A short story by John Haycock
The radio went on as usual just before 6:30am on a dull Friday, no light in the sky as yet. It was, in fact, just over a dozen days to go to 31 December.
“. . . and finally, our tip for today comes from Southwell, the last race of the day, the 2:45, and JGC advises that you back ‘True Blue’ each way.
Now, with a summary of the news, here’s Noel Sleet.”
Sue stirred a bit. The broadcast continued.
A new voice continued: “The government has announced a total ban on all reporting of fuel shortages or supermarket queues. JGC added that ‘this sort of talk was ‘very unhelpful’ to our strategy of a calm approach to Brexit’ and said that they were working incredibly hard, around the clock, to obviate any fuel shortages.
In other news, Dido Harding, the new supremo for the aged, added that food parcels were due with 75% of all pensioners in a matter of weeks.
“On the markets, the Pound rallied slightly and now stands at just over two to the US Dollar. Financial sources however expect it to drop to nearer three towards the end of December. JGC therefore advise you to do as much Christmas shopping as you can in the next few days.
“And that is the news from the New BBC.”
We wondered how many listeners would remember Harold Wilson’s ‘pound in your pocket’ speech, 53 years ago.
The radio went silent as I turned it off; but by then Sue was awake. “Why not turn to BBCi? At least you’ll get closer to the truth.”
Perhaps I should explain a bit here. Firstly, it was ‘wise’ to know precisely what the government was saying. Or doing. The BBC, as we knew it, had been ‘mothballed’ – the government had said.
Instead, the ‘New BBC’ would broadcast the news, every hour, on the hour. In between, there’d be light entertainment; some sport, talks, music, a few well-loved plays – and lots more ‘slow radio’ to keep us all calm.
Thankfully, a few daring characters, nameless, for good reasons, but with very-familiar voices, had ‘vanished’ from the old airwaves and were now broadcasting (clandestinely of course), cunningly beyond the pale of The Broadcasting Act 1990, from two little offshore islands, Man and Guernsey – hence the name, BBCi.
Sue ranted on. “Besides which, who the hell do JGC think they are, telling us when to shop?” she asked, rhetorically. “When did any of them queue for hours?”
We all knew who JGC were. It was also clear that, even in your own home, it was unwise to use the full names of The Three. We both knew why. In a hugely popular move, the government had announced in mid-October that all houses were to be given, free, immediately, the new BRoadband and ‘ BRAlexa’; voice-activation for every home, in every room. A masterstroke, we all
thought: the army of young unemployed were trained to install the system – using technology that apparently had been perfected in top-secrecy in the year since the last election.
The system dramatically simplified home education, WFH, shopping, all social contacts. To be honest, it worked so well that we wondered why we’d not had it before. The “world-beating” system proved that we were, indeed, taking back control. But did BR-Alexa have a second, more sinister, string to her bow?
The gloom of the morning settled its arms around us. Covid, Brexit, unemployment, food shortages and the early onset of winter held the nation bound, paralysed by fear, unable to ‘change the clock’, metaphorically, now nearing a minute to midnight. Our plans for the weekend were simple: see if Ken the butcher had anything that resembled a joint – and if not, we’d happily settle for our favourite, tomato bredie, a lamb stew.
Ken had promised us ‘a bird’ for the end of the week – so we’d enjoy the big day as best possible; Christmas had ceased to have much joy, sadly, and the Border terrier puppies – well, all they wanted was a long walk, good for all four of us.
So how had the sunny Indian summer in September turned to this? The coup on Saturday 31 October, the deadline set by the EU for the UK’s final plan, was as fast and unexpected as a busy butcher’s cleaver: a grave announcement that we needed to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. ‘Clear the decks’ said the headlines. ‘Batten down the hatches’.
Most of the old Ministries disappeared, ‘streamlined’ into two super-departments, Home and Away.
The Top Three seized absolute power. Parliament was just a building, nothing more. PMQ was scrapped. J. was, notionally, still in charge. G. ran Away; and C. ran Home. As he’d done before, a wag noted. The Home Ministry contained a special new force, run by JRM (it’s always advisable to use initials, rather than full names.) The police and army had been amalgamated, in a new government initiative, designed, we were told, to keep us all safe, in our homes, from the perils of Covid and any unexpected problems caused by Brexit. So what better name, JRM concluded, than to call this force the Home Guard, reminding us he is often known as the minister for the last century – poor Jacob, indeed.
About this time, the negotiators had agreed to disagree – and parted in acrimony, taxis and Eurostar. The UK was probably ‘going it alone’, ‘backs to the wall’; bulldogged stubbornness, pigheaded arrogance. I wondered idly how and why these two animals, dogs and pigs, had lost their good name. All the UK’s hopes of trade deals were dashed by 10 November; but quietly we all rejoiced. Biden had won by a clear margin and Nancy Pelosi rejected all JGC’s requests for a trade deal, citing the Irish border debacle and the stubborn JGC adherence to the Withdrawal Act.
By mid-November, the prudent had finished their panic buying; we’d not started ours. We trusted, as millions had to, that a way out could be found; surely? Suddenly, Maslow’s Hierarchy became default dogma; the necessity for water, shelter, food, medicine: now became actual worries, not background niggles.
A new low point came early in December, in the New BBC 20:00 news bulletin. A teensy bit more belt-tightening would see us through the next few months, was the gist of it. “Your parents will remember that the three day week was a good thing for Britain – it made us realise how great we were, and how great again we will be, shortly,” the Spokesman told us.
“From tonight, the electricity will go off at 9pm and come on in time for your shower. BR-Alexa will not be affected, so you can still work and play – and remember to. . .” the voice droned on, but we’d ceased to listen. The Coalite guttered; we toddled up Wood Hill to bed.
Could things get worse?
As November turned into December, we thought about the old slogan: WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER – and realised the ‘this’ was actually a typo. Yes, we were all in sh*t, we agreed. And yes, things could, and did, get worse.
I’ll gloss over The Big Day of 25 December. Our ‘bird’ turned out to be a pair of wood pigeons; not bad, as it happens, but thankfully we had a bottle of Fonseca port for afters. And, as usual, HM at 1500!
The Sunday just after Christmas dawned, bright, very cold. We had the headlines: ‘50mph is tops’ said The Telegraph, referring to the new speed limits. ‘Keep it up’ exhorted The Mail. The Express praised the Triumvirate, lavishly. “Five days to full freedom” they shouted, alliteratively. Only The Observer’s third leader, about climate, seemed to avoid the tensions, growing by the minute, of the critical week ahead.
Did we understand the article correctly? Maybe time would tell. But we sensed that something was stirring. We felt a rising sense of anger, frustration; and we also kept reading and hearing of similar, deeply-felt disquiet in all walks of life, from industrialists, from churchmen, from politicians. Why even a few top brass, recently retired from the services, seemed really unhappy.
The Move came quickly later that day: caught almost all of us unawares. But old friends, due to come over for a drink at lunch, had let it slip that their daughter, in ITV News, had been told to be ‘within 15 minutes of a studio’ all Sunday.
In hindsight it’s as plain as a pikestaff as to what was happening – and as we owe so much to those hundred or so brave people, it’s worth spelling it all out in detail.
‘The Hundred’ had been divided roughly into four groups. Each group as the cliché has it, comprised a cross-section of ‘those set in authority over us’: it consisted of key politicians, top civil servants, faith leaders, captains of industry and commerce; a few disenchanted top brass from the military – and in the fourth group was the new Met Commissioner – oh, yes, and The Speaker. There were also more than a few well-known faces from the telly and stage. In the old days, they would have been led by Dicky, but now Gary L is a ringleader, with a few luvvies to keep him company.
So, where to meet, as discreetly as possible, near enough to Parliament? And how to signal this information, at the last moment, to each person individually, not electronically, for obvious reasons?
Naturally these locations were top-secret on that Sunday morning. They knew when to meet, of course: the Celebration Sunday Lunch had been well leaked, they all had to ‘Be There’ by 1pm sharp.
Let me give you a bit of the back story, because it’s important. Have you come across ‘what3words’? W3W is a smartphone app, free to download. It’s used by the emergency services around the world; maybe you read the story from late August when a Belfast man fell down a steep slope into an unmarked cave, breaking his fibula in the process. It didn’t look good for him;
but he’d got this app, pressed the LOCATE arrow and got his position, pinpointed within milliseconds. He called 999, gave the three words locator – and was rescued within 30 minutes.
As my tech-savvy nephew told me, its a geocode system with an accuracy of three square metres. It encodes geographic coordinates, GPS to you and me, into three ordinary words. For example, the north side of the Cenotaph is identified as ///echo.bottle.year. W3W’s great appeal is its simplicity; no long strings of numbers and letters – just three simple everyday words.
But cunningly, it also works in reverse: if someone gives you three words for a rendezvous, input them into W3W and bingo, you know exactly where to meet.
