Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A bit like asking an Irish person the way somewhere

I’ve been absent from my blog because recent events have left me eviscerated. I have ceased to find it interesting to be on the receiving end of the benefits’ system. Not just that, I’ve found it to be damaging. I reached a point where I thought I just couldn’t continue. This is what happened…see below…

Early in May...It’s ending as it began. In a fuddle. Today, I received recorded delivery a letter on a plain sheet of paper – no letterhead -- from the private agency to which I have been assigned for the past six months. ‘You have now come to the end of your time on Stage Two of the Employment Zone….no longer paying you your subsistence…new claims appointment has been made for you at Peckham Jobcentre Plus’ for the following day. In the meanwhile, I must complete ‘all of the JSA3 form’ (and find a dozen documents, bank statements, etc).

Another fucking form; and this one has really upped the ante on any I’ve previously tangled with. And, it’s all too much for me. My legs do their so-weak-I-can-barely-stand thing and shortly afterwards, around page three or four, I’m howling on the kitchen step. I just can’t take it any more.

Among the things I’m asked: do I have ‘money saved for something’ and ‘any other money’. If savings amount to ‘currently less than £5,500 has it been more than £5,500 during the last 6 months?’ If yes, ‘bring proof’. ‘Does anyone owe you any money? What is this money owed for?’ The form instructs: ‘Please read the notes before you fill in this form.’ I ring the Jobcentre to say I don’t have these explanatory notes. They will be posted to me. My appointment is rescheduled which gives me some thinking time. I’m told that if I don’t go on that date, my claim will be closed. I’ll be seeing a Miss X (you don’t need her real name). ‘Come up stairs, report to reception and then you need to cross the bridge to see Miss X.’ The bridge? It feels like a bridge too far.

I have to review my options. I can’t continue surviving on a ‘subsistence’ and all the word implies. I’m not a fucking serf. I’m going to have to cast off from this so-called safety net (yes it does function as a safety net, but at the cost of shredding your integrity and self-respect) and find out how I can survive. I’m about a year away from a state pension, my mortgage runs for another six years, no job in view, scribbling in my garret in the hope I’ll get a book published. Dream on! The dreams are becoming nightmares.

Some days later…
When the appointment time arrived for my interview at the Jobcentre I ignored it. I was busy doing computer-based things, and dreaming a brighter future. Then about an hour past the time I should have presented myself at the JC+, the phone rang. Miss X. Did I know I had an appointment, she asked. I said I did but that I’ve just become too depressed to cope. It’s worn me out. It’s so humiliating. She cautioned that unless I had a job to go to, it would not be wise to commit ‘financial suicide’. If I came in straight away, she would help me to fill in the form and all would be well.

Now, this was an amazing moment. Everything in the social security system is designed to trip you up and to turf you out. One false move, and you can be denied benefits. And, here was someone going out of her way to offer me her help and to save me from ‘financial suicide’. I was stunned. I grabbed my things and my wits and went there. Miss X made the procedure easy and she was respectful. I have come to think of her as an angel.

Enough of me and my angst. What about the street scene? On my way to the Jobcentre and on my way back (I popped into Lidl’s) this is what I saw.

Outside a butcher’s: chickens’ insides spilling onto the pavement…guts and blood staining the grey concrete slabs of paving, the butcher in his brown stained white overalls laughing as he scoops them in his hand and plops them into a plastic basin of chickens entrails. I don’t find this funny. I hop scotch over the brown drying splodges of evisceration and I scowl. Further on, a goat carcass is lobbed into a steely grey shopping trolley. Thump.

Earlier the sight of a young woman pushing a buggy ahead of me…a funeral cortege passes for ‘MUM’ as the flowers spell out. The young woman stops and, holding onto the buggy, she executes a counter-clockwise circle, frowns, then continues on her way…

I hit a new low or is it a high when I venture (for the first time) into Peckham’s Lidl store. I look around for a wire basket. There are none. I feel terribly middle class. How can I shop without a basket? There are trolleys for big shoppers, but I just want a few items. I gather that either you hold the goods on your person, or you grab a cardboard box from the store and use that. I end up with a big pineapple, a fat mango, a bag of organic carrots, a bottle of wine and a small rye loaf and change from a tenner. I later discover that the wine is fine, but the rye loaf is a year (yes, a year) past its eat-by date, and the mango is brown not orange inside.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Gambolling foxes

Two years ago I was coping with a lack of timepieces and a flickery TV. Not much has changed. Even the foxes have been replicated as this morning I counted four gambolling fox cubs with mum 'n' dad at the bottom of the garden. What becomes of them? That exponential thing: how does it work out? And, how will my plants fare? Last year half the foxgloves (quelle coincidence) were lopped off for which I blame the foxes, not the scrabbling squirrels or the marauding domestic pussies.

