60 main food banks in Scotland which hand out an average of 3000 parcels per annum. 180,000 in total.
180,000 parcels at £5 each comes to £900,000.
Surely this is hardly a King’s ransom for the provision of the safety net of last resort. And of course if things look up, there will be less people needing emergency food and less invoices sent to the Government.
I like to think it is a reasonably good idea but I doubt if anyone in Holyrood will see it that way. You can but try, right?
But here’s the thing.
Google has just told me that at today’s exchange rate £1 will buy $1.58.
It means that $2.16 million is worth £1.36 million.
See where I am going here?
The money spent on the Silicon Valley wedding on the Isle of Bute would be enough to pay the overheads of every single foodbank in the whole of Scotland for a year and a half.
For a year and a half.
Like the Kinks said – it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. And at times it is a world that stinks like a pile of rotting fish. And for a few miles up the A76 yesterday, the grotesque inequality of our world was laid out in the form of cardboard boxes on the floor of a Mercedes Sprinter van hired for £75 a day from Arnold Clark.      



If you have enjoyed this blog then you might well enjoy one of my books. There are twenty of them waiting for you in the Kindle store from £1 to £2 each. Here's the link.

http://goo.gl/J5byy


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

YESTERDAY FIRST BASE SAVED THE TAX PAYERS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND £15,000. AT LEAST I HOPE WE DID.



 Yesterday’s number at First Base was £15,000.
On the one hand, I am pretty sure that we managed to save the tax payer £15,000.
On the other hand an hour spent in the soul destroying world of an XL spreadsheet revealed that we have a gaping £15,000 hole to fill if we are to make ends meet this year.
Symmetry of a kind. I guess. If only the £15,000 on one side of the ledger could somehow be used to fill the £15,000 pothole on the other side. But of course life is never so simple.
So how did First Base manage to offer a £15,000 helping hand to the beleaguered tax payers of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Tabitha. That’s how. Not that her real name bears any remote resemblance to Tabitha. It doesn’t, so I suggest it is a futile waste of time to try and guess her true identity. Does anyone ever call their little treasures Tabitha any more?
When she was a bright eyed teenager, nobody in Tabitha’s circle could have had any inkling of what a car crash her life was about to become. A smart, popular kid from a good family with the rest of her life spread out before her like a well kept garden. Sure she had a mischievous streak, but no harm in that, right? And sure she had a mildly alarming taste in lads who hailed from the other side of the tracks. Lads who carried the thrill of trouble. But, hey. That’s the way the world works, right?
But small mischief became bigger mischief and the bad boys just kept on getting badder. For a while there was a solid career with incomings enough for a flat and a veneer to be kept in place, But under the surface everything was party time and all the good things in Tabitha’s life seemed to be down to the drugs that consumed every penny of her disposable income.
And so it was that one by one the wheels on her wagon fell by the wayside. No more job and ever badder boys who her family despised and hated. The drugs ate away at what was already a fragile mind like a plague of maggots. Moods swings and tantrums and troughs of despair. Boyfriends stealing from the family home. Every last drop of family patience drained away into the sands.
Until at last the front door to the security of family was slammed in Tabitha’s face and it has stayed slammed shut ever since.
Wilderness years. And every minute of every day those voracious maggots went about their business. Depression. Anxiety. Heroin and methadone and anti depressents. Uppers and downers. Clarity and oblivion.
Memories of times gone by and terror of the now and what is to come. Aching, yawning emptiness and such regrets.
Such regrets.
Every now and then she comes into First Base to persuade herself that it is still possible to turn everything around. To hit the brakes and do a U turn and drive back down the road to the place where her life used to be. Once upon a time. When it used to be sunny. A time of picnics and having a place where she belonged. A safe place.
Not that the resolution ever lasts long. Something always happens and she runs as fast as she can to find a rabbit hole to dive down into. The rabbit hole comes in the form of street valium, available to one and all for the princely price of £1 a pill. £40 will carry Tabitha into a fuzzy world that feels better than the real world.
For a while.
And once she is in the all embracing fuzz of Mr Benzodiazepam she is subject to an altered reality. The blues convince Tabitha that she is invisible. She believes in new and cartoon like powers. She can walk into any shop and take what she wants and walk out without anyone seeing her. The problem is that they can see her. And they do see her. Every single time.
Just a moment love.
Could you come with me please.
Time spent in the back room where the staff get a brew on their break. Time killed until the cops land to take her away. The crazy thing is that she only ever nicks trinkets. Like a monged out magpie. Shiny things. Pretty things. Things with a recommended retail price of £0.99.
Processed and booked and questioned and bailed.
Up in front of the Sheriff to answer to the charge of stealing £3.17’s worth of Chinese tat from a shop soon to have its front windows boarded up.
Along with all the others.
