Chapter 16 – Black swans
“Remember that you are a Black Swan.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Six days after the Thames tsunami, Micky Gaze won the UK lottery. Following a rollover, his lucky numbers generated almost £12 million. Micky cleared his debts, gasping with gratitude, before taking Satan’s texted advice to purchase two separate blocks of real estate at knock-down prices in a drenched, grieving, shell-shocked Southend. Micky had no idea what was unravelling. But the bonanza and the Old Leigh escape confirmed what he had long believed. God had his back.
Dawn Landais effortlessly made her own financial hay in the days following the ‘Big Wave’, as it rapidly became known. The drivers waiting at the Eastwood lights were all desperate to talk, all knew somebody who had perished. Dawn listened from her heart. “Forget about my screen, sweetheart,” said one female regular. “I just want to say that I love you. You are kind. You always smile.”
She pressed a fiver into Dawn’s hand, squeezing hard. The woman’s son had drowned, while walking their Labrador along Chalkwell beach.
A cocktail of trauma, sorrow, compassion and an almost uncontainable desire to be with others was afoot. Some compared the mid-May pheromones in the Southend air to the post-9/11 atmosphere in New York City, 12 years earlier. Across southern Essex, pregnancies quadrupled, and venereal disease burgeoned. Numerous couples who were on the skids finally broke up.
Micky’s first buy involved six adjacent houses on the slope down to Old Leigh. All were uninhabitable, soaked and broken by the Big Wave. They were to be transformed into the spiritual equivalent of a martial arts centre, overseen by the Buddha. To the vendors, cash on the nail was irresistible, given the wait for property insurance indemnifications.
Micky hired tradesmen to restore the properties. Mary Fawkes went part-time in her London psychology post. She began to administer the embryonic ashram.
Satan’s second request focused on eastern Southend. “Buy Southchurch Park, plus as many surrounding houses as possible Mick. We’re starting a self-sustaining community, and bringing in Gandhi,” the text message explained.
Southend-on-Sea Borough Council was in the same financial quagmire as its peers around the estuary, requiring barrow loads of reconstruction money. It fell over itself to monetise Southchurch Park. It had been cash-strapped before the disaster. Now, like New Orleans, post-Katrina, it was discovering that the politicians who walked around with sleeves rolled up had only peanuts to shell out.
Having helped with the purchase of the park, Dan Fawkes’ friend, a legal wiz named Clifford de Ricardo, spotted another opportunity for Micky’s money. At a deep discount, an extra sum was agreed and documented as equivalent to the pre-payment of all forms of local tax related to Southchurch Park, for an irrevocable 50-year period. The Firm’s control of the park was complete.
God glowed with well-being, exercising ferociously on the cross-trainer while monitoring her screens. But Satan was irritated with his boss.
“Was it really necessary to manifest a Book of Revelations scenario to buy up some land?” he asked, disgruntledly. They were sipping 17-year old Glengoyne, after a morning briefing. “Couldn’t you just let Micky win the lottery, and leave out the bloody tsunami?” Satan added, never afraid to speak his mind. “From several angles, what you and Jesus did looks suspiciously like a terrorist act. Our enemies will milk that.”
God was unequivocal. “It was a means to an end.” She pushed the shot glass aside, without commenting on the citrus-laden flavour. “And frankly, I’ve had it with being patient. Too few will be tempted to join our experiment, unless daily life becomes very uncomfortable. Then we can begin to stop capitalism’s barbarisms. Elevate the standard of living for all humans.”
There was more. “And I detest the word ‘terrorist’. Would you want the Republic of Ireland still under English dominion? Should South Africa still be ruled by white people? So-called ‘terrorists’ drove those changes.”
Resting nearby, Maggie felt sufficiently relaxed to watch and listen. “And what about Gandhi?” added God. “Even he would be branded a terrorist these days.”
Satan kept pushing God’s buttons. “And what if the plan doesn’t work? All I can still see – in Southend, Timbuktu, and everywhere else on the planet – is more of that same rampant free will that led Greece’s corrupt elite to half squander and half trouser loans from greedy bankers, sending their country down the pan.”
