Now what’s going on: Episode 7

And so, finally, here is episode seven, which is about the culmination of sixty years. It seems slightly unfair to have to write seven ten-yearly episodes for a sixty year life. At least this time, the news is easy to remember, even with a noticeably shortened span which begins to undermine my sense of establishment (as if I had one).

Besides the overwhelming impact of Trump combined with Brexit, and the effect of the Syrian war on migration and the related racist backlash, there were the Russian and Irish scandals of Rio, Shakespeare was 400, Shimon Peres died, Brazil got a new president, Jeremy Corbyn was elected and re-elected while Nigel Farage retired, resigned, won, retired and stood in again as leader of UKIP while drawing his MEP salaray for not attending the European Parliament he wanted the UK to leave… The political manipulation of fear has driven so much this year. The fear centres on territorial protection and unnamed threats to personal safety from people hungrier and more disenfranchised that ourselves.   Looking back on episodes 1-6, I think socialism has been a dominant theme in my life, even though I don’t think I’ve ever put myself on the line for the welfare of anyone not close to me. But things have definitely shifted since Episode 6.

Between 2006 and now, so much has fallen away, or been rejected, or done the rejecting. Symbolically, perhaps, I’ve applied for Irish citizenship, having realised I no longer want to be British.  The values which caused the vote for Brexit revolt me, and the people who espouse them are the same people who shouted abuse at me and my fellow marchers on Brick Lane in 1976 when we joined The Anti-Nazi League to put the British National Party back in its box.  They were so much more obvious then, with their Union Jack teeshirts and shaved heads, but the smart suits and anti-immigration rhetoric change nothing.

Almost all my entanglements with voluntary organisations, committees and boards are gone. All those responsibilities abrogated. It’s been the most rewarding experience to let go. It’s been a conscious process in an unforgiving but demanding environment. Ireland’s tiger roared in 2006 and was skin and bones by 2010. The pottery diminished to a point where Groupon tickets became currency and parents bargained over the price of their children’s art classes, or simply kept their kids away.

I launched Custom Breaks Ireland in 2009, with support from some great and good people, into a globalising online tourist market and increasingly sophisticated Google model, which swallowed it and spat it out.

Then the recession receded and the pottery began to regenerate. A smart American arrived in a chaufeur driven car one day and offered to bring a weekly tour visit of 40 rich customers every summer, starting two years hence, which has turned out to be the lynchpin in the business.

Ger pulled me into Sponge It just when I needed a rock to hold on to, and I rediscovered my love of business, and my forgotten expert status. It should have felt tired and passe. It certainly sounded like a retrograde step, but somehow, this time, it didn’t feel bad. It wasn’t my business and ultimately, not my responsibility. I could do what I was good at and be paid and then step away.  And I almost didn’t.  One night I woke in a cold sweat after offering to take over running the company at the same time as accepting a place in the creative writing masters programme.  It was a simple enough choice between the old and the new.  Between holding on and letting go.  I chose the masters, and cut back on the consulting, but there was no need to let go completely. Felim appointed me as a non-exec to his London publishing company and I started a research division for him. He bought a company based in Dublin and I became his non-exec there too. Sponge I became Opinions, and I moved back into the role of freelance Research Director there too.  Back to doing what I’m good at for fees.  But even with this regenerative experience, the letting go continues. Sometimes I worry that I will let go of it all and end up with nothing, become nothing. But each window I open to let out some stale air lets in bright light and fresh wind, and a view of a wider horizon. It would be great to stop seeing everything from one’s own eyes, and to begin to see things from the eyes of everyone else. That would really be letting go.

The A to Z of Letting Go (2011)
A is for Acceptance and authenticity, but also for arrogance, aspiration and anticipation
B is for Being, just being
C is change, consistency and character, the loss of which is not a pre-requisite for letting go
D spells definition, but let’s also look at defence and deferral. D is also for devotion
E must be for The Energy, but let’s not forget expectations, evolution, enervation and emasculation
F feels free
G is for growth and gain but also for grasp and greed
Happiness, a peaceful, powerful state which we can hope for in letting go.
I am the ego and self, I seek status and I must watch how I see myself. I is also for idea and for ideal
Jealous, Justice – and fighting injustice, Judgement: hinderances to letting go
K is for kindness – not philanthropy or patronage – kindred kindness
L is for lost and lonely, but also for love
M is for mother – try letting go of that! M is also for Maker, as in meet thy… M is for meaning and motivation
N…Nothing, nothingness nihilism, negativity and nastiness. N is for need and name
O for ordinary, opting out but mainly for openness, options, order
P is persistent and perseveres. P has purpose, perspective and purity
Q has to be for Question, and perhaps for quiet
R is for rage, but also respect, respite, reason and reality
S is for senses, sensitivity, surety and serenity. S is also for status, surprises and standards
T trusts and tolerates, but also tempts and tests
U represents utopia, but is also unseen, uncomfortable and unappreciated. U is for understanding, unravelling…
V for The Voice but also the vanity
W is whole, wise, washed. We wish and wait for this
Xist, xcite, xternalise… xcuses
Y oh why are we where we are? Whisper truths. Y is also for youth – letting go of this is hard
Z is the zenith and like omega, the completion of the journey.

