CHAPTER 13 – Smoke on the water



“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

William Shakespeare.




Windows continued to crack. Dan sensed veils lifting, time slowing into long fractions. God was rooted to her screens, admiring the tsunami’s rapidly spreading circle, resisting huge urges to dance. Jesus was positioned mid-river, between the pier and the Medway Estuary. His purple palate of energised colour wobbled violently as the SS Richard Montgomery’s remnants were blasted in every direction.

Thames Estuary dwellers were being blitzed by the ear-pounding detonation of anywhere between 1,400 to 3,000 tonnes of explosives, including 2,000 cases of cluster bombs. The Montgomery had become the first wreck designated as dangerous under section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. It sat in an exclusion zone, monitored visually and by radar.

As an ascended master, Jesus refused to be excluded. He had created his own portal near the Sheerness coast, while listening to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Down to Earth’ album. And out he had popped, skipping across the strong currents, passing right through the LNG vessel, and perching on a mast poking above the waters. “I have a Mother who is greater than I. From her I have received all things, and I do only her will,” he softly incanted.

The wreck had for decades been subject to speculation. How much damage to humans and infrastructure might its near 70-year old ordnance inflict? And what could set it off? An investigation by New Scientist magazine in 2004 made no mention of divine sparks, but concluded that a collision, an attack, or just tides shifting the cargo, might be enough.

God settled into her work, wiping a bead of sweat. As the river began to hollow out, and a tower of fire brought bizarre new colours to the sky, time all but stopped. Next to her sat Maggie, transfixed. Satan was opening a bottle of Highland Park, to smooth the transition back. The first sip provided a remarkable heather character. “Jesus told me that the peat used is hand-cut,” Sal told anyone who might be listening.

Operating in nano-seconds, God kept track of the inevitable collateral damage. She accorded each task a prioritisation, attempting to keep children paramount in her deliberations. Certain parents in Southend, Canvey Island and Sheerness had earlier that morning made unexpected decisions on impromptu visits to inland relatives, or trips to rural Essex and Kent. Further down God’s karmic rankings, just below the wasps annoying people on Southend seafront, were categories such as deceitful politicians and Essex bankers who gambled in derivatives markets.

A key task was to oversee the LNG vessel. Having completed almost fifteen hundred voyages, Johan van Hoyte, the Dutch pilot, had sensed an unusual danger. He had read subtle signs in the Cape Horn skies. He had given the slip to armed pirates in Indonesia’s Molocca Straits. But never had he seen the colours which spread-eagled across the Thames Estuary on May 12.

With the Isle of Grain terminal hoving into view, Johan had glanced nervously to starboard where the Montgomery’s masts protruded. Did a mauve aura envelop the wreck’s location? In plain sight ahead lay the ugliness of Thamesport container port and the adjacent Grain power station, near to the LNG import and regasification terminal.

He felt rather than saw the blast. Automatic thoughts of emergency procedures were transcended by terror, followed by astonishment that his huge ship sat atop a moving water cushion.

God absorbed endless cameo details. Beyond the ship, the humans nearest the blast were a 29-year old Belgian woman, Eema Koont, and her 43-year-old lover, a Liberal-Democrat MP. High on cocaine, they had walked the pier. Halfway out, Eema saw a female Buddhist practitioner in red and yellow robes, gazing calmly to sea. In her abandonment, Eema believed she was creating lilac across the sky. She had worked her way into ATOS middle management, gaining hefty bonuses for every batch of claimants torn away from benefits.

In the café, at the pier’s end, her lover tore her clothes off against the disabled toilet wall. He had amassed a small fortune as a parliamentary lobbyist, receiving shares in the private health companies springing up like cancers on the dying NHS body.

Now, in rising wind, they ran from the building laughing like teenagers, carving their initials on a nearby wall, either side of roughly hewn genitalia worn by wind and spray. They sat by a silver bell.

25 yards away, facing the Thorpe Bay shore, the bronzed, bearded but hung-over angler Dickie Durban cast out for mackerel in the warm water. Nothing was biting. Yesterday he had filled his net, celebrating with can after green can of lager. It took a second for the blast to register, another to realise his hearing had gone. Sky was morphing into crazed oranges, browns and blacks, as water all around the Montgomery found paths of deadly destiny.

Was it the coke? Or was a wall of water obliterating all view of Kent? Eema recalled pictures of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That memory shuffled with others as her mind expanded at light-year speed toward enlightenment. An unhappy childhood in Antwerp; flashes of her first lover; holidays stoned in Morocco; a brief flirtation with meditation.

God, also, was remembering. How she had almost intervened before the atom bombs hit Japan. As the Creator let time pay out, the pier’s front end levered up from its stanchions, like velcro unfastening. A quarantine was lifting. Buildings flipped skywards. The politician flew at last, remembering Aleister Crowley’s words: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.

Eema Koont span through the sky and onto an exposed, rusty pier stanchion. Similarly harpooned, yards away, her lover twitched uncontrollably. God nodded, satisfied.

Nearer the shore, a pier train catapulted towards the Buddhist. In her mind she sat by her master. Dickie Durban was already sleeping with the fishes, soon to enter the long tunnel.

The karmic mega-wave was pelting towards the Southend coastline, gaining height as the water lost depth. Geoffrey Summers viewed it from his wheelchair two hundred yards west of the pier. His 89-year old body had all but given up. Fluid drawn from his lungs, two weeks ago, was refilling. He had felt the strange compulsion to visit the seafront, painstakingly rolling his chair to its resting place. He thought of World War Two, serving on army hospital ships under the Egyptian sky. Geoffrey recalled his wife’s last years, in a nursing home, unable to recognise him. Regretting he had never said it. How much he loved her.

He thought of the late 1970s, working for a Fleet Street company where printers took turns to sleep through night shifts. Maggie had taken them on. Maybe she got that one right. In his last second, as saltwater filled his mouth, he puzzled over Britain’s mutation. Many people now lacked sufficient food and warmth. His last thought comprised two words: “Perfidious Albion.”

