215. OUT OF ESSEX

CHAPTER 12 – Bushmills or bust

 

 

Home life ceases to be free and beautiful as soon as it is founded on borrowing and debt

Henrik Ibsen

 

 

 

As the days got longer and warmer, Dawn Landais squeegeed her Southend-on-Sea business dream into existence.

By early May, she was on first-name terms with nearly 200 drivers who stopped regularly at the Eastwood lights. They were nice, cheeky, plain, miserable, ugly and downright rude. Female drivers demanded clear, clean screens. Some of the blokes would never get past their dick fantasies. One had suggested they “play in the foam until my suds run down your face”. Nonetheless she began to think of the collective as her ‘tribe’. Familiar faces, ceding their coins. Money, money, money.

At home, different adjustments had unravelled. With his borrowing ‘spree’ illuminated and unadorned, Steve had plunged into morbidity. Returning one late afternoon, after her second shift at the lights, Dawn found her husband home early, reading about a man in Bolton who set himself on fire, having fallen behind on a ‘payday loan’. She hugged him. They were still assimilating their new reality, more than a month after she had found the credit statements in his shed.

Initially, for three long days, she had let the numbers run around her head, disbelieving the figures, numbly hoping there was a comforting explanation. And quickly making the bones of a plan.

She confronted him on a Friday evening. With Genevieve out, Dawn threw the statements on the table. “Well?”

Steve went white. He looked around the room, pursing his lips. She waited. “OK,” he started. “Here’s the thing.” She waited.

“Ah shite. I’m sorry Dawn.” His hands were trembling. “It’s not good….I am currently paying out these companies some £2,200 monthly in minimum repayments on a pile of debt worth around 95 grand – no, over 100k if you count the car loan.”

Even more than she had thought. “Jesus Christ Steve. How?”

Robbing Peter to pay Paul, for over five years, it transpired. Small sums at first, before he had realised that lenders loved customers who repaid promptly. He had 13 credit cards, and a sparkling credit score. “You just pay the minimum. They keep upping their borrowing limits, and don’t seem to check on who else is lending to you.”

He staggered over to the kitchen cupboard, liberating a bottle of Bushmills from the shelf. “You keep using the higher limit to pay off the others, who then give you higher limits.”

He poured for them both, sheepishly. She preferred Scottish single malts, but this storm needed a port. “How long?” As if he had been in an affair. She was 99.99% sure he had never strayed. That was important. But this?

“It started five Christmases ago. We didn’t have enough for the presents.” He carried on, unable to hold her gaze. “A cheque came through the post, for a grand, inviting me to cash it and repay after two months’ grace. Then we took out the car loan. It was beyond our means, but you loved that motor.”

She had already decided what to do. She looked at him as he talked. He was once tightly in control of their money. They never used the overdraft. If they wanted something, they saved. “Does anybody else know? Were you ever going to tell me?”

He topped up his glass, throat constricting. “I was very near to spilling the beans.” He was nearly crying. “It’s a bloke’s thing. You’ve said that before. We compartmentalise stuff, bury it if need be. Nobody knows except me….and you now.”

What a stupid bastard. And a good dad.

“How near?”

“The bank manager has been pressing me to come and see him for a financial update. He’s rung me twice this week. It’s amazing how imaginative you can get with excuses, but they exhaust themselves, and I’m sick of it.” He looked drained.

They were in a murderous debt noose, whatever way you shook around their wages from his job at IKEA, up at Lakeside, and her call-centre money. Bankruptcy was one option. She had thought it through. But that might last several years and could cut into money needed for Genevieve’s higher education. Their 17-year-old daughter was bright as a button. And her younger brother Nigel was no mug.

Looking in on the screens, God saw way past Dawn’s pragmatic head, and her compassionate heart. There was something far greater in her house, like a lit bulb, that could no longer keep the light within itself.

Dawn outlined their best shot. That debt management, negotiated firmly, might just keep their heads above the water. Creditors kept at bay, with a minimum monthly payment. It depended on keeping every penny of her income hidden, so they could eat decently, stash away a rainy-day fund and have a few extra quid in their pockets.

She told Steve her provisional target. 400 regular punters, buying one screen wash each week. £1600 tax-free as a monthly income base, plus all the occasional clients. Working just half the time she had spent in the call-centre, and about 50% more income. “Not a penny for your creditors or the taxman.”

They might get by. Might. While some friends and peers were buying second houses. “Where did the money go, Steve?”

“I stopped keeping track. Roughly? Half was for us: stuff we bought, holidays, cars, every monthly hole left after our shit wages. Every need for the kids that came along. Maybe a quarter on spiralling interest payments, the rest on betting.”

