Hi. I am a 47 year old man living in Salford near Manchester in North West England. For over twenty years I enjoyed a meaningful career in press and digital media in London, Brighton and locally until February 2015. I lived a very comfortable, executive lifestyle. Since then I have been a Universal Credit claimant living in the badlands and experiencing first hand a life hidden from view. Not on your TV sets. I am your fly-on-the-wall. Come take a walk with me.....
An extract: From Under A Cloud on Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant: a new free digital book by Gary Knapton. Some names have been changed to protect the residents.
Smeaton is on the move.
Down in the concrete subways golden leaves, trampled underfoot from the churchyard by passers-by long since away, fan out and float in shallow pools, bloated. Mostly supine but some prone like the newly risen bodies of drowned people. A branded soda drink plastic wrapper curling into itself like a sleepy child fresh separated from its liquid cylinder mother, rocks lightly in the downdraft of the wind tunnel. Close by, a four-drink coffee house disposable holder sinks in the mulch, the corrugations of its egg-box fabric comb-drenched straight where it submerges. A short blue betting shop pen. A string of unidentifiable scraps of take away food and drink. Probably.
Manchester United. Sharon Warner Fat Slut. A tudor rose. Dates of birth. Initials. A hip-hop music reference. More football badges and boasts.
The graffiti is, to me, homely and familiar warm. A placeholder against which I consciously index the bookends of each day. Like a garden gate or a lapping dog or a good wife thrusting a packed lunch into my hands whilst wrapping my neck in wool and at the same time kissing it. The letters of each word and symbol emblazoned in crude acrylics and primary colours and a pointed block font with inconsistent Gothic serif. Branded righteous by time and authenticity and the luminous reflected energies of a low flying Autumn sun. To walk here daily is to receive each object sensationally and as modalities without yet relationally within. Quantities and qualities ring-fenced yet threaded in a daisy chain or weaved into a tune. The echo of a brazen catcall. The transcendental aesthetic.
Nobody knows Smeaton’s first name. He is six foot three and walks gingerly to a limp beat rhythm, aided by a stick clutched squarely in his left hand where a brown leather strap wrapped tight around his white knuckles from which the blood flow had scarpered, thus binding him to the prop. Yet I could swear I had seen him running at a pace after dark. In amongst the urban shadows.
Nobody knows whether he lives on the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth floor of the Hill. Whether or not he is sofa-surfing or paying rent. For he is accounted for arriving and departing at the lift doors to all of these floors on most days and nights and seemingly not to a discernible pattern.
He definitely lives on the block though. Of that there is no doubt. A smart attorney might attest, if push came to shove and willed by a baying jury, that his comings and goings prove nothing more than visitor behaviour. Yet Smeaton lives here. He has that look that we all have after a year or two. Not his attire. The one behind the eyes that betrays a knowledge of the Hill that, were she a lady, would be termed “carnal”.
So into the labyrinthine structures he goes. His comely bulk diminishing. Eaten by distance. Behind him the pebble dash concrete and sun flecked filthy panes stack up and mesmerise in a gorgeous vertical mindful to me of airport runways.
Low sun. High-rise. The tower and the saucer.
This is Heartbreak Hill.
Ferrier is at least ninety. He is a chain-smoking socialist with an impressive host of ex-wives. He knows absolutely everything. One can only imagine the burgeoning archetype sophistry of the university from which he graduated. How he adorned its reading rooms and courtyards in a world gone by. The cycle racks. The turreted red-brick constellations. The buffeted shiny wax parquet floors.
Mike used to live in Germany and pawns his watch on most Wednesdays to finance the leisurely drinking of cheap port from Iceland at home with his girlfriend Mandy. He’s on the twentieth. He’s a kind and gentle soul. Approaching retirement age and wheezing like the Arctic tundra yet smoking with defiance to the very end. A good soldier. His registered COPD status does not win him a blue badge for his car nor a free bus pass. So confined, he shuffles, most days, around the precinct malls beneath the block with his mate Geoff who thinks he is shortsighted but is in fact blind. As you will attest when he walks into you. Which is always. Geoff, like Mike, is gentlemanly and upbeat.
Ferrier is a weather-worn sailor safe in his bubble of parted gems and the promise of those kept back.
Now these three, I see from here, exit the precinct at its western gate and make for the FeedMyCity food van parked outside Mrs Wyatt’s. The wind howls down the Broadway into the deep distance.
Smeaton, having emerged from Dante’s pass, has already melted into the shimmering blur of the inner city.
An extract: From Under A Cloud on Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant: a new free digital book by Gary Knapton. Some names have been changed to protect the residents.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill is a new free public access book on surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton. It is being redacted and edited for legal reasons. This blog drip-feeds book extracts and related material.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c.36) is an Act of Parliament of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that creates a public “right of access” to information held by public authorities. It is the implementation of freedom of information legislation in the United Kingdom on a national level.
