MARK FRANKLAND

The picture? Well the picture says that anything is possible. As in anything. The town is Darwen. And of course the guy is Gandhi. And those around him are unemployed cotton workers. When he heard they were all but starving because of his Indian boycott, he insisted on going to see them. Before he got off the train they were all ready to lynch him. By the time he got back on board he was their guy. Like they say - form is temporary, class is permanent.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A DECEMBER DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SCOTTISH FOOD BANK.




Mondays mean early. Mondays mean fifty loaves of bread are available from the Greggs store on the High Street where all vehicle access ends at 8 am.
Or else.
Technically the sun is up, but there is little evidence of that being the case. Downtown Dumfries is a country mile from making onto any kind of Christmas card as a half hearted wind wanders through the empty streets like an aimless beggar. It is a world of dismal orange as street lamps spill their light down onto wet pavements.
Not many people about. A street sweeper and the East European driver who parks up his artic wagon outside the Ryman shop at the same time every week with the cast iron punctuality of a German train.
Fifty loaves of bread for the hungry. 20 kilos worth of free and gratis carbs care of the nation’s favourite purveyor of fine pies and pasties. Our fifty loves will feed exactly fifty people for we have yet to learn the happy knack of taking a mere seven loaves and making them into enough to feed five thousand.
The next stop is usually Morrisons where we have a collection box. A rare chance to park up more or less next to the front door and walk into the store as it is rubbing its eyes and waking up. Donated tins and packets are scanned through on 'training mode' to give a total but no bill to pay. For the next year we also get the chance to empty the dog collection bin as the local sanctuary for the town’s lost and stray four legged friends is being sponsored by Pedigree Foods. And here’s the thing. There is always at least twice as much food in the dog bin as there is in the human bin. Ah yes. The Brits and our dogs. The Daily Mail likes dogs of course. And the Daily Mail feels sorry for any dogs who have fallen on hard times. Well of course it does. It’s not their fault after all. They deserve sympathy and support. Human beings on the other hand…….
Shirkers and scroungers. Obesity and daytime widescreen TV. Support and sympathy? Come on. Be serious.
But this week Morrisons will have to wait until Tuesday morning because there are too many other things to do.
I open up the front door and there are three hand delivered letters waiting on the mat. A card smothered in silver glitter. A country church almost swallowed up in snow. The paper is cheap and thin but the handwriting is scrupulously careful. The words are well worth quoting in full.
‘To all at First Base (Hand drawn smiley face)
Thank you for helping me and my family with food parcels this year! I know I couldn’t have done it by myself. Thank you again. Great work!’
So what do you make of that Mr Daily Mail. Nice careful handwriting and not a word misspelt. Not bad for a shirking, scrounging wastrel.
The second Christmas card is a snow covered pine tree.
‘Thanks for all you do. A little contribution to the food bank. Best wishes.’
The signature is illegible which is frustrating because it makes saying thank you an impossibility. And thanks are certainly in order as the little contribution is five crisp twenties fresh out of a cash machine.
The third card opens onto a cheque for £200. I was expecting this one. It is from a couple of fellow travellers from the ‘Yes’ campaign who rang last week to say they had decided to trust us to spend their Winter Fuel Allowance on people who needed it more than they did.
The phone rings for the first time in the week before Christmas week a minute or so after nine. It’s a guy who has got lucky at the bookies over the weekend and won himself fifty quid. Well it’s always nice to share the luck around, so has cashed in his winnings and headed into Tesco to roll his winnings into fifty quid’s worth of food for the hungry. Can he deliver it? Sure he can deliver it. I give him directions to the back door.
Next call. A voice on the other end of the line gears up to tell a complicated tale. It’s the captain of an Irish Sea trawler working out of Kirkudbright. He’s had a decent week and the scallop haul has been good. As his boat chugged back into the home port he has decided it would be good to share his catch around some.
So first we get the bread and now we get the fishes. Bloody hell. Next up will be three wise guys knocking the door with a satellite-bright star bathing the street in film set light. I cock my ear for the sound of a braying donkey but I hear nothing more than the sound of engines idling at the lights outside the window.
Anyway. My man from the sea tells me that he has put a 35kg bag of King Scallops up onto Facebook and invited bids on the basis that any proceeds will find there way to somewhere the hungry go for food. He says he’s had a few responses suggesting that the proceeds should find there way to First Base. But nobody has stepped forward to buy the scallops. So here’s the thing. There’s a 35 kg bag of King Scallops sitting on the deck of a trawler right now. If I can find a buyer then the money is all ours. But the clock is ticking. The boat is due to head back out to sea in the late afternoon.
OK. 35g of scallops. Seven hours. Life is seldom dull.
I leave a message with an old neighbour who once upon ran a fishmongers in the town before it closed down a few years ago along with all the other small businesses. Well. In the real world that is. All these shops are still to be found on Christmas cards where every high street shop is still a family run affair.
He gets back to me ten minutes later with a recommendation to call the owner of a restaurant who prides himself on his shell fish.
I call. He’s out. I tell my phone to remind me to call a little later. But not too much later for the boat will sail as the early dusk swallows up the brooding hills of Galloway into a dark December night.
Another call. Guys at the front door. They are from the SNP and they had been out and about on the High Street collecting food. An idea from the time of Dickens advertised through a slick Facebook campaign. One of them shows me a photo of the haul on his mobile. Bloody hell. My old Volvo is a venerable workhorse, but this lot ain’t going to be shifted in a single trip. A plan of attack is put together. Logistics are worked through. There is a lad from Shelter coming with a Land Rover Discovery. The odds are that the two vehicle convoy will be just about enough to haul the load.
Noon arrives and cars from the small village churches start to arrive at the back door to off load carrier bags.
Mince pies and selection boxes and chocolate Santas. Hundreds of kilogrammes worth of carefully considered goodwill.
A call from a lady with a softer than soft Irish voice. Could she deliver? Sure she could. More directions to the back door. By now men from the Council are out and about filling in the potholes of the Great Recession and getting in and out of Brewery Street is far from easy. The lady with the soft voice arrives and she says there isn’t much because it is only from her. But only from her means ten bags worth. Eight tins of family biscuits and four boxes of mince pies. Her eyes light up when we get into the basement. People are really good aren’t they she says. Yes I agree. People are indeed really good. And will you have enough? Oh yes. We’ll have enough. By hook or by crook we always manage to have enough. Only this year we’ve had more help than we’ve ever had before.
The SNP haul is gargantuan. The battered Volvo and the better cared for Discovery are weighed down to the wheel rims. A reporter from the paper lands and wants a picture. The tarmac boys find the whole thing hugely amusing as we make a stack of bags in the newly smooth road out back. I volunteer Iain and Lesley for the photo proving yet again that rank has its privileges. It’s the part I always forget to mention to our volunteers when they sign on the dotted line. Come on board and you get frog marched into the photos for the papers. I share a fag with one of the SNP guys whilst everyone beams for the camera. One of our back doors bears the spray canned daub of a charming gang of Buckfast swilling wannabe’s from twenty miles down the road. They made their mark a couple of years ago whilst on a day trip to town.
‘AMP’
As in the Annan Mental Posse.
You’ve got to love it, right? 
I wonder if their mark will be visible beyond the piled up food and the smiling faces. Part of me hopes it will be.
John turns up with contributions from the upper reaches of the Nith Valley. For years as an implacable Unite shop steward, John made the life of the management of Brown Brothers an ongoing misery. But once he retired, John buried his hatchet and they buried theirs. He swung us an appointment with the directors of the Kelloholm meat factory and after an hour they agreed to give us 85 packets of sliced meat every week. John ferries the meat south and then ferries food boxes to Thornhill, Sanquhar and Kelloholm in the opposite direction. Thankfully I am on the phone and he is in a rush. He enjoys nothing better than tormenting me about any trials and tribulations Liverpool Football Club might be going through. A three nil drubbing at the hands of the hated Mancs counts as a pretty major tribulation and I am delighted to have seen neither hide nor hair of the retired union warhorse.
At two o clock we get the doors closed and set about the task of unpacking and stacking the SNP bags. Tin by tin and box by box and packet by packet until the basement has the look of an underground bunker set fair to keep the men and women of the Government fed and watered for many a month in a post nuclear world.
Scallop time.
I climb into the cockpit of the Volvo and consider my audio options for the 25 mile run along the coast to Kirkudbright. There is a slow dusk and a thin rain. The world is a mixture of black and grey. The stage is set and ready for the words of Boris Pasternak. The audio version of Doctor Zhivago. You really have to be a Russian to tell the stories of life and the universe in that particular way they tell it. I drive empty roads as the Tsarist armies are routed on the Eastern Front and the approaching sound of a revolution begins to fill the air.
I reach the harbour for the last light of day. The sun has managed to find an unlikely gap in the clouds and the scene has the unworldly glow of a Spielberg movie. Boats are being readied for the sea and my man comes over to shake my hand. On board, two hyper polite Sri Lankans heave the bag of scallops onto the quayside and then into my boot. The guys on the decks have a United Nations look about them. I comment on this and hear what I already know only too well. Twenty years ago and the crews would have all been local guys. But the heroin industry made a beeline for the fishing boats in the nineties and sunk its hooks in deep. Many trawlermen became life members of what is now called the ‘Trainspotting Generation’
So now many Scottish trawlers are crewed by lads from Asia and Africa. They don’t half know how to fish but the cold never finds a way out of their bones.
We share a couple of fags and I really like the guy. Night falls and one by one the boats head out to sea with winking deck lights.
Time to go.
The rain comes back for the journey home as Yuri Zhivago starts to deal with the wrecked bodies of lads from the countryside sent off to a Twentieth Century war.
The guy at the restaurant wants to see some I.D. I give him an Annual Report and a leaflet about the food parcels. I just love the idea of a scam artist concocting a tale of being a foodbank manager in order to hawk a sack of King Scallops for £80. The transaction goes through. 
First Base is well and truly in the shellfish game.
Tomorrow I will buy £80 worth of tuna and turn shellfish into tinned fish.
One last call. It’s the local paper. Can I comment on the fantastic generosity of the community?
You bet.
Because the real world isn’t like the dismal abyss of hatred and selfishness which gets pushed into our faces by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. The real world isn’t like the locked down social wilderness Maggie Thatcher seemed to yearn for when she promised us there was no longer such a thing as community.
Not so Maggie.
Not even close.
I know the lady’s not for turning, but your ghost is more than welcome to check out all the selection boxes and chocolate Santas in our basement and then you can turn in your grave if you like.
Because Community rules OK.
Maybe I should spray it on the back door alongside the mark of the good old boys of The Annan Mental Posse. .    

