FEBRUARY 2020 – AN ENGLISH STATELY HOME, NOW A COUNTRY CLUB
The crunch of gravel underfoot and sting of the frosty morning air on his face elicited a smirk of contentment from Bond as he sprung his door lock with a click. He was alive and ready for his next test. No sooner had he fired up the engine of his Aston Martin Zagato, engaged seat heater and adjusted the cabin thermostat, than his mobile rang.
“Have you heard the news, Bond?”
“I’ve been keeping a cute masseuse busy at my club, what’s happened?”
“Spectre’s plans to de-stabilise the West have taken a big step forward.”
“Their USA agent, Donald Trump, has just been re-elected. We’ve just intercepted a conversation between him and his British counterpart, Agent BoJo. They’re about to put the next phase of their grand plan into motion.”
“Can you play it to me?”
“Certainly. Here is the relevant extract…”
“…my most discombobulating applause, nay, Roman Senatorial salute, to you, mighty orange leader, for your excellent and devious re-election.”
“Cut that annoying word-play, Boris. Keep it for the Limey Press. Now we’ve both lied to and confused our people enough to get elected, it’s time to put our plan into action.”
“Of course it is, oh Great Carbuncle.”
“I hope you mean that affectionately, Boris. Now get hold of that weasly guy with the foreign name…”
“Do you mean Nigel… erm… Farage?”
“Yeah. Agent Mirage, let’s call him. He’s a barely believable vision of false hope. Now you two get busy with collapsing the British economy and trading the Pound down until it’s worth as much as a lousy nickle. Then make a very public appeal for help to the good old US of A and I’ll come to the rescue. It’ll be a work of art, Boris. A piece of homemade apple pie. The last and greatest privatisation – Britain sold to the USA for a pittance to become our overseas colony and launchpad for European de-stabilisation. It’s a beautiful plan. I’m so clever.”
“Oh yes you are, mighty orange-furred bear. The stupid British are so easy to manipulate with their pathetic aspiration, their tacky cuckoo clocks and cheap Banksy prints, so easily distracted with cookery shows and obsessed with selling their junk on the Antiques Roadshow…”
“Yes, yes, Boris, stay focussed. Remember the sequence – number one?”
“Erm, number one – put an end to all public spending.”
“Yeah. Number two?”
“Err… This will lead to famine, preventable deaths and widespread rioting, so declare a state of emergency and mobilise what’s left of our run-down military.”
“Good. Then part three?”
“Errr… part three, mmm… can you help me out?”
“You oaf, lay off the brandy and American chicks! Number three is start a run on the pound. You and the Mirage will organise the wholesale selling of the pound until your currency collapses. I’ll get Soros in Wall Street to do the same. After a few days, your pathetic parliament, isolated from Europe, will be begging us to come in and help…”
“Yeah! and that’s when I’ll take control of negotiations and we’ll cut one of your deals!”
“That’s right Boris. Britain will be so weak and confused, I’ll buy it for a few bucks and kick the Royal Family out of those palaces that we’ve earmarked for Trump Hotels. We’ll arrange safe extraction for you and anyone you care about… is there anyone?”
“I, erm, can’t think of anyone offhand, Donald… all my ex’s and my children hate me.”
“Nevermind. We’ll fly you back to the city of your birth, New York – we haven’t forgotten that you’re one of us at heart – where you can rule Britannia from a safe distance. We always knew you’d come back, Boris. The ensuing civil war should reduce your population to a more manageable 40 million. Then we’ll send the troops in. It’ll be like that movie, 28 Days Later – one of my favourites…”
Bond interrupted the recording with a bellow of rage. “I’ve heard enough, X! That smug, entitled buffoon must be stopped before this escalates!”
“Precisely, Bond. Come in for a briefing and then see Q for the latest deadly gadgets. You’re going to need all the stealth you can muster to get close to agents BoJo and the slippery Mirage. They must be eliminated – this comes right from the top. BoJo lied to our Head of State and now she wants payback. Get here as fast as you can.”
With a spray of gravel, Bond headed down the driveway and out through ornate sandstone gates onto a peaceful country lane. Its peace was soon torn apart as he floored the accelerator and with a mighty roar, leapt to 80 in a heartbeat. Bond felt the call of history on his shoulder – all his previous missions had merely been practice for this monumental moment. The smokescreen of Brexit had distracted a divided country, allowing the party of corporate greed and asset-stripping to be re-elected with a working majority.
“How foolish and gullible we are,” Bond muttered through grinding teeth. “But I’ll fix it. Sometimes democracy needs a helping hand.”
“Well, it’s a big HELLO from Grime TV, your host, Dermot Blimp, and my glamorous assistant, Gloria MT Nester!”
A Floor Manager whips up the studio audience to feverish applause, with wolf whistles and yelps further elicited with the skill of a symphony orchestra conductor. Gloria twirls her golden gown and flutters her heavy, sparkly eye lashes as more applause is milked from the studio sea lions. Dermot pulls down his powder blue jacket cuffs and makes an awkward twirl, like an only child desperate for attention.
“Tonight, it’s the night we’ve all been waiting for!” Dermot shouts to quell the noise. “Yes, after three rounds of skulduggery and back-stabbing, we now have the Grand Final!” He exhibits his pearly white grin to camera one and then, with a flick of his blond fringe, turns to his left. “Gloria, please bring on our two contestants!”
A wave of applause greets two shuffling figures who emerge almost sheepishly from opposite wings, blinking in the glare of the studio lights. One is a large furry orange monster, who almost stumbles and has to be helped to his podium by the remarkably agile high-heeled Gloria. The monster grunts and makes an awkward grab for her bum, but she sashays out of reach with practiced skill, whilst maintaining her perfect smile.
“He’s a bit of a lad – welcome contestant number one, the Honey Monster!” Dermot trills. Wild applause, walrus noises and whistles from the unruly half of the audience breaks out like a fever.
“And to my right, his opponent – clever but dangerous, it’s Doctor Hannibal Lecter!” More reserved clapping greets the sinister figure standing to attention in a black suit, acknowledged with a slight bow and a fixed smile that doesn’t touch his dark, soulless stare.
