Installing windows in cardboard

THE WRITER’S LIFE

EDIT: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS (below). Previously…

As we enter July, my battle with The Department for Work and Pensions moves into its tenth month. In the time it would have taken to grow new life inside me, I’ve written little as I’ve been exhausted by the struggle to regain the Personal Independence Payment I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, taken away like the benefits of millions of other claimants, along with much of the community social care infrastructure, so that this morally bankrupt, murderous fascist Tory regime can recover the vast sums they’ve wasted on Brexit, while awarding tax cuts to the wealthy and pay rises to themselves.

Ben FerenczBen Ferencz, The last Nuremberg prosecutor

I’ve not written much about the process of appealing an unfair benefit decision, because the incompetence of the government departments and out-sourced agencies involved is beyond fiction and farce. In desperation then, I wrote to my MP (a Tory), and in fairness to him as an individual, he did his job. I don’t have a resolution to my financial and mental health problems, but I’ve had the most coherent response I’ve had throughout this process from the social cleansing machine. My self-confinement box has a window.

In summary, I may still have another year to wait before I’m out the other end of this tunnel, and that’s going to be a year almost as hellish as the last, but I can see where I’m going. I’m over what could have been an immediate threat, if the machinery had somehow digested me completely and my housing benefit been cut, rendering me homeless (this time it wouldn’t have been my fault). What’s gone is a lot of the doubt, not knowing what’s going on because the machine is deliberately difficult to talk to. Now I’ve had human contact, from people who’ve taken the time to review my case as an individual. I feel slightly less dehumanised and statistical.

If I’m going to move on, I need to put the war with the machine to one side. Everything is in the hands of others now, and I can do nothing but wait. It’s a different kind of waiting than before, because at least I know I’m waiting for something.

But this isn’t all about me. This is for the thousands of others fighting for their lives with the social cleansing apparatus. My books are always free for the taking of leaves. If what I’ve done gives anyone else ideas, then I’ve not just written to shift this particular infection from my chest.

Here then is the abridged version of the last nine months, in the emails I’ve exchanged since making human contact inside the machine. Once I’d infiltrated it, I took advantage of the privilege to barely disguise a few side swipes. They must think me mad.

First, the email I sent to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in a fit of deliberate, barely coherent frustration, when the machine appeared to have chewed my case up and shit it out the other end, and which I copied my local MP into:

Dear Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service,

I’m growing concerned that I’ve not been given a date to appeal DWP’s decision to deny me PIP. I have a letter confirming that the case is active and that DWP have responded. I also have an SMS alert advising that I’d be given a hearing date by 7th June. The SMS provides a link to check the progress of my case, but when I enter my surname as requested, I’m told that name doesn’t match the appeal reference. It’s now one week since the date I was hoping to be advised of an appeal, so I hope someone can help. It seems the automated systems are at almost human pains to make life difficult, so I’m hoping for a more reasoned human input from the programmers.

I hope my local MP (Hi Tom) might forgive my unsolicited inclusion of him as a recipient of this, but not ignore it. My unconventional approach is representative of the many who wouldn’t be so bold. I represent the tip of an iceberg of people being slowly killed by the policies of The Department for Work and Pensions, presided over by his Conservative colleague, the Work and Pensions Minister, Amber Rudd.

I’m concerned that something may have gone amiss, so would be grateful of some advice as the situation has been ongoing with DWP since September (not your fault, I know). I’m writing to you in a state of personal desperation, in the hope I find a human, as this is the latest set-back / hold-up in my attempts to win back ‘benefits’ (human rights) I’m entitled to, and which the DWP seem to have a social cleansing agenda in the efforts and costs they incur to deny someone their personal liberty and independence. You are also the last place my case, my records and my paper trail existed. You’ll understand I hope that I don’t want to take this up with DWP as they are the opposing party and I don’t want to give them an excuse to cut off the remainder of my benefits (I’m now on non-enhanced ESA only).

If this is an opportunity to submit additional personal testimony as evidence, then I’ll add that DWP have made me much more unwell than I was when this process started. I suspect that’s their aim. I suffer from depression, anxiety and paranoia (as detailed in my original PIP questionnaire and notes on where I disagreed with the assessor (a physiotherapist, I believe, assessing a mental health claimant) in my mandatory reconsideration request.

DWP’s deliberate aim of derailing my progress is blatant in the paper trail of incompetence I have accumulated. Beginning with their mistakenly treating my request for a mandatory reconsideration as a new application. I need to ensure therefore that this appeal is to retain the PIP I’ve been paid for the last four years. Furthermore, DWP’s mistake has led to me being called for a health assessment for ESA, when I’ve been in the support group for the last four years. I have had to reschedule once already as the prospect of having to attend another assessment triggered a panic attack. When DWP mistook my request for a mandatory reconsideration, they sent me 800 pages of copy: my original application, and the same with notes for my reconsideration, all in duplicate. They seem to have two cases running at the same time, when I also have a letter from them setting out my ESA payments for the year ahead.

This is having a severe effect on my life: PIP qualified me for the self-carer (enhanced) element of ESA, which ceased at the same time as the assessor denied me the PIP I’d received for four years. As I live alone, I’ve been unable to care for myself (with help from friends) as I did when I was in receipt of the payments I’m entitled to. Again, I suspect this is part of DWP’s agenda, as well as grinding down my personal spirit with this whole process.

I’ve become socially isolated since my money was withdrawn. Without company, my anxiety and paranoia (and of course, depression) have grown worse. Where I was previously able to cope with flashbacks to events which caused my PTSD (the original knife attack in Lewisham, then various assaults on me when I was homeless and transient), I’m finding them gradually stronger and more disabling. If DWP’s ultimate goal is to reduce the number of benefits claimants by killing them, they should know that they’ve already caused me suicidal thoughts. It’s only the thought that I might get to see my children more often when I get PIP reinstated which keeps me going.