 

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What’s been going on: Episode 6

It was the year we didn’t catch bird flu, but inoculated our children and gave them narcolepsy instead. It was also the year when the world’s most wanted terrorist, progenitor of WMD and figurehead of evil, Saddam Hussein, was executed. In 2006, the US legislated to build a border fence with Mexico. Dell recalled millions of computer batteries because they might catch fire, and anti Muslim cartoons caused protests and deaths in Libya. Deja Vu? Google bought YouTube and Nasa launched a probe which was due to reach Pluto by 2019. And in November, 349 people died when a Saudi plane crashed into a Kazakhstani plane. Michael Stone strode into Stormont and tried to blow it up.

The world I occupied had changed immeasurably since 1996. My own self-determined space, in which I’d collected together the sum of the parts of my ‘old life’ and shaken them through a sieve and found no nuggets in the panning tray, was pretty empty. I’d chosen to reject myself as corporate man, then I’d given up or failed to be a true entrepreneur, and then I’d thrown out my comfortable middle-class London lifestyle. I could argue that all three steps were carefully thought through. I could say that I’d approached the precipice and jumped because I knew, or at least believed, I could fly. But really, I’d jumped, expecting to be dashed on the rocks below, because that would feel better than what was behind me. In reality, I hadn’t jumped but had fallen. In the end, it amounted to the same thing. I floated down to earth, more like gliding than falling, but I didn’t fly. My soft landing wasn’t so soft for the family. What seemed a positive step forward for me was an unwanted wrench for them.

We’d left London abruptly in 2000, packed up the house and sold it, bought a house and collection of outbuildings in Ireland and moved over. I gave up paid work and began to live on savings, ploughing large amounts of them into renovating the house and its outbuildings to make a home and a new business premises, for Kinsale Pottery. The physical structures took shape without the concomitant emotional investment, and time passed.

But it does matter whether I fell or jumped or tried to fly, because everything up until that point had been about control of my self-definition in the external world, about my status. That wasn’t just a material status, though much of it was about wealth and title and control. It was fundamentally about potency. You peel away the layers of protection, the well-made clothing in which you’re used to parading, and you find yourself naked. You take away the needs which you satisfy in others and you find yourself to be useless. You remove your responsibilities and you wither.

And so the years approaching November 2006 were a lurching nightmare, interwoven with a sense of release, irresponsibility. Slowly, and much more carefully, I built a new identity around art. I was the artist and teacher, and mostly it felt good. I stopped being the bastard Managing Director who drove his minions ever harder. I stopped being the fat cat who drove his BMW. I stopped being needed, and I began to shrink, like Scott Carey in The Incredible Shrinking Man, and it was very hard to find something to hold on to.

incredible-shrinking-man

In 2005 I joined Mareta Doyle to develop Kinsale Arts Week, and after the July 2006 festival was wrapped up and reported upon, I realised that people in Kinsale had begun to see me. And I started to feel needed. I set up West Cork Calling, a tourism marketing network, and Hands On West Cork, a craft teachers marketing network, and I signed up for a tourism training programme, and I chaired Cork Professional Craftworkers Forum, and I built walls and piled responsibilities on them and definitions and it began to feel like the old days.

But everything was somehow less appealing, less engaging, less of a rush than it used to be, and it felt like I was building on sand. The old foundations were gone. All the values on which I’d build my career were meaningless now. 2006 was a hollow rampage of gestures.

What’s been going on: Episode 5

From the position of wage slave in a sweat shop in West London in 1986, I’d been hopping from rung to run on the ladder. Euromonitor took me on to set up the research consultancy, which was full of pioneering energy and personalities, then United Newspapers wrested the UK music charts from the record companies and hired me to run the aptly named company CIN which tried to balance the egos of record execs with record retailers and the media. Three years in and I’d had enough of the whole lot of them, and of corporate life at UN, which was unbelievably hierarchical. All I wanted was to own my own ideas and to work for myself. And that’s how Market Tracking International came about, with the help of Don and John, both of whom were freelancers. We started out in a small dungeon, sharing a cell together, and quickly added staff. The first year’s Christmas party was for the three of us, the second for eight and the third for 33.

By November 1996, North London was abuzz with the sale of the company to The Daily Mail. We really thought we were going to be millionaires. Just three years into the childhood of our only son, he was growing too fast, almost uncontrollably. The monthly salary bill had reached about £75K, and as MD, all I could think about was where the hell it would come from each month. That, and how to mend PCs or toilets, or who to hire and fire.

‘The Interactive Future’ was our report of the year, in co-venture with Management Today, it sold over 250 copies at £500, because the world was completely panic stricken by what the internet meant for their businesses. Its contents list would read like a history book on technology now, but then it was like a sci-fi novel – What was MP3 and how did a JPEG work? DVD was the future of mass storage, and DVDR just a twinkle in the eye of developers at Phillips and we looked forward to when internet access speeds would increase from 14.4kbps modem speeds to 56kbps. The phone still made that iconic hissing noise as the modem dialled up, and visual images crept down the pc screen. The report even talked about the possibility of cable models which would carry up to 0.5mbps, within a few years.

