Chapter 6 – FROM ESSEX TO ROME
Essex is like a weather-vane for the whole of the UK.
Pam Cox, Colchester University lecturer.
Summoned by God, to discuss Maggie’s state funeral, Sal strode up the Highway to Hell. His eyes picked out enduring stains on the ground, from Jimmy Savile’s expiry and utter eradication.
In the central zone, a camel stood by the big needle. The man with the gold watch was trying to force his shoulder through the eye.
Sal opened the door marked ‘Heaven’. Inevitably, God was parked before the screens. “We need you on the ground, down at St Pauls, to gauge the mood,” she opened, no niceties.
God set the scene, summarising the key points. The number of UK citizens at the precipice of real poverty, or already over the cliff, she explained, was mushrooming as the government wielded its welfare spending axe. Yet millions of pounds were being spent on Maggie’s full military funeral, incensing her detractors. Other Brits, revering her memory, were intent on paying last respects.
Ramping up tensions, the Disney media was “indulging in censorship”, God said. Satan noticed bags under her eyes. The most ludicrous example, she underlined, was a BBC decision that its Official Chart Show would not play the 51-second Judy Garland song Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead in full.
An online campaign by Maggie’s opponents after her demise had propelled the old Wizard of Oz song to number two in the BBC pop charts.
Never a soccer fan, God noted next that English football authorities had decided not to observe a one-minute silence at forthcoming games. God asked Satan why. “That’s easy boss. They know full well a silence would not be observed.”
At Reading football club, numerous visiting Liverpool fans had danced in the stands at the Madejski Stadium, singing: “Let’s all do the conga, Maggie is no longer.” Others held out a banner which read: “You didn’t care when you lied; we didn’t care when you died.”
Satan liked the bluntness of soccer fans. You knew where you stood.
On Wednesday April 16, 2013, he stood somewhat unsteadily in the public toilet at the Crooked Billet pub, by the River Thames mud flats at Leigh-on-Sea, in southern Essex.
The Billet’s single malt menu was excellent. And its loos were the site of the permanent portal God had created for the Firm’s work in England. Satan clutched the wall to let the dimensional dizziness subside, as odours of ale and food drifted in from the pub.
Micky Gaze was sitting outside. Drinking amber beer in the spring sunshine, a friend either side.
Micky had helped the Firm on several occasions. Cheekily, Satan asked him for a treble Talisker, another peaty beauty, from the Isle of Skye’s sole distillery. Single malts offered extreme comfort after the frequency change, Satan liked to tell himself.
“Just a treble?” grinned Micky. He handed over the wad of notes requested by God.
Satan divined that Micky’s mates were gay. They were drinking in his beautiful dark hair, green eyes, chiselled face and tall physique. Nobody could see his tail, wrapped around his waist as a trouser belt, nor his hands. Gloves hid vast webs of hair.
“I’m spoken for, sorry guys,” he smiled. Turning to Micky, he thanked him for the £200 now lining his pocket. “Tell me, do you feel any lingering guilt about that swan?” he enquired.
Sal could see the golden light pour out from Micky’s heart, covering passers-by. The combination of the sea breeze, good company and fine whisky reminded Satan why souls enjoyed being wrapped in a human body. Or a “space-suit” as Jesus called it.
Soon after necking the malt, swift goodbyes and a short walk to Leigh station, Satan was on the London-bound train.
Punctuated by stops at Benfleet and Pitsea, he eavesdropped surrounding conversations riddled with the money, sex, food, cars, soccer, holidays, clothes and houses that preoccupied many southern Essex dwellers. A world where the young, especially, favoured a philosophy of bigger, faster and shinier, as if they were confirming Agent Smith’s view in The Matrix, that “we have started doing your thinking for you”.
He wanted to hear redeeming words about a book, or film. Even better, a trenchant Essex view on the political shenanigans unwinding around the funeral. Or a casual mention that governments lied like dogs pissed on lamp posts. He yearned for Essex curiosity about the thousands of children that went missing every year in the UK, or why the heads of enslavers were printed on paper money.
