A Little Armchair Government

A Little Armchair Government

Running the country is easy when you’re not the one doing it – it’s why so many politicians and political parties perform incredibly well in Opposition roles, but can’t seem to get a grip when they manage to get elected.

But, since that’s never stopped any politician – or mediocre businessman – to date, I may as well throw my t’uppence worth in.

The good thing about running a country, from my point of view, is that you always start with the negatives – something is wrong, and you have to fix it. (Even if it isn’t actually wrong, and doesn’t actually need fixing, you’re like a kid who just has to fiddle with things, so you tell everyone it’s broken, and you’re going to fix it, and you usually end up making it worse.

One of the things we’re consistently told is broken in the UK is out of work benefits – Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – the latter is paid to individuals who are disabled and/or living with long term health issues, the former is paid to people with no health related barriers to employment who are looking for work.

The UK government is endlessly wringing its hands over what to do with people who are “economically inactive” (they could start by being factually accurate in their descriptions, really – no one who is receiving welfare payments from the State is “economically inactive” – they can’t afford to be. Welfare recipients are not stashing money in off-shore accounts or tax-free ISAs: they’re spending it, on food, clothing, utility bills, public transport. The money they receive goes straight back into the economy, pretty much in its entirety. Welfare recipients are certainly not “economically inactive” – however much it might suit ministers and Jobcentre advisers to pretend otherwise.)

The UK government spent over £17million to develop its flagship “Universal Jobmatch” site, to soothe the chattering classes’ sneaking suspicion that those awful unemployed people weren’t doing anything in exchange for their benefits – they couldn’t be, because surely,  if they’d actually applied for a job, at all, they’d be working by now, rather than mooching off the poor, hard-pressed tax payer. The running costs for Universal Jobmatch are £6million per year. That means, in the first year of Universal Jobmatch, an extra £23million will have been added to the UK Jobseekers’ Allowance bill – and, since Universal Jobmatch has been beset by “teething problems” almost from its conception, that £23million is a redundant cost – it’s not enabling the unemployed to contribute more to the wider economy, since they won’t see a penny of it, and it’s almost certainly not helping them secure employment. It’s literally just another recruitment website in a sea of recruitment websites who are all advertising the same jobs, because the same recruitment agencies simply post all their vacancies to every major website – Universal Jobmatch is run by Monster (the recruitment website, not the energy drink), for pity’s sake!

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) like the idea of Universal Jobmatch, because it enables them to interfere – claimants are literally expected to hand over their log in details, so that advisers can “recommend” jobs – in many cases, people have felt pressured into taking jobs that weren’t suitable, because of childcare commitments, public transport logistics, or simply that the job was in a sector they had no relevant qualifications or experience for – none of which were options to elaborate on “why didn’t you apply for this job?” (And which really should be options, because it would help advisers identify potential barriers for their clients’ jobsearch, so they knew what they should be working on with each individual client.)

The thing is…the DWP have spent £17m + on a system that, err… is already available, and free to use.

Reed Recruitment already offer full, intuitive, role and location specific search capability. They already mark jobs that have been applied for as “APPLIED” -meaning an adviser, whilst not able to interfere directly in the process, would be able to see what jobs a claimant had applied for, and discuss reasons why other roles they felt were suitable had been passed over. Reed already offers suggestions of “recommended jobs.” Reed’s site allows the candidate’s CV and sample covering letter to be clearly visible. It allows candidates to upload a profile image.

The DWP didn’t need to spend £17million creating Universal Jobmatch. It doesn’t need to spend £6million a year maintaining it. IT ALREADY EXISTS – with someone else paying the maintenance costs. All the DWP had to do was require every JSA claimant to have an active account with Reed – which is a sensible measure anyway, as they’re a company with massive reach and reputation, running an accessible, easy to use site which produces highly relevant search returns, from almost every major recruitment agency. Advisers would be able to look at the layout of their clients’ CVs, the kind of things they were including in covering letters, and what they felt was an appropriate professional image, all on one site, in a single setting, and immediately give feedback on what was good and not so good about the profile. They would be able to see what jobs their client had applied for – at the start of each signing-on session, the claimant simply clicks through to their Reed profile – as the Jobcentre offices now have internet access as standard – and the adviser can see which jobs have been applied for at a glance. Once the client’s activity on Reed has been discussed, the adviser can move on to discussing other jobsearch activities – something which, from anecdotal evidence, doesn’t seem to happen so much, with advisers believing that all jobsearching activity should be going through Universal Jobmatch, and sanctioning people who applied for jobs advertised in the local paper, or who popped a CV in after seeing a poster in a shop window.

Advisers could watch clients perform a search on Reed, and suggest additional search terms, based on related sectors and job roles, and commutable locations that the claimant may not have been aware of. (For example, I live in Lowestoft, and it may not occur to me, if I were scrabbling by on £73 a week, that, for the right job at the right salary, taking into consideration rail fares, etc, I could get to Ipswich, Cambridge or Central London by train, as well as the more obvious bus route areas of Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Beccles, Gorleston and Southwold, and places such as Dereham, Swaffham, and King’s Lynn – further out, and requiring a change of bus in Norwich, but still just about feasible.) Likewise, I may not, faced with trying to keep everything ticking over on a limited amount of money, and ensuring I complied with every tiny whim and rule so I didn’t lose that limited amount of money, realise that, while my primary skills are written communication and administration, sectors such as marketing, PR, advertising, digital communications, B2B, events planning, etc, all used those skills – I may have just searched “Admin”, for example.

In many cases, the solution large companies, and governments, need, are already there – those companies and governments simply need to look for them.

The REAL Demonisation of the Working Class

In 2011, Owen Jones published a book, “Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.” In it, he sets out to explain how the poor, misunderstand chav (a UK slang term of uncertain origin, although “Chavo” is a Romani  word meaning “boy”, which refers to a certain type of – usually – working class youth, known for poor grammar, deliberately scruffy, poorly-fitting clothes, and generally treated with a roughly equal mix of fear or contempt) has been cast as a media scapegoat, on whom can be laid all the political and socioeconomic woes of the world – simply because they haven’t been listened to!