I am taking the DWP to a tribunal hearing. It should take place this winter. Earlier in this blog I wrote about my Work Capability Assessment experience of summer 2018.
This is not a call to get the violins out. This is not a story about me. Rather, I am using my personal situation to gather data in the manner of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I am interested in how the government’s Department of Work & Pensions treats people when it believes it is acting under a veil of privacy. When it thinks nobody is looking and keeping a record of what is going on.
I am interested in evidence of structural and infrastructural corruption and abuse of process.
About one year ago I began to suspect that seriously ill people, signed off by specialist psychotherapists, GP’s and employer HR specialists as being very unfit for particular types of work that require elements of personal judgment and accuracy were being forced into taking jobs where poor standards could and actually did compromise public safety.
It is my contention that the DWP, once in receipt of verification that an individual is ill in such a capacity – buries the relevant documentation and forces that individual back into the very same type of work.
In my case and in my own personal experience, this work includes such things as placing road cones on motorways to form contra-flow traffic systems on the M6 and M1 in the UK. It includes working shifts with metal detectors on frozen meat products that enter the UK from abroad to go on general sale in our supermarkets. Items such as frozen chickens and fish.
It is my contention that, in such lines of work, when standards fail due to human error and catastrophe strikes, a cover-up is executed whereby the personnel within DWP that knowingly sent an unfit person to the front line, then feign innocence. Meanwhile people are dying and suffering injuries and are always at risk of such.
How the DWP buries evidence of ill health
In February this year I used a section of law within the Freedom of Information Act (2000) to force the DWP to send me everything it holds on me.
Ten years ago Heather Rose Brooke – a British-American journalist – used the same piece of statute to force MP’s to declare their expenses.
On Valentines Day I cycled to the Post Office collections centre with the ubiquitous red postcard. But instead of a large bunch of roses and a declaration of undying love from a secret admirer, I got something much better. And it made the old Yellow Pages look slender.
I painstakingly worked through the mundanity of the DWP CRM and I colour indexed a few pages that I thought may be of interest before handing the whole bundle over to my lawyer.
Months passed and then yesterday – the 20th August 2019 – I met up with Rose who had prepared my tribunal appeal script and wanted to brief me on what lay ahead. When I arrived at her office she was especially upbeat. In no time she pulled out a document within the FOI bundle that I had not seen. And it tells its own story.
Above: the Freedom of Information Right of Request bundle from DWP dwarfs my desk and all other desktop inhabitants. It’s like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina without the narrative hook.
The process for legal tribunals is that I bring the case and the other side defends its position. Lawyers would argue that my terminology is incorrect but this is the best way to explain what goes on. Technically, I am not prosecuting I am an Applicant. Therefore, the other party is not defending, it is a Respondent. In this instance, the other side is The Secretary of State. Yesterday, my lawyer had received the Secretary of State’s Response to my tribunal application. It basically defends the DWP position that I am perfectly fit for work. And I mean perfectly. You have to score fifteen points or more to be considered as potentially unfit for some professional roles. I scored zero.
So we’re going through the Respondent’s bundle and the thing is we are comparing it to the truth of what they actually know about me because, remember, I have the FOI warts and all “This Is Your Life” mega-pack on what the Secretary of State really knows.
One Glaring Omission
The Secretary of State appears to be obsessed with my physical health. The fact that I can tie my own shoe laces and put my hands above my head. Make my own bed. Cook my own food. This office defends its decision to score me zero points for all the mental health categories and declares that in interacting with other people in the workplace there is nothing out of the ordinary.
Buried by DWP and only picked up by my lawyer as she scoured the Freedom of Information data is the following document: (scroll down to see an image of the original).
It is only three pages long. It is a communication between the DWP Centre for Health and Disability Assessments and my GP. I had never heard of it before. I was unaware not just of its content but of its existence.
It is stamp dated 10th September 2018 – precisely when DWP was giving me a clean bill of health to set up the motorway cones for your midnight drive home up the M6 and check the metallic content of your dinner. Mysteriously, it does not appear in the information that DWP has sent to the court to respond to my application for a tribunal hearing.
It has been buried.
In it, the government asks my GP if I am fit to work and she replies No with a rather detailed answer in handwriting. Take me out of the picture and just see an individual you never heard of. Would you want this person carrying out public safety tasks that you and your family depend on?
Imagine a fatality and here is a professional risk assessment of the employee who put nuts in your food or caused a multi-car pile up involving your daughter or your mum. Compiled long before the tragedy. Received and buried by the same government department that forced that person back into the same job.
