Why we should nationalise *some* things.

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In 1995, I took a contract at the Bradford and Bingley, working on a project that was to determine those people who qualified as members and who would, therefore, be invited to the annual general meeting.

This was at the height of the “carpet bagging” phenomenon, where people opened accounts with companies that were about to become PLCs, so that they’d benefit from an initial windfall, usually of a few hundred pounds. As a result, there was a lot more scrutiny on the mailing that year and the criteria for membership was being very closely observed.

As part of my work, I had to liaise with the legal team at the building society, and it was an older chap – whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember – who sat me down and explained the situation to me from first principles. He told me how all of the profits the Bradford and Bingley made went to benefit the members, thereby reducing mortgage rates, for example. If the members voted to privatise, he went on, then the profits would go to shareholders and, furthermore, future decisions about the company’s strategy would be made with a view to maximising short-term dividends and not long-term business growth, which would have benefitted the members.

And that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. One of the reasons given for the success of Lidl and Aldi is that they are family owned companies, that can make a decision that will benefit their business over the next three or four years, even if there’s a temporary dip in profits. The inability to plan like this is, I think, the fundamental flaw in PLCs.

Of course, private companies do need to make a profit on the work they do but that doesn’t necessarily translate into dividends. Sometimes the money is invested in growth, sometimes – especially for smaller companies – it’s to protect themselves against a rainy day or when business is quiet. I should imagine it’s difficult to run a business effectively when you have shareholders baying for profits and to find yourself at the mercy of the market’s opinion of you. (Northern Rock would agree with that, I expect.)

Non-Labour governments – and I’d include New Labour in that group – love private companies and businesses, though. They see them as some kind of universal panacea to the difficult job of being in government, even though tackling that job is the one they’ve been elected to do. Rather than knuckle down to do the hard work, though, they are keen to find away to move that responsibility away from themselves. After all, it’s much easier to be an MP in a “small state government”, where you don’t have so much to do.

The problem is that some sectors and industries don’t lend themselves to privatisation. If you want a list of them, just look at pretty much everything that has been moved from the public sector into the private sector since the BT sell off in the 1980s, because they’ve mostly been monopolies. And monopolies don’t work as private enterprises.

Private business works where there’s competition. Let’s say you need a plumber. You might ask your friends “Do you know a good plumber?”. Quite often you’ll hear that someone’s good but a bit pricey or that someone is good but always busy or maybe that someone is just reliable. (You might be dubious about a plumber who isn’t busy!) But you’ll make a decision based on your budget, the urgency of the situation, and what you need done.

But what if there was only one plumber allowed to operate in your area? He (or she) could charge what he wanted, turn up when he fancied and if he did a shoddy job, well what would that matter? (This is probably why Communism doesn’t work but I need to think that through.)

And also, what about the situation where the job that needs doing can’t realistically be costed? If you’re seriously ill, then it doesn’t matter whether your medication costs £100 or £100,000: you need it to live and, as a society, we’ve agreed to an NHS that will take care of us, giving us help that is free at the point of delivery. How can you privatise that? (Hint: you can’t.)

In brief, then, the companies you can’t privatise effectively are those that are monopolies or those that can’t be expected to make a profit, like health and education, for example.

Looking at something a bit more specific then, let’s examine water companies. They each cover different regions, some of which have plenty of water – like Cumbria, unfortunately – and some that don’t. Furthermore, the age and quality of the water infrastructure varies from place to place: some require far more maintenance than others.

Realistically, then, you can’t put a cost on getting water to every household yet access to fresh, clean water in our society is a right, no matter what the chief exec of Nestlé says. And it’s not a right because of some hippy ideal, it’s because we live in a nationwide society – back off, Thatcher! – and we all own the resources, and we all pay the taxes that ought to pay to deliver that water, appropriately cleansed, to our homes.

To privatise that industry, then, is just a bloody nonsense. A short term fiscal gain for the government, for sure, and then we’re saddled with businesses that are obliged to make a profit for their shareholders. Think about it: every time you pay a water bill, part of that money – TOTALLY UNNECESSARILY – goes to someone who does nothing to earn it except for owning some shares in that business. It’s insane.

