I've grown so weary of writing and thinking about the war in Afghanistan and the British government's attitudes to it that I decided to subject it to the artistic process and see what came out. The idea for this story first occurred to me a year or so ago, and then it was to be a radio play called The Self-Serving Bias, about middle-management civil servants and a funding scandal. I abandoned the play on the grounds that Radio 4 (the only producers and broadcasters of radio plays in Britain) would never accept any work that was critical/satirical of or about the kind of decaff-socialist, self-regarding, politically correct, self-serving, deceitful, bureacracy-and-jargon-heavy micro-managerialism that runs Britain today, on the grounds that the modern BBC is run exactly like that and by the type of people who appear in this story. Still, the idea percolated, and, as the late trombonist George Chisholm used to say, it comes out here.
By William Gazy
Jamie Sping, junior policy development officer (feeder grade 2, civilian; lower quartile), media unit, Ministry of Defence, was playing a computer game in the office of his immediate superior, Dylan Banner (upper quartile, civilian; pension grade 3), a senior policy advisor liaising between Number 10 and the Ministry of Defence. Banner stood behind him eating a small triangle-shaped egg and cress sandwich – a leftover from the lunchtime meeting on fresh media approaches to the war in Afghanistan.
“Has this got the motionplus feature?”
“Nah,” said Sping. “I did order it but this came instead. It’s crap.”
“Grab the sea-trike: you get points.”
“No, extra life.”
“Well, pick it up.”
Banner wandered over to the window, chewing. Through the net curtains he could see the back of a statue. Traffic passed along Whitehall.
“I felt like shite in there today,” said Banner. “The Prime Minister was on one.”
“Went to Platitude.”
“Who was on?”
“Kung-Fu Jesus headlined – you know, Jody Crunj’s band, he was the drummer in Cyst.”
“Like, I grew up on Cyst. Soundtrack to my teens. Wild night. Got very messy. Done some pills that were like pink callies in the 90s. ’Course, I was mashed all the way back from Oxfordshire – couldn’t even dismantle the tent, left it there – and then everyone ended up round ours and we drank everything I had in the flat. Absolutely battered. Regretted it this morning. Tube was all fucked. Held vom till Waterloo. A mountain of shit waiting for me here.”
Sping laughed. “Bollocks: missed the sea-trike again. Have you got through the zombie swimming pool bit? If you blow their arms off before their heads you get double raspberries.”
The door to Banner’s office opened and Stubb, Ministry-to-Army media policy liaison officer (feeder grade four, civilian; median), walked in. He looked harassed.
“Sebastian’s going apeshit downstairs. His boyfriend’s lost his dog.”
Sebastian was their nickname for a prominent member of the government.
“What’s he still doing here anyway?’ asked Sping. “The meeting finished three hours ago.”
“Because he’s an interfering cunt. Been in an office downstairs with the PM. Kicked up a stink about combing the room for bugs. The dog must have come this way, because there’s a turd out there, so watch out.”
“Who’d be interested in listening to those two?” asked Banner. “I suppose the Taleban might like to get advanced warning on which bands will be playing Kabul?”
“That was one of the things that came out of the lunchtime meeting,” said Banner. “Sebastian reckoned a rock concert in Kabul would be a ‘publicity coup for the West’. ‘Bring people together’, ‘show the West’s good side.’”
“You jest?” asked Sping, turning round.
“Nope. Sebastian’s full of radical ideas at the moment. Maybe he’s in love. He said: ‘it’ll be like the old days.’”
“What does he mean by that?”
“Fuck knows. When this government was popular, perhaps?”
“Have you seen either his boyfriend or the dog?” asked Stubb irritably, “because I’ve been roped in to looking for them.”
“You might get a knighthood if you find them,” said Banner.
A thick-necked sergeant-major, in his 40s, passed down the corridor behind Stubbs, whistling for Sebastian’s dog. “Kisses,’ he called softly, in a heavy Glaswegian accent. “Kisses, where are you?”
Two days later Banner had a breakfast meeting with his boss, Communications Liasion Director (Senior Civil Servant, 99th Percentile Grade) David Hirudine, and Stubb. Hirudine, neat, forties, grey temples and gym slim, was sniffing at an avocado.