The tsunami raced across the seafront road, sweeping pedestrians and cars into buildings before coiling up slopes. To the west, water smashed though the dark, sleek casino, tilting every wheel to zero. Early Sunday afternoons were quiet. A few croupiers; several Taiwanese and Japanese punters.

From a quantum viewpoint, Jesus saw that no distance existed between Southend and the Isle of Grain. Calmly, he recalled post-Golgotha days. After he and Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem for India, they lived peacefully, absorbing and teaching ancient Hindu and Buddhistic wisdoms. Mary later left for southern France, taking their two children, but remaining in telepathic contact. Jesus eventually died at a ripe age and was buried in Srinagar, in a zone disputed between India and Pakistan. Now more burials loomed. He would help heal the incoming souls to The Place, where Buddha was chanting to ease the suffering.

East of the pier, Sally Chloe sat in the public bar of the time-worn Hope Hotel. A married guy was buying her shots. She knew a toll might be expected, perhaps at her small flat. Having graduated in psychology, Sally had found only temporary work. It was difficult to get dressed some days. She had been told to look nationwide in her job applications, or risk severing her benefit. Friends in accountancy, law and banking were already halfway to six-digit salaries.

Fiddling with the patch on her cardigan sleeve, she feigned interest in drunken male antics in Ayia Napa. Her thoughts were consumed with money. A friend, Katie, had been seconded to work in the UK Treasury. Kat had told her of a plan to sell off nearly 4 million student loans to private sector buyers, and to remove interest rate caps. One calculation, said Katie, suggested some graduates might then work until retirement without ever repaying their debt.

Sally’s eye was caught by a line Katie had highlighted in the briefing document, which was prepared by Rothschild Investment Bank, an unknown name to her. It said “investors who want inflation protection” should receive more shelter from the financial risk in the loans than the government. There was something odd there, reminding her of Gordon Brown’s 2008 bailout of banks. Why was the private sector prioritised?

Degree or not, Sally was a short jump away from the food bank, or maybe the park bench, given the collapsing welfare system. If the lecherous git sitting opposite were to impregnate her – which he would, given half a chance – she could face the situation she saw locally. Some of the town’s poorest mums were starving themselves to feed their kids.

“You listening or what love?” smiled her gallant suitor, a second before the front windows caved inwards, hurling glass across the room. Sally ignored the apocalyptic view that opened up, ignored her fags, grabbed her bag and ran. Instinctively, she turned right. Lower territory lay to the left. Sprinting, in her red pumps, hoping she could reach the High Street. A glance told her the Adventure Island playground would be pummelled in its location either side of the pier.

Several emporia east of the Hope, Steve Landais stood in a betting shop, a stone’s throw from the Kursaal. A seven furlong horse race at Salisbury was underway. If his £100 cash bet won, the next two rent payments were covered. Reluctantly, Dawn had agreed, given his confidence.

His selection, My Mind Told Me, was a late finisher. With four furlongs to go, the shop’s front window disintegrated. Fellow bettors scrambled for the back door, but Steve’s horse was cruising behind the leaders. “Come on you beaut!” he roared. Outside, thousands of tonnes of metres-high water charged towards the beach.

Lungs bursting, Sally was weaving through terrified locals and day-trippers. Passing the amusement arcades, climbing Pier Hill, slowing, she noticed the young woman trying to gather two kids outside a café. “Do as you’re bloody well told, we’ll be at Nanny’s in just a minute,” shouted Chanelle Robinson, whose mum lived in Alexandra Street, off the main drag.

Sally stopped. “Let’s carry one each, please don’t argue” she yelled. Sally picked up the girl, who was chuckling at the wall of water steadily scything the pier from its moorings. Chanelle grabbed her boy. He insisted Spiderman and Power Rangers were coming.

Moving at any speed was as difficult as resisting the temptation to look seawards. Panting for breath, Chanelle wondered if she might be better off dead. She was ashamed of always pretending to have more than she did. Increasingly uncertain if she could survive on her welfare payments, she had discovered legal aid for consumers was in jeopardy, after disputing a bill with her mobile phone provider.

God switched her lens back east, to a semi-detached house overlooking Southchurch Park. She saw local boy Dave Dawson look up from his spring vegetables at the blast, as darkness smeared the sky above the elevated sea wall a few hundred yards away. Dave ran in and up to where his wife had been sprinkling lavender in their daughter’s bath. “It’s the Montgomery, isn’t it?” Sarah asked anxiously. Dave had regularly mentioned the dangers posed by the wreck.

As a young boy, on the nearby council estate in Newington Avenue, Dave had planted his first seeds. When he met Sarah, who was qualifying as a holistic therapist, his own alternative views had driven him to prepare a ‘survival’ store for the moment of social collapse: thousands of seeds, canned food, medical items, cash and a cluster of silver and gold coins.

Lauren dropped her duck, smiling at the ripples. Watching her, hanging from the toilet roll holder, was the Queen’s face. Dave wondered if he would be reported to the police, but still contended that unelected hereditary monarchies that leeched off their subjects were as archaic and unfair as sending children down mines. The previous week, images of Cameron and Clegg adorned their loo-roll. Dave said the government had soiled itself in its receptiveness to lobbying, which Cameron termed as “the great scandal” a fortnight before being elected. The sound of rushing water rose through the open window. Sarah dried Lauren while he went to their balcony.

God switched back to Chanelle and Sally, who were discovering that a child’s life at stake could trump screaming leg muscles. At the top of Pier Hill, Alex Coppell, a black 25-year-old, had reverted to his military training when windows began disintegrating. By the time the two women crested the hilltop, fighting for breath, Alex had canvassed every section of a crowded fast-food restaurant at the seaward end of the High Street, urging patrons and staff upstairs. As he shepherded the two women and the children to safety, water surged into the High Street. His memories of Afghanistan were re-erupting.

