Sunday, December 31, 2006

Two kings

A young man unemployed, bored, and living in a caravan just outside Sheringham, north Norfolk, has a brainwave. At a cost of £15, he changes his name by deed poll from Nick Copeland (regular serf and nobody) to King Nicholas. He thinks, rightly, that this will add a certain frisson to signing on at his local dole office, and to life in general. His caravan becomes a Kingdom, and in doing this cheeky thing, he acquires notoriety and a book is published on his elevation from commoner to royalty. Hail King Nicholas.

If only I’d thought of it first. Actually, I haven’t been thinking of much recently. I had a virus and then I had the blues and then along came Christmas and the blog…well, it has been ignored. But, no longer…I am back; still poor in that relative way we in the developed world are. Still not gainfully employed. Still hoping for a break.

And there’s nothing like a new year -- 007 -- to get warm pink optimism going. Talking of 007, have I mentioned that in the late 1960s I was in a drama group with Pierce Brosnan? In those days, he was an Irish guy of no discernible talent; now a Hollywood king. Fortune has smiled on him. She's capricious is Fortune. Let's hope she smiles on us, too. Happy New Year to all my readers -- there's at least 18 of you!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hanging out the laundry

A blog. How personal to be? I’ve resisted the laundry option but somehow a blog needs to be a picture of the whole and the intimate. I shall briefly focus on the intimate.

First, something trite. Technology and I are not bedfellows. This site might look a lot better if I was, and odd things like a picture of a live parrot and a dog with feet of clay might not hover between a headline and copy. But, so be it.

Less trite. I was talking to a friend. I said I felt that my identity was being eroded. In fact, like a well-skied slope I feel almost featureless. Signing on, subjecting myself to the little indignities, the powerlessness, the development of brown-envelope phobia, the gloom, the penny pinching have seriously reduced my sense of being someone. I feel I am no one. No one going nowhere. Shuffling not striding.

Once upon a time I met a man in San Francisco. In the 1960s he had changed his name to Nobody and ran as a candidate in a US presidential election with the slogan: ‘Nobody for President’. He received lots of votes, but not enough. Say what you like about the value of absurdism (which my spell check reckons to be an error) but it can redeem us. The very memory of meeting Nobody has given me a chuckle. And if you can laugh, you know the bastards haven’t quite got you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Many happy returns

Pick up any newspaper, particularly the well-upholstered weekend ones, and you’re bound to come across a columnist complaining of personal poverty. Rosie Millard, famously overdrawn on her credit cards, started the trend although the subsequent discovery that she owns several pricey properties has stemmed the outpouring of grief. Even so, she continues to earn a few bob whinging about her debts in the Independent every Saturday.

Then there’s India Knight. In her Sunday Times column she observed that ‘One of the mysteries of 21st century life is why people who earn decent salaries are still relatively poor.’ She recounts a sorry tale of holidays in Blighty, clothes from Topshop, and DIY fingernails. But she’s happy that children of the ‘newly impoverished middle classes’ are learning to share bedrooms and expect modest Christmas presents.

No wonder the pips are squeaking. The cost of raising a child from birth to age 21 destined to enjoy the privilege of private schooling is reckoned to be £251,187. Stick your kid in state education, and it’s a steal at £180,137 (saving you £71,050).

Since the price tag is similar, a question is beginning to surface: a mortgage or a child? Which will give better returns?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Just like that

Thousands of women on limited incomes decide on the prudence of saving for Christmas. They join a hamper club. A quaint notion that sits with warm beer and home-made apple pie. Reliable. Unostentatious. Some start saving from January to fund the festive season. These women do this (it’s almost exclusively a female thing) because although they struggle to pay for the extras in life, when it comes to Christmas they want to see the light of delight in the eyes of the children. And, they want to put on a spread that skimps on nothing. Diligently they save.

But, then, several weeks before the women are to crack open their piggy banks, they discover they are empty. Their savings have disappeared. Just like that.

Described by an MP as ‘legalized money laundering from the poor to the rich’, the Farepak Christmas Saving Scheme debacle is a casebook study in corporate cynicism.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Making records

Have you noticed that we appear to be living in a record-making epoch?

By the end of the year, more of us will be declared insolvent than at any other time. Insolvencies are set to exceed the 100,000 annual barrier for the first time ever.

We are the record holders when it comes to borrowing: we are the biggest borrowers in Europe. On average, each of us owes £3,000 in unsecured loans.

There’s a record that we may be on course to beat. And, that’s the one set in 1992 for home repossessions. Currently, our homes are being repossessed at a rate not seen since then (think recession and Black Wednesday).

