I watched this last night. The programme started at 10.35pm, and I was almost falling asleep. A poor joke, which also happens to be true. My partner has problems sleeping. The woman across from us said she doesn’t sleep much. My sister goes to bed in the afternoon, and her son isn’t much better. As Henry Marsh writes in Do No Harm, exercise is supposed to help prevent early onset Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t you’re just able to run away better. Margaret Thatcher famously never slept much, and she got Alzheimer’s. There may be a link in the same way there may be a god. It’s complex.
‘According to research by the NHS, hospital admissions due to sleep disorders among young people have almost doubled over the past eight years, and the recent Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the issue further still. In research conducted by Kings College London on a cross-section of 2,500 people across the UK, almost half of 16- to 24-year-olds stated that they were sleeping significantly fewer hours than they had been prior to lockdown, in comparison to just a third of those aged 35 and over.’
I’d never heard of Daisy Maskell. She tells us she’s had insomnia since she was a child. Her job as a radio host at 6.30 am seems to me a good fit. But she said she worries about her mental health and the possible longer-term effect on her immune system.
She meets her best friend, and other young and pretty people, to discuss some of these issues. How, for example, Covid lockdowns may have made things worse. Normalised insomnia. She tries cognitive therapy, psychotherapy and has her brain scanned. She admits to rewarding herself with food treats and purging with laxatives (bulimia) when she’s up late and the world is asleep. Yawn.
Around 20% of us are unlikely to take the Covid-19 vaccine (there are more than one type of vaccine, but it is highly unlikely you’ll get a choice—unless you’re rich—which propriety brand you will get inoculated with). These are a vocal minority, let’s call them I’d-rather- smear-my-face-with-shit group. Our French compatriots numbers are higher.
Around 15% are unsure. We’ll wait and see group numbers could swell if there are reports of side-effects. Mavericks are sure to spring up such as Andrew Wakefield who claimed there was a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and childhood autism. He was struck off by the General Medical Council and his claims disproved, but he remains unrepentant.
My medical experience comes from playing the side of Dr Finlay’s head as an extra in Dr Finlay’s Casebook. So you could say, I’m a medical man, and I’d treat Wakefield’s claim with the contempt reserved for the moron, moron’s claim that injecting yourself with disinfectant was a cure for Covid-19.
But we all like the narrative of the underdog, the whistle-blower willing to take on the establishment and tell the truth. A.J. Cronin who wrote Dr Finlay, as a Scottish doctor, wrote what he knew. Dr Andrew Mason’s character, the narrator of The Citadel, for example, was portrayed as having working-class origins in the hungry nineteen-thirties. He is about to be struck off by the General Medical Council. But instead of apologising, he rises up and castigates them.
‘commercialism? the usual guinea-chasing treatments, the unnecessary operations, the crowds of worthless pseudo-scientific propriety preparations we use…The whole profession is far too intolerant and smug…For years we’ve been bleating about the sweated conditions under which our nurses work, the wretched pittances we pay them.
Louis Pasteur, the greatest figure of all scientific medicine, was not a doctor.
The deferential era in which the characters Dr Andrew Mason, or Dr Findlay, or indeed the author A.J.Cronin steps forward, was one when if a medical doctor told his patient to smear his or her face with shit you’d be sure to make a good job of it has passed is also a myth. Our gods are just different gods. Who is yours?
Who can we trust, when ‘I’ the online warrior knows best? (ironic since I’m writing this online).
I’m no different. I’m not the exception to the rule. Keyboard warriors believe there’s a conspiracy to keep them quiet. Like Dr Andrew Mason they’ll have their day, and their say. They’re called trolls for a reason. They won’t be struck off. They won’t be silenced. They’re the rightist of the right.
Carl Sagan’s invisible imaginary dragon is always a step too far. Fake authority is easily bought. George Clooney goes at it with brio as a tobacco lobbyist in Up in the Air/Thank You for Smoking.
‘You can’t prove anything/ You can prove everything, given enough data’. Thought provoking killer cliché.
In Martin Ford’s apocalyptic vision in The Rise of the Robot, Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, what we’re left with is our planet (and the planets closest to earth) cannibalised as the cuckoo in our nest, the next generation of robots work to eliminate uncertainty.
We don’t know if the current Covid-19 vaccine will limit the spread of disease. What we have is best guess. Those inoculated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, according to studies have lower viral loads than those given a placebo. This suggests they are less likely to spread the Covid-19 virus.
We wear face masks not to protect ourselves, but others, getting inoculated helps to prevent the spread of disease. In the same way, I wouldn’t cross the road while holding a three-year-old girl’s hand (Tilly) while standing at the traffic lights until I hear the beeps, because it also sets her a good example. I might get hit by a truck but I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m following a code that can protect both of us. That doesn’t mean I won’t also be looking right or left and stop listening for traffic.
Philip Knightley (1997) provides a case study of all the familiar ingredients of how pharmaceutical companies evade responsibility. The Thalidomide Scandal, Where We Went Wrong. Blaming the victims. Court injunctions slowing down disclosure, while accepting no responsibility and extraneous factors as causative. Creating a Kafkaesque bureaucratic maze to rival that of Grenfell victims—before and after. Class played a large part. The richer and more vocal middle-class victims were more likely to obtain compensation. Negligence and ruthlessness of establishment forces to finalise a settlement. In many ways it mirrors the hostile environment our Home Office and Priti Patel helped create for immigrants seeking British citizenship.
Politics is about power. It doesn’t surprise me that Boris Johnstone’s cronies are handed tens of millions of taxpayers money for providing (fill in your own example here, such as Personal Protective Equipment) while not giving any of us a real choice. Drug companies cash in on their monopolies to hike up prices. That doesn’t surprise me either. That doesn’t mean the product they’re selling doesn’t work. American steel monopolies created quality steel. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is new technology. Cutting edge.
Robert A. Caro says in his introduction to Working: ‘Political power shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways you might not even think about.’
