270. Losing my cherry

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I read some more of Jono’s words this morning. The bugger encouraged me by text to start creating podcasts. To use in parallel with the website.

And it’s just one of those days where you think: ‘Why Not?’ The country is locked down in near martial law while the sun beams down its benevolence. After my first bike ride of the spring, the feeling of relaxation before the COVID-19 storm whips up further was massive. It’s like being on holiday. Will I be here in a few months? I reckon so, but who knows.

So I took Jono’s advice. For the hell of it. Got a nice recording on my phone, reading Chapter 17 of Out of Essex.

I was really pleased with it, until my PC kept telling me it couldn’t convert an M4A file into an MP3. I later found a way. Then I wasn’t sure if I could embed a voice recording in my website. You get the picture – I’m no techie.

In the end, Rory persuaded me to make a YouTube video. My first. It’s at https://youtu.be/5kJKIuwvgvw

Ignore the pictures of the old git and listen to his words. It’s a magical story.

Might revert to sound-only if the urge to experiment continues, in these unprecedented times.

269. Jono’s thoughts

Adding to the never-ending hot air about COVID-19 doesn’t appeal, because it is sunny outside, and the garden is asking me to come and tidy it up. And I want to put in a couple of long meditations today.

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So here are some recent words from my good friend Jonathan Evans, from his Facebook page. They are as good as anything I have recently read.

 

 

 

I love cricket. I always enjoy reading and listening to what Vic Marks has to say about it. I am appreciative of his view that Covid 19 (paraphrased): is leading to a recalibration of what constitutes a key worker. Not, it turns out, hedge fund managers, premiership footballers, estate agents, or sports journalists.

 

Or advertising executives. Or designers. Or Hollywood. Or pop and rock stars. Or celebrities of any kind or people who make programmes about them. Or DJs. Or ‘influencers’, bloggers, vloggers, opinion formers, and lobbyists. Etc. Or, dry heat engineers and stonemasons for that matter.

 

Is it really a huge surprise that key workers include employees of the NHS and social services from cleaner to consultant; delivery drivers (particularly those that work in whatever capacity for supermarkets and food distributors); shelf stackers and checkout staff; bin men and women; mortuary attendants and crematoria staff; etc?

 

Surely, time for a massive rethink? Time to ditch, forever, the all-pervasive Thatcherite dogma that we measure someone’s worth by their ability to earn money and accumulate assets (often through useless and immoral shifting of so called [and often non-existent] goods, services, and financial products) and look after and reward those that do the essential stuff? Time to acknowledge that there just isn’t enough meaningful work to keep us all employed and to introduce a universal basic income? Time to stop doing and producing and moving and selling useless crap? What are armies for…killing the citizens of other countries for oil or distributing food? Time to acknowledge that nature has the ability to fight back and that we may not like it?

 

Is Covid 19 an opportunity? Bloody well should be.

 

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268. My potato box

 

I was deeply chuffed to receive a potato box for my 63rd birthday last week. The designer and creator, Chris, is my son-in-law. He cut and treated the wood and screwed it together, then lugged the pieces round to our place.

 

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We slotted them together.

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I grow spuds every year, in the ground. Because they give such prolific yields, I have also put them in plastic tubs nearer the house. Now we’ve got a smart wooden box.  It should provide a large quantity of potatoes in a small space. It’s food for nothing. After filling the foot of the box, I put in some old wrinkled spuds that had gone to seed in our shed over the winter. You can even use old potato peelings as the seeds.

 

 

As the new shoots come out through the soil, you cover them with more compost. And then a few more times, until the box is full of soil.

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After that, free food later in the year. I love the simplicity of the process. (Might have to put a net over the top, to stop the cats using it as a toilet.)

267. New concrescence?

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I was on the rim of a nervous breakdown in summer 1993, inches from falling down the crater. Seven years as a milkman had left me bored beyond tolerance. The job paid the mortgage and the bills, but the huge unused portion of my intelligence was screaming for stimulation, variation, catalysis.

Numbed, withdrawn, anxious, and with no idea of how I could move on, I told my friend Andy, who practiced acupuncture. He immediately recommended chanting the Lotus Sutra, promising that it would open the pathways I needed. Four simple words: Nam Myoho Rengi Kyo. Chant them repeatedly, Andy said.

“But how does it work?”

“It just does.”

I took his advice. On the bike, to and from the dairy each morning. 15 minutes of howling at the universe with all my inner strength to please, please bring the changes I needed. It was a plunge into the pure unknown, into zones where yogis might walk on hot coals, or monks levitate. I had no idea that it was a Buddhist chant, nor any pre-conceived idea of whether it could change anything, but I was fighting a storm, seeking any port. Christ did I howl, because there was nothing to lose.

In early November 1993, my old university pal and roommate Jon Marks offered me an apprenticeship in financial journalism. I bit off his hand in eagerness. Learned how to write for business publications; got to visit a bunch of places that would otherwise have stayed unknown; found myself able to turn freelance and earn a decent amount.