We might have been in the forefront of publishing on such technical topics, but our own 50,000 pages of analysis was still sitting in Word and on paper. Time to bring in a tech nerd who could upload it to a website called MarketFile, in simple pdf format, and include a search engine. We added a nice home page and wheeled it in to our main client, The Daily Mail’s business journals division, which published such popular titles as ‘Oils and Fats International’ and ‘World Tobacco’, with which we had very profitable co-ventures.

So with our P/E at 10 and DMGT’s at 20, it was a no-brainer for them to buy us. They could double the company’s value overnight, if we succeeded, or take a healthy tax credit if they had to write us off as a failure. Since Lord Rothermere was sitting on £200M profit each year, he could do with a few losses. We took the downpayment, which we split three ways and paid off our credit cards, and we chewed on the mouthwatering earn-out payments we forecast for the next five years. Then we three lambs were ready for the slaughter. But hold fast, there’s the slow bleeding that any good sacrifice demands. So let’s employ expensive lawyers to tie the whole deal in knots that will take six months to unravel, while we scrabbled for cash to pay those salaries, and the generous guys in Kensington advanced us money every month on the deal. They called a meeting to tell us that the downpayment was halved – take it or leave it. We took it, since we were already in hock for working capital. The half-sized downpayment arrived and DMGT generously agreed to pay the legal fees (which were, incidentally, larger than the downpayment) and then we were ready to become another line in their P&L. Once that was over, I could get back to consulting.

Karlheinz Koegel, owner of the German music charts company and Baden Baden Airport which he later sold to Ryanair, wanted me in Germany to help him build MediaControl’s radio tracking business in order to sell it to Viacom, owners of MTV.  Sally Whittaker wanted me in Bloomsbury to help build Book Track, the book industry charts, and David Kusin, a retired banker and art lover from Dallas, wanted me to find out how the European Art Market worked. Everyone wanted me to make things happen and it felt like my hour upon the stage.

All this was against a backdrop of grunge in Holloway Road, in our industrial office-block, shared with Ian Dury’s recording studio, with our sweatshop of linguists, slaving over government statistics and copies of the FT.

We were all strutting and fretting, and it signified nothing.

What else was happening? I was ignoring everything else. Ignoring the needs and pleasures of my family, failing to see the world, barely touching art, hearing but not listening to music. John Major had a weak grip on the country. Scargill was leaving the Labour party, the Maxwell brothers survived their father’s fraud and Charles divorced Diana. This last upset stopped me getting him to attend the Deutsche MedienPreis, so instead, Karlheinz got his friend Helmut Kohl to persuade Boris Yeltsin to attend. Not much of a follow-on from 1995, when we got Arafat and Rabin (though Rabin was assassinated two weeks before the event). Boris and his entourage drank themselves into a singsong in Baden Baden, and probably slept it off on the flight home. I see that Hilary Clinton won the preis in 2004, given to her by Angela Merckel, Bono in 2005 and the Dalai Lama in 2008. Then it was downhill with Richard Branson in 2010 and George Clooney in 2014 …. after my time.

What’s been going on: Episode 4

So much changed between 1976 and 1986, both personally and in the world I occupied, that I can’t describe November 1986 without a run-up.

Post-student life was one uphill marathon of career ambition, marriage, parenthood and separation. It could be called growing up, but that would infer some sort of maturity which wasn’t there before. Compromise and loss maybe. You start your adulthood with principles, ideals and a sense of freedom, all of which are pooh-poohed by older people as naivity of youth or the result of an unsustainable cosseted upbringing, and then it’s all downhill into the mire of conformity and materialism. I’d rejected the extreme left, after Iz disappeared to Portugal with a communist thief, who didn’t just steal her, but many expensive items from the shops of Sheffield, to work in a Portuguese tomato canning factory. I worked my way through The Milk Round to end up in a market research agency as a trainee, and from there to Esso as a market analyst and then a refinery planner. By 1984 I was looking at climbing the multi-national’s corporate ladder as my square peg was being hammered to fit into their round hole, when Carol asked for a divorce. She’d met her first husband at 13, married him at 18, divorced him at 21 (for me) and now, at 25, wanted freedom to find her lost youth. I woke up to my own freedom from marriage, and to a terrible grief associated with non-custodial fatherhood. Though I had open access to visit Emma, and we met every weekend, I began to wonder whether this was not helping her settle into her new family life, as well as not helping me to handle my own break-up adequately. 50% of non-custodial fathers stop seeing their children within two years, and I was going to become one of them.  I started PATCH (Parents Away from Their Children), by putting posters in local libraries. I did that because Families Need Fathers, which was patronised by Bob Geldorf among others, made me feel guilty because I had visiting rights, while most of them were accused by ex-wives of being child molesters, and refused access. Of course they weren’t interested in the psychological issues of being a weekend dad… PATCH quickly attracted non-custodial mothers, many of whom had left their marriages for other men, only to find their access to their children taken by the courts. It was a deeply depressed and ostracised group, and one I felt inadequate to host. Once I met Val, I no longer attended my own meetings.

