OUT OF ESSEX – CHAPTER 18
“Whatever we build in the imagination, will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.”
On a warm, early August evening, a resurrected Mike Burper paced Southchurch Park’s perimeter. He paused at the park’s west entrance. Eyeing the battered residential facades of Kensington Road, he noticed a crew working late on streetlight repairs.
Mike swivelled east, surveying tents littering a football pitch, still covered in the flood’s thin white legacy. A spot where, 35 years ago, he had half-crippled an opponent, behind the referee’s back. Rubbing his right shoulder, he wondered whether a community could “secede from the sovereign”, as nearby graffiti recommended.
He had just come away from Little Venice, the nickname for the cafe and its surrounds. The park’s heart and hub, the cramped old building had survived the May 12 waters. Now, amid chairs and picnic benches, overlooking the model boating and duck lake, residents congregated, ate, voted and relaxed. Mike preceded each night shift with a coffee and a chat, often to a rousting backbeat from Parklife, the community’s DIY punk band.
After his deep salting in the estuary, which sat just two hundred yards away, Mike had felt inexplicably drawn in by Dan’s ad, splashed across print and online media and plastered on Essex billboards. “Do you want to live without money, close to your fellows? Can you contribute, in return for food and shelter? Southchurch Park is now open for a community adventure.”
The incomers were diverse, not easily stereotyped. Mike chuckled quietly at the pretentions of a few who had likened themselves to the Plymouth Pilgrims reaching Massachusetts in 1620, seeking religious freedom or a fresh start. He was more open to a couple who had touted the Wachowski Brothers’ futuristic notion of ‘quitting the Matrix’. But only because he had seen the film.
Some called the park the ‘Ark’. One or two reckoned they were ‘escaping tick-tock’. Mike saw these ideas as complete bollocks. Another occasional point of reference was Dial House, an anarchist-pacifist establishment in Epping Forest, on London’s outskirts.
He passed five tents pitched in horseshoe shape, wrapping around a gaggle of dirty-looking children, still up and playing. Southend’s growing poverty, and the hardships among its single parents, had become evident in the increasingly popular ‘Girl Named Jack’ blog, written since 2012 by journalist Jack Munroe, to help people cook as cheaply as possible. Yet only a few Southend family units had shown the willingness to swap familiar consumer traps and comforts for the unknown challenges and freedoms of the park.
Nearby sat a bright orange tent, home to Dutch captain Johan van Hoyte, still traumatised by his ride on a tsunami. After his release by police, Johan had quit the merchant navy. He had wandered into Southend, ending up in what he called “this liminal place”. Over a mug of tea one evening, he insisted to Mike that Britain had become a mentally ill society. “For so many, good times are gone, Michael. Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.” He described a cave overhanging the River Mersey in Stockport, Greater Manchester, in which homeless people were reportedly living.
Nearer to home, the magnet of three daily meals and accommodation had pulled several dozen homeless individuals into Southchurch Park, both long-term sufferers and those usurped by the Big Wave.
Heading north, away from the river, Mike saw another new friend, Claire, filling a wheelbarrow with the whitened turf. She threw back her head of rainbow-streaked locks. “People here are creators, part of the 5% for whom mind control doesn’t work,” she was telling her fellow diggers. An Atlantis, Essex tattoo adorned her left forearm. She bubbled about the new solar panels adorning park buildings; and teaching the community’s children to engage in spiritual development. “Stan, we need new journeys to replace old greed-based models,” she incanted to a guy with a red beanie and a ponytail.
This was her brother-in-law. Almost another ATOS victim. Stan had survived his wife’s death, and a kidney transplant. Although the medication used to control the rejection process had caused severe problems, ATOS had cleared Stan as capable to work, stopping his benefits. Unable to buy food or heat his flat, and with nothing to live for, he had ceased taking his medication.
Now he was digging up the heavily salinated topsoil. In return for being nurtured back to health by acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal and other park treatments – not least fellowship – he had supplied a car boot of bagged lentils and oats to the park kitchen. His laptop was available in the wi-fi area. Others cooked and cleaned for their keep, or deployed building, electrical and plumbing skills.