The I’d-rather-smear-my-face-with-shit group, don’t want you to think. Don’t want you to read. They have their own agenda and want simple answers to complex questions. If an airplane made of millions of complex parts becomes grounded for mechanical reasons that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fly. Our bodies are made of billions of cells. Pharmaceutical companies and epidemiologists are the ground crew telling us they can fix it and it’s safe to fly. Sure we’ve had setbacks and crashes. But it’s not all about you, you, you, or I, I, I. We need to look at the larger community. What’s the point of clapping NHS workers while ignoring their advice? When you, your daughter or son gets sick and can’t breathe, don’t phone an ambulance. Tell them it’s just a giant hoax. The one and half million dead are faking it in the same ways six million Jews didn’t perish in death camps. The true figure is only known by us right-wingers. A vaccine is for losers. You know best. Hey, I’m going to fly. I want to get as far away from those right-wing loonies as I can.
Shakespeare’s Caesar: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…
I briefly thought about Keemo when lockdown began. Needing, in effect, new lungs, he was the highest-risk category. Then I forgot about him. Life gets in the way. Now I’ve found out he’s dead. I’ll remember him for his kindness.
After Robert’s death he brought Mary flowers. He attended the funeral with his wife and we had a laugh talking about the old times in Trafalgar Street. I asked how he was getting on. Alright, is the usual reply. But he’d tubes in his nose, and told me about waiting for a transplant.
Keemo was waiting for someone else to die so he could get their lungs. Somebody younger. That’s the reality of a tissue match. As an old soldier, he knew the odds were dwindling.
Then we’d Covid-19. Triage takes place in the NHS. All those waiting for treatment of one kind or another are put on hold and in a very long queue. His odds were shortening even more.
Your lungs don’t just make sure you breathe it also works the blood. Try running a car without oil. Red blood cells don’t behave in the ways they should. Pain, pain and more pain. Old soldiers never complain.
He’d a wife and three kids to worry about. The psychological effect of holding out the chance of treatment and then taking it away is comparable with first-world war troops in trenches. They were told they were going over the top—then told to stand down. Old soldiers grow bone weary, the hope in their eyes gradually extinguished.
We’ve had the best weather since that summer of 1974 when Keemo was born, but it was a winter of discontent, and a miners’ strike that toppled the government. We’d already tried the three-day week. Everybody backed Red Rum in the Grand National and even the Scottish Grand National. Bookies complained they’d go bust. Celtic made it nine-in-a-row. Scotland beat England at rugby. The Waltons and Porridge were on the telly. The New Seekers, ‘who’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,’ split up. A good year to be born for a future army boy.
The 1980s was a time of mass unemployment (the current depression and mass unemployment will be much worse) but the army, as always, were recruiting. He ticked all the boxes. Ginger. Red-faced. Loved the Rangers. Sign on the dotted line for a twenty-year stint with the First and Third Battalion, Argyle and Southern Highlanders.
I met Keemo in the Drop Inn, obviously. He got hooked in to playing a few games for our pub team. He was one of the lads.
After Barry Brennan’s funeral, as we waited outside to clap the wrong hearse, Lainey mentioned that it was also Terry Ross’s anniversary. Twenty-odd years since his death. It got me thinking I could maybe write something, a book of those that I knew that had died. A memorial to remember people like us, with 50% profits to the Golden Friendship and Jim McLaren. I joked about including Wullie Dalziel, but never gave Keemo a thought.
Obviously, it was easy to start with Robert Russell. Then Terry Ross and Pieman and Benny Hagen from school. All died young. Then my own brother, Stephen. Stevie Mitchell (and his daughter, Stacey). Hamish, Ikey, Matt Collins, Tam Mc Swiggan, Jim Largactil. Old Archie Smith (Charisma) with a voice like a grand piano, bickering with his brother John, while sitting on a plastic bag to stop him getting his good suit wet and peeing on the covered seats in the lounge bar. Callum Ballantyne and Harry his da, the man with the shell suit and sponge. Rab Pickering, the only man ever to be evicted from Drumchapel by Glasgow housing. And Rab junior, leukaemia, and serial shagger of the bar staff. Joe Reddick, who whistled down women, like a dog catcher. Ian Betty, Sweaty Betty with the one eye. Maggie Fyfe, who once wandered into my house and wandered back out again, after I pointed her in the direction of the door, but she couldn’t find the canal bridge and returned confused. I’d like to tell you there was a happy ending here, but she too died, waving not drowning. Lainey’s mum was called Bagwash for some reason. Keemo would know why. Barra McGaghey, Jim Carlisle and Maurice (whose second name I forget, but who lived beside Alan) who threatened to kill himself – and did. Billy Wilson, captain of the pool team, but only because I let him. Benny McCann, ‘hallo son’, he’d say because he’d forgotten your name. Gordon Abrahams who’d tell you a joke and forget the punchline, but he’d laugh so much it was funny. Davy, Tibb’s dad. The old guy with the ambulance he’d done up to tour Scotland, ‘the wagon’ he called it, but never had a license. Typical punter. Sandy McQuillan, Benny’s pal, who’d talk out of the side of his mouth as if everything was a secret- which it was. George Norwood and the nine o’clock gang who shuffled off to the Park Bar, and then beyond that. Davy McCallum, the boy that went missing, never to be found. Keemo knew them all, and knew him better than anyone, just as he knew Robert.
Keemo’s not missing, but is missed. His family torn apart. He fought the good fight. The one we all lose. Too early. Too soon. An army boy does not reason why. It was his turn to go over the top. The rest of us make our own mind up and think we’ve got a choice. Forever young. He was a kind soul. We are diminished. RIP.
I read this years ago. Probably, the beginning of the 1970s. Mrs Bell our next door neighbour was on her throne. She kept a firm grip on her son, Pete(r). TV Times, Reader’s Digest, Sunday Post and borrowed our Sunday Mail. All was right in her world. She admitted she skipped the boring bits in books. Descriptive stuff. A.J.Cronin was one of her favourites. No boring stuff and everything was black and white. There were good guy and bad guys. Just when the bad guys looked like winning—you know what happened next, Mrs Bell lit another cigarette.
Let’s talk about the hero, Dr Manson.