Dermot and Gloria are now side-by-side between the two contestants, and Dermot squints at the prompt card in his hand before grinning at the camera. “Yes, folks, after three gruelling weeks of competition, we now have a final showdown between the two highest vote-winners; to my right, the Honey Monster, and to my left, Doctor Lecter, or Hannibal the Cannibal to his friends.”
Further applause allows him time to fix his floppy hair in the reflection of the camera lens. “Now for a round of questions aimed at eliciting their suitability for the top position, followed by a studio vote. Gloria, our first question please.”
“Thank you, Dermot. The first question, from Mrs Plimsole in Harrow, to both candidates, is, ‘What is your favourite meal of the day’. First, to the Honey Monster.”
The camera zooms in on the orange fur-ball who tilts his head, causing his disk-black eyes to roll. “I like Sugar Puffs for breakfast! I am the BEAST, I mean BEST – vote for me!” he growled triumphantly, punching the air. The audience applaud as the camera returns to the smiling Gloria.
“Thank you, Mister Monster. And now the same question to Doctor Lecter.”
A hush falls on the studio as the camera slowly zooms in on his dead-eye stare. “I like to have dinner with an old friend,” he quietly intones. “I am a gourmet chef in my spare time, and my speciality is liver, gently sautéed with fava beans and served with a room temperature Chianti.”
Four further lifestyle questions are asked by Gloria before Dermot reclaims the limelight. “Thank you, Gloria, and our contestants. I think we can say we know a lot more about them. Now for a more serious question. What is the biggest change each of you would make if you won this competition?”
The Honey Monster scratches his wild, unruly orange head and rolls his eyes. “Erm, more public holidays and free Sugar Puffs! Hee hee hee.” His huge shoulders rise and fall in mirth as the audience whistle and clap.
“The same question to you, Hannibal,” Dermot grins.
Doctor Lecter fixes him with a deadly stare at presuming to address him by his first name. “You must come ‘round for dinner, Dermot, my dear. I would continue with my important work of downsizing the public sector and freeing up more money for the already filthy rich; and covertly privatising the health service so that party members can benefit from directorships and bonuses through briefcase companies whilst a string section plays Mozart over the death screams of our nation.” He smiles benignly as polite applause ripples around the room.
“Well, that’s some ambition,” Dermot croons. “Now, one final question before we go to voting. Based on experience, what do YOU think best qualifies you for the top job? Mister Honey Monster first.”
“Errr… because I’m a big orange lovable monster, I can get away with anything because of my stupid grin and make stuff up that I later deny. Tee hee hee.”
“And what about you, Doctor Lecter?”
“I am not handicapped by compassion or empathy, Dermot, and smile as I make life-or-death decisions. As long as the rich get richer, that’s all that matters.”
“Wow. What succinct summations from our two political heavyweights. As with all good democracies, it’s time for our carefully selected studio audience to vote on who will be the next Great Leader of the Capitalist State of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What next, Gloria?”
“Thank you, Dermot. Whilst our audience vote and we analyse the result, we have some entertainment for you – a Morris Dance by the Home-Grown Ninnies troupe, entitled, ‘Bye bye Europe!”
Five minutes later the troupe troop off and the two contestants are left standing between Dermot and Gloria. Gloria is holding a large gold envelope.
“And now the results,” Dermot announces as seriously as he can. “Gloria, please open the envelope.”
She deftly slices it open with a long finger nail and holds the card in front of her. A nervous glance to her co-host raises the barely-contained tension in the room to fever pitch.
“And the winner, and new leader of our nation is… the Honey Monster!”
The audience erupt into shouts, whoops, whistles and raucous applause, as the Honey Monster runs towards them and throws himself onto the front rows. The elated crowd carry him overhead, chanting, “Tell us about the honey, mummy!”
The camera pans back to Gloria who glances at the disappearing figure of Dermot, Hannibal Lecter’s hand firmly on his shoulder as he is guided into the wings. “And that’s the end of the show, and, hopefully, the start of a bright orange future for our country. Good night Britain!
Grey skies and a light drizzle reflected his mood and did little to allay the fear that clenched in his stomach. With a sigh he entered a cobbled lane, leaning on his walking stick as the cramps stabbed at his ankles and feet like demons with sharp needles. Above him shop signs creaked and groaned on rusty hinges and the upper floors of aging properties crowded in, dimming the light and slowing his progress. Homeless people and assorted beggars sat in doorways and alleyways, crying out to passers-by for help. Stopping halfway to catch his breath, George bent to talk to a homeless man cowering under a blanket.
“What’s caused you to be on the streets, my friend?” he asked.
The man shifted and sat upright, sensing an opportunity. “Good day to you, sir. I have lost my job and been evicted from my lodgings. Times are hard. Can you spare some coin?” he rattled a chipped mug at George.
Dropping a coin in, George asked him, “How much further to the courts?”
“Top of the lane and turn right, follow the shadow of the castle walls to the square and you’ll see it to your left.” He peered at the hunched figure before him, leaning on a stick to stay upright. “Are you summoned to the witch trials?”
George stood as upright as he could manage, stretching his back. “Is that what they are called? I’m one of those summoned to appear for examination. Suspicion and distrust stalk our troubled land. Good luck to you.”
With that, George continued his uncomfortable journey towards the rectangle of daylight at the top of the lane. Here he rested whilst taking in the imposing sight of the castle walls – tall, majestic and grey, built to command and dominate the subdued town. The cries of beggars mixed with the shouts of street traders hawking their wares, as the wealthier citizens drove by, unconcerned and cocooned in their conveyances. At the town square he saw a sign for the courts on a granite building and headed towards it. Each step brought pain as pins-and-needles shot up his shins, forcing him to rock from side-to-side, like a ship in a storm, in a forlorn attempt to find relief.
He joined a line of dejected folk in the overheated reception area, shuffling forward to check in for their appointments.