Friday, December 12, 2014

HERE'S WHY I THINK RICHARD IS THE RIGHT GUY TO CARRY THE 'YES' TORCH NEXT MAY


Before going so much as a sentence further, I really should point out that this blog is unlikely to be of any interest whatsoever to anyone other than ‘Yes’ supporters in Dumfries and Galloway. So there you go. Pre-warned is pre-armed and all that.

Yesterday my phone beeped at me to announce that a message had landed in the box from Richard Arkless. He is campaigning hard to become the SNP candidate for our region in next May’s General Election. The message said he was in the process of setting up his candidate website and he wondered if I might be willing to write a few words.

Well Richard, a few words are the very least I can do.

I can’t pretend to know Richard well, but for a few months in the crazy countdown to the Referendum vote we became fellow travelers in the cause of ‘Yes’. We had quite a lot in common as a pair of ‘Ordinary Joes’ learning as we went along how to deal with the hurly burly of politics.

It seems worth kicking off with one of the issues that stirred things up on last night’s Question Time. Are today’s politicians detached? Have far too many of them done nothing more than get straight A’s in school, the right degree in University and done the right amount of crawling as so called ‘special advisors’ and sycophantic tea makers?

Want a case study?

So here’s a case study.

Ladies and Gentlemen I give you the Right Honourable Jim Murphy. Jim left school at 18 and took up a place to study Politics and European Law at Strathclyde University. He then studied Politics and European Law at Strathclyde University for THE NEXT NINE YEARS!

And then?

Well, as a fiction writer I would never dare to make this up but it is entirely true -  Jim never actually managed to graduate. Nine years and no degree!

However Jim spent his nine years productively. He made a beeline for the National Union of Students where he duly ingratiated himself with the powers that be in Scottish Labour. Who needs a degree when a bit for frantic crawling can win you the chance of getting into the mother of all Parliaments despite neither having worked a day in your life?

Well Jim made it all the way to the big house and predictably he became one of Tony Blair’s most fawning acolytes. He actually made it all the way to Shadow Defence Secretary where he took every chance to hobnob with anyone with Afghan dust on their boots. My how tough he talked to the Taliban through the lens of the TV cameras, though he didn’t prove to be quite such a tough guy when his steadiness under fire was tested by an incoming egg.

Jim is hardly alone in riding the Parliamentary gravy train with a CV devoid of real life experience.

Check out Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. A nice Hampshire girl who was top of everything at school. She then got a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford and was duly welcomed onto the gravy train with open arms. She did her bit researching for John Smith and Harriet Harman and was duly rewarded with the ultra safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford.

As in Yorkshire.

As in an Oxbridge nice girl from leafy Hampshire who has never done a proper job in her life being foisted onto people who once upon a time mined coal for a living.

As a Northerner myself, I can only wonder at how pissed off the good folk of that particular bit of South Yorkshire must have been to have someone like Yvette Copper parachuted in to become their voice.

The pathetic and infuriating life stories of Murphy and Cooper highlight the fact that Richard absolutely ain’t one of those.

Like I said, he’s an Ordinary Joe who has lived and breathed in the hard school of the real world. During the Indy campaign, he was always the one who was given the hardest job – it was down to Richard to explain all the unintelligible Economics stuff. He shelled out a couple of hundred quid or so to join up with Business Scotland and was duly rewarded by being given the job of explaining what GDP was to the good folk of Dumfries and Galloway. Time and again when chatting to people after meetings, they told me how amazed they were at finally understanding what GDP was for the first time in their lives.

I never failed to be impressed by Richard’s grasp of all aspects of the economy and the clear way he was able to explain it. Not once did I hear him resort to the comfort zone of jargon. I know this will annoy him, but the way he explains complicated stuff has much in common with Nigel Farage. Sorry about that Rich, but the ability to talk like a human being is not a thing to be underestimated!

For the last few weeks of the campaign Richard was out and about every night knocking doors and doing meetings. Sometimes there were 200 people in the hall, sometimes a mere ten. He didn’t get paid and I shudder to think how much his business suffered.

Nobody was left in any doubt as to why he threw himself into the fray with such wholehearted commitment.

Richard is a believer – plain and simple. He wants his kids to grow up in a country governed from a Parliament in Edinburgh.

At times the campaign got pretty brutal. One night Richard and I found ourselves debating Russell Brown MP and Elaine Murray MSP in Moniave. At the 'Yes'  table there was a charity manager and a Stranraer businessman. At the 'No' table there were two professional politicians with well over thirty years of experience under their belts. I think it is fair to say that neither of the full time politicos were in any mood to pull any punches that night! When Richard said that in his opinion the Scots were the greatest people on earth, Elaine called him a racist. Things got pretty heated. No quarter was asked and absolutely none was given. Richard never took a backward step and when economics were under discussion he ran rings round the supposed experts. It was genuinely tough gig.

Who won? Well here’s a clue. As we all know, the ‘No’ campaign won by two to one in Dumfries and Galloway. ‘Yes’ only managed to buck the trend in the poorer places where people are being hammered into the ground by the Welfare Reforms.

So what of Moniave? Well surely Moniave must have been a sure-fire bastion of ‘No’. A postcard pretty rural village with 40% of the residents being incomers from south of the border. Well folks, Moniave voted ‘Yes’. It was a heroic splash of red in an unrelenting sea of countryside blue.

I reckon that night in Moniave offers all the evidence required that Richard is the right guy to carry the torch for us next May. It is one hell of an ask for anyone representing the SNP to actually win the seat, but I would give Richard a fighting chance.