When I started dreaming product codes for Brent Crude and the workings of oil refinery pipestills, I realised the inappropriateness of Esso to my view of life, and left to become head of research for PolyGram, the largest record company in the UK, something which Esso attributed to my divorce. For half of 1985 I partied, staggering from gigs to bars, picking one-night-stands over long term relationships, till in September I went on hoiday to Greece and met Val. I’d moved from a semi in Croydon to a ground floor flat in Stockwell, right next to Brixton, which was an Afro-Caribbean melting pot. The Brixton Riots in 1985 were all about police brutality , but in Thatcher’s Britain, and in the context of the ‘Loadsamoney’ culture, they spilled over into Mayflower Road, where we lived. My friend of the time, Gordon Pincott, worked for Saatchi and Saatchi, boasting of champagne breakfasts every day. Helived in a flat round the corner in Oval above Nigella Lawson, but between my place and his, on the Clapham Road, Val witnessed six police beating up a black man at eight on a Sunday morning, as she walked to the tube. She had to put her head down and walk on, because her Irish accent might have led her to ‘disappear’ into custody for up to a week, since The Brighton Bombing was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

But by 1986, she’d given up her life in Ireland to live with me in London, just as I was left the music industry for a job in Mass Observation, a sweat-shop of a research agency, housed in the vacated social security offices of Acton Town. Why the come-down? The record industry prided itself on intuition and inspired gambles, not on market research, and some sense of dedication prevented me joining in. After all the upheaval, the new life was a wonder. Stockwell became a haven, a nest in which, despite the damp and cold, the blaring reggae and loud neighbours, we found and lost ourselves in one another.

Thirty seemed old then. The Millennium seemed like the end of time.

What’s been going on: episode 3

Like a Bird on a Wire, and Suzanne roll through my memory while I’m writing about 1976. Forty years ago he was one of a multitude of welcome gatecrashers trying to get through the front door into the party. “Music to slit your wrists to” and “passé” then. He died last night, and when we saw him in 2008 in Kilmainham, he proved he’d never lost his right to be at the party.

By November , I’d been at Sheffield University for just over a year, studying for a Bsc in Psychology, at a time when Hubel and Wiesel, the leading researchers, thought perhaps our memories resided each in individual cells which each recognised one thing – The Grandmother Cell Theory, and when Bowlby was king. Computers were running fuzzy logic for pattern recognition, using ticker tape for programmes, written in ‘braille’ and PCs were still a twinkling in the eye of Bill and Steve. Though strangely, Phillips had already invented the lazer disc, a 12 inch equivalent of the CD. Most of us were still hooked on audiotape and especially vinyl and we cherished the gate-fold album, extra suitable for catching loose tobacco during the joint rolling process. Yellow Brick Road and Quadraphenia and Songs in The Key of Life and The Double White Album and Yes all have a spotlight shining on their artwork, even now.

Sheffield was a typical university. Friendly, buzzing, full of flairs and incipient punks, a bunch of stark sixties and early sevenites tower blocks and a couple of ivy-clad red-brick buildings funded, no doubt by Sheffield Steel. There was a pater noster, an amazing invention to transport people up and down the twenty stories of the Arts Tower, like a squashed ferris wheel. We lived in the student union cafe, on meat n potato pies and warm beer, and I also lived in the student theatre, acting in and directing 17 plays in three years.

By November I’d moved into Brunswick street, which had been home to the city’s brothels for the previous fifty or one hundred years, but had been overtaken by student bedsits and colonies of rats. Rent was £4 per week for a room in a shared house, and, having met the first love of my life, Isabella Mann, I was contemplating a move to more salubrious accommodation in the form of a bedsit across the street, with more privacy and space for a double bed. It had been a year of sexual adventures and more than a few misshaps, and meeting Iz brought a change of status from singleton to half a couple. Iz was a Liverpudlian who had grown up within shouting distance of Anfield, where Bob Paisley managed and Kevin Keegen sported a perm. Iz’s father had been a seargent in WW2 and still cleaned his teeth with soot from the front-room chimney. He was an ardent supporter of Labour’s Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist movement led by his friend Derek Hatton. This was the Scargill era, the Three Day Week, Tony Benn’s heyday. We marched across East London for The Anti Nazi League and chanted “What shall we do with Martin Webster” the fascist, leader of the British National Party, Enoch Powell’s legacy and UKIP’s grandparent.

But that whole movement was more about music than politics for me. I was surrounded by people who wanted to hear Tom Robinson and The Clash, and who thought we should pierce ourselves with safety pins but were too scared of becoming septic. But having older siblings and middle class parents, I loved Bowie and Bach and Dylan and Beethoven and Cohen and Mozart and The Beatles and Scarlatti and Picasso and Nietzsche and Hesse and Epstein and Waugh. The self absorbed nature of being almost twenty meant everything was on display. The Penguins were colour-coded on my bookshelves, The albums in alphabetical order. Sartre sat beside Simone de Beauvoir and “Art is Optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty” occupied wall-space next to “What is it, is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man”. Life was all one explosion of sensual and intellectual stimulation and realisation. My egocentricity was unbounded.

 

What’s been going on: Episode 2

I am somewhere in this video.