The Bushmills was astringent. She needed another. She remembered how he used to put aside defined sums of betting money each year. The horse racing database he had built up. The betting syndicate he had run. Steve was talking about how the advent of the Internet, combined with easy electronic credit, had changed everything. “My punting used to be a disciplined, enjoyable sideshow, never more expensive than any other hobby: sport, CDs, fags, beer, cars or DIY. But when you sit on a growing heap of debt, desperation sets in, and rules go out the window at the click of a mouse.”

She knew some women would kick him out. “It must have felt like hell. How did you cope?”

“I’d have to get up and leave the room when programmes about bailiffs came on. But every month saw Genevieve and Nige get older and stronger and happier. That was worth double, maybe treble what I owed.”

For her, the hardest question of all. “Did you ever think about suicide?”

“Bloody hell yes! But only if it could be made to look like an accident.” He was serious. Bloody male logic. “No point unless you and the kids could have an insurance payout.” For the first time that night, he smiled. She couldn’t.

“All the time, I’ve been reading more and more stories about people who are worried about their ‘runaway’ debts of five, ten or even fifteen thousand pounds. Honestly, I chuckle and call them ‘wusses’ under my breath.”

She ignored that. “I’m insisting on one thing Steve. If you have to bet again, you tell me, beforehand, and do it with cash, in a shop, so that you can see and touch what you are risking. Your online days are over.”

For the first time since she was a child, Dawn prayed that night. On her knees.

“God, are you there?” She had never seen much evidence. She opened her eyes and peeked outside. No lightning.

“If you are, you know I’m humble. And so grateful for my life, whether it’s an accident or part of your plan. But how have you let things get so far out of hand?”

Maggie was sitting next to God, listening keenly. Rested, recuperated and refreshed. Raring for action.

“Not just my family, but the whole bloody world.” Dawn was seething. “How did you come up with this stupid nonsense called money? That can’t be your idea, not if you’re a loving God. If it is, then sorry, but you have made a terrible mistake. Please, please do something to sort that out.”

 

 

214. OUT OF ESSEX

CHAPTER 11 – Stirrings

 

 

“Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.”

Bill Hicks

 

 

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.

 

213. OUT OF ESSEX

 

CHAPTER 10 – Encryption

 

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.”
Joseph Pulitzer

 

 

 

The PM held back as the mourners filed out of St Pauls. Crowds and huddles were for others. David Cameron and his obedient puppy, Nick Clegg, both nodded at him politely. Emerging into the breeze, he slipped the double-breasted wool-blend twill overcoat back on.

The streets felt strange on the walk back. Uniformed police, union jacks fluttering. The word ‘limbo’ rattled unaccountably around his head.

He had arranged to meet George in the Lord Raglan, in St Martin’s Le Grand. The pub was nothing out of the ordinary. But the upstairs window seats were comfortable, and the cask ales from the Camden Town Brewery were exceptional.

The landlord greeted him like any other punter. “Hello Eric.” Rather than reply, he pointed to the Gentleman’s Wit beer, a white Belgian brew with a mild English accent. He held up two fingers and handed across a ten-pound note.

“Same music as before Eric?”

“That would be ……. entirely welcome.”

He climbed the stairs. His table of choice had been held in reserve. He stretched out the first sip. Letting through the taste of roasted lemons and noting the hint of bergamot around the roof of his mouth.

The opening track came over the speakers. Taxman. “There’s one for you, nineteen for me,” sang the Beatles, complaining about the huge tax rates paid by top earners back in 1966, under Labour’s Wilson government. George arrived, smiling at the choice of ale and sound.

In unison, Eric and George both remarked on Ringo Starr’s drumming. Then chuckled at the synchronicity. Two old men, white-haired blokes, having a beer and a laugh. They toasted Maggie.

“Sensible girl. Did exactly what she was told.”

“Made a lot of things possible.”

The conversation moved onto the billionaire founder of Amazon. “Jeff Bezos will join the club soon,” predicted George. “He’s making money hand over fist.”

“Those CIA contracts must have been useful,” said Eric.

Revolver played on, like invisible, all-knowing context. She said, I know what it’s like to be dead, I know what it is to be sad….

The album marked the Beatles’ last recording project before their retirement as live performers. Eric gazed out at the lunchtime traffic. Bankers prowling the streets, phones at their ears, working their cigarettes. “Just a matter of time for Bezos. The outstanding question is whether he plumps for phase two,” he said.

“And becomes Jeff, pure and simple,” said George. “Joins our ranks.”

Revolver played on, the guitars hinting at eastern mysteries and material transcendence.