Late one October afternoon in the year 1924, a shabby young man gazed with fixed intensity through the window of a third class compartment in the almost empty train labouring up the Penowell Valley from Swansea. All that day Manson had travelled from the North, changing at Carlisle and Shrewsbury, yet the final stage of his tedious journey to South Wales found him strung to a still greater excitement by the prospect of his post, the first of his medical career, in this strange, disfigured, county.
I was also in a disfigured country and stood in for another of A.J.Cronin’s heroes, Dr Findlay—not of Facebook—but Casebook fame. One of the wardrobe staff, a gay man, was quite taken with me. Unshaven and hungover I was put into a tweed coat and got to play the back of Dr Findlay’s head. I wasn’t that interested in the fame, but £75 for less than two hours work as an extra appealed enormously.
But here we begin with Dr Manson, in his coming-of-age and romantic drama. The reader knows he’s poor, because he’s travelling third class. Perhaps rather than saying he was shabby, Cronin should have described his off-the-peg suit, only people with money could afford bespoke suits. His journey is described as tedious, yet Dr Manson is described as brimming with excitement. Mrs Bell would have approved, description is done by numbers.
Characters have flaws, it’s in their surnames. Mr Boon is obviously a bad guy. Listen to the names. Doctor Thoroughgood, well, we know what to think of him. Nurse Sharp, whom Dr Manson, hires in a later incarnation. You know what she’ll be like and it won’t be pretty.
Mr Stillman, sounds like a good guy, still-man. Hope, with his lab work, is a great friend. What about Robert Abbey? I’ll let you decide, but let’s just say the prestigious doctor has very understanding eyes. At one point the distinguished gentleman flipped back to his own humble background, all the better to understand Dr Manson. Granny, what big eyes you’ve got.
Con? Well, usually, that would be a negative. But he’s Mr Funny man, a dentist who lives in a ramshackle house and fixes cars. Poor, but happy. So joyful his daughter, Mary’s lung disease is just another way of giving Dr Manson a chance at redemption. Mary might be the mother of God, but here there’s a shadow on her lung.
There was a shadow on Mrs Bell’s lungs. All that smoking. Dr Manson also smokes. Everybody did in those days, well apart from Christine. Dr Manson marries her. She’s a school teacher and Manson behaves abominably badly. He admits it, and they laugh and make up.
Later, whisper it, he had an affair. He returned to Christine like a dog with his tale between his legs. Yep. Lots of clichés. No sex. It was left to the reader to work out whether Dr Manson went beyond the kissing stage. I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but Christine should have paid less attention to being poor, but happy, keeping her house sparkling clean—dirt being the enemy of a good, virtuous woman—and more attention to buses.
Dr Manson in Aberlaw, with all the modern facilities, knew how to deal with patients who ‘swung the lead’.
‘Certificate,’ he said, without minding his manners.
‘What for?’ Andrew asked.
The tone alone caused Andrew to look at Chenkins with quick resentment.
Beer on his breath. Piggy eyes. Ben Chenkin Not to be trusted. Not like his alcoholic friend Denny. He’s a surgeon. Down on his luck. Who wouldn’t be after his wife—whom he was madly in love with—left him for another man. Of course Denny drunk. Any man would in those circumstances. Crawling blind underground and breathing in dust that ages a man to provide the fuel that drove the industrial revolution—salt of the earth type need only apply and be prepared to die, shouldn’t swing any lead.
Christine counts the pennies. They’re poor but happy. Then rich and unhappy. Medicine is set up to favour the rich and connected. As it is now, but it is more of a meritocracy. Manson’s constant claim that he’d be reduced to nought and poverty, is matched by, for example, Adam Kay, of This Is Going to Hurt fame. Both claimed there’s no money in it, medicine. They did it for love. Yet the monthly salary of a doctor would be the six monthly salary of a 1920s miner and a yearly salary of the poorest worker.
Miners used penny whistles to shame black legs and Ben Chenkin, when Manson decides to leave Aberlaw for London. Whenever there’s a point of principle in the room, Manson is sure to trip over it. He never just leaves, he always leaves with his head high—over a point of principle.
When, for example, Manson leaves London to set up a mini-NHS based on democratic principles with his good friend and ally Denny, of the non-piggy eyes and his other good friend Hope, well, you know a point of principle is going to turn up.
I do it myself when writing, I always fling the main character (or his wife) under the bus. But there’s a hole in his storyline which makes it unbelievable. Miners might be portrayed as the salt of the earth types (apart from piggy-eyes, signing on while he didn’t work, Ben Chankins) but a rudimentary approach to any kind of history would pinpoint the 1926 General Strike epicentre was in the coal fields. Welsh coal fields. History of any kind seemed to have bypassed Dr Manson, perhaps he was studying too hard, trying to get on. The 1929 Stock Market Crash? The Hungry Thirties? The Great Depression. Mass unemployment. Lockouts at the pits. Nowt taken out. Or put in. A bit like the affair, of the non-affair.
Dr Manson nobly battles against the Citadel of the Medical profession, charlatans, bureaucracy and vested interests. Manson prefigures the need for a National Health Service. Mrs Bell would have approved. Why bother with all the boring details when you can have a good story?
20 Jan 2020 – USA has first confirmed imported case – From China.
20 Jan 2020 – COVID-19 included in Statutory Report of Class B Infectious Diseases and Border Health Quarantine Infectious Diseases in China – Measures to Curtail: Temperature Checks, Health Care Declarations, Quarantines – Instituted at Transportation Depots – Laws of China – Wildlife Markets Closed – Captive-Breeding Facilities Cordoned Off.
22/23 Jan 2020 – WHO decides not to yet declare the outbreak a PHEIC.
23 Jan 2020 – China observes Strict Travel Restrictions.
24 Jan 2020 – First Report of case in Europe – France.
30 Jan 2020 – WHO declares 2019 nCov (former name of COVID-19) outbreak a PHEIC – under International Health Regulations (2005).
11 Feb 2020 – The Virus and the Disease it causes officially named – The Novel Coronavirus named ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’; The Disease it Causes named ‘COVID-19’.