I am working class – I grew up with both parents working full time, no car, at one point no carpet (my father couldn’t stand the faded, threadbare dark brown anymore, and ripped it up – only to realise, when faced with bare concrete, that we couldn’t afford to replace the carpet) and, one year, no heating or hot water – the boiler broke down, my father attempted to repair it himself, but needed to get at the underfloor pipes – he couldn’t afford either the tools or a professional plumber. So, we lived without heating for about eighteen months, until he’d saved up enough money to pay a local plumber.

Even though – thanks only to my father’s death from a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and the resulting compensation paid to myself and my mother – I own my own home, I’m still living without heating or hot water – the boiler broke back in August. I can’t afford to fix it.  I also can’t drive for medical reasons, but wouldn’t be able to afford a car even if I could.  I can’t remember the last time I had a holiday.

I am working class, and I am not a chav.  I don’t care for them, or what passes for their culture, although I have had passing friendships, usually through work, with chavs who, on an individual basis, were pleasant enough, and, in many cases, brighter and more talented than their appearance and attitude would have you believe.

The targeting of “chav culture” is not the real demonisation of the working class – the real demonisation of the working class is a lot more subtle.

It’s the “Well, of course we ended up with Brexit/Trump – the working class vote ensured it. They voted that way because they’re incapable of understanding the broader issues at play.” (Thus simultaneously laying the blame for any and all ills those respective outcomes may bring at the door of the working class, conveniently ignoring the dedicated effort of the high-profile elites and their respective media to skew perceptions of what “the issues at play” actually were, and ignoring the many working class people who didn’t vote that way as “not really working class” – stripping them of their identity, and turning the people who should be their community and support network against them.)

It’s the unpaid internships in media, politics, law, the arts, which are not-so-subtle “Keep Out” signs to anyone from a working class background, whose parents can’t afford to foot the bill while they work for free to gain “experience” and “exposure.”  Unpaid internships ensure that the working classes are, for the most part, kept out of areas where they would, eventually, be able to tackle issues of social justice – and thus the elites and their media can keep up the pretence that the working classes are either incapable of managing high-level jobs with a lot of responsibility, or simply don’t care enough – that they’re quite happy doing their minimum wage jobs, playing the lottery, and trotting down the pub every pay day.

It’s the way social media, education, literature and art conveniently forget to mention the long and illustrious history of working class autodidacts, who came together first to learn, and, later, to demand and create change – the way these sectors leave people with the impression that education and intelligence are the preserve of the mythical “liberal elite”, that, if you are working class and intelligent, you are not, in fact, working class – again, stripping away an identity, community, and support network.

It’s the casual mockery of manual labour, the dismissal of those who make and maintain useful things, like cars, houses, and heating systems.

It’s university tuition fees, it’s mandatory membership fees to professional organisations, it’s the team lunch everyone is expected to “chip in” for in expensive, fashionable restaurants, it’s the focus on extra curricular activities.

It’s the savage attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party.

It’s a “celebrity” culture that promotes and prizes stupidity and complete lack of talent.

It’s newspapers written in an easy-to-read format – ideal for those who may have had a hit-and-miss formal education (mine was more miss – the school I went to was consistently rated as “failing” by Ofsted, teachers were often not-so-functional alcoholics, and, thanks to daily bullying, I was only there about half of every term anyway), or with late-diagnosed, or, indeed, undiagnosed, dyslexia – focusing on celebrity lifestyles, racist and misogynistic invective, outright lies, and opinions masquerading as fact.  It’s the fact that these publications also happen to be the cheapest available, and offer things like affordable holiday offers, which will have an obvious appeal to someone on a low income.

The working class is a powerful, talented, intelligent, compassionate force for change – it has always, previously, been responsible for forcing through changes that went on to bring improvements to everyone’s standard of living – but the real demonisation of the working class is the elite’s subtle – and not so subtle – insinuation that, if someone is intelligent, if they are concerned about social justice, if they are involved in the arts in any way, they are “part of the liberal elite” – an enemy of the working class, rather than a member of it.

It is the withdrawal of funding for, and subsequent closing down of, Adult Education courses – the leaving of a token remainder of flower arranging and jam making.

It is the rosy-hued misinformation about how the working classes were and are happier, because “their lives are far simpler, and more practical.” It is the leisured classes adopting as hobbies, with a nice little side income from the fayres that working class people can’t afford public liability insurance for, upfront costs of, and travel to, of things that working class people did out of necessity – rag rugs and wicker baskets, home-made preserves and home-baked bread, sewing and knitting and keeping chickens.

The real demonisation of the working class is not a name – it’s a systemic attack.

Facing Today’s Thorns

Facing Today’s Thorns

Yesterday, I, along with many other people across the world, was furiously, violently angry. Whether I was righteously angry, only time will tell.  But I was angry – and I am not ashamed of that anger.

Why was I angry? Not, despite surface appearances, because someone whom, from what I’ve seen and heard of them, I intensely dislike, and think is a thoroughly reprehensible human being has been handed a job for which he has, from what I can gather, no experience or qualification.

I was angry for many reasons, but not “just because Trump got elected.”  Unqualified people get promoted to valuable, influential jobs all the time – if I got angry about that, I’d never get anything else done, and would have probably dropped dead from stress, a heart attack, or stomach ulcers by now.