The reason I’ve been prompted to write all this, incidentally, is that last week United Utilities warned people in parts of Lancashire to boil their water because low levels of cryptosporidium have been found in the water. Consequently, there was a rush on bottled water. (And I wonder whether those affected will get a refund on their water bills?) I also wonder if this problem would have occurred if the need to declare profits hadn’t constrained United Utilities’ activities.

I remember, before he was elected, how David Cameron criticised BT for its monopolistic situation and behaviour. That was a rational argument. Google David Cameron and BT now, and you’ll find him full of support for this dreadful monolith, which exemplifies everything that is wrong about privatising a company that so clearly belongs in the public sector.

So when to nationalise and why? Well, when the service is monopolistic, like water or rail travel, i.e. when you have no option but to use a service; or when a service shouldn’t be expected to make a profit, like water or other national resources; or where it’s simply implausible for that activity to be a profit making operation, like health or education.

I’m not saying that a big state is a good thing – God knows some of our public services need a proper overhaul – but I am saying that there are some services and operations that don’t belong in the private sector. We know unregulated capitalism doesn’t work – just look at the banks, those inept losers – and also that the state has a place in a society. And that place is to manage those resources that belong to all of us and those services for which we all pay our taxes.

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‘Without Real String Or Fish’ by Shriekback

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It’s been thirty years since I first discovered Shriekback, somewhere amongst the music papers, Radio 1 evening shows and my handful of music loving friends. Standing askance to the new electronic sounds and shiny electro-pop that I favoured they provided a slightly grubbier, somewhat edgier proposition. Their early run of singles included the sinuous ‘Lined Up’, rattlingly funky ‘My Spine (Is The Bassline)’ and seductive ‘Hand On My Heart’: all different, all unorthodox, all brilliant pop.

Although I was oblivious to this at the time, in the heart of that creative unit there appears to have been some tension between keyboard player/vocalist Barry Andrews and vocalist/guitarist Carl Marsh. To me it was Marsh who appeared to provide the grit, while Andrews’ occasional lyrical outings were a little more fantastical. But whatever the truth of the situation, Marsh left during the making of their highly-acclaimed ‘Oil and Gold’, the album which spawned the very popular – all though chart-untroubling – ‘Nemesis’.

Marsh went on to make one of my favourite albums, ‘Here Comes The Crush’, which disappeared without trace, and Shriekback continued in his absence, starting with the ‘Big Night Music’ album. Featuring tracks such as ‘Black Light Trap’, ‘Gunning For The Buddha’, ‘Running On The Rocks’ and the tremendous ‘Sticky Jazz’, it was a corking, lively, brightly coloured album, better produced than any of the previous efforts but, I found, lacking the darkness that Marsh provided. The follow up, “Go Bang!”, was even more cartoon Shriekback, now lacking founder member and bassist, Dave Allen.

It was a big surprise, then, when, four years later, Shriekback reformed (still minus Marsh) to release my favourite album of theirs, ‘Sacred City’. Suddenly Andrews seemed to have dropped all the big colours and fantastical lyrics to provide an album that came from his own direct experience of squatting in London, wandering the city by night. It was at this point that I really began to enjoy his work both through Shriekback and solo. (Incidentally, if you were to ask me which Shriekback album to start with – and, really, none of them is representative of the whole canon – then I would buy ‘Sacred City’ and listen to ‘Beatles Zebra Crossing?’ (it is), ‘Exquisite Corpse’ and ‘(Open Up Your) Filthy Heart (To Me)’.)

Since then, there have been five further Shriekback albums, with Marsh popping up here and there,  all of which feature a mix of good tracks and others which are, to be frank, a bit Shriekback by numbers. And now they are joined by this, ‘Without Real String Or Fish’, Shriekback’s 13th studio album and the first since ‘Oil and Gold’ in which it feels like Marsh is properly back in the band, even if he only appears on five songs.

It gets off to a bit of a false start with ‘Now Those Days Are Gone’, whose brass attack is uncomfortably reminiscent of ‘Go Bang!’ and where Marsh seems to be trying a little too hard. From then on, though, it’s all gold, starting with ‘The King In The Tree’, where Martyn Barker’s ever-intricate and precise drumming picks up Andrews’ cyclical keyboard figure. This is followed by the gorgeous ‘Soft Estate’ and ‘Woke Up Wrong’, which are instantly recognisable as the the healthy offspring of Andrews’ song-writing DNA.

