Monday, November 21, 2005

A man and his passion

A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocations, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.
Excerpt from “The Road,” by T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence is one of those larger-than-life characters that have always fascinated me. He became famous after the First World War because of the remarkable role he had played while serving as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire. When the war ended, an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, toured Britain and the Empire giving an outstandingly successful slide-show about Lawrence’s achievements. The romantic story of Lawrence's campaigns in Arabia and Allenby's in the Holy Land appealed strongly to a British public sated with horrific accounts of trench warfare on the Western Front. From this beginning grew the legend of 'Lawrence of Arabia'.
No country was more in need of a hero at that time. However, Lawrence shunned the limelight and joined the RAF, taking a number of assumed names to keep a low profile. His one passion were his motorcycles, all Brough Superiors, which befitting its mantle of ‘the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’ cost about as much as a small house at the time. The 1937 SS 100 model had a sticker price of £155.

Lawrence gave all his Brough Superiors the name of Boa--short for Boanerges, the sons of thunder. They were all numbered, from George I through George VII. George VIII was awaiting delivery, having already had the stainless steel petrol tank and other special parts from its predecessor fitted, when Lawrence was severely injured in a tragic motorcycle crash, on May 13th 1935, near Clouds Hill, Dorset. I presume one of the Georges was wrecked in the crash, which apparently happened when he lost control of the machine whilst trying to avoid two errand boys mounted on bicycles. He died five days later, never having regained consciousness.
For many people, T.E. Lawrence and the character portrayal of him by Peter O’Toole in the 1962 David Lean motion picture ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ are one and the same. I myself was rather late in seeing this film, I was only eight years old in 1962 and I seem to remember it had been given an ‘A’ rating by Lord Harlech and the British Board of Film Censors. This meant that one had to be 14 years old to see it and then only in the company of an adult of 18 years or more. I missed out and it would not be until many years later that I first saw it. This was in 1991, not long after we’d purchased our first VCR, on an NHK BS2 satellite broadcast. After the initial sequence portraying the fatal crash and a brief interlude at a memorial service to the great man at St Paul’s Cathedral the film must have one of the most spectacular sequences in cinematic history. Dawn breaking over the desert followed by a panoramic view with towering ziggurats, two stick-like travellers and shimmering heat haze is absolutely unforgettable, as is the haunting score composed by Maurice Jarre. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a bold, mad act of genius to make ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, or even think that it could be made. Omar Sharif, who played Sherif Ali in the film, said 27 years later: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that's four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert, what would you say?” Nevertheless, it is superb cinema, and it was no wonder that it took seven Academy Awards the following year. I now have the complete restored 228-minute Director’s Cut on VHS videotape (though I rarely have time for such a viewing marathon) and it will be one of my first DVD purchases, when I finally acquire the necessary hardware. I did hear that T.E. Lawrence’s family were not very happy on viewing the movie for the first time saying that he was not at all like the character portrayed by O’Toole. The film is not totally accurate, the viewer is led to believe that Lowell Thomas was really called Jackson Bentley who told Lawrence’s tale through syndicated journalism while the war was still in progress. If one is really interested in him, his book ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ telling the tale of the desert campaign with the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, is a must-read. However, it is not of the great T.E. Lawrence that this post is all about, but of his all-consuming peacetime passion, the one which eventually brought about his untimely end--motorcycles. Another quotation from the great man, before we continue:
"When my mood gets too hot and I find myself wandering beyond control I pull out my motor-bike and hurl it top-speed through these unfit roads for hour after hour. My nerves are jaded and gone near dead, so that nothing less than hours of voluntary danger will prick them into life..."
T.E. Lawrence, April, 1923