“Go to the end of this corridor,” the unsmiling receptionist said, “to where it says, ‘Work Capability Assessments’ and take a seat. You’ll be called.”
A ceiling mounted cctv camera swept the waiting area, adding to his sense of foreboding. George looked away from it and retreated into his own thoughts, reflecting on his predicament. He had been a maintenance engineer with a global company until, as a result of mounting absences, he had been retired at fifty-nine on the grounds of ill health. Poor circulation compounded by nerve damage in the extremities of his limbs was slowly reducing him to a hunched invalid. It was not reversable and would worsen over time, his GP had told him, prescribing medication to ease the symptoms and give some relief from nagging pain. Now his status as ‘medically unfit for work’ was being challenged under new Government welfare reforms.
His name was called after half an hour and he was ushered through steel security doors into a white-walled corridor with a dozen rooms off it.
“I’ll be assessing you today,” said a sombre brown-haired man in glasses, probably twenty years his junior. He wore a white coat but looked more lab assistant than medical professional.
“Are you a doctor?” George asked, whilst seating himself and laying his walking stick on the worn and curling carpet squares.
“I’m not obliged to identify myself today, Mister Osborne. I’m your Government-appointed assessor. Firstly, can you confirm your full name, address and national insurance number?”
George duly replied, and then answered a series of questions about his condition and what medication he was taking. Could he dress himself? Could he prepare a meal? How far could he walk? The questions followed one after the other and George’s responses were noted.
“And how did you get here today, Mister Osborne?”
“How far would you say it is from the stop where you alighted?”
“About a hundred and fifty yards, give or take.”
“Thank you.” He tapped away on the computer keyboard for a minute.
“Now I’d like to give you a physical examination. Can you please sit on the couch?” He asked George to raise his arms, bend backwards and forwards, rotate his head and lift his legs. When satisfied he instructed George to return to his chair whilst he sat at his desk, typing notes and squinting at his screen. George stared at the peeling paint on the ceiling for a while.
“Thank you, Mister Osborne. Please return to the waiting area and we will let you know the outcome of your assessment in approximately thirty minutes.”
“As soon as that? Alright then.” George picked up his stick and made his way gingerly to the waiting room.
He sat next to a young man with callipers on his legs and a mother who caressed his arm. An anxious woman was pacing up and down the narrow space between the rows of plastic bucket seats, mumbling and scratching her head, causing a man in a wheelchair to back up and concede precious space to her. Opposite him was a row of silent, pensive faces of young, middle aged and elderly men and women. Most shuffled or limped to the heavy security door when their names were called. The turnover was quite quick – one in every five to ten minutes. Maybe a dozen assessors…
“Mister Osborne.” His thoughts were curtailed and he pushed himself up with his stick. Through the door again, but this time a turn to the left and into a bigger room where a panel of two men and one woman sat at a table, facing a solitary chair. George was directed to sit and answered the security questions to confirm his identity.
An elderly man with thinning grey hair sat in the middle looked up from his notes and spoke. “Mister Osborne, we have assessed your capability to work and found you to be fit. This means your claim for sickness benefits will be closed as of today, and should you wish to make a fresh claim for Job Seekers Allowance then you must report to your nearest Job Centre in the morning. Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“Erm… yes. This is quite a shock… As you must know from my record I was retired from work on the grounds of incapacity, and my doctor is treating me for severe pains in my hands, legs and feet. Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘fit for work’?”
The woman on the panel chose to answer. “Your assessment tells us that you were able to walk more than one hundred yards from the bus stop to this centre, that you could walk into the room without being helped, could sit still for more than ten minutes, understand and answer questions put to you, and pass a rudimentary physical examination…”
“I stopped twice to catch my breath. It took me over thirty minutes to get here. And as for passing a physical,” George blurted, “I could barely raise my arm!”
The second man answered, “But you COULD raise your arm and you DID make it here, Mister Osborne. That is the point.”
“On painful and swollen feet, with pins-and-needles shooting up my legs. I get breathless quickly when walking. My doctor has told me to keep off my feet as much as possible…”
“Nevertheless,” the senior man interrupted, “you are found to be capable of doing some work. If you want to continue receiving benefits then you must report to the Job Centre.” The three of them simply stared at him, indicating the meeting was over. George shook his head and slowly stood.
“Is there an appeals process?” he asked from the door.
“There is, via the Job Centre, but you must first convince them you are eligible,” came the terse reply. George now understood the procession of unhappy faces that had gone before him.
As he left the building a young woman approached and smiled as she offered him a leaflet. “Hi, my name’s Amy and I’m from a charity that gives advice and support to chronically ill and disabled people who have been miraculously declared fit for work,” she cheerfully said. It was the first smile George had seen all day, and he attempted a grin in response.
“Well, I might need some advice after that. My feet ache and my head’s spinning.”
“You’re not alone. Most of those who attend are declared fit for work, including people with severe physical disabilities and mental health problems. Under the new guidelines you have to be wholly unresponsive and not able to sit still to be in with a chance of remaining on sickness benefits. We advise you to sign on for Job Seekers Allowance so your income is not cut off and then come to our office. I know it’s a shock, but don’t despair – we can help.”
George made his way home in concerned silence. He had worked for thirty years without much time off for illness or injury and had been led to believe that in his time of need the State would support him. He had been cruelly disappointed. He made a sandwich and took his medication with a glass of orange squash. Then he retired to his room for a nap. This was now part of his new daily routine.
At six o’clock the door slammed shut and his son, Derrick, appeared at the bedroom door.
“How did it go, Dad?”
George sat up and wandered into the lounge, describing his experience as he went. Sitting in his favourite armchair he added, “I’ve hardly ever missed work for sickness and now they’re making me feel like a fraud or a work-shy loafer.”
“These Government cuts are painful for a lot of people, Dad,” Derrick replied. “It’s always those at the bottom of the pile who are made to suffer. Don’t take it personally.”
“It is personal, son,” George moaned. “Now my best hope for fair treatment is this charity.” He showed Derrick the leaflet. Derrick turned it over in his hands and shrugged. “Cup of tea?”
