Se Vende – 10 days on the Costa del Sol (July 2012)

I walk the Autovia Del Mediterraneo (or to give it its less glamorous sounding route name the N340) from El Faro to La Cala De Mijas, through the segregated hillside Urbanicazion where British, German, Scandinavian and Dutch ex-pats rub shoulders with wealthy Spaniards on the Costa del Sol. This cliched corner of ancient Andalucía has seen many invasions; the Tartessians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Gypsies all leaving traces of their cultural DNA.  Yet, walking along this cracked pavement along the main Malaga to Marbella motorway, maybe we are witnessing the end days of the final invasion before the coast and the mountains return to some semblance of the pre-tourist era.

All along the road, with its flimsy looking barriers, cracked and defiled pavements, ugly flyovers and relentless, heavy traffic, this symbol of modern Spain, the fast flowing trade route along the south coast, symbolises the way it is now and the way it is likely to be in a few years time. As I break in my new Adidas sandals walking down the Calle Cordoba, along the Calle del Sol and down the Calle Bilbao, I pass the area’s two eateries and drinking holes, the British ‘Carlton Bar’ and the Spanish ‘Dona Maria’, separated by a battened-up, former car hire outlet and a small Supermercado staffed by British ex-pats. There’s a communal swimming pool and a more up-market restaurant, the El Patio to the back of these buildings and all around there is a misleading tranquility as the quiet villas and casas doze in the heat of another Andalucian summer.

The owners of our apartments, a couple who’ve been over here for the past 8 years warn us to keep our doors locked at all times and hand us a bunch of keys that lock gates, and doors, padlocks and shutters. Gypsies! The whole area is paranoid, each and every home has some kind of warning sign to deter robbers – ‘Atecion Alarma!’ – and each window is secured by iron grilles or shutters. As I leave the apartment I have to lock and padlock four separate doors and gates and the overall impression of a community that is pretending not to be terrified as unemployment and poverty grows and people less fortunate become angrier and more desperate. This is a community living in fear, awaiting the apocalypse yet still keen to slag off what they left behind; the benefit cheats, the slackers, the immigrants, the violence.

Whether exaggerated or not, the fear of crime is real enough and these enclosed wealth ghettos operate like any other gated community with an atmosphere of suspicion, surveillance and security. It’s the same paranoia that fuels the murder of innocent black kids walking home from the shop in Miami by self-elected ‘patrolmen.’ The same mindset that allows armed police to shoot dead an innocent Brazilian electrician in London fearing he may be a terrorist. As the Olympics begin back in Britain, surface to air missiles have been installed on the roof of an East London tower block. Thousands of soldiers, policemen, private security guards and the mass media have been employed to sustain an atmosphere of hysterical terror.

The British establishment, more than any other political-economic elite uses the threat of bombs and bullets to control and suppress their citizens and to pour scorn on anyone who questions their motives. ‘If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’ is their stock Orwellian response that justifies CCTV on streets, motorways, railway stations, airports, ferry terminals,  cabs, trains, busses, shopping precincts, restaurants, pubs, pools, toilets.

Even in the US, civil liberties are taken as basic human rights, the right to live your life free from constant observation. Wire tapping and covert filming is difficult enough for the CIA or FBI to obtain even for bona fide terror suspects and hardcore gangsters, never mind juvenile shoplifters and bored weed smoking youth. Tyranny doesn’t impose itself in one single putsch but a thousand tiny increments.

‘Slow Down!’ ‘Cut Your Speed!’ ‘Belt Up!’ ‘No Smoking!’ ‘No Drinking’ ‘No Entry’ ‘No Ball Games’ ‘Sit Down!’ ‘Go Home!’ ‘Just Do It!’ ‘Just Buy It!’ ‘Don’t Answer Back!’ 

Inner Controlled Zone. No Parking. Outer Controlled Zone. No cycles. Resident Permits Only. Max Stay 30 minutes. No return within 2 hours.

Eat this. Drink that. Don’t eat this. Don’t drink that. No smoking. Smoking Kills. No litter. Stub It Out!

The recorded loop of the self-serve check out :

‘please place your items in the bag, authorization required for this item, please wait for assistance’

The train station tannoy :

‘CCTV is operational in all carriages for your safety and security’

‘any unattended item and may be taken away and destroyed by security personnel.’

On our journey from Manchester airport we are treated with contempt by the stressed out Border Agency staff as they check bags, pockets, shoes, wallets, scan bags and passports, search suitcases, test perfumes and pills, exchange glances and hand signals, order us from A to B, do this, do that, stand here, sit there, gate 13, queue here, boarding card, passport, boarding card, passport, name check, face check, eye scan, thumb print, DNA swab, arse search. Drugs, bombs, drugs, guns, drugs, booze, drugs, ciggies, drugs, aftershave, drugs, tortoises, drugs, illegal immigrants. Contraband, untaxed, over here, taking jobs, over here, claiming benefits.

In Spain, despite ETA campaigns and the largest concentration of hardcore criminals in Europe, there is a feeling of freedom, the air and the spaces seem uncontaminated by authoritarian observation. The economic migrants from good old Blighty don’t consider themselves as such of course, no they are net contributors who have paid their dues and their taxes and now have the right to live in a foreign country without having to speak a word of the language and become offended if the locals speak to them in their native tongue. Exactly the kind of aloof cultural isolationism they criticize ‘immigrants’ for back home.

As I get to the main road, Fuengirola is a few miles to the north and Marbella is 30 odd kilometres to the south. It’s early on a late July Saturday morning and the path is empty save for a few sweating joggers wired to their digital defibrillators and the odd cyclist. The road however is busy. Very busy. I do a quick spot check on the make of vehicles that pass in a few minutes; Renaults seem to be the most popular, followed by Ford, Peugeot, Seats, Opels, then the usual Teutonic mid-range stalwarts; VW, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, the odd flash 4×4, Range Rover, Mitsubishi and Jag. Scania trucks seem to be popular, the odd biker, scooter rider pass and a cyclist in full Tour de France lycra rig out forces the traffic to swerve on this dangerous road with its vehicles zooming past at 100km per hour.

That old Situationist slogan ‘sur la pave, the plage’ is literally true here as the autovia runs directly adjacent to the narrow stretch of rough sand that passes for the beach in El Faro. Imagine if you tried sunbathing next to the M62, that’s what it’s like for those who can’t be bothered to travel up to Fuengirola or down to La Cala de Mijas. As I walk past low level luxury apartments with fancy cars parked outside, the slip road sections off beach side villas with names like ‘Casa Marguerita’ and ‘Beach Club.’ The wall for ‘Beach Club’ is wired up with CCTV a there’s a huge crack in the wall opening up from top to bottom. Like many others it is ‘Se Vende’ – for sale – a portent that all is not quite as it seems here.

Scrubby beaches shelter families under gazebos, one appears to have been here all night and maybe owns or rents a stretch out. The dad dozes whilst the daughter rakes over the narrow isthmus between the rocks and the road as three fishing rods stand sentry in the sand. Further up there’s a Nudist beach signified by a pastiche of the Robe di Kappa logo, a man and a woman sat back to back, knees raised separated by a beach brolly. It is deserted. Too early for the naturists and gay lads who usually populate the playa. Bird shit archipelagos splatter the pavement at the base of each street light, juvenile gulls resting on top, still half asleep as the sun begins to warm their feathers.

Up the hills, new developments spread like cancer stalled by the painful chemotherapy that austerity has brought. All along the road, ‘Se Vende’ signs crop up on road side shops and houses. At a bridge over a small rivulet leading to the beach, I spot a huge cat wandering through weeds and bullrushes as birds squawk a warning in the trees. Whitewashed walls give way to bamboo thickets and close to the foot of the next flyover, rather than the usual wet paw prints of cats and dogs, someone has etched a Minoan style athlete into the cement, Palm trees line the hills, their parched branches hanging down in matted brown clumps like the beards of vagrants.

Papa Luigi’s Pizzeria is next to the Farmacia and a stretch limo is parked outside a shuttered shop. ‘The Hut’ advertises 2000 channels of sport whereas Streets Of London pub has its target audience firmly marked out. We’re on the outskirts of La Cala now and I decide to turn back as we’re off to Malaga today and I’ve gone further than I’d intended (and both of my big toes are cut from breaking in my new plazzy flip flops). On the opposite side of the road, under the roughly quarried rock, rusting bolts pierce the pavement in two rows of six, forming a miniature ruined Roman temple. It’s obviously a health and safety hazard as are the massive cracks, stone eruptions, stray cables and open electricity boxes but maybe that’s just my Protestant prudishness and Nordic need for order kicking in.

After having a strange altercation with a Spanish speaking lad dropping off a stunning girl outside the entrance to the El Chapparal urbanizacion (he shouts something to me and waves his mobile phone and I immediately take him for a pimp of some sort and just shrug), I pass a dead and decaying cat left to fester unloved on the pavement. Its head has been covered by a deflated football. I wonder if this is some ancient mafia warning or a religious offering. Did the ball got there by accident or had been deliberately placed there? The football headed, rotting cat disturbed me for a few seconds.

This isn’t a metaphor by the way, although I intend to use it as one. If Spain is the body of the cat, being eaten away from the inside by a corrupt and incompetent clique of politicians and capitalists, then the nation’s all-conquering football team is the face of the country that King Juan Carlos and the government spin masters want to present to the rest of the world. Yet, the ball is deflated and Del Bosque like Pep Guardiola (as well as the fans) know this sublime level of perfection cannot be sustained for much longer before complacency and competing egos, ageing legs and stifling tactics accelerate  decline.