27 Feb 2020 – WHO updates case definitions for COVID-19 for Suspected, Probable, Confirmed – Worldwide Surveillance Continues.
28 Feb 2020 – Nigeria reports first case of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
11 March 2020 – WHO upgrades the COVID-19 outbreak to a Pandemic.
A mother in a Lorrie Moore short story People Like That Are the Only People Here, jokes, ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich’. We know what happens next.
Writers are readers. If they’re no readers they’re not writers. Here’s the story: We’re all in it together. In Burlington Care Home in Glasgow, thirteen elderly residents died in a week. Two of the staff test positive for Covid-19. All over the world Covid-19 has been behaving in the classic hockey-stick manner of epidemics plotted on a graph. We sit on the side-lines and clap our team, the NHS, care staff, all those on the front line. There’s good reason for this. Wearing gloves and a face mask doesn’t mean you won’t get sick – viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks, but it does make it five times more unlikely.
With no football on, we’ve all become expert analysists, pitting our team against other countries. We know from the SARs 2003-4 in South Korea, most of the cases were in health workers. The pattern is repeated with Covid-19. Those who spend more time treating victims are more likely to become victims, especially if they don’t have proper protective equipment.
Other armchair experts claim it’s no big deal, no worse than seasonal flu. Herd immunity sounded feasible. This was the positon the moron’s moron President Trump took. Now he’s saying 200 000 American deaths would be a good score. The side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson took the same position as his senior partner in the Oval Office. Johnson is now settling for 20 000 British deaths after the first wave of the Covid-19 has passed.
Do the math. If borne out by further testing, this could mean that current estimates of a roughly 1% fatality rate are accurate. This would make Covid-19 about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide. The population of America is around 250 million so if Covid-19 hockeystick trajectory continued as epidemiologist modelled with over 80% of the population becoming infected over 2 million Americans would die. In Britain that would be around 600 000 deaths.
As we’ve seen, even with these lower numbers our health services are working beyond full capacity with apparently mild cases overlooked and hockey-stick numbers growing exponentially. This is important because as Chinese scientist have confirmed these cases DO contribute to transmission and need to be socially isolated. Health Care workers such as those in Burlington Care Home did go into work. Tens of thousands of Care workers face that same dilemma.
Employers, until now, have created even more ways of punishing and sacking low-paid workers and depriving them of their rights. Care staff as disposable as bed-pans. Classed as self-employed. No holiday pay. No pension. Zero-hour contracts. Minimum wage is the maximum wage and ways such as not paying for travelling costs being used to deprive them of even that. Classified as agency staff and their minimum wage reduced by a third by paying their employers for employing them. Take it or leave it.
The future looks like the past. Imagine the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla residents of Burlington Care Home. We’re all in it together. Under new NHS guidelines in England (this is Scotland you might argue) rationing or triage needs to take place. The Queen because of her age would not qualify for Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or qualify for a ventilator. Charles might get into ICU but because of a shortage of ventilators doesn’t receive incubation. Camilla qualifies for both. Are we really all in it together?
Let’s look at the league tables and cheer. Singapore is top of the table. China has flat- lined, it no longer has hockey-stick growth in numbers. Italy is doing most testing, but has the highest fatality rate. Spain is catching up with Italy in terms of casualties and testing. Germanic efficiency, doing everything by the book. It has been doing widespread testing of suspects with symptoms and contact tracing in the WHO-recommended fashion from the beginning of the epidemic. We’re at different stages of the epidemic. The UK death toll is currently higher than Italy’s at the same stage, reinforced by another showing that by this stage of the outbreak. Italy had begun to flatten its curve while in Britain the line keeps rising, the number of deaths doubling every three days. We’re not even looking at Third World Countries. Trump boasts he’s testing more than Britain, more than China. Those without healthcare or the capacity to treat victims know what to expect. We’ve all seen it before. More of the same.
When it ends, when it really ends, we’ll be back at the beginning, waiting for the second wave of the Covid-19. The golden bullet of vaccines, optimistically, look about a year away. Only about five major drug companies have the resources to manufacture the golden bullet if it was found today. Scaling takes time. First world countries would be first. Even the moron’s moron in the US has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export, America must come first. Trump tried to buy a German company bio-tech company. Third world countries third, because you can’t go any lower. But here you create a reservoir population, ready to infect the rest of the world. Using an economic axiom, ceteris paribus: Changing the number of people tested, or who is being offered tests, will also affect the number of reported cases.
Moving forward to when, or if, we flatten the hockey-shaped curve, people need to return to work in stages. In Britain one effect of government rhetoric is the NHS is safe, even under the Tories that have been selling it off piecemeal, and depriving it of funds. Any hint of depriving the NHS of much-needed resources would be political suicide, but this is short-term.
Cast your mind back to 2010 to the unfunny Laurel and Hardy of Cameron/Osborne government, before their slapstick act of economic stupidity and self-mutilation called Brexit. Note the four doctors to have died so far are BAME doctors. Britain had to pay higher than other EEC countries for ventilators, for example, because they’re no longer part of the EEC and the pound is plummeting. Fifty percent of our food comes from imports. Crops will rot in the fields without immigrant workers. We import more than we export. Quite literally, we can’t go it alone. Our government knows this. But the then outgoing Labour Chief Secretary of the Treasury Liam Byrne left a jokey written message to his incoming colleague, the Liberal Democrat (remember them) David Laws: ‘there’s no money left’.
We all know what happened next. A detailed assessment showed that public spending was to increase in five Whitehall departments and to be cut in seventeen, beginning with welfare. What we used to call social security was gone. As over 1 000 000 people newly registered for Universal Credit have found out. Living on less than £100 per week is the new norm. While the British economy was flatlining in 2010, in the way we hope the Covid-19 will in 2020 the Tory government pursued a policy of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Tax cut. Tax cut. Tax cut. Privatise and cherry pick our NHS, stealth by the back door such as Virgin Health running mental health services. Yes, the same Richard Branson asking for a bailout for his airline. Private profit and dividend and tax cuts, whilst domiciled elsewhere. How does that add up with we’re all in it together? Those were also the words used by George Osborne and leave a familiar taste in the mouth.