Ten years is a long time. Not just for a small boy, for whom every day is an adventure, full of fears and wonder, but for a world in transition. Between ’56 and ’66, all hell had broken loose in the minds of the war veterans, on the wireless, in the generation gap. The home service was being attacked by Radio Caroline, Cliff by The Animals… The short back and sides by The Beatle Cut. You were either for The Fab Four or the Stones, Mother’s Little Helper or She Loves You, Ian Smith, Desmond Tutu, LBJ, Nixon and Vietnam, Berkeley race riots when Martin Luther King’s dream became a nightmare, the independence of Rhodesia, the death of Winston, Yuri Gagarin and that monkey, Mohammed Ali and good old Harold Wilson. Ten years after the hovercraft was invented, we had a cross channel service, and stamps issued in its honour. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced. Till Death Do Us Part started airing on BBC, alongside Steptoe and Son, Watch with Mother and nobody batted an eyelid at nignog, spastic, shirt-lifter and fag. Gay still meant happy.

We’d moved home three times, from 86 Psalter Lane in Sheffield to a crumbling pre-war terraced rental in Carshalton Beeches to sedate suburban Belmont, where we moved into a 1920s detached doctor’s house with an air raid shelter in the garden and the phone number Vigilant 0060, a house which cost £5,000 in 1961. June wore billowing flower print skirts and wide red leather belts, low-cut blouses and rich red lipstick, which marked her untipped Senior Service butts and the rim of her whisky glass. Jeremy and I played out in The Dell, or crept into the basement of The Henderson Hospital where Victorian operating theatres lay untouched, or threw stones at windows, broke the indicateors off morris minor cars and stole sweets from the local newsagent. Jacko, the cleaner, must have been born around the end of the Great War. She wore overalls and slippers to work, and chain smoked as she ran the rotary polisher across our parquet floors, filling and emptying ashtrays all day long.

By November 66, I’d been at Westminster Abbey for just over a year, and progressed from probationer to ‘number 22’ in the choir, singing for Winston’s funeral, the independence of Trinidad and the 900th anniversary of the Abbey itself. Five hours a day of choir practice and services, regimented time-keeping. Up at 7.10 for a run twice round Dean’s Yard before breakfast. Beds made with hospital corners, bath rota, prayers, no talking after lights out, obligarory letter writing home on Sundays, black marks for running in the corridors. Long grey shorts and long grey socks held up by garters with Cash’s Name Tapes and a small gap between for scuffed and chapped knees.

I was in love with the deputy matron, a woman in her twenties probably, who subsequently married the science master, and went to live near Abingdon. She’d held me over her knee every evening for weeks, carefully removing hundreds of splinters from my buttocks, after my attempt to swing off two iron bedsteads in the dormitory had gone wrong. I’d become the class joker, the boy who hid in cupboards during French, who dreamt Latin declensions and climbed on the piano in the practice room so he could squirt passers-by on the street below with his newly acquired water pistol. Had I been beaten by then? Headmaster Francis Tullow, fresh from the 8th Army in North Africa, had several sticks and a cricket bat for particular crimes. We lived for the exeat, three hours with our parents every three weeks, with an hour deducted for three black marks accrued in the intervening time. But already mine were forgetting to come on time, forgetting to take me to The Golden Spoon or to see Thunderball or whatever the other boys’ parents did. Mine were fighting too much to notice any emotional deprivation caused by putting their eight year old into boarding school. Already Alan Clinch, the maths teacher, was preying on Mikey Brain, my best friend, and Loats the caretaker was paying him in sweets for a grope in the boiler room. That all important gap between the bottom of the shorts and top of the socks became a battle ground for many boys, trying to defend themselves from prying hands.

But the formative experiences of 1966 made an intricately woven blanket of self defence and a cape of invisibility.  It was a time to slip between extroversion and introversion, a chance for sensory exploration and a prodding, singeing, knuckle-wrapping education in self-discipline and social caution. The first turning point?

What’s been going on: episode one

It was a Friday 21897 days ago. 322,000 babies were born that day.

  • Saying of the year: “Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” (James Dean)
  • Dwight D was in the White House
  • Heroin was finally criminalised on 1st January
  • Britain’s first Berni Inn Steak House opened
  • The Melbourne olympics were on
  • Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean disappeared from the UK and emerged in Moscow
  • Archbishop Makarios was deported from Cyprus to the Seychelles
  • Anthony Eden was PM and Macmillan was chancellor – he launched Premium Bonds
  • ‘Love Me Tender’ came out
  • Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft
  • Britain’s first nuclear power plant at Calder Hill was opened
  • The Soviets were in Hungary, Khrushchev visited Britain
  • The average house price in Britain was £2002. In 2016 it is £206,346 (103 times). The average salary was £786, in 2016 it is £27,500 (34 times)
  • There was petrol rationing because of Suez
  • Third class rail was abolished
  • Fats Domino was in the US charts at number 2 and Elvis had ‘Hound Dog at number one in the UK
  • Segregation on buses in Alabama was ruled unconstitutional
  • Videotape was first used on TV, Granada TV launched in Manchester
  • Someone babysat Andy, Helen and Richard while June went into labour
  • George was working for The Iron and Steel Corporation of Britain, later nationalised. They employed 268500 people at the time.

