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GENERAL IMMUNITY SERUM (short story)

By Richard Montague

Who invented the wheel? Was it the person who first discerned that a tree trunk, shorn of its branches, would facilitate the movement of other branchless tree trunks? Or was it the person who conceived of an axle carrying at either end circular pieces cut from a tree trunk? Or was it… ?

  It was, of course, all those who contributed to the primitive discovery and the subsequent evolutionary refinement of the wheel we now know it in all its diverse forms. That is the way with all ideas and it is something that one side was anxious to avoid during the lengthy legal battle over GIS.

  Originally there were seven people involved in the claim to the discovery of what has come to be known as GIS or General Immunity Serum. Three were medical doctors two of whom had been engaged in research work at the Brussels laboratories of Ziglap International and one who had been employed in a research capacity by Kwelph Medical in their Zurich headquarters, Two were research chemists both of whom had, at different times, been employed by Ziglap and by Kwelph. A sixth man, Ernest Kroller, later said to be the brains behind what the papers presented as a monumental piece of fraud and industrial espionage, had no obvious direct connection with the venture while the seventh man was a laboratory assistant who was employed by the other six and not, therefore, directly involved with the alleged scam.

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  The facts, as they began to emerge, started with the establishment of a small drug research company in an industrial unit in north London. The share capital of the company was £120,000 only half of which was taken up in equal shares by Kroller, the three doctors and the two chemists. The Company was named simply GIS Limited.

It was several years before the Company’s one and only product, GIS was granted a licence by the Ministry of Health despite the fact that it was to be marketed only as a fortifying agent intended to improve the body’s resistance to a number of minor ailments. In fact GIS was a cocktail of several well-known and well-tested drugs bonded in a secret permutation with several natural products most of which could be purchased over the counter in the average health shop.

  Because the preparation contained no toxic agents or elements with known or suspected side-effects the licensing authority allowed a general licence which meant that GIS could be sold as a non-prescription preparation in any pharmacy. The recommended dosage for both children and adults was one teaspoonful each day. The manufacturers stressed that there was no danger of overdosing but that using more than the recommended dose would not confer any additional benefit.

   GIS Limited was not in a financial position to mount the sort of advertising campaign that the launch of a new product of its kind would normally require. They did take small advertisements in the local newspapers announcing:

                                       General Immunity Serum

                                    reinforces the Immune System

                                  STOPS DISEASES STARTING!

  The Company, also, produced coloured leaflets which were distributed from door-to-door in those areas where they had supplied a number of chemist shops. The Serum retailed at £1 per bottle containing ‘in excess of two month’s supply’.

  However, the most effective form of promotion resulted from men – they were always men – telephoning those local radio programmes where some unfortunate has to fill the space between tunes for an hour or more with interesting exchanges with members of the general public. ‘I was losing my hair when a friend told me about this GIS, marvellous stuff!’ The problems were manifold, the answer was singular – GIS!

  In time, literally hundreds of people were telephoning radio stations, prepared to identify themselves and swearing that GIS had solved their problem. Baldness, migraine, asthma, allergies, dermatological diseases, arthritis, heart trouble and then one day a man telephoned London City Radio with the claim that ‘the doctors and the cancer specialist are mystified; they’ve been treating my wife for lung cancer and now they tell me the decease has gone into remission. My wife’s back to her full health; its a miracle and its from taking GIS!’

  The following day, Ed Keswick, who ran the Afternoon with Ed programme on London City, devoted the entire programme to GIS.

  The man who had claimed the previous day that his wife was cured of cancer was again interviewed; the specialist who said she was in remission was contacted and he admitted that tests now showed no evidence whatsoever of carcinoma. He confessed that he was pleasantly mystified and, under questioning from Keswick, he admitted that several other patients were showing what he described as ‘positive signs’ and he agreed that all were claiming that their condition was a response to GIS.

  In the several days following this, other radio stations received calls from people claiming miracle cures for GIS. Among these were a number of angina sufferers who asserted that the serum had eliminated their symptoms and one cardiac surgeon contacted Midland Radio with the claim that his team had cancelled a coronary by-pass operation on a patient with a long history of acute angina after tests had revealed a complete normalisation of the arteries.