Did the chanting bring that about? Or had the Gods and fates already decided? Or was Jon simply looking out for me all along? No idea: I’m just so grateful that it happened.

Flipping on the calendar 18 years, to October 2011, I was crumbling again, after telling two guys that my friendship with them was at an end. It felt like I’d wrenched out some of my insides, but I was doing all the listening while Tony and Steve talked. It was juvenile, and I had to get away.

Maureen’s friend Jean recommended meditating with a Hanmi Buddhist group in Chelmsford that embraced healing as one of its core functions.

I’ve mentioned it in blogs before. But to repeat – wow! Within weeks, all sorts of new stuff was blossoming, in ways that seemed to defy the laws of science. Happiness, energy, enchantment, and a burgeoning desire to begin to know more of the ancient wisdoms. At the heart of it all was the repeated chanting of various mantras, combined with visualisation.

Eventually I moved away, to do my own thing, while carrying on the meditations and chanting. I re-engaged with a whole set of lost friends from Southend-on-Sea, which almost made me die of happiness. Then, when Maggie Thatcher passed away in April 2013, ‘Out of Essex’ began to pour out of me, unplanned and spontaneously. Set in Southend. Where else?

Did the Buddhist practice prise open that soaring Essex synchronicity? Who knows? 8 years on, my appreciation and gratitude for that time remains fully intact.

And now a new page is perhaps being turned. Two days ago, my friend Jenny Lynne got in touch to say that she was starting a networked meditation, based around a 10-minute chanting of the Lotus Sutra. Seeking to create peace, calm, care and compassion in the wider world, and wisdom and centredness in the group, which operates through small cells.

Jenny is a therapist, a Buddhist of 38 years and a good human being. In Great Dunmow, a small Essex town near Stansted Airport, she masterminds ‘Get Diggin It’, a community-based venture to grow food locally. Jenny talks to me every now and again about a range of subjects, including what might happen if a significant percentage of mainstream journalists decided to place truth and authenticity before income, and ceased spoon feeding nonsensical narratives to over-trusting populaces. She has also been the UK coordinator for the Ubuntu movement, founded in South Africa with a view to gradually eliminating money through self-sustaining community.

She has decided to act, not by the easy, lazy route of condemning the wider world but by pushing for a new and better direction.

I’ve taken part in two of the group meditations, yesterday and this morning. No miracles, but they felt good, with a palpable sense of connection. I’m happy to see what happens. Does positive thought affect DNA? Does human emotion change matter, and thus the wider world?

I’ve moaned before about the lack of concrescence in my life. How I crave membership of a group that revolves around fellowship and kindness. Maybe this is it.

If anyone wants to join in, you could do so quietly, or tell me, or go directly to Jenny. She speaks about her aims in a video released today, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7kdM1ku7r8&feature=youtu.be

It won’t be for everybody. For me, it’s fascinating.

Here is what I love, as an observer of patterns. Just hours after Jenny announced her group initiative, I was cycling into town, to get new tyres for my bike. On the way in, who should I see cycling the other way but Eleanor, the wife of ex-friend Tony. On the way back home, there she was again, passing me at around the journey’s mid-point.

After 63 years, it is possible to sort out signals from white noise. Seeing Eleanor was such an obvious sign. It made me think of allegories, or of Whitley Strieber seeing an owl. Something where the universe gives you a nudge, to say, ‘there you go, all’s well, we’ve got a new path for you’.

 

 

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266. Transition

OUT OF ESSEX – Chapter 36

 

 

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in; their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

 

 

Almost 24 hours after Dave’s death, on 22 December, Dan’s mobile rang. An unfamiliar, posh voice asked: “Would you like the solution to many of Britain’s economic woes?”

“Who is this?”

“Somebody who has read your bulletins. Rather well-intentioned, I thought.”

Dan waited for more. Rain drummed against the caravan roof. He was writing his fourth newsletter. Distribution had spread beyond the moneyless communities to alternative media websites. Through the window, he saw police cars outside the Dawson household in Kensington Road.

“This call will not be traceable.” Another pause. “My father worked for the Bank of England, so I am familiar with the topics you cover.”

“Am I on the right track?” asked Dan

“Broadly speaking, yes. However you require a strong historical precedent to support your arguments against the banks.”

Dan reflected. He told the caller that he had extensively cited the short-lived, interest-free currency issues under American Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, and more protracted examples set by Australia, Canada and Guernsey.

“People often need to see something from their own history. Investigate the Bradbury Pound. It worked almost 100 years ago in Britain, under trying circumstances.” The line went dead. “Who was that,” asked Mary.

“No idea. Can you google ‘Bradbury Pound’ on your tablet?” They read together, gladly distracted from tensions that had crept into their domestic life under the shared limit of just a few square metres of draughty floor space.