The firstly truly great moment, though, where for me this collection is lifted above recent Shriekback albums, arrives in the form of ‘Beyond Metropolis’, sung by Marsh in the style of his that I love the best. Quite apart from his semi-spoken word style,  he has a way of taking his stream of conscious lyrics and imbuing them with a sense of poetic purpose and internal logic. It was this song more than any other that hooked me into this record.

Indeed, of the remaining seven songs, it is the two that were written by Andrews, Barker and Marsh – ‘Recessive Jean’ and the lovely, gentle ‘Bernadette’ – that stand out, and I really hope the next album is completely written by the three of them. (And, to be honest, it feels like now there is proper reason for Dave Allen to return, one that doesn’t involve nostalgia at all.)

But I don’t want to over-emphasise Marsh’s contribution – wonderful though it is – since it’s certainly worth mentioning that Andrews seems to have completely revived his mojo with ‘Without Real String Or Fish’. The album has a sure-footedness that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing with Shriekback now and I think this has somehow opened up the door to allow Barker to make a more integral contribution to the song-writing, too.

Now, if only they’d go out and play live!

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Spock! (and The Zane Gray Incident)

During the 1980s, Ashley Jones, John Watton and Ric Francis had a band called The Zane Gray Incident and for a little while I was the singer in their band. I performed one gig with them – at The Lion’s Den in Cardiff – on January the 3rd 1986, and recorded one cassette of songs the following Easter. Someone, probably Ric or Ash, made a cover for the tape featuring Roger Delgado, who was the actor who played The Master in Doctor Who.

It being 29 years ago, I can’t quite remember the detail but I think one of the tracks finished with a vocal sample Leonard Nimoy in his role as Mr Spock. If true, that would explain why Ash and I cut out 27 photocopied pictures of Mr Spock to include as an insert with the cassette cover.

One cold evening, Ash and I boarded a train from Cardiff to Liverpool, where we were studying. I seem to remember the journey was 5 hours long or maybe it just felt like that but it was most certainly not an Intercity 125, which, back then, was the most futuristic offering that British Rail had. Lacking the many electronic distractions available to today’s undergraduate traveller, Ash and I resorted to laying out the photos of Leonard Nimoy on our table. It was a little Warholian, I guess, but genuinely pleasing, perhaps reflecting the fact that there was nothing ironic in our love of Star Trek and Mr Spock: these were less excruciating times.

Anyway, that’s my Leonard Nimoy story. My impression is that he was a genuinely wise and lovely man, who always took his role as Spock seriously, but never himself.

Addenda from Ash:

  1. The tape was called The Paradise Syndrome (after Star Trek TOS, S03e03 in the modern parlance).
  2. The sample “That is the complete record” was at the very end of the last track. (See what we did there?) It is from S03E04 “And The Children Shall Lead”. 24’48” in.
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Booths and the price of milk

Last year, the Minx came across a film called ‘The Moo Man‘ that she fancied seeing, so we went to see it at The Dukes, in Lancaster. It’s a great film and I highly recommend it. It tells the story of a dairy farmer who is struggling to make ends meet. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen and yet a little way into the film, you learn that because of the prices that supermarkets pay for milk he is receiving tax credits from the state. He sets out to sell his milk direct to the public to reverse his fortunes. (I tried some; it was unpasteurised and delicious.)

In the days following the film, this whole business about the supermarkets paying farmers less for their milk than it costs to produce started to really bug me, so I wrote to Booths which is the supermarket in the town where I live and the one I use the most. My question was quite simple: do you pay farmers more for their milk than it costs to produce? Since Booths make a big deal out of supporting local farmers, I was hoping for an unequivocal ‘YES’ but I didn’t get it. I just got some waffle. I meant to pursue it but, you know, I was busy and I let it slide.

Then, last week, I saw this sign in Booths:

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Now, I don’t believe Booths would lie – I’m sure they do pay more than any other supermarket – but I didn’t like the leap of logic; all of the other supermarkets pay so badly that simply paying more than them didn’t, as far as I could see, ensure a ‘truly fair deal’.

So I tweeted @BoothsCountry and asked “Your ‘Fair Milk’ promotion: do you actually pay the farmers more than the cost of production for each pint?” I didn’t get a reply so I tweeted them again the next day (yesterday) and they did respond this time and said they’d get back to me. And today they did.

