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

Sunday, November 16, 2014


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.  

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful Mark, I started off feeling that things are hopeless, that we truly cannot change things for the betterment of all. Now, after finishing your post I feel, well, maybe we can. So thank you, and of course Grisham and Aditya Chakrabortty. AYE we will succeed