Archive for July, 2009

The Sorrowful Lament of Loudribs Recession


Stoopid giant golden bull... thinks it's soooooo clever....

Stoopid giant golden bull... thinks it's soooooo clever....

Hello Lemmings. Ok, so after a brief foray into the world of madmen of yore I’m afraid it’s back to the tiresome business of griping about the present. Despite the target rich environment that abounds right now, I’m going to try and keep this focused by venting some bile on a topic that’s very close to my heart….The Great Economic Apocalypse Fuckery Of 2008/9. I’m very attached to this event in a deeply emotional way as I’m a doom monger by disposition and the boom years didn’t sit well with me. This is partly down to me being a perennial underachiever. Despite fast approaching 30, being academically well qualified and having worked many ‘responsible’/‘worthy’ jobs, I still earn below the national average wage, ride the bus and rent my dwelling. I’m also highly phobic about debt and not really one to go for in extravagant materialism which seemed to put me at odds with the rest of the world during the good times. In fact, the years 2003 to 2007 seemed to me to be nothing but an extended exercise in excuse making. Visits to parents would always involve veiled references to ‘the property ladder’ and ‘career forwarding’ followed by much not so veiled hand wringing on my part about “the time not being right” and much “wait and see”-ing. I couldn’t even find refuge in my trusted friend television thanks to a rash of Allsops, Beanies and assorted ‘lifestyle’ types, all berating me to do exactly the opposite of what my gut wanted and clambering aboard their grubby bandwagon. In short, I don’t get on with unrestrained economic growth.

To be fair, I’m not alone in this department. Many of peers felt equally shafted by what was supposed to be our halcyon days and with good reason. We had grown up with nothing but Thatcherism and the associated messages that a) generating wealth is what you are here for and if you don’t, you are next to useless b) the state was not going to help you if you fucked things up and c) if you were from a single parent family then you were obviously a wrong ‘un (I had to stick that one in because it is something I will never be able to forgive the Tory’s for).  Along with these more punitive points was the assumption that you could be whatever you wanted, just so long as you worked bloody hard and didn’t mind trampling on the toes of those less fortunate. When Labour got into power, the tone changed (much more “Chillax guys, we’re way more mellow and groovy than those Tory squares”) but the fundamental assumption was still basically the same: You can do/be anything your heart desires providing you put in the hours. A noble endeavour, surely? Well, on the face of it, maybe. In reality, not a cat in hells chance. Most of my friends (like myself) had done what we thought was expected of us. We went to 2nd tier uni’s, paid for the privilege and then fell into a labour market that was singularly unprepared for a glut of graduates with high expectations and identikit qualifications. Most of my friends ended up either in minimum wage retail jobs (counting on ill gotten bonuses to get them through), call centres, or in my case, the voluntary sector earning pennies. A few managed to carve a reasonable niche out in IT, but for most of us it a headlong rush into anything that would pay. For some it was even more of a painful experience as they had taken the ‘you can be anything you want ‘ message to heart. When it turned out that they couldn’t, they ended up blaming themselves and became trapped in a cycle of self loathing and nixed ambitions. Yet something else was also afoot. As the economy recovered from the dot-com bubble and then gradual morphed into a steroid-addled growth addict another message began to permeate the ether. The old convention that if you wanted something, you worked for it started to fade and in its place came the assumption that you could have what you wanted, no matter whether you could afford it now or not. Credit would provide you with the means to live beyond the physics of reality and as a society, we embraced it with wild abandon. We maxed out, balanced transferred and then maxed out again. Those who had a home pushed it even further and began to treat what should have been a dwelling as a veritable money making machine that had the ability to turn fuck all into a meal ticket. It was a one-way bet. Or so we thought. (I should point out at this point that I’m not entirely blind to the benefits of this period. At least we could get work, which is more than I can say for the poor bastards graduating right now).

As is my nature, I spent a fair few of these years chuntering and muttering about the unsustainability of it all, but I admit that towards 2006 a certain fatigue was setting in. Maybe the alchemists had turned based metal into gold and here was stupid old me, clinging on to a quaint set of values while the world laughed and took out another unsecured loan to pay for its next boob job.  Luckily, I had company as 2007 saw the release of three very timely books: Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson’s ‘Fantasy Island’, Oliver James’ ‘Affluenza’ and Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. While these three books all touched on different aspects of impending doom, they all bolstered my hunch that something had to give. I didn’t have to wait long as September ushered in the run on Northern Rock and the start of a golden period for good old misanthropic me: My Recession.

Part of me feels slightly ashamed to think back on the pleasure I derived from watching the queues outside the fast sinking Rock, but the other part of me was having a whale of a time. This was it! Finally, the fog that cloaked the mountain of bullshit we had accumulated was lifting and it was clear as day that all sorts of chickens were coming home to roost. The phony war endured for a few months with some writing the demise off the Rock as an anomaly, but to me this was stone cold proof that the system as we knew it had run out of road and we would be left with no option but to find a fairer way of running our lives.  Further confirmation came in February ’08 when the government finally accepted what had been quite obvious for some time and took the Rock into national ownership. That was a particularly sweet moment for me, watching New Labour flail around wildly, desperately trying to escape the inevitable as their decade long game plan unraveled before the very eyes. It was like watching a man trying to eat his own face.  For someone who had just spent three years working in the NHS and was appalled by the destructive and wrongheaded drive to impose free market anarchy on the most sacred and valued of our institutions, it felt as if some form of cosmic justice was beginning to impose itself.

But this was merely the beginning. As the months progressed the airwaves began to fill with competing versions of reality. Voices that had long been silenced as out of touch pessimists with an axe to grind start gaining traction (Will Hutton being a notable example) while the claims of vested interests became even more outlandish and disconnected. The evening news would parade the housing ‘industry experts’ who were still madly clinging to the idea that this was a flash in the pan and it would be business as usual just as soon this blip worked itself out. It didn’t and by March ’08 Bear Stearns joined the list of casualties. Yet still, this was not enough to slap some rationality into the situation and policy makers carried on parroting the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ message. It wasn’t until September and the seismic collapse of Lehman Bros that the people who mattered finally came to accept that this was it. This was the day that everything they knew turned out to be wrong. It was music to my ears.

Looking back now, it’s hard to appreciate just how monumental the implosion was that followed Lehman Bros demise. Post event mutterings mention phrases like ‘martial law’ being banded about in Washington’s corridors of power and even Alan Greenspan, godfather of this unholy mess and figurehead of the bogus boom economics was forced to concede that he had “found a flaw” in the system he helped create. Not to put too fine a point on it, what we accept as reality came within inches of disappearing in those weeks. And that’s when my problems started. You see, for me, this was the point when there was a window to actually do something creative with this mess, a chance to remodel the world to a new and more just blueprint. But we didn’t. There were certainly some prominent voices offering wise counsel at the time (St. Vince of Cable being one) but the big ideas were nowhere to be seen. As a default lefty, I was appalled. I understood that when things seem pretty good for everyone, it’s neigh on impossible to argue for anything different, but at that point in time, you’d have to be completely off your mash not to see that things were about as far from ‘good’ as is possible. There was no lack of discussion. I remember at the time that it seemed like The New Statesman had been invigorated with fresh purpose, but the resulting mélange of ideas lacked the clarity and structure to amount to more than rehashing of old touchstones and worn slogans. The left, presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, fumbled the ball and missed out on what should have been its finest hour. I realize that I’m just as much to blame as anyone else. I certainly didn’t have a solution and if you tried to pin me down to “what would you do then?” then I’d be hard pressed to present anything better than a return to the post-war settlement and a resurrection of Keynesian economics. That’s not enough to stop me being angry though.

After the big fireworks of the crash, the world has now found itself in weird, unsure place. All the main political parties had to offer was token support for “beefing up regulatory frameworks” and “getting tough on the bonus culture” (to which end they’ve done pretty much fuck all) whilst tacitly implying that what we really need is to wind the clock back to 2006. We didn’t even get our pound of flesh. For a brief period, it looked like the bankers, knocked from their pedestal would finally have to face a public they had so thoroughly screwed over. The mumbled ‘apologies’ at the select committee was as far as we got though as fortune favoured the crooked and gifted them with the MP’s expenses freakshow (possibly the most effective distraction I have ever witnessed in my life). As a result, we are still at the mercy of criminals whose self interest bought us all to the brink and a policy framework that amounts to stoking another bubble, just so we all feel better. I guess I shouldn’t be too pessimistic as it’s foolish for me to think that you can conceive a whole new way of conducting politics in just a few months, but right now, I’ve got to say that I don’t have much hope.

So where does this leave us all? Well, for one thing, it’s certainly made advertising all the more weird. Watching those NatWest ads where jobsworth staff of one of the biggest failed banks (now in public ownership) lecture customers about financial security made me wonder if I was experiencing an acid flashback and it’s even worse on the other side of the Atlantic. I went to New York in May and watched an advert where GM claimed to be “Redefining the Ownership Experience” just as it announced that it was closing the vast majority of its dealerships. Jesus wept. Mind you, if that’s 30 seconds of airtime that’s not being used to broadcast one of those fucking Confused.com atrocities, then I guess I can’t complain too much. On a more personal level, not much has changed. I work in mental health and right now, the misery business (in an underfunded/undervalued sort of way…naturally) is booming. However, we all know that as soon as the Tories get in we’re on the thinnest of ice and P45’s will follow in Cameron’s wake. I guess there have been a few positives as well. People seem less bothered about the stuff they ‘should’ own and at least we’ve got something to blame if we do fail. In that sense, the recession is like a nationwide sicknote (”Sorry I didn’t hand in my homework…the prevailing macro-economic weather ate it.”) and failure isn’t so painful when you’re not completely culpable. But the next few years are going to be hard. Very hard. Now that the clatter and din of impending doom has past, the banality of everyday woes is now the focal point. More people are going to lose their jobs, homes and self respect. As a nation, we will have to reassess our place in the world and will very likely have to eat some supersized helpings of humble pie in the near future. Part of me thinks “about time” and that maybe it will stop us tear-assing around the world stage, picking fights where we shouldn’t, but it also begs the question of who will fill the vacuum left by the west. To be honest, I’m not overly thrilled with the prospective candidates.

So there we have it, The Sorrowful Lament Of My Recession. I guess it serves me right for enjoying the woe of others so much, but I must say I’m bitterly disappointed. Still, at least The Property Ladder’s (of ‘Property Snakes and Ladders’ as it has been so aptly renamed) is a damn sight more interesting now.

Loudribs History Corner Special Part 3: This Time It’s War


It's a holiday in Mongolia, it's tough kid but it's life...

It's a holiday in Mongolia, it's tough kid but it's life...

….and we’re back….again. Sorry for the delay in posting this third and final part, but I had to move house. It was a saga, an ordeal, a trial no less and I now vow never to move again. I shall die, right here, where I’m sitting now, tormented by the memories of what I am about impart. That’s right. It’s time. Time for some crazy.

We left the Baron last time happily ensconces in his own playground of madness (Dauria), joyfully torturing all those unlucky enough to be near him and generally making one of histories most horrific episodes all the more appalling. However, things weren’t quite as rosy as they seemed. The Red Army was finally getting its shit together and by 1920, they were starting to hammer the Whites in Siberia. While his comrades-in-arms (in the loosest possible sense) soon found themselves staring down the wrong end of righteous vengeance, the Baron began to develop other plans. Plans that would raise the bar in the batshit stakes a fair few notches.