Austerity was imposed on the poor in 2010, but not on the rich. They bounced back very quickly to 2007-2008 levels of capital wealth and an increased share of the GDP. The gap between rich and poor matched that of the Great Depression. Wages never recovered. Those in work and claiming benefits grew and grew. The working poor, those that work in, for example, care homes as carers were mocked as the scum of the earth. Junior doctors were labelled greedy. Nurses were chastised for demanding a pay rise. Loans instead of grants were the new norms for nurses training and numbers dropped.
Austerity in the twenty-first century. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, but one is now, the other deferred. In the same way, the $2tn US coronavirus relief package is doling out $60bn to struggling airlines and offering low-interest loans that are available to fossil fuel. Britain has in the words of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak effectively nationalised the economy. 10% of Britain’s GDP of debt and growing, £435 billion in Quantitive Easing (printing money) £200 billion up front to keep the economy temporarily afloat.
Writing in the Guardian, the economist David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee during the 2008 financial crisis, said unemployment was rising at the fastest rate in living memory. UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21% of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32% of the workforce.
“There has never been such a concentrated business collapse. The government has tried to respond but it has no idea of the scale of the problem it is going to have to deal with. We make some back-of-the-envelope calculations and they are scary,” he said.
Unemployment looked to be at least 10 times faster than in the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
The Great Depression of the hungry thirties was ended not by fiscal stimulus, although that helped, but by the second world war. During the Depression years rich monopolists chaffed at government intervention in the economy and called for a return to lassez-faire economics. Sounds familiar. Listen to Thatcher’s ‘let poppies grow tall speech’. Reaganomics was just Thatcherism wrapped in a different flag. We’ve seen the same effect under Osborne/ Cameron. At some point in the aftermath of the pandemic hard choices will need to be made. Simple choices if you’re a Tory, you take money from the poor and give it to the rich. After all under Thatcher dogma, ostensibly, they are the creators of wealth. The keepers of our economic good health, but just don’t ask them to share. Trillions can be wiped from stock market shares, ten, twenty, fifty, seventy percent, yet a tax increase of 1% is met as if Armageddon has occurred. Then it did begin to unfold.
Ironically, the moron’s moron may well win an election not for anything he did or said, but because he’s a leader on TV screens and his popularity remains high especially among white, male, Republican supporters. Those most likely to die from the Covid-19 virus. Here Johnson is in social isolation. He has the virus. He is a viral infection. But he’s never been more popular. As an old Etonian when it comes to making hard choices of who gets what and why, well, that is easy, Thatcherism. Survival of the fittest. Tall poppies, like Branson. Survival of the richest. Poor people are there to be applauded, every Thursday, but not helped. There to be used and discarded. The backlash is coming and it’s coming soon. Expect no mercy from Tory scum. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so. If you think we’re all in it together you’ve been living on the moon and probably would vote Trump if you lived in America. People Like That Are the Only People Here. A choice between being rich, or being healthy, few of us get to choose. I choose life, but not stupidity.
Piety, as we all know, is a quality of being reverent. We usually associate it with religion. Etymologically, it comes from Latin and is related to dutifulness. It’s not often I’ve seen ideology in action. People coming to their front doors and clapping their hands and supporting the NHS. Our NHS and the support workers. Care workers and what we used to call auxiliaries. Only to find we’re all auxiliaries. A writer’s job (even a would-be writer) is when we look along the line of common humanity and listen to the cheering and the clapping to take a step back and shut our ears and look for the cross beams and the creaking of the gallows.
I’m not alone in remembering the vacant eyes and the Oxbridge braying of the Conservative elite when their backbenchers cheer when it’s announced that nurses that will not receive a pay rise. Or an invocation of the Thatcherite spirit, when the Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt branded junior doctors greedy because new contracts were even worse than the non-contracts they had — in which they agreed to work a squillion hours unpaid. Why now the halo of heroism for largest sector of the economy, largely female carers, where the minimum wage is the maximum wage and there’s no time for caring?
Humiliation after humiliation should be branded on our forehead like the tattooed numbers of the women in Auschwitz—work makes you free—those of us that dare to be poor and keep having the wrong kind of children – poor children.
We’ve retreated from politics, squabbled among ourselves and let our so called betters like Boris Johnson get on with it. After all Boris is one of us. He battered his girlfriend, the police were called, but he denied it. Got her pregnant and went on holiday when he should have been at work. Now he’s got the Covid-19 virus and is still working away in his bunker that will allow him to come away with more Winston Churchill quotes about us ‘all being in it together’.
When we’re clapping, we’re not clapping him, or his ilk. We’re clapping ourselves on the back. We’ve came through 30 years of Tory dogma and 10 years of bleeding austerity. It’s not just Covid-19 that makes us sick, but Tory promises fill us with a rich sense of foreboding. Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. Boris recognised the business-as-usual model would lead to tens of thousands of—mainly old folk (with a higher proportion of men, for some unknown reason, unless god really is a woman)—and he rejected that model. The moron’s moron is quite willing to take that risk, but had to be pulled back from the brink of stupidity, which for him is as high as a three-year-old boy’s knees.
The business as usual model is based on taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. A increasingly widening gap between those that start their day in debt and those that finish the day in more debt and those that hold all the debts and all the cards and tell you to clap. That’s successful ideology for you, the sullen recognition you’ve been used. You’ve been dehumanised, treated as something that needs reined in. And you’ve embraced that choke collar as a necessary evil.
Keep clapping, but when the clapping stops, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll know who the enemy within will be. It’ll be you that’s being unreasonable. You that isn’t listening. You that need to be locked up. Keep clapping. But watch yourself. Look for the cross beam and listen for the creak of the gallows.
This Boy is a prequel to Alan Johnson’s Please Mr Postman, set before he started his working life spent, mostly, in the Post Office and via his union involvement access to the Labour Party, becoming an MP and becoming Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government. Our current Prime Minster Teresa May, was, of course, a former Home Secretary. Her father was a vicar. Alan Johnson’s father was an arsehole. In the prologue we’re shown a black and white picture of the happy married couple, January 1945. Stephen Arthur Johnson and Lillian May Gibson.