If any of these words have in any way, shape or form persuaded you to give the lad your backing then please share them around among the other 2000 folk who will chose who we send out to carry on the fight next May.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER



This really is a year of two very different Christmas worlds. Every waking hour of the day sees our various senses assaulted by frantic companies offering us lots of solutions to all our Christmas problems – what to give, what to wear, what to eat. Christmas on the tele is a snowy dreamland of a place where the streets are teeming with beaming families laden with tree ready presents. Mums of the year pull perfectly cooked turkeys from gleaming ovens in gleaming kitchens. Santa as everywhere.

Close your eyes and picture the typical TV Christmas High St. It has a kind of Victorian feel about it minus the pinch faced urchins with rickets. Most of the shops have a family owned look about them and their windows are decked out like something out of a Disney movie. The shoppers wear duffle coats and bobble hats and everyone is smiling so hard that they are in danger of ripping their faces. A soft snow is fluttering down and yet miraculously it isn’t turning to grey slush once it hits the pavement.

The Yuletide town centres of the adverts are the kind of place you would really like to be. In fact they are a bit like the rural dreamscapes where they make cider.

And then there is the reality.

The cold hard December reality of Great Britain 2014.

I took a walk into town yesterday to pay some cash into the bank. The Atlantic weather bomb the weather guys had told us about with such relish had very much arrived. The wind had the same kind of ugly brute force as a speeding coal wagon as it ripped along Buccleuch St. The miserable cut to the bone Christmas lights hung onto their lampposts like Philippino villagers in a typhoon.

No duffle coats and bobble hats. Just a small queue of cars with steamed up windows and a bus a third full of glumness.

Onto the High Street and not a family owned shop in sight. A couple of pound shops had made a half hearted effort to sell the idea of Christmas for a quid. Nobody had bothered to decorate the boarded up windows and why would they have? Still no duffle coats and bobble hats. In fact there were hardly any people at all. Just a few bent hurrying figures looking uneasily like the broken refugees from a Balkan war.

I met one of our food parcel regulars who was wrapped from head to toe in the kind of winter wear you can pick up for 50p from any good charity shop. Under the layers his face had a pale unshaven look and his eyes looked beaten. He told me that he was spending his morning looking for docked fags. Just like he spends every morning. But when the gutters struggle to handle the gurgling fallout of an Atlantic weather bomb, it ain’t such a great time to be out and about hunting for dockers.

Back in First Base there was a small queue of clients waiting for a bag of food. No duffle coats and bobble hats. Behind the counter Lesley and Iain are doing their best to inject some cheer and to be fair there was a mood to join in. But it is kind of hard to be cheerful when the power is off and the damp cold has gnawed its way all the way into your bones. One by one they unpacked their stories. The usual stories. Benefit sanctions and delays and appeals.

The stories of people who live lives which are forever ten pounds away from an empty cupboard.

A guy in his forties came through the door and asked if I could spare a couple of minutes for a word. Sure I could. He climbed up the stairs and looked soaked to the skin. Did he want a brew? No thanks. He said Sandy had told him it would be OK to call in. He said he had a wife and two kids at home, a fiver on the meter and nothing to eat. He said that the Job Centre were not happy with him. He couldn’t really understand why. He had been going online every day to fill in application forms. But they said he hadn’t been logging on properly. If he didn’t log on properly, how could they know if he had logged on at all? But if he hadn’t logged on how could he have filled in the application? That mattered not a jot. If he didn’t log on properly, as far as they were concerned he hadn’t logged on at all. And so without quite knowing how or why his life had descended into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

For some odd reason the Job Centre had decided to give him a tenner a week. Was that some kind of Christmas spirit? Maybe it was. Usually they give nothing. They had told him to appeal.

There was something in his eyes that worried me. It was the Balkan refugee thing again. Beaten. Competely beaten and devoid of so much as a shred of hope. Shuffling along the queue to the place where the balaclava clad executioners are doing their thing.

A potted life story.

Out of school at sixteen and straight onto a building site. A quarter of a century building stuff in and around Dumfries. A wife and a house and two kids. Then he decided that he was ready for a change and took up the chance to be the night manager job in a homeless hostel. Big mistake. Night after night the booze and valium fuelled violence of the residents ate away at him. Scared him. Drove him all the way to a nervous breakdown and pots of pills from the doctor. He was on the sick for a while as he got himself back together.

Then it was time to go back to the building site. Except it wasn’t because things had changed. He found that to get back into the building trade he would need to get a CSCS card to prove he was up to speed with the world of health and safety. OK, so how?

You pay your £200 and sit the test. 100 questions. Multiple choice. A walk in the park. And what if you don’t have £200?

Tough.

Job Centre time. Could he access his £200 learning account provided free and gratis by our ever caring State? Sure he could. Except the paperwork for some reason took six months to come good. When the cash arrived he got the books and did the best he could. Not good enough. He failed. He took the thing again and failed again. His problem was that when he left school at sixteen he really hadn’t done all that well. That was why he chose a career on building sites.

Surely 25 years of experience should count for something? It would be nice to think it would. But it doesn’t. Not in Great Britain 2014. In Great Britain 2014 you need a CSCS card to lay bricks.

So now he needs to come up with another £200 to get the chance to sit the test again. At £10 a week, it will take him five months to save the cash always assuming that he and the rest of the family knock luxuries like food and electric light on the head.

Fifteen miles down the road in the small town of Annan there is a fish factory that works 24 hours a day in December to keep the shelves of M&S filled with smoked salmon. It is the time of year when they take on temporary staff and there is no requirement for a CSCS card. He made an appointment with his adviser at the Job Centre and asked for some help in applying for a slot on the fish packing team.

Do you speak Polish?

Excuse me.

I said do you speak Polish?

No. I don’t speak Polish.

Well there’s no point in applying then.

Because in Great Britain 2014 you need to make like Lech Walesa to get the chance to shrink wrap salmon for M&S to create that perfect TV Christmas table.

No wonder his eyes were dulled into such utter defeat.

A phone message.

A home carer had called. There was a client outside the village of Johnstonbridge who hadn’t eaten for a while. Could we take a food parcel round? Back story? Jesus. Registered blind with a sixteen year old son. What was in cupboard had been enough for her to feed son and get him to school.

She had gotten by on cups of tea.

For five days.

We don’t do deliveries but what can you do….

I humped a week’s worth of eating into my boot and headed out of town. The weather bomb was raging over dark hills and the trees were all bent double. It was a grey afternoon tailor made for filming the darker corners of Macbeth. Dumfries and Galloway is drop dead gorgeous on a sparkling day in May but on a howling ay in December it can seem as unrelenting as the Gobi desert.

Grey sodden fields and clusters miserable sheep. Dark brooding copses and battened down pebble-dash villages with the feel of a post nuclear world. The directions said to look left fifty yards by a humpback bridge.

I looked left and there it was.

A crumbling cottage on a rocky hill with the carcases of long dead cars in the yard. The track was rutted enough to make 5mph seem way too fast. The barbed wire was rusty. The dry stone walls looked like broken teeth. The gale roared through a broken barn like a Panzer division.

She met me at the door with her sightless eyes. She was clad in many layers of torn clothes which suggested that thinks had been hard for a while. Another refugee of a another Balkan war.

And apologies and more apologies. Shredded pride. And of course she had never dreamed it would ever come to this. Do any of us?

A week ago her husband had upped sticks and buggered off into the bottomless greyness of December. And he had taken the Post Office card with him. And they hadn’t done the weekly shop.

She had hoped it would be a short lived tantrum and he would soon be back. And so a day went by and then two days and then three. And she had lived of cups of tea and stretched the cupboard to feed her son.

After five days she had told her home carer and her home carer had told us.

And here I was with a week’s worth of eating and guarantee of more should more be required.

Maybe he’ll come back.

And if he doesn’t, there will be a new card for the Post Office and life will go on.

Back in the car I switched on the radio to try and distract myself with some football talk. But I hit an ad break and an audio version of that perfect Christmas.

I switched off and drove down grey roads in silence.

The gale thundered along the skyline and the rain made the wipers work hard for a living.

No duffle coats and bobble hats.

No people at all.

