Childhood provides a starting point for life, forming character, influences, beliefs and prejudices… my journey started in Hong Kong where I was born to British parents and had my primary schooling and formative years. A patchwork quilt of cultural influences on the far side of the world hardly prepared me for the shock of secondary school in Liverpool, England. Why Liverpool? It’s my mum’s home town. After taking a beating or two, I soon learned to adapt to my new surroundings, and grew to love the city, its people and football club (the red one).
At Cardinal Allen Grammar School I developed a love of learning and reading fiction, including writing the odd reflective poem. Upon leaving school with a couple of ‘A’ levels, I knew I wanted to write and jumped at the chance, when offered by a careers adviser, to become a trainee reporter for a local newspaper in Liverpool, The Woolton Mercury. Here I learned lithographic printing, layout, news reporting and feature writing, soon progressing to film reviewing and writing a music column. I researched and wrote a feature series, The History of Woolton Hall. Amongst my interview subjects were Pink Panther film actor, Bert Kwok, and The Stranglers’ bass player, Jean Jacques Burnel.
After a couple of years I went to Pontypridd in South Wales to study at the Polytechnic/University of Wales where I was elected editor of the student news magazine, LEEK, before graduating with a BA Honours degree in Communication Studies (that included practical in scriptwriting and film production). For my film practical, I wrote, cast and directed a short film, Sam Shovel and the Case of the Missing Taxidermist, receiving an ‘A’ grade. I was selected to direct and co-script the Polytechnic’s entry in the 1985 Fuji Student Film Competition. Based on a Susan Hill short story, Only the Natives came fourth out of a field of 12 national film courses.
After this, I gravitated to London and got a job as Assistant Circulation and Promotions Manager with the South London Press Group, based in Streatham. This was the start of a ten-year stint in the newspaper publishing industry, broken only by nine months at Bristol Business School where I attained a post-graduate diploma in Marketing. The diploma won me an upgrade to Marketing Executive in the Group Marketing Department of United Provincial Newspapers Limited (later United News and Media) and a desk overlooking the River Thames in the shiny black tower, Ludgate House, next to Blackfriars Bridge. Here, my creative skills were adapted to meet commercial objectives in market research, advertising sales support and product development for regional newspaper titles.
Faced with the sell-off of group titles, I jumped before I was pushed and resigned in the mid-90s to do voluntary work with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) in Zambia, working in educational book publishing development. This involved organising and delivering training and support to local publishers, setting up and running the Zambia Book Fair.
Soon after, I set up and managed my own publishing, marketing and management company based in Lusaka, Zambia. I ‘lived the dream’ by launching, publishing and editing a magazine (Construction News) and newspaper (Business & Leisure News) in Zambia between 1999-2005. I also did company newsletters and helped run team building courses. My daughter, Cathy, was born in Lusaka in 2003, to mother Karen. They now live in Bordeaux, France, and I maintain a good, if distant, relationship with them.
In 2005 I took up the position of General Manager for a mineral exploration company, GeoQuest Limited based in Lusaka. After three years (that included a 3 month stint in the Democratic Republic of Congo), I joined Atlas Copco, as Lusaka Branch Manager. This was unexpectedly cut short after barely a year by the calamitous effect of the global recession on the company and the Zambian economy. As Chairman of Lusaka Rugby Club, I helped steer the club to a national league and cup double in 2008, also hosting a Rugby World Cup qualifier between Zambia and Morocco.
I returned to the UK in 2009 and now live a less hectic life near Windsor in Berkshire where I write creative fiction and help out with a local charity, Men’s Matters. I think you’ll agree, I’ve led a varied life, living on three continents, with enough material to write a memoir. I’m writing up short memories as they come to me and thinking about how to join them together.
Now aged 60, I’m a chronically ill home-based author and charity volunteer, managing my medication-fuelled days at a steady pace. How many more books do I have in me? Who knows… I’m taking it one at a time.
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:-
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.
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
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.
On Friday 6th May, 1983, my Goth-mate Jimmy dragged me along to see the Sisters of Mercy at the University of London Student’s Union. We were students at the time, so only needed to show our SU cards to get in. I know the date because I have the ticket glued in my scrap book. What we didn’t know, as we huddled in the small studio-sized room, was that a relatively new band from Manchester was being showcased – The Smiths. They had replaced Babaluna on the bill – why and how, I don’t know (Rough Trade getting them some capital exposure, perhaps?).