His smile is slight, betraying a determination not to show his teeth. The beautifully knotted beret – angled slightly too high on one side – covering his red hair. She seems happy. A pretty, petite Liverpudlian with a Doris Day nose (what she called her ‘titty nose’, which she insisted I had inherited); smart in her cockade hat, placed at the same rakish angle as his beret…He was small, she was smaller – not much more than five feet.
Part 1, Steve and Lily recalls how his sister Linda and he were born in different epochs. Linda was born before the creation of the NHS in 1947 and he was born after it in 1950 into a boom economy. His mother was advised to have no more children. Living in slum housing that had been condemned in the 1930s they had the luxury of two rooms. One for eating in and one for sleeping in, gas mantle for lighting a communal toilet in a yard with Paddington Station as a backdrop to early life in Kensal Town, Notting Hill. In the 1960s they moved up in the world, three rooms and a communal cooker on the landing for tenants where Lily burned things. Lily spent her short life hoping for the luxury of a council house. Food, or lack of it, played a big role in Alan’s early life. Free school milk and filling up on free school dinners were a big part of his upbringing.
Cash was always tight. Steve worked intermittently as a painter and decorator, but had a gift for music and could play any tune he heard on the piano. Pubs were his natural environment and the wages he made was spent on his entertainment. Lily, to get by, worked for pin-money in the fancy houses in Ladbroke Grove and South Kensington, worked in shops and cafes and it was Linda, his elder sister’s job to take care of her brother, while their mother worked. Pin money was their only source of income and Steve, when drunk, which was much of the time, was violent. The harder she worked the worse her health got. Lily had a heart condition which killed her, but a consultant might advise her to take it easy and rest but Lily often had to pray to God for a shilling to put in the meter and asked local, family-run, shops to give her tick. Even when they said no, she’d go back, and try and wear their resistance down. She had to work in the same way that the kids had to eat.
Steve had his playtime with one of his mate’s wife. He was a lady’s man as they said in those days. Steve left Lily for Elsie and Alan never found out until years later he had a half-brother, David. The bad news for Linda and Alan was that the breakup of their mum and dad’s marriage was temporary. He came back to live with them, but that was temporary too. He disappeared on a day when they out, all his clothes, open razor, stubby shaving brush and belonging gone and moved in with another fancy piece. Impoverishment was not just monetary, but of Lily’s hopes. She believed in marriage being for life and Steve leaving aged her.
From an early age Linda taught her younger brother how to duck down and hide away from the windows when the tallyman came knocking at the door looking for money. Lily, like most others, did the pools, religiously, every week. In 1957 her luck was in. She won around £90, the equivalent of around three-month’s wages for a manual worker. No more ducking down needed and downpayments on a three-piece suite, a sideboard, a kitchen table, a Spanish guitar for Alan and a Dansette record player for Linda. Lily was in her early thirties, but luxury never lasts. She was, in effect, a single parent.
Alan measures his life against some of his school friends. Tony Cox’s father, for example, had also been in the war, and he wished he was his dad too. He was steady, decent, hardworking and provided the kind of life Alan could only dream of, ‘they had an entire room that you had neither to eat or sleep in’ and it was ‘gloriously warm’. Tony Cox also had the great merit of being the best fighter and best sportsman in their neck of the woods, which offered Alan a kind of protection.
Reading was Alan’s thing and by some fluke that was enough to get him a pass in the Eleven-Plus and place in Grammar School. Only around a quarter of kids were offered places, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. They had to find a Grammar School that would take Tony, waive the fees and Lily would have to pay for extras like school uniforms. Getting Alan into Grammar school was the be and end of all of her ambition and Alan admits he didn’t really do much when he was there. His great interest was music. This resurfaces in Mr Postman, when he gets to play the guitar in a band and dreams of stardom. Of course all their gear got nicked from the pub where they kept it. Echoes of his past, when the guy he delivered milk for presented him with nicked guitar from a selection in his basement.
The hole in his life, was, of course, his mother’s early death. She dithered whether to have the operation that would extend her life, but died before she could see her daughter married and her son grow into a man, courting his sister’s friend at 17 and married with a stepchild at 21. Life over. Yeh, that’s how is seems when we’re young. But there’s a lot of living still to do. Johnson has a follow up book, The Long and Winding Road. This is a Home Secretary who did know about poverty and the stigma of being a single mother. I’m sure it shames him as it shames me that so many children live in poverty and are reliant on Food Banks. We seem to be going backwards and not forward in time.
Roll up. Roll up. You too could become one of the super-rich. The kind of person that if they won a couple of million on the National Lottery would hand the winnings to their son or daughter and advise their child to buy lunch and keep the change, but don’t give any to some poor bastard, because they’ll probably spend it on drink and drugs.
SECRET #1. DON’T BE THE BEST. BE THE ONLY.
I’ve been reading the Sunday Mail’s sly propaganda campaign against Abellio who run the train network in Scotland. It has focused on things that many of us would be familiar with from the days of British Rail. Trains overcrowded and late. The use of rolling stock that is antiquated and dirty. A relatively recent innovation has been to criticise the pay the director running such service gets (I can’t be bothered googling who that is, and does it really matter?) British Rail was a monopoly. Scot Rail a branch of that monopoly had to put its operations out to tender. Are we any better off? The answer is no. And my concern isn’t solely with our poor, dilapidated, rail network. James Meek Private Island:Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else shows that in rail, we subsidize other nation’s taxpayers, in this case Holland. Energy companies, water companies, postal services and council housing there has been that old cliché winners and losers. The winners have been the rich and losers the poor, with a regressive tax system taking away the institutions we built and giving them to the rich. Then taxing us again, because they aren’t efficient enough. The big beast (or elephant) in the room is our NHS. Scotland and England have different systems but both use around a third of our taxation budget to fund the NHS. This is a beneficent monopoly system under siege. And as Nicholas Timmins a biographer of the welfare state observes, post-war America used to come over here looking for ideas on how to run a health service. We’ve flipped that now and look increasingly likely to sell out in the interest or dogma of efficiency savings, that mantra of the rich that penalises the poor and blames them for being poor.