Hirudine said, without looking up from the fruit: “Keep getting abusive emails and phone calls from the British Legion asking us why the PM or the Foreign Secretary or someone isn’t meeting the bodies when they arrive back from Afghanistan. What can we do about this?”
“Persuade the PM to do it?” said Banner. “Just the once? Make the gesture, keep ‘em quiet?”
“No, I don’t mean that,” said Hirudine irritably, “what can be done about stopping the bloody British Legion getting through to my voicemail and email? Why have a web team, an internal comms team and whatnot and then end up doing the front of house yourself?”
He turned to Stubb. “The sausages are good, aren’t they? This avocado is good. I had a little moan about catering and it seems to have hit home. Same with the booze: I’m preparing a preliminary beverage report, no pun intended, which you might like to contribute something to. I floated the idea of a wine committee, like they have in the Commons.”
Hirudine turned to Banner.
“Look, it’s not a bad idea to suggest the PM goes down to meet the dead, but you know perfectly well he won’t do it. He’ll say his predecessor didn’t and if he didn’t, then why should, etcetera. I don’t know why Shining One didn’t; he could have got away with it, made himself look good: cried and so on.”
Shining One was the their nickname for the Prime Minister’s predecessor.
“But it might do the PM some good, in a way,” said Stubb. “In the polls, I mean.”
Hirudine changed the subject.
“This rock concert Sebastian was going on about on Monday,” he said. “It’s starting to take off as an idea. Had the BBC on the phone at 5.45am wanting to do a phone interview about it with anyone from here.”
“How did they get hold of it?” asked Stubb.
“Sebastian, obviously,” said Banner.
“Of course,” said Hirudine. “He’s briefed them behind our backs. Complete lunacy, of course. But it’s taking off now and we’ll have to roll with it. Sebastian’s office is already doing a feasibility study vis a vis insurance and agents and talent fees and all that. I had a email from him a minute ago and he wants an office, essentially a media hub, set up in Kabul as soon as possible.”
Banner looked at the front of that morning’s Times. Heavy fighting in Afghanistan, and heavy casualties. Three deaths.
“So this concert, you don’t think it will blow over?”
“No, I don’t,” said Hirudine. “Sebastian says that he has extensive contacts in what he called ‘the rock world’. Says he met Jody Crunj at a backstage party a couple of years ago and, unlike most pop musicians, he wasn’t ranting that Iraq and Afghanistan are evil imperialist adventures.”
“He’s very much in the minority on that one, I’d say,” said Banner.
“Quite possibly,” said Hirudine. “But it’s in motion now and we’ll have to run with it. Sebastian will open the coffers up for it and the funding. In regard to us, it boils down to this: someone’s going to have to go and set the hub up in Kabul and that’s that.
Silence followed this.
“It’ll have to be one of us,” said Hirudine. “Or, rather, one of you two.”
“How can I go?’ said Stubb. “I was downhanded the re-incentivising of our media affiliates, plus the hits-and-clicks web delivery focus group to sort out.”
Hirudine turned to Banner. “Dylan?”
“My workload isn’t exactly light,” he said in a voice more hollow than usual. “I have people in my management line that might be appropriate.”
“That doesn’t strike me as being the best solution. You’d have to make a sound recommendation, which would have to be approved. I’d far prefer it if you went, Dylan.”
“OK, I’ll go,” said Banner.
“Now,” said Hirudine, changing the subject again. “I was briefed by the PM that we, as the Min of Def media, should be briefing everyone that the equipment in Afghanistan is good and getting better all the time. There is an adequate amount of helicopters in Afghanistan and, where there isn’t, there soon will be, which for you means there already is and, furthermore will be more very shortly. Armoured cars and so on are being developed that are invulnerable, etcetera. Everything’s on an upward curve of efficiency and strength; I know this is basic stuff but; never give an inch on this, ever. Never get put on the back foot by reporters over this. Ever. It’s the PM’s new golden rule.”