The unwitting subjects in this unholy project were the inhabitants of Mongolia, a large but backwards country, sandwiched unenviably between China and Russia. Just looking at the map, it’s pretty easy to see why Mongolia falls into the category of histories Shit Out Of Luck countries, much akin to the likes of Poland and Belgium. Over the years, its two large and belligerent neighbours had generally interfered, meddled and invaded from time-to-time while poor old Mongolia appeared to be tottering around the world stage with a massive geopolitical ‘KICK ME’ sign taped to its back. While it had somehow managed to gain a few years of independence, by 1920 the Chinese were demanding it hand over its dinner money and sent troops in to restore their authority. Ungern, sensing that things were going sideways in Siberia resolved that not only would it be great fun to put a stop to these shenanigans, it would also serve as a launch pad for his wider goals of, you know, restoring monarchs to the throne left, right and centre whilst simultaneously ensuring that the working classes were bloody well put in their place. Oh, and I think he also penciled in wiping out as many Jews as he could…..just for a good measure. With this in mind, he gathered 2500 men and set off to conquer Mongolia….as one does.

Ungern, at this point, was looking pretty damn fruity.  Observers at the time reported that he had a “disconcerting habit of skipping into battle” (tra-la-la!) and had taken to wearing some suitably ‘ethnic’ garb (robes that resembled “a yellow dressing gown” apparently). Like all good warmongers, the Baron went to the trouble of consulting a fortune teller before marching off to war and was delighted to hear that October the 26th, 1920, was “an auspicious” day to attack the capital, Urga. Armed with this precious knowledge and an unshakable faith in the rantings of charlatans he promptly started his attack but then, rather disappointingly, got lost. 5 days later he tried again, but this time got a thorough thrashing from the Chinese garrison and was forced to retreat to a place in the middle of wtf-istan called Zam Kuren. Unable to overthrow the Chinese and wary of return to a fast imploding Siberia, Ungern was left with no choice but to spend the winter with his army in the frozen wastes of Outer Mongolia.

Generally speaking, armies work best when they are paid, fed and have some sort of purpose. During the winter of 1920/21, they had precisely none of these things and were forced to live a feral existence in one of the world’s least hospitable areas. Luckily, the Barons despotic skill set was ideally suited to the task in hand and he lost no time in instigating a regime of such brutal and bizarre punishments that his men would rather freeze/starve/atrophy to death than take a chance at legging it. His own unique brand of discipline at this particular junction warrants further attention. His first move was to get rid of useless mouths so he had his Medical Bastard In General kill anyone who looked a bit too sick. If ever there was incentive to turn up to work if you were feeling a bit peaky, this was it. He also made sure that he, personally, was seen to be putting in the hours. To this end, he would walk around the camp, looking for people he didn’t like the look of and then lash them with bamboo canes. 100 Lashes was classed as ‘mild’. One guy, who had sense enough to desert, but not sense enough to ensure he didn’t get caught was lashed 50 times daily for 10 days. He was then sent to hospital so he could recover enough for more lashing. This went for 20 months until he finally went insane. Just in case that wasn’t brutal enough for you, he had some further incomprehensible punishments up his sleeve. Top of the list was ‘tree-sitting’. This involved getting the poor sod in question to stand at the top of a tree for a whole night. If they fell (which I’m guessing was quite likely) and hurt themselves, they would be shot for being useless. If they were lucky, that would be the end of it, but as past form suggests, it probably wasn’t and for those who were deemed not have presented their pound of flesh, there were further tree-based horrors, chiefly amongst them execution by tree. I bet that’s got you thinking “how the hell do you execute someone with a tree? Throw it at their heads? Roll a tree trunk over them?” Close, but no cigar. In what seems to be a precursor to the cartoon violence of Tom And Jerry the Baron would have his men bend back a tree, bind the victim to it and then let it go, tearing the unfortunate  limb-from-limb. If I was him, I’d sue the fuck out of Tex Avery for unpaid future royalties. Oh, and he was very fond of “execution by fire”.