The following day George made his way to the Job Centre and was interviewed by a disinterested youth. “You have to make a contract with the Government to spend at least thirty-five hours a week looking for work, and be prepared to take any work that your adviser deems to be suitable,” the young man intoned. George followed the advice of the woman from the charity and signed the form, knowing that he was no longer capable of reporting to a place of work on successive days or of staying the course for six or seven hours a day.
“Can I take part-time work?” he asked.
“You can, but there are few about, and hourly rates are poor, as employers and organisations prefer full-time staff.”
Derrick had found out where the charity offices were located and given him written instructions on how to get there. It involved another bus ride to a different part of town. George arrived at the building – it was a converted house – and rang the doorbell. A man peered through a crack in the door.
“A woman called Amy gave me this leaflet and advised me to come here,” George said.
“Then come in,” the man replied, opening the door wide and stepping to one side. Please wait in the lounge and I’ll call her.” George glanced at the noticeboard as he passed and noted leaflets for various support services on display. In the lounge, all the chairs and sofas were pushed back against the wall, like a dentist’s waiting room, and a coffee table occupied the middle of the carpet space, covered with magazines and empty mugs. About half the seats were taken with an odd assortment of unhappy people who appeared to be from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps poverty and desperation were all they had in common, as there were no conversations taking place.
“Ah, hello again George,” Amy said brightly. “Come through to the kitchen and we’ll get a tea or coffee before we have a chat.” She had spiked blond hair and wore a blue mohair jumper, black jeans and baseball boots, like a punk rocker from the late seventies. George had been more of a progressive rock fan, back in the day.
“How did it go at the Job Centre?” she asked when they were seated in her tiny office.
“I found it to be a degrading and de-humanising experience. I’m a skilled tradesman of thirty years’ service, but now I’m treated with suspicion and made to feel like a scrounger. This capability assessment is designed to make you fail. Even the positioning of their centre on top of a hill next to the castle is well thought out – the enemy has to battle uphill.”
She regarded him with well-practiced, blue-eyed sympathy, her head cocked slightly to one side. “I know it’s hard, George, and many are suffering as a result of these Government cuts – more of a crack-down really. Nearly everyone is found ‘fit for work’ but on appeal over 65% of decisions are overturned. We’ll look into your grounds for appeal and help guide you through the system. You’ve been advised to set up an online account by the Job Centre, is that right?”
“Do you use the internet? Do you have wi-fi at home?”
“Erm, yes. I live with my son, Derrick. Just the two of us since my wife, Gloria, left us. He’s on it all the time, but I don’t use it much.”
“Well, I’m sure your son will support you through this. The most important thing is that you post a comment everyday saying what you’ve done that day to find work. I’ll set you up, and give you notes to take home. Your son can then show you how to post a comment. You need to follow their rules to the letter or they’ll sanction you…”
“What’s a ‘sanction’?”
“It’s when they stop your money. Usually if you are late or miss an appointment, or your work coach deems you are not doing enough to find a job. A lot of those downstairs have been sanctioned and have come here asking for a loan. Unfortunately, we can only help a few, so my advice is to follow their rules and turn up on time.” She sat back and smiled, as if this was a normal situation.
“I’ve never claimed anything from the State before I went onto sickness benefit, except child support for Derrick. This has all got my head swimming.”
“It’s affecting more and more people every day, Mister Osborne. Now please fill out this form and I’ll get you registered with us. Bums on seats helps us get more funding. We do a free lunch twice a week, by the way, on Mondays and Thursdays. You’re welcome to join us on those days.”
After a couple of weeks, George felt more at ease and had met a few of the regulars. He had also been to see his doctor and given her a copy of the assessment outcome that he had received in the post. Although she was unhappy and disturbed by the results, she was not able to do much more than offer to give him a sick note if he felt he couldn’t start a job that was too demanding. She asked about his moods and offered a prescription for anti-depressants. George refused, but asked for a more powerful dosage of painkillers as he was doing more walking than she had recommended and he would have liked.
After lunch at the drop-in, a fiery character with a chronic and degenerative condition named Paul asked him if he wanted to attend a meeting.
“A meeting to discuss what?”
“We’re planning to take part in a protest outside parliament against these work capability assessments.”
“I’ve never protested anything in my life. I’m a strict law and order type,” George replied, leaning back slightly as he caught a whiff of the red-haired youth’s sour breath.
“It’s part of a national protest and if the numbers are high enough it’ll get the attention of the international media. Why don’t you just come in and listen. No obligation.”
Two weeks later, George found himself on a train heading into central London in the company of his new drop-in mates. Derrick had finally talked him around and had even painted a board from him to take with the words, ‘Work Capability Assessment – Unfit and Failing’.
“I feel uncomfortable about this,” he whispered to Amy who sat next to him. “It feels like I’m doing something subversive.”
“Not at all George. It’s your right to protest against this unpopular and hostile Government who ignore their responsibilities to citizen welfare and dance to the tune of Big Business. They’re treating us like dirt, and it’s time we stood up and denounced it.”
“Or lean on a railing and denounce it,” George moaned. He noticed Paul and a group of friends standing in a closed group around a large hold-all, whispering conspiratorially. “I hope I don’t get dragged into anything illegal like damage to public property.”
“Don’t worry. It’s a peaceful protest involving over a dozen charities similar to ourselves from around the country. People are suffering, and it’s time we drew the nation’s attention to it.”
“Does anyone care? Those in work tend to take a dim view of those who don’t contribute to the economy.”
“That’s only because of Government propaganda that has divided our nation. Our economic woes are not the fault of the sick, poor and disabled. Rather, they are the fault of our capitalist system that allows the rich to get away without paying their fair share of taxes. Our world has become distorted by the greed, ambition and arrogance of a wealthy elite who have a firm grip on our political system and infuse our society with their odious values. It’s time for the little people to stand up to them in a way that we can’t through the ballot box.”