Further west, three friends had followed their Sunday lunchtime routine. From a Westcliff seafront café, they had watched an increasingly purple sky frame a blue and white Maersk container ship. As usual, soccer talk petered out. Talk of past sexual antics was stale. Despite seeing only middle-aged men shovelling beer into their faces, God followed a hunch, and called up the File on Mike Burper.

The school record was mediocre, accompanied by a history of bullying. Then a career in insurance and two divorces, each wife citing physical violence. Big anger problems stemmed from paternal DNA. A separate side-file contained a long list of attacks on soccer opponents, and even referees. Two grown sons remained terrified of him, but were apt to mirror his behaviour. ‘Hello Mike’ whispered God. “Old Testament time!”

When the explosion occurred, some two sea miles away, the threesome separated. One sought safety up the hill behind the café. Another reckoned he could reach his car outside Maxims Casino.

Burper’s vehicle lay the other way. He legged it towards Chalkwell, breath rasping. Cars were crashing and spinning off the road in the panic. He looked over his left shoulder, stomach spinning at the darkness mushrooming across the estuary. 20 seconds later he knew he wouldn’t even reach the car. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Through the gathering roar of death, Jesus entered Mike’s ear. “Only one thing remains Michael. Forsake all you have in the physical realm, and come with me.” Mike’s next move possessed a certain Essex panache. He halted, turned and faced down the tsunami. “Come on then,” he snarled. As it leapt onto the road, he threw his last punch.

Beneath the betting shop, Steve Landais sat in a black hole, like Jonah and Ishmael. Squeezed against the underfloor safe, winning slip in his back pocket, he heard the water flooding the shop; wondered how much air was left; texted Dawn that he was OK.

Messages flew like a mini 9/11. From his balcony, Dave Dawson texted his brother, who lived by Southend East railway station. A cataclysm of seawater had charged down and through every gap to the south side of Southchurch Park, smiting aside any weakness. It was filling the huge recreational space and surrounding roads. Dead bodies, sections of beach huts and boats were surging past. Dave saw two boys had perched, precariously, on the roof of the park’s cafe. The younger cried, holding his brother’s hand.

Looking down, Dave estimated nearly three feet of flooding, gauging the water’s height against his front windows. Damage to their property would be acute, and his vegetables ruined, but insurance would kick in, barring an act of God or some other exclusion.

In Heaven, Buddha recited the Great Compassion Mantra for each soul that departed earth.

In Leigh, hundreds of desperate people were scrambling and jostling along roads and up slopes from the old town. Ricky Ravenous-Glutton remained rooted outside the Billet, his memory straying unaccountably to his granddad in Benfleet. Ricky’s toy army overran the Germans, by the coal fire, while Pops snored in his favourite chair. Yards away, Claire had joined Sheena, Ruth and Jess, watching the horizon diminish. Her rash had also shrunk.

Deploying his fireman’s instincts, Micky Gaze picked the pub as the best of a terrible set of options. He forcefully told the women that the Billet’s floors, several feet above ground, might offer sanctuary. “Out here we’re dead,” he shouted. Ravenous-Glutton followed the small group climbing the pub steps.

15 miles away, in Basildon, a redhead standing outside Primark felt an unknown emotion. She heard the blast, saw the south-eastern sky darken. Why did she suddenly remember the chancer she had entwined with at the Canvey nightclub? Crisps and sex were his pleasures.

Above Old Leigh, Dan’s camera lens was providing strange pictures. The oncoming barrage appeared to bounce off an invisible covering across the old town. It curled and stretched onwards and upwards in a diagonal, north-westerly thrust, engulfing running and falling humans. It bubbled and broiled up to within 50 yards of where Dan and Mary sat transfixed, nerve holding.

The tsunami rushed on, mercilessly, across the greenery of the under-named Two Tree Island, where ‘doggers’ lost the use of the nature reserve for weeks. Next in line, Canvey Island never stood a chance, despite two miles of reinforced concrete sea walls. The island had achieved fame via its major 1953 flooding. The 2013 version killed several hundred inhabitants, including a hatful of hardened criminals.

God never lost sight of the LNG vessel. The ship grounded down upon the Isle of Grain’s expansive mud flats, without causing a second huge explosion. Nearby, the living daylights were knocked out of the regasification terminal, container port and combined cycle power station, smashing away a percentage of the UK’s optimal power supply and racking up billions of pounds of damage. The town of Sheerness on the adjacent Isle of Sheppey was a sitting duck for the wave, while the upper reaches of the River Medway experienced a huge surge, ruining parts of Gillingham, Chatham and Rochester. So many lives lost.

Tilbury Docks took a huge hit from the swell. Terrified drivers looked down from the QE2 road crossing at Dartford, catalysing crashes hundreds of feet above the river. Industries, transportation facilities and residential areas along the Thames suffered major damages and residual flooding. However, the Thames Barrier, east of the Isle of Dogs, held firm. Nonetheless insurance companies would soon receive balance sheet busting bills, including damage to Belgian and Dutch coastlines.

In the taxi back to Chelmsford, Dan wrote the story on his mobile. You couldn’t make it up. The first British tsunami and the miracle of Old Leigh. By the evening, he had a scoop that a legal friend negotiated with ravenous publishers. Dan’s pictures collected royalties for decades.

The Mouth of the Empire had been dealt a huge punch. Now the real work would begin.



CHAPTER 12 – The mouth of the empire



Oh I do like to be beside the seaside/Oh I do like to be beside the sea

With a bucket and a spade/And a fucking hand grenade

Beside the seaside, beside the sea

Football chant once linked to Southend United Football Club





Feeling bold, God was enjoying a widescreen view of the Thames Estuary, where the exorcism would begin.

A minor breeze ruffled the river, which was England’s mouth. It had feasted heartily on spices, tea, rum, tobacco and sugar, and lustily on diamonds and gold, particularly gold. It had burped out weaponry exports, trading some of these for slaves.