Did the sun shine?  Was everyone feeling optimistic?  How do we see the world we entered, and does it bear any relationship to this one? What happened that shaped us? Did that then make me what I am now? Which axons grew and which synapses started firing because of all that? Did I somehow start the clock according to James Dean’s motto? Was the brave new world that 1956 heralded formative in my always looking to the future?

It’s good for you

Ellen checked through her wardrobe on her Amazon to see if anything caught her eye. Her lightest, shortest, sexiest skirt needed pressing and so she dropped the image into her express dry cleaning box app for one-hour turnaound. No point wearing her new Informagear top, as the party would be off-grid. Just time to get home, grab a bite to eat and change before the last m-rail into town. She messaged the fridge-micro to have her low cal linguine ready for eight.

Jade had invited her to the party only this afternoon, and she’d chipped in her fifty on Partypak. This party promised to be hot, and she wanted to look cool. Jade had booked the Bond Street Picadilly line platform bar, a hundred metres down, which meant no aircon, and even so long after the trains had stopped running, the tube never had lost its dry heat. Against that, the lack of online access meant no proximity monitoring. So she could do what she wanted, with whoever took her fancy without raising her Subverse Score for mixing with the wrong type of gatecrasher. She could do with a bit of excitement.

The news, which streamed on the office v-wall, washed over her:

“…..minister for profiling reported today that increasing numbers of birthcert chips are being hacked and deactivated illegally… darknetters… calling for greater deportation powers… “

“…Axa announces £50bn rights issue … invest further in Monsanto’s GM research division… stem the growing number of immuno-deficient births…”

“… In trading today, shares in the PQ90 Plus Surrogacy Clinic plumet as G-mapping fraud is uncovered…”

Ellen hated the news always being on in the Insights Department offices. Every day it was getting worse. Control of behaviour, control of choice, de-selection of undesirable traits. God knows what it would be like if the Government got involved and introduced the more stringent measures being talked about. Sure, the average intelligence and health of the nation would improve, but there would be nowhere to hide. It wouldn’t be about the no claims bonus any more, more likely about eviction, deportation and, if the hawks got their way, forced terminations.

She and Jade left the office together, and waiting for the lift, side by side, Ellen dwarfed Jade. When the lift d-panel checked her, the inevitable slim-line ready meal ads began to play. Jade’s panel was much more interesting.

“I’m sick of only getting dieting ads while you get handbags and holidays. I mean, I go to the gym, take the medication. Even when I get shown clothes they’re never as posh as yours. Have you had a pay-rise, Jade?”

Ellen had been over-spending and her balance seemed permanently low, so she never got presented with upmarket goods or holidays. She often complained to Jade about the system of tagging the ads. Surely you should be allowed to see things you can’t afford as well as those you can. Isn’t aspiration good for morale? But that wasn’t her bosses fault, it was upstairs that policy was made.

“That’s the trouble with having your G-map held by the insurance company.” Jade reminded her “They force you to stay with the programme, or get penalised on the policy.”

Jade was a fine-boned bird – a wren or humming bird, while Ellen was more of an Elk. Not overweight, but large, and with a strong drive to graze. Her parents were both large; mum was big boned, and dad’s family were all heavy.

“As you’re older than me, you were probably conceived before pre-marital G-mapping came into force, so it’s not surprising your scores are high.” Jade had had this conversation with Ellen often before.

Ellen noticed the undercurrent of pity in Jade’s tone. If they hadn’t been friends, it might have been distain. Jade was always more of a comformist than Ellen, though nowadays, there was little space for non-conformity.

“I know it’s sentimental of me wanting to marry someone for love, and risking everything on chemistry, but why can’t natural selection and chance play a bigger part? Who wants the perfect PQ baby with the perfect bore of a man?” Ellen, ever the romantic, wanted to feel attracted more than she wanted to further improve the human race.

When digital birth certs came in, just before she was born, she had to be mapped and chipped, and her family was put on the programme immediately. In her case it worked wonders – low cholesterol, average BMI and a much admired body. Her probability quotient for ill health related to obesity, and her parents’ demographic profiles and shopping habits, which were all tracked by Axa, had forced them all to accept the regime.

Everything went like clockwork, which made Ellen feel optimistic about the evening ahead. The m-rail was not too packed, the dry cleaning was waiting in the shute, her linguine was piping hot, if lacking cream, and she was in and out of the appartment in minutes. Now she was in the thick of the party, at the bar, and getting to know a tall dark man who would only give his name as John. She knew she wanted him, without being told. She couldn’t check him, in the subterranean bar, see how they scored, but she just knew. So that is how animal instinct feels, she thought. Beats G-match.

They talked and drank and danced together all evening, though before they got drunk enough not to care, she tried and failed to glean some background. John didn’t share like most people, and he wasn’t wearing any Informagear either. He just wanted to dance, and oh could he dance. He was slim but strong, good looking. He had piercing blue eyes, long hair, stubble and a gentle smile. He moved like a swimming seal, and touched like a nuzzling cat. God, his scores must be through the roof!