  The television programme, Checking the Evidence, devoted its Monday night spot to the mounting claims for GIS and revealed that GIS had released their formula to small syndicates of pioneering researchers in France, Germany and the United States who had agreed to set up non-profit making producing units in those countries. Already, in France and Germany – the US unit was in course of setting up – similar claims of miracle cures for a whole host of problems, including coronary heart decease and various cancers, were being reported.

  Health Matters on Friday evening, in a special programme called The Economics of Sickness dealt extensively with the drugs market and the fabulous turnover of the ten leading international drug companies. It dealt with the market for patent medicines and with the tens of billions of dollars accruing to the drug and chemical companies from sickness. Having partially looked at the sums, the programme then introduced Ernest Kroller of GIS Limited.

  Frank Mathews, interviewing Kroller, went for the jugular: ‘How’s it being done, Mr Kroller? We all know that there is no such thing as a cure-all? Hasn’t this hysteria been deliberately promoted to sell GIS to the public?’

-‘GIS has made no claims whatsoever.’ Kroller came across as a severe man who used words sparingly and without embellishment.

-‘But, Mr Kroller,’ Mathews looked at his notes, ‘the common cold, psoriasis, asthma. bronchiectisis, arthritis, heart decease and, now, claims that this serum has actually cured different types of cancer. Surely that amounts to a cure-all.’

-‘Who has made these claims?’

-‘Well… members of the public, doctors… ‘

-‘But not GIS, Mr Mathews.’

-‘Well… no… No. But obviously your company will make a huge profit from all this publicity.’ Kroller’s taciturnity was irking the interviewer.

-‘May I ask you a question, Mr Mathews?’ Kroller had moved forward in his chair, he spoke quietly and with great deliberation. ‘If you had an illness, a serious illness, would you pay twenty pounds sterling for the means of being cured of that illness?’

-‘Well, yes, of course but… ‘

-‘I think that is the answer most people would give even if I said hundreds of pounds. But we are insisting that the price of one hundred and twenty millilitres of GIS should cost no more than one pound. Obviously we are not overly concerned with profit.’

-‘Let’s allow, then, for the purpose of making a point, that your company has developed this fantastic cure-all; that it is effective and that you can economically produce sufficient quantities of the stuff, have you thought of the downside of this alleged marvel?’

-‘We have thought of people suffering; people who suffer the venial pain of a headache, people – and especially children – whose lives are made miserable by asthma, people who endure the mental and physical agonies of cancer. If there is a downside to these considerations then… the – though, of course, it would not be our problem – the downside, as you call it might reveal yet another dimension to GIS. It might bring us the added social benefit of forcing society to look at why curing people – and that sometimes simply means feeding people – should have some sort of adverse effect.’

  Later that night came the first reports of a hospital in Washington claiming ‘startling’ results with GIS in the treatment of two cancer patients. Simultaneously, the first claim of a cure came from an AIDS victim in Paris.

The media went wild; reporters camped around the industrial estate where the modest premises of GIS Limited were located. From America, France, Germany, Russia, China and elsewhere, they came; camera crews, fast talking reporters babbling in an assortment of languages. Men and women with note books and recorders all vieing with each other for an interview with anyone who could speak authoritatively about GIS.

  It was clear, however, that the Kroller interview was the last word that anyone from that quarter was going to say; meanwhile, the claims continued, becoming too repetitious to make hard news and several hundred men and women wandered about the miserable industrial complex all impatient for a story.

  That evening they all had a story: an estimated thirty-five billion dollars had been wiped off drug and chemical shares in thirty-six hours. The big pharmacy groups also reported a downturn in their trading and this was reflected in a dramatic decline in share prices.

  The concerns of insurance chiefs was more muted; Sir Graham Kilfeather said that, in the short term, if reports concerning the miraculous qualities of GIS proved to be true, then there would obviously be a dramatic drop in insurance claims but, of course, long term, the effect would be disastrous and could well make a vital section of the insurance industry redundant.

