Think back to the halcyon days of the 70s, the last time we had such a well-hung Parliament, when dead bodies were piling up in Liverpool, and rats held mass demonstrations beneath the statue of Winston Churchill – in the dark, of course, for we had a three day week, TV going off at 10pm and precious little electricity – and you might recall ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan. Prime Minster of Great Britain and all that remained of the Commonwealth, the pink tinged globe that we had grown up with. The public face that Britain showed to the world. Sheesh! And you think things are bad now?
‘Sunny Jim’ had gone to Guadeloupe to chat with the Peanut Farmer currently in pole position in that democracy known as the USA about important things like what was he going to say to the IMF, then beating a path towards a bankrupt Britain. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany were there too; head-spinning stuff to be discussed.
Meanwhile, back in sunny Brixton, in the basement of Raccoon Towers, that new fangled invention, a Telex machine, was whirring away. The result of a complicated back story involving a bent Telecom engineer and my position as director of a scaffolding company in Saudi Arabia. Don’t ask on either count or we will be here all day! The Telex machine was like an early version of the Internet, in that it didn’t take long for ‘spammers’ or ‘traders’ as they were then known, to get hold of your contact details. Day after day the machine would spew out invitations to take a tenth of a quarter of a sixteenth of one per cent on some multi-million pound oil deal…it didn’t take me long to notice that all these billion dollar Dams being built in Botswana and Oil deals in China had ‘sweeteners’ attached to them. This part of the contract had a request for a top of the range fridge freezer to be supplied to someone in the Ivory Coast, that part required a Range Rover to be delivered to Zimbabwe…say ‘Jack Robinson’, quick as you like, and Ms Raccoon had a nice little side line in supplying the bits of the contract that the big boys couldn’t be bothered with. 100 Bedford steering wheels to Sudan – what for? No idea, but off they went. 3,000 metres of Copper household guttering for someone’s palace in the middle of the desert, off it went.
Some of the ‘big boys’ were more than nefarious characters, more than some, OK, probably all of them; amongst them was one John Banks. A five foot three, size 3 shod, supposed ex-SAS wallah. SAS my left foot. Colonel Banks he called himself, he’d made a pretty penny or two shipping mercenaries out to Angola, a whole nuvver story for another time, I haven’t got all day even if you have. He was an amusing raconteur, good company. Company which left me with £100,000 in Togolese ‘whatever they were’ stored in my dog’s kennel for months on end, and serving egg and bacon to 35 people on saucepan lids one morning since I’d long since run out of plates…oh, and could I buy half a dozen ‘rubber ducks’ for him, those inflatable motorised speed boats. I could, I did.
I also decided that I could afford, and needed, a holiday. John offered to arrange the plane tickets for me through a friend. I wanted to go to Jamaica, to a forthcoming Bob Marley concert – John’s friend had ‘connections’ with Air Jamaica. A return ticket to Jamaica appeared at the bargain basement price of £30. Magic. The day before I was due to fly, the ‘friend’ confessed that my ticket was a standby one for Jamaican military, and they needed it…would I mind very much flying to Barbados and taking a connecting flight from there? I did actually, I felt dreadful, sickening for something or other, but no choice…I set off for Barbados with my bucket and spade on a cold winter’s morn.
By the time we were halfway across the Atlantic, I had come down with full blown, head-bolted-to-the-pillow, let-me-die-now, influenza. That dose of flu saved my bacon, literally. On arrival at Bridgetown airport, I couldn’t face arranging a connecting flight and crawled to the tourist desk to request a taxi and a small hotel where I could sweat it out. They arranged both for me. A very pleasant bed and breakfast run by an interesting American woman who had spent time in Chile; a room with a terrace overlooking an army parade ground where new troops were being bellowed into submission. It was unbelievably noisy. After three days with no sleep, and looking like death warmed up, she asked whether I might appreciate going up into the mountains to stay with her boyfriend’s friend, another American who had a plantation in the hills. Wonderful, glorious house, old style colonial. I loved it.
He had lived in St Vincent for many years, and for some obscure reason had taken the last breeding St Vincent parrots with him when he left, and now had a colony of some 300 of them flying around the place. He’d spent time in Chile too, and I enjoyed many an evening sitting on the terrace with a glass of Pimms, parrot watching, listening to his tales of far off parts. You think I’m digressing, don’t you? I’m not, I promise you – all pertinent!
You see, after a few days of this salubrious and restorative life; I thought, sod Jamaica, I’ve missed the concert anyway, I’ll just stay here and soak up the sun on the beach. I went back to the little B & B, and after a lunch of barbecued sardines, lay down on the beach…
I must have dozed off, for I was rudely awakened by four huge goons, local policemen with huge beer bellies and holstered (for the time being) guns in their belt. ‘Ms Raccoon?’ they said whilst simultaneously snatching my handbag from under my head and pulling out my passport to check. I could but agree, I was indeed Ms Raccoon – but what on earth had I done? They weren’t about to tell me, and unceremoniously bundled me into a waiting police car. Even 24 hours later they wouldn’t tell me what I had done, 24 hours of a hot sweaty little police cell. It could only be something to do with that plane ticket, I knew I hadn’t done anything else wrong. Eventually the door opened and a policeman came in to tell me that I was ‘going to the airport’.