George was impressed. It was a view he had never considered before. He had spent his whole life buying into the shared values of a political system that encouraged home ownership, personal aspiration and wealth accumulation. Now he had been discarded by the system he had supported, and felt betrayed. They were now looking down on him with a smirk of disdain.
“I feel I’m on a very peculiar journey with all this, but I’m now a convert and fully supportive. It was never meant to be this way. Democracy is supposed to work for everyone.”
George stuck close to Amy as the crowds intensified as they approached Parliament Square. The noise levels increased as chanting of slogans began – he had never seen so many wheelchairs and mobility scooters in one place. Speakers took to a makeshift platform to give stirring speeches and soon the television cameras arrived. Soon it was Paul’s turn to climb onto the stage of wooden planks between railings, receiving whoops and enthusiastic applause from their drop-in group. His friends had wedged themselves behind him with the large hold-all they had dragged from the train. Paul appeared to be much bulkier than George remembered, wearing an oversized raincoat.
His stirring speech soon reached a climax and he held up his hands to hush the crowd.
“…I’m not against finding something to do to give the chronically ill and those with physical and mental impairments added purpose and motivation in their lives – but they should be activities that are not set against a profit-making target with a bullying manager standing over you. The answer is NOT to brutalise us through these demeaning capability assessments, stop our benefits as a sanction and then tell us to hustle in a low-paid gig economy with millions of fit, young and desperate adults. The capitalist mindset that controls our political agenda is producing a blame culture directed against those not deemed to be pulling their weight whilst generating wealth for the already filthy rich!”
Applause and jeering broke out, allowing Paul to catch his breath. “This must end. We need to put on our compassion goggles and come up with a fresh solution to assist the weakest members of our society in a humane and supportive way.”
Paul deemed the time was right and stepped back to thunderous applause. He unbuttoned his comedy coat, revealing what appeared to be a suicide bomb belt strapped around his body. The crowd gasped and backed away in consternation. George stood transfixed, keeping his eyes on Paul, who had taken off the coat and had a device with two metal cannisters strapped to his back, fitted by his friends. They then studiously withdrew, leaving Paul alone on the platform.
“Come on George, let’s move back,” Amy said, pulling his coat sleeve.
They retreated behind a hastily-erected police barrier and continued to watch Paul who now addressed himself directly to the television cameras.
“The culture of blaming the weakest members of society for its ills harks back to an earlier age of intolerance and exploitation. If dramatic action is required to get the people of this country to wake up and see the injustices all around them, then that’s what they’ll get. This is for the two thousand martyrs to capitalist oppression!”
He was holding trigger devices in both hands and seemed to be pressing the buttons. Screams went up from the hundreds gathered in the square as flashes of yellow flames shot downwards from the cannisters on his back. The intensity increased, and soon Paul lifted off the ground, like James Bond in ‘Thunderball’, propelled into the blue sky above Parliament. The jet pack took him up vertically and then he tilted forward and flew over Westminster Bridge, where he picked a spot to hover about a hundred feet above the River Thames, an equal distance from the banks and bridges. Pleasure boats and barges quickly moved out of the way as police launches sped to the scene.
“What’s he waiting for?” George shouted above the din. He and Amy pushed their way through the crowd to the Embankment wall and watched in horror. “Did you know he was going to do this?”
“Absolutely not!” Amy cried, gripping George’s arm. The police where shouting to him through a megaphone from a boat, but it was impossible to hear anything above the roar of the jet engines and the noise of the crowd. George estimated a thousand or more people had gathered on the south and north banks and along the length of the two bridges.
“If this is a stunt, it’s certainly got people’s attention…”
Just then there was a hiss and a splutter and the flames died out. Paul and his jet pack plummeted into the dirty brown water with a splash. Nothing came back to the surface. The assembled multitude of protestors, tourists and office workers gasped in horror as a police launch moved to the spot and officers looked helplessly at the opaque water. The muddy flow of the River Thames continued its journey to the sea, impassive, unresponsive, indifferent to the latest in a long history of human dramas. George took Amy’s arm for support and they burrowed through the crowd, moving downstream.
A pair of hands reached out of the dirty water and gripped the rope on the side of a tourist boat. Soon, they pulled a head out of the water, and shouts from the bank drew the attention of those onboard, who dragged the figure onto the deck. Paul coughed and vomited dirty river water as he was helped to a sitting position and wrapped in a blanket.
George and Amy barged their way through the crowd to a set of stone steps that went down to a landing stage. They hurried down as the pleasure boat docked, and Paul was escorted onto the jetty.
“We’ll take care of him,” George said, putting an arm around the soaked man. Amy took his other arm and they walked up the steps and melted into the crowd. The police had not seen this incident and were still searching on the river.
“Perhaps he should remain a martyr to the cause,” Amy said, as she hailed a taxi and gave the address of a charity she knew in central London. She slid the window to the driver shut and sat back.
“This is rather exciting,” George said in the back of the black cab, “I’m now a member of a seditious underground movement.”
Amy looked across the barely conscious Paul and replied, “Joking aside, George, I expect this will be all over the news, and we must think of ways to keep it there. A strong swell of public opinion in our favour is the only thing that can effect change.”
At the London homeless charity, George helped Paul remove his sodden clothing, and saw that what had looked like a suicide bomb vest was, in fact, a life jacket. Amy returned with a doctor to examine Paul, whom she described as ‘a homeless man who had unfortunately fallen in the river’. He was given antibiotics to ward off any possible infection, but otherwise was deemed to be fine. Amy found him some donated clothes to change into.
“You took a right ducking,” George said, handing Paul a mug of coffee.
Paul managed a grin. “Ah yes. Harking back to the ducking of witches. If you floated it was proof that you were a witch and you were then dragged out and burned at the stake. If you sank, then you were innocent, but most likely drowned anyway. A lose-lose scenario, I’d say.”
“Ah, but in your case, you sank but were buoyed up by a life vest, so you cheated the hangman, so to speak,” George replied.
“Innocent of being unwilling to work, I sank to the bottom, only to be returned to the surface by my life jacket. If I could travel back in time I’d take some life vests and pocket knives to the Middle Ages and set up a bureau advising witchcraft suspects on how to cut themselves free from the ducking stool and swim for their lives.”