The river was at full tide, covering the Mulberry Harbour off its northern shoreline at Southchurch, and wetting every leg of Southend Pier, the world’s longest. The swell was unable to conceal the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, which sat in sandbanks off Sheerness, ring-fenced by buoys, after running aground in 1944. At the screen’s periphery, God saw a ship ploughing north-eastwards along the Kent coast. 190,000 cubic metres of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG) was heading to the Isle of Grain.

Recent myths and legends of super-heroes flitted across the mind of God. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and Wolverine. And now Buddha, Gandhi, Satan and Maggie. She smiled, still unsure how well Gandhi and Maggie would rub along.

She pondered their track records.

Both fervently admired the Sermon on the Mount, her son’s message of striving towards the Kingdom of God. Both had changed history. In Maggie’s case, the virus of neoliberalism had been unleashed across the globe, with its attendant demons of privatisation and privation. At home, the UK’s homeless and unemployment statistics had soared. “If a man will not work, he shall not eat,” she had once told the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.

Gandhi had refused food, leading hunger strikes to protest British rule of India. He had lived without possessions in pursuit of social justice. At his death the Indian had perceived, and then seized the “dharmata” opportunity, liberating himself forever from ducking in and out of human bodies.




Karma did not preoccupy 25-year-old Richard Ravenous-Glutton. On Sunday 12 May, 2013, Ricky was lunching on prawn cocktail crisps while emptying his bladder in the brick outhouse beside the Crooked Billet.

He heard the trap door open in the corridor behind him. A nocturnal-looking geezer, wearing gloves, was holding the wall for support. He was well over seven foot tall. “Fuck me”, said Rick.

“What the fuck,” he added, pissing on his shoes and spilling crisps as a second figure emerged. This one had huge ears, an Arsenal shirt stretched over his tummy, and a dazzling smile. Stretching his multi-tasking skills, Ricky whipped out his phone and activated the videocam. “This is mental m8,” he somehow texted his friend Chris, outside in the Leigh-on-Sea sunshine. The Nepalese prince Siddharta Gautama wobbled after Satan towards the bar.

“Arse bandits in loo,” Rick texted again when another Indian-looking male stumbled out, wearing sandals, spectacles and a loose white robe. One thin shoulder was exposed. He placed a walking cane on the slippery floor.

What had the nut-jobs been up to in the khazi? “Facebook evryfin m8,” Rick texted. And again: “OMFG CANT B NO FKN WY GET PICS ON FB”, after a woman’s leg emerged, unsteadily.

Strange things happened in toilets. The previous week a redhead from Basildon had bent over for him, in a nightclub cubicle. But three guys and a woman would need every last inch of confined space. He considered the angles, entertaining the pleasing notion that one of the weirdos had been shafted by another geezer while two of them did the bird. But his carnal calculations were blown to pieces by the woman’s inescapable identity. “Bloody hell,” mumbled Rick. “Impossible.”

Maggie looked resplendent in classic cream jacket and A-line skirt, court shoes and matching handbag. She glanced with deep disdain at Rick’s dripping member, on which a crisp had lodged, as she lurched away. Finally, Bob staggered out, hardly able to place his paws.

The upload to Facebook, which would trigger a real-time avalanche of local interest, was almost complete. Rick and Chris didn’t have a clue that Britain was about to receive a karmic punch in the teeth. The sky gave little away. Its royal blue contained small billows of white.

Micky Gaze stood loyally outside the Billet. Thinking about money. To cover the incomers’ immediate needs, he had ordered double Bowmores for the delegation, who were to meet Dan and Mary, journeying in from Chelmsford, and to familiarise with the locality. £35 for the round. He had to talk to Sal about the mounting expenses.

Walking over the nearby railway bridge, heart in his mouth, Dan looked up, adjusting the camera strap around his neck. Could a sky look messianic? From early that morning, he had been listening incessantly to the Nick Cave track ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. It depicted a world where time had stopped, and a preacher spoke in a new language.

Sal spotted a couple of fishermen. He asked about the tide, its duration and strength. Unfathomably, during the last 24 hours, it seemed that Leigh’s fishing fleet had enjoyed its biggest catch in decades. Buddha took a seat by the sea wall, opposite a woman in her thirties, nursing a half pint. She looked to be in physical discomfort. Mentally, he imprinted three purifying Sanskrit letters into the ale.

Siddharta had reached enlightenment in the sixth century BC, going on to teach a spiritual path followed by untold millions across Asia. It was his first time in England. He gazed with curious pleasure at the eating and drinking houses, craft shops, galleries, wharves and cockle sheds. The woman introduced herself as Claire. Something told her that this relaxed man would understand her illness. A rash had covered her shoulders months ago, and spread, unabashed by GP prescriptions. The urge to scratch ruined her sleep. Oddly, her beer tasted different. Maybe cleaner.

Beneath his breath, Buddha chanted the Great Compassion Mantra for the people of Southend. Om moni bemi hong. Om moni bemi hong. It asked for compassion for all deceased beings, and for those directly or indirectly responsible for their deaths. He looked up. Shades of purple had manifested. Plums and cranberries peeking from clouded white wispiness.

But still hot, which suited Gandhi’s light garb. Sensing familiar scrutiny, from many eyes, Mahatma watched the man and woman arrive. Satan greeted the female, whose husband looked overwhelmed by Satan’s height, and equally shocked to see Maggie.

Traditionally a sherry drinker, Britain’s former PM was gulping the Bowmore to regain her ‘land legs’. It was feisty then sweet to the taste. She now recalled living in Essex after World War Two. Renting in the garrison town of Colchester, she had commuted to a chemical plant near the River Stour. She had visited Southend many years later, in May 1969, speaking to Conservative women at the Grade II listed Kursaal building, on the seafront.

Mahatma was deeply perplexed by Maggie’s inclusion in the team. “British bull in a China shop”, was his description.

God explained little, observing only that this version of her was, at her request, an exactitude of her “space-suit” at the age of 41, back in 1966. Maggie was oddly fixated on the year, when, as a shadow treasury spokesman in Ted Heath’s Conservative party, she had expressed forcible opinions on public expenditure.

