Despite coming from a ‘privileged elite’, as Polly Toynbee of the Guardian might describe the diaspora that passes for my family, although my father wasn’t an eminent academic historian; as the black sheep of the family, having run away and become an actor he’d been ‘cut off without a penny’; the same penny in child support he might otherwise have bunged my mother from time to time; in addition to writing long, breathless, compound sentences in memory of the late Bernard Levin, I have always worked for a living.
Sometimes there wasn’t much work, if any; often it wasn’t much of a living. At times I stumbled into jobs millennial media graduates can only dream about, only to stumble – or be slung – out again. But I kept buggering on. And now essentially retired, at 67 I’m feeling guilty and anxious about doing nothing, living on the State pension; which, contrary to accounts, can be lived on (if you are single, own a tiny cottage in the noisome outskirts of a seaside town and have put in your 30 years and more). In line with the current BBC policy of disclosure, I shall reveal: it is a few pennies under ten grand a year. Read, weep.
Usually I found myself employed by bullying, paranoid obsessives who, while lining their pockets by various accounting fictions, would demand unstinting loyalty and 14-hour days of continuous creative output for a tiny share of the money I was making for them; inbetweentimes I had work ironing people’s underpants, buffing their Agas and digging-out their flowerbeds for £5 an hour, honest toil in companionable silence with myself being preferable to working in an office where the height of discourse was generally: ‘Ooh look, you’ve had a haircut!’.
A current campaign designed to coincide with the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress, that increasingly threadbare annual jamboree of the working man and woman, has highlighted some of the, er, highlights of my own career. Several campaigns, in fact, including those of cleaners, carers and warehouse staff have been launched to show up Victorian employers who pay less than the minimum wage by getting round the regulations in imaginative ways while contributing their ill-gotten gains to UKIP.
You can do the math, but I don’t think you’ll beat my last employer for sub-minimal fiscal ingenuity.
The contract required me to work 37.5 hours a week, managing the estate in exchange for the £13,000 a year they proposed to start me on (that is thirteen, not a typo or the salary for a subeditor working on a regional newspaper, my previous role; that had been a bit less). I was yet 55 years of age, with a soon-to-be ex-wife, a mortgage, a bank loan, two children and sundry livestock to support, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I took the job because it came with a furnished flat. And it was the only one on offer.
My furnished new surroundings consisted, in the living-room, of a cracked faux-leather Chesterfield sofa, chocolate-brown; in the bedroom, a 1950s wooden bedstead with squeaky chainlink springs – no mattress. The tiny galley kitchen comprised a sink unit, with a cupboard underneath. Upstairs, was an acid-green coir carpet; downstairs, bare stone flags.
And that was it, the full complement of ‘furnished’. No curtains, no tables and chairs, no cooker or fridge, no wardrobe, no bedside cabinet, no lights other than of the naked overhead variety. Had there been a TV, owing to the high bank outside the window that let in neither light nor any other form of electromagnetism, it would have got only one channel, in Welsh.
I pointed out these lacunae to my attractive new Chinese employer, who waved vaguely around and said to help myself to whatever I could find – she thought there might be a few old things in the stables. Offering me £40 with which to decorate – the walls were bare, the floor spattered with paint and dried-on lumps of plaster – she got prettily into a taxi and departed for Taipei, leaving me alone in her husband’s newly acquired dream home, a dank and rotting Georgian Gothic mansion in the dripping depths of the countryside; thereafter sometimes forgetting to pay me at all.
It rapidly grew clear that, after I became the sole occupant of the house by day and night (my ‘part-time’ assistant ran off complaining of overwork and was not replaced), there was no one period of 37.5 hours out of 168 in the week that could bear definition as my official working-time.
If a party of hungry Korean tourists arrived at 11 pm having ‘stopped to take a look around Bath’, not a euphemism, I felt obliged to cook them supper. If, while I was walking Rollo, the soppy retriever across the lawn for his last outing at 1 am, two hoodied figures should detach themselves from a dark doorway and flee to a waiting car, who else was going to call the police?
And if the terrifying clamour of the fire alarm were to sound at 4 am, as it sometimes did, it was up to the manager to struggle into his clothes, ignoring the dazed guests milling around in the carpark while he made his way intrepidly through the unlit spaces of the upstairs corridors, avoiding rotted and missing floorboards to search a dozen rubble-strewn rooms for the one defective smoke-detector, and rip it bleeping from its socket.