Wages are falling in real terms and unemployment is rising. Now, where’s my Ian Drury record? ‘Reasons to be cheerful…’

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Little abominations

Why not raise the economic merits of the vacuum flask? I’ve been thinking of doing so for some time, but hesitated. I don’t want this blog to be mimsy and mumsy. But I kept feeling the urge to mention that when (long ago) I was in Japan I observed that in the mornings the lady of the house would fill a vacuum flask with tea, helping herself to a cuppa whenever she fancied. It saves on running water and on powering up the kettle and therefore on grid and personal energy. I’ve been doing the same. And, now, I find that I’m in the company of celebs. Gwyneth, Madonna and Halle have all been photographed with vacuum flasks. The flask is trendy. For a while there I thought I was being un-cool. But, no, I was a leader of the pack.

And, I can highly recommend bringing one (a flask, not a celebrity) with you on rail journeys because not only does it save a whopping £1.50 for a cup of British Rail tea, but the horror of ‘non-dairy milk’, yes, that’s vegetable fat to you and me, which you are expected to add to your tea.
It’s the little abominations that get you.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Poverty sucks. But poverty must eat. My latest passion is roasted vegetables. This is what I ate the other night. I put thick wedges of red onion, courgette, a field mushroom and pumpkin, plus a few unpeeled garlic cloves into a baking tray. I added sufficient olive oil, gave it some thyme and time, say 30 minutes at 180 degrees. Put couscous in a bowl, added boiling water, covered. Sat down, leafed through a newspaper. I served the colourful veg on its bed of couscous with, on the side, left-over beetroot salad and half a chopped avocado. Cost? Approximately £1.30 per portion. Vitamin intake: maximum.

The following day I roasted the left-over bits of veg plus a couple of tomatoes, put pasta on to boil, sat down, poured a glass of cheap wine. Once cooked, I tossed the lot in a little virgin olive oil combined with grain mustard, lemon or whatever came to hand. Added torn flat-leaf parsley and slivers of parmesan. Delicious.

Today I’ll make a big pot of leek and potato soup, with a difference. I'll include a sweet potato. Eaten with buttery toast, I guarantee your cockles will be warmed as nights sparkle with a forgotten iciness.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it. Then I read about Mauro Brunetti. He has put his finger on it. Mr Brunetti is suing his local Italian train company for causing him ‘existential damage’.

The newspaper reports that Mr Brunetti is ‘so exasperated by the constant uncertainty of whether his train will arrive on time that he sometimes wonders if his life has any value or meaning.’

How that resonates with anyone who has stood sodden and whipped by the wind at a bus-stop wondering whether indeed a bus will ever arrive and if it does will it stop? One night, I stood in the aforementioned state for 10 minutes before a bus appeared on the horizon. I stuck my hand out to stop the bus but, oddly, it seemed to pick up speed and, yes, it swept past me. I was so distressed I thought about returning home and missing the art event I’d been invited to attend, and so frustrated I kicked a bollard in a way that suggests that yobbish behaviour is not the exclusive domain of the yob. Ten minutes later another bus appeared. This time I stood in the road to stop it, and wondered if this is what it takes. The driver said she’d never seen anyone do that before. When I told her my tale of woe, she said: ‘Probably the other driver didn’t see you.’ Quite.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Still Rich

Do I sense a possible money-making opportunity for the New Poor? Each day some pundit or other attacks the Still Rich for their planet-destroying pastimes. Whether it’s plasma screens, gas-guzzlers or frequent flights to the bijou second home, the affluent are leaving a legacy of destruction for their expensively educated wee ones. So, say the environmentalists, politicians and, increasingly, god’s representatives on earth.

The rich, it is argued, must learn to live on less. It’s an unexpected irony of capitalism that the affluent (or, as my Auntie likes to say: the effluent) are being targeted to curb their avarice. Stop spending, they are being told. Oh, dear. And, just how do you do that, some of them may be wondering. And, here’s where the poverty consultant comes in. For a fee, s/he can show the Still Rich how to reduce their carbon footprint on the planet and thereby ensure a future for their children and ours, too.

Basically, we will explain that what you do is you live on less and we will show them how. Once they learn that they will become free of the abuse aimed at them on radio, TV and in the press. To help them achieve that is rather priceless, I think.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Snakes & Ladders

My neighbour is worried about the debts her son will accrue during his time as a student at university. She is helping him as much as she can on her income as a child-minder. ‘I mean,’ she says, ‘if they start off owing a lot of money how are they supposed to get on the ladder of life?’