Mike reached the park’s northern border, where crews were also working on streetlights. Adjacent houses bore water tidemarks. He looked again at the sports field. It was bleached with salt residues, aside from a dark area, whose top layer was being stripped away. But for what purpose? How could you plan to cultivate land that would be infertile for years?
Gandhi seemed undeterred. In a quiet address to the Little Venice crowd, he had stated that a first crop of homegrown vegetables would be available from spring 2014.
Mike was opening to the idea of miracles. When Claire had described her Old Leigh escape from drowning, and the subsequent disappearance of her rash, he had volunteered his own unique story. How, when the tsunami ignored his punch and swept him across Chalkwell esplanade, his body had slammed into a hedge. How a rebounding surge flung him back out to sea, where his upper torso and right shoulder smashed into a stone monument. How he had floated down a vibrating tunnel where a 25-year old version of his mother waved cheerily. How she kissed him briefly, urged him to “stop wasting your life”, and faded. How, somehow, he had found the strength to grip the monument, the Crow Stone, which represented the furthermost reach of the Port Authority of London.
Now he patrolled Southchurch Park by night, keeping his new ‘family’ safe from intruders. By day he slept in the cricket pavilion, sharing a tiny room with an ex-soldier, Alex, who worked the daytime shift.
“Dad what are you doing here, with these weirdos?” his 30-year old son had asked several days ago, sitting outside the cafe. Mike told it straight. “I nearly lost my life, Josh. It makes you think. I never enjoyed my job. My pension entitlement covered my debts. I thought ‘fuck it’ and cashed in.”
Josh didn’t look persuaded. “When I heard about this place, something told me to take a proper look,” Mike continued. “Right away I could see some of the poor buggers needed protecting from yobs coming in the park. I asked if they needed a security guard. We made the job up, on the spot. I get a place to kip, three meals a day and physio treatment for my shoulder.”
Satan walked past, carrying plumbing pipes. “Who’s he?” asked Josh “He looks well hard. How much do they pay you?”
“That’s Sal. He trouble-shoots and tackles problems. Two other guys, Dave Dawson and Micky Gaze, organise things. Gandhi teaches people to make clothes. The pay is never money, we don’t use it. Like I said, food, a roof, a daily shower, medical care if I need it, and companionship. Friendship like I’ve never known. The big plan – which I can’t get my head around – is to grow enough food to be self-sufficient.”
“Gandhi? Wasn’t he some Indian git? Is he still alive?”
“He stood over there yesterday, telling us all that the future depends on what we do in the present.”
“Dad, none of this sounds like you. What about beers and watching Spurs?”
Mike’s hands ran through salt and pepper hair that was once ginger, and abundant. “Doing those things mean I have to scramble around for cash. And I’m not so sure about winning anymore. Does it matter? I know, it does sound weird. But Josh…This place. I love it.”
More than once he had thought these were the happiest days of his life. Mike’s first job had been to clamp down on theft. A group of Romanians in the first wave of incomers had baulked at earning the ‘merits’ tradeable for food and shelter. They had quit, taking community tents and sleeping bags. Males returned on night-time stealing sprees before Mike caught one and marched him to Satan, arm halfway up his back. Inexplicably, his hearing had sharpened. He would sit in the dark, pinpointing sounds.
Josh had more earnest questions. “How does this place pay for itself Dad? How will you get by in winter? You’re not young anymore.” Honest concern on his face.
Mike relayed what he had been told. “We have two main benefactors. Micky Gaze used his lottery proceeds to buy the park, and to pay for things like the solar panels. The journalist who scooped the tsunami story, Dan, has bought in a shed load of tents and camping equipment, a load of refrigerators and washing machines, and a job lot of sewing machines. Together, they have promised enough food basics to get us through year one. Dave Dawson – he’s a diamond bloke – has pledged seeds to get the farming plan motoring. After that we’re on our own.”
“Dad you’re gonna freeze your nuts off in winter.”
“Micky also bought some damaged houses around the park. He’ll draw up rotas. People here can get warm beds a few times a week. There are other houses at Leigh where people can learn meditation and yoga. Dave’s wife Sarah calls it ‘going inwards’; reckons it’s the other part of this adventure.”