“But what did you hope to achieve?” George asked.
Paul looked up and grinned through cracked lips. “They make you feel so small, so powerless through their constant bullying and harassment. I can’t do anything about my condition and I feel so much frustration. I just wanted to be in control for a moment, to be free of all the nastiness and to fly above them all…”
Amy had many friends at the charity who were wholly sympathetic to the protest. They all watched the repeats on a satellite news channel and began discussing ways to continue the protest. News reporters helped by giving the numbers of people who had been moved off sickness benefits by Government-employed private contractors, and the shocking statistic that over two thousand benefit claimants had committed suicide in the past few years as a response to having their money stopped. A hard-faced Government spokesman tried to deflect the questions asked by repeating a mantra about economic performance and high employment.
Soon a brainstorm list of possible actions had been made, and Amy tried to whittle it down to realistic actions. “If only we had an electrician on our team,” she mused, “then we could cut the power to the ruling party’s headquarters the next time they hold a meeting there.” She looked sideways at the quiet and thoughtful figure of George.
“Erm, yes. I’m an electrical engineer,” he sheepishly admitted.
“Well? Are you committed to our cause yet?” Amy asked.
All eyes were on George, the only sound a delivery scooter rattling down the lane outside. George sat straight, his hands on the table, meeting the stares of the expectant faces around him. “I’ll do it.”
The head of the UK intelligence service says more attacks are inevitable as Britain sees ‘dramatic upshift’ in Islamist terrorism, says a report in The Guardian (18/10/17). Must we now accept this as the new ‘normal’?
The alarmist report continues: “Britain is facing its most severe ever terrorist threat and fresh attacks in the country are inevitable, according to the head of Britain’s normally secretive domestic intelligence service in a rare public speech.
Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said the UK had seen “a dramatic upshift in the threat” from Islamist terrorism this year, reflecting attacks that have taken place in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.
The spy chief said: “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.”
He added: “It’s at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.”
Clearly, it not just the terrorists who want to alarm us – the authorities also wish to ‘prep’ us and ensure we are receptive to warnings and security measures. When the two sides clash, you need to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
This must undoubtedly have a waring effect on the population, particularly of large cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Engendering fear and intimidation amongst the civilians of a country targeted by extremist political and religious groups is the aim of terrorism, and the greater the atrocity, the more likely it is to succeed. People will inevitably be on their guard, more suspicious and more easily spooked by loud random noises and the sound of sirens. More security checks slow down people’s progress and have become a major inconvenience of modern life.
I have tried to capture some of these issues and feelings in my short story, ‘Geraniums’, in my book, ‘Postcards from London’. In this story, my main characters are retired couple George and Maggie Taylor who embark on a theatre trip to London by train. They take advantage of good weather to walk along the South Bank and onto Westminster Bridge, noting the recent addition of steel pavement furniture following a previous terrorist incident. They pose for photos with the Houses of Parliament behind them when…BANG!
“A flash of light was followed a nano-second later by a loud explosion that shook the bridge under our feet, causing us to stagger. I put my arm around Maggie and we instinctively crouched by the stone wall as bits of masonry and assorted debris rained down on us. A large black cloud billowed over the Underground station entrance – with screams and shouts providing a chilling soundtrack. My ears were ringing and I felt dazed – I looked at Maggie to check that she was all right and we slumped into a sitting position as I held her tightly around her shoulders, trying to stay calm.
Flower petals settled on us and I picked one up. I was in a surreal dream of odd shapes and noises; an unfamiliar world where time has been slowed and distorted.
“Pelargoniums,” I slurred, hardly hearing myself over the ringing in my ears. “We call them Geraniums – a single red flowering plant… native of South Africa, I believe… popularised by US President Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century…”
Maggie looked at me with a combination of shock, annoyance and concern in her blue eyes. Picture postcards of London scenes and debris from a kiosk rained like confetti. One, singed at the edges, fluttered into her lap. Tower Bridge by moonlight. Someone then tripped over my outstretched foot and stumbled, falling to their hands and knees…”
Read on in ‘Postcards from London’ – order the e-book or paperback here:-
Two things have caught my attention in last week’s news. The first – British Prime Minister Theresa May bravely battling through a hacking cough, falling signs and an unfunny prankster to sell us the unbelievable notion that her party actually cares about citizen welfare. The second – another appalling, almost apocalyptic, mass shooting in the USA.
In my own quixotic, febrile mind these two events are connected. You see, both the USA and the UK are hostages to their history and socio-cultural development. In the case of the UK, there is an obsession with home ownership that started out as a quite reasonable desire to well, own your own home. This dream has been cynically hijacked by the forces of capitalism who have now gained such a tight control over our lives that we are being slowly rendered powerless vassals to an uncaring system who see us merely as consumers on the one hand and units of labour to be exploited for profit on the other (or replaced if we ask for decent pay and conditions).
Theresa May chose to swerve the impending car crash of Brexit in her party conference speech and instead headed straight for the heart-and-soul of a creaking nation – home ownership. Since her heroine Margaret Thatcher’s ruinous rebalancing of the economy to render it up as a sacrificial lamb to the Wolf of Wall Street, our housing sector has become the Property Market and is now an investment opportunity for international crooks and money-launderers rather than serving its intended function of housing people. Citizens need to be housed, even in an aggressive advanced capitalist system, otherwise, how are they going to work and pay taxes? But there’s too much money invested, too much at stake, to reform this ugly investment beast. So suck it up, Britain.
Mrs May unwisely chose to highlight the fact that today’s younger generation, apart those with millionaire parents, have been priced out of the housing market and will never realize their dream of owning their own home. So are the Tories advocating low-cost rental schemes? No – private renting has become a huge source of investment and wealth-creation in its own right, feeding off the fat carcass of an over-inflated property market. Instead, she made a weak and insincere ‘promise’ to invest in ‘affordable housing’, to the sneers of her watching colleagues. This is from a Party hell-bent on withdrawing from all its responsibilities towards citizen welfare – the slow pulling-back of a parental hand from a dying child. The charities sector will take up the slack in a post-welfare state Britain if this lot continues to be re-elected.