I understand PIP isn’t for helping with family and social needs (DWP have told me so in one of their many dehumanising letters), but being able to see my family is the nearest I have to being away from complete social isolation. My dad has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and DWP’s actions mean I may not see him again while he still remembers me. I feel not only that I’ve been dealt with unfairly by DWP but quite cruelly in fact.

The paperwork I have from DWP is overwhelmingly confusing and contradictory (perhaps deliberately so), so perhaps this submission of anecdotal evidence might prompt them to audit their dealings with me so they can see the errors they’ve made.

I would be grateful if someone could advise me of the status of my appeal, so that I may present myself to three professionals with the appropriate knowledge to judge my entitlement to PIP.

If someone has taken the personal time and trouble to read this, then please understand that I am genuinely grateful if I’ve finally been heard by a fellow human. I’m desperate, alone, afraid, and in need of some help to get my life back in my hands.

Apologies for length.

Cheers,

Steve.

That was just over a week ago. To his credit, my MP was quick to raise the matter with HMCTS himself:

Dear Mr Laker,

Thank you very much for your e-mail. I am grateful that you have raised this matter with me, and am sorry to hear about your troubles securing your PIP.

I have written on your behalf to Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunal Service. I attach a copy of this letter for your information and will be in touch as soon as I receive a reply.

Please let me know if there is any further action you would like me to take urgently on this issue otherwise I shall await their response.

Best wishes

Tom

HMCTS letter

Thoroughly nice chap. And today, I heard back from the courts:

Dear Mr Laker,

I am sorry that you have been given misleading information by our Track Your Appeal service. Unfortunately, the waiting times for a hearing date at Ashford are quite lengthy. Currently, the average waiting time for a PIP appeal to be listed for a hearing is 62 weeks. Your appeal is now 16 weeks old. Waiting times are only estimates and they do fluctuate.

I can appreciate that this is very disappointing and not the response that you were hoping for. I am going to treat your email as an urgent hearing request, which can then be considered by a Judge – they will make a decision about whether an urgent hearing can be granted.

Miraculous. Otherwise 62 weeks to wait for an appeal: It’s indicative of just how many appeals there are against DWP decisions, and an indictment of the fascist Tory social cleansing machine driving them. I’ll try to stay alive that long, where others might not make it (all by design of the cleansing system). I let my MP know and thanked him for his help:

Hi Tom,

HMCTS got back to me. I have to say that a 62 week wait for an appeal is indicative of the state of DWP and their agenda of denying payments to worthy claimants, and further observe that this whole approach must be costing the social cleansing machine much more than it would to pay deserving claimants rather than make them ill by making them feel like criminals begging for their human rights.

Nonetheless it’s a reply, and reassurance at least that my claim isn’t lost.

Thank you for your assistance sir. Although I’m not a Conservative voter, it’s nice to know there are humans in the party (I’m only repeating the general rhetoric in some sections of community). On a personal level, I’m very grateful that you took the time and for your help.

Cheers,

Steve.

Update: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS:

Dear Mr Laker,

Please find attached a copy of a letter I have received from Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, following my letter on your behalf.

I appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for. If you would like me to take this issue further then please let me know precisely what further steps you think might be required.

Best wishes,

Tom

HMCTS Page1

HMCTS Page2

So that’s all for now. There’s nothing more I can do, except try to put it aside in my mind for the next year (although being skint is a daily reminder). Although I don’t feel fully in control of the situation, making contact with human operators of the machine has cleared some creative space in my mind. It pays to rattle the cage and speak to your abductor.

My writing hiatus has lasted a human gestation period, and I have a lot of material backed up and waiting to come out. Bigger subjects; things on my mind, now that I’ve escaped the Borg which the fascist apparatus made me part of. The machine stole my time. It’s time I got back to being a writer.

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An irreversible misadventure

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

EDIT: World War 3 was always going to be a technological conflict, and one without national borders. Eventually the war was between humankind’s bi-polar ideologies. Essentially it came down to what it means to be human.

In a test of how my new fabric conditioner works, I’m hanging out some old laundry. Fashions change, but I wrote this three years ago: After the pre-amble, a hacked story of how warring factions in a video game don’t see the common foe which might unite them.

Back in the 1980s, I was a teenager. These things are subjective, but for me, that was the best decade to be one. Back then, I’d sit in my darkened room, tapping away at an Atari ST, a Commodore Amiga, and latterly, my first IBM PC. We had four terrestrial analogue TV channels back then in the UK, so I collected films on VHS tapes. Most nights I’d watch a US teen movie, with WarGames being a personal favourite. I’d envy the kids in those films, with their cool rooms, their computers hooked up to dial-up via an acoustic coupler, and watching US cable TV.

The-Only-Winning-Move-is-NOT-to-Play
The only winning move is not to play

Then my first life took over. I got married, we moved to London and had kids. I worked in print, up to group director level, before I set up a business with my ex-wife and we were successful for a while. Then the drink took over and it all peeled away, so that eventually – after ten years – I found myself back in Tonbridge and on the streets.

I’d lost everything and I had nothing: No home, let alone anything to put in one. The only thing to do, to occupy my mind, was to write. That was almost four years ago now. In those early days, I wrote about anything and everything. In one of my old notebooks (which I still have), I wrote of where I wanted to be, ‘when this is all over’. It took a lot of work, but I recovered, and now I have what I wished for then: A stable base, where I can write, surrounded by the things I loved; a place I’d wanted to be when I watched all those old films on VHS. That was a small place (I was never going to be able to work again), which I gradually filled with all the things I’d wanted as that teenager: A huge film collection, loads of books, a big music library, a good computer, and a decent number of TV channels. I’m not in a financial or physical place where I can have satellite or cable, as the latter isn’t laid around here, and my building is Grade I listed, so I can’t have a dish. My village internet is too slow for any streaming service, so I’m stuck with Freeview. But I’ve found UK Freeview to be just like the old US cable channels I used to see in those geeky 1980s films: Car crash TV, half-arsed documentaries, good and bad films, cult American TV, geeky and conspiracy late-night stuff. I’ve kind of recreated my teenage wish, and now I can enjoy catching up on all I missed, because I was drunk. I’m retro.

I wrote most of the stories which make up The Perpetuity of Memory while I was homeless. Not long after I’d written about reliving my teens, I wrote the story below. I won’t be posting all of those stories on this blog, as I’d rather people buy the book and read them in the order they’re curated, which makes the sum of the parts a complete book in itself. This one is timely though, coming at a time when my personal life is somewhat mirrored now in some of the elements of the story, and it has nods to WarGames, something I’ve become wearily involved in in my personal time lately. There are other references for the sharper-eyed film geek to spot too.

It’s apropos of nothing though, that I can feel a depressive episode coming on, such is the nature of those things. Others who deal with depression will know this feeling: That something is in the post. It’s an analogy, and there’s nothing expected in the mail, but the mind of the chronic depressive can sometimes do this. There is no trigger and no individual event or situational catalyst, it just happens. I deal with situations and events as they come. The latest one which threatened my karma was someone making personal remarks in ignorance. Having told the individual to cease and desist, they clearly didn’t recognise it as a term usually used at a pre-legal stage as a final warning. It seems that some people might only see vindictive lies as the slander they actually are, when they’re served with a legal notice, have to repeat their baseless argument in court and lose a load of money for defamation of character. I’ve given pre-legal warning with the cease and desist request, so I’ll only have to pop this particular boil if it continues to irritate. One of the many great things about being a writer, is the knowledge and contacts you pick up. All writers have to be conversant with copyright and common law, so most have a lawyer friend. And like all depressive episodes, the one which seems to be brewing may not even happen. Like some people, they’re just an annoyance, but you can’t legally warn a depressive episode not to happen.

The best distraction for me is to write. On that front, I’ve been put in touch with a professional book reviewer, who’s going to review Cyrus Song. One of my short stories is currently with a creepy pasta site, so there may be a short film coming soon. And I’m writing the sixth of 17 new short stories for my second collection. The story should be finished and published in the next month. Then there’s the personal history book I’m working on, which ought to take on more form at the weekend, when I’m hosting my parents and a shoe box full of old photos.

For now, a short fable, about what can happen when someone wanders blindly out of their depth…

L177L3 M155 &Y

If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite supply of typewriters, they will eventually transcribe the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The way things had progressed so far, it felt to Andy like every time her monkeys got to the last letter, one of the little fuckers would hit a wrong key. And so the process would begin again. She looked as the green-on-black text on her monitor scrolled through brute force attempts to crack her current holy grail of a password. She read the scrolling text on her screen in duplicate as it reflected back from her spectacles.

“This isn’t working, Vic.” Andy addressed the keyboard in front of her: an old Commodore Vic 20. Launched in 1981, the Vic 20 home computer pre-dated Andy by twenty years. It had five kilobytes of memory, a processor speed of 1.1Mhz and a graphics display of 176 x 184 pixels. Andy liked the keyboard and the retro look. Although the computer inside was fully functional, it was just the keyboard for her set up: a high end gaming PC under the desk, which she’d built herself and which would make a PS4 look like the Commodore. It was like reading her geek magazines, hidden inside a copy of Just Seventeen on the subway.

“Andrea?” Andy’s dad called from downstairs. “Sam’s here.”

“Thanks dad. Could you send him up please?”

“Yep. Up in her loft Sam.”

“Thank you sir.” Andy heard the steps creak as Sam ascended. “Hey bitch.”

“Dude. How’s things?”

“Oh, you know: different day, same shit. Jesus fuck, Andy! Do you ever clean up here?” Sam looked around at piles of newspapers and magazines; notebooks and pens; pizza boxes and dirty clothes.

“Only when I have to. I mean, when I absolutely must go out and I’m passing the garbage cans anyway? Besides, I prefer Salt n’ Shake to Shake and Vac.”

“Doesn’t your old man get mad? I mean, he’s a clean freak.”

“That’s why he keeps me locked in the attic.” Andy smiled. “Nah, dad’s cool. He keeps the house just as he likes it, and as far as he’s concerned, the loft is my apartment. I’ve got all I need up here: bathroom, refrigerator, cooker; couch, TV, DVD player…”

“Do you spend any time with your dad?”

“Every Sunday. We have brunch at his, and his eggs are to die for.”

“At his; downstairs.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a bit weird, but dad’s just as private as me. We’re totally different, but we get on well if we keep the doses small.”

“Your dad’s cool.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty special. And anyway, he’s too busy competing with next door for the best manicured lawn.”

“Yeah, what’s with that guy next door?”

“He’s just a creep. When I do go out? He’s always at his window. I swear he’s jerking off.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Nah. He’s a lonely old man. He’ll die pretty soon.”

“You freak. Anyway, why’d you call me over? What you up to?”

“Well, I figured I’d see if I could give the computer hardware something that might actually challenge it. There’s a rumour among the geeks that the next generation of consoles will sort of skip a generation: a kind of quantum shift. So the PS5, or whatever they call it, will not be to the PS4 as the PS4 is to the PS3. The PS5 will be more like a PS6 or 7. So they say.”

“Well, they say a lot, don’t they?”

“Yeah but they’re well connected. Anyway, no-one knows what this great technological leap is going to look like, so no-one’s writing code for the new consoles. There have to be games out there with developers though, right?”

“I guess.”

“So, I’ve been using the dark web and I’ve picked up a few tools. Right now, I’ve got my system looking for other computers with lax security and having a poke around. Nothing too malicious: we’re just looking for specific file types which would suggest that a particular computer is being used to develop games.”

“Andy. Do you really think that kind of thing would be sitting on a vulnerable system?”

“All systems are vulnerable to the kind of tools I have. Anyways, when I find a computer which would be vulnerable to a less well-armed hacker, I leave a calling card with instructions on how to shore up the holes.”

“How very noble of you.”

“Oh, come on. Just because Joe public is a bit dumb, doesn’t mean they deserve to be hacked by malicious amateurs. I’m a white hat hacker, Sam.”

“And you’re pretty good at it. Judging by the screen though, it looks like you found nothing yet?”

“I’ve found plenty of cracks into systems and I’ve got them all saved. This latest one is proving a tough nut to crack. Let’s see what I got from some others.” Andy switched screens and a list appeared. “Welcome to the backstreet, where all these good folks left their back doors open.”

Hey, you got a bank.” Sam pointed at an entry on the list.

“Well, someone would have to be pretty foolish to give their account details, PIN or password to anyone on the phone, but they might as well hand over their house keys if banks leave doors open like this. Gotta make a note of that one: might come in handy some day. This one looks interesting.” Andy hovered the mouse over an entry on the list. “Doesn’t identify itself.” She clicked on the unidentified vulnerable computer.

Welcome to Drone Doom.

Please wait…

“We found something Sam.”

Game loaded.

Drone Doom is a collaborative project, designed for the next generation of games consoles. Combining real time data with augmented reality, the game is played in the real world, using drones.

Take control of a Doom Drone and the game will augment itself with Google Earth to give players a real life, ‘live’ video feed in which to play the game.

Played online, Drone Doom enables players to collaborate or act as lone units. Fight as part of an army, or act alone: the choice is yours. As a combatant, players are safe: you take control of a remotely operated drone in a field of conflict. The only limit is your imagination and morals.

You will see the real world through the video feed from your Doom Drone. Defeat enemies and witness the destruction first hand but from a safe distance. STRAP A WARHEAD TO YOUR FOREHEAD!

Points are accumulated by killing enemies and recorded in the game database, so that players may compare scores. THIS IS OLD FASHIONED, HIGH SCORE GAMING!

Upgrades can be earned as a player progresses in the game, or as in-game purchases. Please note that Drone Doom is beta-testing and not all features may be available during development.

Please choose your theatre of conflict:

A cursor blinked on the screen. “No list of options? What do you think?” Andy turned to Sam.

“Help?” Sam shrugged.

“Give it a go.”

Help.

Help not available at this stage.

“Hmm…” List games.

Game list not available. Drone Doom is open-ended and scenarios are generated by players. Once released and online, Drone Doom will offer a choice of real world live scenarios and those created by users. Please note that because of the nature of the game, decisions are one-time only and irreversible. Once committed to a scenario and in control of a Doom Drone, a player may only exit by means which may become apparent once inside the theatre. In the real-life scenario, a soldier would not dessert his or her comrades and this extends to drones operated by combatants remotely. Physical separation from battle provides a degree of personal safety for a Doom Drone operator but as soldiers, we must fight alongside one another and obey the same moral rules that we would if we were there in person.

Laws and ethics of war.

The international laws of war (such as the Geneva Conventions) govern the conduct of participants in war (and also define combatants). These laws place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The use of completely autonomous weapon systems is problematic, however, because of the difficulty in assigning accountability to a person. Therefore, current designs still incorporate an element of human control (a ‘man in the loop’), meaning that a ground controller must authorize weapons release.

Concerns also include the human controller’s role, because if he is a civilian and not a member of the military (which is quite possible with developmental and highly sophisticated weapons systems) he would be considered a combatant under international law which carries a distinct set of responsibilities and consequences. It is for this reason that the ‘man in the loop’ should ideally be a member of the military that understands and accepts his role as combatant.

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Centre for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:

“If [I’m] in the field risking and taking a life, there’s a sense that I’m putting skin in the game … I’m taking a risk so it feels more honourable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honourable?”

“Blimey.” Andy ran her finger through the text. “This is pretty deep. I need to find out more about these quantum consoles. Meanwhile, let’s see if all my hardware is brutish enough to handle this thing. If all my work and cash spent on building this gaming colossus can’t handle this, I need to give up and just go back to buying the latest console, queueing with the masses for days. One thing…”

Drone Doom rules.

“Rules” are a construct of whomever writes them. The rules of Drone Doom will be dictated by the collective conduct of players. Two rules are however hard-wired, etched in stone and transmitted for future recipients to interpret: once a Doom Drone is disabled, a player may leave the arena. A player’s comrades will note the downing of a drone. The game may be paused at any time. This feature is necessary, but use of it should be with the greatest caution. If every player in a party of 200 were to pause for refreshment, this would become impossible. A battle would be lost. Breaks will normally be arranged within parties but it is important to underline the weight of the rule:

THE GAME CAN BE PAUSED AT ANY POINT AND FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME BUT ALL PLAYERS WILL BE PAUSED. THE GAME WILL IMMEDIATELY RECOMMENCE FROM WHENCE IT WAS PAUSED.

The PAUSE GAME function is not to be considered a light undertaking.

You are free to choose but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.

“I want this game!” Andy turned to Sam. “Sammy. Do you see what this is?”

“Yes, I do. Well, I see what it could become. Fucking hell.

Play game.