Most of the leather-wearing Goths sloped off to the bar as the weedy Mancunians set up their gear and were given a lukewarm, almost apologetic, introduction to the indifferent crowd. Jim and I were pleasantly surprised, as we both had copies of their early singles – Hand in Glove and its brilliant B-side, Still Ill, This Charming Man, What Difference does it Make? We stood at the front of the low stage, knee high, right in front of Morrissey’s swivelling hips and the jingly-jangly Johnny Marr. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce looked fresh-faced and keen, in a time before stardom and their descent into drugs hell.
The Smiths ripped out their early set with joyful verve, delivered in a loose and slightly un-together cacophony of the first album material to barely fifty people. Reel Around the Fountain lingered, hauntingly in my young mind, Mozza’s compelling imagery striking home. We loved it, and it cemented our status as Smiths fans. The meat was not yet murdered and Strangeways had not been visited, but we had seen enough emerging talent by then that we knew. These boys were special.
Oh, and the pre-Mission Sisters were rocking and sleek, with Eldridge gripping the mic with hand in leather glove. The room filled and we grooved and gyrated to their compulsive rock set, including early hits, Alice, the Body Electric and covers of Gimme Shelter, and yes, the Dolly classic, Jolene. Great gig, all things considered, and not bad for two quid.
Fast-forward 33 years, to Thursday 8th December 2016, and I found myself at the Half Moon pub in Putney, South London, where tribute band The Smyths performed to an enthusiastic room full of Smiths fans, ranging in age from teenagers to us fifty-somethings who were around when Morissey was first warbling.
As I sipped my pint of flat lager I reflected that it was a happy meeting of creative talent when gawky teenage poet Stephen Morrisey met shy tunesmith Johnny Marr at Salford’s Boy’s Club in the early 80s. The unremitting bleakness of Manchester’s gray post-industrial decay, high youth unemployment and the pressure to find a job, the heart-rending crimes of the Moors Murderers, all formed a backdrop against which Morrissey’s urban poetry found a new outlet as song lyrics. Some themes keep recurring to give an oddly current feel to some of the songs.
That night I finally understood the difference between imitation and veneration. That ‘tribute’ is indeed a sign of respect for something that deserves to live on. Here was a band performing the works of the Smiths in a reverential manner, technically accurate right down to mannerisms and nuances, fronted by a singer so alarmingly similar in both voice and looks to a young Morrissey that you had to blink and rub your eyes.
But he isn’t Morrissey, he’s Graham Sampson, a talented singer in his own right, sporting quiff, flowery shirt and charity shop necklace, giving the fans his interpretation and paying homage in this brilliant set of songs. I reeled around the fountain once more and sang along with the other 300 revellers at this pulsating sell-out gig, re-living and celebrating the eternal charm of these songs, now passing to a new generation of fans.
We sang along to lyrics that refuse to be forgotten:
It’s time the tale was told, of how you took a man and you made him old…
Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, will nature make a man of me yet?
Park the car by the side of the road; don’t you know, time’s tide will smother you.
I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine, and it owes me a living.
Shoplifters of the World unite and take over! Panic on the streets of London!
Because the music that they constantly play means nothing to me about my life – hang the DJ!
So what difference does it make? I’m so sick and tired and I’m feeling very sick and ill today.
…and don’t go home tonight, go out and find the one that you love and who loves you…
The Smyth’s take a bow.
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On a bleak Black Friday, 25th November 2016, I ventured out from the warmth of my humble abode to attend the most delightful author talk, the subject being arguably one of the greatest writers in our English language, Mister Charles Dickens. The presentation, made in Slough’s newest space, a triumph of modern architecture, the Curve, was delivered with enthusiasm by historian Lucinda Hawksley, a great-great-great granddaughter of the man himself. She had come to share with us her new biography of her illustrious ancestor, ‘Charles Dickens and his Circle.’
Her connection to this great literary figure made for an intriguingly personal approach in offering an insight into the life, loves, motivations and achievements of this extraordinary man, told through his associations and friendships with other celebrity figures of the Victorian Age. Indeed, a member of the audience remarked on a perceived family likeness, as she stood next to a portrait of the 27-year-old Dickens by artist Daniel Maclise. This was the first of many portraits shown of Dickens (with a growing beard over his lifetime) and other notable Victorians. Some are paintings housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London (the publishers of this book) and others, illustrations and photographs.
Lucinda’s book includes portraits of the key figures in Dickens’ life, both family and friends that made for a good slide show, conveying a feel for the time as she delicately exposed the key moments of his life for us to get a sense of the man. She told us that his early childhood in Portsmouth was a happy time, with his carefree parents creating an atmosphere of kindness, love and playfulness in a tiny terraced house (still standing as a museum).