Yes indeed, that is what a skittish motor-bike will do for you and no mistake, prick your nerves into life. Especially in the best season of the year, the autumn of Western Japan. There is something intensely relaxing about concentrating one-hundred per cent on controlling your automotive mount. You will think nothing of haring over the same stretch of road again and again in successive weeks just to see if you can’t lean her a little further, exit each corner a little faster and always be in control. Balls-out speed is not the ultimate objective, you can get that on any common or garden motorway. A winding road with a good surface is preferable to ‘unfit roads’ and one without too much negative camber is also a plus. Manhole covers with their slick iron surfaces can present a major problem if there’s a bit of moisture about, most especially when they’re sited in the apex of a bend. I sometimes get the feeling that highway engineers are sadistic bastards when they site the things the way they do, especially if they aren’t quite flush with the road surface. Riding the same roads repeatedly gives you fore-warning of such hazards and an unfamiliar road is always approached with caution. Common sense tells you that.
It is also the fact that you are really part of the action on a motorcycle and not insulated from it, as you are in an automobile, that gives the things such appeal. The first book that I bought after graduating from the University College of Wales was Robert M. Pirsig’s little classic ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. Though the reader soon finds out that the book actually has precious little to do with motorcycle maintenance or Zen for that matter, Pirsig did know what they were all about, as this quotation shows:

… Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting in position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they're back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping, a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

Right on the money...

My own machine is only the third one I have owned so I hardly count as a grizzled veteran. I first fell in love with them just over twenty-three years ago when I was just starting on my first teaching job in the city of Matsuyama at the Western end of Shikoku. I needed some form of cheap transport that didn’t require a parking permit and a second-hand Yamaha XJ 400 was just the ticket.
Not only did it get me about from workplace to workplace in places where no train went to, it also took me and my new wife on honeymoon in Eastern Kyushu. Kitted out with panniers, top-box and tank-bag it carried us and all the tackle two people in love could ever need. Unfortunately, the relationship (with the bike, not the missus) lasted only a single year. It was reluctantly sold and the proceeds added to a war-chest in preparation for a one-year MA course at the University of Durham. I had a different job by then, which could be accessed by bus, so its utility was not really a necessity any more. As the new owner took it away, I promised myself that one day, one day, I would get another one.
That day did not come till eighteen years later when in September 2000, I was able to purchase a handsome used model of a wine-red and chrome 400 cc Honda VRX Roadster. (The picture shows a blue one--use your imagination) Two years before, duff cartilage in my knees had obliged me to give up the other great passion in my life--kendo-- and there was a hole in my life that needed filling.

The Honda was a very pleasant motorcycle, its engine put out only about thirty-five horsepower which was adequate for someone getting back into the life and the V-twin configuration not only looked good, but sounded nice too. The best part about it was its disc brakes. These had been the worst feature of the Yamaha, especially in the wet. The Honda’s discs would pull you up smartly in any conditions short of snow and ice and generally inspired confidence. Its worst feature was a hint of fussiness in cornering, if you attempted to change lines to avoid something, it would shake its steering head with a hint of petulance as if to say “don’t go there boy...”. I put this down to the fact that the bike was a bit of a hybrid, with an engine designed for a chopper-type cruiser (the Steed) shoehorned into a sporty double-cradle frame. It had not been designed from the ground up. We had a time, a good time together for a couple of years, but it was only a station on the road.
The Honda had been purchased with one purpose in mind--to get me enough riding experience to have a crack at the Japanese oh-gata (large-size) motorcycle test. To ride anything over 400 cc it is mandatory to pass this test and to say it is difficult is a major understatement. I finally succeeded in satisfying the examiners at the Seishin Car School in Western Kobe in January 2001 after a half year of drilling and practice on their lumpy, grumpy, nasty old Honda CB 750s. I can safely say that it is the most difficult thing I have succeeded in doing in almost a quarter-century of expatriate living in this country.
With that out of the way, I could concentrate on the next hurdle, which was raising the necessary coin to trade in the Honda for my dream machine.