In the first five years I took one day’s ‘sick leave’, to recover from the previous day’s surgery under general anaesthetic; albeit that I was still at my place of work and thus available to all comers. I took (officially) no holiday at all, although having somehow acquired a willing lady friend thirty miles away I would bunk off three nights a week, racing back at 5 am to prepare breakfasts, uncomfortably aware that my paying guests had had the place (and the fire alarm system) to themselves all night. I think they quite enjoyed it, although some were nervous of the ghosts.
On weekends whenever there was a wedding, never seldom enough, I would work my 37.5 hours in just two days; up at 8 am, bed at 4 am next day and up again at seven to prepare breakfast for the survivors; prise them out at noon, not forgetting to find someone I could stick the bill to, then set about turning the guestrooms round for the B&Bs arriving the same evening. Who, pray, was going to fill-in for me on the other five days?
Amusingly, my employer’s visiting HR toady was always going on at me to take all the time off that I was entitled to. Quite right! They were afraid I might sue. To be fair, after six months he raised my salary to £14k. But there was no answer to the question of who would then be available to evict random members of the public, found wandering around awestruck at the cheap and historically inappropriate 1990s ‘restoration’, the junkshop furnishings. They would coo, ‘Ooh, if I won the lottery, I’d buy this wonderful place!’ and I would snarl my exhaustion into their chapfallen faces, ‘Yes, and you’d need to win ten more lotteries just to keep it standing!’ (Guests used to call me ‘Basil’.)
In the successive winters of 2010 and 2011, the Gulf Stream deserted us for a month or so. The temperature in the main kitchen plunged one night to minus 14C, colder than the empty freezer. The pipes froze for days on end, and when it thawed the eclectic mix of fittings under the floorboards (who knew whence they all led?) sprang apart and the kitchen filled with water, running over the main circuit-board. In my furnished flat were neither heating nor running water, nor sometimes electricity; while builders had removed many of the floorboards in the office, where there was at least a heater of sorts and I could sit in my overcoat, browsing stoically on Asian Babes.
To this, despite my warnings of Arctic chaos the owners returned from China one Christmas with mum-in-law and the children in tow, and I forced them all to move into a hotel, an unnecessary and unbearable expense for which I was not forgiven. (I later found they had left the hotel I put them in and moved into a cheaply rented caravan.)
So, that’s 52 weeks, times 168 hours, goes into £14,000…. £1.60 an hour. And redundancy waiting at the end of it, with this shameful and tiresome retirement imposed by an unforgiving labour market, to sit-out on my embarrassingly generous State pension, blogging weirdly until I’m eventually discovered by social workers in a mummefied state, gnawed by cats. And before you say it, bloggers don’t get paid. We just don’t, okay?
But do you know what, Mrs O’Grady, cleaners, carers, Sports Direct victims, Unison? Sub-minimum wage? I bloody miss it!
The author is Editor-in-Chief of The Boglington Post.
Let us prey
Best Christopher Hitchens Arguments (Part 2). Viewed at: 1hr 30m
As part of her non-mandated education reforms, the Prime Minister, the stork-like Mrs May has announced that ‘faith schools’ in Britain can now freely ignore a previous injunction that they must admit 50% of pupils from local families not of the school’s advertised religious denomination.
Along with her intention to introduce more selective grammar schools, this different and unusual form of selection by parental ‘faith’ is illogically her way of increasing opportunities and reducing social inequality for less well-off children.
Hitchens’ warning is salutary: the barbarians aren’t at the gates, they’re in the city.
It goes without saying that, far from increasing their isolation from the mainstream community, faith schools ought instead as a matter of national security and sanity to be closed down and got rid of altogether.
Faith is an individual matter and not a proper basis for learning.
The future must not be entrusted to graduates of urban madrassas setting religious monoculturalism against rational pluralism; typically teaching both childish, atavistic superstition alongside rational scientific inquiry as being of equal merit. They are simply not.
Imposing uncritical, incontrovertible religious observance, mystical rites and unprovable belief systems such as Creationism or (pretty un-)Intelligent Design in schools, other than as subjects purely of academic curiosity and pity, while denying the extent and validity of contemporary knowledge, is evil, tantamount to child abuse.
Children must be taught to question, not to accept as certainty the ‘word of God’ as ‘revealed’ to illiterate desert-dwellers in selectively edited, internally contradictory and poorly translated, 2,000-year-old texts of dubious provenance recovered from caves; and to imagine that such dessicated ravings constitute a blueprint for anything greater than a narrowly prescriptive, ignorant, barbaric and cruel society, hagridden by a power-hungry, self-serving elite.