None of the Sheriffs ever really know what to do with her. How could they? So it has been community service and probation and drug treatment and testing orders. And sometimes everything seems to go well for a few weeks and months until something goes wrong and she runs headlong into the oblivion of thirty blue valium pills.
Or forty.
Or fifty.
Until in the end she finally ran out of rope and spent a month at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Never again she said.
Never, ever, ever, ever again she said.
And she meant it. Like she always means it. Because next time it will be at least six months sentenced and three months served.
And she hated it.
Really hated it.    
But we all know how resolutions tend to turn out. Friday morning brought dreadful news from the family she yearns to be a part of. And dreadful news is not a thing that Tabitha’s fragile mind is able to cope with. Dreadful news draws the wicked genie from the bottle to whisper in her ear.
You deserve it, you deserve it, you deserve it.
Release. A comfort zone. A sanctuary. A haven.
So Tabitha took to the streets and bought and swallowed sixty blue valium pills. And on she went into the familiar darkness. Familiar fog.
Into a sprawling store at an out of town shopping centre.
Tabitha the indestructible. Tabitha the invisible. Tabitha in a world of her own where she can help herself to what she wants and drift away like a cloud in a perfect summer sky.
Except she wasn’t invisible.
A security guard grabbed at her as she drifted through the doors. She shook herself loose. She ran. And against all sensible odds, she made it clear.
But for how long? There will be CCTV footage of course. Only a matter of time until cops came a calling. Go to jail. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect £200.
A weekend of staring at the walls. A weekend of the walls creeping in ever closer. A weekend of waiting for the knock at the door. Waiting. Unraveling. Imagining. Regretting. Self hating. Self loathing. Self blaming.
An essentially good human being completely unable to come to terms with doing bad things in a bad, bad world.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Valium, valium, valium.
A line from Apocalypse Now.
“And then there was Chef. Chef was wrapped too tight for Vietnam. Probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans….”
In the wrong place and the wrong time. Forever.
Monday morning comes and she ventures out and crosses the town to First Base. Sheepish and all broken up.
“I’ve been realty stupid again…..”
A story told and advice sought.
Has she still got all the stuff?
Yes, she still has all the stuff.
Is the stuff still in saleable condition?
Yes, the stuff is still in saleable condition. Labels and price tags and security tags all present and correct.
OK. So why not try this. Write an letter of apology and take it all back.
And she is immediately tempted. But will they still take her to the back room where the staff have a brew during their break time? Will the cops be summoned to attend? A ride in the squad car? Remand? Go to jail. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect £200.
In the end we strike a deal.
She’ll come back tomorrow. With all the stuff. And she will write her letter of apology. And then I will take it back to the shop and pass the bag over.
To be honest, we are kind of surprised when she shows. But she does show. A few less worry lines. A conscience more at ease with itself. She writes her letter and her letter is quite magnificent in its way. Her English teacher should be properly proud.
I drive to the bleakness of the out of town shopping centre. The security system goes beep, beep, beep as I walk through the door. Is there about to be trouble? No.
Can I see the manager please? Something private. Yes I can wait.
Canned music and half stolen glances for the staff behind the counter.
The manager arrives and I tell my tale. I give her one of our annual reports. So she knows who I am. Who we are. What we do. Why I am all present and correct in her store with a carrier bag of stolen goods. And a 9 out of 10 for spelling, grammar and expression letter of apology.
There is no judgement in the manager’s eyes. Only sympathy and sadness for all of the Tabitha’s in this grey and unforgiving world. She wasn't in herself. On Friday. But she has heard about the incident of course. And they have sent all the CCTV images over to the cops of course.
Of course.
I offer her the bag and she takes it. A little surprised. A little taken aback. But mainly just plain sad.
No doubt the police will come a calling at some stage. And no doubt Tabitha will have another day in court. But maybe she will have provided the Sheriff with some new tools for the job. Her defence lawyer will read out the letter of apology that her English teacher should be proud of and the store will confirm that all goods have been returned in full and in tact.
And then I very much hope the Sheriff will take the opportunity not to send Tabitha to jail. For what would be the point? Three months of jail time will drain the public purse to the tune of £15,000. Will it fix Tabitha’s fragile mind? Or will it break it further. Will it be like taking a crystal champagne flute with a chip and hurling hard into a concrete wall?
So I don’t think the Sheriff with send Tabitha to jail. Not this time. And if he doesn’t, we will have done our bit to save the tax payers of Great Britain and Northern Ireland £15,000.
I get back to the office and finish work on a budget spreadsheet for 2005/2016. And there is a wide, gaping black hole staring hard into my eyes. A £15,000 hole. A run out of cash in the middle of January hole. A hole to be filled or there will be no door on Buccleuch St for the likes of Tabitha to walk through.
It would be nice if £15,000 saved could be used as aggregate to fill our £15,000 hole.
But life is never like that.   


