Coalition Channel 4, 9pm.


Timing is everything in politics. Growth in the economy. A few weeks from another Tory triumph, or another patchy coalition? Scriptwriter James Graham looks backwards to what happened five-years ago, when the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberals. For me it’s a case of who do I hate the most.

In Ten Days that Shook the World, American socialist and journalist John Reed chronicled the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in Russia.  Here we have five days of farce and melodrama in which public school boys David Cameron (Mark Dexter) makes googly eyes at Nick Clegg (Bertie [Wooster] Carvel) and woos him with talk of a partnership of equals, with a similar background and views. He bathes in a steam of money, rips his shirt off for the viewers and says ‘Damn it Nick, look at my portfolio. We could be so happy together.’

Standing outside this duo is two people. The bearish Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve) waiting for a chance, waiting for a dance. It’s an arranged marriage. Gordon even has the audacity to return to number 10 Downing Street, even though his Labour Party polled less seats than the Tories. In a phone call Gordon pleads with Nick that the Tory’s polled less the 30% of the popular vote. 70% didn’t want them in power. They didn’t have a popular mandate, but really Nick, it’s up to you to do the right thing. He also has to remind the supercilious civil servant who runs the place that he is still –technically- Prime minister. Inside a briefing room his team find they have already been erased from history, their computer files deleted and their encrypted codes no longer work.

Looking over their shoulders is the patron saint of politicians Winston Churchill, who manages to be both a Liberal and Conservative politician that led a coalition government to Great Britain’s greatest victory, (prior to the 1966 World Cup win). Churchill featured in the last 1926 government of Ramsay McDonald between Labour and Liberal. David is shown on a stair vacillating (a politician’s equivalent of masturbation) about going all the way with young Nicky, below a giant portrait of Winston. And fresh-faced Nick is initially shown after the debates shown on live council telly, and cited publicly, as the most popular politician since Churchill. Adoring crowds gather to cheer his every pronouncement. (Boris Johnson, the future Tory leader, has of course written a biography of the great man).

Poor old Gordon, jilted and pushed around, has to watch on live TV David and Nicky dancing. Peter Mandelson (Mark Gatiss) is the most sympathetic of a cast of unsympathetic characters. He has to rein the old bear in and remind him that in real politics there’s still a chance. Prod him not to say too much in impassioned and earnest late-night phone calls.

Nicky squirms in the old bear’s presence. When Gordon in an act of daring and self-sacrifice steps aside and promises Nicky he can choose a new Labour beau from the catalogue, there is a moment when it might all happen. History might have been changed. Mark Gatiss might have been the new Churchill and the bubble economics of inflated house prices and helping rich people get richer at the expense of everyone else might not have been quite so dramatic. Nicky isn’t sure. He can’t make his mind up. Will her? Or won’t he?

Step in Paddy Ashdown with a Churchillian speech, most often seen coming out of the side of the mouth of Burgess Meredith in Rocky movies. Cue music.  If you want it now Nicky. You worked for it. You worked damned hard for it. You got to go out and get it. I will Paddy. I’ll do it for you. Freeze-frame: Nicky Deputy Prime Minister on the podium with a cheering crowd below him.

Kurt Vonnegut (2010) Look at the Birdie


This is not a modern collection of thirteen and a bit Kurt Vonnegut short stories as the publication date suggests. In a letter to a Mr Miller dated 1951 Kurt Vonnegut addresses anthropology, the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894 (which interested me) and among other things, whether writing can be learned at a school of writing. He concludes: ‘This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self pity…I quit GE, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.

This is Kurt Vonnegut before he was Kurt Vonnegut. His stories here are dated. The Petrified Ants I, II, III, for example, has brothers Peter and Josef, Russia’s leading myrmecologists (the study of ants), being sent from the University of Dnepropetrovsk to a mine sunk half- a-mile deep on a site of radioactive mineral water were petrified ants have been found by miners. The brothers are overseen by Borgorov, ‘favourite third cousin of Stalin himself’. The petrified ants mimic man’s evolution from hunter-gatherer to capitalism and communism. Obviously capitalism is the better of the two. This is where the petrified ants die enmasse, but the dilemma is what narrative line our intrepid myrmecologists will take? My thoughts slowed to a trickle.  I read on more through habit than interest.

‘Ed Luby’s Key Club’ is the longest story, about twenty-five pages, and is perhaps the pick of the bunch. It starts promisingly. ‘Ed Luby worked for Al Capone. And then he went into bootlegging on his own, made a lot of money at it.’ Ed Luby returned to his old mill town of Illium and bought it. He bought the radio station and several business. He also purchased the town’s restaurant and called it Ed Luby’s Steak House. Only the most select residents and bigwigs, such as the Judge and Mayor of the town got an invitation and a key that opened the front door to his restaurant and exclusive club.