In the Billet, Micky Gaze stood at the cliff-face of his overdraft limit. He ordered fish and chips for seven, and more double Bowmores. He grabbed a word with Sal. “I’ve laid out £130 already today. Can’t do it much longer, or me and the wife will go bust,” he said, apologetically.

Satan looked into his friend’s eyes. “Big day today Micky, but I’ll talk to God.” Sal was temptingly handsome, whatever way you swung.

In the virtual world, pictures of Satan and his squad were whizzing through ether. Locals were thronging down hillside paths from Upper Leigh to view the free-of-charge freak show. Chris told Ricky that Paulie and the lads would be along soon, and Johnnie Tattoo’s crew were finishing up drinks at the nearby Peter Boat pub.

Maggie strode across to three women tucking into seafood lunches, sliding into the spare place. Her Asprey brown alligator structured flap front top handle satchel handbag gleamed in the sun. It looked to her new companions to have cost thousands of pounds.

A Bengali woman opposite was enjoying peppered cockles. Sheena was a physiotherapist at Southend hospital, where noises about redundancies were growing. Struck by the newcomer’s uncanny resemblance to a recently-deceased politician, she carried on discussing a 53-year-old woman, Stephanie Bottrill, who had recently walked in front of a lorry in Birmingham. The trigger was a letter stating she would lose £80 of monthly housing benefit under the ‘bedroom tax’. She had posted her keys through a neighbour’s door. And a note, saying “I can’t afford to live”.

Sheena took a slug of pinot grigio. Gazing at Maggie, she paid little attention to the rising south-easterly breeze. “Maybe that’s how it’s going to be, a controlled social demolition,” she pondered aloud.

Maggie sipped more Bowmore. Then spoke confidently. “Any legitimate government should fear the people, not the other way around. And governments can and should, always, be held accountable for their actions.” Sheena spluttered wine across her friend Ruth’s potted crab.

Feeling words flow with new sympathies, Maggie spoke again. “Why let the present bunch off the hook?” She referred, with a look of distaste, to Lord Green, the unelected Minister of State for Trade and Investment. His credentials involved heading HSBC Bank when it was laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels. She spoke of “a graceless corruption” permeating Westminster, where over 200 parliamentarians possessed financial interests in private sector health care.

People were already crowding tightly around the table, manipulating smartphones. God was pleased at how swiftly Maggie had adapted to the mission, after intense briefings. Maggie switched back to Stephanie Bottrill. “According to the Daily Mirror, she was diagnosed with serious auto-immune system deficiency in her childhood, and was told by doctors that she was too ill to work. However, she never registered as disabled, and lived without disability benefit. Like me, and I suspect all of you, she was a proud lady.”

She couldn’t stop: “These ‘austerity’ measures that we keep hearing about do not even save money, because your chancellor is furiously borrowing again in the bond markets, in order to pay debts that keep growing.” On she went, breeze lifting and sunshine fading. “How many more stories like this do any of you need to hear? How much more nonsense about deficits, and ‘we’re all in this together’, while the richest pile up more assets?” No replies.

“Life is pretty crap for many people right now,” said another woman at the table, Jess, whose hair was preternaturally grey. Released from her bus driving job due to a pulled back muscle, which had failed to heal, she was attending a ‘work programme’ where bullying and intimidation from Job Centre staff was rife. Yet, when awakening that morning, she sensed something incredible was brewing. A Sambuca shot accompanied her white wine.

Stephanie Bottrill’s story reminded Jess how a terminally ill man had died of kidney failure and starvation in East Grinstead, Sussex. Hardly able to believe her story, she told her companions that the 63-year-old died following a medical assessment by ATOS, which passed him fit to carry out manual work, and had recommended that his benefits should stop, despite his kidney treatment five days a week in Haywards Heath. ATOS subsequently denied any wrong-doing, reiterating that it was following Department of Work & Pensions imperatives to get one million people into work. Pumping up the bile, the Daily Mail had published a ‘workshy map’ of Britain, based on disability benefit claimants that ATOS had disqualified.

A woman in a smart red hoodie piped up. “I’ve always loved being British. But not so much now.” Ruth ran a dance school in Westcliff. Poorer mums were increasingly unable to pay for the lessons, which integrated physically challenged children. Ruth told the group about remarks by Colin Brewer, a councillor in Cornwall, who had advocated killing the disabled at birth due to the costs in keeping them alive. She pulled up her hood against the breeze. “Two options, I reckon. We all start finding our tribes, and creating our own realities; or we wait for super-heroes to sort out this mess.” She looked in bewilderment at Maggie.

There was no longer room to move in the old town. Having slept under a bench, after lapping at a saucer of whisky, Bob was stirring as food arrived for Satan’s gang. Gandhi looked at the glory of mauve, lilac and lavenders around the sky; felt the breeze chilling his bare shoulder. A staunch vegetarian, he would not eat the fish.

Seldom curious, Ravenous-Glutton was nagged by a question. He approached Buddha. Siddharta looked Rick up and down, enjoying the boy’s outfit: orange tee-shirt, purple jeans, blue shoes and yellow watch. Smiling deeply, he said: “Whatever and however you might think of me, please remember that I never claimed divinity, but merely knew that I possessed the seed of enlightenment. That nature is the birthright of every sentient being, I realised, after sitting under the tree at Bodh Gaya.”

Rick and his mates had drunk enough beer to float a local cockle boat. “Yeah…course mate. Listen we’re all Spurs – where you get that Arsenal shirt?” he asked, spitting crisp fragments.

Buddha replied with graciousness: “From a big but compassionate being. For you, I would say this. Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small. However small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain. What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”

“What the fuck you on about?” said Rick.

Chris got it. “Geezer’s talkin about karma Ricky. You know, like, what goes around comes around.”