If you have enjoyed this blog then you might well enjoy one of my books. There are twenty of them waiting for you in the Kindle store from £1 to £2 each. Here's the link.

http://goo.gl/J5byy


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

PERPLEXING PROPAGANDA



More often than not the reason for propaganda is clear enough. All of us on the ‘Yes’ side of last year’s Scottish Referendum argument certainly learnt that particular lesson in spades. For a while the British Establishment tried to convince the Scots that they were adored children who would break their doting parents hearts were they to choose to up sticks and leave home. Not surprisingly the Scots saw all the way through these honeyed words and as the big day drew closer the general mood was one of ‘away and shite’.
Most of us figured they wanted to keep us for our oil, even though they went on and on and on about the fact that our oil is rubbish oil. Unlike Norwegian oil. Unlike Saudi oil.
Maybe they protested a little too loudly about just how rubbish our oil was. After all, memories of similarly vehement denials were rather too fresh in everyone’s mind. A mere decade had passed since Bush and Blair promised us all that oil had nothing whatsoever to do with their sudden need to invade Iraq. Of course it didn’t. Absolutely not and how dare anyone suggest otherwise. Communist bastards. Of course it had nothing to do with oil. It was all about WMD and saving the poor beleaguered Iraqi people from a life of misery and hell.
Aye right. 
So something new was required and it was required in a big hurry as the referendum D Day drew ever nearer. And so it was that the Establishment propaganda machine was fired up and set free. And my oh my, didn’t they ever fire off both barrels! All of a sudden the airwaves were packed full with terrifying visions of a desperate post nuclear Scotland where all the children were riddled with rickets as Ethiopan levels of starvation engulfed the blighted mountains and glens. No more NHS. No more pensions. A wide open door for immigrants and terrorists and Vladimir Putin’s invading armies.
It was all alarmist bullshit of course but the sheer volume of it all proved to be enough to scare the Bejesus out of enough already scared pensioners for the Establishment to win the day.
It was propaganda that made total sense.
Most propaganda makes total sense and then things change and the we can all see it for what it actually was.
One minute Nelson Mandela is a wicked, wicked terrorist who is rightly locked up for ever and a day. The next minute he is a world treasure who every leader yearns to get a selfie with.
Martin McGuiness went from IRA monster to respected Deputy First Minister in what felt like a blink of an eye.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the Establishment to re-write the script about Abu Qatader. For years he has been branded as a cold eyed murdering swine with the long beard to prove it. Theresa May almost broke into a celebratory brake dance when she finally managed to put him on a plane back to Jordan. And now? Well now things are getting interesting. Now it seems that ISIS and Al Queda have fallen out big time and Abu Qatadar has taken to the internet to rail against the new enemy. As far as the man with the long beard is concerned, ISIS are a bunch of Nazi gangsters who are interested in nothing more than rape and pillage. Millions of wannabe jihadists are tuning in to hear what he has to say. I wonder how long it will be before we decide to claim him as a national treasure who learnt valuable lessons during his years in the UK when he claimed all that lovely housing benefit.    
However there are times when the motivation for blatant propaganda are not so clear. Check this out.
Last week Lesley and I went into Dumfries High School for two mornings to talk to all the P7’s from the primary schools who will be feeding the new first year intake. The idea was for them to get the chance to spend a day in the frightening new world of the big school. A good idea. There were obviously lots of kids about the place.
Well, Duh!
How many? I guess there must be about 1200 pupils in the High School itself to which were added about 150 primary school day trippers. Let’s say 1350 in all.
So what?
Here’s what.
There were basically no fat kids to be seen. This is something that I find increasingly fascinating. I spent quite a lot of time in schools across Dumfries and Galloway doing drug and alcohol talks. Every time I walk the corridors I keep a look out for fat kids. And every time I get the same result.
Basically no fat kids.
There tend to be one or two in primary schools, but next to none in high schools. And yet the TV, radio and newspapers are constantly filled with horror stories about the explosion of childhood obesity that is threatening to tear down the NHS over the years to come. Obesity is the new smoking. Sugar is the new heroin.
The years to come will be ravaged by type 2 diabetes and heart disease and ninety five stone behemoths being lifted through the roof by cranes and manoeuvred into specially reinforced ambulances. Every night there will be yet another documentary about super-fat people in Dewsbury who spend every penny of their exorbitant benefits on an endless diet of McDonalds and Coke.
And of course a constant procession of grave faced doctors and politicians and life coaches will explain that the reason for this new plague of fat kids are the hundreds of thousands of feckless parents who force feed their offspring from dawn till dusk with chocolate and chicken nuggets.
So why are there no fat kids in the world beyond the shock docs and the prurient pages of the tabloids? Maybe it is only Dumfries and Galloway that lacks the headline number of super fat kids. Maybe without our knowing it, we are the last region in the western world to be home to fit youngsters.
I doubt it.
You can check it out for yourself. Kids are hardly a hidden secret when all is said and done. They go to school at nine in the morning and they come out at three in the afternoon. The next time you are out and about at either of those two times, have a look for yourself. Run the rule over the hundreds of kids pouring out of the school gates and I guarantee you there will be hardly a fat one in sight.
So where are all the fat kids? Are they hidden away? Or are they mere propaganda? When I was at school I was one of the fat kids. It wasn’t great and it lasted until I was about 15. But I most certainly wasn’t on my own. In every class of 35 I ever sat in there were at least seven or eight fat kids like me. Sure we were still a minority, but not a small minority. In ten years of talking to at least 2500 kids a year I have never once been in a class where there have been more than two fat kids. And two is seriously rare.
Once you actually take the trouble to look, it becomes immediately clear that today’s kids are massively less fat that we used to be. Why? Well I figure that being a fat kid in 2015 must basically be a living hell. We used to get bullied back in the day but there was no Facebook back then. Never before has being fat been deemed to be such a crime. If you want to get ahead and make it, there is no room for any extra pounds. Just look at the way our politicians starve themselves in order to make their way up the ladder. Alex Salmond. Nicola Sturgeon. George Osborne. Theresa May. It’s a long, long list. In fact it is basically all of them. Eric Pickles was the last of the Mohicans and it was hardly a surprise when he was dumped.
In fact can you think of a single world leader who is carrying any extra timber? Or TV personality? Or actor? Or singer?
But this doesn’t begin to explain why the politicians and the media have joined forces to make up millions of fat kids when in fact there are hardly any at all. It is indeed very perplexing propaganda. Even more perplexing is the fact that we all seem so happy to lap it up and believe every word when all we have to do is to stand outside any school at 3 o clock in the afternoon to see it for the lie it is.
Maybe the beating heart of this enormous and blatant lie can be found deep inside the NHS. And maybe this is where the clouds start to clear. Many people now see the NHS as our new national religion and for centuries religion has tended to be the source of the most far fetched lies. Check out the creationists in America who have spent $30 million on a museum where they have a life size depiction of Adam and Eve in the company of dinosaurs. According to the Museum of Creation, Noah’s flood happened a mere 4000 years ago and every archaeologist and scientist who says otherwise is a bare faced liar.
Every religion is home to some pretty tall tales. Virgin births and all that. So if our new religion is indeed the NHS, then it shouldn’t come as any great surprise if they are telling the same kind of vast porkies that churches have fed us for hundreds of years. As a rule of thumb, the back story to most religious tall tales tends to be born out of cold hard cash. The coffers are forever hungry and a good narrative is always required to persuade the Sunday morning faithful to give more than they can really afford. The likes of St Peters or Westminster Abbey or the Blue Mosque don’t exactly come cheap. And you need a healthy bank account to keep all of those Bishops and Cardinals and Imams in the lavish style they have always been so accustomed to.
The NHS is also an eye-wateringly expensive religion. The UK is home to sixty million souls and a million of us work for the NHS. It is now the world’s third greatest employer after the Chinese Army and the Indian Railways. And when all is said and done, it is one hell of a gravy train. GP’s earn twice as much as MPs. Six times more than the rest of us. The top managers of hospitals and health boards earn the kind of salaries that the Prime Minister can only dream of.
And the pensions……
The pensions.
Enough said.
Most religions shake us down for cash with a pretty simple message. Cough up or you’re going to burn in hell. Forever. As in eternity. Remember how much it hurt when you burnt your finger with a match? Well just imagine what it will be like if you burn for ever and ever and ever.
Ouch.
Maybe a tenner on the collection plate isn’t such a bad idea after all.
It seems the NHS is using a similar playbook. There is always a new crisis and it is always worse than the last crisis. We need more and we need it now! And if any politician wants to stand a chance to getting elected, they have to repeat the mantra of just how much they love the NHS. It is a bit like anyone who wants to be the American President having to go on and on about how religious they are and how they just love God every bit as much as America.
All British politicians are required to tell us every day how much they love the NHS and how they will always give the NHS every penny it asks for. So when the NHS warns us about a tidal wave of childhood obesity, we don’t bother to check if they are telling the truth or not. I figure if they were to tell us that they needed another five billion a year to compensate for the fact that the world is flat we would write out the cheque without giving it a second thought.
And so it seems that the gravy train will continue to trundle its merry way along the tracks whilst we wring our hands with worry about all those millions of made up fat kids.
What a dumb, daft world we live in.   