Please, don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me

Leave me where I am, I’m only sleeping

Trillionaires Eric and George chatted on for another half hour. Officially dead, no surnames, reconstructed faces, no traceable addresses. Fully encrypted, to all but those who were needed.

The one beer was sufficient. They left just as the last track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, wound to a close.

So play the game ‘Existence’ to the end

Of the beginning, of the beginning…

212. OUT OF ESSEX

CHAPTER 9 – The big day

 

“For £3 million you could give everyone in Scotland a shovel, and we could dig a hole so deep we could hand her over to Satan in person.”
Frankie Boyle, on Margaret Thatcher

 

 

Satan and his favourite cat, Bob, trotted up the Highway to Hell. Sal’s guts said God was about to press the button at the coming briefing.

Oblivious, Maggie was tucked up, processing shadows, complexities and ramifications from her last life.

Bob made small talk, telling Satan that around 56 million souls had arrived at The Place for processing during the past Earth year. The tabby was keenly clued up on the Firm’s statistics.

Bob excelled at persuading passing souls to call up and read information on The Place’s ubiquitous screens. As a result, he could relate snippets on any number of subjects to his six feline pals, but only Rosie, a jet-black beauty, showed genuine interest.

The screens could pick up virtually any activity on Earth. While God’s much-touted omniscience was linked to this live viewing facility, it was supported robustly by another technological marvel. “7 billion souls are embodied on earth, so events of significance occasionally miss my eye,” she had once explained. The screens, she highlighted, were also a comprehensive access point to the history of each soul on Earth, except for a few rare individuals possessing powers of obfuscation. Some religions referred to this library as the “Akashic records”. Satan just called them the “files”.

If he wanted to know what John F Kennedy said to Marilyn Monroe on 5 December 1962, for example, it was accessible in nano-time. He did once need to know that. The key phrases, to the best of his recollection, were “Jack, you are insatiable, but I don’t do that for any man”; “your damned father cannot keep his hands off me”; and “be careful Jack, the mob and the CIA are talking about whacking you”.

 

***

 

Satan described Maggie’s funeral to Bob. “It was a curiously reverent and quiet event. 4,000 policemen were on the streets, and maybe that was right. Whatever divisions her politics caused, my guess is that Maggie’s soul would genuinely have hated any violence.”

Bob’s body language sang out empathy. Whenever Satan’s efforts in the deepest caverns could make no indent in the inbred avarice, Bob waited for him. Rubbed against him, transmitting unconditional love.

After a hungover breakfast in a working man’s café, Satan had walked at a leisurely pace into Central London. He vividly recalled a similar walk back in November 2011, bathed in autumn sunshine. The anti-capitalist Occupy movement had been camped out on the streets, while students marched against changes to higher education. Huge numbers of police had been armed with rubber bullets.

On April 17, 2013, he watched protesters at Ludgate Circus booing, blowing whistles and chanting “waste of money” as military marching bands followed the procession route. Some turned their backs as the cortege passed. Very Gandhi like, thought Satan. He burst into laughter, seeing a banner that referenced Maggie’s nickname of “the children’s milk snatcher”, and announcing that “the Devil has come” for her.

Finding a spot near St. Paul’s Cathedral, he watched as over 2,000 invited guests arrived, topped by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip drawing up in the royal limo. BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell rubbed shoulders with celebrities. Satan stood in a doorway, masking his height.

During the service, he was disappointed to hear 19-year old Amanda Thatcher reading lines from the Book of Ephesians. Quoting Chapter 6, verses 10 to 18, she called for the righteous to put “on the whole armour of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil”. The righteous will need no protection against me.

A face at the back, an older man caught briefly by the giant TV screen, triggered an odd sensation in Sal.

The reading contained powerful passages. From her well-worn briefing seat, God had reminded Satan endlessly that much of the Bible was interpretation. Certain passages were encoded, including her gender. But strong kernels of truth were available at a surface level. Satan felt it in his heart, as he heard a reference to fighting “against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Amanda’s father, the arms dealer, stood near the front of the service. Sir Mark had a knighthood. The mark of a sick society, Satan mulled to himself.

Sal recalled his new friend Mary saying how two of her friends in Southend-on-Sea had recently “cleansed” St Pauls. Essex again. What was it about the county? The two women, who practised an esoteric branch of Buddhism, had performed rituals which banished bad vibes accumulated from Britain’s ruling elite over the years. It would need cleaning again after this. Big-time.

Satan said nothing to Bob about a power cut that plunged thousands of Londoners into darkness. The cut hit at around 1.13pm, minutes before the Prime Minister, senior ministers and members of Maggie’s family arrived at the Guildhall for a post-funeral reception. Satan smirked. How in heavens did that happen?