It is pretty obvious to anyone who knows motorcycles that the designer of the Kawasaki W650 had a mate with a 1968 Triumph Bonneville, but in fact the machine owes its heritage to the Birmingham Small Arms Company, usually known as BSA (or Bloody Sore Arse according to my father). At the end of the 1950s the Akashi-based Kawasaki Aircraft company acquired a controlling interest in a cash-strapped motorcycle maker known as Meguro who had been making a licensed copy of the 500 cc A7 BSA. The Meguro Senior had gained a reputation as a solid, reliable machine and was particularly popular with police patrolmen. The new Kawasaki Motorcycle Corporation kept up the licensing agreement with BSA and eventually produced a licensed replica of the 650 cc A10 model which was sold under the moniker of W1. BSA were the biggest motorcycle company in the world at the time. The machine was in production for about ten years and went through two upgrades (W2 and W3) until it was finally dropped in 1973. By that time multi-cylinder OHC rocketships like the 900 cc Z-1 were the industry standard and the antiquated vertical-twin design just could not keep up. Originally designed by Edward Turner in 1937, the Achilles heel of this configuration is VIBRATION. Lots and lots of it, enough to shake your tooth-fillings loose, which eventually takes its toll on machine and rider alike.
In 1999, having seen success with its ‘retro’ styled Zephyr series, Kawasaki decided to pay tribute to the old W series with the W650 and that’s when I first got my eye on it. However, the resemblance to those old bone-shakers is merely cosmetic. The vibes have been (almost) removed by a clever internal balance-shaft, the dodgy Lucas electrics have been replaced by a modern system with no contact-breakers, the old push-rod OHV engine is now an OHC, driven by a handsome bevel-gear shaft. And most important of all--it doesn’t leak oil all over the place. You could keep it in the bedroom if you wanted and it wouldn’t disgrace itself.
Black Mariah and I have been an item since 2002. I took delivery of her on September 4th, which also happened to be the 20th anniversary of my marriage to the lady whom I went on honeymoon with on the Yamaha. One of these days we will take a 2nd honeymoon--probably along the Pacific coast of Tosa Wan, one of my favourite parts of Japan. I will probably keep Black Mariah until I can no longer ride and then bequest her to my son. Selling her is out of the question...
To finish up I’ll leave a final quotation from T.E. Lawrence, in a letter to George Brough about his ‘Superior’ motorcycles.
Dear Mr. Brough,
Yesterday I completed 100000 miles, since 1922, on five successive Brough Superiors, and I'm going abroad very soon, so that I think I must make an end, and thank you for the road-pleasure I have got out of them. In 1922, I found George I (your old Mark I) the best thing I'd ridden, but George V (the 1922 SS100) is incomparably better. In 1925 and 1926 (George IV & V) I have not had an involuntary stop, & so have not been able to test your spares service, on which I drew so heavily in 1922 and 1923. Your present machines are as fast and reliable as express trains, and the greatest fun in the world to drive: - and I say this after twenty years experience of cycles and cars.
They are very expensive to buy, but light in upkeep (50-65 m.p.g. of petrol, 4000 m.p.g. oil, 5000-6000 miles per outer cover, in my case) and in the four years I have made only one insurance claim (for less than £5) which is a testimony to the safety of your controls & designs. The S.S.100 holds the road extraordinarily. It's my great game on a really pot-holed road to open up to 70 m.p.h. or so and feel the machine gallop: and though only a touring machine it will do 90 m.p.h at full throttle.
I'm not a speed merchant, but ride fairly far in the day (occasionally 700 miles, often 500) and at a fair average, for the machine's speed in the open lets one crawl through the towns, & still average 40-42 miles in the hour. The riding position & the slow powerful turn-over of the engine at speeds of 50 odd give one a very restful feeling.
There, it is no good telling you all you knew before I did: they are the jolliest things on wheels. Yours very sincerely


The ‘jolliest things on wheels’ -- now there’s an expression. I couldn’t agree more. Last year, the Yamaha corporation released its concept of what riders really want. Torque Sports is the notion behind the MT-01 which I had the good fortune to road-test this summer. My God...