Deported! I’d never been deported before, this was exciting! (I do have a strange sense of exciting…) A military plane stood ready on the runway and I was escorted up the steps. ‘Deported on a military plane’, this was definitely one for the grandchildren….it literally never occurred to me that the plane might be going anywhere else, not until it touched down in New York…a car from the Barbados Embassy was waiting for me, and then, only then, did I have the wit to get frightened. Only a short time before, a body had been discovered in a diplomatic bag in London, being shipped off to some African colony. Nobody knew where I was, nobody would tell me what was going on, and my mind was turning cartwheels.
This black windowed limousine rushed off through the New York traffic – I had never been to New York before (or since!). No one spoke. We pulled up outside the Ritz-Carlton hotel. I should have been impressed, instead I was quaking, wondering at what point I should start screaming and shouting for help. The lobby seemed to be full of men in dark glasses talking into their lapels. I was about to encounter the CIA for the first time. Two of them invited me to step into a side room; holding my passport, they asked if I had any other identification. The only thing left in my purse was my Barclaycard – this was at the time of the ‘That’ll do nicely’ Barclaycard adverts, I managed to stifle my giggles as I handed it over. They explained that ‘some Barbadian officials’ wanted to interview me, but refused any other explanation.
Into the lift with these exotic creatures, still muttering into their lapels; the lift arrived directly into a private suite. Inside sat two very large, very important looking, black gentlemen. ‘Tom’ Adams, Prime Minister of Barbados, and his Foreign Minister (can’t remember his name!). They made no move to stand or greet me, just stared at me incredulously. I had come directly from ‘their’ beach after all, and this was winter in New York. They couldn’t have been as baffled as I was; every time someone uses the phrase ‘fallen down a rabbit hole’ I think of that scene.
‘Perhaps you would care to explain to us exactly what you have been doing in Barbados?’ said Adams sidekick. I did, from start to finish, when I reached the bit where the tourist office had kindly booked me into the B & B, Adams whispered something to his sidekick, who went scurrying off. I also explained that I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
‘How long have you known John Banks’? said Adams…ominous question that, I was beginning to smell a rat. Nothing involving Banks ever ended well. I answered him truthfully. Just as well, they knew more about me than I did.
John swears to this day that he didn’t know I had been diverted to Barbados. Swears, he didn’t. On his Mother’s life. Thought I was safely in Jamaica. Hmmn.
Sometime whilst I was over the Atlantic, nursing my bout of flu, John’s latest escapade was coming to fruition. A coup mounted by mercenaries…in rubber ducks, six of them. Oh, yes, small detail. The coup was in Barbados.
The plot had been discovered, and the island locked down. A check made on all visitors. One of them proved to be a known contact of John Banks. Worse, John, thwarted from the money he had been promised for a successful coup, had sold the story to the News of the World. As was his wont, all grist to the reputation…’yes, he’d had operatives already placed on the island’. Apparently the idea was that Tom Adams was to be ‘garrotted’ with piano wire on the parade ground – no wonder Tom had stared so incredulously at me.
For who, you ask, had recently bought six rubber ducks for Mssr. Banks? Was living in a hotel with a perfect vantage point of the army garrison. Owned by an American whose ‘boyfriend’ was the ex-deputy Prime Minister of the Island – and bitterly opposed to Tom Adams. Had then spent time in the hill top home of an ex-CIA man who’d been involved in the overthrow of the St Vincent government. Who then, when checked out, proved to have a Father involved in something to do with British Intelligence. Why if it wasn’t liddle ol’ Ms Raccoon…just proving that it’s not what you know, but who you know that will end up with Panorama making a documentary portraying you as the Mata Hari of Brixton. (If anyone has a copy, I’d be much obliged…)
The situation had been taken so seriously that Jim Callaghan had made a diversion on his route home from Guadalupe, to Barbados to meet with Tom Adams. The media back in Blighty went ballistic, unaware of the reason for this sudden change of plans. The UK was strike-bound, in darkness, bodies unburied, rubbish piling up, and the Prime Minister was apparently swanning off for a few days rest in the Caribbean!
As Callaghan emerged from his plane onto the tarmac on a dismal winter morn, a disenchanted hack shouted out to him, ‘What d’you think of the chaos, Jim’. Callaghan actually replied ‘I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos’. That exchange, slightly misheard or misinterpreted, by the Sun, became their famous headline ‘Crisis, what crisis’.
It proved to be a phrase that hung round his neck for the rest of his political life – encapsulating the notion that Labour leaders had no idea what they were doing to the country, and ultimately led to his downfall.
Ms Raccoon has never sun bathed again.
* If you want to know how truly bizarre the whole episode was – I arrived back in London on the early morning ‘red eye’ from the US, and walked into my house straight into a scene that was the subject of another post. It’s a wonder that I’m as sane as I am…