At Basildon – traditionally a great bellwether seat for the trends in parliamentary elections – five girls boarded and sat adjacent. They were drunk; obsessed by their phones. The blondest kept looking at him. She was chewing gum. “Oi mate, you’re well fit,” she said, smiling and slightly opening her legs.
“You fancy going up the train, finding somewhere quiet?” She was oblivious to passengers’ turning heads.
“Thanks for asking. But I’ll pass this time.”
He wondered if this female had even the faintest idea that Essex had been a fertile breeding ground for all manner of collectivist, Utopian, socialistic and morally-improving experiments. Names including New Harmony, the Village Society, and the Redemption Society were among communities that flourished briefly during a period spanning the late 19th century to the eve of World War Two.
“You enarf speak posh,” said the blonde. “Why you wearin’ them gloves?”
“None of your business,” he smiled.
The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth had created a “land and industrial colony” at Hadleigh, near Leigh-on-Sea, to reform “broken men of bad habits”. And a teetotal retreat on Osea Island had been established by the Charrington brewing family. Satan found that idea appalling.
“Listen mate I can’t do you cos it’s my period. But I give a banging hand-job.”
“Offer appreciated. But I roll my own.”
She didn’t give up. “Wot about me n Steph” – she pointed to a redhead – “both sucking you off?”
“That kindness could take you a long way. Ah, here we are at my station, Laindon. Bye”. He got out and walked towards the ticket office. “You faakin queer or what?” came the shout, from the opened window.
He jumped back in the last, thankfully deserted, carriage. Mood at rock bottom. Every one of the souls on the train was infinite consciousness having one of countless experiences in a human body, yet many were insanely short-term in their outlook, or acted like branded livestock.
Shaking his head, Satan reverted to God’s briefing that morning. She had touched on lingering problems at Irish banks that had already received tens of billions of taxpayers’ bailout money. Then Cyprus, where global banking authorities had recently persuaded politicians that stealing depositors’ money was also a perfectly acceptable policy, through so-called ‘bail-ins’ at Cypriot banks. “Are the Irish banks about to get Cyprused?” asked Satan.
God was silent for a while. “You can only kick so many cans so far down a road,” she said, referring to the nickname given to the practice of recurrent bailout. While Satan had a vision of sharply-tailored bankers running down a high street in a tin-kicking race, God spoke again. “Like the last days of Rome, a poisoned seam runs through control structures.” Sounding exhausted, she added: “The time really has come to tackle the problem. Now or never.”
Satan thought of Iceland, where bankers had been tried and imprisoned. God had never sounded this disgruntled. As London’s outskirts shot by, Satan remembered an optional extra that evening. An event at the Policy Exchange in Westminster would ask whether Maggie was the ‘Mother of Modernisation’. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the three speakers on offer.
Number one, the silver-tongued Lord Mandelson, former First Secretary of State, and co-expeditor of the carnage in Iraq. So spiritually unaware that he was happy to label himself as a ‘spin doctor’. God and Satan had punched the air in delight when Mandelson was outed by media as a “friend” of billionaire financiers Nat and Jacob Rothschild. “Let us remember this is not a crime in itself,” said the Buddha. “Many people are innocent,” Jesus had added.
Speaker two, Charles Moore, Maggie’s authorised biographer. He had rewritten history, portraying her as an ally of Nelson Mandela. So another liar. Clown three, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, was suggesting various strategies to boost private investment into schools, and labelling opponents to his educational curriculum as ‘Marxist’. A complete fucking idiot.
Satan saw these labels – left, right, communist, fascist, Marxist, socialist – as insane. People should be categorised only by the love in their hearts. When the train stopped at Barking, he watched two French students in his carriage help an elderly man with his wheelchair.