Just wet fields filled with wet sheep. Just a husband gone with the post office card and an hundred question multiple choice test for a CSCS card.

Just a whole bunch of tailor made extras for one of those movies about a Balkan War.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

HOW THE NEW ERA ESTATE MIGHT JUST BE ONE OF THOSE PLACES WHERE THE FORCES OF GOOD OVERCOME THE FORCES OF BAD.



Every now and then the tide of history turns and the forces of good are able to land a knockout blow on the forces of bad. Sadly such moments are rare indeed. As a rule of thumb the forces of bad tend to hold all of the cards that count. Invariably the forces of bad have all the policemen and spooks and lawyers and politicians and media barons on their side. They have the ability to smash faces and then arrest the ones who have had their faces smashed and accuse them of being terrorists and hooligans in the press.

But not always.

Sometimes the forces of good are able to defy the odds and win the day. The key to winning these rare victories is to identify an opportunity and grasp it with total commitment.

It seems to me that such an opportunity is available right now in London’s New Era Estate.

A quick paragraph of background is in order.

In the 1930’s, a charity built the New Era Estate to provide affordable homes for a hundred families in East London. For eighty years everything was done according to the writing on the tin. And then suddenly everything changed. For some reason the charity decided it needed to raise some cash and so it sold the flats to a Wall St private equity outfit called Westbrook Partners. In a doomed attempt to try and add a sheen of respectability to their plans, the boys from Wall St hired a Tory MP called Richard Benyon to front things up. Well that didn’t work out to well as Guardian reporter Aditya Chakrabrotty gutted Benyon like a flailing fish in a magnificently savage piece of writing. Within hours, the over privileged toff found the heat in the kitchen to be considerably warmer than his blue blood could handle and he duly scuttled back to his 3500 acre Berkshire estate like a rat fleeing from a farm cat.

So now the battle lines are well and truly drawn. On the side of good are 93 families, the majority of whom were born and bred in London’s East End. They are regular folk who work in normal jobs for normal salaries and find it hard to keep the balls in the air. Right now they pay £600 a month rent. Well of course Westbrook Partners have much bigger and better things in mind than a lousy £600 a month rent for their new shiny toy. Initially they told the residents that they would have until 2016 before the rent went up to £2400 a month. But now they are changing their tune fast as the public spotlight has started to pick them out in uncomfortable detail. They seem to have decided that the best plan of attack is to get all the bad stuff out of the way as quickly as possible. So the word is that the 93 families will be unceremoniously dumped out onto the pavement early in the new year whilst Westbrook transfers ownership of the flats offshore to make sure they won’t have to pay any tax.

In many ways, the story of the New Era residents is simply another miserable example of blameless little people being trampled by uber-greedy faceless capitalists who hide from view in their downtown offices. There can only be one winner. Westbrook Partners have billions of dollars at their disposal to hire in the best lawyers in town and squads of gym fit bailiffs whose leather jackets stretch at the seams.

So what makes New Era stand out from a thousand other dismal stories of avaricious bullying?

Here's the main thing. The biggest thing. The most important thing.

The divide between good and bad could not be more profound.

On one side are 93 regular families who thought they were safe in homes which had been owned by a charity for eighty years.

On the other side we have a truly ghastly Tory MP and a faceless Wall St hedge fund.

Most important of all is the fact that the story is already well and truly in the public eye.

The big question is what happens next.

Things look like playing out in one of two ways.

The most likely outcome is that Westbrook Partners use their lawyers to smash the feeble resistance of the residents and in a year’s time New Era with have become yet another gated community for those who can afford £2400 a month rent.

A less likely outcome is that all the recent publicity will force Westbrook to come up with some sort of a weasel compromise which will allow the heat to die down. Then in a couple of years time when the New Era estate has disappeared for the public view, they will quietly evict the residents.

There can be a third option on the table and this would be the one which could turn the tide of history.

To come up with such a plan of attack it is important to reach back into history for some guidance.

We need to find examples of other times when the forces of good very visibly on the side of the angels whist the forces of bad had horns growing from the forehead.

The first stop on the journey is India in 1930. Mahatma Gandhi had by this time established something of an international profile as the funny looking bald guy in the loincloth who was standing up to the might of the British Empire.

What he needed was something to shine a light on the brutality and greed of British rule and in a flash of genius, the answer came to him.

Salt.

For thousands of years the people of India had made their way down to the shore to turn sea water into salt. But the British had put a stop to all that. The British had passed laws making it illegal for any Indian to make salt on the beach. Instead they were required to buy the salt which their Imperial masters had imported from the salt mines of Cheshire. Anyone caught producing their own salt would be beaten black and blue and then sent to jail.

It was a perfect example of the avaricious brutality of British rule and Ghandi saw it as exactly that. What he did was brilliantly simple. On 12 March 1930, he set out with 78 followers to walk 240 miles to the Gujerati coast where he vowed to make salt. Soon the original 79 marchers swelled to an army of thousands which became known in the media as the ‘White River’. Reporters from all over the world flocked to India to see what would happen next. What happened was exactly what Gandhi knew would happen. The British predictably behaved like arrogant brutes and started beating people and locking them up. Soon Gandhi and over 60,000 fellow members of the 'White River' were behind bars and the world looked on with open mouthed astonishment.

On the one side was a smiling little guy in a loincloth whose only crime was that he wanted to go to the seaside to make some salt.

On the other side were the policemen and the soldiers of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. What kind of people would smash people’s heads open with wooden staves and lock up tens of thousands for the petty crime of salt making? Bad people. Very, very bad people. The British Empire was exposed for what it was and Indian Independence became an inevitability.

The key? Ghandi knew that the British would behave with their usual blind, violent arrogance. They always did. Only this time he made sure that the cameras were on. And then he duly hammered home the point that all the brutality was being committed in the name of forcing the poorest people in the world to buy Cheshire salt.

Next stop.

America 1961.

New federal laws had been passed which made it illegal for a bus station café to refuse to serve a customer who happened to have black skin. It all looked very nice on paper and no doubt the Washington elite happily patted each other on the back. The problem was that the bus station cafes of the Deep South chose to completely ignore the new laws and no politicians were willing to risk losing any votes by making a fuss. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, America was emerging from the racial dark ages and passing new laws to guarantee civil rights.

Once again the sides of good and bad were separated by lots of clear blue water and the forces of good grasped the opportunity with both hands. On May 4 1961, thirteen volunteers – seven black and six white - climbed on board two buses in Washington. Their ‘Freedom Ride’ would take them all the way south to New Orleans. Their plan was to get off the bus at every station, use the bathroom and then go into the café for coffee and pie. At first the café managers of Virginia and North Carolina played it smart and served their unwelcome black customers with faces frozen in hate. But it was never going to last once the buses crossed the state line into Alabama. The bad boys in the pointy hats of the Ku Klux Klan were not about to allow any uppity niggers to enjoy coffee and pie in any of their bus station cafes.

The Klan drew their line in the sand on the outskirts of Birmingham. One of the buses was stopped and its tyres were slashed. The local police chief had arranged for his highway patrolmen to allow the Klansmen a clear 15 minutes to have their fun. The guys in the cartoon ghost suits smashed the windows of the bus, threw petrol bombs on board and then secured to the doors to make sure all of the passengers would be burned alive and duly consigned the even hotter and more permanent fires of Hell. Thankfully one of the patrolmen panicked and drove the men of the Klan back from the burning bus by firing his pistol in the air.

The only thing that was burned to a crisp that day was the bus, but pictures of the immolated vehicle flashed around the world. The veneer of civil rights respectability Washington had carefully painted into place was stripped away and the rest of the world gasped in horror at the primordial Nazi violence of the deep south. From that very moment the men of the Klan were driven back into their box and the road was open for Martin Luther King to march down.

Once again the gap between good and bad was a veritable chasm. Those who organised the ‘Freedom Riders’ knew exactly how the good old boys of the Alabama Klan would react to northern negroes ordering coffee and pie in their bus station cafes. And they knew it would not be a good look.


So.

Back to the New Era Estate and how things might play out. Westbrook will take things to court and the court will grant them the right to throw the residents onto the street. To achieve this Westbrook will engage the services of bailiffs with lots of tattoos and not a lot of hair. And the bailiffs will duly do their stuff and clear the blocks.

