Carry on, nurse

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In the late 1980s, I spent an awful lot of time at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London. I wasn’t ill. I had fallen in with a gang of medical students who were being schooled there, through a mutual art school friend of mine. Though outsiders, the pair of us joined their amateur theatre group, later aggrandised by the name Renaissance Comedy Associates. (One of the students, a driving force behind various dramatic and comedic ventures, was Matthew Hall, who would later adopt the stage name Harry Hill and leave medicine behind.) Because St George’s is a teaching hospital, in that Prelapsarian era of low security, my memory is of having free run of the place: I drank subsidised lager in the Students Union bar, and treated the hospital’s corridors as my own, constantly venturing into the bowels of the place to rehearse with a band, or block out a play, or even curate evenings for the film society. You could even park for free. (It’s £2 an hour these days, I just checked.)

The upshot of this fecund period of my postgraduate life – during which Matthew and I co-wrote a play which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe, and a solo play I wrote about a Woody Allen obsessive was staged at St George’s vast, functioning theatre (not the operating kind) for two nights – is that it shattered my innate fear of hospitals. Having been rushed to A&E twice in my life at that point – both times, in childhood, to get stitched up after an accident in the home – the smell of hospitals still triggered an existential gag response in me, as it does to most people, I would guess. I’d been inside Northampton General plenty of times to visit family members – the worst being when my ailing grandfather was hospitalised, never to come back out – and I would have laughed if you’d told me that in my early 20s I’d voluntarily and regularly hang around in an infirmary with over 7,000 dedicated staff that serves a population of 1.3 million across Southwest London.


In the decades since, I’ve been through the doors of other hospitals, usually for benign tests, or on the occasion of emergencies relating to others, and although they are always potential buildings of death and bad news, I have never slipped back into fearing them since my time as a St George’s groupie. However, the endless recent horror stories about the NHS, which arrive on a daily basis, and range from lethal malpractice and institutional abuse to simple underfunded inefficiency, seem to be doing their best to drive us all away from places designed to make us better and mend us. If the car parking charges haven’t achieved that already.

In January, 15 hospitals in England enacted “emergency measures” in A&E (handily emblemised by an emergency tent erected in the car park of the overloaded Great Western hospital in Swindon). Such symptoms of failure are easy enough to diagnose: we all live with improved life expectancy, with the ever ageing population leading to more ailments and infections; the winter (although it didn’t even get that catastrophic this year); vicious cuts to Council budgets leaving patients without social care and thus blocking hospital beds; the recruitment crisis among GPs, who are hard enough to get an appointment with anyway; the new 111 emergency phoneline driving traffic to A&E algorithmically; just generally more illness as we eat terrible processed food and – who can blame us? – drink and smoke our way out of austerity. None of which ought to be a surprise to those controlling budgets and none of which is suddenly going to go away.

The NHS is sick. It is a suitable case for treatment. It needs TLC and all it got from the last government was PFI, which means nicer-looking hospitals that cost twice as much as they said they would, made tidy profits for the private companies who built them, and inside which every essential service from cleaning to catering has been outsourced to the lowest bidder. But at least Labour wasn’t ideologically against the very idea of what the Americans call “socialised healthcare”; the Tories absolutely are, and would have the NHS fully privatised in a second if they thought they could get reelected afterwards. The dicks.


What’s a national health service to do when the government of the day wants it asset-stripped, and the leader of a currently ascendant golf-club fringe party can think of nothing better than to criticise the English pronunciation of some of its dedicated staff? The majority of us in this country don’t have health insurance. So the majority of us rely on the NHS. It’s ours. But its original cradle-to-grave guarantee is under siege from Tory ideology, which is to say: privatise the shit out of it. (Because free market capitalism states very clearly that the private sector is better equipped to run everything than the public sector.) Perhaps, romantically, you regard emergency medicine and longer-term care as a service that cannot be farmed out to private companies – who, by their very nature, must run things with an eye always on the bottom line. Perhaps you feel that medicine should be available to all, and paid for my our taxes? Like running water, or electricity, or rail transport, or gas. (Spot the irony there.)