The Bradbury Pound was introduced by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George on 7 August 1914. With war’s uncertainties looming, and only £9 million of gold sitting in national vaults, the move was designed to pre-empt any run on UK banks. Within just two days, Lloyd George forced a hardly used emergency measure through Parliament, allowing for money creation to shift away from the Bank of England’s interest-bearing notes to an interest- and debt-free currency printed by the Treasury.

Named after Sir John Bradbury, the Treasury Secretary who signed the initial batch, some £300 million of Bradbury paper was issued in ten shilling and pound notes. These were successfully used in the economy, as units of exchange, with no sudden inflation.

Dan added it to his mental arsenal. It was another important precedent of a major nation exercising its sovereign right to issue debt-free currency. A rare but welcome length of cold steel thrust into the heart of a vampiric private banking system.

 

***

Christmas was a mournful affair. The police had asked questions for a week, concluding that the murderer was an outsider. No key DNA traces were available. A young man in a dark hoodie was the suspect, which left several thousand possibilities.

The rain paused seven nights after Dave’s death. 350 people gathered under the starlight, on 28 December, 2013, to cremate his body alongside ‘Dave’s field’, as Southchurch Park’s massive allotment had been renamed.

Dan wore his brightest jumper, a thick tapestry of colour mirrored in every direction by his fellow campers. Predominantly yellow, red and orange garments were on display, sported by a throng of humans packed in a semi-circle around a funeral pyre built of driftwood and two of the park’s weakest trees. Old newspapers peeked out, ready for lighting. On top, the coffin waited.

Dave’s daughter, Lauren, walked uncertainly to a small podium, and delicately adjusted the microphone to a comfortable height. She pulled out a piece of paper and started to read.

“I love my daddy. He taught me to read, swim and ride a bike. He used to make toilet paper with famous people’s faces on it.” Chuckles broke out. Mary gripped Dan’s hand.

“I think you all loved him,” said Lauren. “I wish he would come back.” She looked across at her mum, Sarah, who smiled through tears.

Sarah joined her daughter at the mike. “It’s difficult for me to know what to say tonight. Dave probably helped every one of you, in one way or another. He can’t do that anymore. But he does have a legacy. Everything that will come out of the ground this spring will be down to his store of seeds.” Her eyes were streaming. Lauren hugged her mum’s waist.

“Dave built it up over the years, painstakingly. He used to swear blind that we would need it one day. I thought he was mad, but I loved him enough to indulge his madness. Anyway, this is the song he wanted everyone to hear, if it ever came to this.”

Nick Cave’s voice cut the air, pouring majestically out of hidden speakers, accompanied by simple, plaintive piano notes.

 

Across the oceans, across the seas,

Over forests of blackened trees.
Through valleys so still we dare not breathe,

To be by your side.

 

Over the shifting desert plains,

Across mountains all in flames.
Through howling winds and driving rains,

To be by your side.

Dan felt the lump in his throat swelling, as he recalled his one drunken evening with Dave, who preferred a mug of tea to alcohol. “Play this at my funeral, if it happens and you’re still around,” he had insisted, bringing up the video on his laptop. “Sarah knows, but there’s no harm in a bit of back up. You be my mate and remember this.”

Into the night as the stars collide,
Across the borders that divide.

Forests of stone standing petrified,
To be by your side.

Dave had helped himself to a fifth whisky, explaining that the song could be about the journey of a soul. “See all these geese in the video, they are like…. souls undertaking huge flights, thousands of miles, with short stops in between. That’s us. Yeah? In this life. Then the long haul to the next.”

 Every mile and every year,

For every one a single tear.
I cannot explain this, Dear,

I will not even try.

A cavalcade of gorgeous geese honks preceded the chorus.

For I know one thing, love comes on a wing.
For tonight I will be by your side, b
ut tomorrow I will fly.

Dave from the grave. Violins entered deftly, building the song. Wet-eyed, the semi-circle was transfixed.

Across the endless wilderness,

Where all the beasts bow down their heads.
Darling I will never rest,

Till I am by your side.

For I know one thing, love comes on a wing.

And tonight I will be by your side, but tomorrow I will fly away.

 

“He’s with us tonight,” croaked Dan to Mary, as the song ended. “Rest in peace, my friend.” Minutes passed while a choir of sobs swelled, cascaded and faded into the night.

Sarah spoke up again, grimacing. “We know now about the people who did this. Enemies who have shown their hand. Sal will talk about that later. All I ask is that every one of you toasts my husband deeply tonight. I’m told by our resident expert that dead souls can look down.”

She gestured towards the Buddha, who bowed his head. “So let’s give Dave something to behold. He would have wanted you to smile, laugh, cheer and celebrate his life. Please try.”

She walked to the funeral pyre, kissed her right hand and reached up to the coffin, pressing her fingers lightly on its lid. “Bye bye my darling.”

Buddha followed behind. He placed his arm on her left shoulder. She turned and walked away, while he applied a lit candle to the protruding paper twists. He intoned the Great Compassion Mantra.