23 May 2005
I am running out of time. The watch that sits by my bed has a dead battery. I rely on it for the time because although usually I have the battery phone in the bedroom, I can't read the small digits without finding my glasses. The clock in the bathroom -- useful for idle bath bums like me -- died months ago. I no longer use my mobile, so when I'm out I have no way of checking what time it is. My computer screen flags up the time but it has never been the right time. I really should factor battery purchases into my budget.
Lighting continues dim. I don't think my budget can run to an electrician.
Free delight on Sunday morning arrived in the shape of three swallows elegantly gliding and swooping in a troubled sky. The wildlife theme continued when before bedtime as I washed-up, I was entertained by three gambolling cub foxes framed in my kitchen window. It was like viewing my very own Disney as they romped and leapt in the air, chased and parried, resembling miniature Bambis. Then along came a fourth. Eventually, the sound of clattering china alerted them to gambol into next door's garden.
Before that, I succumbed to TV. I must say that an indoor aerial is an excellent deterrent to watching very much. The picture jumps, goes monochrome, psychedelic, or blank thus providing the visuals of a vodka overdose without the cost. It demands attention. The sofa must be abandoned, and the constant tweaking is good for the figure (not for the nerves).
But, what's happening to telly these days? Why are skirting boards on TV? And the scouring of sinks? Are we dead, and we don't know it? Was this the future? I don't think we envisaged it that way when we dreamed it in decades past.
Great. I got through Monday morning without a tear or a tantrum. My daughter is doing her Maths A level, and I have stayed calm for her and fed her breakfast and said 'break a leg' as she strode out of the house. She'll be back soon for ratatouille.

Tuesday, 24 May 2005
I'm gloomy in the gloaming. You can't have a morning gloaming but that's how it feels. Dark, dank, hopeless. All right if you're a poet I guess. You can get all lyrical about the comfort of grey deadening the footfall of humanity as it -- we -- stamp our feet and cry like toddlers: 'It's not fair!'
I cross the Rye in order to restock the larder.
At the bus-stop I stand with my stuffed shopping bag on wheels (snazzy and from Top Shop) reading an official message to the effect that bus services have improved, and there are now more buses. I have 15 minutes in which to digest this fact-oid.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Finger-wagging serf

I have a thing about where I shop, preferring small shops run by local people where we have a chat that nicely passes the time.

But, today, I popped into a Tesco Metro for a few items: it felt like a heinous crime…and even more so when a security guard approached me wagging his finger and accusing me of ripping open the wrapping round a roll of black rubbish bags. (Are you with me?) I mean! What he saw was me feeling the quality of the bags, assessing their strength for the job I had in mind. Well, they were as flimsy as an excuse for missing work on a sunny Monday. What he didn’t see was me tearing open the paper wrapper because somebody else had already done that. I was incensed and suggested he consulted the CCTV for proof of his error. So incensed that I spoke to the manager about what had happened. He, naturally, toed the party-line and apologised, assuring me that he would pass on my complaint to the security guard’s company. Because, of course, the guy is not employed by Tesco. He’s a sub-contracted serf, bored out of his mind and passing the time by finger wagging at middle-aged women wearing sun hats. For gawd’s sake.

Another thing: I’ve been told by two shop-owners that we are in an un-declared recession. Barry told me this about a year ago. He and his two brothers have reluctantly sold the retail business they happily ran together for 20 years. ‘People aren’t spending like they used to.’ And, Rosie, has agonised about the permanent closure of one of her shops while scrambling to keep the other one viable. ‘There’s a recession,’ she said, ‘but no one’s acknowledging it.’

Don’t shop in stores with security guards: they don’t know how to pass the time in a pleasant way: that’s what I learnt this week.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gristly news

We learnt last week that we throw away 30% of the food we buy. On closer examination, half of that is bones or inedible stalks, that sort of thing. The other bit – the remaining 15% of food that we throw away is, we are told, down to people buying too much food and some of it passing its eat-by-date. Silly us.

We must be silly, we ‘consumers’, because on the radio (Radio Four, that is) advice along the lines of: ‘Write a shopping list before you go shopping’ is handed out. ‘Only buy what you need.’ And the heretical: ‘Ignore the dates and use your nose. If it smells good, eat it.’ It’s as if we’ve become divorced from common sense and need these sentinels of the sensible to tell us to do the blindingly obvious.

Buy food, eat it. Waste not.

When I was at school we were served awful food: stringy and gristly meat; potatoes with grey lumps and sodden cabbage; tadpoles’ eggs. Dreadful. When some of us had difficulty eating this muck, the nuns at my school would always remind us of the starving children in India or Africa. How we longed to ship it to them.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Street sweeping

Did I mention that I’ve been privatised? After signing on for 18 months, the Jobseeker is obliged to join a private agency. There one becomes a ‘client’. It is a comfort to the unemployed that even we are worth something to someone.