Carry on Doctor I keep seeing ambulances which proudly announce that they are run by G4S. (I wouldn’t announce my presence if I were G4S, but such private companies know little of hubris.) This is how old-fashioned I am: the very sight of a private, or partly-private, or public-private, ambulance make me feel sick. The NHS works “in partnership with” G4S, a company that has been criticised for using “non-approved techniques” at a detention centre, the “breach of human rights” of a prisoner being treated at Royal Liverpool University Hospital (who was handcuffed to a security guard for eight days), and using immigrant detainees as cheap labour, and is currently accused of torture at one of its South African prisons, and the unlawful killing of an Angolan deportee after “unreasonable force” on a British Airways flight. The company also paid a settlement of £109 million to the government after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into tagging, incorporating a refund for “disputed services”, but still it enjoys government contracts. Who wouldn’t want these people turning up to take you to the hospital – what could possibly go wrong?

So it is no surprise to find out that St George’s – my adopted alma mater! – relies on G4S to “provide flexible healthcare logistics solutions that meet its customers’ evolving requirements.” It’s all rotten, right down to the weasel words used to dress up its job description. At least, as the election looms, the party that used to be Labour is using the NHS as one of its big platforms. Who can blame them, when the Conservatives have made their feelings about the old warhorse pretty plain? I’m stirred that it’s still considered an issue, even by Labour strategists, with the ghost of PFI still sitting at the banquet table. The Green Party bemoans “botched privatisation schemes” and “hospitals and surgeries treated like profit-driven businesses rather than public services” and promise to oppose cuts, closures and privatisation , and to “maintain the principle of a free NHS”.


It’s not over yet. But it’s worth bearing in mind when you choose who to vote for if you wish NHS doctors and nurses to carry on treating you.


2013: Writer’s blog

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Behold, a year in “selfies”, although taken with my laptop not my phone, and holding a variety of mugs in a variety of places, including my old bedroom at my Mum and Dad’s house, a dressing room at the Roundhouse, a dressing room in a car park in Glasgow and a hotel lounge in Cheltenham. Having this week parodied my gender once again and organised 2013 into a series of lists, how about a more considered review of the year? This time last December, I will have been glancing over my shoulder and bemoaning the loss of Word magazine. A year and half on from its demise, I can state that nothing has replaced it. What I can’t have known last Christmas is that I would stop being asked to deputise on 6 Music in 2013 and have thus spoken nary a word on the radio all year, apart from a couple of appearances on Front Row (for which I remain grateful). Maybe this is for the greater good. If I didn’t read out my weekly TV review in a little rectangle on the Guardian website, I would be a writer and a writer only. There’s something appealing to me about that, after more than 25 years of dabbling and failing to commit. Signing with Avalon in March 2012 helped to focus me on what I really want to do with my life: write scripts. (And edit other people’s.)


I think I’m right in saying that a year ago I had two comedy pilot scripts in development. One of those, Total Class for Channel 4, has since fallen by the wayside (I may as well name it now it’s dead). The other, for the BBC, has enjoyed a belated surge of energy with a top-level cast assembled around it with a view to a read-through for the broadcaster in the New Year. Fingers crossed for that. (The surviving script was commissioned at the same time as Total Class, but I’ve been working really hard on rewriting it from scratch.) In addition, I now have another sitcom in development, of which more presently, but which began life in February over a desk in the offices of production company The Comedy Unit in Glasgow when I was up to cameo in series one of Badults (which they produce and which I script edit). Below is a snapshot of Tom, Ben and Matthew aka Pappy’s, exec Gavin, me and producer Izzy at an early London session for series two of Badults, which is pretty much ready to shoot in early 2014. A very happy association for me. (Although I did the work in 2012, the first episode of Greg Davies’ Man Down for C4 also afforded me a script editor’s credit, which I was proud of when it went out. I also thought of the title.)


It’s been fantastic working on Badults (and appearing as “Andrew Collins” in series one, episode six) as it fulfills my desire to hang around with talented comedians – something I’ve always done – while essentially restricted to the backroom, which is where I feel most comfortable at my age. Anyway, fingers also crossed for what I’m calling “the Scottish sitcom”. The script now rests in the inbox of its commissioning editor – again, after rewrites; again, with a big name actor attached – and we await the thumb up or thumb down. It was ever thus, and will forever be. One can just about subsist “in development” but it’s a commission one dreams of.

To lose Word and 6 Music in less than two years has had quite an impact on my income at a time when money is an issue for all but the privately wealthy. (It was an eye-opener to discover this year that Virgin were more than happy to print an updated edition of my Billy Bragg book but did not have the funds to pay the author to actually write the new chapter.) There can’t be a soul reading this who isn’t affected by the continuing economic woes of austerity Britain. I can say without a doubt that I have never hated a sitting government as much as I hate David Cameron’s. It’s almost bracing.


