I’m sat opposite a Job Centre where I used to sign on, wearing my new winter coat, feeling guilty. I shouldn’t have spent that money, but I’ve chosen warmth over food for the first time in a couple of years. The plan was to come here and speak to some people, start mapping the lost generation, but I just can’t do it.
I was meant to speak to R____, a lady who worked here and helped me once. But the man at the desk said she’s on leave. I asked when she’d be coming back, but he said he didn’t know.
Two years ago I was signing on at this J.C., having just moved to London. All was going well with my plan to be lazy and not do anything but be a writer. My boss wasn’t paying me enough to keep from claiming benefits, but even if the job didn’t feed my body it fed my hunger to be taken semi-seriously as a writer.
The people at the J.C. didn’t seem to know what was going on. I’d roll up every two weeks and reel out some horse manure about the jobs I’d been applying for, when in reality I’d done everything possible to avoid employment. I had a post-grad course a few months away, and there just didn’t seem any point in working for the sake of work.
I was heavily influenced by Bertrand Russell’s essay, ‘In Praise of Idleness’, among other things. I’d learned enough about the world to know that modern society’s concept of ‘productivity’ is all skewed, and you were a sucker if you worked when you didn’t have to.
In spite of my feelings about work, I’m not averse to the idea mandatory activity for the unemployed. Just not work, or at least not the kind of work prescribed by the J.C. Instead of the work programme, have a reading programme. Demand the unemployed be productive by reading a book a week – anything but celebrity biography – or attend some form of spiritual meditation. If unemployment is linked to crime, societal breakdown or depression, this would be a better solution than unpaid shelf stacking. As well as teaching the desperate how to write a CV, teach them how to write poetry or short stories. Don’t just help them look for work, help them find a purpose to their lives beyond or in addition to work, and beyond the accumulation of wealth.
It seemed like having to walk everywhere and spending my time in libraries and museums was putting me on a path to being a decent writer, if not a decent human being. I didn’t want to be someone who’d had a hoody printed with their name on it, hiked up a mountain in Thailand with a bunch of hockey players and proclaimed to know something about the world. Nor did I want to be the kind of person who writes essays arguing the case for Foucault and then goes to work in a regime that resembles a prison.
All was going well crawling along the bottom of the sea until I got a letter saying the government would claim back two months’ welfare I’d already spent on rent to my slum landlord, owing to a ‘change in circumstances’. It was about £2,000 in total – not a lot for the British economy, but a whole world to me. They were claiming that I hadn’t notified the J.C. about doing unpaid work when I had, every single week. The stress made my head just about explode. There were appeals processes, but I had no evidence on my side. They had me by the balls, and I was staring down a whole new tunnel of real-world misery.
I marched into the J.C. with a bundle of documents, but they couldn’t help. There was nothing in there that could alleviate the debt. At the desk I asked to speak to someone who could help me with injustice. Heads turned and people shrugged as though I was a prisoner asking when we get to go home.
Then a woman stepped forward from the desks. She had shiny prozac eyes. I’d seen her before, being super-helpful and hyper-friendly yet so obviously dying behind those eyes. She said, “Hi, how are you? Can I help?”
She told me to come sit down, she put her hand on my back and cursed the system around her for whatever it had done. She couldn’t afford to live around here because she was a good woman and commuted in from far out, but there wasn’t a crack of bitterness in her voice. She let me in on some secrets about the J.C., and about the quotas they’d been asked to fill regarding the reassessment and rejection of claims. It sounded like instructions from a Soviet politburo. She looked as though she was screaming on the inside. Her life had been twisted by the apparatus of work – doing it herself and ordering ir for others – and although it was too late for her, she was trying to help others escape.
What happened next was that I went into the J.C. for my next appointment with a dictaphone hidden in my bundle of papers. I had to prove somehow that the J.C. had approved me doing part-time work as part of my career development. When the adviser asked what I’d been up to, I made crystal clear that I was writing for the shyster and his magazine. And I made sure the microphone picked up the adviser’s voice when she said, “Yes, that’s OK, it’s work experience.”
I even asked her to repeat it. “So, could you confirm, just for the record, that this counts as work experience and that it won’t affect my benefits?”
She repeated it all, gloriously, her verdict.
So then I had them. The people who decide appeals didn’t look kindly upon my secret recording of government officials but ultimately had to accept it.
A month or so later, after the appeal had been won and I had it in my fist, I took my dictaphone and letter of victory into the J.C. to play to R____, but she didn’t need to hear. She believed me. “But imagine if I hadn’t done that,” I said. “See the lengths I’ve had to go to just prove I was getting bum advice?”
“I know,” she said. When I tried to explain further, about a society that was increasingly resembling a prison or a workhouse, she cut me off and said, “I know. I know, I know…”
She must be some kind of saint, this R____. But I will never really know, because she didn’t show up for work today and I hope to never see her again. In the nicest possible way, you understand.