If anything is the successor to the Brough Superior this is. Only available in Europe, you won’t get much change out of ten thousand pounds sterling. Now, where’s that Lottery ticket?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Three Anniversaries in 2005

The UK has seen two important anniversaries in 2005. The most recent one, and probably the most important from my viewpoint, was the 200th anniversary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s stunning victory at Cape Trafalgar. All EFL teachers should bless his name and the date 21st October, 1805, for had he lost, the dominant world language would probably now be French and we’d not have work. More here:
The other anniversary was of an altogether more sinister event, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was discovered on November 5th, before it could be executed. In the event it was the plotters who were executed, after excruciating interrogation and unspeakable torture. British people commemorate the event by terrifying their pet animals on November 5th with outdoor pyrotechnical detonations and large bonfires upon which a human effigy is burnt, sometimes of The Pope. It is the only time of the year that public fireworks displays are permitted, except on the occasion of a Royal Wedding. More here:
From a personal point of view, 2005 also marked another anniversary, one which many people would rather forget. This was the final failure of the Miners’ Strike on March 3rd 1985 when the NUM (National Union of Miners) delegates voted by 98 to 91 to call it off, before it collapsed entirely. The strike had begun a full 12 months earlier, at Cortonwood near Barnsley, Yorkshire in response to an NCB (National Coal Board) announcement that the pit was to be closed. This was to be only the start of a programme of closures across the industry which would involve the loss of 20,000 jobs. Would that was all that eventually came to pass.
Just over a decade before a Miners’ Strike had been credited with bringing down the Conservative Heath administration. This was nonsense of course, there had been a Miners’ Strike and the Government had handled it badly but it was the voting population of the UK which had decided the fate of the government. Margaret Thatcher, into the 5th year of her leadership and having won a 2nd successive General Election coming off the back of a military victory in The Falkland Islands was in no mood to have such a fate befall her administration. She appointed a tough American mine manager, Ian MacGregor, as Chairman of the NCB and began to stockpile coal at power stations in preparation for a showdown with the leader of the NUM, one Arthur Scargill.
Arthur Scargill was a complex character with a deep conviction that his cause was just and true. He was also a most appalling egotist, on a scale to match his rival, Thatcher. Before gaining the presidency of the NUM in 1981 he had rarely been out of the news as ‘King Arthur’ the fiery leader of the Yorkshire coalfield. Under the guileful leadership of the previous president, Joe Gormley, the miners remuneration had gradually increased, to rank among the highest of the country’s industrial workers. Scargill was in no mood to let this slip and when he got wind of a ‘leaked’ document outlining the government’s plans for the coal industry there was always going to be a showdown.
In the end the Miners lost, of course. Scargill’s refusal to call a strike ballot had given it a less than sturdy start and unprecedented levels of violence between pickets and police outside colliery gates soon eroded public support. The public of course, are dependent on the media to give them a fair and balanced account of what is going on in the country. From what I experienced and heard about, it is my belief to this day that standards of reportage during the 1984-85 strike plumbed new depths. Margaret Thatcher prided herself on being a champion of ‘freedom’, but the methods she put into play to break the strike were straight out of the manual of Josef Stalin. The following is an excerpt from a novel I wrote about some of my experiences of the time. The main character has just sat down in a bar beside his friend, a NUM convener. He has been out of the country for a while and is somewhat bewildered. The events described are based on an incident which took place in late 1984 at Easington (which also featured in the movie ‘Billy Elliot’). I make no apologies for the local dialect.