Sal finished by telling Bob that when the degenerate classes – the banking elites and their various puppets – were finally ousted, their shock would be akin to tumbling backwards from a plane at 33,000 feet. “Bob, you would not believe the narcissism, selfishness, greed and delusions of grandeur that I see down in the depths.”

 

***

 

At the meeting, God was near-apoplectic. She curtly ordered Satan to sit and listen. “I cannot sit passively a moment longer,” she growled. “There is no longer any attempt to hide the one set of rules for ordinary citizens, and the other for the richest.”

Jesus contemplated his toes. He was used to his mum’s tempers. He had watched her create floods and pestilence. Now she was fuming about a stealthy move to retract new transparency measures covering the financial affairs of senior US governmental employees.

“You’ve all seen how the events in Boston have been dominating the national media this week,” said God, through gritted teeth, referring to bomb explosions at the Boston Marathon. “All the fuss conveniently – far too conveniently – overshadowed a bill which has passed through Congress very quietly.”

God raged about the new bill. “It specifically alters the STOCK Act, which was supposed to halt rampant insider trading by US politicians.”

President Barack Obama had promised to halt the rot. In a highly publicised ceremony, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act had been signed by his administration in 2012. In his fullest pomp, the US President said the new law would restore public faith in Washington, by forcing high-ranking federal employees to disclose financial information online.

Satan snarled when he heard that lie. And again when he heard that officials in both Chambers had cleared the amending legislation in near record time. “It took ten seconds in the Senate and 14 seconds in the House to pass – and attracted next to no media attention,” said God, almost foaming at the mouth.

Sal heard her real emotion: deep hurt. “This is the sort of hogwash you would expect in a corrupt banana republic,” he empathised. “This is how criminal classes work.”

God blew her nose. She had sat so patiently, observing free will at play. Just the one intervention, to sow new spirituality. But the seed had sat in near darkness. She had become a virtual couch potato, waiting for humans to wake up and flourish, while watching screens dominated by hopelessness.

40 years back, economists had talked confidently about the potential for the abundance in OECD countries – the full bellies and sufficient housing – to span the planet. Now Western nations were wracked with homelessness and unemployment. Official statistics indicated the top 10% of British households in 2012 were 850 times wealthier than the bottom 10%.

The bitter frustration in parts of Britain manifested at a 17 April gathering held in Logan, East Ayrshire, near the former Scottish mining town of Cumnock. After Maggie’s funeral, around 100 people gathered at a pub decked with bunting. Jim McMahon, the 52-year-old owner, was a former miner, arrested during a 1984 strike outside Hunterston power station and later convicted of breach of the peace. He told reporters he had planned a “celebration” of Maggie’s death for almost 30 years. “I went on strike in 1984 for one reason: to make sure community spirit and jobs survived. We lost that.”

He continued: “Deprivation is there for everybody to see. Last year there was a job advertised for a shop assistant and 345 people applied.”

Satan noticed Bob had snuck into the room. Jesus was stroking his back. God heaved a sigh: “Human life was not designed to be fair, but food, shelter and clothing for all – given Earth’s resources – was always more or less achievable. Instead a vampiric upper order is sucking the life from the poor, preventing them from being the best they can as humans.” She tugged at her hair, curling it around a finger. “Was I naive?”

She was so quiet that Satan stepped in again, summarising his London escapade. He then offered a pessimistic view about the UK. “From everything I’ve seen, the days when serious numbers of Brits might man any social or political barricades are long gone, due to a combination of apathy, ignorance, stress, debt, deference and disinformation from fourth rate corporate media.” Many were also so self-absorbed – or so hopelessly at the mercy of alcohol, drugs and, above all, their various screens – that there was little concern about how elites behaved, Sal suggested.

Bob wandered to the balcony, looking at the familiar Stacks. Recuperating souls piled in giant silos. His heart jumped with joy. Rosie was sitting there.

God finally spilled the beans. “The time has arrived for new intermediation, drawing on two aspects of my creation.”

On the main screen appeared front cover images from the science fiction novels of Scottish writer Iain M Banks. “These books involve this author’s very best conception, The Culture”, said God. Satan’s favourite was The Player of Games.

The Culture novels envisioned a post-scarcity world, where advanced technologies provide everyone with practically limitless material wealth and comforts. No money, no leaders, no organised religions. Satan loved the books for a second reason: the ‘Special Circumstances’ agents who undertook the Culture’s dirty work, ensuring other societies did not compromise Culture ideals.

God explained that a moneyless community was to be created in the UK, offering a first step to a new society. “I so want them to do it for themselves, but a nudge is necessary.”

