Posted by: Jon | 24/11/2009

Avoidance of the ‘bottom line’ … our last cultural taboo?

Sex is no longer an improper subject for general conversation. Somewhere between the confused sexual morality of the Victorians, the liberated 60’s and 70’s, and the explicit hardcore that anyone can now download for free, our attitudes to sex have changed. This photograph I took of an immigrant touting for clip-joint custom next door to Soho Primary School shows just how much we’ve become inured to the idea of passionless sex as a commodity in our society.

Sexual imagery in advertising and entertainment is now so common-place we barely notice it and any prudishness we may once have felt has long since disappeared. Death too seems no longer to perturb us – apart from the thought of our own, of course – but most of us seem quite dispassionate about the looming possibility of our demise through climate change.It seems little has the power to shock now; there are no restraints to our permissive attitudes, no forbidden subjects that convention dictates may not be openly paraded. Except, of course, the public revelation of our own personal incomes.

What we earn still remains an entirely private affair, a fact brought home to Louise and me as she has discovered she is paid considerably less than colleagues who do the self-same job – but were fortunate enough to have been employed before recession hit. Her investigations have not been aided by the outraged reactions of management and an edict from on high forbidding staff to discuss salaries.  

Regardless of such one-sided institutional rules, most people are coy when it comes to discussing their incomes. Recession-hit businesses are understandably protective about revealing the extent of their losses for fear of advantaging the competition. And bankers have proved less than keen to disclose their bonuses in public.

So it can be disconcerting for us when others are freely open about their earnings. For instance, I know of one writer, environmentalist and human ecologist who publishes all the details of his income and expenses on his web-site. He has nothing to hide, of course, and because some of his activities are sponsored by charitable donation, he feels it no less than integrity requires of him to open his accounts to public scrutiny.

And now, as I come round again to that heart-stopping time of the month when I struggle to balance my books, I’ve decided also to break this last cultural taboo of ours to let you in on my own finances. If you find this distasteful, you might want to stop reading now because it makes for an uncomfortable account. But for me, like Belle de Jour’s recent decision to reveal herself to all and sundry, it will be a relief to have it all out in the open. Because my main reason for inflicting such an embarrassing disclosure on you is that it seems such a perfect analogy for the state of our world.

To set the scene, Louise and I returned a year ago from a new life in France because, as for many other ex-pats, economic collapse and a weak pound have seriously impacted our finances. We left behind our project to restore a derelict farm as our home and demonstration centre from where we planned to run courses in sustainable living.

For family reasons (that quite properly remain private because they are not mine to reveal), we have needed over recent years to draw heavily on the capital we’d intended for our social enterprise. And now, after needing to rent property here in the UK for twelve months, what savings we have left have dwindled to rather less than half the average annual salary.

We always knew we were cutting it fine but, instead of being capital to build our new project, our savings have become our rainy day fund. And recently, as you know, we’ve had a lot of rain. So, as we fail each month to make ends meet, at the present rate of attrition I calculate we have perhaps one more year before we must think of scrounging off the state.

I don’t doubt that by now you are squirming with discomfort at these unsolicited revelations. But if you can manage to overcome your distaste, you will see that I am leading to a wider point.

My second embarrassing confession is that I am a ‘kept’ man. Unlike other unemployed males with children, I can’t claim to be a house husband because our progeny have long since flown the nest. So Louise works long hours to support us me at one of those social care jobs that nobody values much above the minimum wage. She took the job because it came with accommodation for her to fall back if she needed it. Unfortunately, now that she does, her employers have reneged on the contract.

Hence her dismay now she has also learned of her unequal pay. She is not even on the lowest rung of the pay scale supposedly operated by her charitable employer and it is galling for her to realise that her better rewarded colleagues also benefit from subsidised accommodation – at £100 per month – when the best commercial rent we have found locally is £750. But, because of recession, the disability care home at which she works is running on an annual over-spend and cutting staffing and service costs wherever it can.

Meanwhile I spend my days reading and scribing when I could be filling shelves at Tesco. Not that Tesco will give me a job because for most of my career I have been self-employed and am not the most biddable of team members. (I sometimes indulge my self-esteem by thinking of myself as a plain-speaking Alan Sugar or convention-busting Richard Branson type, except not so good at it because I don’t have an eye for the profit margins and prefer my entrepreneurial efforts to be socially useful). Be that as it may, I’ve always been self-determining in choosing my gainful occupation.

So my reluctance to compromise has put the bread-winning burden on Louise whilst I work on our future options. I’ve made a rod for my own back really since there are so many jobs I’m unwilling to do as they only perpetuate the unsustainable system that I rail against. But at least I’m left with a clear conscience for this same refusal to compromise has meant that, unlike the banks or the politicians, we have so far made no claims from anybody’s taxes in the public purse.

It’s been an eye-opening experience returning after a lifetime to the affluent area where I was born and attempting to live on a gross wage of £14,000 pa. Here in Surrey, there are plenty of millionaire residents and, despite recession, the average house price has remained at £400,000 whilst the average local salary is £23k. So we are far from being the only ones here who have difficulty keeping up with our more affluent neighbours and our monthly outgoings. To qualify for a mortgage in the Surrey Hills, a local needs to earn in excess of £100k a year.

Polly Toynbee wrote compellingly in her book ‘Hard Work’ of the grinding lives that wear down the health and mental well-being of the minimum-waged in London – an account of which Will Hutton said “every member of the cabinet should be required to read, apologise and then act”. But six years on, the cabinet are busy mopping up the leakage of their own expenses while conditions for those below the poverty line have worsened, not improved.