They said: “Hi Fenner. Apologies for the delay. Other retailers set their prices based on the cost of production, therefore because…”
“…we pay the highest price of all retailers, we’re reassured that we’re paying above cost of production :)”
“Our farmers; Bryan, Richard, Edward & Roger also tell us our price helps them to reinvest in their farms for the long term”

Which doesn’t *quite* answer the question, does it? And really, if you were offering your farmers a ‘truly fair deal’, wouldn’t you ensure that you were not only paying more than the cost of production but also ensuring the farms made a profit?

At this point, the Minx asked for clarification: “@BoothsCountry @fennerpearson “reassured”? So you DO pay above the cost of production? (apologies for needing clarification)”

Booths then replied, omitting me from the response: “@Artminx We pay the highest price for milk against other retailers, many who base their prices on the cost of production :)”

Which is still curiously evasive, isn’t it? The Minx thought so, too: “. @BoothsCountry It is like talking to a politician. Can you categorically agree you pay more than production? Yes or No?”

Oddly, at this point, Booths became less evasive: “@Artminx  Transparency is very important to us at Booths & the cost of production of milk varies for each individual farm…”
“@Artminx We are confident that farmers are receiving the highest price in the market & this more than covers their cost of production” Now, why didn’t they just say that in the first place?

But it didn’t finish there. Our Twitter friend Zoe, then joined in. As her family have a dairy farm, she is well informed on the subject. Booths response: “@Zowrr Hello Zoe, if you’d like to discuss Fair Milk please DM us with your contact details & a member of the team will be in touch :)” Zoe declined. But she did speak to her brother who confirmed that Booths do indeed pay the best prices but only to their four farmers. (That’s Bryan, Richard, Edward & Roger, remember?)

So, now their sign takes on a different meaning:
“Support your local farmers” – yes, we all want to do that.
“We guarantee to pay our farmers more than any other supermarket for every pint of milk” – see that? A little sleight of hand: “to pay
our farmers”, i.e. those four farmers. Not necessarily your local farmers.

Now, I like Booths. It’s easily my favourite supermarket, despite being rather expensive, and I spend a lot of money there. But, as I say, I like it and I like the staff. I like the company’s dedication to quality and I like how they do stock local produce. But I don’t like this game their marketing people are playing with the whole ‘fair milk’ promotion. It’s not clear that they are really paying those four farmers more than the cost of production. Yes, they told the Minx that but why didn’t they say it upfront? Why didn’t they tell me that?And why try to move Zoe’s question to DM and off the timeline?

When I asked them last year, Booths couldn’t tell me that that they paid any of their milk providers more than the cost of production. Now they appear to have found a way to make themselves look like the good guys.

But, you know what, maybe they are! Maybe I’ve read this all wrong, looking for disingenuity where there is none. And, frankly, I’d like to be wrong. I’d love to see a supermarket paying the farmers a fair price for milk and I’d be absolutely delighted for that supermarket to be Booths. So, come on Booths, get your story straight or put someone on Twitter who really understands what’s going on and tell us exactly how you’re working to support local farmers. I really want to hear it.

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My tuppence on #indyref

It should never have come to this and I don’t think there’s any denying that David Cameron’s arrogance in thinking the Scots wouldn’t have the guts to vote yes was what kept ‘devo max’ off the table. But we are where we are.

I love Scotland – I’ve lived and worked there – and I’ll be very sad if they leave the UK. That said, if I was a Scot, I’d be *very* tempted to vote yes.

Based on what I’ve read over the last few weeks, what would stop me doing that is the Yes campaign’s focus on optimism rather than detail. Here are some things that might pause me in my tracks:

– It’s not just oil: banking generates a huge revenue for Scotland (I’ve read it’s actually more than oil) and the banks are poised to move. Which isn’t surprising because…
– Unbelievably, the currency hasn’t been sorted out. The banks need the Bank of England.
– EU membership is not a shoe-in, despite Salmond’s view that Scotland is irresistible. Spain has already said it will use its veto.
– The SNP have admitted that postal rates will go up and that there will be a huge shortfall in the NHS. Admitted? Yes, admitted when presented with the facts. Shouldn’t they have been upfront about this?
– It’s unclear what level of the UK’s debt would fall to Scotland. That’s a very significant issue! (Although Salmond, unbelievably, has said he’d default on this debt if he can’t share the pound. Which in itself means a fiscal union, which is not independence!)
– Defence also appears a little vague, which should worry everyone.