Why did she do it? They certainly don’t intend to intervene to allay our misery at ongoing economic exploitation – just the usual lies and sops that at least let us know they are aware of our distress – like Fritzel feeding his imprisoned daughter and rape-victim with mock shows of kindness that merely reinforce the power relationship between the exploiter and exploited. Will we ever break away from this increasingly totalitarian global capitalist super-state? They have done a brilliant job of subverting our democracy and bamboozling our media with, yes, you’ve guessed it – FAKE NEWS.
Which brings me to part two of my rant. Our capitalist cousin, the USA, is reeling after the latest incident of mass-murder by a gun-toting maniac who had amassed an arsenal of over twenty weapons. Islamic State added a darkly sinister attempt at humour by trying to take the credit for a killing spree carefully planned and executed by a white retired millionaire accountant. The playground of the affluent – Las Vegas – became the killing ground for the insane gunning-down of hundreds of concert-goers in a carnival of pure evil. Why does the USA so proudly cling to its ‘right to bear arms’? Thomas Jefferson is long dead and the British colonisers long-gone, so why the need? Well, one gun shop owner explained to a bemused reporter that an armed citizenry prevents an overbearing state from exploiting them – in a chilling act of defiance bordering on the threat of re-opening the civil war. USA, you are in one helluva mess.
So, in conclusion, we are all living under a global capitalist system whose aim is to squeeze every penny it can out of us with as little investment in our welfare as is possible. A wealthy elite will prosper and we will all pay for it.
The difference between the UK and USA is that US citizens are armed and dangerous…
The BBC recently broadcast the controversial movie-of-the-play, King Charles III, and by doing so entered the once treasonous realm of speculation concerning the death of a monarch and the succession. Although it seems like QE2 will live forever, she will eventually (most likely) be succeeded by her eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales.
We already know Charles to be a man with ideas about how society can be improved for the many, through his charity work with the Prince’s Foundation, and his often unwelcome forays into architecture and the built environment.
In my futuristic novel set in 2026, Devil Gate Dawn, I have King Charles III as an aged but still exuberant ruler of the nation, painting his vision for a better Britain on a broad canvas that brings him into conflict with the capitalist exploiters who have already subverted our fragile democracy. Charles heads a Government of National Unity and runs the country along socialist lines through his Privy Council.
I’m fascinated by ‘what ifs’ and the idea that the only person who could break us out of our imprisonment at the hands of the international capitalist elite (or Establishment), who have a vice-like grip on our feeble democratic systems, is the good old Benign Dictator.
I see Charles as that person, and although I play it for laughs, there is a serious underlying message to all this, as we now face the prospect of a Conservative majority in our forthcoming general election – the politics of divide and rule bring my dystopian vision a step closer. Yes, Charles is a member of the ruling elite and through birth one of the country’s largest landowners. But he also stands outside the corrupt political landscape, and as such is a maverick to the Establishment. God Save the King!
Aside from King Charles, who else can save us from our seemingly inevitable fate?
We are, perhaps, more familiar with the term ‘Utopian’ that describes a society that’s conceived to be perfect. ‘Dystopian’ is the exact opposite — it describes an imaginary society that is as dehumanising and unpleasant as possible. Dystopian stories are often set in the future and come as warnings for us to reflect on trends in our societies and mend our easy-going ways or else risk falling into the hands of an oppressive regime. Popular literary examples are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, now finding new readers.
As a writer, I’m also constantly attuned to trends in our governance that might be undermining the personal freedoms and opportunities for advancement we currently enjoy in Western societies. My attention was drawn to a news item this morning (12/02/2017) tucked away in a tiny space in my e-newspaper, The Mirror, that to me screams, ‘Beware of the encroaching Dystopian Society!’
ONE MILLION ON ZERO HOURS CONTRACTS
The report states, quite calmly, that the number of workers on zero hours contracts is set to exceed one million for the first time. Figures for 2016 show over 900,000 on zero hour contracts – workers on hourly rate with no guarantee of working hours, no job security and often on the minimum wage. Employers argue that a flexible labour market where staff are called in at a moment’s notice with a lack of fixed hours boosts employment. But this leaves workers uncertain of how many hours they will work and how much they can earn each week, often leaving them short of ability to pay rents, transport and feed themselves.
The report states that the Trade Union Congress (TUC) believe that as many as three million workers (one in ten workers in Britain) are now in insecure jobs, such as seasonal, temporary or agency work.
Such insecurity of tenure goes against all the efforts by worker’s representatives and trade unions going back over a hundred years to fight for workers rights and to be treated with respect by their employers. Sadly, the current climate we live in of harsh capitalist exploitation, backed up by uncaring governments who see their job as furthering the interests of Big Business ahead of looking after the welfare of citizens is, well, leading us down the rocky road to a dystopian, authoritarian state.
This is coming fast, in my opinion. In Britain we have had thirty years of Thatcherist politics that have seen national infrastructure ruthlessly asset-stripped under the name of Privatisation, to the extent that most of our utility and transport companies are foreign owned and operated at high cost to the consumer. Also, our property market has become a free-for-all investment product for international criminals, Tax-dodgers and foreign governments, pricing our citizens out of being able to afford a roof over their heads.
I have long been suspicious of successive governments feebly apologising for missing net inward migration targets by several hundreds of thousands, foolishly believing their narrative that they’ have no control’. Of course they have control, at point of entry. In reality, I believe they have deliberately created a large, multi-cultural, low-paid labour pool of people desperate enough to work long hours for the minimum wage, and thus drive down wages for our working class citizens. We are already witnessing tensions in our towns and cities as this ‘divide and rule’ politics takes effect.