When Thatcher died this year, I refrained from actually slipping on my dancing shoes, but it was sobering to remember a) how single minded and driven she was, and b) how fundamentally her free-market zeal changed this country. In Thatcherism’s place (she’d never have privatised the Royal Mail, remember), we have something potentially more terrifying: a bunch of self-serving, privately-educated, out-of-touch hereditary hoorays whose hatred of the poor and the weak and the old outstrips Thatcher’s. I don’t remember an issue that has made me so regularly angry as the dismantling of the welfare state, which continues apace and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are at the mercy of a political class with no empathy and barely any experience of ordinary life as it is lived by millions.


I do not wish to live in a country where food banks have to exist. Poisonous Tories like Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey seem not just happy with the situation, they clearly think it’s the poor’s fault for having to swallow their pride and use food banks. There but for the grace of God, or circumstance, go any of us.

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The papers were full of ever more shocking headlines about celebrities and their alleged sexual misconduct (or in the case of Stuart Hall, no longer just alleged, as he pleaded guilty in April to the indecent assault of 13 girls aged between 9 and 17 years old, between 1967 and 1986). As with the Catholic priests before them, it seems all to have been about male power with these DJs, presenters and musicians. The crimes of Ian Watkins of Lostprophets struck a new low in November. If any good has come of all this, it’s the possibility that other victims will no longer remain silent.


More perversion, but of the course of justice. As a Guardian reader not a contributor, I hereby protest the newspaper’s willing part in the rehabilitation of the sleazy liar Chris Huhne, whose columns it regularly and prominently prints, crediting him as a former cabinet minister and not as a convicted criminal.


I didn’t get out as much as I might have liked this year. When one is watching the pennies, staying in and watching all that amazing telly that’s on seems a far wiser option. Holidays are for another epoch. However, the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A was a treat. So was a foreshortened trip to the Cheltenham Literature Festival, despite the rain. David Morrissey and Esther Freud’s evening for the charity Reprieve was the poshest thing I attended all year. The Edinburgh TV Festival was as reliable as ever: enjoyed seeing Kevin Spacey and Vince Gilligan live, and hosting Q&As with the Wrong Mans gang, Greg Davies and John Bishop, as well as catching Sarah Millican and Richard Herring’s latest shows. And to repeat the Wrong Mans experience at Bafta in London, this time with James Corden in attendance, was a cherry on a cake (splendid to meet Nick Moran, too). Professionally, it was a pleasure to interview Steve Coogan, Irvine Welsh, Judd Apatow and the World’s End triumverate for Radio Times.


While we’re in the approximate area of my profession, can I retroactively plant a tree to commemorate finally getting Simon Day’s character Colin on the actual telly? Common Ground was Baby Cow’s compendium for comic characters and Simon and I were chuffed to see Colin come to life, finally, even for ten minutes on Sky Atlantic, having previously written a 90-minute film about him for C4 and had it scrapped by an incoming exec back in 2006. (I wonder where I developed this thick skin?) I even had a cameo as a man walking past a bench, pictured above.


As a writer I’ve been too busy for most of this year to blog as regularly as I used to. (I never even reviewed the Morrissey book or the end of Breaking Bad or Gravity.) But starting a new blog, Circles Of Life: The 143, was a tonic – and a healthy corrective to any ideas above my station I might have harboured: I may be “followed” by thousands on Twitter, but a mere hundred or so are interested enough to read my essays on the 143 best songs of all time. It really does feel like an exclusive little music-appreciation society, and I intend to plough on in 2014. I welcome your patronage.

I hate to sum a year up by saying it presented something of a holding pattern, but it did. Lots of groundwork was laid for potential growth in 2014. I’m grateful that circumstance has helped focus my ambition. And I’m grateful not to have had to use a food bank, or have my benefits slashed. All work is precarious, whether you’re in employment or self-employed. Telly Addict could go at any moment. Radio Times could do some sums and discover that it doesn’t need a Film Editor. The Scottish sitcom could be rejected, with compliments. But you must have faith.

They may not be in it at all, but we really are in it together.

And I was very pleased with my home baking, including the controversial grape muffins. Let us eat cake.


Fool Britannia


I’m alright, Jack. Most of the tax and welfare cuts in what today’s Guardian calls “a new social order” do not directly affect me. Hooray! The “bedroom tax”, introduced today, robs 14% of housing benefit from those in social housing with one spare room, and 25% for two or more spare rooms. Not me. Nor am I among the two-thirds of those hit by the tax who are disabled. I am not affected by the lowering of the household income cut-off for eligibility for Legal Aid. I do not claim Council Tax benefit, so will not be affected by the system that administers it being transferred from the Government to the already financially strapped local councils.