It was Cameron’s failing that led to where we are but even if everything will be ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT after a Yes vote, Salmond has failed to establish this. There is a dearth of facts in some key areas. In fact, it’s a mess.

Like I say, I can’t criticise anyone voting yes – and it’s not my place to – especially as I’d be tempted to myself (as an inveterate optimist!). However, I don’t believe the facts are as clear as they *need* to be.

Whatever happens, I hope it’s for the best, today. Sadly, though, I don’t think it can be best for all of us.

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The rise of the troll

Foreword (posted 29th Jan)

Yesterday I had a lot of feedback about this post. Some was from people who appeared to understand my point and they were all positive about the post. Some related to @john_doe and resulted in me apologising to him and anonymising him. (More about this at the bottom of the post.) There were a couple of “conversations” that were entirely fruitless and I wish I hadn’t bothered with them; people simply haranguing you is pretty tiresome and tiring.

However, I did have one long conversation with another tweeter who asked me not to name them in this post. We talked about the term “troll” and how it is becoming used to casually, how it should be reserved for those people who display quite extreme behaviour and who are explicitly threatening and offensive. And I agree with this. @john_doe’s behaviour wasn’t “trolling” by that definition and I have made minor edits to the post below, removing the reference to him as a troll and a description of his activity as trolling.

I have left the (anonymised) tweets in place though because the behaviour still highlights what I was actually writing about, which is the lack of respect and manners on Twitter. The post was not about @john_doe or whether he was right to take issue with @QuintinForbes’ tweet (although it was about the manner in which he did it).

What follows is the original post with the two edits referred to above.

End of foreword.

Things are changing over at Facebook. Whether publicly stated or not, the company is concerned that young people are leaving in droves. Their playground come youth club has been invaded by their parents and grandparents, and, for them, it’s not the place it once was. Which may be no bad thing for Facebook and its shareholders: older people have more disposable income and perhaps now that advertising revenue will start to arrive in the desired quantities.

But this isn’t a post about Facebook; I’ve mentioned that purely to highlight the fact that social media sites do change in demonstrable ways and so perhaps when people have commented recently that Twitter is changing, then perhaps it’s not just nostalgia talking.

The way in which they say it’s changing is that it’s becoming a more hostile place. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but, equally, I’m not saying they’re wrong. Twitter’s always been a place with rough neighbourhoods: one doesn’t have to stray far from one’s timeline to find all sorts of unpleasantness. Furthermore, while the term ‘troll’ has slipped into common usage over the last year, the noun and those it identifies have been around since before I joined Twitter.

What has changed, of course, is the number of people using Twitter. And amongst those new users are more people who don’t see the need for etiquette and manners. They may form the same proportion of users but even then there are undoubtedly more of them. And some of those new tweeters, often those hiding behind anonymity, are particularly vile. (Although what’s notable is what cowardly specimens they turn out to be when ousted: see the cases of the trolls of Mary Beard and, more recently, Caroline Criado-Perez.)

However, for me personally, not much has changed. No one’s ever been really nasty to me, apart from some accidentally riled feminists, although from time to time someone will pick me up on something I’ve said but that’s always happened. The people for whom I think it has changed, those people who perhaps not coincidentally are the ones observing this shift, are those with a large number of followers.

In my experience, those with a lot of followers tend to fall into one of three categories: they are a celebrity or well-known through the media; an expert or authority in a given field; or they are funny. And for some reason, because these people are popular on Twitter, other people – “trolls” – seem to think they needn’t be polite or considerate when dealing with them.

What prompted me to write this today was an exchange between @QuintinForbes and another Twitter user. Now, I happen to think @QuintinForbes is the funniest man on Twitter. I try not to retweet him too often as the people who follow me must have got the message by now and are either following him or don’t want to.

Today, he posted the following tweet:


I found that funny, favourited it and moved on.

Later on, I became aware of this reply to some people complimenting @QuintinForbes’s tweet:


Now, I didn’t think the joke was homophobic. It’s not a joke I’d have made myself partly because I am terrified of causing unintentional offence but mainly because I’m not that funny. The challenge to @QuintinForbes was quite brusque and, I’d say, impolite. It’s evidence of the behaviour I’m talking about. @QuintinForbes responded as follows:


And here comes the response from let’s call him @john_doe. Note that he has put a full stop in front of @QuintinForbes’s username. This is the point for me at which this becomes more unpleasant; the full stop ensures that all of @john_doe’s followers can see the conversation, not just those following him and @QuintinForbes. To me, it looks like ganging up.