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Saturday, May 30, 2015

WHEN A PICTURE REALLY DOES PAINT A THOUSAND WORDS



A picture paints a thousand words. It’s an old, old saying and it's a saying that becomes more relevant with every passing year. Pictures have always been big but never as big as they are now. With billions of us hopping on and off Twitter and Facebook as we travel through the days of our life, we increasingly see the world through pictures.
It’s interesting that the saying defines the impact of a picture in terms of a thousand words. Not a hundred. Not a million.
There is something about the idea of a thousand. Maybe it is the biggest number we can really get our heads around.
So once upon a time great beauty was defined in terms of a face to launch a thousand ships. I guess that was a viable option back in days when Helen of Troy was turning heads. These days only the US Navy could come up with that kind of Armada should the President’s head be turned by a beauty queen.
Then we have the 'thousand yard stare' worn by men who have lived through the visceral horror of combat.
“How long you been in country son?” A chisel faced US general once upon a time asked a haggard young Marine fresh from a primordial killing spree, whilst all the while the hungry news cameras devoured the scene.
Cue the thousand yard stare.
Cue the response the General didn’t want to hear.
“All fucking day.”
But things have changed. Yards are out and metres are in. Does a thousand metre stare carry the same ring about it? Not really.
Then there is this thousand quote.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The destroyer of worlds.