1. I was angry because men like me – genuinely decent men, who were raised to treat women as equals, to accord them respect, to work with them in genuine partnership, to accept their answers, even when we didn’t like them – have been told, from possibly the most powerful country in the world, and, it turns out, by a significant number of women, that we’re “not real men.” Because real men grab pussy. Real men don’t respect women. Real men take what they want, and treat people like property. Real men are crass, violent, vulgar, and objectionable.  By those lights, I’m not a real man. My father wasn’t a real man. My uncle and cousins aren’t real men.  My best friend’s husband isn’t a real man.  My closest male friends aren’t real men.  The three best bosses I’ve known in my working life weren’t real men.  I am angry because America at large has invalidated the gender, identity, and personhood of many decent, hardworking, dedicated men – men I know personally, and men far beyond my circle. We may not always behave appropriately, but we always try to. We may not always be our best selves, but we always aim to be. We may not always give 100%, but that is always our intention.  And we have been told, loudly, clearly, whilst being  mocked for our “not-alpha-male” attitudes and behaviours, that it’s all a waste of time. That we’re just losers, destined to watch men who have no intention of trying to be good, of giving of their best, succeed.

2. I was angry because there are children – boys, girls, and non-binary young people – who have seen the lie in the words “bullies never prosper.” A generation will grow up thinking that bullying and demanding and indulging in violence is the way to get what you want.

3. I was angry because, yet again – just as it was with Brexit in the UK – intelligence has been mocked and derided. I’m sick of hearing “the people who do well in business are those who aren’t academic”,  “We’ve had enough of experts”,  “the wisdom of the crowd is what counts”, “Intellectuals, hiding away in their ivory towers…”  I’ve had enough of someone else’s opinion being held to have as much value as my factual knowledge or lived experience – or, indeed, anyone else’s factual knowledge or lived experience.  Certainly, those who have non-academic skills should be respected – I currently have no heating or hot water, and, while I could probably get a Shakespeare scholar for free, what I really need is a plumber, or a heating engineer – but I can’t afford those services.

4. I was angry because I’m tired – fundamentally exhausted – of peoples’ inability to see beyond their own lives.  I will be dead, probably in the next 40-50 years. The world isn’t mine – it belongs to those who will come after me, and my decisions should be what will be best for them, not me.  Everyone’s decisions should be based on what will be best for those who will come after us.

Those are the thorns I have to face today, in order to grasp tomorrow’s roses.  I have to look yesterday’s result, and the anger it called forth, in the face, and work out what and where the creative negativity is in all of this, and how to use it.

Firstly – anger is good, because its positive counterpart is passion, and passion is what gets things done. Passion is what keeps people turning up and giving 100% to a job, day in, day out, year in, year out, even on the tough days, the bad days, the days it would be easier to just stay in bed.  Passion is what keeps a couple together for half a century or more, despite the rows and sulks and stresses and broken crockery. Passion is what gets books written, funds raised, and, ultimately, passion is what gets worlds changed.

Secondly – knowing what you’re angry about tells you what you should be focusing your energy and time on. In my case, that’s promoting genuinely decent men, standing  up to bullies, and ensuring that intelligence is focused in practical, world-improving, life-enhancing outlets – the only way it will ever be truly respected.  My energy should be focused on promoting facts, as calmly, rationally, and relevantly as I can, on drawing attention to the genuine, decent, gentlemen that I know from personal experience abound, in finding ways to encourage boys to become men like me, men like my father, men like the friends I have, men like my uncle and his sons, and in finding ways to encourage girls to believe that they, too, are capable of leadership.

I may have to accept that “the world is what it is” – but I refuse to accept that I always and inevitably have to work with “what the world is” – if what the world is is unacceptable to me, and runs counter to the things I have decided to invest my time and energy in, then I will accept that “the world is what it is” – but I will actively work against the world as it is. Not through violence or criminal acts, but through the action of water against stone – washing over the stone of an unacceptable world with a quietly eternal countering force. Because the thing about water is, not only will it eventually wear down even the strongest stone, but it can also do something that is beyond stone – water can provide power, and sustain life.

This Is Not My World

I am not an American, but I have American friends who are from minority ethnic groups, who are LGBTQI+, who suffer with long-term ill-health and/or physical disability, who are women, mothers of daughters, who are saddened, angered, and scared by what their fellow Americans have enabled.

I have a friend here in Britain, who was born here, to a British mother, who has worked and paid taxes since she was 18, whose husband has worked and paid taxes since he was 15, who has 4 children, all under the age of 10, and who had to listen to someone at the next table, while she and her husband were having breakfast out as he had a day off today, say “If Trump can get in in America, the EDL (English Defence League, a violent far-right group) can get in here – I’m going to vote for them next time.” My friend is Black. Her husband is white. She has two sons – mixed race boys who will grow up to be seen as “Black men.” And two daughters, mixed race girls who will grow up to face the racism and misogyny that is our world, now.

I am a transgender man with mental health issues.

My wife is a transgender woman with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Can you imagine how unsafe the world feels now? For my friends? For my wife? For me?

I attempted suicide after Brexit (the UK referendum on whether the UK should withdraw from the European Union, which returned a marginal “Yes” vote, mostly thanks to appeals to racism and bigotry, misinformation, and outright lies.

My wife is afraid I will try again, now. I would be lying if I promised her I wouldn’t.

I’ve spent today mostly in bed, drinking and smoking (I rarely smoke), trying to block out a reality I can’t stand the idea of without actually dissociating.

I’ve had to leave Facebook, because I was becoming too angry with people who refused to acknowledge the fear and distress their decisions had caused, who refused to accept even partial responsibility for my friend being afraid to leave her house now, for the American friend whose 8 year old daughter cried at the result, because she’d always believed bullies would be defeated – and then dried her tears, and put on her prettiest dress, a young woman of Mayan descent, a visible minority, standing up to the bully who wants to build a wall around people whose skin is a different colour to his, and who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to sexually assault women.

I wish I had the courage and strength of that young woman, that young warrior.

For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be a man, because of what “being a man” has now been agreed as meaning.

I am very far from stable right now. I want to kill people. I want to kill myself. I  want to run. I want to fight.

I lost a day of work because my brain couldn’t focus on anything but the sheer terror of the world I’m forced to live in.

I don’t know how I, or my American friends, my Black British friend, are going to cope tomorrow.

A month from Brexit, the Leave voters couldn’t tell you why they’d voted Leave, and many of them regretted doing so.