It’s also worth noting that @john_doe is under the impression that he represents all gay men. Not so.


To which @john_doe simply responds:


I assume Quintin had had enough by this point (I certainly would have) but he does go on to tweet:

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Meanwhile, @john_doe tweets:


Thus, having been unpleasant and rude, @john_doe then blocks @QuintinForbes, as if to say to his followers that @QuintinForbes was the one who had been pestering him! He also uses the term ‘uncle tom’ – by which I assume he means to imply @QuintinForbes is a stereotyped gay man, which is unnecessary and unfounded – but which is a term in itself which I believe is far more offensive to black people. @john_doe is evidently happy to take offence but is less concerned about giving it.

I’ve provided this lengthy example to highlight what kind, decent people whose only intention is to make people laugh are having to put up with: people telling them their jokes aren’t funny or telling them what they meant by their joke. Whilst it might not be trolling as such, it strikes me that this is the thin edge of the wedge.

Last week, a chap just a nice as Quintin, @mrnickharvey, was driven off Twitter by trolling, another victim of one person’s need to address their own – apparently significant – failings by anonymously persecuting those who just want to bring a bit of happiness into other people’s lives.

I really wish I had a solution to all this but, of course, I don’t. What I will say to all those popular, funny, well-intentioned people, is please don’t let these trolls, ranging from the impolite and rude through to the vicious and threatening, drive you off Twitter. If you go, they will have won.

Post script Subsequent to publishing this post, @QuintinForbes has told me that he first tweeted his ‘Fruit toast’ joke in 2012 and none of his gay followers has ever taken offence before.

Update, 28th Jan (the next day), at 22:45

So, I learnt a few things today. Firstly, that people hear the word troll and think immediately of the extreme end of trolling. That being the case,  I shouldn’t have called @john_doe a troll. However, his exchange did illustrate what I was trying to point out: the lack of respect, politeness and consideration that I see more and more on Twitter. And, of course, I accepted that that I had not shown respect, politeness or consideration for @john_doe in using his tweets. I’ve apologised for that and changed the post to use @john_doe as the name.

Secondly, I’ve learnt that no matter how patient you are, some people will not enter a discussion but simply carry on having an argument. I wasted a lot of time on that, this afternoon. But, for the record, I was not saying that @john_doe was trolling in his initial tweet to @QuintinForbes (although I think that’s clear in the post).

And I’ve remembered that everyone has family and friends and partners, and when you upset one person, you upset a lot. (People around me have been similarly angered by the tweets to me and comments on this post.) So, be more considerate (see point 1).

There have been a few people willing to discuss this with me and I’m grateful for that. And at least I tried with those who wouldn’t talk to me, just at me.

There is one final huge irony to all this, especially since I’ve been called a hypocrite by more than one person today, and that relates to @john_doe’s reply to @QuintinForbes. Remember this:

Fen2Here are some tweets from @john_doe’s timeline two weeks earlier:


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For richer, for poorer

My approach to money was evident from a very early age: I saw it as a method of obtaining things I wanted and I had no interest in hoarding it. This attitude was evident and constant from the age when I was given pocket money through to when I earned it for myself. At the age of sixteen, for example, when I earned £10 a week working in the kitchens at BHS, I would go out at lunchtime and spend the lot on a combination of albums (£3.99), 12″ singles (£1.99) and singles (£0.99). (And how I enjoyed those journeys home on the bus looking at my spoils!)

Later, at university, I became acquainted with both overdrafts and credit cards, and consequently spent my holidays earning money to pay of the spending of the previous term. I’m not sure this was entirely reckless – I knew I’d pay the money back – but I found it easier to spend money that I would owe rather than money I’d earnt.

I wasn’t that long out of university before I was married and having children. Quite a lot of children. I don’t think my wife’s attitude to money was much worse than mine but the fact that she was now spending money that I would have to repay caused a terrible amount of friction in our marriage. And, in truth, she ran up some significant debts clothing and entertaining four small children and herself.