“According to Sebastian, some lawyer got arsehole drunk at Chequers the other weekend and said he wouldn’t be surprised if, quote, ‘the fucking lot of you didn’t all end up in court over the two wars’. Rattled the PM, who made the mistake of getting lippy and asking the man ‘what he meant by that’. ’Course, the bloke rattled off a prima facie case that should have been obvious from the start and that ‘they’d all be lying through their teeth till the day they died, just to stay out of a courtroom’.”
“PM went into a sulk. Then someone said they’d heard that Shining One was now running around in Washington suggesting that ‘the allies’ should invade Zimbabwe.”
“What did PM say?”
“A very rude word. Then he stormed out.”
Banner’s blackberry buzzed. He read the message.
“Two killed last night in North Afghanistan. Corporal and sergeant. No names as yet.”
“Family bereavement media briefing pack four,” said Stubb, apparently as an aide memoir. He wrote something down. “Four B if they’re Scottish,” reminded Banner. “And three C if they’re Welsh.”
The working day was winding down. Jamie Sping was playing the computer game in Banner’s office.
“Get the fucking sea-trike!” yelled Banner, leaning over the screen.
“Got it,” said Sping. “Extra life.”
Banner consulted the time. “Fancy a quick pint?”
They went to the Red Lion, down Whitehall. Banner outlined the situation.
“So, basically,” said Ping, who always used the word basically in any work-related business whether it was needed or not, “someone’s got to go to Afghanistan to set the hub up?”
“Yeah,’ said Banner. “To be honest, like all the crazier policy drives from Sebastian it’ll fizzle out when the initial allocation budget dries up and nobody will sign off more money for it. Then the project will be renamed and only the hardiest FOI-sender will be able to find out where the money went. For you, on the other hand, it represents a chance to do yourself a bit of good. You can shine here. Go to ‘theatre’ and you’ll get points. Double raspberries. You’ll probably go up a grade far quicker than you would have and women will think you’re hot.”
“I am hot,’ said Sping.
“And all you’ll be doing is sitting in an office on fucking facebook all day. Like here in other words, except you’ll be in Kabul.”
The Times, always warm towards Sebastian, went big on the rock concert the next day.
“Fuck me,” said Stubb slowly, as he read the story in Banner’s office. “I like this bit: ‘A source at the Ministry of Defence confirmed that Bob Dylan has been approached for the concert in Kabul’. Genius. Your idea?”
“Yeah,” said Banner. “We-ell, you might as well go to town with it. We did approach him as well – he was playing golf at his Scottish castle – and he got his office to tell us to fuck off.”
To avoid a confrontation with Hirudine and the paperwork involved in sending Sping to Afghanistan, Banner presented at his doctor’s surgery complaining of anxiety and depression and got himself signed off work for a month. He did some housework, web-browsing and bought tickets to Glastonbury for himself and his wife. One afternoon his mobile rang and it was Hirudine.
“I realise you didn’t want to go, but is Sping up to it?”
Banner was prepared.
“Technically, yes. Emotionally, yes. True, he’s lower quartile, but a riser. He’s clearly got potential, otherwise why did we take him from feeder grade? You said yourself at that corpcom meeting that if bigger projects are not downhanded then our technological terrain and crossbriefing interstices will remain at Management Model II.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?”
“In your power point presentation you said ManMod III requires nano-dynamism and vision-compliance from the lower quartile. ManMod III will remain non-impactful unless the lower quartile expedite synergistically. Other words, the guy’s a newbie, but I thought Sping was an ideal candidate for this project. If you don’t get the guy a challenge, he’s heading for long grass and bandwidth supervision, which, to be fair, seems a waste.”
“Thanks, Dylan,’ said Hirudine brightly, “I Hope you get better soon.”
Banner clicked off his phone. He switched on the television. The rolling news on cable showed more flag-draped coffins being unloaded at an RAF base.
Banner had been back at work for a month and several more soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan when Stubb came into his office at speed.
“Heard the news?”
“Sebastian’s downstairs going apeshit.”
“Someone trod on his boyfriend’s dog – and Jody Crunj’s has walked out of the rock concert project.”
“That’s fucked that then. He was their only chance. No one will touch it now”
“Sebastian’s in with Hirudine now. Ranting and raving. Hirudine wants a meeting this afternoon on briefing angles.”
“I won’t be there, thank God – ManMod III aggregation delivery strategy.”