I wonder whether she means the property ladder and whether in England they are one and the same. I think she does mean that. To get on that ladder, he’ll have to get on the employment ladder. There it is to be hoped that his degree will help him. Although, research suggests that for some students their degrees will lead to nowhere in particular except to the constant worry of paying back thousands of pound in loans.
And, the thing about ladders is that you don’t just go up them, you go down them, too.

When I was growing up in south London there was a young footballer so successful he became a local hero. Newly married and needing to supplement his income he became a window cleaner. He was too much of a lad to wear a safety harness (if they existed in the 60s) and he fell from his ladder and was blinded. I remember his wife telling how they were on a bus and her husband accidentally stood on someone’s foot. ‘What’s wrong with you, fucking blind or somefing?’ asked the injured person.

I propose that we abandon all talk of ladders.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Poverty's virtues

The virtues of poverty are lost on me today. I am thoroughly fed up with it. I resent the amount of worry space it takes up in my brain. The constant niggling niggardly state it puts you in. The penny-pinching pecuniary punishments of poverty: I’m absolutely sick of them.

There's nothing virtuous about poverty, even if it guarantees safe passage through the eye of a needle. I'd like a little more paradise here on earth.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


On the 78 I sit next to a pearly-haired pensioner who tells me: ‘I worked from the age of 14. I think it would do some people a lot of good if they did the same.’ I ask her what kind of work she did. ‘I worked in a shop in Derry for five years, earned five shillings a week. Gave it all to my mam, except I kept a penny.’ ‘You only kept a penny?’ ‘Well, I had no time to spend it anyway.’ Her son was a student at Swansea University but when he graduated, her husband wouldn’t take the day off for his graduation. ‘He always said work came first before everything. He’s dead four years now.’ ‘Of overwork?’ ‘Probably,’ she laughed. ‘These bus passes, they’re great. They don’t have them in Derry. Where are you from? Your accent’s posh.’

I was tempted to say that where I’m coming from right now is the dole office. Yes, I had just been to sign on at the Jobcentre. To redeem myself, I might have added that I’m writing a book on the experience (or, at least, I’m writing something that may be a book). Originally, it was called ‘A Year on the Dole’, but for obvious reasons is now called ‘A Year and a Bit on the Dole’.

People signing on these days are referred to as customers. This is a mirage of niceness. A customer ‘is a person who buys; a person with whom one has dealings.’ We, the unemployed, are not buying and, as for dealings, we come cap in hand. We have no bargaining power. We are supplicants.

After 18 months on Jobseeker’s Allowance, the Jobseeker is put on a mandatory programme of intensive job searching through the ministrations of a private agency where you cease to be a customer. You become a client. I am now a client. Very posh.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mud pancakes

Poor people in Haiti are eating pancakes made of mud. I heard this shocking piece of news on Radio Four. A woman, interviewed by the reporter, even tries to make a living selling them. The reporter took a bite. ‘They’re not bad,’ she said in a less than convincing voice. Apparently, they leave you very thirsty.

Poverty is relative. Western-style poverty means getting by with less, but not having to resort to mud. So, what should we be eating? My advice is to eschew processed bake-in-a-carton, boil-in-a-bag, nuke-in-a-microwave denatured food that looks good depicted on the package but is expensive and not really a positive eating experience. Remember we need the vitamins present in the food because we can’t afford to buy them by the bottle.

Stick to fresh produce: vegetables and fruit can cost pennies. Meat and fish are expensive; limit them to once or twice a week. You won’t suffer. Keep a supply of basics – pasta, rice, couscous and whatever floats your boat. For me, that’s got to be potatoes: filling, cheap and versatile. Tins of tomatoes, tinned tuna, canned beans are great stand-bys. Among my culinary priorities are a decent virgin olive oil and a chunk of Parmesan (don’t restrict it to pasta dishes). For a touch of luxury, you might include olives or capers, or for colour and goodness, a sprinkle of flat-leaf parsley. I reckon I can make a fabulous vegie meal for about £1.20 per person. (Pictures to follow.)

And, it’s official. Fresh produce bought at a market-stall is significantly cheaper than the same food temptingly displayed in our shiny supermarkets. So says a recent survey, so it must be true.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Picture of a start-up business in Rye Lane, Peckham, south London

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A rather Grimm story

When I was a temp at the bank (see below) it was during a university holiday. For those of you who were not around in the 1970s, guess what? Not only did many students in that decade enjoy the luxury of a full government grant, we had no fees to pay either. I was paid to study. This now reads like a fairy tale.