These were the words of J Robert Oppenheimer when he saw the pictures of what the bomb he had created had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What the bomb he had created had done to human flesh and bone. He had indeed become death. No doubt his eyes were soon focused to a thousand yards.
Without the pictures, the idea of a bomb to destroy a city was an academic exercise. Let’s face it, there was no shortage of destroyed cities at that time. We Brits had pretty well mastered the art of reducing a thousand years of human endeavour to a pile of smoking bricks over the course of a few hours. It was that thousand thing again. Bomber Harris and his thousand bomber raids. The firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden. The War Crime that was never called to account.
It was the pictures that told the world that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different. Very, very different. From the very moment that those two mushroom clouds climbed up into the sky, the world, our world, became a different place.
And for seventy years all kinds of stuff has gone down. Men have walked on the moon. A wall was built and a wall was torn down. Communism fell and Islamism rose. Grains of sand became the internet. A black man was released from prison after twenty something years. A black man painted pictures of black men and white men sitting down at the same dining table in the red hills of Georgia. A black man took his seat behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Lots of stuff.
Lots and lots of pictures painting millions upon millions of words.
Famine in Ethiopia. The skulls and bones of the Cambodian Killing Fields. The machete hacked limbs littering dusty Rwandan roads.
A father tending a bleeding out corpse on a Londonderry pavement.
A little running girl burned to a crisp by American napalm.
The wrecked buildings of Gaza and Grozny and Fallujah and Hanoi and New York City.
Hundreds of pictures. Millions of words.
Bad, bad things.
And yet nothing in the last seventy years has ever come close to matching those pictures that turned J Robert Oppenheimer’s blood to ice in his veins.
Successive generations have lived out our lives stalked by an ever present shadow. The shadow of IT happening. We have been the first generations of humankind to know that Noah’s Ark type Biblical images of the end of the world are never more than four minutes away.
All it takes is for one finger to gently caress a button and mere minutes later we all become Hiroshima. We all become Nagasaki. All kinds of things can go catastrophically wrong with our lives. War and peace. Drought and flood. Recession and depression. Dictators. Invasions. Occupations. Insurrections. Revolutions.
But nothing comes close to that moment when the radiance of a thousand suns bursts across the skies.
There is no nightmare that comes close to the nuclear nightmare.
Which brings me to the picture at the top of the blog. Right now it only seems to have represented a fairly modest number of words. But that will change. And the picture isn’t about to go away.
It is already archived. It is already bubble-wrapped and locked away in secure storage.
Background.
One of the guys working on one of the Trident submarines went AWOL. He took to the internet to write an 18 page report laying out how the so called security at HMNB Faslane was barely worth a light. He felt he simply had to let us all know that there is a real and genuine danger that something could go disastrously wrong at HMNB Faslane.
And then?
Then it will be no more Helensburgh.
No more Greenock.
No more Dumbarton.
Not much Glasgow.
Not if The radiance of a thousand suns lights up the skies over the western half of Scotland.
Does any event come bigger than that? It would make 9/11 look like a spat in a primary school playground.
When I was researching my book ‘Toxic’, I spent an afternoon with the guys at the peace camp outside Faslane. A bookish looking middle aged lady told me about an adventure she had been involved in the week before. Two of them had made it through god alone how many security checks and all the way onto the deck of one of the nuclear subs.
Two of them. Both middle aged ladies. Believe me, this was a lady who looked more like your French teacher in the fourth year than Bruce Willis in ‘Die Hard’. And yet she made it all the way to the deck.
It wasn’t the first time. It was the umpteenth time. And amazingly enough these trespasses into the darkest heart of the nuclear kingdom seldom see anyone land in court. Why? Because courts mean pesky reporters in the press gallery. Courts mean chronic embarrassment. Courts mean egg on senior faces. Let’s face it, if you can’t guard your nuclear subs from middle aged schoolteacher types, then you are pretty well not fit for purpose.
So maybe the runaway submariner has a point?
Maybe his warnings should be looked at and scrutinised and heeded. Because should the day when the radiance of a thousand suns lights up the skies of Western Scotland ever come, then it will be the very worst day we have ever had.
The 56 MP’s of the SNP called a House of Commons debate.
And the picture at the top of the blog paints a thousand words about what the debate showed. The SNP turned up. Nobody else turned up. Check out all that empty green leather.
This House will now consider how it will be if the radiance of a thousand suns should fry, boil, vaporise and generally kill a quarter of a million citizens of Helensburgh and Greenock and Dumbarton and other Scottish towns and cities that nobody seems to give much of a shit about.
And indeed nobody did give a shit.
Not the Tories. Not the Labour Party. Not the Liberal Democrats. I don’t know if Douglas Carswell showed his face. Everyone seemed to have better things to do. More important things to do.
The empty green benches sent a very clear message up the M1 and the M6 and past the big blue ‘Welcome to Scotland’ signs.
We say you people matter. But we don’t really mean it. Check out the picture guys. Oh yes. This one. The one that paints a thousand words. The one that summons up the sights and sounds of how it might be should the radiance of a thousand suns ever light up the skies over West Scotland.
And so it seems that we are expendable. It seems that the Members of Parliament representing the constituencies of England’s green and pleasant land care not a jot about a couple of hundred thousand Scots being fried and boiled and irradiated and generally killed should things ever go pear shaped at HMNB Faslane.
Of course they don’t really think that.
But in reality it doesn’t matter what they really think. The thousand words will not be made up by any of their words of explanation. The thousand words will come from the picture at the top of this blog.
The could have turned up to debate the danger of a nuclear Holocaust in Western Scotland.
But they didn’t turn up.
The picture of empty green benches doesn’t lie and picture isn’t about to go away.
Let’s face it guys. You keep offering the army of ‘Yes’ open goal after open goal. And we keep rolling the ball into the back of the net.
You stumble from one hopeless cock up to another and you still seem to seriously think that you will hang on to your Northern colony.
Aye right.     
 Helensburgh? Dumbarton? Glasgow? Anyone care...?