Paulie and Johnnie Tattoo decided to nick Maggie’s handbag for a laugh. Jess was talking about the BBC, whose licence she had stopped buying. “Its journalists seem willing to protect paedophiles and politicians. I’m not paying any money until their programmes start representing my views. The real news is online anyway.”

Maggie saw the arm reach for her bag. She instinctively grabbed Johnnie’s dark wrist and yanked it behind his back, making him grunt with pain. “We are supposed to be responsible adults, yet we get caught with our hands in the cookie-jar, don’t we” she scolded, just like the old Maggie. But with martial artistry.

Buddha was explaining reincarnation to Claire, who had forgotten her skin condition. The sky was howling out strange rainbow colours, dominated by purple. Conversations increased in animation as the streets reached logjam.

“People have ability to create deep in their minds,” grinned a teenager who had smoked some excellent weed. “95% of the endeavour known as work is either destructive to the land, the psyche or both. This goes way beyond the right to work – or to beg for a job.”

One voice piercing the clamour shouted out that financial crashes had taken place in 1907, 1929 and 2008. “The first two were followed by war – so should we be getting ready for a new holocaust?”

Satan told Dan to stop drinking. To write down all he had seen and heard. Then to leave, with Mary. Find a particular vantage point, and prepare to file the story of his life. The light in the sky was almost messianic, almost there. Satan told them the change would begin with a ground-breaking community in eastern Southend, in which they would be intimately involved. Dan remained awestruck.

“Humanity has to become more spiritual and raise its energy, so its benevolent thoughts manifest quicker. You’ve seen Maggie, Gandhi and the Buddha, all of whom will work with you. Dan, you will control PR. Mary, you will be tasked with a range of jobs.” He raised an eyebrow: “You both up for that?” As Satan elaborated, Dan looked at Mary, and thought of how he loved her. In his song Brompton Oratory, Nick Cave sang:

No God up in the sky; No devil beneath the sea

Could do the job that you did, baby; Of bringing me to my knees

Dan and Mary walked back across the railway. They ascended steps to higher ground, while Buddha traced a dome in his mind. It blanketed the old town. He followed Satan, Gandhi and Maggie through the crowd, back to the toilet. Bob scampered and staggered between their feet.

Mary and Dan found a seat at the top of Cliff Gardens. Holding hands in the driving gale, coming from the direction of Southend pier, they tried to make sense of events. The sky was like nothing ever seen. As if a purple column of rapidly spinning electrons was funnelling upwards and outwards, mid-Thames, near the Isle of Grain. Satan said to train the camera towards the estuary mouth and wait, finger on the video facility. Through the sights Dan saw the LNG vessel approach its terminal. Mary was texting their daughter Rose.

He shut his eyes at the flash, felt the air wobble past his ears, and heard windows shatter behind him. Rising, beyond the pier, a wall of water was unfurling in all directions, including the old town. The camera was catching it all, and Dan’s body was vibrating and glowing with the imminence of death.



219. The eye of the beholder


Around this time last week we enjoyed a few hours in Chelmsford with our daughters Lauren and Josie. We grabbed some Italian food, and sat by the River Chelmer, eating and talking. I was so happy, quietly marvelling at our female offspring. Carrying all the challenges of their generation, but brilliant company. So proud of them both. Kind, attentive, sharp, sharing, witty, thoughtful and empathetic.

We wandered over to the Chelmsford Odeon, to see Brad Pitt’s new film, Ad Astra. The kindest thing to say is that he made a decent fist of a terrible script.  And that his previous appearance, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was mesmerising.


Ad Astra started with promise. A father-son relationship with a huge hole. Against a background where the solar system has become a commercial environment, as the last 500 years of capitalism have driven mankind outwards, off a struggling planet. Travelling to the moon is like taking the Eurostar to Paris, with snacks buyable by debit card, and delays at customs. And then the revelation that rival earth forces are fighting the US for space resources. Nice shots of space, and the planets.

After that the plot fell apart, as if a 9-year-old scriptwriter had butted in. Brad makes it to Mars, where he swims through a dark underground tunnel and climbs up the launch gantry, through the increasing heat, and, one second before take-off, lets himself in a hatch at the bottom of the rocket that will travel to Neptune to seek his maverick father. Tommy Lee Jones, his dad, has lived on space rations for 30 years, controlling a craft that is emitting mysterious power surges that threaten planet Earth.

That’s all fine if you’re watching Disney. Trying not to spoil the plot here, so won’t say any more except that the story gets more and more ridiculous. The ending is best summed up by the phrase “this is utter bollocks”.

Has Hollywood had its day? There were just 10 people in the cinema. Our tickets were purchased cheaply on Groupon. Yet the Guardian reviewer called it a ‘soaring psychological space-opera’, noting that it played to rapt crowds at the Venice Film Festival. They must have been handing out Italian mushrooms at the door. Or bribing them.

A few days later, Maureen and I watched Silence, Martin Scorsese’s look at how Christianity was banned in 17th century Japan.  It started slowly, brooded, and took an hour or so to hit its stride. You had to be patient, but the story felt authentic, tracing the fates of the Portuguese Jesuit priests as they and their followers ran into the Nipponese version of the witchfinder-general.

The stark choice was to deny Christ or die. To be endlessly silent, or pay the price. So much to think about, not least how religion and the Japanese state were indistinguishable. Not unlike Henry VIII’s England. And how the official faith, Buddhism, paid lip service to the priority of its founder – the alleviation of suffering. In a country described more than once in the film as a ‘mudswamp’, forever dragging down the highest impulses.

I love being prompted to think. Can you do more, alive, albeit compromised and almost powerless, in a hostile empire? Or does veracity, truth and influence lay in the agony of the cross? No middle ground. Scorsese, leveraging his Catholic background , provides no answers, but tells a compelling story.

For a far better analysis, it’s worth visiting the review on the excellent Laughter over Tears website, at https://staceyebryan.wordpress.com/2019/09/04/silence/

For sure is that it has made me want to see Scorsese’s True Confessions again.