Toynbee is not the first to draw attention to the impossible lives of the under-classes when we abandon social progress for material gain. In 1934, George Orwell told the same story in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ and, before him, Elizabeth Fry asked us to examine our consciences and, before her, William Cobbett, Thomas Coram, John Lilburne, Wat Tyler, ad infinitum….

Every now and then, for entertainment purposes, some self-publicising MP or minor Royal or C-list celebrity is filmed taking a short sojourn on a northern council estate to prove that life is manageable on £64.30 a week and how, if they would only adopt the right attitude, the poor could improve their lot. We are all familiar with the theory that the rising tide of capital growth will float all boats together. Good news then for those of us below the poverty line that the housing market shows signs of lifting again and we can watch that elusive mortgage drift ever further from us.

Please don’t misunderstand me and imagine that I’m complaining. I’m just drawing attention to some home truths of poverty and homelessness like Trinny Woodhall or Jamie Blandford have done before me on TV. The difference is that I can speak from on-going personal experience. I wasn’t born impoverished of opportunity and I had the privileged start of a good (state) education. It was my own decision to choose a horizontal career pursuing social causes that are not known for high remuneration. So I’m happy to accept that my present circumstances are of my own making.

All I ask in return is that the government and economic systems that caused our present mess – thereby putting the squeeze on Louise and me and the many other hapless victims whose circumstances were already stretched – will allow us to crawl out of the mire on our own terms rather than those of the ‘free’ market economy. But whilst the system continues to favour those who perpetuate the problems rather than contribute to the solutions, then the system must accept it if I move beyond its self-serving dictates and conventions to help myself. “If you live outside the law, you must be honest” intoned Dylan. I’ve never been entirely sure what he meant by that, but as I find my personal values of fairness and equality increasingly outlawed, I know exactly what it means to me.

But to return to the discomfiting details. The first four hours of Louise’s working week are swallowed up by her rail travel to get there. The next thirty-two hours cover our weekly rent and council tax and a further twelve just about feeds us. Three more hours pays our weekly heat and light and water, so long as we are economical. Fixed costs like phone and internet, insurances, my NI contribution and car parking (there are no free spaces on the street) keep her busy for another nine.

So far that’s a total of sixty hours just to keep us afloat on the tide of prosperity. But it doesn’t account for the expenses of maintaining our as-yet unsold property in France, road tax, MOT, an unexpected clamping fee, fuel and repairs, my new glasses or my emergency dental treatment. Our discretionary income for entertainment, clothes, holidays and family birthdays is, of course, non-existent and our Christmas celebrations will be low-key this year.

But the fact is Louise does not always get sixty hours of work each week and every month we wind up with a £400 deficit. So it’s not hard to see that we can’t stay afloat much longer. Any other unforeseen expenses will surely capsize us.

A friend, commiserating as I poured out my sack of woes, said he doesn’t like to think of us being squeezed. And there’s the truth of it. Nobody enjoys being discomfited by first-hand encounters with poverty, be it our own or other people’s. So we seek to avoid them. And many of those whose world view remains insulated by a comfortable income surprisingly often find ways to attribute blame to the feckless and ‘undeserving’ poor. It’s only when we experience for ourselves the unequal social-economic consequences of an unsustainable culture that we are compelled to face up to them. 

Now for those metaphorical connections that I mentioned earlier.

For my ‘dwindling savings account’, read ‘the world’s depleting natural resources’.

For my ‘irreconcilable balance sheet’, read the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world’. 

For the destabilising shocks of ‘sudden unforeseen expenses’, read runaway climate impacts’ or ‘depleting energy supplies’.

For our deferred plans for our sustainability project, read diminishing hopes for a sustainable future.

For society’s ‘reluctance to discuss uncomfortable issues’, read ‘ignorance’  or avoidance’  or ‘denial.

For ‘outraged reactions’ at questioning of ‘unequal rewards’, read stilted social values’ or corporate vested interests’ or ‘institutional mechanisms of order and control’.

For ‘the homeless down-and-outs’ and the ‘bored teenage hoodies’ on the TV info-tainment shows, read desire for a better future without agency to act upon it’.

For how we are being ‘squeezed ever harder’ by the system, read increasing world poverty’ or ‘human climate impacts’ or ‘the causes of migration or ‘climate refugees’ or growing geo-political instability’.

For my ‘anger’ at being squeezed, read security implications of climate change’ or domestic extremism’ or ‘violent acts of terror

For ‘reneging’ on the contract, read ‘exported carbon emissions’  or ‘misplaced climate funds’

For ‘get off your backside and get a job’ responses, read gated communities’ or privatised security arrangements or curtailed civil liberties’ .

For the differences between my ‘home-made Christmas’ plans and those who are ‘jetting off for some winter sun’, read ‘complacency’ or ‘Western-centric world view’ or ‘inexcusable amorality’.

Okay, I’ve finished now. We can resume our normal conversational taboos. Disclosure is never comfortable, but at least I feel a bit better for letting you in on how things stand.

Of course, it may be that I’m just projecting my own personal sustainability anxieties onto my wider view of our unsustainable consumer culture. But I don’t think so. And I still can’t comprehend our prudish reluctance to discuss such matters – especially now that we all seem so relaxed about the images of non-consensual  ‘bondage’ and ‘gagging’ and ‘anal intercourse’ our children can so freely access on the net.

On second thoughts, perhaps we still prefer not to talk about those things either. I suppose that now the market determines our values for us, it really isn’t any of our concern.


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