The poetry of geometry, the symmetry of form, the glazed finish of perfection; Moorish tiles and Spanish soccer are a counterbalance to the ugly scrub of the pavement and the horrendous, half empty high rises and apartment blocks that line the roads and hills across the Costa del Sol.  They offer a justification for human concepts of aesthetic beauty and solid application. Those ‘total football’ seeds planted by the adopted Catalan, Johan Cruyff and his Dutch masters of the 70s have born beautiful fruit 40 years later with the current generation of Spanish players.

The ability to switch position and formation at will, the use of trigonometric triangles to defeat the technicians and cynics of Germany and Italy. Their fluidity of line and elegance of shape as beguiling as a Miro painting, they realise that, more than mere showboating, possession in football, as in life, is nine tenths of the law. This collection of Catalans, Basques and the odd Castillian understand that keeping the ball and winning it back is all that is required to win football games. Without the devastating pace of Real’s Portuguese striker, Ronaldo or the sublime close control of Barca’s Argentine genius, Messi, the Spanish team operate in packs, hunting down the opposition when they lose possession and then tire and frustrate them with their abstract angles and ESP ping pong.

Speed of thought and movement has been the Barca way for years and as a Man United fan, those humiliations in Rome and London of 2009 and 2011 reminded me of the drubbing Juventus dished out to Alex Ferguson’s novice European squad of the 90s. It was embarrassing to see the players of the quality of Rooney and Scholes reduced to chasing shadows as the Barca team tormented them with practice session games of ‘keepsy.’ Yet it also should’ve taught them a lesson too. This is the yardstick you need to emulate. They didn’t. They can’t. Not in the Premiership where thuggery and endeavor are still admired more than art.

The trip to Malaga involved a bus ride to Fuengirola on the 220 and a train on the Linea C1 through the high rise tourist favellas of Benalmedina and Torremolinos. Paul, a relative of my wife and his boyfriend, Juan, a local lad from Cordoba act as guides during our stay. As my wife, daughter and nephew are directed to the local shopping mall, Paul, my in laws and myself go to visit the cathedral and the Alcazaba, the 11th century Moorish castle.

It’s a long walk past the huge queue of taxis outside the railway station, where drivers stand in circular covens looking simultaneously bored and pissed off. They throw their arms about, sit on bonnets, awaiting fares, awaiting the downfall of civilization. Spanish unemployment is the highest in Europe and if the European Central Bank hadn’t bailed out the country’s banks, who knows where they’d be? Then it’s a trek along a nondescript street of tenements and shop fronts and across a bridge over a dry river bed where locals walk their dogs. We cross the road then do a right along a busy street full of busses ferrying tourists and shoppers to our destination, the old port area where the architecture becomes grander and the people whiter.

The cathedral has been built in stages over the past 500 years but is still an impressive building, especially on the inside where various grottos and ghettoes offer absolution to earth mother worshippers who can purchase votive candles for one euro from a slot machine. The candles are short and stumpy and all have exactly the same fake pattern of beaded wax running down their sides. I’d like to visit the factory that produces these identical wax offerings and leaf through their products brochure. The slot machine reminds of the scene in Toy Story when the squeaky alien gift is ‘chosen’ by their deity, the Claw. Claw. Jaweh. Jehovah. Jah. Jesus.

Here there are statues of wood made to look like marble and statues of marble made to look like flesh. The homoerotic scenes of torture and terror, of martyrdom and murder, flagellations, crucifixions, captured in oil and glass and stone tell a history of colonisation and reverse colonisation, Egyptian to Greek, Greek to Roman, Roman to Judean, Judean back to Greek and Roman, Greek to Arab, Arab to Castillian, Castillian to Aztec. At the heart of the story is not an obscure Jewish priest but gold. These temples are cemented with blood and spunk, male ambition, male lust, male pride, male ego. Brick upon brick, stone upon stone, lie upon lie. Greed is the engine of war and war is the engine of religion.

The Roman paganism that calls itself Catholicism is only a superimposed pantheism celebrating Caesar, vestal virgins, celibate priestly cults dedicated to saints, and Bacchus. In vino, veritas. The religion of the Vatican as it is observed by the Spanish and indeed the Italians is not austere and puritanical but sensuous and tactile. It is intended to invoke wonder and marvel, it is as superficial and supernatural as any other form of soil and ancestor worship. The confession is a sell out to the venal murderers and torturers who built these monuments to mankind’s cruelties. Pass us the gold and we’ll forgive the rape, the theft, the blood letting with ten Hail Marys, two Our Fathers, three sugars and a splash of milk love.

One altar features the Masonic pyramid and eye in recognition of those men who actually built these temples. It was the master masons who first broke away from the medieval fiefdoms that required them to work for their local squires, thus allowing them to travel freely around Europe plying their trade. The masons may well have began as an artisan guild with their own rites, rules and regulations but, as with any power structure, they became colonized by those who need to keep all systems of control within their sphere and now the very word ‘masonic’ is a synonym for cronyism. The present Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England is Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (first cousin of the queen). Not only have the royals got the state church, the armed forces, the political executive, the civil service and the judiciary under their ‘benign’ yoke, even the supposedly ‘occult’ Masons can’t escape the monarchist puppet masters.

Secret  handshakes and strange rituals and a shared desire for ‘order,’ an order that benefits their own wealth, bonds the establishment.  You scratch my back, I’ll award you the council contract. You keep a lid on the unions, I’ll reward you with a knighthood. You donate millions to the party, I’ll overlook those pesky taxes. How many masons these days are actually masons? The symbolism of ancient crafts; the set square, compass, block and tackles that built pagan pyramids and Catholic cathedrals are now as redundant as the priests who have been replaced by uniformed security guards patrolling the inner sanctums making sure we don’t use  flash on our cameras.

In the Alcazabar, the Muslim worship of abstraction, water as purifier and holy duty has left its mark with fortress gardens and perfumed pavilions. The walls overlook the port with its huge cranes and the bullring. Here is Spain caught between the past and the future. The torture of animals as part entertainment, part blood letting ritual is now deemed not only un-PC but un-EC. The European Union, that protectionist trade cartel against the ‘emerging economies’  has rules about such things and if they are not obeyed then the ships may be ordered to stop docking with their cargoes of tourists and consumer goods.

The Roman ruins at the foot of the old walls lead us to a bodega Paul wants us to visit called ‘El Pimpi.’ Inside the place is rammed and its mixture of sherry barrels, huge fiesta posters from the 20s and 30s, a frantic kitchen area with hooved hams being carved in situ and a celebrity mosaic of customers adjacent to the bar, makes me feel as if I am experiencing the real Spain at last. We sit outside in the courtyard area and order three types of Iberico fan, fried baby squid, salad and bottles of the sweet Malaga Virgen sherry. There’s a wedding taking place and as the guests leave their reception sherry glasses to go for their meal inside, a waitress empties what’s left of the sherry in the wooden barrel into to a large, plastic, gas canister-like container. Everything’s surface.

I’m reminded of the time we visited Seville a few years back. It was February and the weather was dreadful. The city disappointed for some reason. It seemed too modern, too clean, too clinical even though the old streets around the alcazar were great and we ate some great food. I wanted to travel to Cordoba during our stay on the Costa del Sol as, from photographs, guide books and reports from Paul, this seat of the ancient Caliphate seemed like the place I imagined Seville to be. I never got there as the distances involved were much greater than I’d expected. Instead we head for Mijas Pueblo, the small  whitewashed ‘working village’ just up in the hills above Fuengirola.

Mijas Pueblo is a lovely place with charming, narrow streets, beautifully groomed horse and carriages clacking past the tourist cafes and shops, panoramic restaurants, an auditorium, a ‘working’ bullring and a cavernous church carved into a chunk of rock. The church was recently robbed of some of its wares but is still filled with enough silver and brocade to equip the Holy Roman Empire. We wander around the backstreets and do the tourist thing because we ARE tourists. We have come to gawp at the pre-tourist Spanish, to immerse ourselves in their everyday lives, if only for a few hours and observe their quaint Andalucian routines.

Men collect their daily bread in small, blue plastic bags, old women brush out their porches and dust their grilled windows, young fathers kiss goodbye to their young wives and children, teenage buckos scramble up steep paths on their motorbikes, old men sit under the shade of pine trees and chew the fat. We ooh and aah at the magnificent views over the coast, we wander around the floral gardens, we eat a selection of hot and cold tapas and sip Margeuritas and cold beers. We take photos of ourselves doing all this. This is a REAL village but it’s as phoney as any other zoo.

I’ve only ever been to Spain as a tourist, to gawp and dance, and drink and eat and swim and sun bathe. My first visit as an 18 year old scally was to San Antonio, Ibiza back in 1984. Since then I’ve been to Salou and Tenerife with my then girlfriend before we were married, then Minorca, Majorca and back to Ibiza (Santa Eulalia not San Antonio though) three years in a row with our kids. I’ve also been to Barcelona three times, all three visits happening within the space of 18 months.