Join an existing theatre of conflict or create one of your own?

“Fucking hell, Andy.” Sam pointed at the screen. “We can pretty much do what we want. And until the game goes on public release, we have total freedom from judgement. No-one else is here.”

“Pretty cool. Where shall we go?”

“Syria? Take out some of so-called Islamic State?”

Syria.

Loading database.
Selecting random mission.
Loading Google Earth data.
Loading military intelligence.
Please wait…

Mission loaded.

Mission details: Take control of an MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, armed with 1x AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Enemy agents are known to be installing Improvised Explosive Devices in the field of conflict. Identify and eliminate targets. Location classified.

“Wow.” Andy stared at the computer monitor.

Play.

The screen turned black for a second, then a slightly grainy and distorted image appeared: a small runway, stretching ahead.

“I can’t say the graphics are up to all that.” Sam squinted at the screen.

“This is a remote image from thousands of miles away. How much more realistic do you want?” Andy took hold of her joystick. “I assume I fly this just like I would any other simulator.”

The drone accelerated along the runway, then Andy pulled back on the joystick and they were airborne. A heads-up display was overlaid on the remote footage, giving altitude, speed, distance and direction to target, as well as in-screen miniature feeds from cameras mounted on the rear, sides, top and bottom of the Predator. Distance to target read 1KM and Andy could already make out tiny figures in the fields ahead. She zoomed in on the front camera and could see six men digging holes, placing something inside and covering them up.

“Andy?” Sam pointed at the men. “How do we know that those are insurgents burying IEDs and not farmers sewing crops? I mean, it’s a bit grainy and distorted.”

“They’ve been identified as targets. That will be based on military intelligence. Our job is to fly the drone and complete the mission.”

“I need to pee. May I use your bathroom?”

“That’s a little more information than I needed Sam but go right ahead. Mi casa su casa.”

The figures on the ground grew larger, before a cross hair appeared on screen with a message:

Target selected. Fire at will.

Pause game.

“Sam! Sam? Obviously taking a shit.” Andy stood up and looked out of the window in front of the desk. Her neighbour stood with his back to her, leaning against his garden fence and just staring straight ahead. “I wonder what’s going through his mind. Something sick, no doubt. Sam! Sam! Oh, fuck you then Sam.”

Resume game.

Fire.

The Hellfire missile accelerated in front of the Predator, then bore down on the targets. Within a second, a flash of explosive light blew them apart. Andy heard the lavatory flush.

“You missed it Sam! Come see what we did.”

“Sorry, I think I blacked out for a second in there.”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine. Jesus Andy!” Sam looked at the screen as Andy switched to the camera beneath the drone and zoomed in on the scene below. Not a single human limb remained attached to a host, nor intact. Small parts of disintegrated humans littered an area a hundred metres in diameter. “Now, that’s realistic!”

Mission complete.

Civilian casualties: 6.

“Fucking, what!?”

“I’ve always said that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron Andy.”

“Fuck, man!? Okay, Drone Doom: you mentioned in-game purchases. Let’s upgrade.”

“What are you gonna to do Andy?”

“What am I gonna do? Nuke the fucking American base. Watch…”

“I know it’s only a game but if all that shit at the start is true, who knows where this could end up. The FBI? It’s a bit harsh, Andy.”

“You’re right, Sam. It’s a game. What better way to make myself feel better without anyone really getting hurt?”

“You’re mad.”

So Andy bought an MQ-9 Reaper drone, strapped a tactical nuclear weapon onto it and flattened a US military base.

Mission complete.

Combatant casualties: 425.

Andy stared at the screen. It was less than two minutes before the flash from outside was reflected on the monitor from her spectacles and she felt a sudden heat. She looked up and saw the mushroom cloud in the distance. “Oh, fucking hell. No. No, no, no!

Pause game.

GAME PAUSED…

“Fuck, no. Sam?” Andy turned to Sam but Sam stared, unblinking at the monitor. “Sam!” Andy shook Sam but he didn’t respond. She let go and he slumped back in his chair, his head tipped back and he continued to stare straight ahead, now at the ceiling. “Oh, god Sam.” She shook him again but he was like a stiffening rag doll. Andy checked for a pulse: faint. It was as though Sam was frozen and fading in time. Andy looked at the computer monitor:

GAME PAUSED…

She looked out of the window: The mushroom cloud had frozen.

Andy rushed downstairs. Her dad was asleep on the couch. “Dad?” He didn’t respond. She shook him: nothing. Andy sat next to her dad, and lay her head on his chest. In the three minutes she spent there, her dad’s breathing slowed.

She burst outside and the mushroom cloud in the distance was still exactly the same. She noticed her neighbour, still leaning against his fence. She ran to face him. He was staring straight ahead. Andy waved her hand in front of his face. She slapped his mouth. Then again, harder. A third time, even harder, drawing blood from her neighbour’s mouth and her skin. She lifted him up and let him drop to the grass. “He’ll be dead soon.”

Andy turned to face the cloud. “I guess that makes me the last of the monkeys.”

GAME PAUSED…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The fourth world war will be one of words.

My books are available on Amazon.

The antonym of motivation

THE PHILOSOPHICAL CAT

I got an SMS from the fascist regime today, commanding me to call them. After queuing for 47 minutes and listening to messages on how I could otherwise fuck off, I was told I may need to provide photographic evidence of how that might make a criminal begging for their human rights shit in an envelope. In other news, the cat came home:

Cat Philosopher procrastination

The antonym of motivational is unmotivational. Positivism through pessimism and procrastination. If you’re a cat counselling humans.