The third leader of The Observer on that fateful Sunday 27 December, was vital. Under the heading CHANGE IS COMING, it was a very short piece, ostensibly about climate change. More David Attenborough than George Monbiot, it talked abut each of us as individuals, taking responsibility, making a change in our daily lives. It exhorted us, saying, I recall, ‘big government’ was a bit powerless, pulled by various lobbies, pummelled by ‘vested interests’. It concluded that it was necessary for ‘the man in the street to take action’; how prophetic.
Then, strangely, it had just 12 words as a last line, gobbledygook, a printer’s glitch, we thought, left over from another article? types enjoy food; above boxer lands; tiles focus swept; cargo pudding cargo. Sadly, I can’t find my copy to show you; I think we threw it out as a bin collection was due. Shame, it’s a collector’s item now, I believe. But put those words, in groups of three, with full stops between them, into a W3W app – and a precise rendezvous is shown – which helped The Hundred, all presumably at home, to move swiftly into position for midday.
Four main meeting points had been chosen: Queen Victoria Memorial, Horse Guards Parade, the Eye and Parliament Square; innocuous enough for four small groups of six at each point, no more, to congregate for a convivial chat – and wait. All within a few moments’ quick stroll of The House. Their new leaders-in-waiting were, obviously, the four ex-PMs, BBMM (who’d all just returned from Sandringham, where The Monarch goes for Christmas),one at each location. Oh, the fifth, C, said he was “undecided as whether to join them”; thankfully.
The end, for the ‘gang of three’, as we now often called them, came swiftly. They, their wives and close advisors, 150 in total, were all in the Members Dining room, enjoying smoked salmon, followed by game pie – and they rose as one when the four ex-PMs strode in and performed citizen’s arrests on JGC and a few key followers. A judge-in-chambers’ ruling, obtained an hour beforehand, stated that the actions by the government, or JGC as in effect it was, were ultra vires. The ruling said Parliament ‘had not been consulted’ about the unilateral decision by The
Three to leave Britain at the mercy of a WTO deal; ‘worse than useless’, was the general opinion, even inside the Westminster bubble.
The Hundred ‘new great and the good’, had followed the ex-PMs and gathered in the Westminster Hall. ‘See and be seen’, was their motto; watching and being watched, as the disgraced JGC trio and their acolytes were marched out. The news of the coup spread through the palace of Westminster. And then onto BBCi. And finally,a terse, monosyllabic fin de siecle broadcast, at 6pm on
New BBC which ended with the glorious words: “That is the end of the news from the New BBC, London. And our last broadcast, ever.”
Later, explaining their actions in a nationwide broadcast on BBCi, The Four said that JGC had acted ‘contrary to the welfare of the citizens of Great Britain, creating widespread fear and anxiety’, and, by the ‘wilful, reckless act of no-deal for Brexit’ had imperilled the free flow of goods, services and medicines.
The next morning, Parliament, recalled, sat in Emergency Debate. This was not as simple as a constitutional crisis, someone said; it affected the very fabric of British society, values, reputation. The ruling party was leaderless, clearly, and for one brilliant moment, all MPs acted for the good of the country, not the party. By the narrowest of margins, Parliament agreed to dissolve and, uniquely,
agreed that an interim ‘government of national unity’ be established pro tem.
The next few days, 28 to 31 December. were chaotic – but wonderful. In a smart move to make the change of power as seamless as possible, the new administration called themselves ‘The JGC’.
Which, natually, also stands for The Joint Governing Council. Reason, commonsense and the rule of parliamentary law was restored and by the thirteenth day, Britain was at last, again, at peace with itself. Suddenly, you could not find a soul who’d actually ‘agreed’ with a no-deal Brexit – and helpfully the EU ‘stopped the clock’ at 22:58 on 31 December, pausing the deadline – and by mid-January Britain had a full tariff-free trade deal.
Yes, there were huge concessions on both sides, but in the months to come, it was widely recognised that Brexit had in fact so shaken the member states that the long-overdue reforms were not only possible, but were desirable. Unbelievably, our deal was all but as good as being part of the EU again.
The Three went their own ways: J, a cunning linguist with his Latin, went to Perugia to brush up on his Italian; G went to live on a small vineyard; and C? Well, he’s a ‘Global Ambassador’ for Specsavers. A proper fairytale ending, with no panto villains. Could we dream, could we hope, for this fable to come true?
Time will tell.
© John Haycock 2020
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See also: This month’s new books, October 2020
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