Not being disabled, I am not affected by the disability living allowance being scrapped next Monday, and nor will it affect me that written applications for the benefit are replaced by face-to-face interviews. As I am not currently receiving benefits, or tax credits, I will not notice when, next Monday, they do not rise in line with inflation for the first time in history. Nor do I live in the London boroughs that, from 15 April, will cap welfare benefit. (The other boroughs will follow in July and September, by which time I do not expect to be a welfare claimant, but you never know in this economy, do you?)

The changes to the regulation of the financial industry do not affect me directly today. Nor does today’s unpopular handing over of NHS budgets to “local commissioning groups” made up of doctors, nurses and other practitioners affect me directly today.

So, it would be easy for me to be smug – my life goes on as normal. But I’m not smug. I’m f—ing furious, and deeply worried. These latest changes, particularly to benefits, and much more broadly to the NHS, are on the face of it designed by the nasty ideologues in the Conservative government (I think we should stop calling it a Coalition) to save money. Simple as that. The “under-occupancy penalty” (the Bedroom Tax), which some are optimistically and wishfully calling this government’s Poll Tax, will – we’re told – save £465m a year. Even if this is true – and I tend to disbelieve anything that comes out of George Osbourne’s mouth – that doesn’t count the cost. The cost to lives, to dignity, to pride, to social cohesion, and, if I may be airy-fairy for a moment, to the general mood of the nation.

Attacks on benefit claimants, the poor, the out of work, the disabled, the sick, are easy to tot up as net gains. But – and here’s where every single one of these cuts affects us all, even people who live in gated communities and have second homes in the country – I don’t personally want to live in a society where the worst-off are treated with corner-cutting contempt. This is the seventh richest nation in the world. In the world. And yet a report commissioned by the TUC predicted that by 2015, almost 7.1m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be in “homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living”. This report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about poverty makes depressing reading, too.

The National Housing Federation – the independent body representing 1,200 English housing associations – calculates that the Bedroom Tax risks pushing up the £23bn annual housing benefit bill. Its chief executive said the tax would “harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.” (It will hit 660,000 households with each losing an estimated average of £14 a week. And if you think that £14 isn’t much, then you have no empathy, or have lived a charmed life. Hey, maybe you’re among the cherished 310,000 who will gain today because of the scrapping of the 50p tax rate.)

There are simple social equations here. Either you believe in society or you do not. Either you link the experience of the poor to the experience of everybody else, or you do not. If you do not live in one of the 3.7 million low-income households whose council tax benefit is cut as of today, then you do indeed seem to be alright, Jack. And if you can step back from the bigger picture – from “breadline Britain” as it’s been branded – and still not care, as it doesn’t affect you directly, then you are a better person than I am. I don’t want to live in a country where new food banks are being opened every week. Caroline Spelman, when she was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described food banks as an “excellent example” of active citizenship. I describe them as a crying shame.


The amazing Trussell Trust, the charity which runs the UK’s main food bank network, now have 325 running across Britain. They say that in 2011-12 food banks fed 128,687 people nationwide; n 2012-13 they anticipate that this number will rise to over 290,000. God bless them. But their good works should not be necessary. Charity should be a safety net, not part of our social infrastructure.

So, take a look around you, at your immediate circumstances, on this most unfunny of April Fools Days. If, like me, you are unaffected, directly, today, by the latest cuts, then slap yourself on the back, and hope that you are not affected by them, directly, tomorrow, or the next day.

Then walk out of your front door, and look down your street; look at the streets you walk past tomorrow on your way to work, if you have a job, and wonder about the people who live in the houses you pass. Are they affected, directly? Some of them will be. Even more of them will be affected indirectly. We are all affected indirectly, right now.

This government is run by people who do not think about or care about how other people are getting on. They truly believe, as if it were a religious creed, that if you fall by the wayside, it’s your own, lazy fault. If you’re not an “entrepreneur”, if you don’t do three jobs, if you haven’t saved, then you’re a shirker, or a sponger, or a waste of space. If you agree with this creed, sleep well. If you don’t, then you’re alright by me, Jack.