  In the House of Commons, the Minister of Health said there were no plans to make GIS available on the National Health Service. In reply to Mr Penn, the outspoken MP for Baslee, who said that GIS could be the saviour of the NHS especially if it prevented the fatcats of the drugs industry from ripping off the taxpayer for billions every year, the Minister said, the nation owed a deep debt of gratitude to the drug companies and, if reports were true, though they were welcome, they were bound to raise concerns. The leader of the Conservative opposition, Mr Dennis Vague, agreed with the Minister and trusted the government would monitor events closely.

  The course of GIS became the main area of news in the weeks that followed. Every news item, every newspaper, had something to say about GIS; the more spectacular cures were reported; the entertainments charity offered a large donation to GIS Limited which was rejected and this made big headlines. Reports from across the world where, every day, new miracle cures were being reported, made constant fare for the media. Big names, in journalism, politics, industry, education, science and religion were being canvassed for their opinions and the governments in many of the African states, where GIS had brought a dramatic downturn in the prevalence of AIDS, created a central fund to ensure that free supplies of GIS would be made available to all AIDS sufferers. A theological controversy erupted when a prominent evangelist said GIS was ‘the devil’s work’: decease was part of the divine plan and GIS was an unwarranted interference with the work of God. Obscure biblical quotations became ammunition in an acrid debate that caused division in the main churches and a critical comment from the Pope raised concerns in the ecumenical movement.

  More than any other newspaper, The Times-Herald took up the case for GIS, seeking the help of the general public in learning about cures resulting from its use. Every day its two centre pages were filled with column after column of reported cures with half of one of these pages reporting on the more dramatic cases in other countries. It commissioned articles from sociologists, philosophers, medical people, clergy, economists and it published some very poignant letters from relatives of people who had died and from those whose closest relatives had been cured. It was The Times-Herald which broke the story concerning an alleged offer of forty billion pounds to GIS Limited to transfer their manufacturing rights to a consortium of drug companies. The offer, the newspaper claimed, was coupled with a peculiar codicil expressing a willingness on the part of two members of the consortium – Ziglap International and Kwelph Medical – ‘in consideration of GIS Limited being prepared to abide by the proposed transfer of the manufacturing rights’ not to pursue legal action against the directors of GIS, ‘jointly and severally’ in respect of their ‘usurpation of information belonging to the said two companies and to which they became privy while in the employment of either Ziglap International or Kwelph Medical.’

  A week later the threat was confirmed when Ziglap sought an injunction in the courts seeking to restrain GIS Limited from producing ‘or allowing to be produced under its licence the product known as GIS’ pending the hearing of an action by Ziglar claiming that important parts of the formula of GIS had been purloined by one or more of the directors of GIS while in the employment of Ziglar International.

  On the day of the hearing there were massive protests in Britain; hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and on Westminster Bridge the police carried out a cavalry charge against people marching on Parliament and, when thousands more joined the demonstration and retaliated against the police, the army were called out and baton rounds were fired before some semblance of order was restored. Up and down the country there were meetings and demonstrations and trade unionists called on the TUC to stage a national strike if the courts took any action to suppress GIS.

  In France, lorry drivers blocked routes nationale and many of the toll roads; in Berlin there was a mass demonstration and a hastily arranged meeting of trade unionists from most of the west European countries agreed to place a ban on the movement of goods or property associated with the drug trade if Ziglar succeeded in stopping the manufacture and distribution of GIS.

  Jurists will argue that the court was not swayed by the upheaval and the threat of further trouble; others will disagree. In the event, Mr Christopher Awlbright, the QC and civil rights activist, offered his services free to GIS Limited.