I mentioned last time that the Baron had, at this point, cleaned up his act a little and had quit drinking (but had taken up opium instead…just in case you were getting worried). Much like modern day reformed-smoker Nazis who zealously persecute their former comrades with theatrical splutterings and sanctimonious lectures, Ungern decided to take the moral high ground and reserve some extra special punishment for anyone found to be drunk in his army. Those unlucky enough to get busted were stripped naked and left on frozen rivers for a few nights with only raw meat to eat. Even a turning up to work with a hangover was enough to land you a whole load of bizarro bullshit. A bunch of officers who did just this were forced to stand to attention all night whilst continuously reciting their names and ranks. With a hangover. Cold blooded. Yet despite all these elaborate and frankly ridiculous punishments, the Baron still reserved the fondest place in his heart for good, honest, flogging. He loved it and marveled that “a man can still walk when the flesh and bone are separated”. It’s good to be passionate about what you do.

As you can imagine, being in Ungern’s Army in the winter of 1920 totally sucked. Yet somehow, the army actually grew during this time and eventually numbered around 5000. Part of this was down to some quirks in Mongolian and Buddhist culture. As I mentioned earlier, Buddhism in Mongolia’s neck of the woods at this time was much more warlike and bloodthirsty than we tend to think of it these days. Along with a fair smattering of gore-soaked deities, there were also legends of a great warrior who would come from the north and restore Mongolia to its rightful place as the ruler of fucking everything. The Baron, being a) from the north, b) a double hard bastard and c) already pally with the Mongolians after his year of pissing about there  neatly fitted this bill and soon Mongolians were referring to him as a ‘god of war’. The Baron, for his part, wholeheartedly bought into this and his already fractured mind was given an additional helping of delusional lunacy. He was a GOD OF WAR, OK?! Heartened by this talk of cosmic grandeur and a decent sized army, the Baron (after consulting fortune tellers, of course) marched on Urga in New Year, 1921. After a messy battle with the Chinese, the city fell and Ungern restored the Bogd Khan (the Mongolian monarch, of sorts) to the throne. The remaining Chinese fled (only to be hunted down by the Baron’s cavalry) while 3 days of looting and untold mayhem ensued. To tie things up nicely, Ungern finished it off with a pogrom and then declared everything to be mellow and groovy. The Bogd Kahn (a man with an impressive clutch of vices by all accounts) was no fool and realized that without Ungen, he was nothing. Anxious to keep him onside, he declared the Baron “Outstanding Prosperous State Hero”, issued a bunch of currency (that was redeemable in livestock) in his name and then let him get on with the job of being de-facto dictator of Mongolia.

Given past form, it’s fair to say that the Barons style of governance was hardly going to be sedate. True to form he kicked off with a series of Bolshevik witch hunts (in which pretty much everyone was a Bolshevik) while his army set about the systematic looting of everything. All those appalling methods that the Baron had perfected in Dauria and out in the frozen wastes were now conducted at a national level and Mongolia soon became a close approximation of hell-on-earth. Naturally, some Mongolians were horrified by this and before long revolutionaries started to form an army and establish bases. Not that the Baron gave a hoot. He had bigger fish to fry in the shape of invading China, restoring the Qing Dynasty and then saving the rest of the world in the name of all that is regal and godly. There was a problem though. Invading China isn’t something you just knock together over a few beers at the weekend. It’s a bloody big place and you need a bloody big army. However, what with all the institutionalized flogging/looting/terror, the Mongolians were fast falling out of love with this savior from the north and decided they wouldn’t play ball. Further to this, the Baron was delivered a cosmic slap in the chops when his fortune teller told him that he only had 130 days to live. The Baron was shocked by this. There was so much more killing to do! So little time! However, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t particularly the emo type and reacted to the news by saying this:

“Goodbye for all time! I shall die a horrible death, but the world

has never seen such a terror and such a sea of blood as it shall see

now!”

I doubt that those within earshot were filled with hope for the future.

Freshly motivated by his freshly stamped ‘Use By’ date, the Baron began to rethink things. Even he still had a tentative enough grasp of reality to realize that the bets were now off on the whole China deal. However, he was mad enough to think that he might be able to re-invade Russia, restore Prince Michael (who had now been dead for 2 years) to the throne and thus save the world. Spurred on by his rapidly diminishing days, the Baron gathered what was left of his army and headed north. It didn’t start well. As soon as he was across the border, the Red Army caught up with and gave him a thrashing… twice. Now forced to head back to Mongolia with the Reds on his tail, he was horrified to find the Mongolians siding with the commies. Ingrates!

And so we enter the final stretch of this sorry tale. Ungern, now looking a right state (he had lost most of his clothes so would stride about bare chested and covered in talismans) found himself and his dwindling army in a snake infested swamp (although he promptly banned his men from killing snakes because he thought it was ‘bad luck’) while rebellion fermented in the ranks. Always one to try and nip this sort of thing in the bud, Ungern gathered what men he could and looked for some of his own officers to kill. When he couldn’t find any, he then turned north into Russia and attacked some Reds who were garrisoned in a monastery. While he managed to win this battle (and flog some monks) he was left with 500 men and dwindling options. Never one to let reality intrude on his schemes, the Baron declared that they were all off to Tibet (which was hundreds of miles away and on the other side of the Himalayas). For his men, this was the final straw. They’d been flogged, treed, burnt, and generally tormented so hard that they figured nothing the Baron could be do was any worse than things already were. As a consequence, most of them deserted while a group of officers hatched a plot to kill him.

Considering there was always someone wanting to kill him, the Baron thought he was on top of this. In an effort to discourage others from getting any uppity ideas, he made a Colonel sit in a tree all night, but it was too late. The die was cast. That night, a group of officers tried to ambush the Baron in his tent, but he somehow got the drop on them and legged it into the night. Unperturbed, the officers seized command, executed a couple of loyalists and then began the long march to Manchuria where they hoped there might be someone around who they hadn’t yet pissed off. The Baron, now thoroughly irked, chased them down and confronted them in what was to become one of the more surreal scenes from his already demented life. Totally outnumbered and with a bunch of guns pointing at him, Ungern began to berate his former men and hurl abuse at them. The conspirators, despite having an awesome amount of firepower pointed at the Barons head, completely froze, terrified by this rambling psychopath. The stand off continued some while (with the Baron going completely off his mash the entire time) until someone finally came to their sense and pulled the trigger. What followed was a hail of bullets that would surely kill anyone stuck in the middle. Yet somehow, the Baron escaped, weaving through the fusillade and even finding enough time to turn around and shout “Bastards!” before disappearing into the night. Alone and quite, quite mad, the Baron ran into a group of Mongolian troops who quickly betrayed him and handed him over to the Russians. Finally the game was up.

Considering the mayhem he had instigated, Ungern was quite the catch for the Reds who promptly shipped him off to Novonikolavsk for a rousing show trial. The Baron, now certain of his fate, took every opportunity to ramble about “Hanging, shooting, flogging” and even took the time to ask why an office smelt “strongly of garlic? Why do you employ so many Jews?” The trial itself was pretty much your standard totalitarian affair and the Baron happily played his part by nonchalantly ‘fessing up to pretty much everything (“do you often beat people?” he was asked, “Not enough” he replied), expressing zero remorse, blaming the Jews and advocating the crushing of the working classes. Given that this was a communist court, his line of defense probably wasn’t the wisest and unsurprisingly, sympathy for him was thin on the ground. He was found guilty and shot in secret.

So there you have it. One, big, fat, steaming pile of infernal, apocalyptic horror. If this whole affair tickled your fancy, then definitely check out James Palmer’s ‘The Bloody White Baron’ from which this was largely cribbed. It’s fully great. Oh, and just in case your wondering, the people of both Mongolia and Russia went on to live blissful existences in lands of milk and honey. YA RLY. That’s it from me and the Baron for now. Hopefully I’ll be back in a week or two with some cynical mutterings about this or that so watch this space.


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