Harve and Claire Elliot didn’t know this. They owned a small farm, but once a year, for fourteen years running, they went into town and ‘splurged’ like ‘King Farouk’. They make the mistake of going to Ed Luby’s Steak House uninvited. They make the mistake of being small town hicks and not taking no for an answer. A drunk man and woman turn up. Luby doesn’t let them in either. But he hits the woman so hard he kills her. His goons put the woman’s body in Harve’s car and tell his wife to drive…or else. They get picked up a mile from the scene by the chief of police, Luby’s brother. He tells Harve that he has witnesses, the Mayor and Judge Wampler,  both had seen Harve slug the woman and kill her. Claire is told she’ll never see her kids again. Both are going down. Harve’s lawyer refuses to defend him, tells him to plead guilty. The story goes great guns. The denouement however could have been scripted by J Edgar Hoover.

If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look. If you’re not a Kurt Vonnegut fan it’s worth a look.

Trevor McDonald Meets the Mafia. STV 9pm.


Trevor McDonald doesn’t meet the Mafia. You can’t, for example, meet France. But you can meet French men and women. Trevor McDonald does meet with three people. Two were in a criminal organisation called the Mafia, which was made of up five big players, or families of Italian extraction, one is currently in the Mafia. Let’s call the one currently working for the Mafia Jimmy the Humpbacked Whale. That’s not his name, of course. He keeps his face covered and wears an Arab scarf arrangement, but without being an Arab. It’s obviously dangerous talking to Trevor and he lets us know this. The only person he trusts are dead people and his mother (who might or might not be dead) and his Facebook friends. The FBI have got a link. They’re pretty modern that way.

The Sheriff worked a block in New York, had ten houses, one was a gun room where he kept his machine guns and other armaments. Mess with the Sherriff and you tended to be dead or deadabouts. He served a couple of years in prison and did a deal with the FBI. Life goes on, but he misses ‘the life’.

Mikey Scars was a level above The Sherriff. He took Trevor on a little hurl into his old neighbourhood. Pointed out a few players sitting at a table outside a café. Made millions for his boss, but when arrested the money dried up. Was told by the family his wife can whistle and go on welfare. He might be a murderer, but he knew the code, no welfare for my wife, I want a new life. In steps the FBI, gets him a real cool job flipping burghers in McDonalds. Kidding, that’s not the life or anywhere near the life. Working is for suckers.

John Sonny Franzese (junior) was born into criminal royalty. His dad John Sonny Franzese senior was an underboss of the Colombo crime family and at 94 is currently the oldest Federal prisoner. Way to go dad. John Junior initially did good. He made and laundered about $10 million a week of thereabouts in Southern California producing classics such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (no real criminals legs were allegedly chainsawed off in the making of this film) and Deepthroat that he got presented with the keys to the city from the Mayor and another kind medal thing from a Cardinal. The FBI give him a deal of seven years and then rehab.

Trevor (the Undertaker) McDonald sure makes these birds sing. One common feature is they all miss ‘the life’, but that’s only because they are alive. I miss the life too. I’d suggest reading Mario Puzo, The Godfather, or watch the box set. The third film is pretty crap, but hey perfection is a hard game to play more than twice. The Mafia ain’t what they was, but there’s still money to be made in organised crime. The trouble is the law of omerta no longer applies. First to squeal is first to deal. It’s no longer a good business model. $10 million is not even lunch money on Wall Street where the real crooks hang. Go to Wall Street Trevor and then we can talk money.

eclipse 9.31 am


I must admit it was a disappointing day for school kids. They were getting so excited about the thought of going blind, looking at something they shouldn’t have been looking at. When it all kicked off they were lined up with heads tilted like spanners tightening wee specs on expectant pudgy faces.

What the fuck’s that? was the collective sigh.

All I can see is fucking clouds.

Where’s the best place to see the eclipse Sir?

Someone said the Faroe Isles.

Another cry was for Edinburgh.

The best place to see the eclipse I suggested was on the moon, but don’t travel with Richard Branson.

It got a bit darker. All the birds went silent. Pickpockets all over the world made hay when the sun didn’t shine.  The eclipse was finished before it even started. I blamed cutbacks in the BBC and ushered the kids back inside.

Wait sir, it’s happening now.

Eclipsed by a seven-year old.


Life After Suicide BBC 1, 10.45pm

life after suicideIn response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “A House Divided.”