A few months passed. The war carried on with no discernible progress. Retired Generals wrote imploring letters to the The Times and the Daily Telegraph about the government’s duty to provide adequate equipment to the armed services. The media team were kept busy issuing briefings that showed that the Army’s equipment was more than adequate. More soldiers were killed. Fresh Family Media Bereavement Packs Four, Four B and Three C were printed. Meanwhile, the concert project disappeared from the media.
“Sebastian won’t have it mentioned,” said Stubb, who had been in Sebastian’s offices at the Commons that afternoon and was regaling Banner with gossip over lager in the Red Lion.
“I’m not surprised,” said Banner. “Don’t suppose he’s got much to worry about, though. The news coming out of Afghanistan is so bad the papers don’t need to start digging around that particular fiasco. I’ve never looked at the money spent on it but I wouldn’t mind betting it could have bought something useful for the war. If we’re lucky, if the story ever does come out it’ll just be a few pars in the back of Private Eye.”
Both men’s blackberries buzzed simultaneously. They consulted them and said together, “Sping’s been kidnapped.”
Stubb looked at Banner. Banner said, “for fuck’s sake.”
Both men drained their pints and headed back to the Ministry.
It all came out in the media. The rock concert, the money: the bill and expenses for event planning was called ‘eye-watering’. There were front page pictures of Sping; Sping in happier days on holiday and a video capture of him, blurry and crying in a cage – “bit like a Francis Bacon painting,” observed Hirudine, who was doing an evening course in Modern Art at the Tate. There were pictures of Jody Crunj and Kung Fu Jesus playing on stage; pictures of the office in Kabul from which Sping and two bodyguards were kidnapped; pictures of Sping’s parents and girlfriend. A meteor shower of Freedom of Information Requests hit the ministry. More financial details emerged to general outrage. The atmosphere became siege-like. The Secretary of State for Defence, a lowly figure in the cabinet and subordinate to Sebastian, took most of the flak.
“I see Sebastian remains untouched,” said Hirudine at a morning meeting with Stubb and Banner. “The old tricks are the best. He’s relentlessly briefed against and smeared the Minister, who now wants to resign – ”
“Does he?” asked Stubb.
“Of course, he’s had enough shit lately to last a lifetime. This is the final straw. Of course, neither the PM nor Sebastian will let him. Not until they think the moment is right.”
“Have you agreed strategic continuity on the kidnapping?” asked Banner.
“Sebastian, cleverly, has instructed me to request a press blackout in the interests of Sping and the bodyguards’ safety, while the Foreign Office attempts to negotiate.”
“That works in Sebastian’s favour, too,” noted Banner.
“Of course,” said Hirudine. He turned to Stubb. “If you can get that suggested wines idea of yours knocked into a pdf before lunch I can take it into Food and Beverage with me this afternoon. I don’t hold out a lot of hope, but as I said to the Minister, it’s no good serving pub wine in the Historic Rooms. It just makes us look crap.”
The war continued. Video footage of British soldiers fighting in the pink badlands of Afghanistan played daily on the television. The media blackout ensured Sping’s story disappeared. A year later Banner switched on the computer in his office, checked Reuters and learned that the decapitated bodies of Sping and his two bodyguards had been discovered in a cave, one hundred miles north of Kabul. He stared at the screen for a bit and slowly plugged his iPod ear plugs in.
Later, when Stubb arrived, Banner said, “I’m just glad I got that job at Health. Get out of this fucking nightmare.”
“Oh, you got it?”
“Yeah. Upper quartile, same pension grade. Health can be bumpy, but not like this. Fuck this.”
“For a game of soldiers,” said Stubb.
It was down Whitehall at Health, one afternoon some months later, that Banner, while walking down a corridor, noticed some dog shit on the floor. Soon after this Banner was accosted by his immediate superior (SCS, 99th Percentile Grade), who said, conspiratorially, “Sebastian’s in.”
“Yeah, spending a worrying amount of time poking his nose in down here these days.”
On their way downstairs they walked past another dog turd outside Briefing Room six.
“Careful not to tread in the shit,” said Banner.
“That’s what everyone’s saying these days, isn’t it?”