All through this time, certainly from shortly after our first daughter was born, I was working as an IT freelancer, earning more with each contract so that we were always able to service our debt, and the chickens only really came home to roost when we divorced and I was suddenly confronted with the full consolidated amount. And solely responsible for it.

But I’m a chap who has more than his fair share of luck and it was around this time that I pretty much doubled what I was earning and, for once in my life, I forgot about spending and concentrated on clearing the debt. And then, abruptly, after a couple of years, the debt was gone and suddenly all this money coming into my bank account was mine. Life was good. We did up the house, which was run down when I bought it, went on holiday and generally enjoyed having some cash.

Now, for years I’d dreamt of running my own business and I’d had a little hobby company  alongside my day job for a few years. In 2004 I suddenly had an amazing opportunity to make that hobby company my full time job and, without too much consideration, I took it. I employed some people and everything went well for a while before I began to realise that I was out of my depth. There’s a book called something like “The E-myth” which is all about people who start businesses because they are good at something and ignore the fact that they’ve no experience of running a company. Well, that was me.

I’ll spare you the details of the company’s fall from grace but suffice to say that I had to remortgage my house to pay the salaries whilst we struggled to deliver the work we had to the quality we wanted, but never making a profit. By this stage I had stopped paying myself. My second wife, who stuck with me all through this, bought the food, whilst I tried to keep the bailiffs from the door, the telephone connected, the electricity flowing and a roof over our head.

This was stressful enough in itself but at the same time I tried to keep up appearances. My daughters still had all their music lessons and, in our social life, I bought rounds of drinks I could barely afford. Couldn’t afford, in fact. I’ve always been a sound sleeper but now I found myself waking at two o’clock every morning to lie there worrying. And I’ve always enjoyed a drink but now, for the first and only time in my life, I found myself drinking to relax, downing a couple of glasses of wine within minutes of walking in through the door. My wife wanted me to go back to working freelance but I had all these people relying on me for their salaries.

And I learnt something else during this time, which is the appalling way in which our society permits businesses to behave towards their debtors. Credit card companies who didn’t ring me during the week would ring me six or seven times on my home and mobile ‘phones at the weekend to harass me about payments. The mortgage company, scenting a mortally wounded customer, were interested only in repossessing the house and not in talking to me about ways in which I could restructure my payments. It was hellish.

But I stuck with it. My company’s ethos and approach to business began to pay dividends. Our problem changed from “where’s the work coming from” to managing cash flow, in itself a huge problem for small businesses but trivial compared with the prospect of going bankrupt.

So, these days I can’t complain. I get paid regularly along with everyone else and those credit card bills are getting cleared. I can’t remember the last time the mortgage company had to call. That said, I recently had some confusion regarding my council tax that resulted in a debt collection company getting involved. In the end I went into South Lakeland District Council to sort it out, which we did to our mutual satisfaction. Oh, except there’s still the bill for the debt collection agency.

I spent a couple of minutes cogently explaining just why I shouldn’t have to pay this bill: I had been in communication with SLDC at the time, trying to sort the matter out. There was simply no reason for involving a debt collection agency and, therefore, no reason why I should pay for them being invoked by the council. We argued. I didn’t lose my temper, I rebutted and, eventually, the fine – for that’s what it amounted to – was waived. My issue here being that SLDC simply invoked the debt collection agency at the time because I wouldn’t submit to their (erroneous) arguments. An action they then expected me to pay for.

So, it’s been a weird few years. I went from being well off to experiencing the unsympathetic attitude and, at times, aggression that businesses will display to those who are in a parlous financial situation. I was certainly broke and yet do remember that I always had the safety net of returning to the freelance world if I needed it. That wasn’t much solace at the time, for a variety of reasons (including not wanting to admit I’d made a mistake) but I can’t imagine what it’s like not having that option, of having nothing to lighten a bleak future, no cause for optimism.

And now I see the wealthy in power, screwing the poor and the disadvantaged, whilst the middle classes do nothing, perhaps grateful that Osborne’s ideological cannons are not trained on them.

In conclusion then, I’ve been poor – although not in poverty – for several years this last decade. It seems now that I was always optimistic but a moment’s reflection recalls so many dark days and anxious, sleepless nights. And the worst thing was not the worry about looking after my family but the stress induced by the companies that will all rely on to make our lives work. Believe me, without fail, they are all bastards.

PS The Co-op, the ethical Co-op, was the worst of all.

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