God’s second initiative entered through a side door. A wiry, brown-skinned bespectacled man, wearing loose white clothing that left his legs exposed. His brow wrinkled with a force of determination. “Mahatma is our newest partner”, said God.

Rosie and Bob cuddled up, thrilled.

Gandhi had joined the Firm.

211. OUT OF ESSEX

CHAPTER 8 – Screen time

 

I have forgotten your love, yet I seem to glimpse you in every window.

Pablo Neruda

 

The day was cold, with a sky that threatened rain. It took every ounce of Dawn’s resolve to approach the first car. She repeated the DIY mantra, over and over, silently. “Do it well, with a smile, and begin your new life.”

To make sure, she had spent the past week observing from a bench near the traffic lights. Using her dad’s stopwatch to time how long the cars stopped in the slip road that took the traffic off the A127 towards Rochford and the airport. At the height of the morning rush, in between the green and red lights, there was enough time to do two vehicles. Two quid. If the drivers paid up. The trick was working out who would pay.

She was a natural with words. And Maggie’s funeral that day provided an easy chatting point. “First time today that Big Ben will go silent since Winston Churchill’s death in 1965,” said her first paying punter, in a red Ford Focus. The second, who looked like a librarian, was less respectful. “Bloody woman was always rattling on about saving taxpayer’s money – now look how much they’re spending.”

Dawn knew how to listen, when to smile. She focused on leaving perfectly clean screens. And trying not to attract wider attention. The police were an unknown factor, so she muted her outfit. Camouflage puff gilet over a black teeshirt. Black joggers, cap and Doc Martens. She had worked out a deal with the nearby pub on refreshing her buckets, in return for doing the boozer’s windows each day.

As Maggie’s coffin began its London journey, towed on a gun carriage, Southend banter bounced off Dawn like a rubber ball off a wall. “Can I put me hand in your bucket, darlin?” asked one jack the lad. “Only if I can wipe your rim,” she flashed back. “You can bend over my bonnet and rub me to a nice shine anytime,” said one dirty old geezer.

Guys had always liked her looks. Her new occupation might have been more fun, but for the recurrent memory. Three weeks ago, she was tidying up in the garden shed where Steve did his ‘second job’, as he liked to call it. Form books up on the shelves, computer on the desk, back copies of the Racing Post littering the floor. She had found the credit card company bills tucked down the side of his armchair. Their old normality could never return.

And yet there was something else. She could niff it in the air, feel it in her waters. Something wider and bigger, dwarfing their financial troubles. With no proof whatsoever, she knew with absolute certainty that things were about to get weirder. No turning back for her, Steve, the kids, everyone.

“Get your chammies out, love!”

 

 

210. 55 days in

 

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I’m on my 55th day of practising transcendental meditation. So far, so good.

The initial lure was, above all, the prospect of being happier and more creative at a testing time in my work life (blog 200). Because those two concepts are wide-ranging and vague, I’ll try and pin down some precise ways in which the TM has kicked in.

A greater positivity in my dreams has stood out. For decades, my dreaming activity has tended to be plagued by never-ending pressures, blocked by barriers and limits, and invaded by hordes of inimical and often dangerous people. In less than two months, that has turned around, although not entirely. Had a helluva dream last night, in which my legs drove a car away from the rest of my body, until my head decided that the distance between the two was a worry.

More generally, I sleep better, and often awake with joyous feelings, hands fizzing with energy, and upbeat thoughts about how the day could transpire.

Creativity? Yes. I have begun rewriting Out of Essex. The process makes me ridiculously happy, as new ideas pour in. I delight at many of the old ones, which stand in no need of alteration, making me grin immodestly at the wit and chuffed at the unique storyline, especially about money and debt, which no politician ever dares address.

Another plus is a greater certainty about decisions. They are easier to make. I have been approached by a finance company based in Canary Wharf, asking for help in their PR efforts. I was very frank with the guy who asked. Stressing that I will not engage in ‘bigging up’ for any company, unless it is based on facts and figures and a certain objectivity. He remained interested, but we may have parted ways when I was insistent that travelling into London is tedious and time-consuming, and asked if it could be kept down to a minimum. I pointed out that there is enough electronic communication technology to allow me to work remotely. He has backed off. Not sure if that is for the good, but it was interesting how I stuck to my guns with less stress than in the past.

Some little things have also caught my notice. Adverts on the TV used to irritate and annoy. I honestly don’t want any of their shit. Nor do I subscribe to the message of ‘normal’ consumers that is pumped in below the surface. ‘This is how we are, and how you should be’. No thanks. Yet suddenly I have found myself sitting placidly through the 5-minute (yes) breaks, seeing the odd chunk of humour, and being far less inclined to curse the actors.