Angela Samarta’s husband Mark committed suicide. Childhood sweethearts, fifth and sixth formers at the same school, she had a child at eighteen and another boy ten years later at twenty-eight. They had a temporary separation which became permanent. She wonders if she ever knew Mark. Here she comes to terms with it.

Suicide is the most common cause of death of men below fifty. We look for commonalities among those that have committed suicide by asking those who have attempted suicide. Samarta visits the University of Glasgow. The grounds are very nice. It’s a spring day. She comments on the Gothic architecture, which is suitably magnificent.  Professor O’Connor tells her he has a close friend that committed suicide and he somehow felt responsible. I’ll paraphrase. A narrowing of world view is common. A general feeling that the world would not miss them, that in many ways it would be better off without them. A world of silence. The whys of life, becomes a loop of how can I end it?

Suicide is a personal failing that we fail to understand. Certainly for the Ebdon family, a mother commits suicide and leaves five young girls under ten it can seem an extremely selfish act. The aptly named Jackie Payne lost a husband to suicide and twenty years later her son also killed himself.

The camera visits North London. Maytree is a place where people that are thinking of killing themselves can go—to find time out. Run by two former Samaritans, one who admitted to have tried to kill herself, she seemed sincere, honest, and all the good things you’d like to imagine would be there for you.

Let’s take a step away from the camera. Maytree is one house, hardly a public resource. It’s in London. Probable cost two million for the property. Add on wages, (low estimate) twenty thousand per counsellor. Sticking plaster. Not even that.

Programmes like this are personal dramas of love and redemption for the photogenic.  I’ve nothing but admiration for those taking part. But closer to home I’d be looking not at the individuals and the handwringing deficiency theory of if only I’d have known I’d have done something. Quite simply the resources aren’t there. There are no places of safety. Nowhere to go.

Suicide is often a rational choice. Durkheim, at the end of the nineteen century, located it in the breakdown of social and religious ties and in a collective anomie. I’d put is another way. When rampant individualism becomes the orthodoxy more people commit suicide because they are increasingly devalued, seen as worthless and regard themselves as worthless. Look at the suicide statistics for those that have failed the ‘Atos test’. Suicide is often a collective failure. Closer to home the question needs to be asked, what circumstances would drive you to suicide?

Would I commit suicide? Yes. Am I suicidal? No.


Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Roaring Laughter.”

tree demon

Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.


David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, cousin to Patrick and uncle to Henry writes a blur on the cover: ‘A truly remarkable book, and a brave one’.

That’s clichéd. Clichés are quite common in mental illness. If you shot everyone that mouthed a cliché you’d have quite a few bodies lying at your feet. My favourite is the story of the thirds. A third recover from mental illness with no lasting effect. A third with the help of medication lead a normal life. Bang. There goes another body. And a third go and live in limbo land.

I’ve heard the same story applied to alcoholics and drug addicts.

Their stories are always remarkable, if not always true. Bang. Bang.

They are always brave. Bang.

By Henry Cockburn’s own estimation 1% of the world’s population suffer from schizophrenia. He suggests a particular uniformity in this. But then revises this estimation to suggest it is uneven. Immigrants for example are seven times more likely to suffer from it. And schizophrenia clusters around city centres like drunks waiting for the last bus home.  It is no respecter or class or gender, but does fit a particular pattern and strikes after late adolescence. What makes Henry’s demons unique is his father is a journalist that writes for The Independent, his mother Jan is an academic that teaches English graduates and so they encourage Henry to forge and new identity not as a sick person, but as a writer. He too is artistic, went to public school, his brother Alex a skilled mathematician won a scholarship to King’s College Canterbury, the same school Henry attended, but with less distinction. Writing it out helps mental illness. Bang.

Henry writes about a ten percent of this book. Patrick about eighty-five percent and his wife Jan about five percent. Henry’s passages are the leaven which make the book. He describes institutional life as cigarettes and time. ‘Life passes so slowly you start thinking numbers…’ But trees, in particular, talk to him. Welcome him. A robin tells him what to do. And after reading Lord of the Rings he believes he’s turning into Gollum. There are terrors. But the sense of ecstasy and oneness with nature is so wildly exciting that being naked in sub-zero temperatures, suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, almost losing his feet, starving and almost dying seem incidental. Over seven years he absconds from hospitals that incarcerated him over thirty times. The police put pressure on hospitals to keep him properly incarcerated because, of course, they have better things to do with their time than look for vulnerable young men. Bang. They could, for example, be putting up road blocks and asking motorists ‘where are you going sir? What exactly is the purpose of your journey?’  Even at the end of the book Henry admits he was not really sure he was ill. Is ill.

