Like many another I am a confident person when I have a pound in my pocket and a miserable wreck when my pockets are empty, such is life in a capitalist system where the rich get richer and the rest reduced to passive consumers or welfare ‘scroungers’.
Use you imagine
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 not commissioned by anybody to write anything, that is, 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 income no matter how meagre.
And so when push came to shove I made good: designing a garden for a friend, an Edo period Japanese garden replete with thatched Tea House, moon window and red footbridge over a stream. I was very proud of it. It appeared in a full page newspaper advert months later. “If your garden is this good get it insured!” ran the legend. I emptied gardens of unwanted weeds and concrete into skips in monsoon rain, carrying bags of gunge carefully through well kept house halls that had no back gate, and enjoyed the physical activity. Now and then I noticed women who engaged me to ‘clear out the overgrown backyard’ had husbands not pleased to see a healthy male Mediterranean type around their wives when they came home from work. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn a green one-piece overall unbuttoned to the belly button and nothing underneath.
I moved on. I had writing skills. Could I put them to good use? I wrote formal letters for those in need of a wordsmith, legal letters, pleading letters to council officials, letters complaining to the Gas Board of excessive charges, helped some fill in complicated forms applying for welfare, tasks undertaken in return for a pack of six or a bottle of wine, or literally some food. That’s the most many could afford. They had very little money. Charging fees was out of the question. Hard to believe that in this day an age there exist adults who can barely write. “You were a teacher, an’ that’, you ken better how tae do this”, they would say. Some were in the throes of terminal poverty.
Being a factotum kept the wolf from the door and self-esteem reasonably intact. When people ask for your help, you are somebody again, not a statistic.
Cars as life’s distraction
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. Magazines wanted young, trendy, arrogant writers. Life ground to a halt. It was an extremely low time.
I lost my home. And everything in it.
In one desperate evening a long, distraught call to the Samaritans at 4am resulted in a £40 telephone bill. And I was stony broke at the time. Double jeopardy. You feel events are conspiring to ensure you don’t rise again. The elderly voice at the other end was very sympathetic. No matter what I said that was negative, despairing, he commiserated, he understood my predicament and plight. “Oh, I can see how that must have felt hopeless.”
How narrow 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. I was 60p short of a pair of new laces, a tiny amount between hope and disaster.
I remember sitting on the outside doorstep immobilised by self-pity, mortified, humbled. How could such a trivial, insignificant incident take on the mantle of a full-blown crisis so easily? Gripping the loose shoes with my toes I reached the interview, laceless shoe hidden as best as I could manage.
I didn’t get the job, considered ‘overqualified’. The store interviewer looked perplexed when he read my curriculum vitae. “You should be store manager”, he said. No, I thought, store owner. I’d have all long-term employees profit shareholders.
A kind of wilderness
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 at all. My pockets were empty, not as much as a dead moth.
I walked seven miles to the office and unsurprisingly arrived late for interview. You are sanctioned for lateness like a recalcitrant schoolboy. Regular interviews were a new thing back in the day implemented to determine you had evidence of looking for work, still breathing, still alive, not lying in bed or working abroad. Job Centre staff often half your age scolded you for being a bad boy. I doubt that has changed.
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 I should sit at the official in it 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 am not a child!”
The official was startled, shuffled the papers on his desk nervously, 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 the line of shame 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. Perhaps she will succumb to the advances of an opportunistic bounder, his affection a con.
You look at that line of damp clothed bedraggled humanity and see dead people walking. You’re powerless, sandwiched between life’s vitality and life’s worst lottery. You feel a failure. Worthless. Your health suffers. You’re prone to prolonged bouts of depression. You can’t think straight.
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 improved.
The bastards and the pariahs
The unreconstructed Thatcherite administration currently 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 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. Who would want to live in a nation bereft of empathy?
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 to lead a happy life.
Austerity increases 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 and refugees are denounced as part of the problem. The seeds of fascism lie dormant awaiting only water and nourishment.
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…..
May all those without hope find it soon.