A smoked salmon bagel of doubt

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I find it difficult to be open about my anxiety and depression, to speak and express myself freely (outside of fiction), because like many others, I find it confusing and contradictory. Mental illness is a cocktail as unique as the vessel which carries it, so I don’t expect people to understand me when I misunderstand and contradict myself.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, remember the friends who say “Always here…” Because who would welcome that kind of call?

When all you need is to talk to someone, you don’t wish to be a burden, especially at 3am. You want people to call you. But how are they to know you’d welcome the distraction?

Depression is like leprosy. It’s a paradox of our humanity.

Fine not fine

The saying goes that a problem shared is a problem halved, but I believe it’s the saddling of an unsolicited burden, like much of my fiction. The salmon of doubt, the smell of fish…

When a real-life friend recently posted a #MentalHealth message on Facebook, I was grateful but confused. Thankful that someone had posted something I wouldn’t, but unsure of how to respond. I’m not one to follow instructions, least of all when a copy-and-paste request is so generic in such a complex field. So I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Anxiety sucks. Being isolated and believing your friends don’t care sucks even more.

How many of you have had a night out planned, or arranged coffee or a beer with friends and suddenly the 4 walls you inhabit seem the only safe haven because it’s the only place you don’t have to pretend you are ok, so you cancel?

Or when you are invited out you tell them how terribly sorry you are but you’re already booked up that weekend, when you are actually just really busy holding it together in your safe box. And so the first problem starts, all by itself.

People stop asking you and the isolation that at first wasn’t true becomes your only truth.

Please don’t give up on your friends. Ring them, go round, even when they don’t want you to. Because they really do they just don’t know how to say it.

And in work every passing comment is a negative, you constantly do more to get over the feeling you’re not good enough. The exhaustion from not sleeping because you panic all night over what you cannot influence means you make mistakes, you live in a fog and it is a vicious circle.

I’m going to make a bet, without being pessimistic, that out of my Facebook friends that less than 5 will take the time to put this on their wall to help raise awareness of and for those who have mental health difficulties. You just have to copy it from my wall and paste it to yours.

Who will be my 5 … I wonder?

Yeah, damn straight. But I wasn’t one of any arbitrary number, because although I’m everything in that post, I’m also more. And who am I to post on my own timeline when it’s parts of me which are buried in there? Why ask people to check their other friends are okay while overlooking me? No point sending them on a guilt trip they wouldn’t otherwise have known, and I know what those are like when I live every day with many. Little point in burdening them. But I did reply:

Asking us to copy and paste about mental health seems very well-meaning, but the trouble is, not many of us with anxiety will actually copy and paste, for fear of being ignored, but at the same time not wanting to attract attention we can’t escape. I know I won’t, and neither will I post it as a stand-alone, for the same reasons. That’s anxiety, and depression, and paranoia: socially crippling. Thanks for sharing what I can’t explain though…

My friend then posted his thread, and my reply, on my timeline. Again it was of the best intentions, a plea to my friends whom I’m loath to trouble, especially when some still don’t understand addiction, and can find no sympathy for someone who – as far as they’re concerned – put themselves where they are. It was sharing problems which I didn’t fully understand in myself. That more public post by proxy would have been more like a plea for help, which I know no-one can provide, because there’s no cure. It’s not one I would make on behalf of myself.

Hello Hi How are you

This quieter way of sharing is where I’m more comfortable, just telling a few friends, who for some reason come here to see what I’ve written. I prefer the semi-secret society of blogging, keeping it on a need-to-know basis, while still wearing the heart tattooed on my left hand. Anything more public would fill me with an inner anxiety that everyone might run away, or become obsessed about how many may respond. Based on previous best intentions, those who do are rarely ‘always there for you’ when you need them.

Friends have offered to come over in the past, even take me out somewhere quiet. I was grateful, then backed out as the date approached, but not kicking unwanted attention away any more than I’m happy in my own company. Both are uncomfortable, and I don’t want to subject anyone else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Others let me down after promising to come over, and in a way it was a relief, because it’s one less person to try to explain to, what I don’t understand.

That shared post might have looked like I was asking for help, but afraid to do so directly, so I’d appointed a spokesperson to speak about what I couldn’t. And I didn’t want those who still judge to think I was asking for financial help, nor anyone for somewhere to go at Christmas, because if I couldn’t be with my family (kids or parents), I wanted to be alone, watch Jimmy Stewart and eat cheese. I deleted the post, just as Christmas was cancelled for me anyway. This too shall pass.

I’m making the same point here as I did by not sharing on Facebook: I want to talk about it; I can’t talk about it. I have a smaller, less judgemental audience here, who won’t patronise me, say they’ll come over sometime, or always be there. At least I know they’re more likely to listen with their eyes.

If I had a live audience, I could talk for hours about how depression, anxiety, paranoia and all the rest affect me, because it’s such a mix I’m always trying to make sense of by speaking to myself: Sorry you can’t get through, and neither can I. But I’ll get back to you, probably in fiction. There I can find my inner confidence and contradict myself about being too shy to talk about it, so I close down and resist the exposure everywhere else.

I can write, and maybe one day unpack what’s inside my head, this post, and that last sentence, about why I fear to be out while placing myself in full view. It’s partly because I have to edit the weight of the burden, leaving myself with all the untold narrative in my head. When memories are forgotten, they become stories. But some stories can’t be written, because they’re still practising to become memories.

So many molehills in my mind, and from the outside that’s all they are. But I walk like Hannibal on eggshells, around a tower of giraffes (because it’s a better collective noun than a herd of elephants) in a mountainous range with many volcanoes. One day, all of this will make sense.

Not doing it wrong cows

It’s all in the mind, of course. A very lonely place to be with only your own thoughts.

I was there once. I was on Brick Lane and I had a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of black pepper. I got a coffee too, and I had brunch on a doorstep in E1.