“Then I may need to be even more active,” said God. Secretly, she loved it when Sal played Devil’s advocate.
UK media spin accelerated into its most nauseous overdrive in the second half of May, after the BBC announcement. ‘Terrorism, terrorism, awful despicable terrorism,’ bellowed and stamped and screamed the hacks, as the dust began to settle on the May 12 Thames Estuary events. Two potential suspects seen in Old Leigh were reported to be suspiciously Middle Eastern in their garb, or at least Asian. Moreover, the LNG vessel had brought gas from Qatar. Van Hoyte underwent prolonged questioning, but Essex police provided no further information.
Several dailies produced pictures of a London group of Muslim women and children who had visited Southend seafront on May 12, taking in the aquatic attractions at Seaworld. Without a shred of proof, it was alleged that one or more had been harbouring technology able to detonate distant bombs. One tabloid spoke of an “Islamic submarine” patrolling the depths of the Thames. All that was missing, thought Dan, was speculation that a bloke in a cave four thousand miles away may have masterminded events.
Steve Landais lay in bed, nerves still shot by his 5-hour immersion beneath a betting shop floor. Dawn’s extra income was proving critical. IKEA had laid off Steve and the rest of its Lakeside workforce in Thurrock, due to the flooding damage at the store. The social wouldn’t pay out immediately, so his winning bet, which yielded exactly a grand, had come in useful.
Genevieve was driving her parents mad. She wanted to drop out of high school, to join a volunteer project helping the tsunami survivors. “I want to do something useful mum. I’m surrounded by unquestioning halfwits with rich daddies at that fucking place. The only worthwhile thing I’ve learned is foreign languages.”
Dawn’s daughter – and her lad, Nigel – were still transfixed by the video shot by Dan. Replayed ceaselessly, around the entire world, it showed the huge wall of water scything into Old Leigh, yet somehow rising and curving above the area. “It’s like an invisible dome was in place,” said Nigel, one teatime. “If you look at the flood damage, there’s a sort of semi-circle within Old Leigh that stayed as dry as a bone.” All his school mates were talking about the subsequent photos shot from the air, which bore out this out.
One of Nigel’s friends reckoned that a being from another dimension might have placed a cosmic protractor on a map, with the point centred on the Crooked Billet, drawn a circle, and then “come up with a mumbo-jumbo spell” to protect the old town. “Maybe there was something there that had to be preserved.”
“Don’t be a twat,” said his mates.
God’s plan hit a technicality. The Creator had envisaged turmoil spreading through insurance markets, as claims accumulated an unprecedented critical mass. Reinsurers would be equally vulnerable, having hedged their bets in wobbly derivatives markets. The eventual result, God foresaw, would be a new form of financial sector collapse, never to be recovered from, and speedier transition to a moneyless world. Maggie would cheerlead that, in parallel to the Southchurch initiative.
God was not the first to be caught out by insurance exclusions. It transpired that the surge of property claims from businesses, local authorities and individuals around the Thames and across the North Sea were being rejected by underwriters citing war risk exclusions. They emphasised that derelict weapons of war had been stored in the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, explaining that war-risk cover was traditionally excluded from the ‘all-risk’ insurance policies of the afflicted individuals and businesses making the claims. In short, ‘we ain’t paying out’.
Given that the overall bill for flood damages was aggregating towards £125 billion, the global insurance industry swooned with relief, while God berated herself for not being utterly omniscient. She hit the single malts with a vengeance, cursing her right-brained tendencies that were best suited to the imaginative business of creation.
In left-brained insurance markets, the narrow technical escape by underwriters spawned the formation of policyholder protest groups, which begat a wider movement shouting that individuals and businesses everywhere should cease to use insurance. As with Occupy, it was treated with disdain by most media, but insurance turnover began to dwindle. Maggie wondered if God’s plan was taking a “crafty dog-leg”, as her husband Denis liked to refer to certain golf course holes.