Satan walked past again, winking at Mike. “He is unlike anyone I’ve met, Josh. He says we are doing God’s work.”
Mike handed his son some keys. “There’s only a week to run on my rent. I’ve taken the laptop and a few other bits for the park. I need you to chuck out the crap and give anything half-decent to charity or take it for yourself and the kids.” His other son, in Ireland, showed no inclination to make contact. “I’ll transfer you the deposit, in case I do need money.”
Josh spoke quietly. “Dad I think you’ve gone slightly mad.” His eyes moistened. “Let me know if you want to watch Spurs. The kids send their love.”
Back in the present, long shadows covered the car park, as the evening burned down. Not one of the park’s new residents cared that Mike had been a claims adjuster.
Another Old Leigh ‘survivor’, Sheena, always detained him. “People have joined together before and survived by barter and farming,” she said, arranging wood inside a chiminiere. “We must act as a big family, and earn our freedom by helping others, mustn’t we Mike,” she half-pleaded. In her tent teddy bears and family pictures were arrayed next to physiotherapy oils.
She had quit her job at Southend Hospital. Her husband carried on at home, paying the bills. “How’s the shoulder?” She spoke again before he could reply. “One of the ways we can work on minimising pains and swellings is by creating our own natural antibiotics. We can grow garlic, ginger and turmeric. We’re all too dependent on instant-fix pharmaceuticals, which is symptomatic of a larger problem – we have forgotten how to commune. Look at us talking now, Mike. It’s like an old-fashioned fireside chat.”
She lit the wood, flames darting. He smiled as she switched topic to Gandhi, who had set up in the Southend Manor changing rooms, overseeing the sewing machinists. “Did you know that Gandhi is the only human ever to lead a successful, non-violent mass civil disobedience campaign? He got a whole nation to boycott British exports, schools, jobs and courts. How can that person be here?” Mike shrugged, kept his thoughts to himself.
One warm hug later he set off for the children’s playground, bathed in crepuscular light. One of his tasks, in conjunction with Alex, was keeping an eye on the area, which adjoined Lifstan Way, on the park’s eastern side. The vote in Little Venice to maintain public access was almost unanimous. But locals sometimes snuck in at night for drinks and recreational drugs.
Three lads had jumped over the gate “How’s it going guys?” he said, focusing on the biggest. Satan quietly watched from the nearby flower gardens how Mike handled the boys, ushering them out while maintaining the banter.
By two o’clock on weekday nights – and later at weekends – any external threats had abated. Mike would sit outside the cafe, knowing Satan would bring a bottle to ‘see in the dawn’. The ritual involved the most impossible conversations. Sal opened their first session with a teasing delivery. “Your life turned upside down after you laid into that tsunami Mike,” he smiled, wickedly.
Mike’s face contorted. “Who the fucking hell are you?”
Sal introduced himself, fully. Before Mike could object, enquire or run away, Sal related how Maggie had persuaded God to slow down the surging currents as Burper slumped against the Crow Stone. “He punched a tsunami! We need that type of bravery,” she had urged.
“He’s a psychopath, for God’s sake!” God had said.
“Those people can be useful,” retorted Maggie, remembering various Cabinet Ministers.
Several large shots later, Mike had adapted to the notion that he had befriended the Devil, was working with Gandhi, and would duly meet Buddha and Maggie. The 18-year old Macallan Gran Reserva was to die for, with powerful sherry hues that soon numbed critical faculties.
“Just so I’m clear.” He paused. “God is female. And you know Jesus?”
“Know him? I’ve lost track of how often we’ve got rat-arsed.”
Satan told Mike they had argued over whole crates of single malt in The Place about starting a community without money, as opposed to using a new currency, or even a cryptocurrency. “God swears that it always goes wrong whenever money becomes common currency.” Mike scratched his ear.
“She swears wealth travels up the chain of command every time, and that central banks ultimately give their power away to private bankers. Only a handful of countries – like Cuba, Iran and North Korea – now run independent central banks. Libya had one before NATO invaded and sent the country back to the Stone Age.”