So how’s it gannin’?”
Jacky sighed, a deep, careworn exhalation.
“Not ower grand I’m afraid. The bugger has gone on far ower lang noo. We’re startin’ to loss people. The’ just cannat afford it man. There’s others that’ll hang oot for ivver like. It’s startin’ ter get nasty noo Christmas is cummin’. Specially if yer’ve got bairns tha’ knaas.”
He drained his pint and stood up.
“Shall aah get yers one in?”
Jamie finished his off and nodded. Bloodaxe blinked and looked uncertain. Jamie made his mind up for him.
“Just a half for him Jack, he’s a bit slow wi’ isself the day. Howay, I’ll gi’ yer a hand to carry.”
They walked over to the milling bar, where some of the familiar faces had a saturnine cast to them. Others, not members of the NUM, were somewhat less jovial than usual. It was affecting everyone. The miners, champions of the labour movement a decade before, were losing, riven by internal factionalism and browbeaten by a government with no-one’s best interest at heart save the plutocrat. It was sickening. He saw his darts teacher, Geordie, sitting on a corner stool, brooding blackly. He made a move to approach him, but Jacky laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Divven’t bother Jamie lad. He’s one o’ the walkin’ wounded. If you’re not in the miners union you’re agen us, in his book. He’s gone reet queer these past few weeks. I wouldn’t like to see him stot yer one.”
Jamie glanced at Geordie’s brawny forearms and massive ham-like fists. Too bloody true he wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of him. He shook his head in disbelief. How could this happen? Jacky spoke quickly to him as they stood waiting at the bar.
“There’s families divided, fathers agen sons, women winnat cook for their men, people months ahind on their mortgages & hire-porchase. The’re startin’ to blame us, the union men, for causin’ this. The’ canna see past the end of the’ noses man. If the bliddy Tories win this, the’ll dae what the’ like for the next ten yor. Just watch an’ see. The’ll be a whole generation that’ll nivver work.”
Jamie felt helpless. What the hell could he, an impecunious mature student, do?
The beer arrived and was borne back to their seats where Bloodaxe was sitting, a little flushed. Jamie opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. At length he managed to get it out.
“The police stopped me on the way to college this morning Jacky. It was about six-thirty on the Durham road--I was going to the early morning kendo practice. I wasn’t speeding or anything so I wondered why it was. Half a dozen of the bastards in two cars. They asked me which mine I worked at. I told them I wasn’t a miner but a student. They said ‘You don’t sound like a student’!”
Bloodaxe snickered. Jamie had already related the story to him.
“They were after flying pickets, Jacky. They didn’t believe me and wanted a look in the back of the car. ‘Course it looks great--full of armour and wooden weapons. Fortunately, I had my student’s union card and me MAC/BKA licence on me. But surely, they can’t stop people from travelling where they want? Are the Tories re-defining civil rights now?”
His friend nodded sadly, deep brown eyes sunk in ravines of wrinkles.
“Aye, Aah knaa. One or two people ‘ve said the syem thing tiv us. The’ve had a mandate from Thatcher man, dae what yer like, but brek the strike.”
He paused a moment then added,
“D’yer want ter see for yersel’ what aah mean?”
Jamie put his beer down. He looked at Jacky strangely. What could he mean?
“Aye, that’s reet yung ‘un,” Jacky went on. “Cum an’ stand on a picket line wi’ the lads and see what gans on. See how much them lyin’ bastards in the papers are mekkin’ up and the bliddy telly!”
Jamie closed his eyes and began to think rapidly. This could be dodgy. Was Jacky serious?
Earlier that year, before he had returned from Japan, there had been mass picketing at Orgreave Colliery in South Yorkshire. It had turned very ugly, with lumps of brick hurled at police, who charged down the rioting miners with horses. At least that was the way the TV news showed it. It had even got on the NHK news in Japan for about thirty seconds. Jamie still had a clipping from the Guardian in the breast pocket of his jacket from September which accused the TV media barons of reversing the footage shot by their cameras. As a result, the watching world had seen rioting miners attacking mounted police, who subsequently regrouped and charged down their assailants--when in fact the reverse had been the actual order of events. The ITN had denied doing this, in fact they had screened edited BBC footage. The BBC had made ‘no comment’. Since that time, violent incidents involving pickets and police had appeared in the media with increasing regularity, especially in the tabloids. Control the media—control peoples’ minds. Nineteen Eighty Four. He made his mind up.
“All right, yer’ on. When?”
“Monday morning OK—six o’ clock?”
Sod it. College was finished. He’d be back early enough to get down the dole and sign on.

