CHAPTER 11 – Stirrings
“Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.”
As God sculpted her strategy, Jesus wandered around The Place, holding a tablet at his chest, some nine feet above the floor. He was reading Raw Spirit, a guide to single malt by Iain Banks.
Change was in the air. Angels whispered quietly in the corridors. God had installed a cross-trainer beneath her screens. She now exercised while watching Earth. Her spirits were lifted by the attendance at each briefing of the Firm’s newest member, Mahatma Gandhi, to bring himself up to speed.
Gandhi was beside himself over the state of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), which appeared to be terminally ill. As part of the public sector pillage, more than 400 of the most ‘profitable’ NHS arms had already been privatised, but still operated under the NHS logo. “For the British, it must feel as if an irreplaceable friend is slowly dying,” mooted Mahatma. “This privatisation mania threatens to eventually remove the British state itself,” he warned.
At one of God’s briefings, Buddha emphasised that he taught a meditation by which people could heal themselves, were the NHS to collapse. “It involves creating a blue ball of energy in your mind and transferring it to the afflicted areas of your body,” he said. “We can make this work for anybody unable to afford private treatment.”
Sal, for his part, was deeply preoccupied by Britain’s dying tradition of dissent. Was a major truth teller hiding, in waiting? A British Julian Assange, poised to replace state and media obfuscations with transparency? John Lennon was dead. Johnny Rotten advertised butter.
While the rich gorged, like carrion crow, upon the poor and disadvantaged, voters overdosed on armchair entertainment. British political activism had clearly shrivelled. The likes of the Suffragettes, who fought tooth and nail for the female vote, or the Levellers, an English Civil War movement, were nowhere to be seen. Sal had noticed how protest was increasingly portrayed by Disney media as an irritant in need of control.
In mid-Essex, in the county town of Chelmsford, a £712 quarterly gas bill dropped through a letterbox. Dan Fawkes, also a big Iain Banks fan, was the recipient.
That morning Dan had been reading Gene Roddenbury’s conception of an ideal society. Roddenbury, the creator of Star Trek, painted a world where nobody hated Mondays. A realm with no poverty, money, unemployment or famine. From the very first episode, in 1966, this was Star Trek’s unseen background.
Dan found the ideas to be a welcome distraction from his job, of freelance reporting on finance and oil market developments.
Cursing at the gas bill, Dan saw it as a perfect example of privatisation’s disgraceful absurdities, which had commenced under Maggie. Going through his e-mails that morning, he had laughed out loud at one announcement by Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts. They predicted that “trash is the next big investment”. The story neatly summed up his working world, where he was a conscript, rather than a volunteer.
A distressing report in the 17 April edition of a North Yorkshire newspaper indicated where his interest was settling. An inquest heard that Nicholas Peter Barker, a 51-year-old former farm labourer, had shot himself in the head in December 2012 after learning that ATOS was stopping his benefits.
Dan wondered again about reincarnation. He had recently written down the details of a dream: The others were gone. There was no time, no physicality, only knowledge that a choice would create itself. It had been a dance beyond exhilaration, weaving in and out of each other. I was drawn to a blond girl, on a spring evening. The dance accelerated, bringing visions of a park near the coastline. Dimensional options began to collapse. Then a familiar heaviness as I existed across two sets of genitals, squeezed across a motorcycle bound for Spain. And warmth, lingering, wet, before pressure, and harsh hospital light.
In Yorkshire, the deceased’s former wife, Linda Barker, explained that a brain haemorrhage had long paralysed one side of Mr Barker’s body, leaving him reliant on state benefits. Coroner Michael Oakley said that the death had been deliberate. “The main factor worrying him was that his benefits had been stopped,” was the verdict.
It was a matter of record that the chief driver of the benefit cuts, British Chancellor George Osborne, had a £4 million trust fund, and had claimed up to £100,000 in expenses to cover mortgage interest payments on land and a farmhouse he owned in Cheshire.
In the face of such hubris, Dan regularly berated himself for not possessing the courage of a John Pilger or a Naomi Klein: real journalists who held power to account at every opportunity. While he avoided churning out the PR that much journalism now comprised, he nonetheless reported expediently, for money, on a world that sucked its poorest down a black hole.
His reverie was interrupted by Mary entering the room. Their conversation the previous morning had been memorable. “Dan, I don’t know any easy way to tell you this,” she had said. “Last night I met..…..Satan.”
“Wow! Two of us with unbelievable stories!” he grinned. “While you were out, the tooth fairy dropped by, whipped out her dentures and popped my dick in her mouth.”
Dan enjoyed conversations with Mary more than any other part of the relationship, which stretched back three decades. 15 minutes would disappear as they zipped, rapid-fire, from subject to subject.
However improbable, Satan was at least a squillion times more interesting than investing in trash. As Mary had recounted her London adventure, describing her mixture of shock and awe when Satan had whipped up his sweater and shown his tail, wound around his waist, Dan’s rising interest wrestled with his credulity.
Mary told her husband how Sal had asked her to “join his team”. She had asked him to be more specific. His words were unequivocal. “First of all, get over whatever nonsense you may have heard about me not getting on with God. Same for Jesus. Our gang are all friends.”
Satan had paused momentarily, to sip another brimming glass. “God’s experiment is in big trouble. Particularly here in Britain. We are recruiting a few with good hearts and independent minds to help change this.”
As he listened, Dan dwelled on the six words. “God’s experiment is in big trouble.”
Their 25-year old daughter Rose had read about the Cypriot government’s seizure of local bank customers’ deposits. Rose had two accounts with UK banks. “Is my money safe dad?” she had asked last night. He had prevaricated.
Dan wondered again about a Dickensian children’s ward featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Was he glimpsing the past or the future?
He remembered with shame how he had cut his journalistic teeth on the UK’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI), suggesting in his early business articles that it could become a new British financial export. He later discovered that rebuilding Calderdale Royal Hospital in Yorkshire, via the PFI, would end up costing £773 million, around twelve times the project’s £65 million capital cost. The epic scale of this theft by banks and investors was crippling the UK’s public sector hospitals. It went largely unreported.
Work had become a lonely business. Watergate-style journalism was finished. In early 2012, Dan had been shocked at how little interest his peer journalists showed when he learned that Barack Obama was quietly threatened with impeachment. “Telling the truth is great, but probably leads to you living out of dustbins,” said one of his oldest journalist friends. No major newspaper carried the story, in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers claimed that US military action in Libya was illegal, as it had been undertaken without congressional approval. Without mainstream media distribution, the story shrivelled and disappeared.
But the genie was out of the bottle. His father had long advised that if Dan saw 95 people walking one way, to tag on loosely to four heading in the other direction. “Walk in the empty land. Work out who you are”. Dan started to follow his guts and his goose-bumps, finding that other stories were suppressed by national media.
Listening to Miles Davis and Nick Cave, Dan did his own research. He found that by 2012, the largest media conglomerate in the world, the Walt Disney Company, had tentacles embracing television, radio, music, publishing, and online media. And that five companies controlled most US prime time viewing, as a result of US President Bill Clinton’s deregulation. Dan wondered about creating a nickname. How about ‘the Disney media’?
He discovered Gore Vidal’s comment that “when you control opinion, as corporate America controls opinion in the United States by owning the media, you can make the masses believe almost anything you want.”
Now Mary had a text about a further meeting, a few weeks ahead. “Satan says they have checked you on their ‘files’,” she told Dan. “They want to use your journalistic skills,” she said. “It seems that you are one of these oddballs that try and stick to the facts.”
The rendezvous was to be a Leigh-On-Sea pub, the Crooked Billet. Dan welcomed the distraction, however mind-bogglingly surreal. Or terrifying. His guts said huge personal change was necessary, as the level of insanity in the wider world intensified.
Dan and Mary took their regular early evening walk, passing front rooms dominated by the ever-flickering images. Humans sat mesmerised, invisibly strapped in their seats.
They covered several miles, to work up a thirst. The ‘Walnut Tree’ pub, in the tiny hamlet of Broads Green, was like the land that time forgot, its ancient public bar occupied on this occasion by a drunken group of both sexes who cursed and propositioned each other in equal measures.
Dan sat with Mary, his favourite-ever companion, nursing a pint of hand-pulled Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ beer. Listening in. A conversation that was already ferociously competitive spiralled into a near-riot when Margaret Thatcher was mentioned. The oldest of the group reckoned he wouldn’t even feed Maggie’s bones to his dog, who sat by the door. “The witch is dead,” he told a female who had become tearful yesterday morning, when watching the London funeral. She threw an ashtray at him, followed by half a glass of wine.
Dan chipped in, unable to resist. Amid the wave of nationalism drenching Maggie’s funeral, the best journalists had re-excavated her strong support for Saddam Hussein. He told the group how, in the months running up to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, with Saddam’s past use of poison gas well documented, Thatcher’s government had sold Iraq three tonnes of sodium cyanide and sodium sulphide. Maggie’s memoirs gave no mention of this, he said. “However, the 1992-93 Scott Inquiry into arms-to-Iraq uncovered how Baghdad had received UK arms for over a decade,” he recalled.
The reaction was disappointing. He could see more than half of the group turn off, losing interest without any dressing of celebrity, sex or other flippancies to coat the hard, murderous facts.
The quietest of the group sat with Mary and Dan after his friends had stumbled home. Now in his 70s, he had lived for five years in Yorkshire. He observed that the typical bluntness to be found in that county was equally evident in Essex.
He moaned about the press coverage of Maggie’s funeral, arguing that it was possible to tell who ran the world by working out which people were criticised the least. “Nothing happens by chance either, whatever the bloody papers say.” He told Dan and Mary that his wife possessed a reliable psychic gift. She was predicting “something big” to happen in the next month in Essex. “It’ll be headlines all round the world, my Clarissa says.”
Before leaving the pub, the man spoke of a local boy who had gone missing one evening over two decades ago. The 13-year-old, who lived two doors away, had returned, a couple of weeks later, but had never been the same, and was unable to hold down employment or a partner as an adult. “The lad wouldn’t ever talk about it.” The man’s wife was adamant the boy had been abused and traumatised in London, by very rich people.
Walking back, Mary spoke of her growing resolve. “I don’t have the faintest what we’re getting into, my love, but our children will have every right to despise us if we stay quiet and do nothing. I’m feeling more alive than for some time.”
Once, her last sentence would have put sex firmly in Dan’s sights, but he was preoccupied. It was hard to think of anything but meeting Satan.
Back in the Chelmsford suburbs, televisions glared their phosphorescent welcomes out at the road.