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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

• Tom Kilcourse
In the late forties Bert lived in a Manchester rooming house of which my mother was the concierge. Unlike most of his contemporaries he had managed somehow to avoid military service during the war.


He shared a second-floor bedsit with Edna, a working girl who earned a living on her back, so to speak. Bert earned his in any way he could, making money from anything and anybody. In a time of great austerity, he could produce a bolt of cloth or a pair of precious nylon stockings, no questions asked. There were frequent brushes with the law, and Bert was a familiar figure in the magistrates’ courts. Despite his love of money he rarely had any to speak of, and often borrowed from friends, my mother included. Very few lent to him a second time. He was a plausible rogue, known to one and all as a SPIV. Sadly, Bert was a man before his time.

Had Bert lived in post-Thatcher Britain, he would have been known as an entrepreneur, and rich. No longer plain Bert, he would have been called Sir Bert, or even Lord Bert, titles bestowed upon him in gratitude for generous donations to Conservative Party funds. Rather than brushes with the law, Lord Bert would rub shoulders with ministers of the crown, occasionally dining with non-other than the Prime Minister.

Sir Bert’s core business, to use a consultancy term, could be described by cynics as recycling money, his donations to the Party being funded by government subsidies from taxation. Like his forties forebear, this wealthy knight’s love of money would see him prepared to make it from anything and anybody, but mainly from government contracts. His company, registered in Jersey, would offer services of all kinds to the government, claiming expertise in whatever is demanded, and promising to perform more cheaply than the public sector possibly could. Those promises might not be fulfilled to the letter, but so what?

Nothing daunts this latter-day Bert. The government wants someone to assess the fitness to work of people on benefits. Sir Bert would be ready and willing, keeping his promise to cut costs by setting up a comic-cuts system that doesn’t work, run by ill trained people who have no experience in that field and paying them peanuts. The service would be cheap, but not fit for purpose, as the saying goes. Following total failure to meet targets, and accompanied by an orchestra of protest from victims of incompetence, Sir Bert would walk away from the contract, having trousered millions of pounds of public money. Anything the French company Atos can do, Sir Bert could match, and he’s British.

Failure on such a scale would not prevent Sir Bert from tendering for other government contracts, nor would he be barred from doing so. Ten thousand security guards are needed for the London Olympics? No problem. Sir Bert’s company would promise equal expertise in that field too. Again, the government would save money by using Sir Bert’s entrepreneurial efficiency. When, however, he fails to find ten thousand monkeys prepared to live on peanuts, the army can be relied upon to step in. While the army remains large enough, that is.

On the back of such remarkable performances our knight could perhaps turn his attention to the prison service, transporting prisoners between court-house and gaol for instance, or even running a prison entirely. We can be assured that Sir Bert’s prison would be more open than most, with inmates frequently absconding, occasionally to ‘do a job’, but hey, this is a freedom loving country, so what’s the problem? Alternatively, or additionally, he could accept a contract to tag felons who were free in the community. This would offer wonderful opportunities to profit by inflating the number claimed to have been tagged, using the names of offenders who had left the country, or died. As Del Boy would say, ‘Lovely jubbly’.

Unfortunately, if Bert SPIV had been able to travel through time, he would have some difficulty breaking into today’s market. All the bits of public service I’ve mentioned have been taken by modern entrepreneurs. In truth, there is probably excessive demand in a marketplace full of businesses eager to get their share of a diminishing supply of public sector operations to be privatised. So, even with a government stretching its imagination for ways to increase the supply, Bert would find the competition intense. He would have to compete with companies already experienced in winning government contracts, firms such as G4s, A4e, Serco and Capita.

Furthermore, Bert’s cheerful chappie approach would not go down too well with today’s urbane sophisticates presently running the country. He would undoubtedly be seen as rough and provincial. His only hope would be to arrive here already wealthy. Wealthy enough, that is, to donate a few £million to the Conservative Party. That should open doors, even for someone so evidently plebbish. It might conceivably get him a seat in an overcrowded House of Lords.

On reflection though, Bert would be better advised to stay in the nineteen forties with the lovely Edna. He lived in an age and society that tolerated his feeble fiddles with some amusement. It was a time when practically everyone in his circle had very few possessions and were disinclined to enquire too closely where some little luxury came from. Despite being a hapless rogue, or perhaps because of it, Bert was popular. He had friends.

Were he to transfer to today’s feeding frenzy he could find the descendants of those friends growing increasingly intolerant, becoming angry indeed. Even if welcomed by the elite he would be joining a set drawing ever more distant from the culture with which he was familiar. As a time traveller he could be fooled into thinking he had arrived in eighteenth century France at an unfortunate time.

Stay in the forties Bert, with Edna. She would make a poor Marie Antoinette, and you an awful Louis XVI.

© Tom Kilcourse October 2014

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