A month from now, Trump’s supporters will have forgotten why they voted for him, and have gone back to their everyday lives of bitching about everything.

Years from now, people like me, people like my wife, people like my friends, will still bear the scars of Brexit, the scars of a Trump Presidency. There can never be “business as usual” for us.

 

How to Save the Planet? Damn the People

How to Save the Planet? Damn the People

Misanthropes are – probably – going to be the planet’s heroes, the ones who save the wild from the greed and utter cluelessness of the rest of their kind.

Why?

Because misanthropes don’t care about human stories, and so can focus on the hard facts around climate change – the facts that, yes, it has happened, and would happen, without us, but that yes, we are accelerating global warming, melting ice caps, rising sea levels. We are ensuring that more people, on a more frequent basis, are impacted by famine, flood, or drought.  And we are ensuring that there is nowhere left for our species to migrate to. We are apex predators with no one coming along to do a periodic cull – because we have agreed that war is A Bad Thing, we try and avoid it – or, at least avoid it targeting the developed nations that are causing a lot of the problems, and are best placed to limit their damage.  Our population has become unsustainable, but, because we are apex predators with enlarged frontal cortexes, thumbs, and the capacity for abstract thought, we are not limited, as more natural creatures would be,  by the extent of our available resources: we can always make more. We demand more, we howl and rage in indignation when it is suggested that we should only eat meat once or twice a week, that we should walk to any location that’s less than 3miles distant, if we are physically able, that we should holiday at home, in places readily accessible by public transport, that we should look into public transport and lift share options first, rather than just hopping into the car. We had to be charged actual money – a token amount – before we thought about taking bags with us when we did our shopping.  We even moaned about how long it took eco-friendly light bulbs to produce a glow by which we could read.

Oliver Burkeman, in New Philosopher, points out that humans are generally more concerned by crises that have a human story to them, and one that is readily accessible and easy to relate to – humans are naturally xenophobic creatures: for rich white folk, the human stories of ‘poor brown people’ don’t matter so much, it seems.  People didn’t much care about the global financial crash of 2007-2008 until they saw pictures of fired bankers carrying out boxes of possessions, or people who’d had their homes repossessed who were left with nothing.  We care more about the person who illegally parks in front of our home or apartment block, more about the neighbour who lets their dog crap all over the street, than about the things that will destroy the planet we rely on for life.

And that’s the problem: we’re so smug, so arrogantly certain of our unlimited intelligence and ability, that we believe we can just ‘get another planet.’ We’re spoiled children who’ve never been thrashed, yelled at, and made to clean up our own mess.

Burkeman suggests we put the most mental effort into solving the problems that provoke the strongest emotional reactions in us – and that climate change doesn’t come high on many peoples’ lists.

This is my Top Five of ‘Things That Make Me Mad!’, in order:

  1. The unfairness of the current labour market system, which is geared towards those with a  socioeconomic advantage, and those who see nothing wrong with lying and cheating – people who hire freelance writers to do their essays and dissertations, I’m looking at you.
  2. People who don’t pick up their dogs’ mess – I have 4 dogs, and I manage to clean up after them.
  3. The loss of genuinely wild places – I don’t like tourist trap coastlines, or manicured parks. I want sprawling heathland with scrubby copses of native trees, I want furious surf hurling itself in a rage at a rugged, battered shoreline. I want there to be places nature has rendered inaccessible to me, places I can only admire from a distance.
  4. Human arrogance and human greed, the refusal to accept that, apex predators though we may be, we are still bound by the inflexible laws of nature. One day, we will have lost too many resources to replace.  Earth can live quite happily without us. We can’t do so well without it.
  5. The hunting, for pure sport, of animals.  Hunt for food, cull to manage population numbers and preserve resources.  Leave alone the breeding-age females, and the young. Take what you need, and use all you can.

I am an unrepentant misanthrope. Not the worst of the breed, but definitely of the breed. I am not moved by human stories, I don’t readily do cognitive empathy, and, where I do empathise, it may still not move me to action on another’s behalf.  Humans have tried to hurt me. Humans have rejected me. Humans have seen me homeless and destitute. Humans have treated me poorly, have mocked me, have put me at risk.  The wild things and wild places have done nothing to me.

I don’t hold nature and wildness in some sacred regard – the natural world is brutal, terrifying, and merciless, but, like all brutal, terrifying, merciless things, it has its moments of spectacular beauty, and awe-inspiring majesty, too.

Surfers are often environmentalists not because they are ‘hippies’, but because their primary relationship is always with the ocean. The tides are their tribe, first and foremost, and they stand for the life and the rights of their tribe.

I am not an environmentalist – I am a rationalist: if we strip the planet of everything it has, if we kill bee species, if we pollute the oceans and poison the air – we stop living. We may not entirely die out, but we will return to life before the industrial revolution – lives of mere survival that would be, as Thomas Hobbes says: “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Merely surviving isn’t sufficient for me – if I must be here, among humans, I want to live.  I want to enjoy being an apex predator with thumbs, to enjoy exercising my capacity for abstract thought and creativity, but I want to do so with a full and wonderful range of world around me – and with plenty of wildness for the times humans become too much.

Looking At Shadows From A Cave

Looking At Shadows From A Cave

Plato, in discussing the impact of education (or a lack of it) on a society used the idea of prisoners in a cave Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to illustrate his point that, without education, we can only ever be looking at “shadows on the wall”, rather than what’s really going on.

I was reminded of this when I recently heard the idea that, to know the future, we should “look at what the rich have.”  The speaker elaborated this point: “The rich used to have personal chauffeurs, and now everyone does – it’s called Uber. The rich used to have private holiday homes, and now everyone does – it’s called Airbnb.”

But – and it’s a big “but” – Uber and Airbnb aren’t “what the rich used to have, and now everyone’s got.”  The Uber driver is not employed by you. You pay what they charge you, not what you decide is a suitable salary.  You may not have Uber in your area – and you don’t have the power to bring it there.  Airbnb is just a digitalised version of what has always been available to those who aren’t “the rich” – lodging houses.