But what if…..

What if lots of people in London follow the example of the Indignados in Spain and give their mobile numbers to some sort of central co-ordinator. What would happen next would be very simple and easy to achieve.

  1. The bailiffs turn up.
  2. The residents let the co-ordinator know that the bailiffs have turned up.
  3. The co-ordinator sends a text to all the thousands of people who have given their mobile numbers.
  4. Thousands of people turn up at the New Era Estate and block the bailiffs from doing Westgate’s bidding.
All of a sudden the odds have shifted. Twenty hard faced guys in leather jackets against 93 families is no great contest. Twenty hard faced guys in leather jackets against a crowd of thousands is another thing altogether. So what to the bailiffs do? They ring the cops of course. Come and help us. We can’t do our job. But here is where things get interesting. The cops won’t like the look of things at all. They will find a completely peaceful crowd of good hearted folk who want to do nothing more than keep 93 families in their homes. Will they want to risk another London riot by piling into the peaceful crowd with tear gas and batons? Of course they won’t. So instead they will tell the boys in the leather jackets that they can’t get involved in what after all is a civil issue.

So the bailiffs will have no choice but to go home. Every time they try to return a text message is fired out and within a matter of minutes hundreds of people will be back in place to provide a human shield. At this point the thing will become hugely political. Will any of Westminster’s finest be willing to order the boys in Met Police blue to steam into a completely peaceful crowd to protect the interests of a Wall St private equity fund who have already shifted ownership of the flats offshore to dodge tax. Not a good look, right?

And all of a sudden it would not matter how much money Westbrook Partners has to hire in lawyers and bailiffs. All of a sudden they are completely powerless and friendless. All of a sudden they are completely toxic.

Just like Gandhi was technically breaking the law when he vowed to walk to the sea to make salt, those in human shield would technically be breaking the law by stopping the bailiffs from doing their nasty work. But what politician or policeman would dare to try and enforce that law in front of a watching world.

It could be great victory for good over bad and it could empower people to do more of the same. All of a sudden those shady characters with the money and the lawyers and the offshore billions wouldn’t seem so untouchable any more. All of a sudden they would appear vulnerable.

Before Ghandi’s salt march, the British grip on India seemed vice like.

Before the Freedom Riders, the Klan looked like calling the shots in Alabama for years to come.

Well. In both of those case the forces of good found a way to prevail and secure a permanent change for the better.

What is happening in the New Era offers a similarly perfect opportunity.

Let’s just hope that the forces of good can find a way to take it.    

Saturday, November 22, 2014

IF YOU THINK THE UKIP POISON LOOKS UGLY ON THE TV, YOU SHOULD SEE WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE AT STREET LEVEL