Sal thought fleetingly of ATOS, an IT consultancy, which was rolling out a new disability test system to support the government’s ‘austerity drive’. Like Hitler’s Nazis, a Western government was slowly exterminating the infirm, in broad daylight, to help ‘reduce the deficit’. The numbers of seriously ill that had already been denied benefits via ATOS assessments, and then died, was so large that the death toll was now covered up. Government reaction to each fresh death was to stick fingers in ears and repeat ‘lah lah lah’ loudly.
Piling on the agony for the worst-off was the ‘bedroom tax’. This comprised a cut to government-funded support payments, in cases where a house occupant had a spare room. Estimates said that some over half a million people would lose, on average, over £700 per year, as a result. Satan foresaw surges of rent arrears and bailiffs’ visits. He imagined beadles roaming the streets, prodding the homeless into workhouses and soup kitchens. And new orphanages for the 3.5 million British kids who now lived in poverty
Prime Minister David Cameron and his Etonian tribe expected some of the least advantaged to live on £53 a week. The unelected Lord Freud, who dreamed up the bedroom tax, owned seven houses. Seven. Topping it all, the Queen – whose undisclosed personal fortune could end British poverty at the drop of a hat – had just been awarded a £5 million pay rise.
At the Policy Exchange, he could hear twaddle from hollow men, establishment intellectuals who were indifferent to whether children slept warmly, with full bellies. Or he could pass the time in an all-night bar near Spitalfields, well stocked with single malts. Micky Gaze’s cash would come in useful.
Alighting at Fenchurch Street, he desisted from kicking an empty can down the platform. Sal headed west, in the sunshine, towards Threadneedle Street, observing how every third or fourth human was using a mobile phone, talking or using the small screens. Few looked up to the planes flying at strange angles, leaving white trails that formed pyramids and crosses.
So much was hidden in plain sight. At his destination, he surveyed the Duke of Wellington, sitting calmly on his horse outside the entrance to the Royal Exchange. Satan liked to come here, to remind himself about 1815. The statue purportedly commemorated Wellington’s assistance to the City of London in ensuring a bill was passed to allow the rebuilding of London Bridge.
Tourists taking pictures spun around when Satan began to laugh out loud. He was looking across the road to the grim Bank of England building, thinking of the unspoken commemoration, to the battle of Waterloo, and the linked financial events. An elderly black lady walked past slowly, weighed by plastic bags on each arm, eyes fixed on the pavement.
Sal found it extremely interesting that the Bank of England had reportedly destroyed all of its Monetary Policy Committee records covering the critical years of 2007 and 2008, as global financial markets melted down. While new generations learned to instagram and tweet, big decisions were made quietly here in this part of the world.
He watched a couple head home, fixed on their phones. She. Long blonde hair, centre parting, blue-grey skirt suit, light tan tights, and dark court shoes. He. Spiky, short, gelled dark hair. Dark, small pin-striped suit. White shirt, Red satin tie. High polished winkle pickers. They might as well be off a City worker production line.
Sal guessed at the evening ahead. More screens, of course. He would most likely gaze spellbound at sport, before focusing hard on images of women. She would probably look spellbound at TV, or Facebook. He would cheer, beer, jeer and ejaculate. She would survey steam mops, bonded leather sofa sets, spa weekends, laser nail fungus treatments, nests of tables, cast-iron kitchenware, teeth whitening, Scandinavian cooking experiences, cruises, make up master-classes, personalised house signs and weight management.
The Buddha had told them for aeons that nations, as well as humans, had karma. Britain’s was clearly paying out. The UK was embroiled in the painful ‘bardo’ of dying. A country that had invaded over two hundred other territories and run major slave, arms and drug trades had some serious shit to address. If his instincts were correct, a liberating move was still possible, when “dharmata” arrived.
When Satan finally reached the Spitalfields bar, Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’ was teeing up on the jukebox. Uncannily that first line rang out. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”. Sal shook his head again, smiled, and ordered.