I now pronounce you


Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, according to the old song. It’s true enough, even though you see horses pulling carriages less these days. It doesn’t specify in the lyric that the people getting married have to be a man and a woman, although having been written in the mid-50s by Sammy Cahn, its implication is likely to be that you should be a man and a woman in order to get married, because you did in those days – and still do in all but nine of the United States – but the song’s sentiment has lasted well over the years. So even though Sammy – most famously through the voice of Mr Frank Sinatra – is implicitly promoting legal heterosexual union, it is still one based wholly in love, so would surely apply to a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, and any transgender combination in between.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
It’s an institute you can’t disparage.
Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.

Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.
Try, try, try and you only come to this conclusion:

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
Dad was told by mother you can’t have one
You can’t have none.
You can’t have one without the other.

I ask you this: how much time have you spent in your life agonising over what you think about gay marriage? For me, since the issue of civil partnerships first arose this century, it was probably a couple of seconds, after which I arrived at the obvious conclusion: why the hell not? There is, to me, literally no reason why not. (Fortunately I am not bound by religious dogma of any kind, so my decision is final and resolute.) But it seems that out there in the world of traditional, right-wing thought, especially religious right-wing thought, some people spend an awful lot of time wrestling with the issue. Actually agonising over it. To the point of sending worried delegations to government and taking to the streets with placards.

Even though my views on the banning of fox-hunting are clear – another issue that took up a lot of Parliamentary time during the first act of the New Labour government but eventually passed – I can easily see why some would vehemently disagree with my point of view. I find it much harder to empathise with those who are against gay marriage.

What harm can it do? I posted a Tweet about it this morning, after seeing another Tory on the news bemoaning David Cameron’s apparently radical plan to promote its legalisation with an opt-out for any church that disagrees with the equalisation of rights for all humans, and wondering why, seriously, it would bother a heterosexual so much that a homosexual person might love someone so much that they wish to make it legal, on equal terms with their heterosexual neighbour? If they hold the institution of marriage so dear, why would they legally discourage people from entering into it, just because they are gay?

Commitment to a partner via the tradition of marriage, whether religious or secular, is no bad thing. But there are no rules. Some couples raising kids out of wedlock appear to be doing a great job; and some who are married are having a rotten time of it and may inadvertently be lighting a fuse to future anxiety in their kids. I’m sure gay parents will screw up, too. We’re all human. And that’s the point. No? Some single parents do a better job than unhappily married parents, too. Why is that hard to understand? It takes all sorts.

Homosexuality has been legal in this country for most of my lifetime and the age of consent equalised with the heterosexual equivalent; why dig your Tory heels in on this particular issue? Marriage would make adoption of children easier for gay couples, but I expect the real burst-bloodvessel Tories would be against that too.

What bothers me the most is that even the retired colonels qualify their homophobia with, “We’re not anti-gay but …”, which is always a giveaway, but in this case might even be true on a very superficial level. (I expect they don’t mind what the gays do “behind closed doors”. How tolerant of them.) So you’re not anti-gay, but you deny gays equal rights? Then you are anti-gay. My Tweet to this effect – common sense, as far as I can see – was re-Tweeted about 360 times during the day, and is still being re-Tweeting as I type. I’m glad that it struck a chord, although I wish I lived in a country where it didn’t need saying out loud.

I had one dissenting voice on Twitter – I much prefer preaching to the choir! – from a person who I’m not going to name, as I found their comment calm, honest, non-combative and, in its own way, rational. I also find it easy to sidestep. They wrote, “Why not create a new institution giving the same legal rights as marriage?” Their problem was in calling it “marriage.” I have heard this caveat before. So they weren’t even against gay marriage per se, they were just against it being called “marriage.”

Can this just be a semantic argument, after all? Is it not the institution of marriage but the word of marriage that matters to those against the gay upgrade?

The Commons vote is tomorrow. They’re saying that Cameron’s enthusiasm for the vote-winning legalisation of gay marriage – and that’s surely all it can be – will sink him, and he will be stopped by the “old guard” of the party he seems nominally to be trying to modernise while he and his baronet pals are actually driving the welfare state into the sea and forcing the poor to beg for their food, thus doing what no Tory party has achieved in our lifetimes.

There, I’ve thought about gay marriage for way longer than the subject needed to be thought about. I hope you’re happy, retired colonels on the news! (You don’t look it)


Got your attention? Good. After my open letter to Ed Miliband last week, although the majority who frequent this blog and follow me on Twitter were in broad agreement with my sentiments, I was also accused of holding “sixth form” views. Not exactly high-level trolling, this was still intended to be an insult. But I’ve decided to take it as a compliment.