As the flames caught, the community’s band, Parklife, struck up Dave’s second request. ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.’ Voices were raised. Buckets were passed around, containing homemade mead Dave had brewed over the winter. Glasses were dipped again and again. Some danced, some hollered, some watched, as the fire consumed the coffin.

Dan caught glimpses of Claire’s rainbow hair bobbing as Captain Van Hoyte showed her a Dutch folk dance. He saw Mike Burper and Sheena drunkenly moving their bodies in what resembled something between a skinhead football stomp and a choreographed Bollywood routine.

But of all the odd, mismatched images, nothing came close to the sight of Buddha, Gandhi and Satan talking, while nobody around them paid any attention. The little Indian was dominating the conversation, gesticulating, jiggling his eyebrows, waving his arms. Sid was listening hard, impassively. Satan’s disdain for Gandhi had nowhere to hide.

An iconic threesome, spanning time and culture. No painter or photographer would ever capture this moment. Any nobody cared, because Dave was dead.

 

***

An hour or so later, they quietened again, as Satan took the podium. He briefed them on his London visit, no detail spared, wincing visibly as he played back Eric’s threat: “If these communities continue to be a nuisance, expect worse.” A ripple ran around the residents. Fear mixed with anger.

Stamping his feet for warmth, Dan began thinking about a visit to Nigeria in 2005. He recalled the power outages in Lagos hotels, holes in the road, and traffic congestions where beggars surrounded his taxi. As the sun rose in Abuja, Nigerians walked the long road from the airport to the capital city, belongings on their heads, marching in daily servitude to tribal chieftains that divvied up the nation’s profits.

Corruption was endemic. Tribes and militants stole oil from pipelines criss-crossing the Niger Delta. Pirates stole oil from tankers. The national oil company stole over $1 billion of oil revenues each month, according to the Central Bank. Heads of banks had been stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from shareholders until caught in 2009. The government regularly stole the hundreds of millions of dollars pumped in by the World Bank and other multilateral lenders.

None of the London bankers, insurers and lawyers who talked about Nigeria’s mess to Dan ever acknowledged the irony, if indeed they had the brains to perceive it. Not just Chancellor Osborne announcing growth, employment and inflation figures that bore no relation to reality, like any jaunty Nigerian politician, but the daily plunder under their own noses. Less brazen than Nigeria’s corruption, but equally wide-reaching. Companies and individuals sending their wealth out through the labyrinthine offshore tentacles of the City, switching and dodging and obfuscating until audit trails were dense and tax was no longer payable.

While, for the ordinary man and woman, bailiffs were banging on doors, potholes littered roads and hospitals struggled to cope.

***

 

The journalist in Dan swiftly identified key themes as Satan related Eric’s crowing. Under the guise of a global spiritual centre, the Vatican was a city-state wielding enormous power, sitting on untold wealth. Its corruption had always been palpable: biblical edits; ignoring priests’ paedophilia; collaboration with the Nazis; and a hoarding of riches while hundreds of millions of Catholics struggled in poverty. Dan recalled his history teacher telling him how Pope Innocent III had rejected and annulled the Magna Carta. Annulled it.

The clans’ military centre was Washington DC. It appeared to have a remit to pursue wars that kept human spirituality in perpetual check, and maximised profits from huge armaments and security industry investments by banking families. He made a mental note to dig deeper into the DC (District of Columbia) status. Was it also ring-fenced, like the Vatican?

The third centre lay upriver from Southend. A ‘Dark Star’ that exerted untrammelled financial seduction, according to Tony Travers, a London School of Economics professor. “London is the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. Nobody knows how to control it,” Travers argued. London took 45% of all foreign direct investment into the UK in 2012. Eric had intimated that the City was beyond parliamentary control, possibly another city-state.

Whatever it was, it was serviced by money slaves, who would find the Southchurch project incomprehensible. At least Nigerians had some colour about them. The City’s uniforms and dull orthodoxy had developed, dangerously, into something approaching a global business standard. Children everywhere were encouraged to study hard and become just like these people. Dan remembered one, a banker who revealed after two bottles of wine that he had funded Hawk jets used to bombard East Timor.

Dan looked across to the pyre, where Dave’s body was gone now, evaporated and scattered. His spirit had somehow stayed behind, spreading itself through the soil beneath their feet.

Even Dan’s son, 20 miles away, was feeling the love. How excellent, how bloody wonderful, how stupendously marvellous that his lad Edward wanted nothing to do with the City debt machine, or its legal underpinning, as it sucked and sucked.

No desire to be one of its operatives, who learned to stigmatise or disregard anything that did not fit the profit- and asset-based ‘business model’. Humans with hearts and minds who trained themselves to walk blithely past the homeless on London’s streets, oblivious to the implosion of the NHS and the permanent underclass swelling away from the tall buildings.