In her own handwriting, when asked about conditions affecting this person’s ability to work, my GP has scribbled the following:
Low mood. Anxiety. Poor sleep. Multiple stressors including family issues, financial issues – long standing.
Had psychological therapy July 17 – ended after completing 16 sessions of cognitive analytical therapy. Discharged in October 17 but very quickly referred back by GP. On waiting list since November 17 for the high intensity team was expecting to be called June 18 but still on waiting list to my knowledge.
Not on any antidepressant or anti-anxiety meds. We have tried to avoid sleepers. Has tried benzodiazepines sourced from friends but dissuaded from doing this.
States also been a victim of hate crime.
Intensive psychotherapy would preclude job seeking I feel.
Don’t take my word for it. Read the letter below. I am not paraphrasing. And yet the point is not the content, the point is the subterfuge. Why is DWP failing to disclose crucial evidence it has collected from registered health professionals? Why is DWP abusing the legal due diligence process?
How would you feel about the employer of the errant worker, knowing that they knew the above about that individual and still sent them back into a job that in the end caused an accident that had a bearing on you or your loved ones ?
This is your government.
HeartbreakHill is a project like any other. It takes two steps forward and one step back. Happily, it is moving ahead with pace once more and I am aiming for a general free public release of my book before Christmas. I’ll keep you posted.
The book is written. We are engaged in thorough editing and redacting for legal reasons.
Above: The hidden document. The one that got buried. The one they are keeping, even from the tribunal court.
Above. Secretary of State’s Response to my tribunal application and case as I have laid it out. This is the top sheet.
I will be settled
The thing is, my case is likely never to reach the tribunal floor. If it does, I will win. But more likely, DWP will award me an “unfit for work” status in the interim, thereby killing the case off. And so in a sense, the systemic corruption gets a clean pass and I am silenced. The far-reaching implications of the point I am making and the abuses I am exposing get shunted back into the darkness.
What I could really use is a legal team with a class-action angle and a leftfield courageous team of investigative journalists to do a body count of people in my position and then hit the litigation mechanism with a stack of departmental abuses, a truck load of proven cover-ups and a handful of deaths and injuries that satisfy the causal link criteria in UK law.
This story is to be continued. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from seven thirty for about ninety minutes the JVA mobile soup kitchen pops up on Brindle Heath, outside The Church public house. This forlorn arm of former industrial wasteland juts out on a rise above Salford and affords a wide angle view of inner city Manchester. In winter after dark those Mancunian lights twinkle and blur in a promise of urban avarice.
Oh baby the stars shine bright.
At seven fifteen a slow caravan of vehicles weaves off the East Lancs Road and onto the heath. A dozen men and women, old and young, disembark and promptly assemble a marquee, a serving desk featuring urns of hot food and beverages and a makeshift self-service open-air cafe of left-overs from Greggs. Paper plates and cups are stacked next to those grey plastic troughs of knives, forks and spoons we had in school dining halls thirty years ago. But here the cutlery is plastic. A square of tables and chairs allows customers to sit and chat while they grab their first meal of the day or, as is often evident, the first meal in days if not weeks.
The staff stand in attendance behind the hot-food-and-drink desks, eagerly serving the queue and making light friendly chat. Serving tea and coffee is a young woman in a pink hooded top with blonde hair. Jenny is eighteen and studying for her A levels. She’s here with her mum and dad who are setting up the marquee and loading take-away bundles of food off crates from the back of a Volvo estate car. John is managing the sandwich bar and cleaning the tables. He’s been living in hostels after completing a prison sentence five years ago. He’s been volunteering for JVA since the first month he got out. I saw him here on Christmas day in 2017, which fell on a Monday. You don’t take days off when your customers might starve to death if you do. They probably will anyway but you’re pushing it back.
JVA stands for the Joint Veterans Alliance. The charity struggles for funding so its members are draining their personal funds to do this. Ex-military men who are kicked onto the scrap heap when they return home from years of service in exile choose to give up their lives back on civvy street by helping those in similar need. Now isn’t that something?
On that Christmas day Monday that I mentioned, these men and women were out here on the freezing Brindle heath. Teeth chattering, feet stamping and fingers numb. Some of them were even walking the doorways of Manchester city centre with freshly baked Christmas cake for the poor souls who couldn’t even make it to support site locations. Everyone counts in large amounts.
Dave circulates and chats to the eaters – some of whom he has come to know well. I see him promise to go down to the local A&E right after the kitchen concludes in order to check on the boyfriend of one of the girls attending. Tanya says Kevin was beaten up last night before being arrested in the melee. It’s clear to me that this is more than just a soup kitchen. It’s a social service. A welfare support.