  The defence pursued a peculiar strategy: it argued that most of the individual properties that made up GIS were too well known to chemists and others to require purloining; in fact the secret underlying GIS was not so much the properties that made up the serum as it was the process by which it was made up. On another tack, Awlbright claimed that the researchers associated with the discovery of GIS and who had earlier been employed by Ziglar International had terminated their employment with the company ‘in disgust’ because they had learned that Ziglar, in co-operation with Kwelph Medical, had suppressed a formula some ten years ago that, though different in make-up to GIS, would probably have been as effective in combating at least some of the diseases which GIS was now curing.

  Two things had, admittedly, been taken from Ziglar by the accused, Mr Awlbright argued; one was the realisation that it was possible to devise a formula that would completely fortify the human body against disease; the second thing that they had taken from Ziglar was the firm conviction that a drug company, whose first priority was to make profit for its shareholders, would have to suppress such a formula in order to protect the multifarious sources of that profit.

  He continued, ‘The substance of this case is the conflict between human life and profit. If this court gives these multinational monoliths the injunction they seek it will be signing the death warrants of millions, if not billions, of human beings. If there is a case to answer it must surely be concerned with the greed that motivated these people in denying millions of people access to a remedy for their life-threatening illnesses.’

  The media people made a hurried exit to report this development and Counsel for Ziglar immediately asked for a recess.

  When the case resumed Ziglar’s counsel introduced a Dr Gabriel Bottomley to the court. Dr Bottomley said that he had responsibility for research and development at Ziglar International and he had worked with a Doctor Anderson of Kwelph Medical in several projects in which Ziglar’s and Kwelph had a joint interest. He could say categorically that Ziglar International did not at any time suppress research which could have produced a drug capable of curing the multiplicity of illnesses and diseases which it was claimed GIS could successfully treat.

  Under questioning by Mr Awlbright, Dr Bottomley agreed that to suppress a treatment capable of affecting the cures which people were claiming for this preparation would represent a heinous offence against humanity. ‘So, obviously, Dr Bottomley, if Ziglar were not a party to what you have agreed would be a heinous crime against humanity, if they neither suppressed the formula on which they claim GIS is based, and never produced an equivalent of GIS, it must be true to say that they did not have the knowledge on which that formula was based?’

  Dr Bottomley looked uncertain, Awlbright said, ‘Come now, Doctor, the question is not a difficult one: was the reason Ziglar did not produce a similar preparation to this General Immunity Serum the fact that they were deliberately suppressing something destined to bring untold benefits to humanity because it would adversely affect their profits or was it simply because they did not have the knowledge underlying the design and production of such a serum? In a word, was it deliberate or was it lack of specific knowledge in this instance?’

  Bottomley made references to ongoing work in Ziglar’s laboratories and to the hopes of researchers. Awlbright, raised his voice in simulated anger with the witness: ‘Dr Bottomley! To your knowledge, was Ziglar’s in a position to produce a serum similar to GIS and did not do so or were they unable to do so.’

Whatever the facts of the case, Bottomley was obliged to say Ziglar International could not produce an equivalent of GIS and the court denied the required injunction against the directors of GIS Limited.

In the weeks following the release of GIS the value of drug and chemical shares had been tumbling. When Ziglar applied to the courts for an injunction, share prices rallied a little but, following the civil disturbances and the decision of the court, there was a catastrophic collapse in the price of drug shares and many chemical and allied share prices.

As the cures became commonplace their news value diminished but, still, they left in their trail new and dramatic stories concerned with the consequences of GIS. The Dispatch carried a story about a group medical practice in Huddersfield whose six doctors had not seen a single patient for a week. The Times reported that in the quarter following the emergence of GIS the National Health Service had spent some £1.8 billion less than its budget forecast.

  Then hospitals started to close; hundreds of hospitals and clinics. The British Medical Association reported that thousands of doctors were unemployed and the jobs of probably another fifty thousand were under threat. In its editorial, the medical journal, Health News, said: ‘Paradoxically, a great event for humanity has brought great tragedy for those dedicated people who devoted their lives to the service of the sick and the infirm. Men and women who have studied for years to refine their skills in the treatment of disease are now among the first victims of a miracle cure-all. In this country, tens of thousands of doctors, nearly half a million nurses and perhaps another million auxiliary staff, from clerks to cleaners, are now on the dole. World-wide, we can multiply these figures by at least two hundred.’