The party began to quieten down as some left to catch the late m-rail, and others subsided into sleepy corners. “So, if you hate your job, and you’re not chasing money, what do you want to do?” he asked as they lounged across the sofa in the vintage train carriage permanently parked at the platform.

“You mean now, or generally?”

“Let’s get to ‘now’ in a minute…. What about life?”

“Well I’m twenty five, single, hot as hell, and I want to start a family” she’d had a lot to drink.

“Yeah? Not interested in changing the world? You work in the right place.”

Ellen vaguely remembered mouthing off about work, ranting about the algorhythms controlling the people, the pre-determination of everything.”

“Right now, I can’t be arsed changing the world. I want to live for the present.”

“Which takes us nicely into what you want to do now,” he grinned.

“Sounds interesting, but we only just met and you’ve been pretty backward in coming forward about stuff.’

“What, you’re not asking about my scores are you? Don’t you like what you see?”

“Well, you know, a girl’s gotta think about these things before she jumps into bed with a horny stranger.”

“Is that what you usually do? Pick guys up at parties and check their scores before you get their v-mail? Just as well we’re out of range. I hate that stuff, and unlike you, I’m more interested in change than putting up with the system. How do you meet guys usually?”

“I’m on G-match, and honestly, I’ve found nobody even vaguely fanciable with a score of 75 or more, and I can’t afford anyone with less.”

John just laughed and watched the couple across the isle swallowing one another’s tongues. They didn’t seem to be having problems.

“Don’t you want to just forget all that? Learn to manage without being told what to buy, without having your daily needs pre-empted? Don’t you just want to choose, really choose? Get to do what you want when you want. Spend time with who you want, and choose by learning to trust your instincts? Have children with who you want, not who they say is right for you?”

John suddenly seemed animated, serious. A little disconcerting, but Ellen was excited. He said what she thought. But then he was back at her neck and her thoughts shifted to making babies.

She knows the score though; she works in Axa’s insights department. Nowadays, it’s totally uneconomical to have a child if you both have the wrong PQ scores. It’s not so much about the insurance companies dealing with problems when they arrise, but it’s her department’s job to predict them before conception and ‘disincentivise’ inappropriate offspring.

“Its fine for Jade. She’s my boss – see her over by the bar in the black dress? Her dad’s loaded, and when she met Nico – he’s the one with the white shirt on – it turned out they only had a 30 score, but apparently he’s rich, and great in bed, so they went ahead anyway. That, and she can eat what she wants, even meat, because her dad pays her premium, and she’s got, like, a non-existent obesity PQ. All right for some!”

John continued to nuzzle into her neck. “Do you really care what score everyone has? Don’t you think it’s mutual attraction that counts?”

G-match had been sending her profiles for highly compatible partners for the last month, and so far she’d met three, starting with the best match – which would mean the lowest cost insurance for offspring – and working downwards. She hoped there’d be that spark, given the compatabiliy scores, averaged across over 200 factors, but despite all the pieces of the jigsaw being in place, there wasn’t. They all looked the same, even though their features differed. Funny really. You’d think that well-matched people would be attracted to one another.

And here she had all the sexual attraction she could want, and not the first idea what John’s PQs looked like. Why couldn’t the party be above ground, where she could check his scores in the ladies, at least? Oh well, what the hell!

“You’re right….. come here.”

It was just getting light, as she woke, and stretched languidly. It was the best sex she could remember, and John was asleep beside her. She felt amazing, though there was a nagging itch in the back of her mind that there would be repercussions. John was bound to score high on subversion. Slipping out of the bed, she retrieved her glasses from her handbag, thinking to find out more about him without waking him. But nothing registered in the corner of the screen – he’s not Linked or Checked. This guy’s off the grid. He’s a ghost.

When he woke, Ellen was already showered and dressed. She was keen to get breakfast, but she didn’t fancy her usual low fat yoghurt which Amazon had delivered to the shute while they slept. John looked like he had no problem with eating well, and for once, Ellen felt entitled to sustenance after their night.

“How about Umberto’s for breakfast?” he suggested

“How did you know that’s my favourite cafe? Have you been checking me?”

“I just guessed….” he lay back, relaxed. “Give me ten minutes and we’ll go.”

While John showered, Ellen watched her v-mails on low volume. Jade had already been on asking how she and John had got on. Strange, John claimed not to know Jade. Maybe Jade had checked him at the door to her party, which would mean she knew he was hard to pin down. Ellen switched to audio only, in case John wandered naked into view, and linked. “Great! How do you know him? Is he a friend of Nico? He’s a dark horse.” She hoped that Jade would reply before John was out of the shower, but realised Jade’s v-mail had been sent in the early hours and she was probably still unconscious.

The sun shone on the street, which was empty at this time on a Saturday morning, except for a cleaner van scouring the gutter. The m-rail hadn’t started and only a few cars passed silently as they strolled to Umberto’s.

