The Witch Trials

A Short Story by Tim Walker

The Witch Trials

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?”

witch trials
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?”
“By bus”
“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…”
Too sick to work cartoon“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?”
“Yes.”
“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.”

Brexit Protest1George 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?”
jet pack over london“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.”

Advertisements

The Day John Lennon Died

On Monday, 8 December 1980, John Lennon was shot dead by ‘fan’ Mark Chapman in the archway of the Dakota Building, his residence in New York City. The ex-Beatle had just turned 40 and had recently recorded a new album, Double Fantasy, that celebrated his new zest for life – his single Starting Over was still in the charts. Now, on the 37th anniversary of his shocking murder, I’ve decided to share my personal memory of that day…

john-lennon-quotes-happy-quotes

I woke up, got out of bed and dragged a comb through my tangled mop of red hair. It was dark outside – my alarm had gone off at the ridiculously early time of 4.45am on the morning of Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was a 19-year-old trainee reporter for a Liverpool news magazine, The Woolton Mercury, and had an appointment at BBC Radio Merseyside studios in central Liverpool to write a piece on the workings of local radio. I was a tall, skinny youth, still living at home, who dressed almost exclusively in black. My musical tastes had moved on from the Beatles and Glam Rock to punk and new wave, reflected in my music column that featured new releases and gig reviews. I was a member of Erics club in Liverpool where I saw punk and new wave bands most weekends including: Joy Division, Magazine, Buzzcocks, OMD, Teardrop Explodes, Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, The Damned (featuring Lemmy!)… you get the picture.

The streetlights were still on and a milk float rumbled into our road as I buttoned my black Crombie overcoat and headed for the bus stop. The bus was warm as I joined a handful of silent shift workers on a speedy forty minute journey to Castle Street. From there a short walk took me through a deserted city center to Commerce House – a grey 50s concrete building that had housed Radio Merseyside since its start in 1967 [note: this was before their move to their new purpose-built office on Paradise Street].

Roger Phillips BBC Radio Merseyside2
Radio Merseyside Presenter – Roger Phillips

 

They were expecting me, as arranged, at 6.00am. I was greeted by Studio Manager, Phil Pinnington, a suave, dapper gent, who placed me in the capable hands of Studio Assistant, Janice Long (yes, Keith Chegwin’s sister who went on to be an acclaimed national radio DJ and host of Top of the Pops). I was shown around the newsroom and the newsgathering process was explained to me by Newsreader, Tony Nutter. In the pre-digital age, reel-to-reel tape recorders and spools of tapes were everywhere and two teleprinters spewed out news items on ticker tape from the national BBC newsroom in London. I was shown how soundbites (interview clips) were spliced together for use in news bulletins.

My published article in The Woolton Mercury records that at that time (about 6.30am) there were no major news stories coming through:

“One such news item that came through on the teleprinter concerned a US Army deserter who had been arrested at Risley Remand Centre with two canisters of nerve gas strapped to his legs.” Tony explained that this would be classified as a ‘human interest’ story and held in reserve to be used only if there was a lull in the news. As it turned out, it would not be needed.
popart-rock-n-roll lennonJanice made me a mug of tea and I was ushered into the studio where veteran presenter, Alan Jackson, was cranking-up the breakfast drive-time show. A local lad from Prescott in Merseyside, he was warm, friendly and soon put me at ease. He asked me a few questions about my series on local media, and casually said after the next record he would do a little interview with me.

“Erm, live, on air?” I squeaked.

“You’ll be fine,” he laughed. “Just say what you’ve already told me and speak in your normal voice.”

And so my first radio interview took place, just before 7.00am on Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was scribbling a few notes in my reporter’s notebook when Phil popped his head in the studio door and announced in a hushed but earnest tone: “John Lennon has been shot.”

Alan’s eyes were wide in shock and a quick conversation between the media veterans instantly ensued along the lines of, “Call all our contacts who knew John and the Beatles – let’s start lining up responses as the news story unfolds…” This was personal. John was a much-loved son of the city and the magnitude of the event meant it instantly took center stage.