I am very grateful for something else. Maureen has a long-standing cough that can persist on bad days. At my most fragile, it can set my ears ringing, and my stomach swirling. And now it is less invasive. Sometimes I hear it as just another background noise.

Maureen seems to have hit a new stride in the past couple of months. More determination to jump into the faster stream of her artistic and crafting talents, more inclined to detach herself from the UK’s political and social mess, which winds up anyone who pays excessive attention. She has come off Facebook, and stayed away, after previous cold turkey attempts.

To see my wife follow these instincts is the most delicious thing. Is that linked to my changes? Who knows?

Maybe in parallel, one of my friends who practices mindfulness, John Madden, suggested that we form a new WhatsApp group with a third mate, Tony, who is plugged into the ‘Headspace’ meditation app. We call ourselves Men Behaving Mindfully. And share our experiences.

With a grin, I can also relate that West Ham are performing superbly this season, as well as I have ever seen in my 50 years and more of supporting the Hammers. Is the team’s manager, Manuel Pellegrini, a fellow TM follower?

In terms of the meditation, I have begun to own it. The initial advice and teaching was sound, and worth my outlay. In my opinion. But one of the things that has crept in subsequently is a promotion of ‘advanced courses’, in exchange for bigger sums of money. You have to distrust that.

Furthermore, I’m not reluctant to tweak the meditation techniques. I know it sounds potty, but the week leading up to each full moon can pull my moods all over the place.

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In the days before the most recent one, on 14 September, it was as if something had locked down my ability to go deep. Every time I meditated, everything stayed on the surface. We were told not to strive, but rules are sometimes there to be broken.

A sexual image came to mind, and I stuck with it, rather than letting it pass. It turned me on, and I felt the blockages fall away. The energy flowing again, from my head down to my groin, and back. I use the trick now whenever the meditation feels ‘stuck’. It’s fun, and effective. And it’s my way.

It pushed me to read some of the available Internet comments on TM. That was fascinating. There is enough teaching and instruction out there for anyone to start TM on a DIY basis, without handing over any dosh. Nonetheless, there is a part of me that appreciates being taught the basics.

As things stand, there is no reason not to maintain TM, twice a day, for the rest of my life. It works best on an empty stomach, and occasionally the day flies by and I forget. The evening sessions that result never feel as useful. The recommendation, if possible, is to build in regular slots at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Not sure that is for me, as my days have no great rigidity.

Summing up, the days feel brighter, even as the autumn darkness comes winging in, and the financial pressures persist.

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209. OUT OF ESSEX

CHAPTER SEVEN – Anyone for doubles?

  

“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.”
Raymond Chandler

 

 

When Satan later returned to Leigh, Micky Gaze was waiting outside the Crooked Billet.

Satan handed across small change and the mobile phone as they surveyed the becalmed estuary and the easternmost tip of Canvey Island. “How do you do that thing in the loo?” asked Micky. They were drinking Balvenie, from the Speyside distillery.

Satan waited, enjoying the drink’s wood finish. “It’s not unlike Scotty beaming up Captain Kirk in Star Trek.” Micky wanted far more than that. “OK, when I’m here I vibrate at a lower frequency. Stop laughing. At The Place I vibrate at a higher rate. The bridge between the two, accessed from those toilets, is a kind of ‘wormhole’, translating one frequency to another. Make sense?”

Micky shrugged. “Do you mean a shithole? How far away is your home?”

“How far away are radio signals that your phone turns into digital messages and sound? They exist to the left of your elbow as you raise that glass, over there on Two-Tree Island where your cousin walks his dog, and above Sydney Bridge on the other side of this world.”

 

As they talked, Satan processed the last 24 hours. The Nick Cave song had launched a controlled drinking bout in a darkly intimate environment. It had brought back memories of 1930s Chicago, without the machine guns. The first tipple was Lagavulin single malt, from Islay. Wary of standing at bars, given his height, Satan poached a table and prepared to drink through the night.

He let the aromatic, plummy flavours work, listening into football discussions nearby. 1966 never stopped for the English.

Even Jesus and Buddha were hooked on the game. Their enlightenment included watching every North London derby on God’s screens, and engaging in ‘siddhi’, as Buddha called them. If Jesus began to chant “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”, Arsenal would be unable to get the ball from Tottenham. Buddha then fell into stone-deep meditations that coincided with intricate passing by Arsenal’s midfield, bringing the Spurs goal within range.

Sal snapped from his reverie. Soccer was part of the bread and circus routine distracting from a “perfect storm” brewing across Earth, according to God’s most recent briefing. Stony-faced, she had focused on the root of the current “austerity” drive, when Gordon Brown bailed out a potential half trillion pounds banking “hole” in 2008. This hole riddled many of God’s briefings.