I’ve accepted that as I get older, if anything, I become more of an idealist; that my views polarise and become more black-and-white. Corporate greed offends me more acutely. Capitalism seems less like a system we can fix. We are “Us” and they are “Them.” The ills of the world seem ever more vividly connected with the dastardly doings of a tiny minority. (The “99%” concept behind various offshoots of Occupy has really fired my imagination, as simplistic as it must seem to more nuanced political thinkers than I.)

Maybe my thinking has regressed to “sixth form” level, but isn’t there something inspiring and direct about the views we form before responsibility and mortgages and family bring the compromises of practicality to bear upon our ideals? Anyway, with this in mind, I intend to forge on, and stay in the sixth form.

I am inspired to write today by the conflation of reading the increasingly depressing stories about G4S and catching up with a little-seen film over the weekend called The Whistleblower, a German-Canadian thriller based on real events that might have been released in 2011 if anybody had been interested in releasing it. (It came out on DVD in January, so keep an eye out for it; unless you attended the handful of festivals it played at in late 2010, early 2011, or live in Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong or a few other territories where it reached cinemas, it will have passed you by, as it did me.)

The Whistleblower tells the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a former police officer from Nebraska who worked as a UN International Police Force monitor in Bosnia in 1999, hired by private security firm fictionalised in the film as Democra. She blew the whistle on an appalling human trafficking ring, whereby young girls from Eastern Europe were shipped in to work as prostitutes in postwar Bosnia, often servicing security and UN ground and diplomatic staff, some of whom were actively involved in what was a trade in “white slaves”. (The film, starring Rachel Weisz, is unflinching in its portrayal of the violence and abuse visited upon the girls, and as such, despite its conventional thriller tactics, was probably deemed a bit “heavy” for wide distribution. It’s a tough sell, but worth watching.)

Bolkovac was hounded out of her job and her investigation shut down, but she sued “Democra”, registered in the UK, for unfair dismissal, and won, and her findings came to light. Some employees of Democra were forced to resign their jobs, but no criminal charges were brought. So, it’s another cautionary tale about the private sector doing public sector work. Which is why it dovetails into G4S and the Olympics farrago.

Democra had a $15m contract to hire and train police officers for duty. An even larger private security firm, G4S, has a £284m contract to provide 10,400 security staff for the London 2012 Games. The company boasted to its investors that by relying on “temporary managers” on fixed-term contracts, it could keep costs down. Its bid for the contract was apparently way cheaper than the others; unsurprisingly, it got the gig. Its other key money-saving/corner-cutting wheeze was to hire ground staff as close as possible to the date on which they were needed to turn up to work, again to reduce wage bills. Brilliant. This is why, just two weeks before the Games, G4S went cap-in-hand to the Government to ask for 3,500 Army personnel to help plug the gap in its security force. Many of these soldiers have had their annual leave cancelled, with no right to complain, even if they’ve just come back from Afghanistan as many of them have. Their mission, which they are in no position not to accept: to help out a private company.

You may have read about students’ experiences of applying to become Olympic security staff at the same private company, which came to light via the Student Room forum – in essence, G4S basically showed them a couple of instructional videos and handed them a high-viz jacket. I’m glad I’m not going anywhere near the Olympic venues, if these students’ experiences are anything to go by: “I passed the interview. No experience in security or anything and they signed me up for X-ray scanner … My interviewer told me I failed but I was still successful in gaining a place … The instructors made sure everyone passed … All the interviewers are barely 25, really nice and sympathetic … You don’t do much, LOL. You get registered, listen to an introduction about the Games, and then information on the role you will be doing. They try to make it fun so you won’t get too bored. There were a few who fell asleep … G4S is a disorganized, pathetic excuse for a company.”

LOL, indeed. Little wonder we’ve had to live the cliche and send in the Army. (More recent comments from students on the forum are about the sheer confusion of not knowing when their shifts are, not being able to get an answer out of G4S or discovering that they have to report for work at 5am or 6am and simply not being able to get there by train for that time. Why, if the company really wished to pay peanuts, did it not simply employ monkeys?)

G4S have argued that the use of “temporary managers” (yes, those 25-year-old interviewers who signed off all the studes) is “a common industry model”. Well, that’s OK, then. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, according to today’s papers, is reluctant to criticise the useless G4S – presumably because the hiring of the company reflects very badly on the Home Office, who accepted their cheapo bid in the first place. He went so far as to say that G4S had acted “honourably” by admitting to the Government that it couldn’t fulfill its brief. We now know that the Home Office was warned about potential problems with G4S as long as 10 months ago. He also said: “I don’t think this is a moment for getting into the blame game … It is completely normal that you are going to find some contractors on a project of this size who are not going to be able to deliver.” That’s reassuring.

OK, so G4S’s shares have tumbled this morning, and they are due to lose about £50m after the fiasco, while cocky CEO Nick Buckles may yet have to fall on his sword. But, as is always the way, he stands to walk out with a package of up to £21m. (That comprises his £830,000 salary, shares worth £5.7m, an £8.7m pension pot and, according to the Telegraph, “up to £5.7m shares vesting under a long-term incentive plan.”)

This is how the private sector works. It’s all about the bottom line, asset stripping, buying and selling, reducing outlay, increasing profit. But when the private sector is an employee of the public sector, the spotlight shines upon them. G4S is not a company most of us had heard of until the Olympics mess, just as we’d never heard of the similarly named training company 4Ae (who, you will recall, were coining it from the government but not actually getting people back into employment as per their brief, and accused of “multiple fraud” after multiple whistles were blown).

G4S is a big player; it is the third-largest private sector employer in the world after Wal-Mart and the Taiwanese electronics multinational Foxconn (yes, the one whose factories in China were described in a report in 2010 as “labour camps” and where workers were committing suicide). It already has its fingers in our prisons and our airports, and this is only one of 125 countries it operates in.

Unfortunately, the bigger a corporation is – and this is an objective fact – the greater likelihood that certain practices might go on unchecked in its furthest outposts. (I’m starting to wonder if perhaps amnesiac chief execs like Murdoch and Diamond are actually telling the truth when they claim not to know about what goes on in their own companies. Maybe this is how corporations work, and how they protect themselves? I’ve never run one, so I can only guess.)

While the public sector is decimated by cuts, which includes slashing numbers within the police (6,000 by 2015) and the armed services (20,000), when the private sector fails, who has to take up the slack? Nobody at the Met will be going on holiday in July and August, and now thousands in the Army will be denied theirs too. This government is cutting entire regiments from the services and at the same time telling them that they are vital. Mixed signals.

This is a government who has nothing but contempt for what used to be called – by sixth formers – the “proletariat.” I’m glad that the phrase “working class” is now being replaced in common parlance by “working people”, as you don’t need to work in a mine or a factory to qualify for the stratum of society least cared for by the government, and it’s nothing to do with class any more. What they’re pulling off here is something underhand and insidious, whose subtleties of method are gradually wearing away. This is the Prolocaust.

I saw a moving documentary called Nostalgia For The Light over the weekend, by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who now devotes his work to the subject of the “disappeared” ie. the thousands massacred by Margaret Thatcher’s great friend General Pinochet after the 1973 coup. In it, women who lost husbands and sons all those years ago are seen sifting through the Atacama Desert for bone fragments where they suspect the bodies to have been buried in mass graves. It made me think. In some ways it’s more honest for regimes to simply murder those who are inconvenient and not required. Just erase them, in whatever numbers they please. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pinochet … they may not have exactly advertised the genocide they perpetrated at the time, but they got on with anyway. (Due to the nature of their dictatorships, we could not call them before a polite select committee and ask them if they knew about their individual holocausts, but if we had been able to, maybe they’d have done what Murdoch and Diamond did, and claimed to have had no idea what was being done in their name.)

To disenfranchise thousands is just a more humane and legal way of committing genocide.

Here’s how I picture the increasingly self-parodic Tory government (which is what they are, for all the good their “coalition partners” the Lib Dems are doing): they are the family at Downton Abbey. The lords and ladies and dowagers who live “upstairs”, whose loyal staff scurry about “downstairs.” The lords and ladies are currently in the active process of reducing the wages and employment rights of their staff, but at the same time expecting them to continue to serve dinner, and launder, and tidy, and polish, and keep the fires burning, and brush the horses, and chauffeur the car, and iron the daily copy of the Times. The family know nothing of the lives of their staff, neither do they care to. As long as breakfast is served, everything must be fine.

But everything is not fine. And one morning, which may come sooner than they think, the family at Downton will come down to breakfast, and no orange juice will await them. In fact, nobody will have woken them from their slumber and offer to dress them. “Downstairs” will be silent. And what will the family do? Certainly not make breakfast themselves. They will call in the Army to come and make it for them.