218. Seeing the positive



I should probably be beside myself with worry, but haven’t slept this well since I was a milkman, 26 and more years back. Sometimes, the early rising and the toll of the physical activity out on the round necessitated two sleeps, especially in the depths of winter.

The need for an occasional afternoon kip has crept up again in recent years, as I’ve hit ‘oldgithood’ (turning 60). But I realised last week that the need for naps has somehow disappeared since beginning the transcendental meditation in early August (Blogs 210, 201, 200).

When my head finally hits the pillow each night, it is with the certainty that slumber will be long (albeit with a piss break or two), deep and generally packed with happier dreams than at any time in my adult life. How good is that?

Maybe it’s very odd, perverse even, in the light of the financial pressures that persist. Not just counting every penny, but a bright red balance sheet, where the volumes going out heavily surpass income. There is a transcription job in the offing, which may fill the gap. But the company has taken so much time to get the training programme underway that all planning at this end has been ditched. Until it materialises, we are surfing a void.

Yet blessings seem to outweigh lacks, for me anyway. The NewsBase collapse in early May meant that, for the first time in four decades, I got to experience almost the whole summer, rather than being tethered to the PC. Still a core of work to pay the rent, but punctuated regularly by cycling, gardening, walking and, more than anything, just sitting in the sunshine. Yum yum. No holiday, but still my most memorable summer since the crucible of 2003 (our financial crash), and the testosteronal delights of 1981, when love and lust rumpled Kev and Maureen’s sheets.

And there’s more. When the shit hits the fan, you discover who has your back. My brother Neil’s concern and care for us has shone, beacon-like. Twice he has persuaded dad to liberate some of his savings to keep us afloat. Including money to replace our old SEAT car.

Without the TM, this year would almost certainly have looked darker. 68 consecutive days now. Each session unpredictable and usually joyous. It is laying down unseen, almost unknowable foundations.

As autumn beds in, the blogs have regained priority. The aim is to mix the rewriting of Out of Essex (Blogs 200, 203-209, 211-215) with the memories of the past. To kick that off, I’m piecing together the highlights of seven years on the Coop milk round.

And, despite the work limbo, trying to enjoy and be grateful for each day.




217. East End Blackshirts




The quality of the 9 p.m. Sunday night drama slot beamed out by BBC1 varies enormously. The last Peaky Blinders series, that ended two weeks ago, was as insane, surreal, enticing and unique as its three predecessors. The replacement, World on Fire, tamely bathes in nostalgia, spinning out predictable storylines about one of the last times Britain could genuinely claim to be fighting on the right side.

That’s neither here nor there. What caught my eye was the inclusion of Oswald Mosley – infamous leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) – in both dramas. It made me half-remember something my dad had said a few years back, about growing up in London’s East End.

I tend to visit him each Sunday. His short-term memory is almost gone, but he survives, alone, using hard-wired routines that guide his days. His long-term memory, by contrast, is fairly good. He loves chatting, and had talked before of watching the blackshirts marching through the Bethnal Green streets where he lived. So yesterday I asked what he could recall about Mosley.

“The marches were like a carnival parade,” said dad, who would have been anywhere between 8 to 12 years old. “Something to go and watch, breaking up normal routines, a little bit of tension and excitement in the air.”

Did you see him at any other times? “Yes, because the BUF headquarters backed onto my grandad’s back yard. My friends and I used to climb up the wall and peer over.”

Could you see much? “Not in the building, which only had a few windows. But we saw the blackshirts parading and drilling outside quite often. It was like looking at a little army.”

What did the people in your area think of Mosley? “I was young, so might not have paid much attention to that. It was obvious that some people liked him. They copied the Nazi salutes. Some Eastenders didn’t like Jews, although I was never sure why. Other people were against him. I honestly don’t remember the feelings being very strong, either way.”

How about your view of him? “You could see he knew how to rouse a crowd, get their pulses racing. He stood out. It’s difficult to find a word. The nearest might be ‘maverick’.”

When did people stop following him? “The outbreak of war. All of a sudden, you were in bed with the enemy if you supported Mosley. That finished him.”

Not sure how well that ties in with other accounts, but it’s pretty much verbatim. It was fascinating to hear.

216. Choices


Before the boot of political correctness tramples my sense of humour into the bin of history, here’s the best joke I’ve heard for some time. Maureen laughed out loud at this for longer than usual, so I’ll replay it.



A man wakes up in considerable pain, unsure of what has happened or where he is. As his vision clears, he sees that he is in a hospital room, with his wife at his bedside. A surgeon enters the room.

“What’s happened to me?” says the guy. “I can’t remember a thing.”

“Brace yourself for some distressing news. You have lost your penis in an accident.”

As the bloke gasps, the surgeon informs him that he is fortunate in one respect. “You are in the UK’s sole hospital that carries out instant penile transplants. These are private operations, which come at a cost, but you have options.”

The guy is still groggy. “What do you mean?”

The surgeon lists three choices. “We can issue you with the standard white British prototype, for £2,000. Moving up the market, there is a Scottish option, designed to swing more heavily, ideal beneath a kilt. That carries a £3,000 price tag.”

The bloke is wide awake now. “What’s the third choice?”

“The West Indian model. More expensive, of course, at £5,000.”

“Blimey. I think me and the wife need to have a chat.”

“We need to act quickly. I’ll be back in five minutes,” the surgeon says.

When he returns, the woman has a glint in her eye.

“Very good news, we can operate this afternoon,” the surgeon says. “So, what have you decided upon?”

“A new kitchen.”



CHAPTER 12 – Bushmills or bust



Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt

Henrik Ibsen




As the days got longer and warmer, Dawn Landais squeegeed her Southend-on-Sea business dream into existence.

By early May, she was on first-name terms with nearly 200 drivers who stopped regularly at the Eastwood lights. They were nice, cheeky, plain, miserable, ugly and downright rude. Female drivers demanded clear, clean screens. Some of the blokes would never get past their dick fantasies. One had suggested they “play in the foam until my suds run down your face”. Nonetheless she began to think of the collective as her ‘tribe’. Familiar faces, ceding their coins. Money, money, money.