What we have is not “what the rich had before us” – what we have is shadows on the wall, poor impressions of what the rich had, which serve the purpose of keeping the majority of the non-rich quiet for the majority of the time.

Uber, Airbnb, Waitrose, Topshop… they’re all just placebo drops to make us believe we’re not doing too badly, that life really isn’t that tough.  Netflix and Starbucks make up for the fact that many people find themselves in insecure employment, being paid barely enough to make even very basic ends meet.  A cheap TV, the ability to get something that’s almost the dress or suit some catwalk model was wearing, soothes us away from thoughts about what kind of exploitation may have been involved in the making of such things, and gently closes our eyes to the declining living standards and abuses of power that are going on all around us.

It’s not really feasible, in most cases, to  renounce cheap fashion and electronics, or to boycott every company with unethical work practices – the very poorest in Western society would be left unable to shop anywhere, as their income limits them, in general, to unethical companies, because those companies’ products are the cheapest.

Personally, while I don’t have a TV, I do need a laptop in order to work. It’s best I have clothes (although I mostly buy these from charity shops), and, as I don’t have a garden, or much space on windowsills my dogs can’t reach, I need to buy my food, rather than growing/raising it myself. (If anyone wants to give away a remote cottage with a nice bit of land, somewhere in the UK, let me know…chickens, a couple of goats, veggies and fruits…that’s the kind of life I’d like, with or without other people around!)  Most months, I’ve only just made enough to cover the cheapest form of basic essentials (the joys of early stage, non-funded businesses started after several years of unsuccessfully applying for “traditional” jobs…) I’m looking into making my own, natural cleaners (lemon, white vinegar, and salt), and my food is fairly simple fare – pasta with something, couscous, chickpeas, hot or cold salads.

So, we need to take a creatively negative approach: we need to accept that we don’t have – and probably never will have – “what the rich have”, and look at the benefits of that situation:

. We don’t become reliant on any “labour saving” or “lifestyle” options. I recently got a second hand tumble dryer (useful, as it rains a lot in my part of the world, and I currently can’t afford to fix the central heating, so I can now guarantee getting clothes dry), but we still wash clothes by hand, in the bathtub. I’ve never had a car.  In most cases, when things come to you as a result of having saved up, or got a better-paid job, rather than as something that is simply a “fact of life”, you’re better able to cope when those things break down, or you can’t afford to have them. It’s frustrating to go back to a more labour-and-time-intensive way of existing, but it’s possible.   Life is a little more dull when you can’t get away on holiday, but you can cope without that specific, defined break away.

. We can more easily empathise with those who are less fortunate than we are – the current issue in the UK and America is that our politicians and journalists are people who have grown up with a certain level of “luxury” – holidays, cars, washing machines, tumble dryers, childcare – as a “fact of life.” It’s always been there, or they’ve forgotten the childhood in which it wasn’t there, and so they can’t imagine how other human beings can not have those things, unless those others are particularly stupid or lazy… These people have the loudest voices. They are everywhere, positioning themselves as the only voices you need to listen to.  When you encounter people at some remove from the voices of media and politics, you see more awareness and compassion, in general, for people who are struggling – because most (though, sadly, not all) people know that their “everyday luxuries” didn’t just fall from the sky.  My father was a very kind, considerate, and compassionate man, who would help anyone if he could, whether with words, deeds, or tangible things: he had grown up in a house without central heating of any kind, with a copper bathtub that was filled from the kitchen sink, and placed in front of the fire once a week, without a fridge or freezer – without even a kettle or toaster: toast was made under the grill of the oven, and hot drinks in a saucepan on the stove.  Washing machines and tumble dryers were very late additions to his life (he was in his mid-thirties before he had either in his house), and he spent the first 45yrs of his life without a car, getting about on foot or by bicycle.  He didn’t suffer fools, and was quick to (correctly) identify people who “wouldn’t take the effort to improve their life if you dropped it into their lap” – but he was never abusive, never hostile, never demeaning.  Because he knew the struggle that was involved in “bettering yourself”, or getting things that made life a little easier.

.We will be the ones who will survive when the inevitable mass failure of technology happens.  My father taught me the basics of trapping and fishing, as well as how to prepare what was caught, he taught me how to tell if a particular plant was good to eat, and what things could be eaten raw.  He taught me the value of manual labour, and the importance of being able to absorb, understand, and simplify complex information.  He taught me that in every managed forest, there will be logging roads that always lead to a main road, and that, if you follow a river downhill, you’ll reach some kind of port town eventually, which will usually have the means of getting at least close to where you want to be.

I didn’t grow up living in the mountains, or on some hippy commune – I grew up in a nice house in a nice village, in a reasonably wealthy county in England.  A reasonably wealthy county with a LOT of “hidden deprivation.”  Many of my primary school classmates left school unable to manage more than basic literacy and numeracy. Many were still in farming families, and were absent during harvest and lambing seasons. My father wasn’t a farmer – he was an electrician working maintenance at the local slaughterhouse.  One thing everyone in that village had in common, even the older people who, in a couple of cases that I knew of, couldn’t read or write at all, was common sense, common courtesy, and an intuitive understanding of the world and patterns around them.  They’re the “Gary In The Pub” that the middle classes love to mock, the “armchair economists/politicians” who are usually proved right in the end. They’ll never be recognised as such, but they are the real experts – and they are experts not because of any “natural wisdom” or the “wisdom of crowds” (which isn’t as wise as it claims), but because they pay attention to what is going on around them, and remember what has happened before.  The current generation, with shortened attention  spans and a preference for soundbites over substance, either forgets history, or doesn’t bother to study it in the first place. Patterns are “boring” and “pointless”, because they take time, effort, and attention to comprehend.

Back to the main point of this post, though: What is it, as a unified, whole concept, rather than the individual aspects of the concept, the rich have?

The answer to that question is simple:

Leisure.