His name is Maude

Brilliant. We seem to have had a fuel crisis without there being a fuel crisis. I am often embarrassed to be British, and to live in Britain, but the week just gone has been particularly mortifying. Francis Anthony Aylmer Maude, MP for Horsham and Cabinet Office Minister in the current government, pretty much single-handedly created a national petrol panic which was needless in the first instance, at the very least inconvenient and maddening, and actually dangerous in certain cases. The head of the UK Petroleum Industry Association called the whole thing “self-inflicted insanity.”

There have been calls for Maude’s resignation, but he isn’t hearing them. It may be unfair to blame the whole sorry mess on one man. Equally, it’s tempting to see some kind of government conspiracy behind it all, in which Maude was simply playing his part. The notorious, out-of-touch “jerry cans” advice may have exploded, to coin an unfortunate phrase, but in many ways, this might have been a happy rather than unhappy accident.

After all, this government seems to have done very little since their woeful Budget except deflect attention from their woeful Budget. You wouldn’t put anything past them. Also, as Tories, they are scarier in many ways than the last lot, comprised as the Cabinet now is, of out-of-touch public schoolboys, led by a PR who is no more interested in politics, pasties, petrol or the greater good of the country than any distant relative of Princess Diana who’s married to the elder daughter of the 8th Baronet of Sheffield raised on a 300-acre estate would be expected to be. David Cameron is interested only in looking after his own.

Anyway, I’m blaming Francis Maude. To be honest, I don’t care whether he goes or not. He’ll be replaced by an identical grey suit and nothing will change. I barely use my car. I’m seriously considering getting rid of it. But all week I’ve walked past the garage at the corner of my road and it’s had queues of drivers snaking out into a main road, causing disruption and ill-feeling for no reason whatsoever. I’ve seen people queuing up on foot with green petrol cans. Not “jerry cans”, because nobody in this century has jerry cans. Nor, Francis Maude, does everybody have a garage. His stupid remark: “When it makes sense, a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take.” Sensible? Oh yes. Even though it turned out to have been lethal advice based not on sense, but on a dreamy vision of Middle England even the Daily Mail might not recognise.

What I hate about Maude is what I hate about this government, and what I hate about George Osbourne and David Cameron and the rest of them: he seems to have no notion of what it’s like to be an ordinary person in this country going about their business. They don’t know what “making ends meet” means. They call the millions raised by the 50p tax rate “next to nothing.” They get themselves in a PR pickle about pasties because either they’ve never been in a Greggs – and why should they? – but because they’re only worried about what that will play like anyway. I don’t care if George Osbourne has had a steak bake or not. But don’t run the country if you haven’t, that’s all, and if you haven’t employ someone who has (radical idea?). Because a hell of a lot of people go into Greggs every day, and it’s a successful British business that serves ordinary people hot food, and the Government want to tax it out of business because – why? – they think that 20p on the price of a meal is next to nothing, and won’t hurt anybody.

So, Francis Maude, who thinks we all have a garage and a supply of 1930s German military petrol containers, is merely a lightning rod for all that’s wrong with this depressing government. “It’s not for us to give advice on what people should do,” he told Sky News, on the day the non-crisis turned into a crisis, careful not to sound like the nanny state of course, because he’s a Tory, and in that respect favours less government in the usual hypocritical way of right-wing, free-market politicians. “It is our obligation to tell them what is going on so that they can make their own decisions.”

These are the facts of the matter: tanker drivers at five of the seven main supply companies voted in favour of industrial action over terms and conditions, as well as safety standards. Unite, which represents around 2,000 drivers who deliver to Shell, Esso and major supermarkets, is demanding minimum standards for pay, hours, holiday and redundancy. They may still go out on strike – although not until after Easter – but if they don’t, who’s won? Ordinary drivers, inconvenienced and panicked for no reason? I don’t think so. The woman with 40% burns? Definitely not. Unite? No, because we’ve essentially had a practice run of what it would be like if those greedy, conniving unions had their selfish, money-grabbing way about luxuries like holiday and pay and safety, eh?

From where I’m sitting, the Government seems to have won, in the sense that they’ve had a week of further distraction from the real issues – NHS, tax – and they’ve still got Francis Maude if ever there’s another emergency in 1930s Germany. If only one of the main opposition parties had a leader worth the job.

(Once again, I speak as someone who was not directly affected by the petrol “crisis,” so I’m not moaning on my own behalf.)