Get some alcoholics talking about their former drunks and you’ll get some good stories. Heroin addicts rhapsodise about that time when everything was sweet. Nothing compares to the ecstasy of Joan of Arc, for example, hearing voices. And Patrick is good at teasing out another of his relatives Evelyn Waugh’s real-life ascent, not descent, into madness in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.   But Henry’s reading from the script of recovery.  Bang.

What the book is best at is describing how the bomb of madness blows away any idea of normal family life. A shell is left to construct a new shelter. One of the first barriers they encounter is Henry is an adult and doesn’t believe he is ill. They are a highly educated, upper middle class, couple, but as anyone familiar with the mental health system knows the omerta rule that applies to the Mafia also applies to mental health, indeed any National health institutions. The Data Protection Act 1998 is the perfect stick to beat away any enquiries. There are a few writers on ABCtales (whom I shall not name) that could tell you interesting tales how this instrument of torture is used and calibrated.

Patrick, Jan and Alex find what many other of us have found, the mental health system when you pull back the curtain is like the Wizard of Oz an old man pedalling a bike and shouting through a loudhailer. The cost is its own horror story. Patrick estimates it is cheaper sending your child to the most expensive public school in England, Eton. And let’s face it at Eton he might not get the job of Jesus when he grows up but will have a very good chance of becoming a politician, becoming prime minister and selling all those nice bits of lands used by hospitals to property developers who really need the land. Care in the Community has a nice ring to it. The reality is prison, which costs even more, as the American model shows.

Asylum, Patrick suggests, is an ugly word. His family in their bones know how necessary it is. Lesson learned. One in three people will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life. I love that kind of dramatic certainty from tabloid headlines. Don’t get sick. Don’t get ill. That’s madness. If you do you enter an underworld in which there is no key. Jan finds it a world of snakes and ladders (with not many ladders). Be warned. Stay well. Stay sane. Or at least become wealthy. More bangs for your buck.


William Keegan (2014) Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment. Austerity 1945-51 and 2010 –

rich man poor menIn response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “We Can Be Taught!.”

William Keegan (2014) Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment. Austerity 1945-51 and 2010 –

The first question when purchasing a book about economics is it worth the money? Let’s look at the evidence. The book costs £10 or thereabouts. This includes delivery. Not bad. But it is very short—or concise—depending on your definition. Large borders on the page. Empty spaces. Empty pages to seem more value for your buck, or pound sterling. Notes. Index. I’d guess less than 50 000 words. You can read it in one sitting. And there is a tendency to repeat the same story or telling phrase twice or thrice in different parts. ‘Pushing on a piece of string’ to describe monetary policy or ‘sadomonetarism’ for the government’s reliance on this as a tool to adjust consumer activity is a favourite.

William Keegan writes for the Observer. Anyone familiar with his work knows that he is an advocate of Keynesian expansion during times of economic contraction in the economy. He does not shirk from using words like Depression.   In the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2007-8 and its aftermath when our then Prime Minister Gordon Brown ‘saved the world’ by galvanising world-wide support for government intervention and injecting government money into banks to keep them afloat and save economies going into free-fall, as they did in the 1930s, there was little or no talk of austerity—not even from the Conservative frontbenches.

That came with Osborne and his crony crew of Cameron and Boris Johnson that run government for the rich. Post-second-world- war London like the rest of the nation suffered from shortages of just about everything. ‘Economists calculated that, in order to balance the books, exports would need to rise not only to pre-war levels, but to 75% above those levels.’ In addition to this the flow of cash that supported the British economy, the Land Lease agreement, running at ‘£2 billion a year’ (multiply that by 100 for nowadays) was, with the war ended, abruptly terminated.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record. Nationwide power cuts. A debt ratio of around 148% more than can be produced by all the goods and service that Britain could produce in any one year.

Osborne’s great con trick was a debt ratio inherited from Gordon Brown and Labour of around 7% and making most observers believe that this was insufferable and like Greece, the road to bankruptcy. As Keegan shows John Major’s government ran a greater debt to GDP ratio. And it’s worth noting if the Greek government went to the troika that issued their loans and were asked to pay it back in fourteen years, bond renewal, as the current government has, and not six months then most governments, of whatever political persuasion, would hardly constitute it as a crisis.