A middle-aged woman seeking a table asked Sal if he minded her joining him. “Be my guest”, he nodded absent-mindedly.

Back to God, who had recapped how a temporary calm had returned to global capital markets when the rest of Europe, plus the US, followed suit. “It obscured the numbing reality that capitalism was bankrupt,” hissed the Creator. “Exit the idea of rising and falling on your merit. Enter the notion of too big to fail.”

Satan had rarely seen her so unhappy. “Citizens’ money was thrown at banks as if there was no tomorrow, which may be the case,” she groaned. “Iceland, God bless it, let the banks go bust. Corrupt politicians were physically removed from the Parliament building, and individuals arrested and tried for reckless decisions. The country is back on its financial feet.”

The woman introduced herself as Mary, asking if Sal wanted a refill. “Only if you promise to let me reciprocate,” he answered. “It’s the Lagavulin, but I’m an expensive partner. I drink doubles!”

He fell into contemplation again before Mary returned with the malts. “I’m Sal,” he purred. “To a very long life, Mary. Did you know that Britain is technically bankrupt?”

“Cheers Sal – and no!” she replied. He was pleasantly surprised that she looked interested.

“OK, stop me when I bore you.” He explained, as simply as he could, that if you added together the UK’s official public debt of almost £1.4 trillion, to Private Finance Initiative (PFI) debt, which the government guaranteed, and the lending which would be needed to plug massive gaps in the money required for state pensions, you had a potential debt that could never be repaid.

Relieved that she wasn’t yawning, he forged on. “Some economists say the UK’s debt liabilities, per person, are way higher than Greece, which is dying on its feet as the world watches.”

“Do you work in the City?” she asked. Naturally blond, she had a kind face. “Hardly,” he laughed. “But I have a boss who knows everything about everything. She insists I listen.”

“Well here’s a chance to educate myself. What else should I worry about Sal?”

“You may soon have to pay for cancer treatment and kids’ operations, because the NHS is massively cash-strapped, and demand for its services will rise as the population ages.”

“No! The NHS is our God-given right, paid for by taxes and national health contributions.” Mary was shaking her head, annoyed, as he continued.

“What your media – I call them the ‘Disney media’- under-publicise is how PFI debt repayments are killing hospitals. Now, before you snore, what’s your line of work?”

“It’s fascinating Sal. I’m a psychologist at a psychiatric hospital. By the way the Lagavulin is delicious. I decided to copy you.”

“If there was a heaven, they would drink this stuff!”

“Yes. So, I’ve been at a recent conference where Professor David Nutt gave two talks. He does have an unfortunate name, and a Bristolian accent which makes him sound like a farmer.”

She warmed to it. “But his thought processes are compelling. He has been lobbying the government for years to let him research psilocybin and other class-A drugs which might help various psychiatric disorders. But your ‘Disney media’ – I do like that nickname – portray him as an eccentric urging everyone to take drugs.”

Satan sighed. “The alliance of media, governments and Big Pharma is killing us all.” He flashed back to another of God’s briefings. Nutt had been fired as Britain’s most senior drugs adviser, having promoted evidence that a component of psilocybin can help repress parts of the brain associated with self-criticism. However, the mind-altering effects were similar to those of LSD, which not only scared Whitehall silly, but had led the USA to ban LSD in 1966, terrified that American youth would trip heavily and resist conscription to Vietnam.

Mary related how Nutt did a Channel 4 trial of ecstasy, to obtain research funding. Her eyes lit. “He has even suggested cocaine-sniffing bankers caused the financial crisis!” She smiled, self-conscious at her passion.

“Your enthusiasm is how we should all approach our work,” said Satan, remembering the effects of just one ecstasy tab when God let him attend a mid-Essex music festival. He ended up dancing to The Prodigy with his tail hanging out. A group of girls had become hysterical. When the band sang how they would “put on an iron shirt, and chase Satan out of earth” he had wept with laughter.

“Same again Mary?” he asked, standing. She nodded, tongue-tied at the uninterrupted view of his full height. Satan’s attention switched to the jukebox, where Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” was playing. He changed it with a flick of his mind, a practice God had warned against. Now it was “Stand Down Margaret” by The Beat. The amazing saxophone kicked in, the bass, the drums. His darkly-clad buttocks wiggled unstoppably.

Desiring feedback on Maggie, before tomorrow’s funeral, he web-surfed on the iphone provided by Micky. The first comment was harsh, with a glaring spelling mistake: “She was the woman who single handley robbed a generation of all hope and then laughed at them. I hope the fella with the big fork sticks it right up you.” Christ that’s me, thought Satan, taking the drinks back.