Our opposition parties have been completely compromised by this, not sure on whether to listen to the complaints of hard-pressed citizens or embrace the diversity of new arrivals. By trying to do both, they end up pleasing no one. They are unable to provide a coherent opposition to the forces of rampant global capitalism as represented by our ruling party, The Conservatives. Sadly, our educated liberal elite in their rush to embrace ‘One-World-ism’ are unwittingly aiding and abetting our sly capitalist leaders in their aim of creating a large, low-paid underclass of workers whose freedoms and rights are slowly being whittled away.
Don’t get me wrong. I bear no ill-will to any people looking for ‘a better life’, and reject all forms of discrimination. I just have a problem with the cynical politics of exploitation for profit that throws people from different backgrounds together, whilst denying them the ability to have a descent standard of living (added to a growing crisis in schools and healthcare) in a race to the bottom of average earnings. Our government is taking us out of the European Union and will use that opportunity to repeal worker’s rights and human rights legislation. Citizens need to wake up and see what is happening…
Otherwise we will end up in a 1984-type totalitarian state with ‘Big Boris’ as a pantomime-villain leader. Let’s face it, the States have already got one – Donald Trump!
Check out my tongue-in-cheek novel, Devil Gate Dawn, now described as ‘dystopian’ because I predicted a paranoid Trump America and post-Brexit chaos in Britain leading to mass voter apathy that leaves us with King Charles (not Big Boris) running the country. Don’t laugh too much, it might happen!
Those who find themselves in positions of responsibility are morally obliged to make the ‘right’ decisions. That is, decision-making that affects other people must be good and just and in the common interest. Otherwise the moral basis of our society is in question. Are we fundamentally ‘good’ people or just selfish monsters obsessed with wealth accumulation in an age of greed, who de-humanise our fellow beings in the process of getting what we want?
We see far to many instances reported where people are allowed to suffer the consequences of bad, wrong or just plain evil decisions from leaders they look up to and trust.
The obvious example in British news at the moment is the deeply disturbing child sex abuse scandal in our national sport, football. Club officials have turned a blind eye to the activities of serial child rapists so as to protect ‘the good name of the Club’. Shame on them. Lives have been ruined as a result.
Ordinary people have a right to be protected from abuse and exploitation by those they look up to – managers, politicians, religious leaders – but all too often the abusers and exploiters are the ones in positions of power. Who can they turn to when bullied and threatened by their abuser?
A manager or parent is a first point of contact, but image the victim’s misery being compounded when they are not believed or accused of being complicit in their own abuse. Our police force is there to uphold the Law and protect victims of crime, backed up by civil society – organisations and charity groups. The infrastructure is there, but perhaps needs a higher level of governmental and public backing. Victims must feel confident to speak out and know the correct channels to do so. They must also have confidence in the system.
Distrust in our leaders goes right to the top, with many citizens no longer believing our politicians have the moral courage or sense of community to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to decision-making. We are now consumers in an age of capitalist exploitation. We are encouraged to be selfish and greedy, to accumulate and hoard things we don’t really need.
It has become obvious to many that our government makes decisions that are in the interest of ‘Big Business’ over citizen welfare, and some point to the Brexit vote (higher in the regions away from the wealthy South-East) as evidence of disenchantment. The politics of shoring-up the interests of a wealthy minority and favouring them over the interests of the majority will surely come back to haunt our current crop of London-centric politicians. Theresa May, be warned.
This is at the heart of our culture of indifference to human suffering and the belief that greed is good. It isn’t. Not in my house. If we cannot treat each other with respect and kindness then we are failing as a society.
I believe it is our collective duty to create an atmosphere of kindness, tolerance and helpfulness and have the courage to speak out and denounce acts of evil. When we elect our political leaders we must hold them to account. They are charged with overseeing a tolerant society where citizens’ rights are protected, where they have opportunities to achieve their goals in life, and are protected from the predatory monsters who lurk amongst us.
It’s 26th October 2016 and in today’s news (in the UK) is the announcement that the British Government has backed the proposal to expand Heathrow Airport by building another runway. This is despite protests from the hundreds of thousands of local resident in this densely populated area west of London, and over one million people signing a petition saying NO to a new runway. Already the air is dangerously polluted, and residents on the flight path (including myself) suffer from poor air quality. Once again, the interests of Big Business trump those of citizens, in our pro-capitalism sham democracy.
Prime Minister, Theresa May, said the decision shows her government is ready, “to take the big decisions when they are right for Britain.” Right for whom, exactly? Not for the residents and the million plus protestors, and not for her constituents in Maidenhead, also on the Heathrow flight path, whose protests she was supporting before her swift elevation to party leader. Why are they continuing to invest in the already overcrowded south east of England and not in the Midlands or North? They are crying out for investment, whereas residents in the South East are crying out for more space and breathable air.
Add this decision to the many others since the time of Margaret Thatcher that have asset stripped and weakened our country in the name of privatisation and personal wealth accumulation for a tiny minority of international capitalists, and, bizarrely, foreign governments. Our public transport and utilities sectors, owned mainly by international companies, are amongst the most expensive in Europe, as ‘consumers’ pay over the odds for shareholder dividends and senior executive bonuses. Our small manufacturing sector is dominated for foreign multi-nationals, many of whom reject our country’s democratic decision to leave the European Union and now threaten to punish us by leaving. The stock markets and money markets are already punishing us for making the ‘wrong’ decision, thus demonstrating our collective weakness to choose our own path when held in the tightening grip of the forces of capitalism.
In Britain, it seems that regardless of which political party is in power, the net outcome is the same – the soft left government of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown delivered the deregulation of the financial sector that ultimately led to cowboy trading and the big crash of 2008. Neither Labour nor the Conservative Party can be trusted to act in the interests of citizens over Big Business. We are simply witnessing the latest in a long line of decisions aimed at making a tiny minority of already wealthy people even wealthier. This is the philosophy at the heart of our bankrupt political system. I will soon need my own oxygen supply just to survive living close to Heathrow. Perhaps Prime Minister May can recommend a competitive international supplier?
If you want to share my insight into what Britain and the USA will be like in ten years time, then please click the link below, download and read my novel, Devil Gate Dawn, currently discounted to just 99p/99c…