Ellen stood in front of the ad-wall at the m-rail stop and saw herself walk by in Karen Millen. They entered the quaint Italian cafe with its red and white striped awning, and old-style plate glass window, piled with delicatessen, and sat at her favourite table. Ellen viewed the table screen light as it scanned her and instantly changed to her own menu of favourites, but only low fat options came up, as usual, even though she fancied pancakes with maple syrup. There were some recommendations, themed on what she liked to eat, but not things she’d bought in the last week or so. She decided, reluctantly, on the muesli and low fat natural yoghurt, thinking of her premium. She touched her order and the menu deducted the price from her Axa account, before she looked up. The screen switched to clips of the new e-book by Morrison, since she’d nearly finished his last one, plus cinema listings near her parents’ place for next weekend, since she’d already bought the train ticket.

She turned to John, waiting for the menu to offer him images of fried breakfasts or whatever he was allowed. Nothing. Instead, the screen saver faded to a red and orange gingham tablecloth – in keeping with her mood, her heightened expectation. The light over the table dimmed slightly, to suit her sensitive blue eyes, and the air cooled as her chair reported her weight and body temperature to the aircon.

 

He looked at her, then down at the table screen. No menu appeared, no change of advertising. She watched him smile, unconcerned. Weird. He seemed so at ease, which was more than she could say for herself. He also knew more about her than she did about him – not her normal first date strategy. While he was in the shower, she’d tried to check him using the CCV in the bathroom, even though she hated herself for spying, but she immediately got the error ‘not found’ against his picture on her Amazon. Now she sat back with a strange sense of excitement, realising he would have to have hacked his chip and deactivated himself.

“Why aren’t you getting the menu? You must be…”

“Off grid. Yes.”

So there it was, no ceremony or evasion. John was a Sub, and if caught, he would be a deportee. She felt the warm glow of being trusted, quickly followed by bitter disappointment. That ruled him out as a prospect. Axa would cancel her policy if she showed any evidence of consorting with him. Not that she agreed with it. It was all very well trying to root out harmful elements in society, deviants and defectives. It made sense on cost grounds, and for the ‘family harmony’ the Government wanted everyone to enjoy, but surely being with John couldn’t be that wrong.

She was not alone among her age group in worrying about who gets to decide who is a deviant and what is ‘defective’. Obviously, there’s the medical anomalies, and most people seemed pretty OK about weeding them out, though Downs was a political hot potato a few years back. But what about behavioural anomalies, radical thinking? Who decided what was the threshold for classification as a Sub? Axa and its competitors, no doubt, and their interest was to minimise risk, so that threshold would go down and down. People were becoming more and more predictable, boring, and without risk, there’s no spark.

Her waste bins tracked the packaging she threw away, her clothes reported their wear and tear to her bank, and her spending choices were dictated by upcoming bills – she hadn’t been able to access information about holidays online for ages, and her v-mail was ‘cleaned’ for antisocial content. The latest was that her friends network was psychographically analysed for signs of ghettoism and subversion. Just as well she hadn’t v-mailed John yet. Her life wasn’t being dictated by people, even faceless bureaucrats, but by algorhythms and probability quotients. Sure the justice system is as overloaded as the health service, she thought, but it’s claustrophobic and I hate it.

She should have noticed outside that the ad wall didn’t changed as it normally does, when he passed. He might have appeared in a Boss suit, striding elegantly, or on board his yacht, in Lacoste. She’d been delighted with the way she looked in the red Karen Millen, and she’d paused long enough to find out from her Amazon that she couldn’t quite afford it, but that they’d offer her terms… but the wall stayed green when he passed, like a vampire passing a mirror.

“I’ll have what you’re having.” He said quietly. “Would you mind ordering for me, as I’m not very popular with these devices. “

She felt scared, but her heart was racing and she wanted to go with it. She touched the tablecloth which reverted to the menu. “OK I’m having low fat yoghurt and muesli, and I expect you’d like a fry, but I’m pretty sure it won’t let me go again without penalties.” He smiled and took out his Amazon. The same model as hers, but it had an extra small box attached, unlike any upgrade she’d ever been offered. He held her hand across the table, palm up, and scanned her wrist chip with it. He made a few quick slides across his screen and pocketed the device.

“There we go, I’ve deleted the charges from your account, and the ones you already had for your breakfast, so now you can order the pancakes you fancy without any penalties.”

“How do you do that?”

“I could tell you, but we don’t want to waste the time it would take, and besides, you might want to take this one step at a time.”

He moved closer, feeling the cool air in her space. “I could just remove you from the files, and you could join me in the darknet. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all extremists and nut jobs, mafiosi and pornographers. It’s really liberating, and much safer than Googlenet. We could start by deleting you from Axa g-Match – it’s not a dating site you know, just a spying portal”

Sitting in silence, while John painted a picture of his life, she contemplated the sort of freedom she’d never experienced, a lifestyle only whispered about as that of deportees, outcasts.

It would mean giving up her job over the road, and once she was off the system, she’d have to cut connections with everyone she knew, like Jade and her friends. But there’s a big world out there once you’re no longer tied to the chip.

As the waiter brings their muesli, her eye is caught by a man in the street in a dark suit, passing the m-rail ad-wall, which shows him in a dark suit, as he comes towards Umberto’s. She turns back to her strange new friend, but he has gone. She pulls out her Amazon, which is buzzing, and the screen shows him, still in shadow. He whispers: “well?”.