And so I sat there for the next three hours as the staff of Radio Merseyside pulled together and presented the news of John’s shooting in New York City, playing Imagine (several times) and Give Peace a Chance along with early Beatles classics such as Twist and Shout. To this day, I still get goosebumps and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck whenever I hear John’s raunchy rock vocals on Twist and Shout. For me, it will forever be associated with that day.

“…reports are still coming in that John Lennon has been shot outside his apartment building in New York…”

Alan Jackson vacated his seat for Morning Merseyside presenter, Roger Phillips, who took on the uncomfortable task of building a show devoted to outpourings of concern for John as we waited with trepidation for further news. The confirmation that John was dead came barely an hour later, and a state of shock descended on the city as the news was rolled out.

Shocked interview subjects shared their reminiscences of John over the airwaves as the city awoke to the devastating news on that cold December Tuesday. I left the studio at about 11.00 and made my way home in numb silence. It wasn’t meant to end this way for John, who had seemed to have found happiness in his new life with wife Yoko and son Sean in New York. By lunchtime, it was the headline item on the BBC television news.

Interviewing Bert Kwok at Granada TV0002
That’s me on the left interviewing Pink Panther actor Bert Kwok in 1980, at Liverpool’s Granada TV studios

 

The following Saturday I joined a crowd estimated at over 30,000 on the plaza outside St George’s Hall for music, readings and prayers as the city grieved over the death of a favourite son. It was the final end to hopes of a Beatles reunion, and consigned John’s body of work to the past tense. The man who asked us to give peace a chance had been the victim of an ugly act of murder by a psychotic ‘fan’ who earlier in the day had waited patiently to get John’s autograph. It was unpredictable, pointless and the cause of such grief and pain for those who loved the man and his work and who had been entertained and inspired by his music, wit and free spirit. It was our JFK moment – we remember what we were doing or where we were when we heard the news. John was dead and we had to accept it; and I know it’s a cliché but I’m going to give it an airing – his memory lives on through his music and his pro-peace sentiments.

As for me, I moved on to reporting and film reviewing for another Liverpool newspaper later that year, and in 1982 won a place to study for a degree course in Communication Studies. I became editor of the student magazine, utilising the experience I had garnered at The Woolton Mercury. After graduating, my path led me to London where I started a career working in the newspaper publishing industry – not as a journalist, but in product development and market research. Some of us are doomed to be thwarted from making a living out of doing what we really want to do. At least John had that.

the-beatles-artThe anniversary of Lennon’s death still prompts outpourings of grief from fans around the World, although this is perhaps something John himself would not have wanted.

In one of his last major print interviews published in Playboy magazine, he said: “I don’t have any romanticism about any part of my past. I don’t believe in yesterday. I’m only interested in what I’m doing now.”

 *****

As a footnote to my earlier comment that my musical tastes in 1980 had moved on from The Beatles – their music continued to provide an enduring ingredient to the cultural wallpaper of Liverpool, a city that never fell out of love with the Fab Four. Every jukebox in every pub in Liverpool had Beatles singles that were frequently played along with other rock, punk and pop classics. There was no Beatles tourism activity in the 80s – that came later from the 90s onwards when musical nostalgia grew into an industry. We knew where the Beatles lived and the places they performed – Liverpudlians will always be intensely proud of their successful sons and daughters without any shows of fuss or drama.

When writing this piece, I checked what records and gigs I had reviewed in my music column in the weeks before Lennon’s death and found, next to a gig review of The Stranglers, this:-

“This Week’s New Single Releases –

UB40 – The Earth Dies Screaming [reviewed]

John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over – And who knows, maybe John is turning over a new leaf. This boppy, jog-a-long song has already been hailed as a ‘shhhh, it’s almost Christmas’ single, and will have the ex-Beatle laughing all the way to the bank. His first UK single release for some time, it’s already looking like a safe bet for Christmas No.1…”

It was actually No.2 in the UK Christmas charts behind, erm, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma by St Winifred’s School Choir. The first chart of 1981 saw re-issues of Imagine at No. 1 and Merry Xmas (War is Over) by John and Yoko at No.2. The worldwide outpouring of grief for the witty Scouser led into a celebration of his life and the birth of his legend.