Barca is my kind of city. Our first visit was with my wife, sister and brother in law in 2003. Big Al and myself went to see Barca at the Nou Camp in a night game that kicked off at 10.30. The Barca team was very average with only the bizarrely goggled Dutchman, Edgar Davids providing any kind of excitement and the atmosphere in the huge stadium was flat and subdued. Only the old fellars eating their half time foil wrapped bocadillos whilst smoking huge cigars and sipping liquor from hipflasks made me feel as if I was missing out on something.

A few months later I went with a freeloading deputation from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, or ‘Sir’ Paul McCartney’s ‘fame School’ as it’s also known. We went to pick up lovely melting Dali violin statuettes for our great work with the poor and destitute kids of Merseyside on some European Social Fund/New Deal for Musicians blag. Only the urbane American LIPA director, Arthur Bernstein’s choIce of restaurants and the visit to Barcelona University saved what was essentially a typically futile back slapping session from professional parasites. The award still takes pride of place on my mantelpiece however.

My last visit was for a mate’s 40th and three separate elements  of his sphere of friends, the Everton Taliban, the Huddersfield hooligans and the Terrace Retro trainer obsessives (I was in the latter category) convened at a huge hotel on the very end of one of the underground lines out of the city. A former media centre for visiting journalists covering the 92 Olympics, it was situated in an estate of high rise blocks that seemed to primarily house South American Indian migrant families, Spain’s empire of dirt haunting its elegant plazas and train platforms. We went to watch Barca again but this time they had been totally transformed by the toothy talents of Brazill’s Ronaldinho, perhaps the greatest player I’ve seen in action.

This was the beginning of great things for the club, as they eclipsed the so-called ‘Galaticos’ of their despised Castillian enemies, Real Madrid, who began to implode under the weight of expectation that so many huge transfer fees and wage demands brought. This was the New Spain of the EU miracle; sophisticated restaurants serving new age cuisine, beautiful buildings to house galleries and museums, charming old quarters prettified for tourists and locals alike. Gaudi, Picasso, El Bulli, Sagrada Familia, FC Barcelona. Catalan style and elegance. I wanted to dig a little deeper, to study the civil war in more detail, to brush up on my POUMs and Passionarias. To visit San Sebastian and Bilbao, Valencia and Vigo.

Spain was hip. Spain was the future. It was never going to last.

Most people don’t want or expect much from life; a decent place to live, a car perhaps to get from A to B, decent schools, hospitals and services, the odd technological gizmo for their leisure or to help them in their daily tasks, a week or two on holiday to escape the relentless drip, drip pressures of modern life. To eat, to drink, to fuck. What’s so bad about that?

Spain was the first foreign holiday destination for millions of Britons and the Costa Del Sol has remained as one of the most popular tourist spots in the world for decades. Stuffed donkeys, sombreros, furry bulls for the mantelpiece. Strange food, olive oil, crap beer, searing heat. Those 60s and 70s package holidays for the plebs who demanded good old fashioned Full English breakfast, fish and chip dinners and the  resorts that sprang up to cater for them, now seem to exist in another era altogether.

We have become more selective, more demanding, more ‘cultured.’ We have fed on a diet of cookery programmes. We can tell the difference between extra virgin olive oil and malt vinegar. We know what to expect from a pinchos menu and can even speak the odd bit of guide book lingo, so as not to offend.

‘Dos cervecas por favor’.

We want to be treated as welcome guests, valued customers, economic necessities, not as herds of cattle to be milked out of every last peseta or Euro. The Manhattan tower blocks of Torremolinos and Benalmedina offer one form of escape to those clinging onto that 70s idyll, the fancy harbours and bars of Puerto Banus and Marbella offer another.

We were planning to visit Marbella with Paul and Juan on the Saturday before we left for home but one thing or another got in the way. The kids wanted to visit the water park in Fuengirola, so I dropped them off and went for a walk around the resort (they’re both fifteen don’t worry).  Fuengirola wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. It’s geographically and culturally half way between Torremolinos and Marbella. The promenade bars and restaurants offer Spanish, Italian, British, German food and beer, the sand is clean, the beach long and tidy, the hotels aren’t too big but none of them appear luxurious. The backstreets buzz with cars and scooters, old restaurants and bodegas cater for the locals. It’s a large, busy place especially on a Saturday as the locals come down from the hills and outskirts to the playa with their gazebos and hold-alls before pitching up on the sand with sound systems blaring.

I’ve only got a few euros on me and so opt to make a pint last me an hour as I sit in the shade of one of the many chiringuitos, the beach restaurants where fresh fish are cooked on charcoal spits in boat shaped furnaces. With another hour and a half to spare I walk up the prom, cross the modern bridge over the Fuengirola river and up the steep path to the Castle Of Sohail, built in the 12th century by the Almoravides. At the summit, the inner courtyard is being prepared by sound and lighting technicians for the arrival of none other than Boney M – featuring the original lead singer – whose ‘world tour reaches Fuengirola tonight.

A few nights earlier we’d been to a local timeshare apartment block where a friend of Paul and Juan’s was singing. Featured as ‘the former lead with Heatwave’ he was a great singer and a fine performer who sang disco and soul classics to a backing tape with a few Stevie Wonder and Al Green impressions thrown in. It was sad to see such a great voice wasted on such formulaic cabaret and even though I’m a soul and disco fan myself and know Heatwave from their solitary 70s hit ‘Boogie Nights,’ nevertheless I’d have difficulty recognising him. I don’t suppose anyone who wasn’t the former lead vocalist with Heatwave would advertise themselves as such.

The former lead singer with Boney M however may be more recognisable although how many members of the Drifters must be belting out ‘Under The Boardwalk’ all over the Med must run into the hundreds. There are posters advertising concerts by George Benson, Chaka Khan and Bryan Ferry (who is billed as the former singer a band called ‘Glam Rock’ in the local paper) in Marbella. The Heatwave lad is probably having the time of his life, maybe still gets groupies and disco grannies calling on him, no doubt boasts to the other ex-members of the band about his residencies down Marbella way. Yet, for all its reputation as one of the bases for Europe’s jet set, if anywhere represents the death of old capitalism in Spain, it’s Marbella.

Just down the coast is the strategic outpost of the British empire, Gibraltar guarding the straits between the Medi and the Atlantic, between Europe and Africa, between Christian and Muslim. The French could keep their massive chunks of desert and the Spanish could keep on searching for El Dorado in the Amazon, the British placed their tax and graft operations in places like Cape Town, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Suez, The Falklands, Bombay and Gibraltar, places where the shipping routes and the transfer of goods could be restricted and duty paid.

Once waves were replaced by road, rail and air, these outposts could be handed back one by one, they’d served their purpose. Those, like Gibraltar however could still prove useful with so much at stake in the oil producing Arab states where there was still an economic interest in toppling ‘rogue’ leaders and ‘enemy’ regimes. As the old colonial European powers lost their influence and power in the 20th century, 21st century ‘oligarchs’ from the former Communist states replaced the 19th century ‘industrialists’ and ‘adventurers’ who dug for oil, diamonds and gold, who took the wood, the ivory, the crops and, the people and transplanted them in far flung lands over the ocean.

As I pick up a copy of the El Sur in English paper (they do a German version too) the front headline announces the arrival of Roman Abramovich’’s even wealthier pal, his accountant, Andrei Melnichenko who has docked his £300 million ‘toy’ yacht just far away enough from the Puerto Banus harbor not to attract visits from pesky petty bureaucrats. These men from the east are the new Untouchables, the new Aga Khans, Aristotle Onassis’s, the new Bransons, Murdochs, Trumps, and Al Fayeds protected by politicians, dignitaries, security services, bodyguards and accountants. Free to roam the world in their luxury yachts and gladhand those who want a slice of their stolen wealth. Are they any worse than the British raj or the Spanish conquistadors, are they any less brazen in their gangsterism or is it just that they don’t feel the need to hide it behind the cloak of religion or ‘civilized values?’

At the other end of the economic spectrum are the ‘looky looky’ men. When we visit La Cala, a long line of these lads get on the bus, their various wares hidden under fabrics and plastic as if it’s unlawful to actually show what they are selling. Maybe it is. What they do sell are CDs, DVDs, sunglasses, watches and bags. These young African lads, mostly tall, strong and laid back seem to be happy enough as they trawl up and down beaches trading their counterfeit designer goods. However bad it must be for them here, it must be a whole lot better than what they left behind.

On the beach, they put on a show of friendly banter as they haggle in mock-Cockney accents ‘lovely jubbly’ but as they troupe onto the bus they have a resigned air of young men who know that this is possibly as good as it gets for them. Through no fault of their own they have born black Africans in what is still a white European world, although for how much longer, who knows? The tide is turning against ‘the west’ and maybe it’s about time too, but the wealth will still remain in the hands of same old elites wherever they come from, whatever colour skin they have, whatever language they speak.

Supply and demand. The literal and metaphoric ‘black’ economy has the looky looky lads as the last link of a long chain that stretches to the sweatshops of the far east, via distribution warehouses all over Europe to middle men who supply the street vendors. How much of the cash they get to keep for themselves isn’t certain but I doubt it’s much. Enough to feed them, keep them moving from resort to resort, the odd trip out maybe. They seem free to roam and sell their jarg wares unmolested by the police, Guardia Civil or trading standards officials, the corporate branding Stasi who protect trade marks and profits across British streets and markets, car boot sales and pubs. Here, the crime fighters have bigger fish to fry. Compared to the drug trade, a few fake Raybans and Prada bags are chicken shit irritants although global PR pressure from the ‘luxury goods’ cartels pressurize governments to link this trade to drugs, prostitution, forced labour and even terrorism.