Things changed for the worse when the family moved to the urban squalor of London. Soon his parents got into debt and ended up in Debtor’s Prison. In fact the whole family were interred, and the young Charles, then 12 years old, was sent out to work to earn enough to cover the family’s costs. His first job was working in a shoe polish factory on the Strand, and he would walk there and back from his one room lodgings in Camden Town each day.
This wretched end to his happy childhood deeply affected Charles, but being of strong character, he battled through and helped his family out of debt, eventually progressing to a better job as a solicitor’s clerk. He began to follow his heart’s desire to be a reporter by going ‘freelance’ and selling news reports to various publications. Newspapers and magazines abounded in Victorian London, and he soon established a reputation under his pen name ‘Boz’, going on to serialise what was to become his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in a magazine. Much later, he finally dared to write about a family who were subjected to the shame and social censure of being sent to the Debtors Prison in Little Dorrit, a subject that haunted him through his life, given the trials of his parents.
Lucinda describes his struggles to achieve his dream of becoming a writer, and the crossover from journalism to fiction writing, through which Dickens could convey his observations and experiences of life in Victorian London. Various characters entered his life, the first being his wife, Catherine. She was the daughter of his newspaper editor, and is described as being from a well-off middle class family, and a cut above the ambitious but impoverished Charles. Together they had ten children, nine surviving to adulthood (kicking the trend of only one in three children becoming adults in Victorian times). During the course of their marriage he was transformed from an unknown journalist to a famous novelist.
Indeed, the rigours of poverty in industrial Britain were an ever-present theme in Dickens’s writing, and he spent much of his time campaigning for social justice and improvements for the poor. Lucinda presents us with an array of celebrity friends and associates of the Dickens family – fellow writers and artists, philanthropists and business associates, painting a picture of the celebrity culture of the day. He went on book promotion and reading tours, engaging with his readers, which has earned him the reputation as the first ‘modern’ author. He also fought for copyright law, as his works were mercilessly bootlegged, robbing him of income.
Once he became famous, he joined the literary set in London, mixing with the likes of William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot). Illustrators and artists abounded, including JMW Turner, and Hans Christian Anderson was their house guest. Philanthropists and radicals, royalty and musicians could all be found at their parties. He was greeted with the fervour of a pop star on his visits to the United States of America, where he befriended Edgar Allan Poe, William Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving.
Lucinda described some of the more poignant moments of his life, including when he left Catherine for his mistress, Ellen Ternan. Dickens barely survived a devastating train crash in Kent that left him physically and emotionally scarred. He had pulled Ellen and her mother out of their crushed carriage and was lauded for helping the wounded and dying. He died exactly five years to the day after this awful event, in 1870 at the age of 57.
These were some of the fascinating insights into the life of Charles Dickens laid before us as the often stern faces of the Victorian greats and Dickens’ family members were flashed on the screen. I procured a signed copy and started reading the book as soon as I got home.
Charles Dickens and his Circle, by Lucinda Hawksley, published by The National Portraits Gallery Publications, 2016.
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…
Recent media reports highlighted the worrying hold China has over the UK, after our government allowed it to become the North Sea’s top oil operator. The communist-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) now runs two of our biggest oil fields, producing over 200,000 barrels of oil a day.
This hold gives China leverage in negotiations with the UK Government, significantly weakening our control over our own energy sector. Imagine what would happen if the Chinese were permitted to build and run a nuclear power plant in the UK, as is currently proposed? Meanwhile, new Foreign Secretary, comedian Boris Johnson, has flow to Beijing to confound the Chinese with his buffoonery and buy time whilst the new post-Brexit administration works out what to do next.
For the British people, robbed of national assets through privatisation, the future looks bleak, as foreign governments, often hiding behind state-owned corporations, buy into our manufacturing, energy, transport and other key economic sectors. Globalisation has done for us. We have been asset-stripped and left powerless in negotiations with foreign governments, whilst our ruling elite have salted away fortunes in offshore bank accounts. Is this really the country we want for our children?
Despite having a democratic system of governance, we seem powerless to make our political leaders turn away from the dark forces of global capitalism and prioritise citizen-focused issues. Witness the London property market – locals have been priced out as it has been turned into a money haven for foreign ‘investors’. We seem doomed to be patronised by the Westminster elite, doing the bidding of the super rich – hypocrites who are busy selling our country to feather their own nests. They believe everyone is like them – obsessed with position and personal wealth accumulation.