The picture? 
The guys in the picture are Spitfire pilots from 1940. They are some of the guys who stopped Hitler in his tracks. I wonder how many of them saw 1941? Not many I guess.
It seems to me there is something in this picture that Nigel Farage wouldn't like much.....
Anyway. 
Rochester and Strood has come and gone and Nigel Farage’s laddish seduction of the Brits continues to hit the mark. It’s amazing how far talking like a regular human being can get you. As a tweed wearing public school educated investment banker, Nigel really should be an identikit hate figure. Instead he has become the champion of white van men up and down the country for his love of a pint and his unashamed public smoking. In the pub, Nigel is pure knockabout and it seems like ever more people are lapping it up.
He has perfected the art of wrapping up spitting poison in a cloak of likeable harmlessness and he just keeps rolling along. From behind the laugh a minute curtain come whispers of a sometimes uncontrollable temper and a Narcissistic streak a mile wide. But what the hell. Only 30% of voters believe that Nigel was once upon a time a public schoolboy. Such a tiresome truth just gets in the way. More and more people want to like Nigel. He speaks their language. He doesn’t do jargon. He likes a pint. He’ll sort out all these bloody immigrants……
And too be honest, Nigel should remain as nothing more than an amusing figure who is always good for a laugh. Fair enough, 20% of Brits tell the pollsters that they fancy lending him their vote, but by far the more important fact is that 80% would prefer to stick their fingers in a toaster rather than vote for UKIP.
Nigel really shouldn’t be a problem. Not yet. Thankfully it seems that we Brits are still a long way away from being ready to take a stroll down the Hitler road of mindless hate.
The real problem isn't Nigel: the real problem is the leadership of the so called major parties who have the collective backbone of a prawn. Imagine if the three main parties were right now leaded up by Ken Clarke, Alan Johnson and Paddy Ashdown. They would meet Nigel’s nonsense head on.
‘This is poisonous bullshit and we’re having none of it.”
End of.
Kind of what Alec Salmond said, right?
Instead Cameron, Clegg and Milliband are so utterly pathetic that they are being reduced to trying outdo Nigel in terms of spitting nastiness.
There is a miserable perception that it is impossible to stand up for the benefits of immigration. To watch the pathetic antics of Ed Milliband, you think that he would face the same danger as his family would have faced back in 30’s Germany had they taken a stand and spoken out for the Jews. I am more than happy to be disgusted at his spinelessness. Over the last year of two, I have been the speaker in all kinds of rooms where there has been an anti immigrant mood in the air – Rotary Clubs, Women’s Institutes, Indy debates. Once the hate agenda comes to the fore, I have always promised myself never to take a backward step. My mother in law - who I adore - is an immigrant who came to these shores from Barbados in the late 50’s. My partner is black and my two lads are brown. As far as I am concerned, making a stand is non-negotiable.
But here’s the thing. It is actually genuinely easy to stand up for immigration, no matter how tough the audience might appear. It is easy for the simple fact that most people are actually instinctively decent. Sure, people are angry and why wouldn’t they be? But it takes mere minutes to persuade a huge majority that the reasons for their lives being so crap has nothing whatsoever to do with the people who have chosen to come to our country. It is not a remotely difficult task to point out the blindingly obvious fact that almost all of our current troubles are down to the born and bred white Brits who emerged from public school and Oxbridge to rake in millions in the City of London. People aren’t stupid. In their heart of hearts they know this. The problem is that the real bad guys are out of their reach. The real bad guys live in Mayfair mansions and cruise the oceans in their vast floating palaces. Hating them can seem as futile as hating the Martians. How much easier it is to blame a crap life on Mr Patel in the corner shop or Mr Kowalski on the building site.
UKIP are not about to do what Hitler did in 1932 and become the biggest party. They might manage 20 or 30 seats. I would happily bet £100 here and now that they won’t get close to beating the SNP next May.
And then what? Then they will almost certainly fade away. The public spotlight isn’t kind on UKIP. The brighter the light, the clearer their nasty true colours become. Right now there is enough novelty value for many to turn a blind eye to the fact that most of them are the same kind of guys who Cameron and Osborne once upon a time broke bread with at the Bullingdon Club before smashing up everything in sight.
Leaders like Clarke, Johnson and Ashdown would know this. They would keep their cool and let Nigel and his cronies run of steam in their own time. But sadly we have no such leaders. Instead we have cardboard cut outs who are scared of their own shadows. Watching Milliband launch his latest anti-immigrant agenda last week was enough to make any half decent human being reach for a bucket. Has the wretched man forgotten that most of his ancestors went up the chimneys of Birkenau and Sobibor and Majdanek and Treblinka? It would appear he has. The hell with family history. In a pitiful, disgusting, pathetic attempt to curry favour with the men who drive white vans for a living, he has instead opted to join Nigel’s Hate Club.
It is easy to write off the hideous antics of those who reside in the Westminster bubble as being of little relevance to anyone eking out an existence in the real world. So long as you go out of your way to be polite to Mrs Patel when you buy a newspaper and a pint of milk, then that’s OK.
To get a close up view of how not OK all of this is, you need to take the stairs all the way down the place where First Base lives and breathes. Only when you come along to the pitiless world at the bottom of the ladder will you see the living breathing damage wreaked by those who have joined Nigel’s Hate Club.
For the last three years we have been doing our very best to support Yemesi and her three children. Yemesi came to London eleven years ago. When they came off the plane, her son was five and her twin daughters were one. I will avoid personal details as it would be very unfair to put them out into the public realm. It is probably OK to point out that for several years Yemesi was under the impression that she was legally entitled to stay in the UK. Once she realised that this was not the case, she embarked on the tortuous journey to citizenship. When she first came through our doors she was in a really bad place. The waiting room for those wanting to become British is a truly brutal place. She was eligible for not a single penny of state support but not allowed to work either. It would be pretty hard to survive such a situation for a few weeks. Yemesi and her kids have somehow managed to hang on for years. The local community, particularly the school, have been absolutely fantastic, and by hook and by crook the family has managed to stay afloat. The last couple of years have been particularly nightmarish as the girls have suffered from nightmares caused by the terror of being deported back to the threat of the murderous madmen of Boko Haram.
In May they had their moment of truth. The future of their lives all came down to a judge in Glasgow. The lawyer from the Home Office played hard ball. He wanted to see the family put on a plane and deported. He didn’t care that the kids spoke not a word of the language of their ancestors. He didn’t care about the nightmares. All he cared about was meeting the remit he had been given. This was where the trickle of Nigel’s poison finally reached journey’s end.
It is a long and steady trickle.
Nigel does his good old boy in the pub thing. UKIP jump a few points in the polls. Cameron shits himself and heads for TV studios to promise to be tougher than tough on immigrants. Cameron picks up the phone to Theresa May and screams down the phone. Get your sorry act together. I need people on planes heading out of Gatwick and I need it now!
Theresa May picks up the phone to a Home Office mandarin and screams down the phone. Get your sorry act together. I need people on planes heading out of Gatwick and I need it now!
And so it goes all the way down the sorry chain with mortgages, car payments, holidays in Tuscany and final salary pension schemes threatened every step of the way. And in the end it all comes down to a terrified family, a vicious lawyer and a judge with four lives in the palm of his hand.
Thankfully the judge had no wish to become a member of Nigel’s hate club. He chose the world of human decency instead and granted Yemesi the right to remain in the UK. It took the Home Office nearly six months to send her the paperwork which means that she is finally allowed to work. But that is all she is allowed to do. The letter could not have been any nastier.
It had the kind of brutal tone that any of the faceless beaurocrats who facilitated the filthy work of Hitler and Stalin would have been proud of. It explained that the judge’s decision meant that the family was safe from being thrown on a plane and deported for two years. The two years are a trial period. If any one of the family commits any offense whatsoever, then all bets will be off and they will be deported. If Yemesi attempts to apply for any benefits whatsoever, then she may well be deported. She has the right to work and to pay tax but nothing else.
Last week she had an appointment at the JobCentre where she was awarded her National Insurance number. The lady she met was appalled at the situation the family was dealing with and quite certain that she could organise at least some State support. Yemesi asked me what I thought. I said she shouldn’t even think of risking it. A lot will change over the next two years. Were she to receive even a £20 voucher for emergency electricity, it might well be enough for some hard eyed lawyer to frog march them all onto a plane back to Lagos.
So the family battles on, sharing a single room which more often as not lacks any trace of heat or light. I am confident that things will soon improve. It looks like they will soon be able to move to a three bedroom flat at half the rent they are paying now. The Bedroom Tax means that there are plenty of empty three bedroom flats to be had for anyone who pays the rent themselves. She is an amazingly strong and determined woman and I have no doubt that she will be in work very soon. Her children are an absolute credit and forever at the top of every class they sit in. All three kids are now working at the weekends and between them they are covering the rent.
So long as Nigel’s poison doesn’t provoke a moving of the goalposts over the next eighteen months, Yemesi and her children will finally become British citizens and they will be a wonderful additional to our community. For the last year Yemesi has baked fifty cakes a week for our food parcels. We provide the flour, butter and sugar and some money for the meter. It is her way of giving something back.
Her best friend in London hasn’t been so lucky. Her friend has been in the UK for fifteen years. She has two kids who are seven and five years old. The UK is only world either of the kids have ever known and English is the only language they speak. The family pleaded to be allowed to stay, but on this occasion the judge said no. He agreed with the lawyer from the Home Office. He agreed that the kids were young enough to be able to adapt. They would manage to learn a new language. So very soon they will walk out of school for the last time, pack up the single bag they are allowed and be driven to the airport and duly sent to a country they have never known. The odds are that they will never go to school again as education is an expensive luxury in Nigeria and they will get off the plane with no money.
I have no doubt that Nigel would dismiss this as sentimental nonsense. Why should we offer a home to such people as Yemesi and her best friend? What have their problems got to do with us? We are a small, overcrowded island and it is high time we focused on looking after our own? Is that about right, Nigel?
Well maybe they do have something to do with us after all. Maybe many of the reasons why things are still so bloody awful in Nigeria are entirely down to us. Once upon a time we stole 13 million of their fittest and strongest people and worked them to death on our West Indian sugar plantations. In the 1960’s we happily armed the government side in a civil war and our guns and bullets enabled the Biafran genocide. And now our greatest blue chip company, BP, bribes every politician it came find to makes sure the oil continues to flow our way. And when the people rise up in anger, we make sure the very same bent politicians have enough British guns and bullets and attack helicopters to crack the whip. When we are short of maths teachers, we import Nigerian maths teachers. When we are short of doctors, we import Nigerian doctors. When we are short of Anglican priests, we import Nigerian Anglican priests. For hundreds of years we have plundered Nigeria of anything that isn’t nailed down.
But Nigel chooses to ignore all of this. No doubt he and his fellow investment bankers are more than happy to take their commissions on the oil money as it flows through the City en route to the Cayman Islands. And when Cameron is under pressure over a lack of doctors in A&E, he is more than happy to bribe fully trained Nigerian doctors to come to the UK and thereby leaving the sick folk at home in the lurch.
From the dark days of Empire to the present day, we have always taken places like Nigeria for anything we have been able to get. And what have we given in return? Our language and a pipe dream of a mother country that is kind and compassionate.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Yemesi and her children with be wonderful addition to our community. All four of them will contribute just like my mother in law Judy contributed hugely over many years as a ward sister with the NHS.
Our political leaders should have the courage to be honoured that such capable people are still willing to make a home here despite the hundreds of years worth of crimes we committed in their countries.
Instead these pathetic pygmies can do no more than follow Nigel into his Hate Club like so may chinless sheep.
Shame on the bloody lot of them.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

THANK GOD FOR THE POWER OF THE PEN


In 1989 Emile Zola picked up his pen and decided it could be every bit as mighty as any sword on the market. He then proceeded to crash out a letter to the papers which he awarded the compelling title ‘J’Accuse!’. And did he ever accuse. He went through the whole of the French Establishment like a dose of salts. In the language of 2014, I think it is fair to say that he didn’t miss and hit the wall. The reason he smashed a literary battering ram into the supposedly impregnable walls of the most powerful forces in France was the despicable treatment of an army officer called Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus had been appallingly stitched up for treason, publically humiliated, and sent thousands of miles south to the living hell of the Devils Island penal colony. Zola correctly identified the fact that Dreyfus was guilty of only one crime: the crime of being Jewish in an era of virulent Anti-Semitism. The enraged French Establishment reacted to the letter like a rabid dog poked with a stick and Zola was prosecuted for libel and only escaped being locked up himself by legging it across the Channel to England.

The problem for the Jew haters in the heart of the French Establishment was that people around the world read Zola’s burning words and were united in disgust at the way Dreyfus was being treated. Within a year Dreyfus was brought back home and freed. With eight years he was pardoned and fully re-instated.

The political leaders and generals who dispatched Dreyfus to the torments of Devil’s Island did so with comfortable certainty. They after all were the top dogs and they held absolute sway. Dreyfus was a Jewish nobody. They could deploy their prejudice with absolute impunity.

Well Emile Zola made a mockery of their perceived power with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper.

Our world is a very different world to France at the turn of the 20th Century. Every day we hear that Globalisation has changed the game and changed it forever. Governments and people are as powerless as each other. The whole shooting match has been bought and paid for by the mega-corporations who now pretty much own and control everything. They are all powerful and they soar above all of us in their Gulfstream jets. We are as incapable of forcing them to pay any tax as we are of making them treat their workers any better than modern day slaves.