Supply and demand. People want to get high, forget their troubles for a few hours or a lifetime. They do it through alcohol, sex, drugs, food, holidays. The drug trade has been centered on Marbella for decades due to its proximity to North Africa and its reputation as a hang out for the world’s movers and shakers, phoneys and fakers, chemists and bakers. This is the purest form of capitalism there is. It is a totally self-regulating, hugely profitable industry free from any government ‘red tape’ or, more importantly, taxation. In the so-called ‘war on drugs’ one thing seems to be overlooked; millions of people enjoy taking drugs and will continue to do so, however they are produced, distributed and sold.

The pseudo-science and Wizard Of Oz mechanics of the so-called ‘free market’ has been exposed for what it has always been; a racket, a fix, a fit-up, a fraud. Try to dress it how you like, there has never been a free market only cartels and gangsters rigging the rules and laws to suit their own interests. El Faro means ‘the lighthouse’ and our apartment sits directly behind it, this old fashioned warning to boats is still in use, its beam flashing out across the smooth sea. There is also an old tuimbledown tower called El Torre Del Calaburras which I translate as ‘Tower of the cove donkeys’ which may be well wide of the mark. It appears to be some old mill which would explain the donkeys perhaps. The old days of hard labour, scraping a living from the thin soil and the dangerous seas seem long gone as tourism and drugs have become the dominant, almost the only source of wealth on this coast.

Are we all equally to blame for believing in this post-industrial panacea? Did we all buy into the house boom south sea bubble? Sell the house for three times what you paid for it, retire to Spain, Greece or Portugal, live the good life, La Dolce Vita? Did we all tune into programmes like LocationRelocationPlace InTheSun and think ‘’fuck the pension, fuck the job, let’s sell up and move out!’ Many did and now regret it as they can’t afford to sell their homes at their current valuation, many more have returned home and some are still sticking it out in the hopes that things will improve.

Some never had an option of course, the ones who either couldn’t afford to get sucked into the mortgage trap or resisted the urge to buy their council house or invest in privatisation get rich schemes. De-regulation and non-interventionist government allowed these supposedly self-sustaining, competitive markets to run riot and this is where it has got us.  The doctors providing the austerity medicine are the same alchemists who sold you the snake oil. They got the poison, they got the remedy! The myth of democracy, the illusion of choice, the lie of competition. What are the options? Either you get fucked up the arse and patted on the head or fucked up the arse and punched on the back of the neck. Either way you’re still getting fucked up the arse.

Golf! The ultimate game for the retired and bored or the working and upwardly mobile. A good walk ruined, as some wag put it. This area is surrounded by golf courses and country clubs; Calanova Golf Club, Santana Golf & Country Club, Club de Golf De Mijas, Santa Maria Golf & Country Club, Santa Clara Golf, La Cala De MIjas. Golf courses with their un-naturally green greens, their computer designed bunkers, their dressed for dinner business lunch aesthetics. It’s so very Mike Baldwin. Golf isn’t a sport but a capitalist metaphor. The individualism and self-reliance, the caddy as serf or slave, the clubhouse as imperialist outpost, the fairways and greens as lands to be invaded and conquered. First to the flag gets to keep the spoils. Spain’s western and southern coastlines have been mutilated by these wounds in the landscape.

In the film, ‘Sexy beast’ Ray Winstone plays a stereotypical London armed robber who has now retired to his bolthole villa on the Costa Del Crime. That’s the dream, right there! The outdoor pool, the fancy car, the seductive restaurants, the 90 degree in the shade heat. Yeah but at what cost? How many people who do you have fuck over, how long do you have to look over your shoulder before you can relax and enjoy your ‘retirement?’ It’s a dog eat dog world out there but you can always place yourself in a wider net of crime and hypocrisy. Tax evasion, illegal wars, corporate fraud, diplomatic murder, invasion, bombing, torture. Everyone’s in on it, the politicians, the bankers, the judges, the police.

On page 7 of El Sur there’s a tiny report of two Marbella policemen who’ve been charged with drug trafficking offences after an undercover operation. A few pages on, there’s a double page ‘report’ with the headline;

‘Bank Of England To Inject Another £50 million Into UK Economy.’

This piece has been written by one Bill Blevins, the so-called ‘financial correspondent’ for Blevins Franks. The article is in fact a paid for advertisement by the kind of people who make your money work for you, however you made it. Blevins Franks specialise in ‘providing personalized wealth management advice to British ex-patriots living here in Spain.’ They can ‘help you review and plan your investments in the current economic climate.’

Our apartment owners tell us of a notorious British gangster who lives in El Faro. This man is said to carry a shotgun around with him and once ran over an enemy in his 4×4 in front of a crowd of diners but ofcourse no-one saw anything. Around the corner there’s a huge villa of such magnificent vulgarity that it’s quite splendid. As soon as we saw we deduced that it must belong to either a gangster or a footballer. It turns out the place is owned by the owner of Pizzeria chain, an Italian who has obviously spent a fortune on its hideous chrome gates and fence panels, its pillared, portico entrance and the two enormous marble statues stood in the immaculate gardens. One statue is of a Roman charioteer, the other is a cowboy on his horse holding his pistol aloft. I think we get the drift.

It reminds me of the kind of Camorista palazzos described by Roberto Saviano in his brilliant expose of the Naples mafia, ‘Gomorrah.’ There are rumours about this man and his ‘business interests’ just as gossip about local criminals and gangsters back home in the north west of England are the everyday currency of pub talk. The more clued up gangs of London, Liverpool and Manchester have become some of the biggest crime gangs in Europe and have had their base here for decades. They come to relax, to pose, to scheme and entertain. In the bars and clubs, on the golf courses and beaches, in the apartments and villas they plotting shipments, discuss deals.

In their own worlds they’re as powerful and important as the Russian oligarchs and the G8 gangsters, carving up the global markets. Yet, even for these men, the future’s not as bright as it once was. Desperate times call for desperate measures and a recent spate of mutilated corpses found under subways and washed up on beaches indicate that these markets are as difficult to protect and patrol as the police helicopters that circle above our apartment shining their lights on the fishing boats during the night.

As I bid farewell to El Faro, I take one last look around on the roof top terrace. It’s early on a Thursday morning and the sun is low above Fuengirola. Behind me the dark mountains slumber, they’ve seen it all before. Small fishing boats begin their daily quest for bass, bream, snapper, squid. The sea is calm and there’s only a slight breeze. The noises of the urbanicazion seem muffled. Emaciated guard dogs and pampered pooches yap to each other across balustraded balconies, swifts twitter, green parakeets squawk. Later in the day. lawn sprinklers will hiss, gardeners will mutter and whistle, plasterers will sand walls and builders will drill. Life goes on even as more and more ‘Se Vende’ signs get attached to walls and gates. If it’s all a dream or a mirage, then it’s still better than the reality of living where I do, under carcinogenic chimneys and polluted air. Yes, the Costa del Sol may be bidding farewell to thousands if not millions of tourists over the next decade, but that’s precisely why I’d like to move there.

Big Al In The Himalayas – 2004

Me and my brother -in-law used to go mountain climbing together. When I saw mountain climbing, I mean ‘British’ mountains, mere hillocks in comparison to the Alps or the Rockies or the Himalayas. Once Al got into ropes, climbing sheer cliff faces and dicing with death, I shit out. In 2004, he went to the Himalayas and climbed Everest on a spacehopper….OK, he got to the base camp which is itself a trek involving plane flights from Katmandu, hiring a Sherpa guide and breathing through a false lung. Here are some boss photos I’ve been mithering for from this adventure in the high lands of Nepal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Monkeys (and the odd southern simian)

Bill Routledge is a Preston lad who has penned a number of great articles not only for this site for for Casual Connoisseurs, Our Culture and his own  PNE empire, Waiting For Glory.

Over the past few years Bill’s been interviewing various northern style setters, streetwear fanatics and sub-culture obsessives for his book, ‘Northern Monkeys.’  The book has been a labour of love for Bill and will soon be on the shelves or available from mail order. Unlike many of these so-alled ‘sub-culture’ tomes, NM lets the subjects tell their own tales, free from any pretentious mediation from the show off academics or self-glorifying hacks (yes, Paolo I mean you). Bill is just a normal fellar with a passion for great clothes, great music and not very great football. Monkeys looks at sub-cultures both well known and documented and relatively obscure that have shaped the way we dress, dance and live ‘up north.’

We heartily recommend this book for anyone with the slightest interest in pop culture over the past 40 years or so.

Here’s the blurb….