The rich don’t have to go out to work – they have streams of passive income. They own companies in which other people work. They own property portfolios, and collect rents.  They never have to ask where they can “afford” to holiday that year – they pick somewhere, and go – for a month or two, not a week or two.

The rich don’t have to run their households – they employ other people to do that.

When the rich come across a new thing that interests them, they get involved in it – fully and completely.

The chauffeurs and holiday homes and yachts – even the money – are all just aspects of the core concept of leisure, which is the one, single, defining difference between the rich and the rest of us.

And the easiest thing to genuinely acquire.

. Instead of getting a job that you go to every weekday, come up with a strong franchise concept. Okay, you can’t charge the £10-20,000 (or more) that established business models charge for their franchise – but you could charge a couple of thousand, and commission on each site’s profits on top of that.  If two people a month – one person a fortnight – takes on a £2,000 franchise from you, that’s £48,000 in a year. And then you get commission on each site’s profits on top of that. Yes, this is turnover, not profit – you’ll be investing in marketing and promotion, in training, in recruitment, in maintaining the sites – but even if you only end up with £20,000 a year profit, you’re earning it in a way that allows you more leisure time than your 9-5 office job.

. Rather than paying a hotel for your next holiday, why not see if you can do a houseswap? Save up your leave entitlement, if you’re able to do that, and take off for a month.

.Give a neighbourhood teenager, or someone who’s struggling financially, a helping hand, and yourself a bit of free time – pay them to mow your lawn, or do the one-day-a-week main clean. Pay them to serve at, and wash up after, any parties you have.

These are small things – but they make a difference.  And remember: “leisure” doesn’t equal “idleness” – someone with “leisure” may very well still be working – but they don’t see it as “work” in the same way many people often do – as something to be endured, and escaped from.

 

On Being Free

 

 

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I recently had one of those moments where you realise that something you’ve blithely followed – taken for granted, almost – may not be… quite what you first thought. That, in fact, your feelings towards it may have changed.

In my case, the “something” was the plethora of “never work for free!” blogs, and the shift in my thought on that was sparked by a blog on the topic over on LinkedIn.

I realised, reading this blog, what I’d missed before: that the whole attitude of most people who write about “not working for free” is centred in a mistaken idea that, if you work for free, that means the person you’re working for doesn’t value you, that they’re taking advantage of you.

Maybe they are.

But, on the other hand, someone who genuinely has no budget – because no one’s paying them for anything, they’re not in a position to get a bank loan, and their crowd funding campaign netted them a lot of well-wishes and “Great idea!! comments, but no money, but is trying to get something – an event, or a small business – off the ground literally by their bootstraps – who NEEDS you to work for free, for the simple reason that they can’t do everything – no one can – and they need to eat and keep a roof over their head – may well value you far more than the company who pays you “what you’re worth.”

The person who needs you to work for free is likely to give you a hell of a lot of recommendation, because you helped them. Those recommendations may well lead to paid work – because a lot of people can afford to pay for services. They’re the ones who are likely to pay you first when they do get money, to offer to do things for you for free, and to remember you come Christmas.

The company that’s paying you “what you’re worth?” They’re not likely to do any of that, because they resent the fact that they’re obliged to pay you.

Of course, working for free all the time isn’t feasible -utilities companies want to be paid in real money, so does your landlord or mortgage lender, you have to pay real money for your groceries, your fuel, your bus fare. Life costs money, and, until wealthy governments decide that a good idea, since we’ve pretty much been hurled into their beloved “gig economy” (which, you notice, they take no part in….), is to pay a basic wage of £10,000 a year to every citizen of working age, those who are physically and mentally able will be expected to get that money by working.

But these “never work for free” blogs always seem to be written by people with high-level experience, either working for or with very well-known companies, or running a successful business. They’ve got money to live on. They don’t need more. Once or twice a year, it wouldn’t kill them to help someone out who genuinely needed it. Someone who, for one reason or another, couldn’t access the labour market. Couldn’t get a bank loan. Hadn’t been able to make money through crowdfunding – but still had a sound idea.

If you already have money, you don’t always need to be paid in money – maybe the person who can’t offer you money would be happy to do something for you, for free, in exchange. Or they’ll promote you – on their blog, at their event, on social media. That’s payment, too.

The blogs are never about how to get people to pay you actual money – just that you should treat people who can’t like the scum of the earth.

Imagine if no one ever worked for free. Think of all the projects and businesses that would never have got off the ground. Think of all the support services that wouldn’t be available. Think of all the parents who wouldn’t be able to be involved in the labour market, because the grandparents they relied on for childcare wanted the going rate. Think of how much higher your taxes would have to be, as the government found itself having to support people who couldn’t afford childcare, and so couldn’t go out to work, as it found itself having to pay for services previously run by volunteers.

I’ve been treated with utter contempt by people who were paying me “the going rate”, and with nothing but genuine kindness, absolute respect, and a desire to speak up for me and promote me by those who could pay little or nothing.

If I could, I’d work for free on projects that interested me, because I’ve had better experiences.

But I need to eat, pay bills, and keep a roof over my head, too – so it’d be great if someone, somewhere, would pay me for something, whether it’s the services I offer through my own business, or doing something else within their business.

Once I had enough money to live on? I’d still be involved in a couple of projects that don’t pay, because they bring other kinds of rewards.

My worth isn’t how much money I make – if it were, I’d’ve killed myself out of shame a long time ago.

My worth is in the opinions of my genuine friends, in people acknowledging that I have done something well, to a good standard, and in a timely fashion.  It is in knowing that people choose to come to me for advice or information.  It is in knowing I have seen and survived things that would have destroyed others. My worth is in knowing that I’m walking the walk, daily, of my talk about how, if we were all “decent human beings”, if we all helped where we could, nobody would be left wanting.

I’m currently trying to get an event off the ground whose focus is bringing people together, and celebrating diversity – but I’m terrified to ask anyone to be involved, because I can’t pay them because, at the moment, no one’s paying me. I’ve got to somehow raise the money to cover the venue costs. Once I’ve done that, my intention is to give a small financial consideration to each of the performers and helpers, and donate the rest to humanitarian charities working with marginalised groups, locally, nationally, and internationally.  I will take nothing from this event – which may not even work out, because the world that refuses to pay me has made me so afraid of asking people to work for “nothing”.