For every Rockefeller rolling up and eating up competition as with Standard Oil in a series of horizontal and vertical acquisitions and mergers there’s a Carlos Slim, who won the right to operate a monopoly in fixed-line telephone services. That might not sound that great. Certainly nowhere near the value of our NHS, but a 2012 OECD report suggested he was the richest man in the world. How did this happen? Simple. Meek touched on it. We can do it or we can let someone else do it for us. Think of the stupidity of not building schools, letting someone else do it, paying them economic rent over an extended period, then complaining later because the walls to schools fall down. Like cheap and nasty food we always pay more in the long run. Someone eats for free.
SECRET #2. BIGGER IS STILL BETTER. The argument goes that diseconomies of scale set in when a business, such as healthcare gets too big. Or the US military, the biggest user of oil in the world. Nobody much argues with the US military. Or Amazon. Or Walmart. Or Microsoft. This reminded me of Philip Green, that former -or is he still- darling of the Conservative Party. Green whom they asked for advice, gave him a knighthood. Green notorious diddler of pensioners, whom like everyone else, he ripped off to fund his extravagant life style in a tax haven. Try this trick at home. One of his regular suppliers was told she was getting x price, then when she fulfilled her quota was taken aside and told she’d need to take y price. Why? Because Green, like Walmart, Amazon or the US military has the big stick, or leverage. A valid argument here is that the NHS, for example, doesn’t use its leverage to ensure profits for drug companies are not excessive. But for the super wealthy, there’s no such thing as excessive.
SECRET #3. THE WORST PLACE TO DO BUSINESS IS REALLY THE BEST. Perhaps not North Korea. But perhaps soon it may be. Bill Browder Red Notice showed that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the USSR economy contracted by 50% and the average return on capital was 5% his company, Hermitage Capital, generated returns of 1500%. What’s not to like? Hans Chung’s mantra that economics is politics applies here. The workshop of the world is China, but he reminds us that like his country, South Korea, these used to be considered economic basket cases. The African continent would be a good bet, but with the moron’s moron as President of the richest country in the world and the likelihood of nuclear war ratcheted up, if fallout doesn’t get us, global warming will. Place your bets.
SECRET #4. WHEN LENDERS CAN’T LOSE. YOU WIN.
That old favourite if we give you money we must have a reasonable expectation that we will get it back ( a return on our investment). Unless of course, you’re a too-big-to-fail bank. Let me put that into perspective. Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) losses since 2008, £50 billion. RBS loss this financial year, around £7 billion. Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond’s budget giveaway to Scotland under the Barnett formula, £350 million, a figure disputed by the Scottish National Party. That’s one bank. Rich people don’t get punished for not paying their way.
SECRET #5. YOU’VE GOT TO OWN IT, BABY, OWN IT.
If you live in a council house you are scum. If you rent your house from someone else you’re a sucker, throwing away good money after bad. If you own your own house, outright, you’ve got a revenue stream and money to burn, or borrow. But, of course, to be truly rich you don’t just own property. For example, only around 130 of the 1600 fortunes listed in Forbes Global Rich List are in real estate. You own a portfolio of wealth because you own the people on the land and they create wealth for you. In the post-Soviet collapse billionaires mushroomed overnight.
SECRET #6. SPIN LAWS INTO GOLD.
Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich. It’s a county that keeps giving. The United States advisers, such as Steve Bannon’s aim is, like Lenin’s, to destroy the state. A simple formula: give money to the rich in tax breaks and it will trickle down. It doesn’t. Get rid of red tape. That sounds great. What it means is displacing costs onto the poor for things like health care and to everyone else for necessities such as clean air and water. Simple solutions to complex problems always work for the rich. To borrow a phrase it’s ‘dictatorship by tedium’. Nobody pays much attention to Phil Hammond’s budget speech. We’ve heard it all before. Yawn, more tax on whisky. I don’t drink whisky. Less welfare spending. Serves them right.
SECRET #7. IF YOU WANT TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS, NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK.
Sam Wilkes uses the example of Cornelus Vanderbilt in the 1860s taking over the New York & Harlem Railroad. The incestuous banking network J.P. Morgan created described in a report to U.S Supreme Court sounds very Putinish or indeed Trumpish, or both together:
J.P. Morgan (or a partner), a director of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, causes the company to sell to J.P.Morgan and Company an issue of bonds. J.P.Morgan and Company borrow the money to pay the bonds from the Guarantee Trust Company, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The New Haven spends the proceeds of the bonds in purchasing steel rails from the United States Steel Corporation, of which Mr Morgan (or a partner) is a director. United States Steel Corporation spends the proceeds of the rails in purchasing electrical supplies from the General Electric Company of which Mr Morgan (or partner) is a director…[and so on].
I’m not with the rats. I’m with the common working man. We find secrets in strange place and, funnily enough, I’m quoting here from a character in another Scottish writer, William McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’ novel, Strange Loyalties:
Any social contract is a two-way agreement. It’s one thing to make the people serve the economy. But the economy must also serve the people. If we disadvantage the present of one section of society, we disadvantage the future of all society. The children of the well-off will not just inherit the wealth of their parents. They will also inherit the poverty of the parents of others. Even self-interest, if it is wise, will concern itself with the welfare of all. Not just the poor will inherit the bad places. All of us will.
One in five children in Scotland are classified as living in poverty. My loyalty is with these people, not the pampered rich, super-rich or mega-rich. Whatever way you want to put it, they haven’t been paying their way. The problem is ours. Rat race. You better believe it.