Some people really are right here, and they don’t mind those calls. You can’t catch a disease over the phone.

Fava beans and a nice Chianti

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.

Fava bean and ChiantiLiver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)

Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).

My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.

I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism. 

It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.

I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.

I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.

I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.

If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here. It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.

Neurotribes and shadow selves

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are three distinct personae which we all have: The person others see, the person we ourselves see, and the third person, the inner one which no-one sees. Therein lies the shadow self, one which I’ve embraced to deal with issues of my mind, and that I’ve researched, for myself and for my fiction. I’m exploring ‘Neurotribes’.

CCHRCCHR

Those of us with cracks covered with labels tend to flock together (it’s empathy with one’s own kind). Many of us don’t understand ourselves, but we feel most at ease in the company of other misfits. Some of us like being different, strange even (I prefer “Queer”). Personally, I like most people – human and animal – and it’s the quirks and oddities of a person I find most interesting. I fall in love with personalities, what’s inside, in an asexual way, which means I don’t have to be sexually attracted to a person to love them.

My own mental health scouting badges are depression and anxiety (diagnosed and medicated), paranoia (goes well with social anxiety), bi-polarity and psychopathy (on the spectra and self-managed). I’ve written before of how the latter doesn’t mean I kill people (only in my fiction and imagination), but that it’s a tunnel-vision thing, with the psychopath able to concentrate on one task to the exclusion of all others. The only evidence I can offer, is my writing, and that in the past I’ve managed to cook a deep fat fryer on the hob, because I was cooking while my mind was almost totally on something else.

I’ve had multiple diagnoses of PTSD to make my inner head more interesting. My first badge was awarded after I was robbed at knife point in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, a setting for many scenes in my stories, and my feeling of personal futility and vulnerability was what began my later alcoholic breakdown. My Grade 2 PTSD badge was a multiple award, after all that happened out on the streets. The most recent and permanent one, is the perpetual memories I have of everything.

The easiest way to deal with all of that, has been to write, (The Perpetuity of Memory was almost exclusively written while I was out on the road) to confront it and embrace it. The unknown is one of the greatest instinctive human fears, so those who explore more are less scared (Cyrus Song explains why cats have nine lives: it’s to do with curiosity).

I’ve explored and interrogated my inner self, to find that third person. I had to conclude that you can never be ‘you’, because too many people place expectations on that person, including the one we think we know best: ourselves. We don’t exist, because we can’t find ourselves in worlds where we have to be someone else, for ourselves. Far from bringing us closer together, social media has made our world bigger and more lonely.

What I have easier access to than most, is the shadow self, formed as it is around all that we know to be wrong. There’s much which happened on the streets that I’ve not written about directly, but those experiences are in my fiction, which is why my anthology was described as “A dark mirror to the human soul” in a review.

We all have baggage we wish to leave at the door, and we all have scars. Some are better at hiding them than others, while some are proud of their marks, outside and in, like a good book. And just as a book shouldn’t be judged on its cover alone, neither do people deserve to be. It’s about getting to know them (all we need to do, is keep talking).

They’re not broken. They have a different operating system (more like Linux, when everyone else runs Windows). They are the cracked and the wondering, wandering. They are kintsukuroi (more beautiful for having been damaged). They are the Neurotribes.

Increased risk of independence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Almost exactly six months since the process started, I’ve made progress in regaining the ‘benefit’ of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). There’s a long way to go, and I might have been out the other side of the mincing machine by now, were it not for the Vogon incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions. But I’m one stage nearer to winning a human right back from the Tory social cleansing apparatus. Here’s what’s happened so far, including an insight into the dehumanising methods the machine employs to encourage applicants to give up (on life, to kill themselves).

Vogon assessorA DWP decision-maker

In short, it’s like being put on trial when you’re reaching out for support. Meanwhile I’ve survived the last six months on charity, but with little of the independence I had six months ago.

Way back on 3rd September last year, I was required to attend a biannual health assessment, or ‘Fitness for work’ (despite being signed off sick pretty much for life). The assessments are out-sourced to a private company (with shareholders focussed on profits, and whose directors recently awarded themselves £40m in bonuses (presumably for saving the government so much money by denying benefits to claimants)), and the assessors are all ‘medically qualified’. But unlike a GP who might know the claimant personally, or another health care specialist who may understand their patient’s condition, these out-sourced assessors are ‘medically qualified’ as having once worked in any field of medicine. At my most recent appointment, the assessor was a physiotherapist: hardly the best qualification for understanding mental health, which is where my disabilities lie.

The assessments are timed to be around 3-4 weeks before a claimant’s previous benefit period ends. The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made. This deliberate timing is just one of a number of factors which stack the odds against the applicant by making the whole process as difficult as possible.

My depression was diagnosed as an underlying contributor to a number of my life functions back in 2011, following a knife-point robbery after I’d been drinking in Lewisham. After an initial diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my alcohol dependence was linked to depression, where one quite happily fuels the other and often leads to the kind of mental breakdown I had in 2013, when I was unable to cope, so I drank my life away, lost everything and ended up on the streets, where I found many more causes for the multiple PTSD diagnoses I now have. I have physical function, but it’s impaired by my anxiety. This has entitled me to PIP for the last four years, as I’m almost constantly anxious of reminders from a life on the road haunting me with threats of repeat. All of this had gone into my re-application form, and was conveyed verbally while not being able to maintain eye contact with the government-outsourced automaton.