Contributed fables that are in Northern Monkeys range from blokes touching seventy years of age, right through the spectrum down to teenagers on how they perceive the subcultures/non-cults of today. There are authors like Dave Hewitson – “The Liverpool Boys are in Town” – telling of Cunard Yanks bringing back goods to British shores from around the world and Scouse fixation for being first in, best dressed. A War Baby, on growing up in a backwater Northern town in the Fifties and Sixties. Mods, Boot Boys and Hippies. Skinheads, Scooter Boys and Soulies. The Twisted Wheel nightclub is covered by lads who walked the walk, and danced the dance along with Blackpool Mecca, The Golden Torch and Wigan Casino. Cass Pennant on travelling ‘op noff’ in the Seventies for football and visiting Northern Soul venues plus his thoughts on Northern Soul when the south had gone all funky. Punk and Oi! 2-Tone by Ian Hough – “Perry Boys & Perry Boys Abroad” – as only he can write in his flamboyant ramblings. Ste Cowens – “B.B.C. 1 & 2” – on New Romantic in Sheffield. The rise of the Casual/Dresser movement with a comparison on the North-south divide in dress. Dressing down/the Scruff Look by Phil Thornton – “Casuals” – and others chip in too. Entrepreneurs who have made a decent crust connected to sportswear; Wade Smith, Gary Aspden and the MD at JD. Raving & misbehaving and Madchester. Wayfarers tales of travel and mischief. And, much much more from lads who have experienced happenings in bygone eras.

New Brighton with Isaac & Charlie

Just to prove that this site isn’t just about chemical factories, cooling towers, pollution and terminal diseases (OK, that’s 99% of it), here’s some photos of my two young nephews enjoying the pristine sand and green flag waters of the Irish Sea on New Brighton beach yesterday.

 

OK, so I got a bit carried away in this next one and went all Martin Parr (for those yet to see Parr’s sneering, litter strewn portraits of New Brighton in the 80s, check out The Last Resort).

Runcorn Station Carpark – Piss or bleach?

I get the train to Liverpool from Runcorn station every morning and the surrounding streets are always filled with commuters’ cars as they try to avoid paying the fiver per day to place their motors inside this beautiful architectural tribute to the Nazi death camps.

When the multi-story was constructed a few years back I assumed that the concrete and metal mesh effect was only temporary and that funky, multi-coloured cladding would be placed over the bare cement and terrifying metal but no, in a tribute to the brutalists of the 60s and 70s, this was the finished product.

With it’s eco-friendly sculpture/turbine powering the coffee machine and retro-futurist bike stand, Runcorn station is a mish mash of competing styles as if Albert Speer met Albert Steptoe somewhere on the Widnes Bridge.

Car crime used to be a problem round here but not any more, the car park and station has more cameras than Cannes. The message is clear; ‘you and your car are safe here.’  The station itself is still only a couple of platforms on the main west coast Euston to Lime Street line but sometimes celebrities of the stature of Cream’s James Barton, Brookside ice queen, Jennifer Ellison and the Everton Youth Squad can be found jibbing the first class lounge to mingle with the middle management mobile phone gobshites, wacky sweded students and weed addled scals.

It takes about 15 minutes on the Virgin Pendolino or 25 on the London Midland that stops at the super-funky new Liverpool South Parkway station (aka the former home of South Liverpool FC in Allerton). Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the oppressive, grey pebble dash fascism of Runcorn to the shiny, utopian-consumerist, sterility of South Parkway any day.  It’s the difference between the smell of piss and bleach.

I Got The Poison!

 My home town, Runcorn has always been an ICI town. The vast chlorine plants at Rocksavage and Castner Kellner provided jobs for thousands of local people and ancillary jobs on the docks and the tugs and freight yards supplying these vast complexes with raw materials and transporting the by-products to other industries. ICI sold off its chlorine production arm to Ineos Chlor who, like ICI before them, have held the town to economic  ransome every time they don’t get their own way. Despite numerous and persistant breaches of pollution laws, the Environment Agency have always given the corporate giant the lighest of slaps on the wrist. Despite poisoning the town for over a century and helping to make the area one of the most polluted in western Europe with the highest cancer rate in the country, the town’s councillors, MPs and bureaucrats have always caved in when ICI or Ineos threatened to withdraw from the town if their profits were threatened by ‘do gooders’ and ‘tree huggers.’

Ineos Chlor in their wisdom have decided that one area they make even money from is energy from waste and so have sited a huge incinerator in the town despite objections from local people worried not only about the added air pollution but also by the massive increase in traffic in one of the most gridlocked parts of the country.

Once the decision had been given the green light by the town’s cowardly council and the corporate whores at the Environment Agency, Ineos Chlor then began constructing a site that had a capacity for 480,000 tonnes of waste rather then the 85,000 tonnes in their planning proposal.

Once again, they attempted to blackmail the council, threatening to pull out of the town altogether if they didn’t get their own way. Once again, the council tried to appease the company despite a campaign from the pressure group Halton Action Group Against The Incinerator (HAGATI) but had to back down amid angry scenes of the Town Hall. Rail and water links already exist to the vast site and now Ineos have agreed to use other means of transport as well as road. Even so, between 85,000 and 480,000 tonnes of the north west’s shite will be burning in that massive chimney soon.

Not surprisingly both the company and the Environment Agency refute any risk to the local population. In their Q&A section of their website Ineos answer the following ‘questions’ as below :

What  is ‘Energy from Waste’?
          Energy from Waste is a  tried and tested technology that allows the recovery of energy from household  waste (refuse) normally sent to landfill.   Our plant would be supplied with fuel generated from refuse that has been  pre-treated where it is collected so that it can be burnt safely to produce  energy.  This pre-treatment removes  recyclable materials such as glass, plastic bottles, paper, wood, ceramics,  cans and metals as well as removing moisture and other organic materials such  as garden waste and food scraps.  After processing,  almost three quarters of the waste will have been recycled/removed, leaving  around one quarter that will form the fuel used to generate steam and  electricity for use by INEOS at Runcorn Site.
Why  do we need ‘Energy from Waste’ plants?
          Developing Energy from  Waste in the UK is very important to be able to effectively manage the waste we produce.  Under the EU Landfill  Directive, which became law in the UK in 2003, all local authorities across the  UK have been set tough targets by central government to reduce the amount of  waste that they send to landfill.   Energy from Waste technology has strong environmental credentials in  that waste can be diverted from landfill to create energy that would otherwise  be generated from fossil fuels.  There  are over 400 such plants operating across Europe, where this technology is more  common.  In Switzerland, for example,  almost 50% of household waste is reused to create energy, rather than be put  into landfill.  This is compared to  Britain, where less than 10% of waste is currently used in this way.
Is  ‘Energy from Waste’ safe?
          Yes.  Energy  from Waste is a tried and tested technology that is already being used  extensively in Europe in countries such as Denmark, The Netherlands, France,  Sweden and Switzerland.  By law the  plant must comply with the Waste Incineration Directive (WID).  This Directive, which applies across the  whole of the European Union, details how the plant must be designed and  operated and sets maximum emission levels that do not represent a risk to  health.  In the UK, compliance with the  Directive is enforced by the Environment Agency.
Why  build the facility at Weston Point, Runcorn?

Runcorn  Site uses the same amount of electricity as a city the size of  Liverpool, so it is  very important to the long-term future of our business to be able to look at  alternative ways of producing energy that reduces our dependence on fossil  fuels.
          It is important that the  proposed plant is located as close as possible to Runcorn Site.  This is because it is not efficient to  transport steam as it starts to condense back to water if pipes are too  long.   It is also very important that any potential site has good links to the local transport network including  rail, road and water.  The chosen site  at Weston Point meets these needs, and has the added advantage that it is  already occupied by industry.

 So there you have it; this is an environmentally ‘good’ thing – saving on fossil fuels and landfill waste sites to meet government targets and is it best located in Runcorn because it’s already a pollured hell hole and we couldn’t get away with it anywhere else.  Ineos are doing this to help the world, just as they invest in local heritage projects to preserve the natural landscape built upon previous waste dumps like Runcorn Hill (see above). No wonder the Enviroment Agency support the plans. This is from their website:

We have now granted an environmental permit to Ineos Chlor to operate an energy from waste facility at Weston Point, Runcorn. 
This decision is the outcome of our careful consideration and thorough determination of the application since we accepted it in October 2009.  We recently held a consultation on our draft decision to issue a permit to Ineos Chlor. We would like to thank everyone for their comments, a result of which led to slight changes within the permit documents.  However, these changes are not significant enough to change the outcome we proposed in the draft documents. 

We have used the most up-to-date scientific evidence and received specialist advice on health matters during this process. As a result we are satisfied that the proposed facility poses no significant risk to the health of local residents or to the environment, and have granted the environmental permit. 

Environment Agency officers will enforce strict emission levels and operating standards throughout its operating lifetime.

That word ‘significant’ is pretty significant eh? No ‘significant risk to the health of local residents’ implies there is IS a risk and who decides what is and isn’t ‘significant.’ Oh, but the EA will be ‘enforcing strict emission levels’ but then again, this is the bunch who allowed ICI to get away with flouting pollution regulations for decades. This is from the Friends Of The Earth website detailing how ICI Runcorn became the worst polluters in Britain.

A shocking new report exposes the extent of pollution at ICI Runcorn – possibly Britain’s filthiest factory. It also shows that the Environment  Agency (EA) has failed to control the factory properly – it has insufficient staff and has failed to force ICI to improve its plant. Even when it secures a conviction against the company, penalties are too light to act as a deterrent. Friends of the Earth is demanding that the EA acts against company directors as individuals in cases of gross pollution.

The report is published on the second birthday of the EA, which FOE describes as “utterly failing in its duty to control pollution from this disgustingly filthy factory”. The report  was written by former pollution control officers of the National Rivers Authority (now part of the EA) [1]. One of the authors spent four years regulating the Runcorn site.