At home, different adjustments had unravelled. With his borrowing ‘spree’ illuminated and unadorned, Steve had plunged into morbidity. Returning one late afternoon, after her second shift at the lights, Dawn found her husband home early, reading about a man in Bolton who set himself on fire, having fallen behind on a ‘payday loan’. She hugged him. They were still assimilating their new reality, more than a month after she had found the credit statements in his shed.

Initially, for three long days, she had let the numbers run around her head, disbelieving the figures, numbly hoping there was a comforting explanation. And quickly making the bones of a plan.

She confronted him on a Friday evening. With Genevieve out, Dawn threw the statements on the table. “Well?”

Steve went white. He looked around the room, pursing his lips. She waited. “OK,” he started. “Here’s the thing.” She waited.

“Ah shite. I’m sorry Dawn.” His hands were trembling. “It’s not good….I am currently paying out these companies some £2,200 monthly in minimum repayments on a pile of debt worth around 95 grand – no, over 100k if you count the car loan.”

Even more than she had thought. “Jesus Christ Steve. How?”

Robbing Peter to pay Paul, for over five years, it transpired. Small sums at first, before he had realised that lenders loved customers who repaid promptly. He had 13 credit cards, and a sparkling credit score. “You just pay the minimum. They keep upping their borrowing limits, and don’t seem to check on who else is lending to you.”

He staggered over to the kitchen cupboard, liberating a bottle of Bushmills from the shelf. “You keep using the higher limit to pay off the others, who then give you higher limits.”

He poured for them both, sheepishly. She preferred Scottish single malts, but this storm needed a port. “How long?” As if he had been in an affair. She was 99.99% sure he had never strayed. That was important. But this?

“It started five Christmases ago. We didn’t have enough for the presents.” He carried on, unable to hold her gaze. “A cheque came through the post, for a grand, inviting me to cash it and repay after two months’ grace. Then we took out the car loan. It was beyond our means, but you loved that motor.”

She had already decided what to do. She looked at him as he talked. He was once tightly in control of their money. They never used the overdraft. If they wanted something, they saved. “Does anybody else know? Were you ever going to tell me?”

He topped up his glass, throat constricting. “I was very near to spilling the beans.” He was nearly crying. “It’s a bloke’s thing. You’ve said that before. We compartmentalise stuff, bury it if need be. Nobody knows except me….and you now.”

What a stupid bastard. And a good dad.

“How near?”

“The bank manager has been pressing me to come and see him for a financial update. He’s rung me twice this week. It’s amazing how imaginative you can get with excuses, but they exhaust themselves, and I’m sick of it.” He looked drained.

They were in a murderous debt noose, whatever way you shook around their wages from his job at IKEA, up at Lakeside, and her call-centre money. Bankruptcy was one option. She had thought it through. But that might last several years and could cut into money needed for Genevieve’s higher education. Their 17-year-old daughter was bright as a button. And her younger brother Nigel was no mug.

Looking in on the screens, God saw way past Dawn’s pragmatic head, and her compassionate heart. There was something far greater in her house, like a lit bulb, that could no longer keep the light within itself.

Dawn outlined their best shot. That debt management, negotiated firmly, might just keep their heads above the water. Creditors kept at bay, with a minimum monthly payment. It depended on keeping every penny of her income hidden, so they could eat decently, stash away a rainy-day fund and have a few extra quid in their pockets.

She told Steve her provisional target. 400 regular punters, buying one screen wash each week. £1600 tax-free as a monthly income base, plus all the occasional clients. Working just half the time she had spent in the call-centre, and about 50% more income. “Not a penny for your creditors or the taxman.”

They might get by. Might. While some friends and peers were buying second houses. “Where did the money go, Steve?”

“I stopped keeping track. Roughly? Half was for us: stuff we bought, holidays, cars, every monthly hole left after our shit wages. Every need for the kids that came along. Maybe a quarter on spiralling interest payments, the rest on betting.”

The Bushmills was astringent. She needed another. She remembered how he used to put aside defined sums of betting money each year. The horse racing database he had built up. The betting syndicate he had run. Steve was talking about how the advent of the Internet, combined with easy electronic credit, had changed everything. “My punting used to be a disciplined, enjoyable sideshow, never more expensive than any other hobby: sport, CDs, fags, beer, cars or DIY. But when you sit on a growing heap of debt, desperation sets in, and rules go out the window at the click of a mouse.”

She knew some women would kick him out. “It must have felt like hell. How did you cope?”

“I’d have to get up and leave the room when programmes about bailiffs came on. But every month saw Genevieve and Nige get older and stronger and happier. That was worth double, maybe treble what I owed.”

For her, the hardest question of all. “Did you ever think about suicide?”

“Bloody hell yes! But only if it could be made to look like an accident.” He was serious. Bloody male logic. “No point unless you and the kids could have an insurance payout.” For the first time that night, he smiled. She couldn’t.

“All the time, I’ve been reading more and more stories about people who are worried about their ‘runaway’ debts of five, ten or even fifteen thousand pounds. Honestly, I chuckle and call them ‘wusses’ under my breath.”

She ignored that. “I’m insisting on one thing Steve. If you have to bet again, you tell me, beforehand, and do it with cash, in a shop. Your online days are over.”

For the first time since she was a child, Dawn prayed that night. On her knees.

“God, are you there?” She had never seen much evidence. She opened her eyes and peeked outside. No lightning.

“If you are, you know I’m humble. And so grateful for my life, whether it’s an accident or part of your plan. But how have you let things get so far out of hand?”

Maggie was sitting next to God, listening keenly. Rested, recuperated and refreshed. Raring for action.

“Not just my family, but the whole bloody world.” Dawn was seething. “How did you come up with this stupid nonsense called money? That can’t be your idea, not if you’re a loving God. If it is, then sorry, but you have made a terrible mistake. Please, please do something to sort that out.”