A second opinion provided more of the strong opinions Satan loved. “I think her stand against the unions as exactly what the country needed at a time when we were considered a hopeless basket case of a country,” said another woman. “I remember doing homework by candlelight in the 70s because of yet another strike. I remember Ford workers at Dagenham threatening to strike because management tried to stop them sleeping through the night shift. I remember the bullying of flying pickets and the arrogance of Arthur Scargill.”

Essex musician Billy Bragg was next up. He had argued, compassionately, against “raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady”. He said: “The death of Margaret…. is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes.”

Satan asked Mary for her line on Maggie. She talked of her father, a miner who had died in Nottingham without state help for his funeral after Thatcher had targeted the elimination of every single benefit for striking miners. “I hope the crowd tomorrow let rip with an explosion of contempt for her. I think most people remember what she destroyed.” Mary was trembling a little. Satan stretched out his hand, hoping she would not mention the gloves. “There are lots of ways to look back at Maggie,” he said, and flicked with his mind. The Who’s “Don’t Get Fooled Again” commenced.

A guy behind leaned over. “Very sorry to hear about your dad, but uncanny that you should mention Nottingham,” he said. “I picketed the Nottingham Evening Post in 1978/9. The police were brilliantly marshalled into what we called ‘The Wedge’. The biggest copper fronted the V shape they drove at us, and those behind wore a number 49 or 51 on the back of their helmets. They were Maggie’s Special Force,” he recalled.

Another mind flick, lining up The Clash’s ‘White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’. Nobody noticed. The whole place was in its cups. More single malts, and he was so far in the zone that he barely listened to one of Maggie’s defenders talking to Mary. Satan loved Joe Strummer’s line that if Hitler flew in today, a limousine would await. There could be no denying that the mass murderer Pinochet had received the ‘red carpet’ treatment when Maggie invited him to Britain.

Now the pro-Maggie guy spoke. “She made Britain punch above its weight.” Satan couldn’t help himself. “Think about your words,” he said. “Why does any country want to be punching? Fighting begets only more fighting.” That stopped the bloke in his tracks. Satan changed the sound again. Ghost Town, by The Specials, describing Coventry in 1981.

Half-listening, he stewed on one of God’s conclusions that morning: that the potential for a major war was widening, especially in the Middle East, Ukraine and Korea. “Wars revitalise munitions production, overshadow debt concerns and permit ruling regimes to censor their opponents,” the boss had observed.

Satan relayed all of this to Mary, plus God’s prognosis that an act of war or a natural disaster could tip financial markets over a cliff. Mary chipped in. “My husband was briefed by one insurance company last year that radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear plant remain so bad they categorise it as a potential “extinction event”. He is a journalist, by the way.”

They needed another drink. “Shall we try some of the Oban?” asked Satan. “It’s an 18 year-old with a classic balance – not too smoky, not too sweet.”

When he came back, the glow surrounding Mary’s heart was obvious. “My husband and I are saving for an “ayahuasca” trip to Brazil or Peru, to experience shamanic healing ceremonies.” Satan raised an eyebrow. Jesus had enthused about these ancient tribal rituals which allowed people to heal themselves away from allopathic medicine.

He took up the baton. “Then you probably know that the core element in those ceremonies, DMT, or dimethyltryptomine, is stored in the tiny pineal gland, in the middle of your brain. Jesus told me that boosting DMT levels cures depression and heightens perceptions that most humans lost long ago.”

Her puzzled look by-passed Satan. “Once you replace missing DMT a natural joy returns and remains, often for years. We are convinced that would help humanity.”

Her smile was gone. “Who is we? Have you met Jesus?”

Shit! His big mouth when he was drinking. Could he risk the truth? God granted him licence to select a few reliable humans to help the Firm. Mary was ticking every box, but her husband was a journalist. Keeping that decision at bay, he carried on. “One of the reasons humans generally trudge through adult life with a low-functioning pineal gland is the fluoride in water.”

She was aware. “Not just water but toothpaste and mouthwash,” said Mary. “X-rays have shown the pineal gland lining becomes encrusted. That very possibly denies lucid dreams and diminishes creativity, from early teens to the grave. DMT starts to reverse that.” She hesitated. “Now, will you trust me and tell me about Jesus?”

“Tell me first what you think of X-Factor.” He loved asking this. Visibly exasperated, she considered it. “I’m certainly no fan. I’d compare X-Factor to fluoride. It depletes something inside you.” She carried on: “Was it designed that way? Deliberately?” Her thoughts raced. “You might have to strap Simon Cowell to a torture rack to know that.”

He exploded with laughter. “Yes, I might, I just might” he said.