Someone gave me this book, perhaps knowing I’m never happier than when unhappy and wallowing in the worst of humanity, and it makes a pleasant change from Nazi death camps. Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a place that is isolated and enclosed as Carstairs Hospital obviously is, but a wider reading also acknowledges the secrecy that such places engender. My first attempt at novel writing, Huts, written around eight years ago takes place in a similar total institution. Staff are not allowed to talk about their work to outside agencies. More than that maxim, a total institution goals, such as the cure and rehabilitation of the violent and insane, become subverted to protecting its employees: the total institution exists because it exists, and it must always exist, whatever the cost. In this case the cost to taxpayers works in around £14 billion per year, or £285 000 per patient in NHS fees, or the equivalent of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage, but the figures never seem to add up. Then again most public limited companies also follow this practice. It’s almost a state secret trying to find out, for example, how much Manchester United pay in tax (the answer is negative). It is no surprise that David Leslie’s attempt to get someone inside the institution of Carstairs to offer an official response to his book was met with a firm ‘no comment’, especially with a title that includes ‘Hospital of Horrors’, worthy of most News of the World type headlines and its journalists who gleefully admitted their mandate was to destroy people’s lives. But the residents of Carstairs really did destroy people’s lives
By far the best writing in the book, the equivalent of Jack Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast, who in a familiar pattern, went onto kill after being released, come from the mea culpa letters of Robert Mone. The irony that when Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch escaped from Carstairs in 1976, killing a fellow patient, a nurse and a policeman with weapons made inside the institution, and terrorising a family before being captured is not that they were insane, but that they had not planned beyond getting over the fence and they were later tried and sentenced in a criminal court and sent to prison. Their escape bid was successful as they did not return to Carstairs. Leslie asks the simple question what is Carstairs for? He cites numerous cases of patients moved to other institutions and from there into the community, who then go on to rape and kill. Thomas McCulloch now married and living outside Carstairs fits into that category.
But there are different kinds of murders. None worse than the cliché. David Leslie leaves no stone unturned with his identikit descriptions. I’ll string a few pearls together. ‘He was a nasty, cowardly, killer, made fools of staff and showed security to a joke at the establishment, which had been specifically created to be the most secure in the land.’ Leslie is referring to Noel Ruddie, who killed ‘popular dad of three James McConville…blasted at point blank range. It was only by sheer good luck…’
The case of Noel Ruddie particularly interests me because of a character Archie Denny I wrote about over eight years ago in my first attempt at a novel.
A Flymo appears on the slope, hovering like an orange spaceship, cutting blade set spacer by spacer high, but not as high as Archie Denny, white as a ghost, in dark winter wear, who dwarves the machine, making it look like a children’s toy. He’s extremely quick over the ground, moving his strong wrists in a sinuous and easy manner, with his head cocked, as if he is listening to the beat of the two-stroke engine and the promise of tender spring in the smell of freshly-cut grass. Archie seems to have a feel for the weight of a mechanical part and an eye for how things work. The Flymo glides, spraying green, bumping up on the tarmac path.
I jerk a hand up in greeting, much like I’d do to stop a double-decker bus. Side-shed swept across his forehead with enough greyish hair to hide behind his cloudy grey eyes, he can’t fail to see me, but doesn’t really make eye contact. I’m used to one or the other with most patients, but not both. The machine slides away from my feet. He is always in a hurry, always has fags because he works outside and has wee jobs fixing things. Archie is maybe a bit younger than Wullie the Pole, but not by much. It’s as if Archie’s shy or sly, he turns the machine and rattles the Flymo away from me without looking in my direction.
Archie Denny was employed as a gardener in fictional Glenboig hospital, as Noel Ruddie was in a Lennox Castle hospital before he killed again, but I thought my portrait of Archie Denny might have been overstated, the equivalent of a pink flamingo standing in a bucket of water, but I now know that’s not the case. I’m grateful to David Leslie for that insight, but there are some horrors in his book I can’t overlook.
In the movement between fact and fiction is a waste land and in lives lived backwards: ‘There [sic] claims of innocence fell on deaf ears’ (p237). ‘Elaine was flattered by his attention, flaunting her body before him’ (234). ‘Marriage is a relationship in which trust is all important’ (233). ‘Had the devils been banned from his head?’ (233). ‘She was left heart broken and distraught’ (229). ‘By a strange quirk of fate, at almost the same moment’ (219). ‘The same doctors who fought to save her, now battled to preserve the life of a killer’ (216). ‘He would fight his greatest battle to regain his sanity surrounded by strangers’ (216). ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah, never knew what hit her’ (216). ‘Blessed unconsciousness took her from the nightmare of pain, terror and bewilderment’ (216). ‘There were no clouds on the horizon’ (214)’.
I’ll take two consecutive sentences and rewrite it to show how bewildered I became ‘by no clouds on the horizon’, patients living in the lap of luxury, and no killer cliché left unturned. ‘Night after night, he lay awake, unable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’
Night after night, he lay awake,uUnable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’
Leslie has problems other than grammar and semantics such as ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah,’ a jumble of mismatched words and chapter titles that start out with one topic and end on a different island. He refers to a Clydebank hotel and later a Clydebank motel, the Clydebank Hotel, the Erskine hotel, which is a bit confusing as Clydebank has three hotels and none of them are, or were called, the Clydebank Hotel. Someone goes to Lourdes for the ‘air’ and not the waters which are said to hold miraculous healing properties. My favourite was a Carstair’s patient, Wilkinson, who raped and killed a little girl, but ‘good was possible even in those capable of great evil’ (71). Wilkinson’s greater good was to offer his kidney for a transplant to a stranger. But Wilkinson suffered from ‘epilepsy associated with a personality disorder’. If a person has epilepsy it does not follow they have a personality disorder, although some might have, in the same way that some individuals who suffer from epilepsy might like cheese cake. Having epilepsy, a medical condition associated with the electrical activity on neurons in the brain, has little of nothing to do with the behavioural patterns of a perceived reaction to social stimuli, nor do either have much or anything to do with the kidneys (see cheesecake example). Like Leslie I’m over embellishing the egg. Carstairs Hospital for Horrors. The horrors of the prose stand out, although Robert Mone is a stand-alone hit and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.
‘When I speak of Tories,’ Bevan said, addressing the Durham Miner’s Gala in July 1948, ‘I mean the small body of people who, whenever they have the chance, have manipulated the political influence of the country for the benefit of the privileged few. I am [son of a Welsh miner] prepared to forgive and forget the wrongs done to me. I am not prepared to forgive and forget the wrongs done to my people.’
Labour’s response was the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.