This has been the week when the Economist printed a graph that really should make everyone’s blood run cold. The graph plotted fifty years in which two lines started far apart and inexorably drew ever closer until they have now come together.

The lines?

One line represented collective the wealth of the top 0.1% of American families. The other line represented the collective wealth of the bottom 90% of American families. It is truly mind blowing, don’t you think? The 16,000 richest American households are now worth more than the 90 million poorest American households.

This was the kind of situation that prevailed in France a hundred years before Dreyfus was packed off to Devil’s Island. Marie Antoinette came up with what sounds like something of a UKIP style strap-line when she suggested that starving poor people with no bread in the cupboard should eat cake instead. The 90% weren’t overly impressed with their Queen’s idea for a 'Great French Bake Off' and instead they opted for a policy of wealth distribution via the guillotine.

Of course it was easier in those days. The way to strip the wealth of the 0.1% wasn’t too difficult to achieve. 1. Storm Palace. 2. Chop off heads. 3. Nick everything that isn’t bolted down.

In our new digital world, things are a little more complicated. Of course a mob could storm the big houses in Mayfair but by the time they put the front doors in, the 0.1 percenters would already be up in the air in their Gulfstreams. At this point the murderous mob would learn the hard truth that smashing you way into a Mayfair mansion doesn’t mean you can get your hands on all those lovely billions which are tucked away safe and sound in Grand Cayman and the Royal Duchy of Luxemburg.

The last twenty years have seen corporations become ever more successful in their slow but sure take over of politics and the media. It is easy to feel that things have gone so far that there is no way back. It feels like the all conquering super rich have become genuinely indestructible.

Surely in the new digital age, the pen that Emile Zola once wielded with such devastating effect can no longer be used as an offensive weapon.

Well, over the last couple of weeks I have been truly delighted to find a couple of examples which offer proof positive that the pen can still be used to kick the dark forces of the Establishment where it hurts most.

OK. First up. For the last fifteen years I have been an author who has been well and truly rooted in the wannabe fold. Over these lean years, I have from time to time felt pretty damn jealous of John Grisham. Not only is he a fine writer, but millions and millions of readers around the world shell out their hard earned cash to read what he writes. Nice work if you can get it! However John hasn’t been content simply to count his cash and keep on rolling out the kind of stuff that is tailor made for Hollywood and Tom Cruise. Instead he has chosen to use his pen as a weapon in much the same way as Emile Zola did all those lost years ago.

The most blighted corner of modern day America must surely be West Virginia. Every years it tops all the charts which map the extent of human misery and deprivation. The men and women who live in the Appalachian mountains have been the butt of their nation’s jokes for years. They are the Hillbillies. They are laughed at for being backward and stupid and inbred. They should really be a people blessed to born into a region of gorgeous mountains and forests and bubbling streams. Instead they are cursed by the fact that those very same mountains are stuffed with billions upon billions of tonnes of coal. Wherever there is a coalfield, life tends to be a hard business. The guys who hack the coal from the belly of the earth are always the very hardest of men. And those in the boardrooms of the companies who rack up the cash on their balance sheets tend to be even harder men. When bosses and workers fall out with each other in the coalfields, things always get pretty tasty. For two hundred years the scales slowly but surely tipped in favour of the guys in the helmets. But then everything changed. Over the last fifty years or so, the coal unions around the world have been well and truly broken. In Europe this has meant that coal mining has all but died.

Not so in West Virginia. In West Virginia ‘Big Coal’ has outdone itself. They have decided that digging tunnels into the heart of mountains to hack away at seams of coal is too much of a hassle. It means employing lots of living, breathing human beings who aspire to a decent standard of living and the right to work in relative safety. Well of course that kind of nonsense seriously gets in the way of stashing away lots of lovely millions in offshore treasure troves. So ‘Big Coal’ gave up on the tiresome idea of digging tunnels. They decided it would be a whole lot easier to simply blow the top off the mountain and keep blasting until they reached the coal seam. It meant that instead of having to use the services of irksome human beings, they could do the job with explosives and giant diggers.

The brutality of the process almost beggars belief. Once they have blown a chuck off the top of the mountain, they shove the rock away into the valleys below and thereby choke up all the streams. When they reach the coal seam, they hack it out with vast mechanical shovels and them convey it into huge tanks where they wash off all the none coal materials. This process leaves them with two products. The first product of coarse is coal which is duly trucked away to the nearest railhead. The second product is a filthy, toxic grey soup called coal slurry which is brim full of the kind of deadly heavy metals that Vladimir Putin’s lads like to use to see off his critics. Big Coal has two ways of dealing with the coal slurry problem. If there is an old disused deep mine handy, they will pump the slurry into the old shafts. If there isn’t a handy old mine, then they use all the blown up rock from the top of the mountain to make a damn which they then use to create a festering reservoir of billions of gallons of sludge. Either way, the heavy metals soon seep into the water system and any poor bugger unlucky enough to live close by will more than likely have cancer in a matter of a few years.

When George Bush squeaked into the White House in 2000, he jokingly claimed that his campaign had been ‘Coal Fired’. ‘Big Coal’ stumped up more than 50% of his campaign costs and once he got his Texan boots under the Oval Office table, he paid them back tenfold. He tore up any pesky legislation that threatened to get in the way of the giant diggers and Big Coal was left with a free hand to transform huge areas of West Virginia into toxic moonscapes. Did anyone pay any attention? Of course they didn’t. The kids with the tumours were Appalachian kids. Hillbilly kids. Nobody kids. Dirt poor kids. Kids who don’t count like other kids.

The way Big Coal threw its weight around would have made a Victorian mill owner blush. When one of the damns burst on a slurry reservoir in Martin County, Kentucky in October 2000, it released ten times more filth into the local rivers than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska eleven years earlier.

But nobody noticed. Nobody cared.

Well John Grisham has chosen to use his pen to launch a magnificent attack on the monstrous antics of 'Big Coal'. His latest novel is called ‘Grey Mountain’ and it is fair to say that he hasn’t missed and hit the wall. I thinks it is the finest hatchet job on the disgusting behaviour of global corporations since John Le Carre’s ‘The Constant Gardener’ took apart the vile behaviour of the big pharmaceutical companies. Oh and how those ghastly suits in the boardrooms of Big Coal must yearn to send a pickup full of goons round to John’s house to beat him into silence. But they wouldn’t dare of course. For to do so would only double sales figures which are already guaranteed to be huge. John could have chosen to stay in an easy comfort zone and keep on rolling out middle of the road legal thrillers. He didn’t. He went into the desperate doomed towns of the Rust Belt where crystal meth dens have replaced the steel mills and he has given the people who live there a voice.

A loud voice.

After Grey Mountain it will be much, much harder for 'Big Coal' to act with such smug and deadly impunity. So bloody good on you John. You have my complete and utter respect. And jealousy of course.

Having finished the book, I trawled YouTube and found a truly gut wrenching video called ‘The Last Mountain’ which makes for a harrowing hour and a half. If you want to take a close up look at the uncontrolled brutality of the Big Capitalism of the 21st Century, I strongly encourage you to free up ninety minutes of your life and give it a watch. Here’s the link.


Second up.

Last Monday Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian turned his pen into a Kalashnikov and used it to shoot a ghastly Tory MP called Richard Benyon full of holes. Aditya is probably my favourite journalist and a couple of weeks ago I was well and truly chuffed to be interviewed by him about foodbank stuff. His ‘J’Accuse’ style hatchet job on the Right Honourable Richard Benyon MP would have had Emile Zola punching the air. Benyon was born with a bigger silver spoon than most in his mouth. His family live on 3500 acres of Berkshire and they don’t half rake it in. He is a man who loves nothing better than to spout on about the shirking scroungers who sponge off the state. The hated 'something for nothing' people who are forever on the front page of the Daily Mail. It turns out that Benyon himself doesn’t mind a bit of something for nothing himself. Last year Aditya discovered the elected member had in fact received a hell of a lot for nothing. He raked in £650,000 worth of Housing Benefit from West Berkshire Council and £2 million worth of grain subsidy from Brussels. It just goes to show – sponging and shirking certainly pays!