***

 

While Satan described Eric’s degeneracy, Dan mentally stripped the City of Corruption down to its essence, ignoring the human ants filing in and out. His mind tore away the superimposed hologram: the restaurants, bars, theatres, museums, galleries, shops and tourist attractions such as the London Eye.

The remnant was a terrifying wall of money, miles high, sloshing back and forth. Unleashed by Maggie’s financial deregulation, it had sluiced away from the City, propelled by the breath of the gargoyles, dragons, lizards and serpents that adorned ancient walls. It crashed and splashed out across Britain, then the world, soaking humanity in the illusion that credit was endless, cheap and the answer to every prayer.

Hedge funds burgeoned. Foreign exchange, derivatives and bond markets exploded. The nimblest humans and businesses surfed the wave, did their clever interest rate deals, stashed their gains. The masses dived right in, borne along. Money was so inexpensive it was almost free, opening a land of luxury and trinkets.

Suddenly bigger houses were within reach, or multiple foreign holidays. Perhaps private schooling. For those preferring visceral excitement, the options involving drugs, booze, gambling and stock markets exploded. Cocaine entered recreational use in the City; cafes spilled onto pavements, as licensing laws relaxed; day traders sprang up like warts; online punting was there at the click of a mouse. Credit for these activities was inexhaustible. Second mortgages were taken out for cars and holidays.

National, state and local authorities began to see themselves as potential investors, sitting on pensions and other assets able to generate additional earnings. Governments continued to borrow as if tomorrow would never come, while even tramps sat around new mattresses, comparing their credit cards. In 2006, you could buy a house via a self-certified mortgage. “Yes, I’m a school janitor, working from home mainly, earning about £300,000 a year.”

Then the wave hit the beach, in 2007-2008. Almost certainly the controlling families at work, Dan now saw. Panic rose, then subsided as G20 governments were ordered to bail out the clans’ banks. All seemed well again, until the money wave began to reverse, sucking repayments, plus interest, or the equivalent collateral, back towards those who had created it from nothing.

The wave pulled back houses and pensions; bankrupted businesses and individuals; decimated the financial standing of cities; squeezed local government budgets past the bone, imbibing jobs and salaries; and left governments resorting to bedroom taxes and privatisations to repay debts. A generation left high and dry.

Satan finished by depicting Eric’s death. Dan was surprised at how few cheers this evoked. Barely six months old, the community seemed to have accelerated, painfully, into hard-won adulthood.

As Sal slipped away into the darkness, Dan noticed Genevieve climb onto the podium, hair flying in the breeze that had lifted, and grab the mike.

“I’m pissed as a parrot, but I know for a fact that none of us will ever hear anything like that from anybody, ever again. We’ve just had a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of how this world works.”

She was swaying. “I’ve heard some of you talking about leaving. Nobody would blame you, least of all me. It’s clearly fucking dangerous to go against these people.”

Diana wandered over, holding out her hand. “When I’m sober, I hope you’re still all here. I love all of you. Right now, my girlfriend needs me.”

**

 

Mary stayed with Sheena, Ruth and Claire. Sitting by the bonfire’s embers with Sarah and Lauren, saying a long goodbye to Dave.

Dan returned to the caravan, to pursue his growing obsession. He boiled the kettle, made a hot cup of drinking chocolate, and flipped open the laptop. He delved into the period just after the First World War’s outbreak, when markets were deemed to be calm enough to allow the reintroduction of traditional, privately-issued money. No more Bradbury Pound.

It seemed that Lloyd George had consulted his old adversary, the influential politician and banker Lord Nathan Mayer Rothschild, about what could be done to raise more money for the war effort.

Dan so wished he could have been a fly on that wall, eavesdropping on two titanic forces, bitterly opposed.

By war’s end, the usual narrative had resumed. The UK’s interest-bearing bond debt had grown hugely, from £650 million in 2014 to £7.5 billion. “The same old story: wars kill millions and enrich financiers,” muttered Dan.

He was encouraged to learn that a House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM) had been signed just months ago, in November 2013, by Austin Mitchell, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and two other Labour MPs, to launch the Bradbury Pound’s forthcoming centenary anniversary (1914-2014). The EDM urged the Treasury “to follow John Bradbury’s model and address social, economic and political issues across party lines in one fell swoop and avoid wholly unnecessary austerity cuts.”

Dan smiled crookedly. “Not a chance in the world. But well done for trying lads.”

265. Dosh warfare

 

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Everybody is entitled to moan, self-indulgently, once a year. I had a whinge 12 months ago in Blog 158, blasting out stuff that would otherwise have festered inside.

It’s time to open a safety valve again. Here goes.

 

***

Sometimes we have no idea how lucky we are. 17 months ago, I enjoyed relatively good work and pay stability. Took it for granted.

Then, out of the blue, I was told that one of my freelance monthly writing tasks would in future be required just once every three months. The company (Croner-i) was downsizing and cutting expenses, as it shifted away from printed matter to online publications.