Like so many others, my application was denied, and I was judged to require no help with anything, by someone who’d never met me before and didn’t care to know me. The next stage then is to ask for a ‘Mandatory reconsideration,’ which concludes as the first assessment found, after a second decision-maker has given the initial application a cursory glance (which takes a further 6-9 weeks). It’s just kicking a can down the road. It’s at that point where one is able to appeal to have their case heard at tribunal. This is where the phone calls to DWP’s PIP helpline engage gears in the social cleansing machinery. I was sent the wrong letter by DWP, so was prevented from launching an appeal. On that occasion, it turned out they’d treated my request for a mandatory reconsideration as an initial claim, despite the fact they’d already declined the latter, and asked me to notate the 32-page report from my assessor and decision-maker.

Finding someone who’ll treat you as human at DWP is like a game of telephone Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike lucky, but often you won’t. You’ll fail, or that’s how you’re meant to feel. But back to the telephone system, the largest grinding machine in the apparatus, like a steam punk combine harvester protecting a Victorian dehumanising farm behind it. If DWP were a private company, they’d be as financially bankrupt as their government is morally, all the while committing economic murder.

If the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had words, I’d know them by heart, having spent several hours in all on hold. But they play the Karaoke version, at deafening volume, and as though through a really cheap, tinny sound system. That distortion of reality is only the start of a process designed to break you down, without even any direct human contact, like military drones operated remotely and killing civilians.

While listening to Antonio’s work being strangled, there’s no indication of a caller’s position in the queue or the time it might take to be answered. My waiting time has averaged around 20 minutes every time I’ve called, which has been daily for the last couple of weeks. Once you get through, you’re in a minefield.

Ask a question they can’t answer and they’ll cut the line (never lose your patience or raise your voice. My tongue is sore from being bitten many times). Even when you think you’ve got somewhere, once you’ve had your query (their mistake) rectified, they simply don’t do as you’ve asked them to, and which they say they will. In fits of wanton inefficiency, they send the wrong paperwork, lose information you’ve sent in, or forget to act at all. Anyone less able (infirm, with a shorter fuse, with less tenacity) would give up, which is what they want. It becomes like a conspiracy against the person, and with depression and anxiety comes the third of the unholy trinity in my head, the paranoia (that this will never end).

I reached the end of some sort of tether today, when I tried for the fourth time to extract the ‘Manadatory Reconsideration Notice’ necessary to start an appeal, because I’d been sent three copies of the initial refusal in the course of as many weeks. Despite DWP allowing themselves up to nine weeks to respond to applicants, it’s only 28 days allowed when the boot is on the other foot (although it’s more like your opponent removing their outer footwear to lend you their socks). So when it came to asking for the correct letter to be sent by post today (DWP use 2nd Class mail), I had little faith in my fourth attempt being successful, or of the dates on the incorrect letters being changed to give me back the time DWP had wasted. My period of grace to appeal was coming to an end. I was running out of time.

I don’t believe in God, but if he (or the aliens, or whomever) woke me up this morning, they hadn’t finished with me yet. They had plans for me. I didn’t so much pray before I got on the phone to DWP, as prepare myself to break down if I met yet another wall, after a further several minutes of excruciating Vivaldi and of eating my own teeth. The game of telephone Russian roulette got me through to someone who was human, and like any good operator at a functional enterprise, they put my call through to a different department. I feared being lost in the system again, but I’d found myself on the phone to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The divine intervention, the extraterrestrial contact, whatever it was which answered my half-arsed prayer, what happened different today was circumnavigating DWP.

I found myself talking to a human at HMCTS, who told me I could launch an appeal against DWP online. This was news to me, and not information which DWP will volunteer themselves (they don’t want to be sued). But now they’re ‘The defendant,’ and thanks to that (God-sent) human (or alien) at HMCTS, my appeal is now lodged, with me as ‘The appellant’. If I’d been told I could do this a month or two ago, I might be out the back of the machine by now.

There’s a long way to go still. I have to attend the appeal hearing and win, then I have to wait a further 4-6 weeks for my payments to be reinstated. But it’s hopefully more of a downhill slope now than the slow and steep one which got me to this great height and nearly had me throw myself off it. Because it did, and now I can admit it. There were times over the last six months when DWP’s incompetence convinced my paranoid mind that I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t see an escape from the frustration, and instead saw a life where I’d have no independence. That was one I didn’t want to live.

It means I can get on with life while I wait. It means I can regain my independence, by spending the time I’d have liked with my parents, and more with my kids (And being more cheerful company). I need to win the appeal, but I have the last two times, and over 70% of appeals are successful. So it begs the question: Why incur the expense? Why put people through it? Because in fascist economics, enough will be beaten that those who make it to tribunal only represent a few of those who originally applied. This is not Britain’s Got Talent.

That’s where I’ve been for the last six months, in some competition where the aim is not to fail, but everything’s thrown at you to ensure you tire and give up. It’s been a constant worry, day and night. I’ve not been sleeping or eating. I’ve not been taking care of myself, which is what happens in the deeper depths of depression, and I’ve become more unwell. That’s lived in my mind with me alone in the midst of it, unable to explain what I can’t understand, and once thinking I couldn’t carry on in that confusion. I reached out for help and I’m still on public trial. How many others don’t make it?

Discouragement conspirator

I deal with the life inside my head by employing fiction to try to convey what’s in there, to make it more entertaining than the reality, and perhaps helping me to understand it by getting it all out while not being completely open. It’s my writing as therapy. Now I can write those stories I already outlined, but which I couldn’t concentrate on because a Vogon Bureaucrat would creep in from the real world which was consuming me. I need to rebuild this home I made for myself, by insulating it with words. Our minds are a dangerous place, mine especially so, when I have so much time to dally there alone and excluded.

Your pain could be for a reason, a necessary path which is already predetermined to get you to somewhere you once wished you were. You may not want to exist right now, but someone’s glad you do. Keep moving and try not to dwell, for this too shall pass. Now I can write again.

Buy me a coffee one off