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Sunday, May 24, 2015

A WEEK IN A 1970'S TIME WARP



I have spent much of the last week in a strange kind of time warp. It has been a week of late night drives and early morning drives. The motorways of the northern half of Britain bathed in moonlight or the first rays of the sun. And every mile of the way I have had my ear phones firmly in place and guiding my wandering mind all the way back through four decades of my life.
Driving empty motorways and walking dogs down quiet country lanes in the company of David Peace and the first two books of his ‘West Riding Quartet’. Maybe you saw the film ‘The Damned United’. David Peace wrote the book that spawned the movie. The West Riding Quartet runs from 1974 to 1983 and as I write this, I'm about half way there. Peace is a Northerner who writes about the North. Not just any North. The north of the 1970’s and the 1980’s. He is a quite extra-ordinary writer. At times his sentences are almost painful to read, or in my case, to listen to. His words are violent, often brutal. He is one of the best I have ever read when it comes to picking out the sights and sounds and smells of a time gone by.
Time and time again I found myself yanked back four decades to the North I grew up in. 1974. A fourteen year old me. 1977. A seventeen year old me. Unformed and then a little more formed. Framed by the hardness of Blackburn and all it entailed.
At the time, the sheer violence of the world I grew up in didn’t seem remotely unusual. It was all I knew. It was how things were. Being taken back there makes me realise the unbelievable extent to which the world has changed. Alt too often we measure change in terms of gadgets and technology. We reminisce and chuckle at the clunky black and white TV’s our parents once upon a time rented from Granada. 
‘Great service you get renting your colour set from Granada….’ 
We recall boxy cars, kipper ties, platform shoes and flared pants. We shake our heads at archive pictures of Shawaddywaddy and the Bay City Rollers. We wince at the sight of Jimmy Saville and Gary Glitter.
What seems to have been lost is the constant violence of the times. The violence was multi layered. Across the board. At a headline level, it was the violence we watched every night on the news. Another body on a bleak Ulster street covered up by a makeshift blanket with blood leaking into the gutter. Huge street riots in the Ardoyne. Petrol bombs, half bricks and rubber bullets. Strikes, strikes and more strikes. And these weren’t strikes with songs and banners. These were full on. Hard, hard men with long hair and sideburns waging full scale war with lines of policemen. Twisted faces all coated in hate. Bloodied faces. Smoke and sirens.
Other violence was closer to home. Every Saturday afternoon provided a close up view on those crumbling terraces of the football grounds of the north. A constant electrical tension which would in a second explode into a surge of kicking and screaming. Bike chains and hammers and broken heads. And then the police would wade in smashing the guilty and innocent alike with their truncheons.
Nobody particularly minded. It as just how it was. It was the norm. You developed instincts. You developed a sixth sense about when things were about to kick off. At the football. In Friday night pubs. On Saturday night streets. In the Mecca in Blackburn or Angels in Burnley.
But it always kicked off.
Every single time.
What was normal then would be front page news now. Getting caught by the cops in the act of drunken idiocy on a weekend street meant summary justice. There was never any due process. Instead two or three of them would march you into an alley and beat the living daylights out of you. And when it was done, you had no particular sense of grievance. It was just the way it was.
Of all the street mobs of the 1970’s there was no mob quite like the police.
I had quite forgotten the brutal language of the time. Racism was a constant. Sentences littered with words which if used now would land you in court. Wogs and Coons and Niggers and Pakis and Spades.
On the rare occasions that an opposition team fielded a black player at Anfield, the terraces would rock with the song ‘Get back on your jam jar…’. Was it everyone? Not quite. But it was most.
Smoky working men’s clubs where a thousand manifestations of Bernard Manning had them rolling in the aisles with Irish jokes and Paki jokes and Nigger jokes. Accepted. Paid for.
Behind the casual violence of the day was a constant sense of underlying fear. The fear of getting jumped on a late night street. Fear of being picked up by the cops for the crime of being there and taken to a cell smelling of vomit to be knocked about. Fear of being put up against a wall at an away game in London or Birmingham and forced to answer a series of questions. So they could assess your accent. So they could give you a kicking if your accent was wrong. Fear of walking down the street on a run of the mill afternoon only to be shredded by exploding shop windows. Lacerating glass care of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army. 
And the biggest fear of all the fears. The constant, nagging, gut churning fear: the four minutes to put you affairs in order fear. A fear talked about over pints of bitter in pubs stained brown by a hundred years of nicotine. Stained and never rubbed clean. Why would it be rubbed clean?
What would you do if you heard the sirens go off? And it wasn’t just a practice? The real thing. Am armada of incoming Soviet missiles to end everything? The worst of it was that we knew exactly what the sirens sounded like. From time to time they tested them out. Physics on a slow afternoon. Grey skies outside. Hard desks bearing years of carved graffiti. And suddenly the wailing of the sirens would climb up the hill from the valley bottom and turn our stomachs to jelly. And for a few desperate seconds, your life would flash before you. And then the teacher would have a laugh at our pale faces and let us know that it was just a practice. Of course they could have let us know us in advance. Of course they could. And of course they didn’t. This was Blackburn in the 1970’s where no opportunity for casual cruelty would every be passed up on.
The pages of the West Riding Quartet are stalked by another deep and constant fear that ran through the North like a nagging cancer through those half forgotten years. The Yorkshire Ripper. Out there. Somewhere. Waiting to pounce with his hammer and his Philips screwdriver. The girls at school would never go anywhere on their own at night. Not then. Not in the North. Not with the Ripper out there somewhere. In the curtains of rain. In the red brick alleyways behind the terraced streets. On the waste ground left litter strewn and vacant when they flattened the old cotton mills.