It was a significant financial blow, knocking more than three thousand pounds from our annual income. Not a fortune, but enough to nudge Maureen and I into more watchful mode regarding all the incidental spends formerly taken for granted: meals out, cinema, petrol, alcohol, days out and so on. Tedious but necessary.

But that minor shock was nothing compared to the crashing cataclysm of last May, when another employer, Edinburgh-based publisher NewsBase, declared itself insolvent. NewsBase had hired freelancers all over the world to write about energy markets. For some reason, my blog about this calamity produced more views than anything else I’ve ever posted on this site. It’s at https://wordpress.com/post/thebiscuitfactoryonline.com/1796

The fallout has been disastrous, potentially lethal. We are one pay cheque away from financial implosion.

NewsBase used to pay me about £350 a week, for work that I could do at home, at a time of my own choosing. Self-organising, no toes in the corporate bog. So far, I have found no way to replace that well-paid freedom. Adding to the blow, Croner-i told me later in 2019 that my services were no longer required at all.

Bringing a total of around £20,000 of income scythed away since late 2018.

Even before that happened, money had been a challenge for the best part of two decades. That’s another story, epitomised by a debt repayment programme and maximum £300 overdraft since 2006; and the parallel dance that the taxman and I have been engaged in. I have evolved into a nimble partner, shifting my arse right or left whenever his clammy, parasitical hands reach for my buttocks.

But I can’t wiggle or waltz my way out of the disappeared £20k. Maureen’s money from nannying pays for the food, the cats, clothes and birthdays. My remaining remuneration leaves us £1,000 short each month. A whole grand short of paying the bills, let alone going out. Or, fantasy of fantasies, taking a holiday.

Without me asking, my brother has filled that gap since May, God bless him. That cannot continue, nor would I want it to. Right now, an annual report job for a Belgian company is filling the lack from February to April. In May, the chasm yawns again.

The challenge is that I am already employed, with reasonable pay, in my remaining writing job, which takes up about half of each week. I have applied for other journalism posts, full and part-time, without any joy. It feels like that well of 26 years has run dry, like my enthusiasm. There may be one iron left in the fire, for a London-based company.

If not, given the much lower rates of pay for other jobs, I need to gain full-time work to claw back all that has been lost. I turn 63 next month. Have I the energy for a 60-hour week? It’s doubtful. But I keep looking.

The recent care job, looking after the elderly, would have filled some of the gap. In the end, it wasn’t for me, for reasons offered up already.

Maureen isn’t in the best of health anymore. High blood pressure, problems with her feet, and respiratory issues that give rise to breathlessness and a constant cough. She devotes huge chunks of her time to creating any manner of art. Painting, sewing, using all natural and man-made materials available to conjure up colour and beauty. I see her making the most of what’s available, but she pines for an answer to our challenges, works herself into deep upset trying to shape a beautiful plan.

Sometimes there is no obvious solution. There are no assets to fall back on. No house, no savings. Government pension three years away. Private pensions all cashed in ten years ago to keep the taxman at bay. It hasn’t prevented a new tax backlog. This is how it is. Too many bad decisions in the distant past. And no point in relying on a legacy. Dad’s house may come to us eventually, but maybe not. He may need a care home.

The psychological effect from these quandaries has been a slow draining of our optimism. There is some left – on good days a lot. There are other, super brittle days when being extra kind to each other is the only way through the mire.

Inevitably, social life has dwindled down to near-zero. We can’t afford it. We don’t make a fuss, just no longer go out to play. By contrast walking, cycling (soon) and TV are all free.

When we are in company, it is a struggle. There is less in common. We’re both introverts, and empaths, and have always sat quietly and listened, mostly. Banging on about our situation would not be in character. At times it can be galling to listen to others talk of their leisure, freedom and money. It can be difficult to raise a smile at their humour. People telling us that they are concerned is of no use whatsoever. None.

The long UK winter deepens the gloom. So many dark days, when I’ve gone to bed thinking ‘thank Christ that’s over’. Mornings when I wake and think ‘ah shit, not again’.

So downsize your rented home, has been one suggestion. Well it might, at a stretch, save a couple of hundred quid, but that’s not a game-changer. And moving costs money.

Despite all the above, there is never self-pity. I have always been resilient.

And always mindful of the upside. More time to visit my dad, look after him and cherish his remaining years. More time to meditate; and use the techniques to clear my head. More time to reflect on how fortunate I’ve been in finding somebody to love me, and to have brought up three kind-hearted, intelligent, witty children together. How fortunate in enjoying a decent standard of living all my life. Having a core group of trusted friends.

Always, every night, I write down six things to be grateful for.

We live amid rural beauty. Skies, fields, trees, flora, wildlife, local streams and rivers.

Frankie Boyle’s ‘Tour of Scotland’ makes me grin. We are nearly finished in financially helping our son, Rory, through higher education. West Ham almost stole a draw at Anfield on Monday night.