The report shows that:

  • there were regular major illegal releases of pollutants from the site. The study looked at three of the thirteen processes at Runcorn between February 1996 and August 1997 [2] There were 244 unauthorised  pollution incidents, of which 58 were serious and 8 very serious
  • chemicals released included mercury (a nervous system toxin), chloroform  (a carcinogen and anaesthetic), trichloroethane (suspect carcinogen, narcotic, irritant),hexachlorobenzene (carcinogen), trichlorobenzene (reproductive toxin)
  • the local Weston Canal has been used as “ICI’s drain”.  Large amounts of pollutants are routinely discharged into it, together  with large accidental releases. The canal is stratified into two layers.  The lower layer consists of brine contaminated with mercury. A footpath runs over the Canal, with public access. The EA does not sample the             Weston Canal, but does sample at a weir after the canal joins the River Weaver. In spite of dilution by the river, spills of solvents from the ICI site have resulted in chemical pollution levels twenty to sixty times the EU’s Environmental Quality Standard
  • groundwater under the site includes chloroform at fifteen times  the accepted maximum, and trichloroethane at almost two and half times the accepted maximum
  • the EA has too few staff on site to monitor and enforce standards  properly. There have never been targets set for ICI to upgrade its plant to standard levels of pollution control. The chlor alkali plant, for example, uses outdated mercury technology,which is not “Best Available Technology Not Exceeding Excessive Cost”, supposedly the standard enforced by the EA. ICI Runcorn therefore has an unfair  advantage over better regulated competitors
  • ICI has not put in place even the most basic pollution control measures,  such as waterproof walls around the vessels containing chemicals
  • the heaviest fine levied against ICI has been £300,000 for a leak of more than 150 tonnes of chloroform. The company is currently  being prosecuted for a spill of 57 tonnes of trichloroethane. ICI  made a net profit of £259 million in 1997, on a turnover of £11 billion. 

 

Those of us who have lived under the shadow of ICI/Ineos Chlor and other chemical plants and refineries all our lives have to trust that these corporations and regulators have people not profits as their priority yet how many of these people live in towns and cities as polluted as those cradling the Mersey estuary?

My daughter has recently moved into her first house directly under the new incinerator chimney. It’s easy to say ‘why not just move?’  but all my family live here and my children’s friends all live here so why should we move? Ineos Chlor don’t own the town despite their bribes and blackmailing antics. it’s not as if they employ that many people any more.

In the heyday of the 60s and 70s, almost all the local men were employed at Castners or Rocksavage, then with the development of the new town came Bass, Guinness, YKK, Schreiber and other large employers. Also with better transport links and car ownership, the likes of Vauxhall and Stanlow at Ellesmere Port, BICC in Helsby and  Fords at Halewood became easier to reach.

The days of the ICI job for life brigade with their annual share dividends, lucrative shift allowances, generous pension schemes and nepotistic family guilds are long over. As long as chlorine production provided employment for the locals, rates for the council and prestige and profits for the company, then who cared if the water and the soil and the air became poisonous?

 

Recently the council has unveiled a huge mural entitled ‘Of Heroes & Industry’ celebrating local historical figures such as Queen Ethelfreda, Victoria Cross winning soldier, Todger Jones and ofcourse, the Johnson and Hazlehurst families owners of the Runcorn’s soap making factories in the 19th and early 20th centruries. These ‘heroes’ of industry were perhaps the first major polluters in the town and their poison continues to contaminate the local soil centuries later.

It’s fitting therefore that the meetings to decide the future of the incinerator should be held in the grand house built for Thomas Johnson in 1854 and now serves as the Town Hall. After making a vast fortune, the Johnsons lost most of it attempting to break a blockade during the American Civil War and the house passed onto Charles Hazlehurst in 1871 before passing on to local tannery factory owner and major polluter, Francis Boston in 1903. That terrible mixture of industry and politics keeps on poisoning us all.

As The Prodigy put it; ‘I got the poison’ but who’s got the remedy?

The Department

‘Life without industry is guilt and industry without art is brutality’

John Ruskin

‘Only fools and horses work’

John Sullivan

Phil

I used to work here once. My first proper job. The Department of Employment’s East Lane headquarters in Runcorn. The civil service.  Pen pushing. Joined as a clerical assistant, a CA, the lowest of the low in the Central Pay Office or CPO.  Piece of piss really. CPO paid all the other civil servants across the country  and there were hundreds of staff, mostly women and each office had its own team of Executive Officers, EOs and Clerical Officers, COs.

The COs made different kinds of payments on large A4 numbered pads which they passed to me for batching. I’d sort them out into different payment types, stamp them with a number, count them out, complete a batch header form and place them in bags ready to be taken the girls in data preparation who’d sort them out again with other jobs from other sections before passing them to the girls who keyed all the information into the mainframe computer. Then when the weekly and monthly payrolls were completed, I’d get the forms back, sort them alphabetically and file them away. Thousands and thousands and thousands of the fuckers.

It was no job for someone with a grammar school education behind him, someone expected to go to university but to be honest but I was always a lazy, unambitious student and so, after leaving school at 16 with four GCSEs and ending up on a YTS scheme, any kind of job was valuable at that time. It was 1984 and Orwell’s dystopian nightmare wasn’t that far off. Thatcher’s regime had cast millions of us aside and Big Brother was definitely watching us at GCHQ where union membership was outlawed. The miner’s strike lead by Arthur Scargill began the same year and Orgreave would be the old trade union movement’s Waterloo.

A photo of the queen stood proudly in the entrance and we were in effect, all employees of the crown. We had to sign the official fucking secrets act and anyone who harboured left wing views was felt to be a subversive and corrosive influence in the obedient hierarchy that sustained the government departments. We were all tiny cogs in the giant wheel that kept the empire running.

The offices weren’t open plan back then, each wing was separated into individual spaces and each office would house one of two teams headed by an EO. The other wings contained other larger office spaces, the data preparation area and the the computer block, the state of the art technical superstructure that kept the entire department up and running. I remember an old episode of ‘Some Mothers Do Have Em’ where Frank Spencer was working in some kind of computer room and his boss kept saying ‘have we got the tape from Runcorn?’ and we were made up because they mentioned our town on the telly.

There was also a piece on ‘Tomorrow’s World’ about the busway, which was a busses only road that connected all the different new town estates and was thought to be a pretty futuristic transport solution.

There were also estates like Southgate that we called ‘Legoland’ because of their space age design and I suppose back in the early 70s, it was like living in the kind of place that the architects and the town planners had predicted for the future; like something from ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

The computer wing  was the one place you could make decent money, even a lowly CA could claim shift allowances and lots of overtime so after a few years of filing forms, I got a chance to move to the computer room but found that I wasn’t cut out for the more challenging work involved and didn’t get kept on after a trial period so ended up in data preparation, preparing the forms for the girls to key in or tapes for the computer lads to run. It was boring, repetitive, mindless, I loved it.

I was still casual at the time that meant I didn’t get any service counted towards a pension or any pay rise then after two years, got kept on permanent, which was a big deal, as you had a regular income and that was important as me dad had just been made redundant from his job on the docks at Weston Point and any money coming into the house with four kids was needed.

 

Supplement to Liverpool Daily Post – Wed July 17, 1968
 

Runcorn New Town advert

“A New Factory?

Runcorn is making a fast start to its period of rapid expansion which will take the population from the existing 30,000 to 75,000 within the next 12 years. As a location for new industry it has many advantages :

Labour – there is an abundant supply of semi-skilled and trainable adult males and a government training centre opening in the town this year. Attractive housing is available for employees.

Communications – industrial estates are 8 miles from M6 with direct motorway links planned, newly electrified rail service – 2 and half hours to London by direct Pullman service, the Garston freightliner terminal is 8 miles way, Liverpool airport is 10 minutes away by road. Liverpool docks are only a short distance away and Runcorn itself has docking facilities.

Development area – status brings with it a full range of Board of Trade grants and incentives.

New factories and sites are available now.

Another 2000 houses in next stage of giant scheme – the construction of Castlefields estate.   
 
SNW Selleck, Nicholls Williams (E,G.G) Ltd Abbey House Victoria St London advert 
  
Moving in – between 1969 and 1971, 2,200 families (and Cindy)
 
Responsible – SNW, the Runcorn Development Corporation and McAlpine’s
 
The £8,000,000 contract in Runcorn will house 8000 people and is one of the largest single housing contracts ever to be awarded in Great Britain. The Castlefields development is due to be completed in 1971, the first large contract in the New Town programme.

Lee

We moved to Castlefields when I was 7 or 8 in the early 70s. We were from Kirkdale way originally but me dad thought we’d all have a better life out in the country as he called it. It was a bit of a shock when we moved to Castlefields cos the flats were horrible, really small and the estate was only half built when we moved in.

The locals didn’t like us neither, the woolybacks, as soon as we moved in, there was aggro with the locals;‘Scouse bastards’ the usual stuff. They hated us and I suppose cos we were miles away from home we didn’t want to mix with them. I had to go to one of their junior schools for a few years and that was murder for a while but it soon settled down. There was a lot of fighting in the 70s and 80s, we were always having battles with the wools but I think my lads’ generation, it’s not two towns any more, just different estates.