A peculiarity of these employment agencies is that they have NO jobs to offer. The client attends the agency simply to be motivated to find her or his own paid employment. If the ‘client’ succeeds in becoming gainfully employed and remains in that job for at least three months, the agency receives a series of payments from the government’s coffers. The sum is approximately £4,000.

There’s a temptation for persuasion to turn into pressure. This is a snippet of a conversation I had with my advisor keen to meet her targets.
Her: ‘I just need you to get a job you can do.’
Me: ‘Well, I suppose I could do street sweeping, but it doesn’t mean I want to.’
Her: ‘Why not?’
Me: (After a moment’s bemusement) ‘Because I don’t have the stamina.’
Soon followed by the thought: why the fuck am I talking about street sweeping?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Stuck with tea

Here's another Dole Diary entry.

Tuesday, 17 May,2005
"Today I sign on. I shall not be late. I have given myself fair warning, and now, 10 a.m., I am ready to go although I don't need to leave for another hour. I have applied make-up and brushed my teeth. I have written my shopping list for afterwards. Today, I will get it right. I will leave in plenty of time to walk there.

I really must get something done about the lack of light in my life. The central light in the front room doesn't work -- two bulbs have popped in quick succession suggesting an electrical malfunction. The light at the top of the stairs needs the bulb-holding fixture changed, and the standard lamp has died. The TV aerial on the roof has snapped and a cheap indoor aerial has provided more in zippy crackly interference than existed before I bought it. The back door is peeling paint. The windows in the attic cry out for blinds in order to shun the sunrise. Oh, and while not necessary from a practical view, the avocado green bathroom suite is an offence to even the most blunted sense of aesthetics. But, with penny pinching the order of the day, I must work around the inconveniences. Although, the light situation is trying, especially when tired eyes try to read the newspaper lounging at night with a glass half-full of cheap wine.

Enough of maudlin self-pity. I see what I am doing; I am inviting sympathy. But I don't want your sympathy, thanks. We all have little crucifixes. At least I have my health. Thirty minutes of yoga this morning. Dry-body scrubbing yesterday. A good walk to come. Blue skies to get me thinking.

Wednesday, 18 May 2005
Feeling tired. There's an illness that I have only ever come across in women's magazines. It is known by the desultory acronym: TAT. Tired All the Time. I think I have it.

Why? Is it the air? Certainly a trip out and about leaves me enervated. Is it the water? The food? The stress of life? The financial strictures? The unfulfilled desires?

Sleep's the answer. But last night I didn't and a song by the Ramones got stuck in my brain: 'Twenty-four hours a day, I wanna be sedated'. Eventually, I did just that.

Yesterday I went to JC+ to sign, which took all of 30 seconds, and while in Peckham with my camera set about taking a few photos for a Street Photo Workshop I'm doing at Tate Modern. These pictures may be the last I ever take in Peckham. I have got into too much trouble over them. Too often, people have objected to the intrusion of being photographed. However, I had one frame left in the film. Outside the Jobcentre building I saw a line of people securing their bikes to a yellow metal bar and the colours of the bikes looked great. As I pressed the shutter, the man nearest me had his back to me, but he turned in my direction on hearing the whirr of my primitive camera.

He was not happy. 'You shouldn't do that. It's not right. You should ask first. It's a liberty. You should know there are people around here DON'T want their pictures taken.' Two things saved me. The middle-aged smile on my face as I apologised and mumbled about an 'art project' and the fact that I, too, was on my way into the benefits' office.

But, it shook me up. Before that incident, I took a photo of a young boy trying to escape from two shop security guards. The boy was nabbed. It was a sad moment, and a couple of elderly Caribbean ladies looked really hurt. 'Where are his parents? Why is he not at school?' I thought the kid appeared to want to get caught. His mates got away.

Thursday, 19 May 2005
The thing about writing, or any art form, is that at this stage (undiscovered, unapplauded) one has to carry on in a bubble of hope. The hope has no roots in reality. It stands alone. It alternately mocks and beckons. It is the hope of my grandfather who thought one day he'd have a big win on the horses, and of my father believing he'd win the pools and, later, the lottery. I believe in my gamble. So did they. They were disappointed. Will I be too? One doesn't want to be foolish. Hope never paid a bill nor put food on the table. It must be alchemized with reality.

'Why not try for a job as a librarian in Lewisham College?' posits my daughter, not unreasonably. Regular money for a regular job. 'Because,' I say teeth gritted, 'I don't want to be a librarian. I want to be who I want to be. Not someone else for the sake of a pittance. I've done, probably, 30 years in offices.'