Writing the blog remains a deep medicine for the soul. Rewriting the book, ‘Out of Essex’, probably gives me more pleasure than anything on Earth. There is presently time for both. On 7 March, I’ll be at Chelmsford library, to listen to talks on how to use social networks and ways to self-publish. And to participate in a ‘writers slam’: three minutes to pitch the book to 49 other potential authors.

Instinct is powerful. Mine says something is looming, ripe and ready to open. It can’t be seen, rationalised or explained. All through life, paths forward have appeared. It has never been in my nature to chase anything, except deep intimacy. So my plan is to keep getting out of bed. Carrying on. Gritting teeth, but also letting the imagination romp and roam, unharnessed. That will keep me going. But I’ll listen to any better ideas.

OK. Done.

264. Wind, wobbles and…….wood

 

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Ciara and Dennis, the recent storms that battered the UK, took me back through time to the morning of October 16, 1987.

The famed hurricane that hit Britain the previous night had involved 122 miles per hour winds, and a nationwide uprooting of trees. It had been difficult to sleep in our upstairs maisonette, in central Chelmsford. The bedroom window was wide, and we could feel it bowing with the stronger gusts. Some tiles came off the roof. Maureen had Lauren inside her, still three months away from birth.

Only an idiot or mad dog would have gone out into the maelstrom. Or a milkman.

Warily, at 4.30 a.m., I trotted the few hundred yards through the dark to the Chelmsford Star Coop dairy, loaded up the battery-powered, low gravity float with milk crates, and proceeded out on Round 16, around the Westlands council estate.

Concentration on the conditions outside the float was immense. I’d been manning the round for about 18 months, and knew the order book by heart, so the roads and the few other vehicles took all the focus.

Before long, the apprehensions faded. There were trees, bushes, flowerpots and all kinds of other debris littering the roads, but there was no stopping this ‘milko’, or ‘milky’, as some of the customers called me. The job was getting done. Pints delivered, notes read, empties collected, the odd conversation indulged in.

Two key recollections stand out. Because I was a youngish man, just 30, I would often sprint the round. Literally run from start to finish on the days when no doors were to be knocked on, giving myself calorie-burning workouts that kept waist size low. That morning I ran down the side of one house, saw too late in the dark that a fence had fallen across my path, tried to hurdle it and clipped the top with my heels, falling in a heap and smashing two pints of red top. Painful on the knees and hands, but I got up and grinned, buoyed by adrenalin.

Better, and still vivid, nearly 33 years on, is the memory of driving at top speed (a wild 15 mph or so) down one road and a huge branch literally flying at three times that speed past the open driver’s door, about three feet away from my head. I should have been scared, but somehow adored being in the eye of the chaos and carnage.

It was all over far too quickly. As the day dawned, and the round ended, a sense of anti-climax set in. The winds lost their force. I mourned their passing; but saw their legacy for years to come in landscapes scarred by trees ripped from the ground.

 

***

Round 16 fitted me like a glove.

The estate housed lots of employees from the local factories: Britvic, EEV, Marconi etc. Lots of regular employment, so I saw no grinding poverty (nor any conspicuous consumption). I met customers who became friends for years: Andy Kemp the acupuncturist and his wife Nina; Kevin the horse racing punter and his wife Hazel; Martin and Linda, the parents of Olivia, now one of Josie’s best friends. I started up an afternoon window-cleaning round amid this new set of acquaintances, who included the first gay couple I knew, Tommy and Richard. Not forgetting my ‘caaaaaaaaaant’ customer of Blog 235.

Bizarrely, a Geordie woman with mental health issues asked me into her house one day, to receive payment, pressed me up against a wall, and insisted on showing me an intimate part of her body, which was diseased. Another older lady would answer her door on a Friday lunchtime with vast amounts of cleavage on display.

Arousal memories of any substance belong to one specific morning. It must have been one of the quicker days, a Tuesday or Wednesday, when I had managed to get the bulk of the round done by around 8 a.m. A hot summer’s morning, when shorts and tee-shirt were my natural attire. Several younger women were walking towards the railway station, for their daily commute to London. Dressed minimally and transparently, catching my eye as a collective. In the relaxing, sensuous heat.

Despite the hours of aerobic running around, I realised that an erection was mine. Evident to any prurient onlooker, flopping around in my shorts as I ran across roads; or bent over on doorsteps. Embarrassed, I sat in the float for a while, flexing all my other muscles to divert the flow of blood.

 

***

 

I switched my round after three and a half years. Driven by mixed motivations: a dire need for change and the opportunity to cut out Friday night money collecting.

Now working from a Ford Transit, I would speed down the A130 six days a week to South Woodham Ferrers, a new town built near the River Crouch in the early 1980s. Some of the new street names on Round 5 were linked to JR Tolkein books: Gandalf’s Ride, Gimli Watch, Rivendell Vale, Hobbiton Hill and so on.