Me dad got a job on the Astmoor, it was easy to get a job back then, all the industrial estates had loads of different firms there and the DevCo would box them off with subsidies so that they’d stay there. When I left school I started working at Schreiber, the furniture place, then me uncle got me a job at Bass. I was there till it closed down in the 90s. Once the Devco pulled out, I think a lot of companies just thought ‘ah, fuck this, it’s cheaper in Poland or wherever.’

They’ve started pulling down al the flats in Castlefields now, about time too. It was really bad here a few years ago, once they pulled Southgate down all the smackheads moved here and it went down hill but now its looking pretty good. Me son has one of the new houses they’ve built and it’s dead nice, nice enough to bring your kids up here again.

All these estates they built are being knocked down. Southgate, Halton Brook, they were as bad as the places we left back in Liverpool, worse even cos you were stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. I’ve thought about moving back a few times but once you have kids and that they get their own little group of mates and then you don’t want to uproot all over again.

I’m glad we moved here really, cos I like fishing and I only have to walk down the road and you’ve got the canal and the countryside close by. I’m still in the same house I moved into when I got married in 1987 and it does us, now the kids have moved out but I’ve got me name down for one of the new houses so hopefully we’ll be in one of those soon.

It’s not easy cos I’ve been bad the past few years and had to jack me job in and that’s been hard. I was made redundant from Bass and then had a few shit jobs in the factories on Astmoor and Whitehouse but the money was shite, no unions, really bad hours, weekend shifts for no extra pay but that’s how it is today.

My lads don’t know what a union is, one works in a call centre and the other’s just been laid off. They’ve got no idea. I can’t really see it getting any better neither because all those old industries have gone for good now. You might get Fords taking on now and then but that’s rare and even then unless you know someone it’s impossible to get a job there. It’s the same wherever you go though. I worry for the young uns or maybe they expect too much. As long as I can go and have a fish and the odd pint I’m happy mate.

Phil

I remember those estates being built. We lived in a 50s terrace on the Grange estate which I suppose was state of the art when my mam and dad moved in in the early 60s. I was born in 65 and my earlist memories are walking up the field behind our house with me grandad to Grice’s Farm and the figure eight fishing pit. It was still all farmlands then stretching away to Frodsham and the Cheshire plain. Then it was all tractors and lorries and JCBs and building sites as the three story tenements of the Halton Lodge and Halton Brook estates were built just up the road for the scousers and also new houses with indoor toilets and central heating were built directly behind our house for the old town residents. We moved into one of these when I was 5 or 6.

The whole estate had an arborial theme; we moved from 2 Larch Road to 33 Poplar Close. There was Poplar Road, Elm Drive, Cypress Grove, Ash Road, Sycamore Road, Maple Avenue, Lime Grove, Cherry Tree Avenue, Willow Grove, Laburnum Road, Pine Road. Some were rougher than others but they were all rough. Not that we knew any different. Kids don’t appreciate poverty till they have something to compare it with.

Where me granddad lived a few miles away in Castle Rise was a really poor area. This was where my mum grew up whereas my dad came from Dukesfied the little warren of terraced Victorian streets underneath the Liverpool to London railways bridge. This was also a very poor area.

At the end of Castle Rise was the Skill Centre, where they had all different workshops teaching kids how to do different jobs. There was also a barbers and hairdressers section where me grandad used to go to get a free haircut, even though he was bald. He’d take me to get mine cut too some times.  I was always scared of the kids in Castle Rise because it was a rough street, some of the houses there were proper slums, they really had fuck all. You forget that level of poverty existed, it still exists today but not like that, not to the same degree, it wasn’t 48 inch plasma screen on the drip poverty.

The local tip was also housed right behind the houses and smell of the tip and the nearby lard factory, always made me feel sick when we visited the skilly or me grandad took me down the brew to Halton Road bookies. It was if the council had deliberately placed the worst factories and the tip right next to this estate as if the people weren’t worth a fuck.

Me grandad He used to work in the tanneries that used to the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship canal; Camden Tannery, Puritan Tannery, Highfield Tannery. Even in his 70s his arms were as strong and sinewy. You could tell he’d grafted all his life. The last tanneries closed in the 1960s when plastic and synethics replaced leather and even though it was a dangerous industry with all the chemcials they used, he still talked about the place as it was the best place on earth.  The only reason these factories were situated in the town was because they could pump all the waste into the canals without treating it.

I used to scoff at his boast that he’d never had a day off sick in 40 years; more fool him! But then back then there was no such thing as Statutory Sick Pay and a day off sick meant less food for his kids. Yet he was a Tory, he believed in the Queen and the certainty of the Empire, that it stood for all that was great about the country and that all the people of the nation benefitted if not equally then at least proportionately.

He was born in 1901 and used to tell us he was too young to fight in the first world war and too old to fight in the second, although 38 seems a little young to be excluded from military service. Maybe he had a reserved occupation but tanners didn’t seem to be crucial to the war effort.

At any rate three of his children served in the forces during the war and my mum, although only a young girl can still recall the German planes flying over on bombing missions to Liverpool. They can try and dress it up as a fight against tyrrany but really it’s just business. Import and export, share prices, stocks and assets. Leather and chemicals and steel and crops. Ships unloaded, materials processed. My dad worked on Weston Point docks and growing up in the 70s seemed to be for ever on strike.

Advert from Daily Post supplement, 1969 

Weston Point docks
 
- on the Cheshire side of the River Mersey


- well sited as a transhipment point between seagoing vessels, river barges, canal craft and road vehicles


- regularly used by seagoing vessels with a cargo capacity of to about 16,000 tons


- quick turn-round of vessels


- 4,500 feet of quay length, 78,000 sq ft of warehouse accomodation for traffic requiring protection for customs’ clearance


- 350,000 sq ft of open storage space


- electric cranes (including mobile cranes) fork-lift trucks, mechanical shovels and portable conveyors providing a modern, efficient and rapid service for handling the goods ashore

British Waterways


Mr. H. Holland, the manager (Weston Point and Anderton) will be pleased to tell you more. His address is Weston Point Docks, Runcorn, Cheshire and his tel no is Runcorn 2218

Brian

I left school when I was 15, went into the merchant navy as lots of young lads did back then, this was 1953, 54, sailed all over the world to Valparaiso in Chile, then I got a job on the tugs as a deck-hand before ending up on the docks.  All the jobs were based around the canals, then ICI ofcourse, the salt works. I worked on the docks from 1962 to 1985, then we got made redundant. That was the worst period of my life, having to sign on, it was humilitating. I was no use around the house, my wife, Dot was working in the day and I just felt useless. It was a bad time for fellars of my generation, we were used to grafting, there was always a job you could go to but with Thatcher all the old industrial jobs went, it was all shipped abroad. The Tories said it was all about efficiency, the British workers had to compete with the rest of the world but it was never about that, it was jobs for the boys. All her cronies raking it in, all the privatisation schemes, they sold it all off to their mates in the city.

I had a few years doing crap jobs in factories and then ended up in the DEP, the offices in East Lane, where I was a porter. Most of the porters were ex-tug fellars and dockers like me. I was there for nearly 12 years before I retired. It was OK, the money wasn’t great but we had a good set of lads there, had some good nights in the bar. I miss that. We always had a bottle of whisky on a Friday afternoon, stretch the jobs out till the weekend.

Phil

I was pretty active in the union, the CPSA, the Civil and Public Servants Association. I’d go round with the bucket collecting during the miner’s strike and we were pretty militant in the 80s, always on strike and I used to be pretty hostile on the picket line. I suppose I got a reputation as a troublemaker and the bosses certainly hated me but I enjoyed that. It was us and them. When we had to represent these pricks when the unions merged and became  PCS, the bosses, the HEOs and SEOs on four times as much as me, then it all changed.

I moved to the accounts office for a few years. I couldn’t hack that either. Moved back to CPO after a bit and got promoted to CO, although they were called Admin Officers, AOs now. It wasn’t that I was really interested in promotion but if you stuck around for long enough then you tended to get promoted by osmosis.  I was getting married too so needed a few more bob in me pocket to put a deposit down on a house. CPO was worse as an AO though, really boring and quite hard work, well hard if you no head for figures.   I just couldn’t get me head round numbers so obviously the right place for me was the statistics department, which is where I moved in 1991.

My first daughter was only a few months old when I moved down to Watford for a few months and brought the jobs back to Runcorn. This is how it went all the time. New ministers would come in and try to make a name for themselves by shaking things up. Some wanted jobs to transfer from London and the south up to the north and then once they’d moved, some other minister would come in and it’d go the other way, more centralisation. When we moved back there wasn’t enough room in East Lane so we went into Grosvenor House named after the Duke of Westminster who owns half of Cheshire and London. The richest man in Britain, wealthy from stolen land granted to his cattle rustling ancestors a thousand years ago.

I worked on the Average Earnings Index, which was even more boring than payroll. We had to send these forms out to various companies asking for their weekly and monthly payroll totals and how many employees they had. They’d fill them in and then we’d work out the average and key into our computers. If the average was up or down by a certain percent we’d have to phone them up and ask them for an explanation.

Half the time I just made it up. We had to put coded notes on our reports that the EO would then scrutinise MBTAAOT for example – monthly back to average after overtime or WHiB – weekly high bonus. Each AO had about a thousand companies in their allocation and even though the job itself wasn’t hard, it was boring as fuck, same thing every month.