Anyway. Benyon has a property development company and he hooked up with some New York guys who has discovered a promising looking block in East London. The New Era Estate was built by a charity in the 1930’s to offer affordable housing to 100 East London families and for eighty something years it has done exactly that. But men from Manhattan sniffed out the fact that the charity wanted to cash in its prime asset and they made them an offer they chose not to refuse. Then they broke the news to the residents that their £600 a month rent would be going up a touch once their contracts ran out in 2016. Just a tad. Well surely £2600 a month is a bargain in anyone’s book for a pad in such a promising location? You only need to earn £100,000 a year to pay this kind of money so what on earth is the problem? It's not like you have to be super rich or anything.
 
One grandmother who has lived on the New Era Estate for fifty years went along to the local Council to ask what would happen to her once the new rent came into effect. They suggested her best option would be to move to Stoke.

In a few hundred words, Aditya laid bare the cold vicious greed of Benyon and within 48 hours he had run away from the deal with his over privileged tail firmly between his legs.

If you would like to have a read of Aditya’s ‘J’Accuse’, here is the link. It really is worth the time.,


Many years ago Edmund Burke wrote ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’.

Well both John and Aditya chose not to do nothing. Instead they chose to do something. They chose to weaponise their pens and as a result there is a little less corporate evil in the world.

You both have my absolute respect guys.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AFTER THE REFERENDUM, I FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT LABOUR AS I DO ABOUT MAN UNITED.... AND IT AIN'T PRETTY!


On a Saturday afternoon a little over forty years ago, I got into the car with my dad and drove for thirty five miles. Little did I know that over the course of the next few hours something huge was about to added to my life. The drive took us from the textile towns of East Lancashire to the sprawling city of Liverpool on the banks of the river Mersey. We went from the valleys to the flatlands: from a skyscape of mill chimneys to a skyscape of dockyard cranes.

We parked up and had a pint in an extraordinary thin pub which was packed with larger than life characters who spoke in an accent I could barely comprehend. At thirteen years old, I duly worked my way down my pint whilst dad sank two or three. The guys in the pub would have frowned with disapproval had I chosen the Coca Cola that I would have much preferred. And my dad would have been uneasy to have been seen in the company of a Coca Cola drinking thirteen year old son. This was Lancashire 1973 and rules were rules.

Then it was out of the nicotine stained darkness of the pub and out into a sparkling autumn afternoon and a walk across the manicured Victorian magnificence of Stanley Park to where the high stands of Anfield crouched in the midst of a warren of tight terraced streets.

It wasn’t my first football match. For five years we had been season ticket holders at Turf Moor, Burnley – my dad’s boyhood team. But he had been driven to cursing distraction by the antics of the club’s butcher chairman who had sold all the best players in order to build a new stand and call it after himself. Well dad was having none of it. Our season tickets were not renewed and the plan was to adopt and pick and mix approach. His plan was to tour the venerable stadiums of the north of England, choosing a different venue each week.

Anfield was the first venue.

And the last.

From the minute I reached the top of the steps and took in swaying sprawl of the Kop, I never wanted to go anywhere else and I never have. Forty one years and well over a thousand games later my fortnightly trips down the M6 are still a central part of my being.

I was not born and raised in Liverpool. I have never lived on Merseyside. Instead I am a once a fortnight day tripper to the city. Of course everything has changed beyond all recognition. On that distant afternoon, I looked over the muddy pitch to where the great Bill Shankly took the acclaim of his disciples on the Kop like a modern day Emperor. Shanks epitomised the city in 1973. A hard as nails lifelong Socialist from the tough school of the Ayrshire coalfield. He was no frills and a the kind of working class hero that John Lennon had committed to vinyl. The Pool was a tough place back then; a place where the life expectancy of a scab was measured in days. A city built on the backs of African slaves that had been sticking up two fingers to the rest of the country for as long as anyone could remember.

Shanks was the granite face of the city with his gravel humour and hard man charisma.

What was there not to like for the wide eyed thirteen year old? I became an adopted son and the city was more than happy to adopt me. Liverpool isn’t fussy about who it adopts. Once upon a time it was hundreds of thousands of starving Irish families. Now it is weekending Scandinavians who come in with Ryan Air for two days of Beatles and Liverpool FC. Now it is the 60 million strong worldwide Diaspora of Reds who log onto the club website every day in Kuala Lumpur or Shanghai or Soweto.

We are each and every one of us shaped by the vision Bill Shankly once sold to a city that was tailor made to hang on his words. It isn’t just football. It never has been. It is that unique, stroppy city by the sea which keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up with a bloody nose and a cocky grin.

We are partisan.

And like all partisans, there are always two sides of the coin. There is the love of our own team but equal in every respect is our bottomless contempt and loathing for the eternal enemy at the far end of the East Lancs Rd – Manchester United Football Club.

It means that if we get beat 1-0 it never feels so bad so long as they have got beat 2-0. Being seventeenth is no great problem so long as they are eighteenth. A Mancunian failure can give more pleasure that a Scouse success.

Schadenfreude defines any partisan. Schadenfreude joins those who loathe the enemy as much as they love their own.

Is it a thing to be proud of? No. It just comes with the territory. Back in 1973, falling under the magic spell of Shankly’s Anfield had nothing to do with hating United. That came later. That came once I became an adopted son. That came when I became partisan.

It creeps up on you and once it has you in its grasp it never goes away. It is neither pretty nor commendable. It’s just the way it is.

Over the weekend I realised that I am now a part of another similarly partisan group – the ones who fought for a ‘Yes’ vote. The media was awash with stories that a coup was about to dispose of Ed Milliband and replace him with Alan Johnson. The prospect of this happening sent a familiar sense of dread down my spine. With Milliband at the helm, it looks like a racing certainty that Labour will be subjected to a complete and utter humiliation next May. Johnson? That would be a nightmare. All of a sudden the enemy would have a new boss who might just to start to turn the ship around. All of a sudden they would have a guy who isn’t public school and Oxbridge. Instead they would have a guy who talks like a human being who once upon a time delivered the Royal Mail. I realised that the feeling of dull dread was identical to the familiar feeling I have known for so many years when the papers are filled with rumours that the Mancs are about to sign a new multi million pound superstar striker.

It’s not just that I want my side to win. I also want the other side to lose. Heavily. Utterly. With complete humiliation. Were United to fall apart like Leeds and Rangers and be relegated to the depths of the third tier, then I would no longer have the biggest game of the season to look forward to. Would I care? Not a chance. Losing the hugeness of United coming to Anfield would be a tiny price to pay for the utter joy of watching the Mancs collapse like a house of cards.

There is seldom any logic to Schadenfreude. If I sit down and read the list of the Labour Party’s proposals for the upcoming election, I dare say there wouldn’t all that many I have great objection to. But such sensible logic doesn’t even begin to come into it. After the lies and general obscenity of the Better Together campaign, there is no room for sensible logic. I am no more born and raised in Scotland than I was born and raised on Merseyside. But after the referendum campaign, I certainly feel like an adopted son.

I found being a part of ‘Yes’ triggered the same partisan emotions that Shanks triggered all those years ago. It’s us against them. They’ve got all the money whilst we make all the noise.

When I read Alan Johnson’s article in the Guardian this morning where he promised in capital letters that he would never, ever stand to be the Labour leader, it reminded me of hearing the news that Paul Gascoigne had chosen Spurs ahead of United. Or when Alan Shearer chose Newcastle over United.

Of course there are plenty of sensible and logical reasons for anyone on the side of ‘Yes’ yearning for a complete Labour wipeout in May. Such an outcome would surely bring the date of our eventual Independence much closer, just like Man United in crisis means Liverpool have a better chance of landing the title.

But I might as well be honest. There is little calculated logic behind my hopes for a springtime wipeout of the Red Tories.

To see then wiped of the face of the Scottish political map one by one will give me every bit as much pleasure as watching Messi’s Barcelona dismember United in Rome like a sadistic five year old pulling the legs off a spider.

I guess that means I have become a partisan. Something tells me that I am not alone!