The medical people were not the first, of course. The early casualties of GIS were the nearly two million people employed by the drug and chemical companies throughout the world. Many of the chemists had tried to survive by expanding into other areas of trade. Most of the thousands of small pharmacists just folded, their owners in bankruptcy and their employees made redundant. Some of the larger chains of drug stores did successfully transfer into various other businesses where their financial muscle allowed them to bully their new and smaller competitors into commercial ruin.

  It would be impossible to name the many and diverse skills, trades and professions affected by the emergence of GIS. Certainly, by the second year of its existence, the consequences of the conquest of human sickness and decease had taken a massive toll of a multiplicity of interests many of which did not appear to be remotely connected with medicine.

  In the United Kingdom, apart from more than one hundred and fifty thousand unemployed doctors, up on a million nurses and general paramedical staff, and a similar number of cleaners and catering workers, were on the dole. So, too, were tens of thousands of maintenance workers, clerks, porters, laundry workers, telephonists, receptionists, and the like. But it didn’t end there: those factories which specialised in the production of medical equipment, hospital beds and furnishings, specialist equipment, fittings, lighting and the mass of other products that play an inconspicuous part in modern medicine were all in crisis.

  Soon after GIS had demonstrated its ability to act as a cure-all, the Minister of Health had cancelled the entire hospital building programme. Thousands of workers in the building and construction trade were laid off, just as the massive short-fall in purchasing power was being felt in every area of trade, where, like the Minister of Health, cautious and frightened planning personnel were cutting back on their building and development programmes.

  The motor manufacturers, too, were gravely affected. All the unemployed doctors and other medical staff could not, of course, replace their cars. Indeed, tens of thousands of vehicles whose owners could no longer afford the rental or hire-purchase instalments were returning them and there was a general slump in the second-hand car market. The problem was, of course, world-wide so not only was the motor manufacturing business hit by the national crisis, its export markets were being similarly affected. Tens of thousands of workers in the car plants and the factories producing ancillary equipment also became redundant.

  On the third anniversary of the date on which the directors of GIS Limited had opened their north London plant, there was some six million people in the United Kingdom out of work. The crisis was palpable: tens of thousands of people with domestic mortgages were now unable to meet their payments and fell into arrears. Evictions became commonplace; the palatial homes of unemployed consultants and surgeons became derelict properties just like the more modest properties of thousands of other people. Homelessness became widespread; houses could not be sold and prices crashed dramatically throwing millions of other people with mortgages into hopeless negative equity.

The government, too, was in crisis. Initially, massive savings on the National Health Service budget had brought thought of substantial tax cuts as a winning plank for the next election. As hundreds of thousands of people joined the dole queues and were rapidly followed by millions more, the social security budget soon outstripped the savings on health care and, of course, there was a dramatic fall-off in government revenues.

Two years after the appearance of GIS the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement had almost trebled and the International Monetary Fund – itself distracted by universal crisis – was warning the government that it would have to make drastic cuts in public spending.

  Politicians, economists and the general business community are, of course, used to the general boom-slump syndrome that is an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s system of competition and profit -driven production. Periodically the trade cycle reaches that point where production has outstripped economic demand: large sectors of industry stagnate, investment is restricted and unemployment reaches a level where the agencies of business and government officially accept that the national economy is in recession.

  But a slump or national recession, while it may affect important parts of the productive process, leaves many other areas of production, trade and commerce unaffected and, even when the slump is of international proportions, there are areas of production, trade or commerce, either at home or abroad, where investment will yield a return on capital.

  The GIS crisis, unlike capitalism’s natural and inevitable trade depression, caused a much more general slump; the captains of industry and, especially, the banks and finance houses, were traumatised by the gravity of the problem. A tendency developed among the rich to liquidate assets where possible before these were catastrophically decreased in value or dissipated by bankruptcy. Their world appeared to be dying and cash-in-hand seemed the most important item in their survival kit.