I want to be a writer. 'You are a writer,' she consoles, 'you are a failure, and most writers are failures. They write a half-dozen books before they get anything published or they don't get recognised until after they're dead.' Cheering in its way, but how to circumvent the scenario she outlines? I can't wait until I die. I can't write (prospective) book after book and consign them to the job of balancing wonky tables.

What I must do is carry on. I shall carry on.

What I'd like to do right now is take drugs. Not to obliterate the mind, but to stimulate it into rivers of radical prose. To inspire, alter, galvanise. A mix of speed and peyote, perhaps. Cocaine, maybe. Marijuana but without the accompanying eradication of motor skills (like coping with a computer keyboard gets like really too much, man). But, it's early in the day and I'm too ancient, really. Of course, there's alcohol. How I'd love to be the late-night whisky drinker who writes in a state of mellowing profundity. But, I hate whisky; since once, years ago, it nearly killed me. (Think unconscious and inhalation of vomit).

I'm stuck with tea. And four envelopes. One reveals that I am in credit with my monthly gas payments. I phone to see if I can get some money back. But, it's bad news. It's actually a debit, which explained to me in a soft Welsh accent, helps ameliorate my disappointment. Better news with Southwark Council. I have overpaid on my Council Tax. A signature on a form will secure a refund of £94.34. I deal with that straight away. The bank statement is not too awful. The last envelope is yet another incredible zero percent credit card offer, consigned to the bin.

Friday, 20 May 2005
To Peckham again. I'm really getting the hang of poverty shopping. Close to the end of Rye Lane (or beginning, depending where you start from) are a couple of stalls with knock-down prices on fresh vegetables and fruit. Both are operated by men who have the look of brothers who came over on some wave of immigrants escaping Irish rural poverty and stayed. The customers are from everywhere: I'm sandwiched between a Middle-Eastern family and a Caribbean woman who buys a huge bag of ginger. I ask her about the ginger. She says a friend boils it up for drinks.
For the grand sum of £1.50, I acquire three fat courgettes, a fulsome aubergine, a bunch of sturdy spring onions, a half-pound of bobby beans, a head of garlic and some fresh ginger. One person could eat for several days on this; just add rice. It's incredibly cheap.

'God bless you,' says the man, handing me my change. (Update: some months later I see him in a waiting room of a hospital. He is thinner. He has cancer. The stall is closed.)"

Monday, March 26, 2007

Mea culpa

The following excerpt from my Dole Diary charts the day after the day after I realised that I'd forgotten to sign on at the appointed time. This provoked a flurry of form filling and a litany of mea culpas. The incident is a good example of the tactics employed by the system to boot you off of Jobseeker's Allowance.

Thursday, 5 May 2005
Early to bed early to rise. I am aiming to get to the Jobcentre close to 9 am. I charge across the Rye, then succumb to temptation and laziness and hop on the bendy bus. It manages to travel as far as the next bus-stop and stops. It's not going anywhere. There is total snarl. Good job I didn't waste my bus-saver ticket on that trip. I get off and along with everyone else dodge along the pavements breathing belching bus pollution while avoiding sides of beef; trucks mounting the curbs; twin buggies; the crazies out wandering and the lady shouting 'You bastard'. I dash past a news headline for the South London Press: ‘PECKHAM MUM ADMITS COOKING HER BABY’. (I return and photograph it.)

The Late Signing Officer sees me straight away. I say that my ordeal puts me in mind of extending my hand so a teacher may hit it with a ruler. In fact, I'd rather that. She smiles. She accepts my paperwork. Next, I queue in the post office to obtain proofs of postage for the council tax form and one for the building society (a duplicate of the one I sent them last week).
I have been properly chastised by all this palaver resulting from the missed signing appointment. I have suffered frustration and mortification. I shall never forget an appointment again. Another thing that's happened is that whereas the first time I contemplated Peckham Jobcentre, I couldn't face going into it: to becoming a supplicant, an applicant, a ‘customer’, now, I just breeze in. I see myself as one of the infantry. Wounded but walking.

Tuesday, 10 May 2005
Today’s post includes two manila envelopes. What must the postman think? He must know. Not that we have just one postman for our neighbourhood able, should he be interested, to chart people's lives. But, if we did he would have seen that previously much of my mail was addressed to me as a managing director, but now it comes in an unappealing shade of brown and it's from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Today, it's a 2625/3010 that informs me: 'We cannot pay you an allowance' from the date on which I failed to sign on. It continues: 'This is your final payment of Jobseeker's Allowance'. It is accompanied by a INF1(JSA)10/04 telling me what to do if I disagree with the decision, and a leaflet entitled : 'Jobseeker's Allowance Hardship Provision' illustrated with a picture of a spaced-out looking young woman. Is she staring into the abyss?