Living With Terrorism

TerrorismThe 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.

 

GeraniumsI 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:-

Postcards From London

Facebook Banner

Dance Hall Days

June 1966 – England had just won the World Cup at London’s Wembley Stadium and a happy nation basked in the warm satisfaction of sporting success. Teenage boys in ironed white shirts, inch-wide ties and pleated trousers lounged against the wall outside The Ritz Ballroom in Camden Town on a balmy summer’s evening, eyeing up the girls in their colourful dresses – the hemlines having recently moved up to expose knees and thighs. The two groups exchanged banter in a timeless mating ritual – coquettish glances and shy giggles elicited macho poses from strutting cocks who combed up their Brylcreemed hair and dragged on their tabs, nonchalantly flicking the stubs in the general direction of the gutter.

dance hall days

Brian Smith knew whom he was after. A pretty little blonde girl he knew from school called Helen. She was one year his junior but was no longer a geeky schoolgirl – she had blossomed into an attractive young woman, and he was determined to ask her to dance. That was the protocol. Bundle inside, pay your sixpence at the box office, get a paper cup of fruit punch and line the walls with your mates – waiting for the hall to fill and the jazz band to strike up a familiar tune. Brian combed back his brown quiff and pushed off the wall, with a ‘good luck mate’ from a friend bolstering his nerve.

The crowds seemed to part before him as he crossed the hall. Her friends whispered and giggled as she looked up – it was as if she had been waiting for him. He held her wide blue-eyed gaze and asked, “Would you like to dance?”

“I can’t jive,” she said. Her friends laughed as if it was the funniest joke ever, buying Brian a few seconds to formulate his next move.

“Then let’s get some punch and wait for the next one,” he said, taking her firmly by the arm and leading her away from her friends. ‘Always try to separate them from their mates’ was the advice that came to mind, given by one of the older boys.

“Are you always so forceful?” she asked, sipping her drink and glancing over at her jealous friends.

“I’m no longer a kid. I’m joining the police next week,” he said. This was designed to impress her and it worked – responsibility and a steady job.

“I like this one,” she said, as the band played a popular hit. This time it was Helen doing the leading, as the infatuated couple found a space and held each other in a classic dance pose.

“It all seemed so easy,” Brian told his mates the next day. “As if it were meant to be. We’re going out now, so no comments or whistles.”

He transitioned seamlessly from hanging out with mischief in mind to police training college and being in a steady relationship. He even put his name down for a council flat. In those heady days of youth everything seemed possible, and his world was full of firsts. First girlfriend; first job; first pay cheque; first passport; first holiday and soon after, marriage and first home of their own.

Brian would twirl his police whistle in the pub for laughs, but cautioned his mates on their behaviour. He had the cocky confidence of his hero – football captain Bobby Moore – and each morning his feet slipped effortlessly into his size nine boots, as if this was always meant to be.

This short story is taken from Postcards from London by Tim Walker

http://amazon.co.uk/dp/B075C1M42Z

Facebook Banner

GUNS N’ HOUSES

Guns n houses2Two 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…Guns n houses2

Postcards from London

Postcards from London is a new book of 15 short stories by myself, Tim Walker, due for release on Sunday 10th September. Please ‘like’ my facebook page for news and updates, and to get the link to the FREE ebook download on the 10th and 11th September.

http://facebook.com/London-postcards

Postcards from London ebook cover_low res

 

King Charles the Benign Dictator

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.

Parliament bombed

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?

http://myBook.to/DevilGateDawn

DGD promo banner 06_2016