The Eternal Morning After

One aspect of suicide is rarely, if ever, talked about: the “eternal morning after” of the failed suicide.

I am, it seems, utterly hopeless at dying. Four failed suicide attempts, that I remember, from the age of 14.

Although I haven’t attempted suicide recently, I live with a background desire to die. My life has become that eternal morning after – the morning you wake up in, even though all your plans were otherwise.

So far, I haven’t had any road-to-Damascus revelations on why I’m apparently not allowed to die. Nor have I fallen into the sullen hatred of a life I want to leave.

I live in a grey zone, a zone where nothing is definite or defined. I don’t want to be alive, but I don’t want to die badly enough, at the moment, to act on that not-wanting-to-be-alive. Life hasn’t got much brighter or better, but I’ve started to care less about still being a part of it. Perhaps that’s a kind of slow dying – suicide at glacial speed.

Of course, there are things that bring me pleasure – lasting pleasure as well as passing pleasure. There are things I look forward to, things I remember fondly.

None of this takes away that desire to die, that sense that life will never have any real relevance for me.

Mainly, my reasons  for suicide, such as anyone has reasons, are financial – I’m trying to get a business off the ground, having failed in previous businesses, mainly because I appear to have been born without the ability to make people like me. I’m unable to pursue a lot of jobs because I’m unable to drive – medically banned. I’ll never get a driving licence, which, in my part of the UK, automatically makes me a second class citizen in the eyes of many employers, especially as I can’t afford to live in our main city. I have a wife with complex health issues whom I fear I’m letting down. I’m trying to run a house on my own, with no outside support. I have nothing to sell, I will never be able to afford the kind of technology that means I can present an attractive, convincing account of myself, and persuade people I’m worth hiring. There’s things I want to do, places I want to go, that are closed to me because I can’t afford it, and don’t have anyone who is in a position to pay for me. I don’t even have a bank account, courtesy of not having photographic I.D, and paying my bills by pre-payment, so not having a utility bill, either.

Sometimes, my schizophrenia has led me to attempt suicide – not because I was in a flare state, not because of the illness itself – but because it causes me to screw so  much up for those people who, for whatever utterly incomprehensible reason, choose to throw in their lot with me.

Most recently, I came very, very close to suicide in the wake of the Brexit result – because, as someone without money, without strong support networks, without social standing, without “gainful employment” (you know, the kind that means you’re not going without things like hot water or a functional toilet, because you can afford to fix boilers and plumbing when they fail), as a member of a minority community, as someone with the kind of mental health issues that don’t get better, no matter how much Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or medication you throw at them, I was terrified of the country the winning side talked of “wanting back”: a country in which I was considered sub-human, a species of vermin, to be driven out – poisoned, if necessary. A country in which my human rights would be quietly forgotten about. A country in which my life could well end up being legislated against.  A country where I faced the very real prospect of losing vital support – you know, the kind that means I can have internet access to look and apply for jobs, to promote my own work. The kind that means I can afford the ever-increasing bus fare to get to places where employers bother to set up, which are never the places where I can afford to live. I’m talking about money – I’d already lost the mental health support. Britain doesn’t see itself as a country that needs public healthcare – mindfulness and positive thinking are, apparently, going to cure everything, and the seriously ill, the lifelong disabled, just need to be exposed to more motivational speakers.

That, as you can see from the fact that I’m writing this, passed: I’m still terrified, especially as I see hatred and intolerance of all kinds rising all around, and people becoming less and less bothered about it, but I’ve pretty much settled on the idea that I’ll carry on living out of spite for those who call me vermin, scum, a loser.

Wanting to die in a quiet way, not badly enough to act on the desire, is something you get used to – it feels as though there’s a gauze curtain between you and the rest of the world – you can see them, they can see you, you can interact just fine, but you can’t ever really connect. You have your side of the curtain, they have theirs, and both are a little distorted to someone peering in from the other side.

Waking up when all your efforts were directed towards not doing so is…amusing, actually. You end up laughing, a little hysterically, as you send texts to everyone you might’ve texted a goodbye to, not mentioning the “S” word, of course – you tell them you were drunk. Anything but admit you tried to off yourself, and couldn’t even get that right.  You rush around the house, frantically trying to remember where you left the suicide note that, clearly, no-one has read. Tidying up. Washing the blood out of furniture and furnishings, air-freshenering away, or trying to, the stench of vomit. Going out to buy more aspirin, as you try and remember exactly how many had already been used.

Or coming to in hospital – recognising that smell, seeing the strangers’ eyes, compassion battling contempt, like you’re a  young rat soaked to the skin in a downpour – cute, but still vermin.  You want to laugh,  because you know people only hate rats because of misconceptions about how they carry disease. The domestic ones are cleaner than most dogs, and just as intelligent. You don’t listen to their questions, because the questions are wrong – they’re all about how you were feeling before, rather than how you’re feeling now, all why didn’t you talk to someone, rather than why did no one ever really listen to you, all here’s-how-you-can-stop-this-happening-again, rather than here’s-how-I-can-stop-the-situation-you’re-still-in. It’s all pills and potions and pontificating, all personal stories and purple prose – because that’s all it ever can be. They’re not allowed to actually help you, not in any practical sense, and that’s what’s so ridiculous – they think you tried to kill yourself because of imagined stress, rather than the very real stress you’re going to walk right back into as soon as they kick you out of here, not even really caring how you’ll get home.

There’s nothing more lonely than a bus ride home in the first dawn of that eternal morning after.

