Alan Johnson (2015) This Boy, A Memoir of Childhood.

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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.

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Sam Wilkin (2015) Wealth Secrets of the 1%. How the Super Rich Made Their Way to the Top.

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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].

Good luck making those billions. Just remember to love money more than your friends, because you won’t have any. Not really. You’ll have servants and shape-shifting alliances. I could quote Jimmy Reid’s rat-race polemic here, it still stands true. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/still-irresistible-a-working-class-heros-finest-speech-2051285.html

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.

David Leslie (2015) Carstairs Hospital for Horrors

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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.

‘Tory vermin’

‘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.

Miliband and his cronies response is…?

Scotland will be free of all vermin.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole