Ungodly Critters

I’ve just published a new short story collection titled “Ungodly Critters”. Seven stories musing about the relationship human and other critters have with the universe and what might lie beyond. The short story collection is available on Amazon, Kindle and various other outlets.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Avenging Woman

My supermarket trolley ran over her feet before I could stop myself. Between the frozen peas and special offer for sausages I’d spotted her, the woman who’d beaten me in the short story competition. I offered no apology, since she didn’t either.

“Haven’t seen you at our writing circle for a while.”

“No. I’ve been to Australia,” she said, inspecting crushed toes and ruined stockings.

She didn’t even blush. £3,000 prize money spent on getting a sun tan in winter. My story would have won if I hadn’t allowed her to proofread it.

Britain’s Money Laundromat develops a Leak

pexels-photoOddly, moments after I had published my latest blog post, I happened to look up that day’s front page of The Guardian newspaper, only to discover that the “Exclusive” covered the money laundering theme of my own blog post.

“UK at heart of $3bn secret payments by Azerbaijan”, the headline reads, proving that I was quite right calling Britain the most corrupt country in the world. It is alleged in the article that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite operated a secret scheme to pay prominent European politicians, journalists and businessmen, laundering money via a network of obscure British companies, or rather Scottish Limited Partnerships.

The latter is, incidentally, a theme dealt with in a crime novel by Ian Rankin. Rankin gets his most famous creation, Inspector John Rebus of Police Scotland, involved in a money-laundering scandal that sees Rebus track down various villains operating in Rankin’s (and Rebus’) home town, Edinburgh. Scottish Limited Partnerships enable organised crime to establish bogus companies, using tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Belize offshore banks corporate “partners”. Rankin’s novel introduces us to a man from a wealthy family background, who is now involved in corporate crime to cover the huge losses he incurred with his own banking and stockbroking efforts. His is the corrupt heart that beats beneath the glorious architecture and highly respectable face Edinburgh puts on for millions of tourists each year. Outwardly he is a member of Edinburgh’s elite, rich and successful, envied by many. But in private he’s a failure in his chosen line of business, a potential murderer and a drug addict.

pexels-photo-351264The real-life investigation of The Guardian asserts that Azerbaijan’s leadership made in excess of 16,000 secret payments between 2012 to 2014, aiming to influence European politicians and journalists as part of an international lobbying campaign to deflect international condemnation of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and those close to him.

According to The Guardian, there is at present no suggestion that all of the recipients of these payments were aware of the original source of the money they received, as the payments arrived via a disguised route.

The Guardian’s investigation and various leaked documents show that Britain’s lightly regulated corporate landscape makes it easy for organised crime and corrupt regimes to move large sums of money around without attracting the beady glare of tax authorities and regulators. Dubbed the “Global Laundromat”, the money-laundering operation is staggering in its size. Seven million pounds alone were spent in the UK on buying luxury goods and paying for private school fees.

One of Europe’s leading banks, Danske, was unwittingly caught in this “laundromat” scheme via their branch office in Estonia, where large sums of Azerbaijan’s illegal money were being “laundered”. Danske first noticed the irregular payments in 2014, when it was investigating an unrelated money-laundering issue and stumbled across the Azerbaijani angle. Since then Danske has tightened its procedures in all its branches.

Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith both use the city of Edinburgh in Scotland as background for many of their novels and short stories, but they couldn’t be more different in their approach. While McCall-Smith’s Edinburgh is heart-achingly beautiful, often mildly eccentric, but always affluent, respectable, kind and funny, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh is sinister, rotten to the core, impoverished and life-threatening.

Both authors use the Scottish city as another character in their stories, and we get to see many different aspects of the ancient city by the sea, both in terms of geography and psychology. McCall-Smith clearly loves the city (see his Isabel Dalhousie/Philosophers’ Club series as well as his 44 Scotland Street series), while Ian Rankin has more of a love-hate relationship with Edinburgh. Both authors treat readers to an intimate dissection of what life in Scotland’s best known city is like, and how living there influences people’s actions.

taxes-tax-evasion-police-handcuffsHow these latest real life revelations about Britain’s involvement in international money-laundering schemes will influence future storylines of UK legislature remains to be seen. That far greater transparency is needed in the UK’s offshore banking and corporate sectors is evident. Practically all the other EU countries have been pushing for this for ages. There are various legal measures afoot that will alter how Scottish Limited Partnerships can be set up and operated in the future. But critics say these changes to UK corporate law are not far reaching enough.

Prime Minister Theresa May is too incompetent and weak as a leader of the Tory-led government to effect positive change during her tenure. We have already seen May back down on various issues related to corporate greed, most notably on worker representation in board rooms and corporate fat cats’ exorbitant pay packages. But it’s not just the domestic angle that’s worrying.

Imagine President Frump, when he proposes the USA should do “lots of great deals with Britain” straight after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019. President Frump favours “deregulation” of the financial sector, so the UK’s money laundromat may have sprung a temporary leak, but there are already plenty of “engineers”, domestic and foreign, working to fix this regrettable problem.

BTW, before he became President of the United States of Xenophobia, Mr Frump was also busy trying to build a hotel complex in Baku, Azerbaijan. He may have eventually cancelled the deal, but it still leaves huge question marks over Frumpy’s ability to judge who he should do business with and who he should stay well clear of.

pexels-photo-342945Thus, corruption is here to stay. It will continue to prosper as Britain’s greatest, and most reliable, money spinning venture – poisoning every corner of the kingdom, from blustery cold Edinburgh down to the sunnier shores of Brighton, like a relentless worm gnawing its way through a once golden apple, leaving nothing but a blackened, stinking morass in its wake.

American Dream gone sour?

pexels-photo-311012Unusually for me, I saw the movie long before I read the book many years later. The Firm is, as one would expect of a Grisham novel, a thrilling read, a tale of utter corruption and limitless greed that is not necessarily confined to an American setting. One could image this tale could just as well play out in Italy, Little Britain or Spain, if one takes into account the spread of organized crime, and the level of corruption these countries are infamous for. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I’m afraid this blog post contains some spoilers.

Grisham’s novel is a wonderful example of how one (office) building can serve as a metaphor for a society’s way of life, in this case, the much-celebrated “American Dream”. As long as you work hard, no matter what your background, the sky’s the limit. Anyone can become a millionaire through hard work and determination, at least in principle. That’s the American dream young Mitch McDeere has held on to ever since leaving a miserable mobile home in a trailer park somewhere in Florida to become a hot-shot lawyer graduating from Harvard.

But at what cost do we follow that dream? That’s the central theme of the novel.

pexels-photo-245584This doesn’t come across in the movie at all, but in the book the 100-year-old building on Front Street in Memphis used by The Firm is an essential “character” in the story. Where your office is located in the Firm’s office building tells you which place you are permitted to occupy in society. At the beginning of the story, we see Mitch yearn for rapid progress within the Firm. He’s hungry for success, longs to be the proud occupier of one of the partners’ corner offices, which overlook the river and are twice the size of offices occupied by mere associates. To this end, Mitch works an unbelievable 20 hours a day, and virtually abandons his wife, Abby, in their brand-new home, bought by the firm and “given” to the young couple at a low-cost mortgage.

But as the story unfolds, we learn what price the Firm’s young lawyers have pay to get into these spacious corner offices. The higher up in the building – within the firm and therefore in society – the more corrupt a person becomes. We soon discover that the partners’ success in life is almost entirely based on the work of the guys located in the basement,who sit all day long in windowless cubicles, beavering away without just rewards – or views of the river.

The more the novel progresses, the more Mitch discovers that there’s a sinister side to this office building. It’s a fortress, not just an office block, but what does all this security actually guard? Mitch learns to look beyond the antique Persian carpets, the rosewood desks, the expensive paintings on the walls. He begins to see the true nature of the Firm, sees what’s really behind all this ostentatious wealth, and starts to understand what will happen to him, if he remains part of it. His wife Abby has instinctively understood that there’s far more to “The Firm” than meets the eye. She is suspicious of a company that demands total control over the lives of those who serve it. Mitch, who unlike Abby comes from an impoverished background and a broken home, takes far longer to look beyond the trappings of commercial success. The much-coveted office Mitch was so proud of getting, becomes first a sanctuary, then a prison, then a death-trap. The new house they’ve moved into is not a cozy nest to raise a family, but a cage into which Abby and Mitch are forced each day to live out their lives for the “amusement” of the security chief of The Firm and one of it’s senior partners, a man who is a voyeur and loves to listen – and preferably watch – what young lawyers and their wives get up to in the perceived privacy of their own bedroom. Abby and Mitch’s home is wired, their car is bugged and there’s no privacy anywhere other than the great outdoors. They are followed wherever they go, and spied upon even in their most intimate moments. All locations in this novel turn out to be a threat to those who happen to venture too close to The Firm’s true nature. And soon Mitch and Abby find themselves planning their headlong flight to the ends of the earth to escape from that “American Dream” gone terribly wrong…

pexels-photo-297755Grisham manages to introduce a second location as a character in its own right. When the author takes Mitch, and therefore the reader, to the “glamorous and exotic” location of the Caribbean, he soon learns that beneath the sugar-white sands of the beaches lie the rotten roots of swaying palm trees. This luxurious island paradise is build on corruption. Any feeling of freedom, hope of escape, is soon squashed, and the initial euphoria at being abroad in an exotic location, is soon wiped out by an all-pervading atmosphere of deadly threat lurking behind every pair of sunglasses, behind every stall of pretty postcards and every wide smile a local beauty beams at Mitch.

pexels-photo-248797In Grisham’s thriller, the mafia is aided and abetted by the UK’s offshore banking system, a haven for the world’s organized crime gangs, where money is laundered and profits of slavery and prostitution, drug and arms dealing are squirreled away from the suspicious eyes of tax authorities and law enforcement agencies. Mitch soon realizes that what an FBI agent has told him about the law firm’s involvement in mafia business is actually true.

dollar-currency-money-us-dollar-47344How widespread money laundering via offshore banking is in real life can be seen by the repeated efforts of the 27 remaining EU member states to force the UK to make its own offshore banking system more transparent and accountable – and the UK’s adamant refusal to comply with these demands.

Hundreds of billions of illegal funds are reputedly laundered in Britain’s offshore accounts, and any attempts at depriving organized crime of their ill-gotten gains has so far failed because of Britain’s refusal to make this offshore banking system accessible to EU law enforcement scrutiny.

pexels-photo-259027When the world’s leading expert on all things Mafia tells newspaper reporters around the world that the United Kingdom is the most corrupt country in the world, you’d better take his word for it! It is my belief that Britain’s total corruption is the real reason why the Tory government held the Brexit referendum in the first place. Brexiteers’ repeated bleating about “sovereignty of Britain’s laws” are nothing but an attempt to keep Europol and the European Court of Justice out of Britain’s offshore banking sector.

Spreading xenophobia and racism as generously as their lies about the EU as an organisation, the Tories and their Brexiteering fat cats are desperate to remove Little Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as quickly as possible, because Brexiteers are likely to have dipped their fingers into hugely illegal pies, in my opinion. The fruits of their illegal gains will most likely slumber in said offshore bank accounts, in tax havens like Bermuda or Grand Cayman Island. History has taught us that all right-wing, fascist pigs are thugs, involved in organized crime in one form or another. Just look back to Hitler, Mussolini & Co, if you’ve problems with this assumption, or at Franco’s regime in Spain. Crime and right-wing politics have always gone hand in hand.

As the leaked “Panama Papers” revealed not so long ago, of the so far investigated offshore accounts (hundreds and hundreds of them), some 70% can be traced to British organized crime. It is therefore not a stretch of the imagination to dwell on what lies hidden in other British offshore accounts, and why Britain’s right-wing establishment is so desperate to remove the country from the scrutiny of EU law enforcement agencies. However, their Brexiteering efforts may yet be scuppered. A potential leaking of such account details is not beyond the capabilities of public-spirited hackers, as became evident with the Panama offshore banking leak. It is, I believe, a ticking time bomb. In Grisham’s novel, the FBI bribes Mitch to become a whistle blower. Give a modern-day, real life “Mitch” the right financial incentive, and there may well be a leak of major proportions and consequences.

Any investigation into what lies hidden in accounts on Grand Cayman Island, Bermuda etc could easily spell the end of the Tories for good – and topple untold senior business, MPs and establishment figures across the country, not to mention land them all in jail, in my opinion.

Perhaps such a leak would even have the potential to finally end Britain’s class system, bringing about a long-overdue “revolution” in society. Tory corruption (alleged election fraud) is currently under police investigation, so who knows what else may emerge in months ahead, as the EU/UK Brexit negotiations get more acrimonious. We may yet see an EU-spirited hacker deliver a “British Virgin Island Paper”, even without the financial inducement provided by some law enforcement agency, be it the FBI, Interpol or Europol, or possibly handed out by an exasperated EU negotiation team from Brussels, desperate to stop a cliff-edge Brexit fiasco.

It is the very timing of Brexit that has led me to form this “conspiracy” theory, not something I’m normally prone to, and not inspired by Grisham’s novel either. As EU law enforcement agencies and EU government heads began asking more and more uncomfortable questions over the UK’s offshore banking system in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, we suddenly saw a huge populist rising driven relentlessly by the likes of UKIP (UK’s “acceptable” right wing party) and the Tories themselves.

Even now, where spiraling inflation bites and both EU citizens and disgusted pro-EU Brits leave the country in their thousands ahead of Brexit, there’s no end of the anti-European Court of Justice rhetoric from the Brexiteers. The country must leave the EU at all costs, no matter what battering the economy takes, no matter how 49% of the population feel about it – and no matter what many who voted LEAVE last year would vote for this year, now that they know they were lied to on all fronts by the LEAVE campaigners.

I don’t believe in coincidences. To me, this was a right-wing coup, organized and carried out by those who would go to jail for a very long time and have all their assets seized, if the EU unraveled what’s going on in UK’s offshore accounts. Whipping up a populist rising against immigrants and thereby the EU itself was the quickest, shortest root to save all those from certain ruin within Britain’s establishment who facilitate large-scale criminal activities. The likes of David Davis and Boris Johnson & Co are far too incompetent and unintelligent to be behind such a coup – but they are greedy and eager to sit in their spacious corner office of the Firm’s building, and therefore easily manipulated.

Grisham’s novel may at times feel a little too contrived and preposterous to ring true, but current political events around the Western World show us that his novel didn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to corruption and limitless greed.

There are two things that I have issues with in Grisham’s sordid tale of a Memphis law firm being used for major league money laundering.

Copyright Maria Thermann

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

The first is, naturally, that the young heroes of the tale, novice lawyer Mitch McDeere and wife Abby, totally forget to make provisions for their dog Hearsay. After making elaborate plans to evade the Mob and the FBI, a smart guy like Mitch cannot make emergency provisions for the poor mutt, leaving it to starve in their former Memphis home? He’s thought of every other tiny detail, so is it likely such a person would forget to make arrangements for a beloved family pet?

One would have expected their secret helper, Tammy/Doris, to organise a rescue of the little mutt. However, only when Abby and her husband, together with Mitch’s brother Ray, have escaped from almost certain death at the hands of the mafia, Abby suddenly remembers they have abandoned their dog to an uncertain fate. How exactly does the author think Abby’s neighbor, elderly Mr Rice, is supposed to get into their house to rescue and adopt the dog? How would he even know it’s still there? For all Mr Rice knows, the young couple may have taken the dog with them. This part of the novel contradicts what we know of Mitch and Abby, the latter being quite softhearted and very fond of her dog.

If we had any sympathies with Mitch and Abby throughout the novel, at this point we stop caring about their fate. Leaving the dog behind to starve is simply cruel and reveals Mitch and Abby as greedy, selfish, and yes, corrupt people who’d do anything for money and don’t care who gets hurt in the process. That Grisham didn’t intend us to feel this way about Abby and Mitch can be seen at the very end of the novel, where Grisham tries to get in the romantic money shot. It’s the eternal American obsession with a “happy ending”. But the final paragraph didn’t make me want to say “aw, bless them” – I just closed the book with a “good riddance to them all”.

The other thing that irked me is simply sloppiness on the part of the author. Towards the end of the book, we see Mitch helping himself to a large chunk of Mob money by making a transfer from a numbered Grand Cayman Island account to an account in the US, from where part of the money is then transferred into a Swiss numbered account, while the remainder is transferred to two private accounts in the US.

Having worked in both international banking and accounting, I can say with some confidence that it is not possible to transfer any sum of money out of a company account without the authority of at least TWO people that work for said company or, in this case, said law firm. The novel may be set prior to Internet banking, but for the purpose of practical international banking procedure, this is irrelevant. Then as now one needs two people to authorize any such transaction. And for such a large sum to be transferred from a law firm’s account to accounts held by private individuals would set alarm bells ringing with any bank clerk, no matter how incompetent or corrupt the bank may otherwise be. In the days when one had to complete a preprinted form to make international transfers, such a document would then have to be signed by two authorized signatories, whose signature samples were held on file. Even with online banking, two PINs are needed to make any kind of company to company or company to private individual transfer. These PINs must be inserted into a wee handheld device, and requires two people’s security cards. As a junior associate of the Firm, Mitch simply wouldn’t have been authorized to do any transfers, let alone one of several millions.

As a private individual it is simply not possible to just order some banking clerk to transfer money out of one company-held account, especially that of a law firm, which is governed by even stricter accounting rules as a law firm holds third-party funds. This may sound like nit-picking on my part, but I feel it is such a rookie mistake that could have been easily avoided. A phone call to his own bank would have told Mr Grisham that.