Friday, 7 September 2012
Facing Pride And Prejudice
Facing the repossession of our house, myself and the woman who lived there plus her ten-year old son initially sought to move to rent another house nearby, partially so that we did not have to have the chickens slaughtered and the boy could go to the same secondary school next year as he had intended to attend; the end of September being the deadline for applications to enter the competition for secondary schools. As I have noted before, in our town there are ten secondary schools, but five of them he could not apply for being either the wrong gender, the wrong religion or he had already been ruled out from attending on the grounds his teacher’s felt he would not pass the 11+ Examination. However, we soon found that because we had defaulted on paying our mortgage, we now have a black mark on our credit rating for the next six years, by which time I will be 50, so barring us from renting a house or in fact any other property, via a letting agency. We must now only rent property from a private landlord/lady who does not do a credit check.
With a seven-year waiting list for social housing in our town even for a woman with a primary school aged child, the options seemed to be living on the street or going to live with our families. Of our relatives only my parents and the woman’s sister live in this country. If my parents or her sister had managed to emigrate to Australia as they planned, then I would now be living in a tent illegally camped on common land and the woman and boy, I have no idea where. It is incredible how quickly in the UK you can go from having a house and a job, to having nothing and either being homeless or begging people for a bed. Hence the title of this posting. I have mentioned before how people now see the period of the British welfare state, of approximately 1948-82 as being anomalous. The ‘norm’ is what we are experiencing now. If you have work you may still need to ask for charity, just look at the number of people in employment getting food parcels from the Trussell Trust and other such charities. If you lose your job, depending on where you live, you may become homeless or be put up in a bed and breakfast room. There are apparently some council houses and flats left but personally I only know one couple who have managed to get one and they did that over a decade ago now.
Thus, people end up living with their families. The number of middle-aged people who, like me, with no other option, have gone to live with their parents once more is so much that it was warranted a feature in ‘The Guardian’. I have gone from being a renter and then an owner of a three-bedroomed house to living in a square room which is only 10cm longer along any wall than I am tall. Since the start of June alone, I have applied for 39 posts and have attended 13 interviews. I was offered a job which I accepted 8 weeks ago. Unfortunately I picked on someone to write a reference who went on holiday for 5 weeks so delaying the start date of my job which is still ten days away. I have been told that the work for me is piling up, but because of the precision required around references I am not able to start the job and begin reducing it. Apparently two of the three referees I had to provide have not been able to give the exact dates on which I started and left my employment, in one case going back to 2005; there is an issue about whether I started one job on the 1st or the 10th of a particular month. Due to this need for precision I am in this weird limbo of ‘having a job’ but not actually being employed. I guess people on zero-hour contract, i.e. with no assigned hours each week but required to be constantly available on call, can understand that previously anomalous, but now entirely acceptable position. I am still signing on unemployed while I wait for this situation to be resolved.
So I am living with my parents. Naturally I feel as if the last 26 years have been an utter failure. I am in fact worse off than when I left home to go to university at the age of 18. It is as if nothing that happened in the meantime ever amounted to anything. Mentally this is hard to deal with, but I am repeatedly told that I should not mention feeling down or confused, or any of the natural emotions losing your house and job throw up. The other thing I have stepped into a play of manners. The woman from my house is suffering it even more. When you are unemployed let alone when you are homeless, people feel that they are obliged to tell you how to live your life. Clearly everything you have ever decided to do, every decision or effort you made was wrong, it has been proven to be the case. This means that any opinion you hold is wrong and must not be expressed as it is illegitimate. Family members keep telling us how wrong we are. Any suggestions about improving our situations are dismissed as wrong or delusional and yet we are told that we are feckless, lazy, not applying ourselves. We are illegitimate and even if we accept that, it does not stop us being told many times per day that we are ‘wrong’. The criticism does not just stretch to work or economic issues but to everything. The woman from my house was questioned at length because she happened to kiss her former boyfriend when she met him, something her sister happened to witness. She was harangued when she mentioned in passing that she would like to buy a DVD of a particular series in the future. There is a sense that we should not even discuss or think about these things, these are not for the likes of us.