And, this, like a Grimm story. This week I’ve been exploring the possibility of teaching English as a second language in the further education sector. I’ve discovered that colleges don’t hire teachers, pompously referred to as visiting lecturers (VLs), they are hired through an agency. But neither the college nor the agency is the employer. The VL is self-employed, usually at an hourly rate (with all the sick/holiday pay and protection that implies). In addition, these agencies do not act as employment agencies usually do: they do not seek to find you work. They wait to receive requests from educational institutions needing to hire teaching staff. The agency then seeks to fill the vacancy from its pool of people. Think of it like this: you, the potential employee, are in an aquarium and every so often you are fished out. On dry land, you are in work, of a sort. The sort that creates no allegiance to the college (where you must bust your ass to inspire and educate) and where you have no employer, and it goes without saying, you can be ‘let go’ at any time to sink or to swim.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The talking bank

I worked once as a temp at a bank. It taught me that the bigger the debt you owed, the more ingratiating the letters you received from the bank. (‘Hope you’re enjoying your new yacht, and may we respectfully, but there’s no hurry old boy, draw your attention…’) Conversely, the smaller your debt the more vicious the correspondence.

‘Bank drove our son to suicide’. Yesterday’s headline reminded me of this. A 20 year-old computer student owing £1,200 was ‘pestered’ by the bank ‘for months’, as were his parents. ‘On the day he died, they even called and I told them exactly what had happened,’ said his father. The young man was not idle; he worked at McDonald’s in the evenings and studied in the day. His parents earned too much to qualify for financial support (she in a bank call centre and he as a prison officer) but not enough to help out their son.

When his student loan of £1,000 reached his account it was swallowed up by the overdraft. The bank then closed his overdraft. When, encouraged by his mother, he visited his local branch to try to resolve the problem, he met with a refusal. ‘They cannot do anything for me,’ he told his mother.

A statement from HSBSC offered its ‘sincere condolences.’

James Baldwin, American essayist and novelist, wrote: ‘Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.’ Don’t let it cost your life.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Consumption: a new disease

I am fed up – are you? -- at constantly being referred to as a CONSUMER. It’s as if that’s all we are. As if we live in a reductive world where our only value is what, how often and how much we consume. Feed me!

Referring to my copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (which, oh dear, I find was published in 1964, so there may be a revised definition) to consume is ‘to make away with; use up; eat, drink, up; spend, waste.’ And, a consumer is the ‘user of an article, opp. to producer; consumers’ goods, things which directly satisfy human wants and desires, e.g. food and clothing.’

Quite. Romantic, idealistic, spiritually uplifting it’s not. No longer citizens, people, voters, the public or the population. We are one thing only: consumers. But the New Poor are a spanner in the works. Our consumption of goods is decreasing and changing. And, besides, human desires go beyond owning things, eating things, etc.

And, on another but related tack. Have you noticed how sexy the New Poor are becoming? Several books have been written to extol the virtues of not spending. Virtuous it may be, but for many of us it has become a necessity.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Common thoughts

We, the New Poor (my friend tells me that addressing ourselves as 'Nouveau Poor' will add style, but I'll stick to English) have fallen off the log of financial buoyancy. Some of us are clinging to flotsam and staying afloat and some of us have that sinking feeling. Some of us are unemployed, but not all. I am, but I wish to address more than the 'bums' on sofas of the Jobcentres of the land. I want to tackle the whole New Poor thing (and occasionally I'll return to writing about the salutory experience of signing-on).

We, the New Poor, often feel alone. We may individually see ourselves as sad sods, as failures. But we are not. New poverty is a consequence of market forces. The UK economy is a service economy. Who makes the better servant? Why, the young, pliable and energetic do. So, too, does cheap labour; some of it from countries not ranked as First World. That leaves us to compete for slim pickings.

Oh, well, life's not fair. As we contemplate that Tesco chief, Sir Terry Leahy, earns £20,000 per week, let's repeat all together now: every little helps.

Helps who?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Job, the Old Testament guy

If you sign on, I can promise you times when you will identify with Job, the biblical guy big on suffering. My experience of signing on has led me to believe that this may be why the modern-day dole office is called the Jobcentre. Actually, its correct name is Jobcentre Plus. I've come to think of the Plus as arbitrariness. There's an abundance of that, most of it the result of maladministration. But when you're on the receiving end it can feel like random punishments reigned upon you from on high.

There will be times when you will come close to experiencing death in life as yet another manila envelope holding a beige form arrives demanding to be filled in. Can it be the 31st? You will listen to looped Vivaldi on the many phone calls you will make to chase down a benefit or sort out a fact from a factoid. You will do combat with unseen and occasionally seen forces. When things go wrong and often they do, it is you who must pick up the pieces (while trying not to go to pieces).

