Like many another, I am a confident human being when I have a pound in my pocket, and a miserable wreck when my pockets are empty, such is life under a capitalist system.
For freelance ‘creatives’, as bureaucrats are wont to categorise those of an artistic bent, unemployment is a constant stalker. I am used to hearing his footsteps, though I should add that when actually unemployed I am not without work.
Unemployed but creative presupposes having the ability to create tasks that keep mind and body together, and by imagination, innovation and industry achieve paid work.
And so when push came to shove I made good: designing a garden for a friend; (a Japanese Edo period garden replete with thatched Tea house, moon window and red footbridge over a stream) painting a neighbour’s house wall; writing formal letters for those in need of a wordsmith, a pleasure undertaken in return for a pack of six or a bottle of wine. Being a factotum kept the wolf from my door and self-esteem intact.
Cars as life’s squirrels
A love of well-designed cars – a hobby interest – and the ability to write about them with some degree of satire brought me to the notice of magazine editors and regular fees as an automobile journalist, followed by franchised columns in USA car magazines.
But on reaching middle-age, the time we should be comfortable enough to become expansive in interests and in community spirit, I was hit by a two-year spell of no work offered at all. Life ground to a halt. It was an extremely low time. I lost my home.
How narrow is the gap between success and disaster
There are two anecdotes I can relate that are emblematic of how survival can hang by a thread, or become an excruciating humiliation.
After some weeks collecting my fortnightly unemployment cheque I was offered an interview for a lowly temporary job, the kind that requires no mental ability, just stacking shelves. I had £1.50 to my name, just enough to cover the bus fare to reach the interview. As I tied my shoes one lace snapped. It was too short to knot. New laces cost £2.10, a tiny amount between hope and disaster.
I remember sitting on the outside step immobilised by self-pity, mortified, humbled. How could such a trivial, insignificant incident take on the mantle of a full-blown crisis so easily? I reached the interview, loose shoe hidden as best as I could manage. I didn’t get the job – I was considered ‘over-qualified’.
The second incident involved a visit to the Job Centre, (a misnomer of a title if ever there was one) to sign and collect that life-sustaining unemployment cheque. On that occasion I did not have the bus fare.
I walked seven miles to the office and unsurprisingly arrived late for interview. (You are sanctioned for lateness.) Regular interviews were a new thing, implemented to determine you had evidence of looking for work, still breathing, still alive.
A kind of wilderness
My time in the wilderness coincided with Westminster’s sea change of attitude to the unemployed. One day we were people made unemployed by the decisions of others, citizens receiving state aid from funds we had paid for in our taxes. Overnight we became a burden on the state, malingering work shy.
As I stood looking for the booth the official spotted me, checked his watched, and bellowed across the space between us, “You’re late! What’s your excuse?!”
By a combination of theatrical speech training in voice projection and an inbred Sicilian reaction to indignities, I roared back, “Lower your voice! I have my pride!”
The official looked startled, shuffled the papers on his desk, face scarlet with embarrassment, locally known as ‘a big riddy’ or a ‘beamer,’ and asked me politely to take a seat. Then, as if to apologise, he looked up from his notes.
“Hey! Aren’t you the guy who made that film that was in the papers? You shouldn’t be here.” And as an apology for his error of character judgment added, “What are you doing signing on?” I wasn’t sure what was worse, getting bollocked in public or thoroughly patronised.
A few weeks later I stopped signing on. It was too painful. I have my pride. We all have.
You stand in line wondering if the elderly guy in front will ever recover from redundancy. You take a sly glance at the young woman behind, and wonder if her role in life will be a perpetual shop assistant not her dream of a vet’s practice. You see dead people. You’re powerless sandwiched between life’s vitality and life’s worst lottery.
I decided those living on the streets could do with the money more than me. My health was good, constitution strong. In any event, a friend offered a room till times got better.
The unreconstructed Thatcherite administration in London manages to taint those without work and hope as unfit for sympathy. May has no plans to lift the stigma of being jobless.
The unemployed, the ill, the vulnerable, the poor, are now dubbed pariahs.
The traditional ladder of individual improvement has been pulled up and away from the masses. The new generation of youth pay for a basic education, have few jobs on offer, and homes so expensive renting or living with parents the only choice.
Labour betrayed the poor and the unemployed
Without a shred of shame the Labour party under Tony Blair threw off its constitutional concern for the poor and equality to chase the Tory dream, middle-class Nirvana, a house, a car, private health care, a holiday a year and two kids.
Eventually that became two cars plus a holiday home, plastic surgery for cosmetic enhancements, and a load of stuff with nowhere to store it except in the garage. No one needs a load of stuff for a happy life.
Austerity increases the recession
The European Commission released a report on expectations for next year. It forecasts low growth and increasing unemployment. Unemployment is destroying a generation, no trivial matter.
The House of Gothic horrors aims to undermine and unravel the Welfare state. Our elected representatives turn a blind eye to the consequences, the impoverishment of Scotland, the rise of fascism, neo-Nazi groups and sentiments arising across Europe and in their own backyard. Jews in positions of influence are denounced as part of the problem.
But the politicians still plead for our vote.
Now we have food banks – a sign, according to one Tory politician, “we are a caring society”. The harm being done to individuals is incalculable.
Our imperial masters follow this path at their peril.
There are riots against unemployment and cuts in London’s streets again as I write…..