And so it was he found himself standing in the freezing fog of a dark December morning, waiting for a car on a hill. It was deathly silent, not even a bird was calling. He shivered and hunched his shoulders, trying vainly to garner some warmth from the stub of a roll-up in his fingers. Dim headlights stabbed through the gloom and the silver-grey bulk of Jacky’s old Ford Granada loomed into sight. It pulled up alongside, rust bubbles decorating the tops of the wing panels. Way past its best. He got in and felt the warmth from the heater hit him. Jacky grunted a ‘Good morning’ and pulled away carefully. Metro Radio chirped away quietly in the background as the big car moved slowly through the misty landscape. Jacky remarked how the fog would work to their advantage in that they could avoid the picket patrols more easily. There was no actual law against secondary picketing, which was what Jamie was about to do, but neither was there any law against the custodians of the law detaining you for a while if they felt like it.
After about forty minutes they were at their destination. Jacky parked his car in a side street and got out. He went to the rear of the big car and opened the boot, retrieving from it two white safety helmets and a Nikon camera. He gave one of the helmets to Jamie saying,
“Purrit on laddie, might save you a cracked skull if the Owld Bill get stroppy wi’ them truncheons.”
Jamie did as bidden, tightening the chin-strap above his Adam’s apple, wondering if Jacky was jesting. They went out onto the main road and up to the pit gates, where a sullen group of about twenty pickets had gathered. They all wore similar garb, donkey-jackets or parkas with fluorescent ‘Support the Miners’ badges and wellies or heavy steel-toed boots. A thick-set bearded man nodded to Jacky as they reached the group, giving Jamie a suspicious glance.
“Whe’s thi’ marra Jacky? Norra reporter aah hope…”
Jacky laughed sarcastically.
“Nor, not one of them bastads. This is Jamie Duggan from the University of Durham--cum ter see what really gans on these early mornin’s.”
With the odd raised eyebrow the group acknowledged his presence. Then a shout rang out from down the road.
‘“Here the buggers cum!”
Jamie hopped up on a low wall in front of a house and looked over the heads of the pickets. In the distance he could see a white Ford Transit with POLICE emblazoned across its front end. It also had substantial wire mesh shields over the windscreen and heavy black ‘roo bars on the front end. Its roof light flashed ominously, a searing electric blue. Beside it were serried ranks of police officers with heavy helmets and face covers, riot-shields and batons. Jamie watched, his stomach stiff with sudden fear. It was very real and up-front all of a sudden. At first glance he had thought the pickets were unarmed, but then he noticed a small heap of half-bricks and other missiles beside the wall. He looked at Jacky who was standing a few feet away. Jacky glanced back at him.
“Looks like the bastards means business the day. If any aggro starts, get thisel’ away ahind that waal.”
“Nae buts! It’s not thy fight yung ‘un. Just watch oot for thi’ sel’.”