Well, I have news for you. Other nationalities have different perspectives and priorities, and in the case of the Chinese Government, it is to obtain ownership (through State-owned companies) of as much of the World’s mineral assets as possible. To them, cash and barter of goods and services is a way to secure mining rights around the world, starting with developing countries. This gives them both raw materials for their industry and political leverage that increases their power and influence. They now have their eyes on Europe.
I’m sure the Chinese hierarchy look with amusement at the behaviour of BoJo the Clown and our other hypocritical political leaders who are self-obsessed and care little for the ‘good of the people’. At least this last part chimes with the Chinese who see labour as a resource to be exploited. Understanding this makes it easier for them to flatter and deceive our callow politicians into doing their bidding.
A report published in the mirror.co.uk on 24/08/16 talks about the Chinese using the positioning of oil rigs as ‘strategic weapons’, their rigs in a disputed area of the South China Sea described as ‘mobile national territory’. For this reason the USA has moved to protect itself from Chinese ambition by blocking the sale of oil wells over security fears. Paranoid or justified? Meanwhile, the UK Government handed £2 billion in tax breaks to the CNOOC in 2015. Oh, and by-the-way, General Nuclear Power, the Chinese state-owned corporation and the proposed partner in the UK’s £18 billion Hinckley Point project, is facing industrial espionage charges in the US.
The ‘investment’ of foreign governments, through state-owned corporations (including France’s EDF) must surely be a concern for the country. In China’s case, it is a calculated bid to control energy generation in Britain to give them a power base – a toe-hold in negotiations with a weakened British Government. Why would an elected British Government even contemplate such a deal? Surely they have been put there by the British people to represent their collective interest?
Not a bit of it. Global business interest thinly disguised as investment dictates our political agenda, and what is in the best interests of the country is relegated to a minor concern, tersely dismissed by our high-handed moralising politicians. Will the British people really see the benefits of fracking for shale gas? I think not – the gas extracted by private companies will be sold to the highest bidder on the global energy market. We will have our countryside torn up to simply create wealth for a small elite, and still be paying through the nose for our gas supply. That’s how it works.
All was going well for the Establishment until the unexpected Brexit vote. The British electorate took umbrage at being patronised and instructed to Vote Remain. They exercised the one bit of freedom they had left – the choice to vote against the hated money-obsessed Establishment and their Westminster-based toady politicians. It was an embarrassing setback for the forces of Globalisation, but they have quickly re-grouped under a new Conservative Prime Minister, one with worrying similarities to Margaret Thatcher, who set the ball rolling on selling off our national assets some thirty years ago.
Has new Prime Minister, Theresa May, been given her instructions to return the country to a Victorian era voting system by removing those who are not property owners from the electoral register? This would ensure no more disturbances from a peeved electorate to their capitalist agenda, and match nicely their plans to remove the Welfare State and its prize jewel, The National Health Service, tossing the welfare of the poor, sick and disabled into the arms of the charity sector. It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think. The soon-to-be-debated repeal of the Human Rights Act is just another attempt to strip us of our rights and return the country to an authoritarian system based on patronage.
At least we should be able to see the Chinese coming and veer away from their proposed ‘investments’. However, our biggest danger remains the behaviour of our own Government. How can we escape them?
I’ve taken on board some useful feedback following the release of my first novel, Devil Gate Dawn, in April 2016, and as a result have made a few changes:
The cover has been changed to have a shadow figure standing at the gate
The quote on the front has been changed to, ‘Mild-mannered George must face his nemesis’
The start of chapter one now has George reflecting on an accident at work, indicating that such traumatic moments contributed to his decision to take early retirement. Other work-related inner thoughts have been added through the early chapters, showing he is still haunted by past events. These reflections stop when new events come to dominate his thoughts and actions.
All in all, I’m proud of my achievement in pasting together this story from blogs and new material, and am thankful for the input of my copyeditor, Sinead Fitzgibbon, in helping to shape it into a structured story with sub-plots and suitably developed support characters.
George battles his way through problems with a calm, stoic approach, often bewildered by the extreme methods and actions of others. In many ways, his pragmatic approach has mirrored my own problems with battling health issues whilst writing it.
I’ve made notes for a follow-up, and have pored over the 10,000 words of my abandoned novel, The Langley Leopard (submitted to the Richard and Judy novel competition three years ago!) that preceded this one, looking to salvage bits.
I’ve temporarily dropped the price to 99p and equivalent in other currencies to attract new readers.
In the meantime, I’m immersed in the mid-fifth century, ploughing on with researching and writing my next historical fiction novel, Ambrosius: Last of the Romans.