  This scramble to disengage from the productive and distributive engines of the system only aggravated the problem, of course. Many of the enterprises that might have escaped the worst consequences of the crisis brought on by GIS simply collapsed because panicking shareholders anticipated ruin and scrambled to liquidate their shareholdings. Even banks became suspect and many a frightened capitalist concealed his capital against the possibility of needing it to buy the necessities of life.

In the House of Commons the Conservative Leader, Mr Dennis Vague, intervened in an adjournment debate to ask if the Prime Minister had any comment to make on the general disarmament proposals currently being discussed in the European parliament. The Prime Minister said his government was closely associated with the European Labour group which had initiated the proposals; the question of world peace was always a vital issue for the government and especially in these stringent times, with the defence budget costing the nation some twenty-three billion pounds a year – ‘or, in figures we can understand, some 63 million pounds every single day’ – the question of peace had to be a top government priority.

  Members rose throughout the chamber but it was Melvyn Smyth, the Tory member for Hucksteed, who took the Speaker’s eye:

-‘Mr Speaker. When the Party opposite took office four years ago, the Prime Minister assured this House that the first priority of the government would be the substantial reduction of unemployment – then standing at just under two million. Today more than six million people are unemployed. Poverty and misery stalks this country because the government allowed some well-intentioned idiots to interfere with nature and the workings of our economic system.

-‘Now he tells us he wants to see the defence budget cut – he might even want it abolished! He says we cannot afford the £63 million it costs us every day to retain our armed forces and our modern weapons systems. If he looks at the GIS phenomenon, at the terrible cost to this nation and the world at large, of toying with the staple features of our economy, he might consider the ramifications of peace and disarmament; he might wonder if we, and the other nations with whom we share this planet, can live with such luxuries.

-‘Has the Prime Minister looked at the numbers of people who will become unemployed as a consequence of disarmament? Has he wondered what will happen to the men and women of the armed forces if this country and all its potential enemies are stricken with peace?

-‘When GIS closed our hospitals, medical centres and doctors’ surgeries we failed to see its implications; we failed to see the social malaise that would follow implicit in the threat, and the reality, of good health for all. Now, again, blinded by the same utopian dream of a world of peace, he threatens our arms factories, our shipyards and aircraft plants with closure; our young, highly trained members of the armed forces with a futureless life of poverty and unemployment and he threatens those tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods are derived from supplying the armament industry and producing the myriad needs of its employees and those of the men and women of the armed services. This is a further excursion into foolishness by the Prime Minister and the party opposite who never did understand the delicate balance that underpins our present economic system.’

  A bedlam of inextricable shouting followed and persisted until The Speaker acted to adjourn the debate.

  Some fifteen minutes later, when order was restored The Speaker called the House to order again and, after a stormy debate the Opposition accepted a Government motion to establish a Royal Commission, consisting of economists, business people, trade unionists, sociologists, psychologists and security chiefs, to examine the very serious situation that had arisen in the country as a result of the introduction of GIS. The Commission was to ‘act urgently’ and produce a Report for the House not later than the 1st of July.

  Mr Smyth wondered if the Prime Minister was allowing the proposed Royal Commission enough time for their deliberations while Mr Penn voiced his suspicions at the proposed inclusion of security chiefs on the Commission.

  As poverty increased, so, also, did crime; not in the general way in which the former conditions the latter but disproportionately higher because of the general demoralisation of the populace. For many whose normal way of life now was utter privation and total insecurity, the law held no threat. Yet, conversely, among the poor the barriers of pretence and unsociable privacy that their way-of-life fosters as a social fetish and an escape mechanism, was dramatically reduced in a way not dissimilar to that observed in public attitudes in the wake of a catastrophe or following air raids in wartime.

  Every day brought news of unrest and civil strife in various parts of the world.

The Times-Courier broke a story about a document which it claimed to be in its possession and which purported to be the minute of a secret meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Committee, According to the Times-Courier the meeting was concerned with devising a strategy to meet the possibility of global civil unrest. That evening officers from the political division of Scotland Yard raided the offices of the Times-Courier, leaving, after four hours with several boxes of documents.

  The following day Graham Nugent, the media magnate and owner of the Times-Courier, was invited to lunch with the Prime Minister at Downing Street and the story died on the vine, so to speak.

  As had been predicted in the press, the Royal Commission on the state of the nation reported on the 27th of June. It was not a unanimous report; the Commission had failed to agree and the Chairman, Lord Silcott-Chivers, had authorised the issuing of both a majority and a minority report. In July, when the government duly released the Reports, the media had a field day. Apparently the Commission had spent its time in a spirited squabble about the nature of the problem.

  The minority Report said simply that the answer was to eliminate the cause of the problem. That cause was the existence of GIS. The government should declare it an illegal substance, close its manufacturing and distributive processes and ‘impose sentences on those producing, distributing or possessing GIS that are consistent with the gravity of the crisis it has created’.

  The majority Report was a syncretic attempt to construct a practical way forward on the basis of the acknowledged fact that the widespread franchising of GIS, and the simplicity of its formula, automatically ruled out the possibility of its proscription. It was now a fact of life and the Report, therefore felt that society would have to deal with its consequences.

  The Report then went on to suggest the sort of interventionist policies much loved by the political Left in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Government would have to underwrite new and bold initiatives to kick-start the economy, No attempt was made to cost the extent of the government’s underwriting nor was there any acknowledgement of the fact that the government was in financial straights, that increased taxation would simply aggravate the problem or that funding from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund was ‘temporarily’ suspended.

  The public release of the two Reports occurred the day before the final issue of The Dispatch and News. The lower half of the front page contained an editorial explaining the paper’s demise but its bankruptcy was simply and cogently conveyed in the sentence, ‘The fact is that, like thousands of other enterprises, we are broke!’

  The top half of the front page carried the newspaper’s comment on the two Reports from the Royal Commission. The piece was prefaced by the headline, in dense four-inch type: BULLSHIT!. It was to prove that newspaper’s most quoted comment.

  The Trade Union Congress announced a ‘Day of Action” in response to the crisis. In a press release it said that, because the Congress was anxious not to bring those workers who were working off the job, the Monster Rally which it was proposing as the main feature of its Day of Action would be held on a Sunday. It was agreed that the meeting should be in Hyde Park and that unemployed workers from every area of the country should march on London to show solidarity with their fellow trade unionists.

  The Confederation of British Industry Chairman, Sir William Forbes-Heathcote, commented on the TUC decision not to interfere with production, ‘We are all in this together,’ said Sir William. ‘Labour and Capital have a common cause which we must pursue together.’

  The Times-Herald fastened on the Forbes-Heathcote statement. In an editorial it said that Sir William’s remarks ‘are not only brave, they are historic. When, more than now, amidst this awful crisis, can there be a more demanding moment for extirpating old class loyalties than now.’ It urged the TUC to invite Sir William and other members of the CBI onto its platform at the following week’s rally.

  The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm by the TUC and government, opposition and the media in general became frenetic in the fervent promotion of the impending Monster Rally.

  From Monday of that week, press, radio and television were preoccupied with news and pictures of groups of men and women leaving distant towns and villages to make their way to London for the following Sunday. As the week progressed and the groups coalesced into large battalions, forming huge overnight encampments at well-organised points along their journey, the media became more fervid. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Britain before; literally hundreds of thousands were on the move in a vast cavalcade of sombre carnival. What did they hope to achieve? Journalists who asked the question were told, -‘Well… we’ve got to do something!’

  That was the considered opinion of the organisers, too!

  A large, covered platform had been professionally erected well inside Hyde Park. At either side, and at strategic points throughout the park, tall tripods each carrying several loudspeakers had been placed. Both BBC and the independent television companies had co-operated in erecting a row of high-powered, masked lights to facilitate their camera teams. Either side of the large platform several mobile structures had been erected for journalists; each boasted telephones and fax machines and had, also, been provided with large screen television sets that would convey sound and pictures from the platform.