Lots can happen in that time. Even a rudderless ship eventually hits shore. With a growing population and expansion from a low starting point in the economy grass roots of economic expansion have begun to appear. Osborne claims credit for this. Austerity works, even when it doesn’t. His failure to use fiscal policy, build a nation for the future when money literally costs virtually nothing is short-sighted and stupid. By measuring Britain’s progress prior to the shock of 2008 Osborne by IMF projection has set back the county by several years.

Listen, who cares? The problem with Keegan’s polemic is those reading it are already aware of this. Just as they are aware of Tory government’s attack on welfare abuse as a Trojan horse to dismantle the welfare state and increase the flow of money to crony capitalists like themselves.

Those who believe all is light in the world of Tory finance and the government is doing a grand job would not pay for Keegan’s book. The problem isn’t preaching to the converted. The problem comes when the Conservatives win the next election and begin in earnest to dismantle the welfare state. What is to be done?


Anniversary of the Miner’s Strike 1984/5 today (all those years ago) they went back to work.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “In Loving Memory.”

scargill and sun

My brother phoned me today. He works in Fife, Longannet Power station, been there about twenty years. Longannet is one of the few coal-fired power stations that is still on grid. It was opened in 1972 and has a capacity of 2400 MW. Most of the other coal-fired power stations in Scotland are closed. That’s not a bad thing. With global warming mankind is on life support and we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. I understand he really doesn’t give a fuck. Year after year his company gets taken over by another company. They all tell him the same thing. I want you to do more with less. So they tell him what shifts he’ll do. If they say nightshift there’s no extra. If they say dayshift no extra. Weekends no extra. Be thankful you have a job. They’ll shut down one unit. Then another. Then he won’t have a job. That’s life as we know it now.

Let’s look at the options. My brother-in law is a nuclear engineer. I used to go down and visit my sister in Dunbar when she had kids and they both worked in the plant. Torness capacity is 1300 MW.  It opened in 1988. All the other power plants in Scotland provide MW power in hundreds not thousands of MW.

Longannet was literally built on coal. Coal powered the industrial revolution. Not oil or gas. Coal. During the Second World War coal was so important that men were directed into army, navy, air force and coal mines. Jimmy Saville modelled himself as being a Bevan boy. Coal miners were hard men. Life was hard, brutal and short.  In my recent review of Red Dust Road Jackie Kay mentioned that (I think it was) her dad’s brother a miner in Fife got buried in landfill and had to get dug out. George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier goes down a pit. This is the 1930s, but his descriptions of getting to the coal face, which could take an hour and half of cracked head and crawling in insufferable heat, blindness, dampness and putrid air could have come straight from Zola’s Germinal of the 1850s French coal fields and the wages, as in the novel, were subsistence level. No more, no less. Workers had to live, but each mining office had an official stamp which they frequently used, to save time, because miners died every day.

Miners really were in it together and this sense of solidarity translated into union leaders that wanted a fair share for those that produced the society we now live in. In the 1960s and 1970s coal miners were the aristocracy of the working class.  Their fathers and fathers before them may not have been paid a living wage, but their unions made sure that they were as well paid as school teachers. Up until the 1990s Britain was reliant on coal for its power stations.

Bankers didn’t hold the country to ransom, because of course nice middle-class men would never do that sort of thing. Whereas miners produced coal that powered the country, bankers produced esoteric algorithms and ways of moving money from A to B so that their increasing share of C and D was moved into their accounts. When bankers weren’t doing that they were producing bespoke ways of moving cash out of the country to avoid taxation. Cheating isn’t cheating when dealing with billlions as the HSBC scandal shows and not for the first time. Government of course being a bad thing and being caught and facing a fine, well nobody died, nobody hurt.

Miners paid their tax and they paid for the nation’s wealth with their blood and the blood of their children. What has happened to the miners has happened to us all. Arthur Scargill said there was a government hit list. He said the Thatcher government stockpiled coal and wanted to fight. Then, of course, he said the NUM had been infiltrated by MI5 and we would be better investing in alternative forms of energy such as wind, wave, and solar. The man was clearly cuckoo. There used to be 84 000 miners, now there are a handfull. Longannet still uses coal in 2015. We bring it from abroad.

Lessons learned. Every man for himself.  Don’t trust the police. Don’t trust the law. Hundreds of miners fitted up by the Scottish constabulary that waved loads-of-overtime-money in miner’s faces. Being charged with an offence meant not just a criminal record but automatic dismissal by the coal company that employed them. Double wammy.

Lesson learned, employers call the shots. Wealth flows from the poor to the rich. Be grateful you have a job. Be grateful there are food banks because almost quarter of a million children in Scotland live below the poverty line. Be grateful Arthur Scargill wasn’t a banker because there would be no telling what victory would have looked like.