And of course he had to come from Yorkshire. He had to do most of his work in Leeds. These were the days when Leeds was somehow the very epicentre of the violence of the times. The darkest of the dark cities. The violent heart of a violent time. Leeds United Football Club and the National Front and the Yorkshire Ripper. Going to watch Liverpool at Eland Road was like traveling across the Pennines to a war zone. The ultimate hostile territory. A post industrial wilderness of gaunt broken mills and broken glass. Walls casually daubed with casual hate. ‘LUFC’. ‘NF’. ‘WOGS OUT.’
“We’re going Paki bashing, we’re going Paki bashing, we’re going Paki bashing.......na na na’
The waves of hatred that poured out of the Kop End at Eland Road were like nothing else. No banter. No humour. Just pure, unrefined hate. And there would always be a few of them ‘going the match’ clad from head to toe in the white sheets of the Ku Klux Clan.
Jesus. Bloody Leeds. 
I remember one afternoon at University when three of us had driven out to the country one sunny afternoon to get stoned. We sat out in the sun and a hundred yards away there was the brow of a low hill.
One of the lads suddenly sat up and pointed to the skyline.
“Just imagine if about thirty Leeds came over there right now. Just imagine it.”
We imagined. There would only be one outcome to thirty Leeds suddenly appearing over that hill. A&E
There was no need for him to say ‘thirty Leeds United fans.’ Just '30 Leeds'. Leeds. A word that said all there needed to be said.
The Red Riding quartet takes the reader into the darkest corners of those violent times. The merciless, laughing brutality of the police. 
‘This is the North and we do what we want.’ 
It is scary to look at the early evolution of the out of control beast the Yorkshire Police Force was to become. The out of control beast that did Maggie’s bidding with such enthusiasm during the Miner’s Strike. The out of control beast that stood by and laughed whilst 96 of us were crushed to death at Hillsborough. The out of control beast that covered up what they had done for 25 years.
As the motorway miles drifted by, I was amazed at the extent to which my memory had erased the violence of those formative Northern years. The bleakness of the landscape. Brutality in every corner of life.
The hard North.
Leeds.
I took a break from David Peace and downloaded a podcast from the Guardian website. A journalist’s memory of 30 April 1975 when the helicopters evacuated the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Extraordinary pictures on the six o'clock news watched by a wide eyed fifteen year old me. And it had seemed like the marauding communist hordes were another step closer to engulfing us. The propaganda was wall to wall. Grainy footage from desperate looking grey streets in Dresden or Leipzig. The hard faces on the Kremlin balcony watching a huge procession of missiles driving by below. Documentaries laying out the stark facts of how it would be should the Red Army ever let their vast columns of tanks rolls west. Machine like athletes from East Germany sweeping the board at every Olympic Games. Women that looked like men. Men that looked like supermen. Faces like the faces on the giant posters on the giant walls of Moscow and East Berlin. Hard eyed, chisel cheeked and utterly focused. Brainwashed to one day come and get us.
Almost worse than Leeds.
But not quite.
The memorial to 30 April 1975 wrapped up with a small fact that seemed like the perfect full stop in my time-warp week. When an American soldier finished his 13 month tour in Vietnam, he would hunt for a present to take home for his mum and grannie. Most of them were teenagers away from their small town homes for the very first time. After months of gnawing fear and extreme violence, they just wanted to wrap it all up and go home. 
With a present. 
Something far removed from the napalm strikes and carpet bombing. The most popular choice was a two and a half foot tall ceramic elephant, delicately painted with bright colours. A small town twenty miles from Saigon built up a whole industry making these elephants for the returning GI’s. They were flat on top which made them idea for putting down a coffee cup or holding a pot plant. They could be kept indoors or outdoors. And they weighed a tonne. But this wasn’t a problem for the returning GI's as the US Postal Service was hugely subsidised. A ceramic elephant could be had for a handful of dollars and shipped home for even less. On some days at the height of the war, literally thousands of these ceramic elephants were weighing down the planes of the USAF transport fleet. One day, a particularly agitated Colonel lost his rag at all of his capacity being used up by the ‘Bloody Useless Fucking Elephants’
Soon his words were translated into intitials in the way just about everything is translated into initials by modern armies. ‘Bloody Useless Fucking Elephants’ became BUFE became ‘Buffies’.
And thousands and thousands of those Buffies are still out there in front rooms and on patios in the small towns that stumped up the conscripted cannon fodder of the Vietnam War. Holding coffee cups and pot plants. Carrying the quiet memories of a violent, violent time when brutality was so very much the norm.
My how things have changed.
















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Saturday, May 16, 2015

THE SNP 56 ARE BY NO MEANS THE FIRST THE CHALLENGE THE VERY HEART OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE. AND ALREADY THE EMPIRE IS BEGINNING TO STRIKE BACK...



Last week the new Tory Government decided that Thursday will now become 'Legislation Day'. It appears to be a dastardly little ploy to screw over the 56 SNP MP's who have made such a dramatic entrance to the 'Mother of all Parliaments'. 
And it got me to thinking.....
Maybe in some well hidden corner of Whitehall there is an old dusty book. A playbook which has been lovingly updated for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is the guidebook on how to hold onto a colony. Everything you need to know to maintain an Empire. Good chaps from good schools have passed the book along the line for centuries, adding pearls of wisdom every step along the way. Clive, Rhodes, Salisbury ..... they’ve all left their mark in the book. Entries written with a flourish. Beautiful handwritten bequests for all the good chaps to come.
Good chaps from good schools.
It appears that the book has been dusted off this week and examined for guidance by our new Government. And already it has started. Already the subtle levers of Empire are being pulled.
As a writer of pulp fiction, I just couldn’t resist it. Here is how a new junior Minister who I will call Harvey spent an extra-ordinary few hours of his life one day last week.
I claim artistic licence!