  By 3.30 in the afternoon, when the proceedings commenced, the park was well filled and, still, there were lines of marching men and women entering through the various gates. Children, too, of all ages were present, in pushchairs, on parent’s shoulders or marching in imitation of the adults. There was a cacophony of motion against a background of sellers of one sort or another, offering anything from ice cream to newsprinted political philosophy.

  The Right Honourable Vincent Close, the Member of Parliament for Greenditch, opened the meeting and, after a few brief introductory comments referred to the presence of Sir William Forbes-Heathcote, the President of the Confederation of British Industry, and Will Younger OBE, Chairman of the Trade Union Congress, together on the platform. With a great rhetorical flourish, Close said that their joint presence on the platform was ‘historic’ and added that ‘… indeed, it speaks more eloquently of the gravity of the crisis facing this country, and every other country, than anything I could say.’

  One after another they came onto the podium with their notes and spoke into the battery of microphones. The real believers around the front of the platform maintained a disciplined attention; the less believing became restless and here and there, where space could be found, parents and children began to play, sometimes noisily, on the grass.

  The words ushered out from the platform. Speaker after speaker spelt out the gravity of the problem, some adding interesting statistical highlights to their remarks. All-in-all though, nothing was said that had not appeared in newsprint over the previous months or mulled over by the experts of one sort or another who contradicted each other on television each night.

  Everybody seemed to agree that we were all together in this crisis, that people had to tighten their belts until, hopefully, we got around the corner; that it was a patriotic duty not to rock the boat, that we were a brave people who had faced crises together before now. There were no real solutions offered and the only new information came from Sir Peter Fowler, the Tory MP and Privy Councillor and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  The former announced that the Royal Family was solidly with the people in this awful hour; indeed, he had sight that very day of a communiqué issued by the Palace in which it was revealed that the Royals had reduced their travel expenses in the current year from £47 million to £45 million.

  For his part, before advising the audience that however bad things were with us, we should never forget that they were much worse for many hundreds of millions of people elsewhere, the Archbishop revealed his firm conviction that if we kept praying, we could persuade God, ‘in his infinite compassion’, to intercede for us.

  By this time, the attention span of most of the audience had been well surpassed and some of the more raucous began to offer course responses to the weighty words from the platform. With less discipline than they had shown earlier when they entered the park, people now began to leave. They had come, some at great sacrifice to their comfort and their resources; they had listened, trusting, hoping to learn; confident that such an eminent group of wise men and women would know what to do. Some spoke their anger, their disillusionment, coarsely; some were quiet; all were despondent in the knowledge that those wise men and women, whom they deferred to as ‘they’, had neither hint nor notion of a solution.

  It was hopeless! It was the Great Plague that was going to destroy them and their loved ones. Many of those who had set out early in the week for London had taken leave of their wives and children hopefully. Like those who had left home this morning, or the previous day, they went off with hope in their hearts. This was the twenty-first century! The wise men and women – the ‘they’ who, in the eyes of the believers, were all-knowing – could perform the most wondrous of miracles. They could work out the trajectory from which to send people out into orbit and on course for the moon; they could make machines that could make machines; they could fashion society to their needs and their liking. Surely they could…?

  But they couldn’t! There was nobody, not a single person who could meet the awful problem created by the discovery of a means of curing human ailment within the confines of a market economy. The fear engendered by this realisation was being realised by those who had come in a spirit of hope. But there was no hope! Only a force beyond that of the great… the specialists and experts… the men and women whose obscure qualities were rewarded with the dreams of those who simply applied their skills and energies to the resources of nature and produced wealth… The Great, the Wise, the Experts had failed! Now, like our primitive forefathers, if we were to survive we would have to pray for rain!

  The dejected battalions were moving away. The loudspeakers still blared their clarions of hopelessness as each of the great and the good was given a moment of glory. But now they were talking to themselves; the believers, hugely burdened, would have to search for other gods.

From Within The System, an anthology of short stories, available here

https://www.amazon.com/Within-System-Richard-Montague/dp/14120111