You had a certain allocation in various Standard Industrial Classifications, SICs. There was a big book of all the different SICs and most of them belonged to the industrial revolution, really specialised old trades that had died out years ago. Each company was weighted by its importance to the particular SIC, not only by how many employess it had but by how big it was to the rest of the other companies in the same SIC. You had to get these ones in at all costs, if not you had to make an estimate based on previous figures and when the real ones came through they’d do an adjustment the next month as well as making seasonal adjustments.

It sounds dull because it was. It was fucking soul destroying in fact. I needed to get out but we were skint, we had two kids, my wife didn’t have a permanent job, the mortgage interest rate had gone sky high and the wages were shit but was else was there? Any job’s better than no job. I envied me dad’s generation, the fellars who started work in the 1950s and 60s. Of all the millions of workers who were spat out over the past century or so, they had it the best. My dad came home with his pay packet every week, boxed off me ma with her keep, she paid the rent man, kept us fed and clothed and he spent as he wanted. Life was simple. If he lost a job, he could get another one, if he went out on strike, the bosses usually backed down. If he fancied a pint or four at dinner time, the ship could wait.

Brian

We had to fight for everything we got on the docks. We were treated like shit but we stuck together. It was a dangerous job, especially where we worked on Weston Point docks where it was all chemicals and it was hard work. My arms and shoulders are knackered now, it took it out of you, so we deserved a few pints after unloading two or three boats a day.

I couldn’t have been one of these fellars at ICI watching dials all day long, sat on their arses. We were on good money but we fought for every penny. It was never a job for life, there’s no such thing as a job for life, but we deserved decent pay for what we did. When containers came in, that was it for the dockers. I didn’t mind the work in the DEP, we did a lot of moving and shifting, grafting jobs, spun it out, got our ovies in, weekend shift allowance, we knew how to work it to our advantage. This lot wouldn’t have lived with us, they’re too soft, too greedy. No-one wants to put the effort in these days. No-one sticks together.

Tommy

Work is a protestant scam. The protestant work ethic? Fuck that! The people who tell you that work is ennobling, that work is dignified have never done a hard day’s graft in their fucking lives. That’s what they want you to think, the God is up there shaking his head if you skive off, take a sickie, laze about when you should be grafting, sweating for your master, slaving away, night and day.

 Time and motion, counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours, designing the processes, the mechanics of slavery.  They’re all in it together, the only conspiracy at work in the world is keeping the rich, rich. So they invent systems and traditions, they invent their own myths and morality. They invent their own countries and borders and races. They invent their own laws and codes and rules. They invent their own religions and rituals and beliefs. They invent their own armies and police forces and political parties.

The rich get rich through luck, through ruthlessness, through hard work sometimes but most get rich by inheritance and this wealth is handed down through the generations and has to be protected at all costs.

The wealth is created by the workers and the carrot they are tempted with is minimal and pathetic, a few quid more for a few hours less, enough spare cash to finance a mortgage, a new car, a holiday abroad, the odd treat here and there, the mirage of success.

Whilst the majority are caged by these timid ambitions, those who fall by the wayside, those who can’t compete through their own lack of education or indolence or disability or bad luck, those who can’t or won’t work become non-people, obsolete. You are fit for only one thing; to work, they need you to be strong enough to fulfil your role, your sacred duty, to place your body at the mercy of the market, the phoney market that sustains all life.

There is no such thing as the free market, there never has been, there never will be. Nothing is free in this life or the afterlife, you have to pay. Pay in blood, pay in sweat, pay in pain. Pay with your body and your soul, if you believe in such things. Suicide is a sin because no matter how shit your life may be, they don’t want to risk fit and able slaves killing themselves rather than wasting away through hard labour. They want to own  your immortal soul too.

 Rich people become rich by exploiting those unable to defend themselves, by bullying the weak, by stealing their land, their resources, their livelihoods, their children. The rich stay rich by protecting this wealth by warfare, by bribery, by starvation and disease, by appealing to abstract notions of democracy and fairness and liberty and civilised values.

The Puritans believed idleness was a sin against God, that every waking moment should be spent in toil or prayer, yet God only put in a six day shift and his sat on his arse ever since those wandering desert tribes  invented Him.

 Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off. Make things, grow things, grow things to make things, sell things, make things to sell things, invest things, sell things to invest things. Interest. Percentages. Returns. Share options. Bonuses. The wheel keeps spinning.

 Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off. We live to work. We work to live. In not working we become redundant, we become nothing, we become other. We define ourselves by our jobs, our trades, our tribes, our colours and collars. We feed our children to that hungry Moloch who demands sacrifice in bones and blood, who offers protection and stability to those who truly believe in him. The fire keeps burning day and night, relentless, greedy, it needs to be fed. Clock on, clock off, clock on, clock off.     

Phil

I moved again to another stats office fiddling the unemployment figures and there was also a section that compiled  union membership and industrial dispute details, which was pretty interesting but part of the Tory’s propaganda campaign to virtually criminalise industrial action.

The membership numbers were falling all the time because of the decline of the old heavy industries and the strikes were down to almost nil because of the anti-union legislation. This was all presented as the ordinary worker becoming disillusioned with trade unionism and all the stats were fiddled if not by us being lazy then certainly by the aristocratic strata of professional statisticians who applied various formulae to spin a story in any direction their paymasters wanted.

I moved back to East Lane in the mid-90s when the stats departments merged with the Central Statistics Office, CSO to become the all-new politically independent Office for National Statistics, ONS. I was part of a small, elite team that was tasked with restructuring the entire department.

It was my first and only flirtation with ambition.  I was an AO along with 3 HEOs and an SEO and got temporary promotion to the EO grade.  We followed the old CSO Newport model that had a central data input department who did the dogsbody business of keying all the various forms in, two information sections, one for earnings and one for employment and a newly created secretariat which was the cushy number and the place all of the restructuring team ended up.

It was a disaster really and the statisticians who became our managers were not up to the job.  They were mathematicians not managers and so we were outmanoeuvred by other more ruthless bosses in London and South Wales and made redundant in 2002. It came as a relief to be honest. All my mates had found work elsewhere, the morale had become steadily worse, the grade structure more oppressive, the pay and conditions worse and worse, the place was dying before our eyes. Even the bar where I spent many good hours was almost empty, even on a Friday when we’d sign ourselves out for two or three hours for a lunch time bevvy. Only me dad and a few of the other porters and some from the computer room were keeping it open.

Also, the place was riddled with asbestos. In the 90s they’d closed parts of the building off while they removed the asbestos from the ceilings, whilst keeping the rest of the building open. They said there was no risk of contamination but then they would say that. It would’ve cost em a fortune to close the entire building down and it was a massive logistical problem to do the work on other premises.  People are fundamentally lazy and fundamentally greedy, including me, so why risk all the aggro?

The old Department of Employment had also been re-named the Department for Education and Employment, DfEE and a new building was constructed behind East Lane called Castle View House. As various departments and offices moved from East Lane to Castle View in the 90s, whole wings became vacant.

Just as we’d moved jobs up from Watford, so once the new building had been constructed, bit by bit the work began to drain away from Runcorn as costs were cut and departments merged, as new ministers sought the limelight and policy changed overnight. Now Castle View is almost deserted on most floors and East Lane stands as a fitting testimony to the decline of the economy. Left abandoned to vandals and arsonists, pigeons and rats, weeds and scrub, the offices are too dangerous to demolish because of the asbestos and so remain as an ironic mausoleum and monument to the redundancy of Employment.

I used to work here once but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it was a lie, maybe I didn’t work here, maybe this building doesn’t exist. I can see faces at the windows, I can hear the sound of vans and the shouts of porters, the tapping of keyboards, the clink of glasses, the laughter of prisoners, the sobbing of the dead.

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work will set you free)

Auschwitz  Gates

‘Been workin’ and slavin’
an’ workin’ and workin’
but I still got so terribly far to go’

Nina Simone

Multi-Modal Zones

Image

We travel as we live, in straight lines if possible, from A to B from birth to death, along a prescribed path which abstract concepts such as faith, fate, luck or chance can divert us from. We all undertake regular journeys; walking the dog, traveling to work (or not), going to the supermarket or the corner shop, taking the kids to school. Such routine tasks, day in, day out, robotic, unthinking, autopilot moments in our lives as they are now.

 

I think of other routes and pathways; those from childhood, those from schooldays, from fatherhood. We walk alone, along our paths (no matter what the koppites say!), it’s your path, no one else’s and you can step off or stay on, consciously or unconsciously, you can make detours and diversions, create exits and cul de sacs, follow the map of your internal and external desires and motivations.

The city is partitioned as are our lives, the landscape of our lives are routed in memory and myth, we exaggerate and select stories about ourselves, we edit our history each day, who we are, what we are; fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, strangers, we partition ourselves and pass through zones as artificial as our supposed ‘souls.’

The city is quartered, butchered, enclosed, controlled, castrated, occupied. The city is visited by tenants and tourists, workers and wardens, those who pass through, those who supervise, those who wander, those who observe, those who survive in amongst the ruins of the future, those who wallow in the triumphs of the past, those who fence off the city as they fence off their emotions, according to function, according to prejudice, the multi-modal zone that restricts, divides, protects, oppresses.

The city is filled with colonists, some older than others but colonists nevertheless and the reservations that surround the centre stretch away into the distance, the gravitational pull decreasing with every mile so that time itself slows to a dull pulse, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, the ghosts of the living and the buildings of the dead interface on the surface of the city.