Sunday, 30 December 2012

Bitter Together - 1. Operation Cockleshell

As a result of the interest shown in my first draft of Bitter Together I have set too to fill in the blanks and create a novel length version. All characters in this novel are fictitous and bear no relationship to any person or organisation.  Bitter Together is a political satire and remains the property of the author, reproduction, in part or full, in any other medium whether print or digital can only be carried out with the written agreement of the author. Peter Thomson exercises the right to be identified as the author of the work under and in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights are reserved. 

First published in digital format in the Tarff Advertiser in December 2012 by the author.

Grindstone stood under the big chandelier outside the prime minister's office, nervously picking at the black boot lace tie which kept the increasingly obese folder together while he clutched the same tightly to his chest. He knew he should not be the one briefing the prime minister, he was the Department of Internal Affairs resident lackey, a level 5 civil servant, who even the tea lady looked down upon. The senior civil servant, Sir Nigel de Woodehead KCB (a Cambourne appointee), had thrown a 'sicky' and headed off to Bermuda for his health. His number two, Madeleine Cakes, was having her hair done and could not be contacted. The remaining 10 civil servants ahead of Grindstone in the departmental pecking order had taken one look at the brief and headed off to far more important meetings on such diverse matters as legalising the police use of oysters for gathering information or just how long should a community sentence for 'leaving your rubbish bin top open' be. In this way the civil service grinds ever smaller until even the tea lady refused the job and it was left to Grindstone to brief the prime minister on the need to initiate 'Operation Cockleshell'. So here he was, standing out side yet another head master's office, on the wrong side of yet another potential beating for someone else's idea of a practical joke.

Grindstone came from an 'olde' English family whose hold on lands to the east of what is now the Barnsley suburb of Monk Breton go back to pre-Doomsday book times. They were Angles by blood but had somehow bent with the wind to encompass the various invaders who came and went across their lands whether it was the Northumbrians from the north, the Danes from the east or the Mercians from the west. No matter the overlord the family had always managed to hold onto their hides of land, their serfs, their mill and their quarry. The Normans were merely another family for the Grindstone’s to touch their forelock to, pay as little tax as possible and get on with having a relatively comfortable life, living well off the fertile soil and making a decent living from quarrying mill stones for the Yorkshire Ridings. They never lusted after a motte or a bailey and when mini - castles and Peele Towers were all the rage they kept to an enclosed farm steading strong enough to keep wolves and bandits at bay. Their fortified farm yard was never a threat to their current overlord who over the next few hundred years came and went whether on Crusade, rebellion against or for the current king or simply thieving land from a weaker lord. They were Yorkists or Lancastrians, Catholics or Protestants, Cavaliers or Roundheads as the politics of England demanded but at their core they remained Anglo-Saxon survivors of the middling kind.

The family would probably remained in this state if it had not been for Gregorious Grindstone’s discovery of coal on their ancient hides while hiding in a cave in the gorge from either the Cavaliers or Roundheads - the family could never remember which but agreed Gregorious was being sensible and acting in the best interests of the Grindstones. For the next hundred years or so between the millstones and the anthracite from the adit mine the Grindstones moved up the income ladder to become of the upper middling sort and built themselves a traditional manor house turning their old steading into a farmyard. The serfs went with the enclosure of the land in the 17th century. The Grindstone's brought in a factor from Scotland to run the extended and enclosed manor farm in the modern manner. In turn the factor re-employed many of the old serf families as farm labour but with poorer conditions.  It was when the canal was built in the valley between Monk Breton and Barnsley, linking them north to York and south to the new industrial heartland in the Black Country, that the Grindstone’s coal seams turned them into Georgian millionaires. In  the late 18th Century the Grindstones decided knocked down the Manor House to build a proper house, more fitting for their place in Yorkshire society and were easily able to afford the new eight bedroom Georgian house designed and built by Adam and landscaped by Capability Brown. As the 19th Century went along so did the Grindstone’s fortunes with sons aping the aristocracy purchasing captaincy’s in the Regiments and entering the church. With the family business and railway investments booming they were able to conduct themselves to be damned fine Victorians, then damned fine Edwardians and finally, from 1914 for four years, damned fine targets massacred on the Somme, at Paschendale and the remainder picked off during the last hundred days prior to November 11th and the Armistice, leaving Grindstone’s grandfather, the youngest of the seven brothers, who had been made to stay at home to run the business interests, as the only survivor. The sense of guilt of not doing his bit was compounded by major financial losses during the stock market crash and then the general strike. Granddad did his bit and the once proud Grindstone businesses struggled on until Nationalisation of the mines and railways finally killed his spirit and the old man, himself. During the Second War Grindstone’s dad had served in Burma, he never talked much about it and occasionally he would start stammering and shaking telling Grindstone it was just malaria but the young Grindstone found it hard to believe his Mum fell down stairs as often as she said she did.

His father had been all for the 'public school ethic' and believed it would make a 'man' young N. T. T. Grindstone. Thus, just as soon as it was legal, Grindstone was dispatched to boarding school and the hell of unthinking parents and the initials they lumber you with. Unsurprisingly the spotty eight year old Grindstone was quickly named 'Nose' by his peers and the teaching staff, his fate was sealed and he became that student who was always working, never having 'fun' and a permanent excuse to 'miss games' - the school nerd.

This would have been well and good if Grindstone had achieved the grades his diligence should have delivered but by the time of 'O' levels the teaching staff were perplexed as to just what Grindstone had been studying, given his barely passable grades. His A levels were equally undistinguished and instead of Oxbridge and a position as the high flyer in the civil service, his father had envisaged for him, it had been a case of scraping into the least distinguished red brick University which would have him and a MA Hons 2 class 3.  A previously unknown class of degree the University created for Grindstone out of embarrassment, simply to acknowledge his massive effort versus his minimal achievement. Grindstone was certain the civil service had only taken him out of sympathy for his old school and now deranged father.  A father who, when he had realised Grindstone would never become a knight of the realm and unlikely to even get an MBE - stated this as the reason for his suicide in the early 80's. Grindstone had thought this declaration just a tad unfair as when acting as executor for his father's estate he discovered the old man was bankrupt twice over and facing two court cases - one for bigamy and the other relating to his time as the local Scout Master. Once again Grindstone's diligence to his father's wishes had drawn a blank as when the manor house, grounds and other remaining assets around Barnsley had been sold, Grindstone had been left to pay the legal fees of some £5,000 from his own savings.

Grindstone knew he would get no gong for dutiful service to his country, Sir Nigel had already told him the next MBE given to the Department was already tagged for the tea lady (equal opportunities and all that, old boy), so it was very unlikely he would even get one prior to his early retirement in three years time at the age of 55 - Sir Nigel had been very insistent that Grindstone applied for early retirement at the first opportunity. Yet here he was waiting for a blind fold, a post and a firing party, a situation far more preferable than telling the prime minister just what was in this brief and Internal Affairs department's recommendation.

The Honourable Blair Cambourne was not a happy man. Dickie, who had been his fag at Eton and in the same stair at Cambridge, had just popped in from number eleven to tell him the Treasury had some how mislaid around £40 billion pounds of tax payers' money. He was hoping it was a case of a wrong decimal point but 'not to worry' his team were 'on it' and working out a good line to use to blame the previous government's incumbent at number eleven - old 'Foxy' Daring (a non Etonian - boo but had been on the same stair as Blair at Cambridge - so not all bad).

Now there was some 'oik' from a minor public school and a third rate red brick university with an MA (2.3) in 'Coronation Street', outside with what could not be in any shape or form 'good news'. The briefer was of a level in the civil service which never normally ventured from under their stone. Cambourne's private parliamentary secretary had tried to get hold of Sir Nigel in Bermuda where he had suddenly gone on ‘sick leave’ but Sir Nigel's wife had firmly and caustically stated that Sir Nigel was incapacitated and could not come to the phone. Cambourne realised if his old mentor from Cambridge and their Gray's Inn Chambers was that drunk, it had to be that buttock clenchingly serious.

Cambourne's natural instinct was to slip out of the back door of number ten and avoid the messenger, an approach which had served his family well over the last 200 years.. A quick check had indicated maybe that would not be a good idea as he was told journalists from the Telegraph, Financial Times and Robert Peston were waiting to pounce. Blast, they must already have wind of the missing £40 billion thought Cambourne. The escape routes via number eleven were also being watched. Maybe he could get his chief whip to call him to the 'House' for an urgent meeting with back benchers; that would do it, surely. His PPS made the call. The answer came back - don't under any circumstances come to the house unless you are willing to sacrifice the chancellor. The 1922 Committee have wind of Dickie's latest foul up and are not happy bunnies - they would love to meet with you and Dickie. The talk is of wooden stakes and silver bullets.

Between a rock and a hard place was where the prime minister found himself. Maybe his PPS could take the briefing but Cambourne looked at the flimsy, top secret - Prime Minster's eyes and ears only. Maybe his PPS could persuade this Internal Affairs 'oik' to leave the file for later perusal by the prime minister. This would allow it to be filed under pending for a few days until the '£40 billion of Tax Payers money missing' fiasco calmed down. No, it definitely states that this Grindstone chap has to hand the brief to the Prime Minister's hands directly and await instructions. Who else could Cambourne shift the 'buck' on to? Internal Affairs? Surely that is the province of the Home Secretary, the rabid right wing woman who makes Mrs Thatcher (of beloved memory) look like a rampaging socialist. A phone call later and it appeared the Home Secretary did know in outline what the brief was about but had it made clear to her, by Sir Nigel, it was something she should leave to the prime minister for any substantive decision, action and not involve herself in. It was clear from her tone that the misogynistic Sir Nigel had put her nose out of joint, he had probably called her 'little woman' or such like as was Sir Nigel's arrogant wont. Damn, thought Cambourne I will just have to face up to this myself, for once.

Blair’s father, the current hereditary Lord Cambourne, had, like generations of the family (since the first Lord Cambourne in the 1790’s) made a lot of money following the family's traditional route from the buying and selling of military commissions in the 18th Century, negotiating armament contracts in the 19th and 20th centuries, dealing as an agent in Government bonds across the centuries and most recently advising government on the privatisation of public services. It was as Commission Agents the pre first Lord Cambourne, George D' Oaks, had attracted the attention of the then Duke of York who needed a friend’s ‘Fitz’, nothing to do with me old chap, sorted out with a commission in the First Line of Foot. As a result of this deal, and a number of others for ’friends’ of the Duke of York, George found himself as the Duke’s aide de camp for the disaster of the Low Countries campaign against Revolutionary France famed in the children’s party song, ‘The Grand old Duke of York’. A few more fixes, favours on his return and all of a sudden George D' Oaks was the Duke of Cambourne with an estate in Wessex and a pension from his sponsor of £3,000 a year in perpetuity. In return George would ensure that candidates favourable to the Duke of York would be elected from the five rotten boroughs that were now in George's gift. Over the centuries by avoiding taking part in wars, and buying and selling on the markets, taking cuts from government deals (we prefer the word 'commission' old chap) and buying up estates as they ran out of male heirs, the Cambourne’s became amongst the top ten richest land owners in the UK with estates in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The family tradition had been established to ensure the oldest son entered politics as an old school Tory and through a combination of favours, debts called in and appropriate donations over the two hundred years since had ensured a Cambourne was prime minister once or twice each century.

"Remind me again, Dan, just what is the SAS doing deployed in the Scottish Borders, with out informing the military HQ in Scotland, right by the main transmission line to England?"

Dan Defoe risked disturbing their camouflage by stretching his toes in his boots, it had been nearly four hours since his last stretch, so he felt he could relax a bit.

"Search me, Rod, must be some anti terrorist exercise where we are supposed to be blowing up the power line from Scotland to England and currently the civil authorities are supposed to be searching for us."

"That's probably it then Dan, .....  need to know. Its just why do we have enough demolition chord to take out a mile of pylons?"

“Need to know I suppose.. and at present we do not need to know”

Colour Sergeant Dan Defoe prided himself in his extreme fitness, dedication and professionalism. he had trudged a hard route out of Drumchapel and into the Highland Fusiliers. The regiment turned him from an innumerate and illiterate keelie to a man of education and ability. Prior to being promoted staff sergeant the army had offered him the chance to go to Sandhurst to become an officer. Dan had refused, he felt safer as a squaddie, so sought selection for the SAS instead. It was a move he had never regretted even when being bitten by sand flies in Iraq while calling air strikes down on mobile Scud launchers or the retreating Iraqi Revolutionary Guard. Andy McNab may be the SAS ‘hero’ in the public's eye but in Defoe’s book he was a failure having been noticed by the enemy where he was not supposed to be. Now Defoe was lying in a camouflaged defile on the Southern Uplands, waiting and being patient.

Gemima Grayling sat with her team in Bute House looking out the window over the Georgian Square which epitomised Edinburgh's New Town, all the while her advisers were telling her interesting snippets like the Treasury had misplaced £40 billion, around about the same amount as she and her government had in pocket money from the UK treasury to run Scotland.

Gemima had given up a lot to be leader of the party yet she felt it would be all worth if this time Scotland could get out from under the benighted Union and become the nation it deserved to be rather than living on Westminster handouts. She thought over life as a miner’s daughter from Blairhall in West Fife. How she had been awarded a prestigious Carnegie Bursary to a top Edinburgh fee paying school. Her parents were delighted when she became the first in the family to go to University to study law and politics. There was the sadness as the mines started to close under Thatcher and men like her father became to old to employ or retrain and withered away on a diet of booze and cigarettes at the Miner’s Welfare - an idea she had learned to call an oxymoron. Her father’s joy when she said she was thinking of going into politics which turned to anger and despair when he understood it would not be as a member of his beloved Scottish Labour Party whose rightward drift he turned a blind eye to. In 1997 he saw New Labour in power but in the aftermath of devolution realised he had been sold down the river after all, they were just Tories with red rosettes. He had been pleased to sit in the Hollyrood visitors’ gallery to hear his daughter make her maiden speech but had died of lung cancer triggered by silicosis before she made it to leader - still fighting the National Coal Board’s insurer for his legitimate pay out until the day he drew his last breath. Her Mum was just glad Gemima had got out of Blairhall, everything else, as she said, was just ‘sweeties’. Gemima had tried to get her Mum to move to Edinburgh but she was still in the council house Gemima had been born in. Gemima knew her mum would only move out when, as the say in Fife parlance, ‘she wis completely aff her legs’.

Her advisors were now telling her their sources in the UK Treasury thought they knew where the missing £40 billion had gone. Apparently it was in a loan to Greece via France to cover the French banks massive exposure to the impending Greek Government default. The reality was the cash had never left France so was artificially making the French Government and Bourse's support for the Euro look in a stronger position than it actually was. The real problem her team had identified was the new socialist President of France did not like the idea of being beholden to 'Les Rostbifs' and wanted the money returned to the UK or used for the purpose it had been borrowed - to lend onto the Greeks. There was a lot of Gallic shrugging by the moneymen and women accompanied with lots of 'Mais non Monsieur President, c'est ne pas vrai! C'est difficile, non - c'est impossible'. The answers the President received to his 'Pourquoi?' did not make him a happy man. By all accounts his predecessor had already spent the lot on the next generation nuclear plants in France, in a secret deal with the UK Government to keep the lights on in London via the French HVDC  inter-connector. A deal the Honourable Dickie Flint had apparently happily signed off, after a few snifters, along with other 'Treasury' specials at the same time. One of those 'specials' was setting aside an additional payment to an Internal Affairs 'special fund', a payment which rang alarm bells in Gemima and her team's heads, they knew a fair bit about 'Cockleshell' already and this ring fenced payment could only be for that purpose.

Grindstone's lower spine was aching and he was starting to get cramp in the back of his calves. He instinctively knew this was part of the Downing Street civil servants' routine to impress on you just how busy the prime minister is, how inferior you were because you were not on the Downing Street staff and partly to see just how important the message you had to deliver actually was. Considering how junior he was, as a civil servant, he guessed he would have to stand there for at least an hour past the stated time of his appointment. For the same reason, he assumed, there would be no chance of him ever being offered a seat or a cup of tea and a biscuit. Just as the arms of his fake Rolex indicated he had, indeed, been kept waiting an hour - the door to the Cabinet Office opened and the prime minister's PPS waved him in and sat Grindstone opposite the seat he knew had seen the backsides of all the prime ministers of his lifetime. Cambourne entered, Grindstone stood up, Cambourne said "Well?" and Grindstone told him, "To save the Union it was time to activate operation 'Cockleshell'."
“Are you certain Gritstone, there’s no mistake, we shouldn’t hold for a few days?“
“If we do that we will miss the window of opportunity the plan requires to go off effectively. It is now or never, sir.”
Grindstone placed the read outs from the secret polling organisation which clearly showed this was now the fourth month the Scottish polling  figures were in the critical area required to trigger ‘Cockleshell‘. Cambourne sucked in his cheeks and sighed in a 'in for a penny' way. Three minutes later Grindstone was heading back to the Internal Affairs Ministry with a less than definitive answer from the prime minister of, "OK, I suppose we must - see to it, my good man."

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