The streets reminded me of Portmeirion, the Welsh town that featured in the TV series with Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner. Houses with relatively unusual colours, and slightly surreal architecture. But far less of a communal feel than the Chelmsford estate served on Round 16.

Hardly any Round 5 memories have stayed sharp. I recall peanut butter and banana sandwiches that I would devour before the sun rose. Also, spilling a dozen full crates onto the road when taking a roundabout too fast. Stopping in a quiet layby, once the round was done, to read the Sporting Life. And the deep snow of early 1991. Aching torso and leg muscles.

The standout memory, again, is of danger. On a Saturday morning, with two days milk loaded up, I was gunning the Transit down the fast road from Rettendon Turnpike to South Woodham, heading east. With no other vehicles in sight, and two miles to the next roundabout, I had 70 mph showing on the speed dial, with the radio turned high, as my mind wandered to that day’s horse racing. I had started up a betting syndicate with friends. Thoughts had to be marshalled.

Did I hit a bump? Or veer slightly across the lanes? Suddenly, the vehicle’s massive forward motion was being compromised by a sideways rocking, growing in force, as the milk cargo on the back started to shift, left then right, left then right. The whole bloody van began shuddering and creaking, wobbling, out of control. Instinct said hitting the brakes would make it worse, so I took my foot off the gas, keeping the vehicle as straight as possible, entering a time zone where fate and the Gods were in control of my life. It was in the balance for maybe 10 seconds, before the cargo stopped wobbling. I made a beeline for the nearest public toilet.

 

***

 

I still warmly remember some of the fellow milkmen (there were no women, until my very last year) from those years. None of them were proper mates, but I got on OK with almost everyone at the yard. There were three Bullimore brothers: foreman Bernie, and brothers Paul and John. The last of these killed himself, exhaust pipe turned into his car, after a split with his girlfriend.

It must have been catching. Albert, a relief milkman, set fire to himself (unsuccessfully) in his car after a bust-up with his wife. Albert showed me the ropes for the South Woodham Ferrers round for a few days before I went solo. “Spot of rain?” he would enquire, every time I hit the windscreen wipers by mistake.  Another relief milkman, Steve Wright, would also sprint his rounds.

Among Bernie and another dozen or so of the lads, a catch phrase could be heard every morning. “Think of the firm.” A sarcastic tribute to their company loyalty.

I remember ginger-haired Ted, short of temper and long on his support for his football team, Tottenham Hotspur, who would “swear on my kids’ lives” about any manner of things. Then there was Tom, who would often turn up for work still pissed after a lock-in at his local pub the night before. He was an alpha-male, nastily aggressive; and would brazenly take an extra crate of milk in front of Bernie’s nose, keeping the profit for himself.

Another drinker, Roger, wore red blotches on his face from his alcoholic exploits. Also a relief milkie, he would nick anywhere between £20 to £50 from the bag if he stood in for your holiday.

The real Jack the Lad of the yard was Phil Dove. His round was somewhere out in Hanningfield, where it was said he had at least two women customers who required ‘extra’ deliveries. Phil drank copiously, still played football, and had a second job as a private investigator. If there was something to have an opinion on, Phil’s would be heard. I met him again when he was driving taxis eight years ago. It was great to see his buoyant spirit once more, bursting through the wrinkles and extra weight added by the years.

John Tearle, the depot manager, came across to the Coop from Dairy Crest, where he had acquired a major reputation as a womaniser. In my final days as a milko, when the black dog of depression had its claws in me, John recommended that I find a mistress and shag myself silly. Then there was Bob, who helped Bernie get the milk ready from 3 a.m, before heading off to work for Brake Bros as a delivery driver. Bob still owes me £5 for a bet that I placed on his behalf.

Three older guys still come to mind. Ernie, Joe and Peter. All of them would disparage the younger lads who sprinted round. Ernie was odd, eccentric, a little unsure of himself. But mega-friendly. Joe was entrenched in his ways, a huge Trades Union man, who knew his every working right. He looked after his younger brother Theo, who had learning disabilities. Peter grew his own vegetables. He tailored his work and life to routines that he shaped and owned. Truly ‘his own man’.

Tony Timms was maybe the youngest guy in the yard. He admitted to still being a virgin, a fact that somehow got into the local Chelmsford newspaper. Presumably that status was left behind, as he was often to be seen dragging, pushing and otherwise cajoling a brood of children around town in later years.

The nicest lad of all was Kevin English. West Ham fan. Thoughtful, kind, sensitive, popular. I saw him a couple of years back, driving a milk float with his name on it.

 

***

 

The milk round featured in my dreams for many years after it ceased. Perplexingly and uncomfortably so. The general theme was whole streets that I had left unserved, or irate customers ringing the dairy because I had delivered the wrong milk. Only in recent times have those dreams ceased, occasionally to be replaced by a better ambience, where all was complete, as ordered.

 

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