I have never tried to kill myself out of spite or selfishness – well, perhaps selfishness in the way we all pursue what we want at the expense of others: the “perfect” job applicant, over the competent person who isn’t perfect, but is good enough, and genuinely needs the job. The opportunity to throw our bag on the seat next to us on the bus, rather than acknowledge that another human being has more need of somewhere to sit  than an inanimate carrier of our crap. Having loud phone conversations in public, because our lives are so important they simply must be conveyed to everyone around us. Moaning about “the friend zone”, because how dare we be made to waste energy being decent human beings if we don’t get sex as payback?

I have never tried to kill myself “because the voices told me to” – some of my voices do tell me to, but most of them would rather I didn’t – they’re afraid of what will happen to them if I die.

I have never tried to kill myself because life seemed utterly hopeless, but, rather, because hope was visible, but out of reach, and I couldn’t make those who could reach the hope easily understand why I couldn’t.

I am not every failed suicide.  But I am one of the many.

I am suicidal, but not likely to die. I am tired – exhausted – yet still awake. I am broken, and, somehow, still functional, or something close to functional, at least. I am lonely, even though I’m not alone.

The shades of grey of the eternal morning after are my wilderness. And this is my voice, calling in that wilderness.

Isolating Stereotypes

The image that springs to mind when you talk about “social isolation” is someone living in a rural village, without transport, unable to get to the bright lights and social whirl of the big city.  Perhaps they are also elderly, and not skilled in the use of the internet for social media purposes. Perhaps their broadband is “too slow” for such things, or they have sporadic network coverage.

But social isolation exists just as much – perhaps more so – in cities as it does in rural areas. Those without a lot of spare cash often find themselves isolated, because city prices for food, entertainment, etc, are often quite high – and people in cities tend to be more insistent on “going out somewhere” than on “just being.”  Those with chronic health issues, especially mental health issues, but any health condition that means that individual isn’t always well enough to manage lots of people, lots of noise, and being out and about for long periods, can also become isolated.

And, where social isolation exists in rural communities, it is often less a facet of rurality, and more to do with the attitudes of people.

I have lived in rural villages, and I live now in an urban coastal town. I have spent time in a city – when I was working, I worked in the city.   I was least isolated when I lived in villages, even though, being unable to drive, I was often unable to see people, or get to events, etc.

Here are a few of the complaints about rural areas from those who exercise themselves around the idea that “better links to cities will solve everything!”

.People in rural areas are so judgemental and stuck in their ways – No. They’re concerned that things that have been generations-long livelihoods, and which involve vital skills – the skills you’ll actually NEED if all technology one day fails – are being lost. They’re sick of seeing their villages become ghost towns, either dormitories for city workers, or second-home holiday havens.  They’re fed up of being the butt of everyone’s jokes, of having their accents and mannerisms and way of life mocked, as though they’re merely caricature cut-outs, rather than people with feelings.

.They don’t care about social justice! – They do. In a quiet way. A way that says “if everyone does, and gives, what they’re able, and people who have a bit more help those with less, everyone’ll be taken care of eventually.”

.It’s all about “how we’ve always done it” – Usually because individuals in rural areas know how best to do something. They know there’s no point building houses if you don’t first bring employers in – and they know that technology companies are far more vulnerable than the “boring, old-fashioned” industries, because what people expect technology to be, and what they expect it to do, moves on so quickly.  They look at the chaotic-seeming lives of young people, and see people without a sense of place, rootless people trying to grow into something enduring and eternal. And they know that’s not possible.

.But casual racism and “little England” mentality! – I’ve found that to be the case in urban areas far more than rural, to be fair.  Because, in rural areas, people from the next village are considered “strange”, someone with a different ethnicity really isn’t that shocking, in the grand scheme of things.

The issue isn’t “OMG, rural areas!” it’s the fact that the intelligent, fashionably socially aware individuals will run, headlong, from rural areas as soon as they can, arriving, breathless, in the city, falling (whether they can genuinely afford it or not) into its whirlpool of activity – ensuring that, yes, on the whole, the people left in the villages are those who are considered a bit “old fashioned” and “not quite nice.”  But, when you step back and watch, you see that a lot of the “compassion and concern” in city circles is only on the surface – it’s a tiny ripple in  an ocean of thoughtlessness, rudeness, and self-obsession: things which have no place in rural areas.

People in villages are often considered “rude”simply because they’re used to not wasting words – to city dwellers, words are tossed around like confetti at a wedding, usually to cover a lack of action. Discuss “issues” to death, and you won’t actually have to get off your backside and do anything about them – because you’re aware! You’re talking about these things! You’re having the conversations! Meanwhile, the villagers you mock and disdain are quietly, and without show, getting on and addressing the problems they see, and can do something about.  They don’t set up soup kitchens and run crowdfunding campaigns – they take vegetables from their garden to the house of the family they know are struggling. They don’t set up MeetUps for unemployed Millennials (or any other age group) – if they hear of a job going, they tell the people they know who’re unemployed. If they know a person well, they’ll “put a word in.”  They don’t feel the need to constantly host events – they chat to you when they see you in the pub.

No, people in rural areas don’t like people who seem superior, who “put on airs”, and who act like they know everything – rural villages have a genetic memory that goes back centuries, because, historically, they’ve always been very settled populations.  They’ve seen all the fads come and go, seen all the fine speakers come undone. They’ve seen the eternal return of the same, the coming round, in a cycle, of the old ways.

In focusing on “how to make cities more accessible”, you miss the fact that not everyone wants to be in a city. If someone has mental health issues which mean they find crowds and noise stressful, why should they “have to” go to support services, events, and “social initiatives” in places that deplete them of energy?  Why should people have to travel over an hour, in many cases, to get to a place of employment?

The focus shouldn’t be on “making cities more accessible” – it should be on remembering that cities aren’t the only part of a country. It should be on addressing the historical shoddy treatment of rural dwellers as a somewhat stupid breed, more like cattle than human beings, that can just be ordered, en masse, to wherever the factories or offices or tech hubs are, because “it’s a better life for them than their poxy villages.”

In the 1700s,. this attitude,and forced migration from villages to industrial centres caused a mass episode of alcoholism – the “Gin Craze.”  What form will its impact take in modern times?