Jamie nodded and looked up the road. About twenty metres short of the pickets the Transit van stopped. Behind it was a large cream-coloured coach, flanked by mounted police. The riders wore padded riot jackets and helmets not unlike those of Cromwellian New Model Army cavalry. Even the horses were armoured, with thick plexi-glass head shields. The doors of the van opened wide, like bat-wings and the police arranged themselves in ranks alongside it, totally covering the road. Riot shields turned forward, they began to advance, slowly at first, beating a tom-tom rhythm with the batons. At about ten metres they broke into a charge, howling like banshees, batons flailing. The pickets fell back under the onslaught, some trying to reach the pile of missiles in a desperate attempt to fight back. Jacky leaped up on the wall and pulled Jamie down behind it, who was riveted with fear where he stood. Then he stood up and calmly started taking pictures with his camera, his mouth set in a thin, hard line. Jamie peeped over the wall to take in the scene. It was not an even contest. The forces of law and order definitely had the upper hand. Two miners lay in the road, bleeding from head wounds while a third tried to staunch the flow. Two police were struggling desperately with the bearded man, riot shields and batons discarded behind them. He dispatched one of them with a knee to the groin then ripped off the helmet of the other and decked him with a vicious head-butt between the eyes. Behind them the coach swept through the pit gates unopposed, the pale, frightened faces of the blacklegs peering out through misted up windows. The cause was lost.
“Watch thi’sel’ Jamie!” came Jacky’s urgent shout.
Jamie looked round and dodged. The baton whizzed past his ear and cracked off the bricks on top of the wall. He staggered back in shock as the armoured figure stumbled, trying to regain his balance. He heard the click and whirr of the motor-drive camera behind him, catching it all, freeze-drying the edifying spectacle for posterity. The policeman mounted the wall and came at them. But he did not use the baton. Instead, he snatched the camera from Jack’s grasp and tore it open. Then he pulled out the film, exposing it to the early light, and ground it underfoot. Jacky stared back at the man, eyes narrowed with hate. A whistle sounded and the police began to withdraw, their work done for the day. Their assailant laughed mockingly and vaulted back over the wall, swaggering back to join his triumphant mates, leaving bruised and broken bodies behind them. No arrests were made or attempted. It was purely an exercise in bloodying the enemy on behalf of the Iron Lady and HM Government.
“Aye,” murmured Jacky. “The fuckers are really gannin’ theor ends noo.”
Jamie swallowed hard. He could scarcely believe what he had just witnessed with his own eyes. It was like something out of a nightmare—but it was real. He felt a lump in his throat and tears welled up in the corners of his eyes. Jacky grinned wryly at him and picked up his camera where it had been dropped.
“Aye,” he said. “That’s worrit’s like up the sharp end these days.”
A woman in a quilted dressing gown came out of the house. She had curlers in her hair and puffed hastily on a cigarette.
“Are ye aal reet Jacky? Ee yer knaa—it’s gettin’ bliddy serious this. Ivvery bliddy mornin’, bliddy World Waar Three ootside thi’ front door…”
“Aye, Doris, aa’m aal reet. Divven’t knaa aboot some o’ the lads like. Mebbe’s we’ll ha’ ter gan doon the Informary…”