Dan wrote a series of articles in late May, asserting that a new ‘Black Swan’ lurked. Unconnected to Micky Gaze’s debauching of a white swan in 1976, the over-arching Black Swan idea was that certain events – such as the Big Wave, 9/11, or the collapse of the USSR – came swooping in below radar to trigger huge changes that were impossible to predict.
In various publications, Dan tentatively described a new financial paradigm unravelling. He highlighted the £1.5 billion “capital hole” at the UK’s Co-Operative Bank, which led, in mid-June 2013, to Britain’s first bank bail-in. It was paid for by retail and pension funds, whose holding was cut by more than half in value. BBC Breakfast reported merely that shareholder bonds were being “changed”.
On June 25, EU finance ministers agreed to finalise, by end-2013, a plan that rendered all European bank accounts open to ‘bail-ins’. Officials had previously insisted that Cyprus was a “special case”. Media coverage of what would essentially be daylight robbery remained sparse, at best.
At the consumer end, individuals in Western Europe were finding cashpoints to be inoperative for unexpected periods, due to “technical” reasons. Dan finally put his daughter’s question to his legal friend, as they sat in Cliff’s hilltop garden one summer evening. “Is her bank account, with its few hundred quid, safe?”
Dusting off and delving through dusty tomes, Cliff came upon the precedent established by the House of Lords, 165 years prior. Cliff quoted the Foley v Hill judgment handed down by Lord Cottenham, the then-Lord Chancellor. “Money when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal… it is then the banker’s money; he is known to deal with it as his own; he makes what profit of it he can, which profit he retains himself.”
“And in plain English?”
Cliff’s explanation crystallised. “There is absolutely no criminal liability if such money disappears. A banker cannot be prosecuted for losing his “own money”. If her bank became insolvent, your daughter Rose, as an unsecured creditor, would stand last in the queue of creditors to be paid out. The secured creditors are always first in line.”
“Well tickle my arse with a feather,” said Dan.
After an overcast summer day, candles were lighting the bars around Leigh. Old-fashioned kegs were dispensing ale. Decimated businesses and public services were teasing out improvisation across the entire estuary region, where power supply remained unreliable.
Former soldier Alex sat with Chanelle in the Broadway pub, just a strong stone’s throw away from the proposed ashram. Having survived the tsunami, they had swapped digits, then much more.
Chanelle’s lad Nathan was ecstatic. He had a real soldier to play battle games with him. Alex was less robust than he appeared. His dreams were haunted by the eyes of an Afghan he had shot through the throat. Chanelle had other challenges. She had twice stolen food so that her children could eat.
They talked about combining his income as a security guard with her benefits. As Chanelle worked her mobile, he sipped his pint. He was on duty later that night, guarding a Lloyds Bank unit which administered lending and credit card debt. He listened to chat at the bar about the coming football season.
One guy was boasting about three ‘payday loans’ he had amalgamated to buy a week’s holiday in Ibiza. “Yolo” yelled a mate. “The Dalai Lama disagrees”, replied a clever Essex wag.
A confident-looking guy sat down nearby. The man called somebody on his smartphone, asking if she fancied a holiday in Mauritius. Then moaned about the extra commuting due to the closure of the battered Fenchurch Street railway line.
Alex guessed the man’s profession. He puzzled again over the bank ‘rescue’ by Gordon Brown. Banks in London had behaved so recklessly that the required bailout reached £850 billion by December 2009, he had read. The figure quiely grew in subsequent years. Meanwhile the EU had spent a third of its economic output on trying to “save” its banks, using taxpayer cash, between 2008 and 2011. A third.
Work was calling. Alex wondered if life was possible without debt and war. It had stuck in his head as a kid that Australia’s entire land mass could be parcelled out so that every human owned slightly less than a quarter acre, enough to be self-sufficient in food. Given that the whole world was available, that indicated a badly managed planet.
Already bloodied and bruised, God’s plan was feeling new heat. The media blitz surrounding the tsunami was papering over a non-stop reversal of 20th century advances by Britain’s working classes. More public sector workers were receiving their marching orders under Chancellor Osborne’s ‘savings’ drive, while ATOS actions and other welfare cuts continued. People were dying directly from the effects, or sometimes taking their own lives. Official data showed 40 consecutive months of contraction in UK wages.