The euphoria is still running through him. Through every artery and every vein. What a few days it has been. The exit poll. The count. The champagne. The doting eyes of the delicious new intern from Balliol. The call from Number 10. The place on the team. Forty eight seconds on BBC News 24.
Even his cow of a wife has been half way nice to him. For once.
A new office. And is the intern’s skirt deliberately short? And is there been a new look in her sparkling eyes when she brings him his first cup of coffee of the day. Maybe. Christ.
A tap at the door. Baines from head office. A face like a coffin and the smell of three packs of Marlboro a day about him. Manners of a bloody pig. An over promoted comprehensive school type from some godforsaken corner of bloody Yorkshire. But scary as hell. All sharp elbows and the cold black heart of a Mafia executioner.
“You need to meet some people Harvey. Today. One o’clock. For lunch. Here’s the address.”
“But I’ve….”
“Fuck off Harvey. Just go. There’s a good lad.”
So he goes. Across town in a taxi to an address in Mayfair. A doorman with knowing eyes and a glacial smile. It seems he is expected. The door man helps him off with his coat and Harvey has the feeling that the man could snap his neck like a twig. If he wanted to. If he was told to.
Stairs.
Old paintings of men with whiskers and high collars.
A corridor with carpet which must have cost a fortune when it was laid sometime back in the reign of King George.
A small room with a view of the three story white town houses across the road. Multi-million pound pads for Arabs and dodgy Russians.
One table. Two men. Thin as crows and dressed in three piece tweed care of Saville Row. Smiling like a pair of ancient sharks. Dry skin stretched tight over dry bones. Regimental ties. Killer’s eyes.
“Ah Harvey. Splendid. What an excellent chap you are. Please. Take a pew. Drink? Of course a drink. Time for celebration and all that. We’ve broken out a bottle of the good stuff. Rude not to really. A majority! Who’d have thought it! Bloody marvelous.”
He sits. He allows his glass to be filled. A clock ticks out from one of the panelled walls. There is no background music. This is a room that has never known background music. Only the tick of the clock. Only the low hum of the traffic outside.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your names…”
“Of course you didn’t. We don’t do names, actually. We’re not the kind of chaps who go around throwing our names about the place. Not the thing you see. Not the thing at all. But we know your name Harvey. Bloody well in fact.”
They are both triangulating him with their knowing smiles. He feels like a wasp in a jar. Trapped. About to be suffocated. Powerless. Awaiting his fate.
“No menu here Harvey. No need to choose. We’re rather traditional actually. Today it is Toad in the Hole and Spotted Dick with custard. Agreeable?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“Excellent. A toast methinks.” A glass raised. A glass filled with ancient claret. A glass gripped by the bony fingers of a corpse. “To victory.”
Harvey raises his glass but fails to meet the old blue eyes which chill him all the way to the bone. He digs as deep as he can and finds an unexpected parcel of courage.
“Might I ask who you are?”
“Of course you might old boy. But we won’t tell you of course. You are not nearly far enough up the food chain for anything like that. Maybe one day. Let’s just say that we are the wheels within the wheels. We are the chaps who hold the line. Defend the Realm. Good enough?”
He gulps some wine. It glows all the way down to his gullet. “Of course.”
“But we know all about you old boy. Down to the last inch.”
“Knew you father too. Decent sort. Remember him at school. Shame about that unfortunate business in the showers of course. With that fag of his. Blond haired little thing. Deary me. What was the little tart called now….”
“Bashington-Hartley.”
"Good Lord. So it was. Bashington-Hartley. Quite a fandangle at the time I must say. But it all blew over. These things do tend to blow over. Anyway. I digress. That’s the thing with being such a bloody fossil. The mind tends to wander back a bit. Back a lot in fact. Never mind.”
The expensively clad skeleton patted the cover of an old book with gentle affection.
“This, Harvey, is the book. The bible. The comprehensive list of ways and means. You see Harvey, you don’t just to get to hang onto an Empire like the one we hung onto for centuries without learning how to pull a string or two. Think about it. In India there were a couple of hundred thousand of us and about five hundred million of them. And yet we still managed to keep our boots on their throats for two hundred years. And when we left, we had stripped their cupboards bare. Completely bare. That kind of thing takes a bit of doing. And all the good old boys who made it happen wrote it all down in this book. The bible. Which of course means that good chaps like ourselves now have the opportunity to dip into its wisdom to learn the lessons we need to learn to win the wars of today. With me old chap?”
Harvey isn’t with him. But he nods all the same. He has never in his life been this out of his depth. And the story of his dad’s forgotten exploits in the showers with Bashington-Hartley is still racing around his head like a swarm of bees.
“Excellent. Splendid. Knew you'd catch on quick. We will summon you from time to time. Spot of luncheon. Spot of claret. And suggestions. All you need to do is to follow the script. And then lots and lots of good things will start to come your way. It's the way of the world, old thing. A non-exec directorship here. A stock exchange tip there. And when things are all played out, it will be a 'K' and a cosy seat on the red benches. Maybe one day you will sit where we are sitting now and you'll become one of the guardians of the book. Sound good old chap?”
A knighthood. The House of Lords. Once of those six figure a year non-exec jobs for two days work a year. Course it sounded good.
“Actually, yes it does.”
“Of course it does old boy.”
More wine splashes into glasses. Another bottle is ordered. Toad in the Hole and Spotted Dick and custard.
Stilton cheese and Port from the time of the Suez Crisis.
“Right. To business I think. These 56 Scottish types who have just arrived promise to be something of a thorn in the side. A bit of a handful. And we can't be having that. Not at all. We're going to have to clip their wings. Keep them honest. Make sure they don’t get the chance to become over pesky. Of course we have seen this kind of thing before. Lots of times. The bloody Irish. The Indian Congress. Militant Tendency. That scientist chap, Kelly. We've always had our ups and downs. And of course the time always comes when we have no choice but to let go. But we pride ourselves on letting go on our own terms. Once we have filled our pockets, right? We have managed to keep it that way since the unfortunate business in America back in 1776. Not a bad record, don’t you think?”
“Yes. Absolutely.”
“The trick is not to do anything too dramatic. We pick at the loose threads. Wear the buggers down. Chip away. Erode. Get me?”
“Yes.”
“So. We can make a start. No time like the present. Parliamentary schedule. All of these keen Scottish types will get homesick soon enough. Come Thursday afternoon, they'll all be itching to catch their planes and trains back north to see their ghastly wives. And of course they'll want to win Brownie points by seeing every man and his dog at their surgeries on the Friday morning. So. Here is what you are going to do. You are going to make Thursday our 'Legislation Day'. Thursday will be the day that all the laws get voted on. And you will make sure that the debates on all these new laws will always run late into the evening. No problem for good chaps like you with constituencies in the Home Counties. A much bigger problem from our dear Scottish friends who are hundreds of miles from home. We’ll give them a choice to make. Do I stay down to vote on something that is basically all about England? Or do I knock off early and head home to my nearest and dearest? And it won’t be all that long before the draw of the bosom of their families becomes overwhelming. And then all those good chaps from good schools who now edit good newspapers will start to ask a few questions about attendance records of our new Scottish friends. No doubt you can see how things will play out from there?”
“Of course.”
“Splendid. So we can leave the details to you then. Thursday is 'Legislation Day' from here on in. More Port? Of course more Port. I can see we're all going to get along quite famously. I have heard from a little bird that you have rather a deletable little intern fetching and carrying…..”
His head is buzzing by the time the doorman with the eyes of a killer re-unites him with his coat and ushers him out into a fresh spring afternoon.
And Harvey knows that he has arrived.
No longer is he on the outside looking in.
Now he is on the inside.
At the table and looking out
One of them.
He is a wheel within a wheel.   

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