Mike tried to nod knowingly. As they stood taking a piss into the boating lake, after Satan untied the tail around his trousers, he was glad any sobriety had long departed.
Back at the table, Sal told how often Jesus had saved him from the worst part of himself. “Whenever I encounter the damaged DNA of any senior banking family, I completely lose it. How many trillions of dollars do these cold-hearted fucks, the blue-blooded gangsters, think they need, while hundreds of millions struggle or starve?”
It was bizarre to hear how Jesus would sit with Satan, sending his purple light. “But the hatred that those families breed, all that service-to-self shit, is getting worse.” Satan looked at him: “You reckon we can start to change that Mike?”
A new tack was introduced. “Nobody needs a bible. The censorship in the fourth century left a shell of the original, but the truth is simple. Jesus would urge you to focus on just a few things. Tell the truth; stick to it; don’t be vain, or power hungry; be very generous and kind; but watch out for those who would harm you, because they are in every group. Take care of the weak who cannot fend for themselves; and never judge by appearances. And forget the Church – you are divine, with no need of a middleman to contact spirit!”
Satan talked about “tricks of the eyes”, comparing this with “the true spirit of God that opens your eyes, and works through you”. Mike had to change subject. A big sip of the Gran Reserva made the field’s tents and half-white surface resemble a mad dream poking through the darkness. “Tell me again how old your three boys are?”
“Beelzebub is 2,254, Lucifer 1,570, and Belial is 990, still a nipper.” Hooting at that improbability, Mike felt his blood run cold at Satan’s constant disdain for the United States political, military and financial systems. “While we speak, elites in Washington DC are conspiring with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fund and arm jihadists in Syria. I’m talking support for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. On the watch of “peace president” Obama.”
Mike was even more perplexed by Satan’s insistence that the Bush family had helped fund the Nazis. “That cannot be true Sal. I love America.”
“Sadly, it is true. But what do you expect from people that bear blood linkages to Europe’s royal families? Union Banking Corporation and Brown Brothers Harriman are on public record as channelling money to Hitler’s Germany for several years after the war began. Prescott Bush was a board member of both.”
Mike recoiled as Satan recounted how Hitler’s war machine was entwined with Western businesses. “Nazi trucks carried Ford components. US ball bearings were used in German warships. Royal Dutch Shell provided millions of gallons of free oil to the Nazis. Standard Oil invested millions in IG Farben, which opened a gasoline factory within Auschwitz. Allied bombers were told this was off bounds. These things are seldom mentioned by Disney Media, but don’t just take it from me – research it.”
Satan was insistent that core pockets of Nazi mentality still flourished. “Germany lost the war, but huge numbers of Nazi scientists ended up working at NASA after hiding in South America.” Mike chipped in. “Not much difference in the words Nazi and NASA”.
“That sort of frivolity gets the word ‘theory’ added when some very real conspiracies are discussed.”
Mike wondered how he had ended up as Satan’s drinking partner in a Southend-on-Sea park. He awoke each afternoon with upended beliefs. Watching TV on a café laptop, he noticed how a BBC news item on World War One veterans described the horrors of French and Belgian trenches. It was followed by straight-faced newsreaders announcing that the US – and possibly Britain and France – were preparing to drop bombs on Syria to ‘address’ its complex problems. He watched programmes where experts argued that taking away UK welfare benefits would “make work pay”. In a market where even graduates struggled for employment.
Satan’s over-arching idea was that traditional society was finished, as old mental patterns and habits would soon be cast off like snakeskin. “Think about this: you live in a country so out of balance that a government let Jimmy Savile, a psychopath and paedophile, run a high-security psychiatric hospital at Broadmoor.”
New dawns peeked out each day as Sal talked the sun up. “You are part of a new model unravelling here Mike. God wants one great last period for humans – and you will have the utter privilege of building your soul and exercising your free will as you live through the death rattle of capitalism and neoliberalism. Those twin fuckers have been eating away at loving human culture like some kind of invisible Pacman, and you will help steer their demise.”
He was a realist though. “Hierarchies have had it, but Rome didn’t collapse in a day.”