In Newcastle, “savings” measures were decimating the community. One of over 1,000 Newcastle council staff to have already lost their jobs was Alex’s brother, Bryn. His last e-mail had been despondent. “People up here are finding there is no real welfare anymore. Whether you’re sick or unemployed or disabled, they will try and make sure you get nothing by denying you are sick or saying you haven’t been looking hard enough for a job, no matter how hard you try. You can even see why they do it – it’s because their own jobs are on the line”.
The city council was set to lose between 55% and 60% of its government income over a six-year period. Moorside library in central Newcastle was set to close, while Newcastle City Pool – which produced three Olympic swimmers – was shutting. Further ahead, council-funded home care would be rationed to the most profoundly vulnerable elderly and disabled residents. More premature death assured. Rubbing salt into open wounds, bonuses at state-owned banks flowed copiously. Corporate tax-dodging remained rife.
Dan got into hot water with an editor by describing “an austerity pogrom to continue the class war declared by Maggie”. Gandhi, who came up for air now and again from his deep immersion in Britain’s situation, argued that caste systems were emerging in the UK. “Welfare claimants and the poorly-paid are becoming Britain’s untouchables,” he told God.
Satan’s images were blunter. “They might as well start dropping bombs on the poorest parts of Britain. The planes could have FINANCIAL SECTOR emblazoned under each wing.”
Sensing Sal’s mood, Jesus descended the Highway to Hell, with the offer of a new twist. “I feel restless Yesh – everything is changing,” his friend admitted.
Satan’s temper was foul. He had been ‘quizzing’ a recently-deceased senior executive from Goldman Sachs, a banking institution that was once memorably described in Rolling Stone magazine as ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money’.
Succumbing to metaphor, Sal had dressed up as a vampire, and reduced the banker to something like a stir-fried calamari, heavily seasoned with salt.
“We are all having to adapt to mum’s plans”, said Jesus. “We would like you to assume a different role. It will mean leaving Morgana and the boys for a spell.” The clear blue eyes flashed down at Sal. Jesus was nearly 12 feet tall.
“In the new Essex community?” Jesus nodded. “As an enforcer?” Another nod.
Satan needed new horizons, more than he could remember. He knew his oldest boy, Beelzebub, was more than ready to deputise. The lad knew precisely which incomers needed pliers on their teeth. Sal listened to Jesus explain how the Southend experiment would allow participants to step right out of money, politics and media matrixes. “But it is critical they avoid confronting the system while trying to leave. Sal, you would be at the heart of a strong protective layer enabling them to develop independently.”
Satan suggested it might be like a Special Circumstances role in Iain Banks’ Culture novels. “The best approach is to focus on the positives and enjoy the work,” said Jesus. Satan’s brow furrowed. “Big question Yesh. Can humans fundamentally change their ingrained patterns?” he asked.
“Unless they truly prefer a hamster wheel which they are told must be spun faster and faster, then yes.” Jesus nevertheless warned that, as the new model unfurled, “those that control the money supply and those that still live well will frantically seek to maintain the existing ‘one over another’ world.” Satan liked that last phrase.
Jesus’ eyes were distant. “We need an evolution, a transcending evolution of consciousness, to bring Earth from its invisible quarantine.” As he spoke, his body shimmied, mimicking trance dancers seen by Satan in southern Asia. “What humans own is inside them: energy, spirit, soul and consciousness. The gamut of material possessions is little more than a tempting trick,” Jesus said.
Satan recalled his chum’s immunity to temptation. All their larking about in the Judean desert. “You make a fair point, old pal. Nonetheless the bus service in Southend is currently useless. So I will need a good motorbike to travel the four miles between two Southend sites, and maybe further afield. The dream ride would be a Ducati Diavel.”
Jesus scratched his head: “Dammit, what was it I used to say? That’s it! Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”
“I’ll get a decent motorbike lock,” said Sal.