Jacky dropped him off outside their apartment at about half-eight. Hiroko was picking the milk bottles off the step when he walked up the path. She looked relieved.
“Where have you been? I thought the kendo was over for the term.”
“No pet, I haven’t been to kendo. Different kind of battling.”
He gave her the story over breakfast. She listened, tight-lipped, as he went through his experience, leaving out no details. Then she gave him a long lecture on how he should mind his own business and keep out of other people’s fights. It would do them no good at all if he got himself arrested.
“You can’t spit against heaven Jamie!”
He took it all, nodding agreement. She was dead right of course. But. But…
Bad feelings from the strike exist to this day in the former mining communities, which are all but non-existent today. There is an estimated 300 year’s worth of coal resources remaining underground which will never be mined. What a waste...
If anyone is interested in this book, further details can be had at:
or here :

Friday, November 04, 2005

Thatcher at 80--what's her legacy?

Someone asked me the other day--‘Can you tell me specifically what Thatcher did to change the UK for the worse’.
Hummm... If ever there was a ‘don’t get me started’—there’s one. I suppose a bit of history is in order to put things in perspective. In 1971, the then Conservative administration led by Edward Heath implemented the first major change to the monetary system since the demise of the sovereign and guinea. They replaced the old system of 240 pence to the pound with a decimal system of 100 new pence to the pound, ostensibly to prepare the way for European monetary integration. So one new penny (1p) was equivalent to 2.4 old pence (2.4d). Opportunistic price gouging by cavalier retailers (e,g. where something had been 3d before it became 3p) took place. This led to the greatest post-war increase in the retail price index and soon the land was awash with cost-of-living-index-related strikes as the trade unions fought to maintain the purchasing power of their memberships. No sooner had they won an increase than the cost would be passed on as a price increase. In late spring of 1979 after the infamous ‘winter of discontent’, Mrs Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and took office claiming she would cure inflation ‘at a stroke’ and quoting St Francis of Assisi to ‘bring harmony where there is discord’ amongst other platitudes.
She and her cabinet set about this in the following way; a series of interest rate increases had the cost of capital at 15% by late 1980 which had the effect of discouraging borrowing and the inflation rate duly ceased its upward spiral. Corporate bankruptcies hit record levels and the unemployment rate began an inexorable climb, towards nearly 4 million by the mid-eighties. At the same time they abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates and allowed the pound sterling to float on the international markets. The high interest rate brought capital flocking to the City and the exchange rate rocketed--making exports unsellable and causing more layoffs and corporate misery. Speculators and arbitrageurs had a marvellous time, but in terms of making anything useful and adding value, the economy was no more.
Bringing ‘harmony where there is discord’ was a euphemism for taming the trade unions. However, they started by taking on the easy meat-- dismantling wages councils and the like in industries not represented by mainstream union power. Without any ‘voice’ the people in these industries soon slipped to the very bottom of the pile and a new underclass came in to being of people earning one pound-fifty (about two dollars US) or even less per hour--if they had work at all. This underclass numbered about 5-6 million at the height of her Reign of Terror and was an essential part of the plan, because the propaganda machine made it clear that it was their own fecklessness which had brought on their plight. It was not till 1997 when one of New Labour’s first acts was to introduce a minimum wage of three pounds seventy-five an hour that anything was done about this exploitation. A lot of people committed suicide out of despair before then.
The major unions were brought to heel by dismantling and closing down major state-owned industries like coal, ship-building and steel. This had the effect of turning large swathes of the North and Scotland into virtual ghost towns, where whole generations have never known productive employment since. Her answer to this became known as TINA (There is No Alternative) and produced the infamous comment from her deputy Norman Tebbit -- ‘Get on your bike and look for work’. The people who were able to do this flocked to the South where conditions were not nearly so serious and in doing so increased the demand for housing (and its cost) to still higher levels.
To allow people to become ‘little capitalists’ she introduced the system of selling off public housing at knock-down prices to tenants of two years or more. No more public housing was built under her. This made a lot of people a one-off quick buck, but the upshot has been a major housing shortage 20 years later and the highest real estate prices in Europe. Fine if you work on percentages as estate agents do, but not much fun if you are a first-time buyer unable to afford even the deposit on a shed. New Labour have not done anything about this at all.
Other state-owned industries were sold off at knock-down prices--most notably the railways (though she only laid the foundations for this by starving the industry of investment to make it a more appetizing prospect). She refused to travel by rail herself, praising the ‘Great Car Economy’ at every opportunity. Many a quick buck was made and invested offshore in tax havens. Public Bad--Private Good was the motto.
The privatized railways were run with shareholder interests foremost. To reduce costs and augment profit maintenance schedules were cut to the bone with the result that there have been a number of major train wrecks since the late 90’s, with numerous fatalities. The train service is the worst in Europe and a major laughing stock. It is now in limbo--its ‘owners’ prevented from operating it and New Labour seemingly at a loss what to do. Trains still run, after a fashion.

This is getting too long so I’ll switch tack. With her uncaring attitude, Thatcher unwittingly created a culture of ‘me first--sod everyone else’. The most noble pursuit became self-enrichment and the accumulation of material goods. The only criterion which justified any activity was if it made money. If it didn’t it was closed down--which is why many major towns don’t have a sports centre/swimming pool any more and acres of school playing fields were sold off to property developers.

To sum up:
Whilst implementing overdue union reform, she threw the poor in the country to the wolves, unleashed an era of greed epitomised by former ministers ending up on the boards of utilities they helped privatise, broke records for unemployment, doubled VAT, destroyed the coal-mining towns and brought in the poll tax. The only time she cried in public was the day she finally left number 10 Downing Street. Her true legacy is the Tories are still unelectable today. But it doesn’t make much difference--New Labour stole all her best ideas.

This is still incomplete--but I hope you get my general drift. Some things she did needed doing--sure--but it was the need to do them ‘at a stroke’ and the callous disregard for the consequences which make her a bete noir for millions (and a heroine for many others). Go figure...