You will come to know humiliation. Stranded on a sofa at a Jobcentre Plus (JC+), you will appreciate how time can be attenuated as you wait for your name to be called. You will recognise the aroma of poverty; the meaning of drabness (despit the generous use of primary colours). You will look around -- plenty of time for that -- and wonder what you have in common with others signing on.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It ain't easy

You'd think that signing on would be an easy option. Like falling off a log, digesting jelly or watching telly. It is not. To get to the position where you are in receipt of the dole is actually bloody hard. It takes sheer determination, and several hankies for there will be tears. Take it from me.
Oddly, I have come to admire people who manage to sign on. While I hope the axe of unemployment doesn't fall on you, here is a handy tip if you decide to try for Jobseeker's Allowance.
Expect to fail. Yes, to fail even to rate as unemployed never mind that you are unemployed. But, hang in there. Perseverence often pays off. The first written communication sent by the Jobcentre about my claim stated: 'We cannot pay you Jobseeker's Allowance.' How so very definite that sounds; it's enough to make you throw up your hands in despair and rush to the nearest B&Q for a shelf-filling position.
To appeal this decision, I was advised to obtain form GL24. By then I'd already filled in a slew of forms, so I wasn't keen to hunt down any more. Two weeks later, a second letter arrived to say that I would indeed begin to receive Jobseeker's Allowance because: 'We have looked at your claim again following a recent change,' (no info on the 'change').
See what I mean?
More tips to follow...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fare dodging

I've just got off the free bendy bus and, finally, onto my blog which having started with a flourish, I temporarily abandoned in order to get some idea of the world of blogs. I now have some idea and I'm back. Anyway, let us return to the behemoths that serve as transport for the public. A penalty for the New Poor is our reliance on cheap transport. And, bendy buses are cheap in several ways.
I mean Ken and cohorts at London Transport complain that fare dodgers are the pariahs of society. Some of us get on these buses and fail to pay. Yes! And who is to blame? Don't point the finger at the impoverished saving scanty amounts of money (that might add up to a loaf of bread or a small cake), blame the designers. They actually designed out the payment of fares. It's not difficult to design in this feature. So, what happens? Every so often a posse of ticket inspectors sometimes accompanied by police do a swoop and get to fine a hapless half-dozen people. Great.
And, has anyone in the upholstered towers of power ever ridden on one of these buses? If so, they will find that suspension is yet another design omission. This morning I had my entire breakfast reconfigured in my stomach by the shuddering motion of the bus. At one point, I thought is it me? But, no, the empty seat in front was rattling with the vibration. My teeth were chattering. It's deeply unpleasant. More than that it's offensive to subject people to this lack of ease, to which you can often add overcrowding, lack of ventilation, etc. Any wonder we don't pay our fares?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I'm in no doubt about whether I'm one of the New Poor. I'm a fully signed-up member because I am signing on. Yes, I'm on the dole. (Such a forlorn word.)
How did it come to this?
Apart from the halcyon summers of my student youth, circa 1970, I have never needed to step into a social security office. I have always been self-supporting until...the dawn of unemployment. Prior to that, for 10 years, I ran my own PR business. It wasn't a fantastic earner, but I made enough to get by and with time left over to pursue my other interests.
At the heart of my business was one client; everything else was a bit on the side. To rely on one client is stupid, but all I can says is that it suited me. Until...the client hired a new director of communications who, keen to demonstrate the qualities of a big broom, swept me away. It wasn't personal: it was a re-focus of corporate goals.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Welcome to we the new poor

We the New Poor are experiencing a collective amnesia. We're acting like it isn't so. Like we're not living on a breath and a prayer.
The times have changed, but we have not kept up with them. Slowly, my friends, we are being marginalised. We who are making just enough to keep going, we who are on short-term contracts, we who are sole operators of a business that turns a modest profit, we who have been laid-off because we are surplus to requirements. Requirements, let's face it, are youth in a nutshell. Young, avid, able to tolerate long hours and intense pressure, quick minds that dance about the new technology. People who look beautiful (for youth is beauty) and not raddled like us. And another thing, we, admit it, are awkward. In the US we'd be called ornery.
Under-employed, temporarily employed, just getting by, unemployed or let down by a pension promise -- the waters of treachery lap about our feet, skirt our ankles, splash our calves. Watch out!

cote d'ivoire

It's Sunday afternoon in south London and these two young women have taken a break from church.