As you see in dramatisations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens novels the family members seem to take delight in correcting us. On one hand they feel a very heavy duty to correct us but also appear to get a pleasure or at least some contentment from doing it. It is as if, because we failed to remain in work and keep our house, we must be doing things wrong right through our lives down to where we sit in the house, where we put glasses, how we communicate with other people and even how happy we are. I am constantly being told off for looking 'too sad' as if given that after months of bullying and the collapse of the life I had I must be able to put all that behind me immediately and march boldly forwards without any feelings if something reminds me of better times, typically something I did with the woman and boy from my house. Seeing 'Dr. Who' listed in the newspaper was painful as it was a programme that I would watch and discuss with the 10-year old and now I will never do that again. It is not a bereavement or even a divorce but it feels incredibly close to those things and yet I have to keep on apologising for those feelings as they are 'inappropriate' in my current setting.
Since I lost my last job, I have increasingly felt as if I have become a species apart from other people. They can go into shops, they can think about a new car or a holiday even. I am not even allowed to discuss buying a DVD. Advertising now seems like something in an alien language. There is no point watching any of it, because even if there is something I can afford, if I bought it, it would be ‘wrong’. It is as if I have slipped through a membrane and whilst I slide through consumer society, I cannot touch or interact with it. Given my age, it is apparent that I will never likely touch it again. No house means no way to fund my care when I am elderly. For the first time I have begun to understand the rioters of last summer. You feel no qualms about damaging things from this other world that you are barred from. To think otherwise is equivalent to those who ran the Apollo space missions suddenly feeling guilty about damaging the Moon by landing men on it. It is that removed from my life now. This is why politicians fumble around for some explanation of what went on and simply blame whatever they want to criticise. If you can alienate a 44-year old, well-educated man from society, how are you going to hold on for those who had a lot less going for them and would envy the kind of life I have led up until now.
My father has not policed who I might kiss, but he has opinions on everything and seeks to put his nose into every corner. I was trying to speed up the references I was waiting for. My approach to writing an email to one of the referees actually worked out better than I had anticipated. However, it was not the way my father would have written it so I had to stand there why he shouted at me how much of an idiot I was and how naïve and foolish I was to think that was the right way to do things. My way succeeded, but because I am now categorised as being ‘wrong’ it still needed me to be abused. Talking to the Job Centre, he stands nearby tsking and criticising every response I give. I am caught between answering the demanding questions in a way that I think my father will approve of. I can never be ‘right’ even when my decisions are shown to be correct.
The fact that we are receiving charity means that every aspect of our behaviour can be policed. We have to be seen to be deserving of help. This is achieved by looking for jobs, not just any jobs, but the ones which our family feel we must get. If we do not get them, or in my case, not start them soon enough, then it is our fault. It is not because unemployment is too high or I am too old or too qualified or all the other excuses companies give me for not employing me. Whatever stops me and even more the woman from my house, in getting back into work is purely and simply our fault and we need to be lectured at length about it. We are incredibly grateful for the help we received knowing we would be on the streets otherwise, but the price demanded is impossible to pay, it is a thirst for indignation directed at us that can never be sated. It is not helped by the myths that these people believe in which I have highlighted before, the most common, ‘how come you cannot get council housing, all these immigrants turn up in Britain and get given a three-bedroomed house for nothing’. This is not true but they would rather believe the ‘Daily Mail’ than the actual responses you have got from councils and benefit bodies.
Another aspect is the house rules. I have mentioned before, the challenge of being a lodger. You will always fail unless you can precisely read the mind of the homeowner. The rules are immense, down to where you can put a glass, the amount of food you can eat, when even down to what demeanour you must have and what you can talk about in the house. Any violation leads to another round of haranguing, because if you have put a cup out of place then it shows once more how useless, feckless, lazy you are and you must be alerted to and lectured about that. It is exhausting but clearly satisfies some need in the charity-givers psyche. This has shown me why, as Francis Beckett highlighted in ‘Clem Attlee’ (1994), Attlee disliked charity and insisted that the state should dispassionately give assistance to those in need. The direct giving of charity, unmoderated by organisations, is acidic to the souls of both the giver and the receiver. Of course, this is something that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and those other writers who so effectively wrote about our times feature in their novels. The mid-20th century anomaly is over and I suppose as I find myself facing ‘Hard Times’ I guess tolerate a lack of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and simply cope with the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and pray that I can get a job and rent somewhere to be away from here.