Some young men stand away from the set-up in the deep shadows, feverishly wolfing down food like animals. It’s good to see. You know, real hunger being sated. It reminds me of when you feed your dog. That ravishing function of the teeth. Sheer urgency.
Others sit at the table and either converse lowly or lean into their plates in a bid to see off intruders. This is not a social function, afterall. Nobody’s here to network. Energy levels are low.
One middle aged lady ladles tea from a hot cup clasped tightly between both hands into her mouth from a spoon whilst wearing a big smile. She’s blowing off rising steam at the rim and ingesting in a continuous loop. Her ear-to-ear grin is infectious and I smile too. She doesn’t want any food. She’s so skinny she’s no doubt gotten out of the habit of consuming it. People don’t want to get their hopes up by flooding their metabolism with the vital promise of nutrition only for another long session of hunger to cheat their newly awakened nervous systems. It’s easier just to leave the stomach asleep and retain a psychology of hopelessness. Anything more is tantalisingly cruel. Life’s hard enough. This is the real version of expectation management. Not that sugar-coated client-care bullshit your L&D coach has you missing half a day in the office for.
I spot-count eighteen hungry souls devouring the food and everyone has a hot drink. People share cigarettes and pass round a joint. Off to one side is a vacant lot sealed by ten-foot high wooden boards. There’s a small gap in the boards thirty feet away from the marquee. People squeeze through to use the privacy to take a pee.
The atmosphere is calm and relaxed. One or two are here to chat but conversation is largely muted. I recognise many faces from around town and the shop doorways. I nod to a few people who sleep in some of the local hostels and who often shout my name when I set out on a run through town. People in my block are here. Neighbours. The women come here in packs. It offsets the danger of walking through a crazy-golf sequence of disused subterranean concrete subways, especially after dark. Most of the subway tunnel lights are smashed or disconnected. But it’s a journey you have to make.
It’s food. It’s an absolute life saver.
!Audacious & The Mustard Tree
There are gospel churches scattered throughout Salford, from Eccles to the quays to the Irwell river banks where our city rubs shoulders with the celebrity neighbour. The river is the visible boundary. Where she morphs into the ship canal at Pomona docks and swerves right at Old Trafford she’s referred to as The Old Ditch.
The Lighthouse is on the new link road that connects Eccles to MediaCityUK. The New Harvest is down in the Irwell valley opposite the Arena. !Audacious is huge. I once navigated someone to it from the quays by jumping in the car with them and co-driving. The beauty of the soup kitchen in !Audacious – and similarly at The Mustard Tree opposite the Chinese Cash ‘n Carry is that customers get to sit at a table and choose from a menu. They get to enjoy being waited on. This elegant twist injects a vital ingredient into the lives of the starving poor: personal dignity. What could be of higher value ?
Think about it: we are not just trying to feed hungry mouths. We are extending compassion and love to our fellow brothers and sisters. The prime function is an authentic demonstration of personal value. Proof of life. The food is the medium through which we do it.
Loaves & Fishes
Opposite my Job Centre on Paddington Close in Pendleton, M6, is the new home of Loaves & Fishes. This soup kitchen has indoor seating but also boasts a garden with wooden benches and parasol heaters – rather like a beer garden. The outdoor bit allows customers to mingle out of the watchful eye of staff. You know, get a bit of breathing space from authority figures. Bear in mind a lot of these people have been in jail or hostels or police cells or they are constantly in trouble at school or college. They sure could use a moment or two out of the eye line of custodians and deputy heads and arresting officers. Anyone in authority triggers the old anxiety. Loaves & Fishes recognises this.
While people eat, a suite of offices in the main building houses citizens-advice-bureau trained staff who help customers complete application forms to organise their finances and stay on top of obligatory admin. Yeah. At the very bottom end of society, the paperwork in-tray comes in sky high stacks. Many people cannot write. Yeah. The fifth richest nation on earth. Like, for real.
Edwin Hugh Shellard’s gothic-style church was built in 1856 but looks and feels much older. It’s truly glorious and complete with a quadrant garden of landscaped trees and colourful flower beds. It’s like stumbling into Corpus Christi college down Merton street in Oxford. Weirdly it sits deep in the heart of the poorest sink estate in town, surrounded on all sides by towering slum highrises in a pedestrianised crime hot zone called the Broadwalk. The weed and crack dens of Mulberry, Magnolia and Sycamore (all the highrise blocks have soft, Utopian escapist names) look down on Mrs Wyatt’s soup kitchen, flooding it with acid techno and Bob Marley beats, twenty-four seven. Mrs Wyatt lives here. Her jumble sales, soup kitchens and crash-English courses for newly arrived Syrians fleeing the war zone are legendary. She runs a hostel from here that offers temporary bed and breakfast to a dozen or so young men and women.
Known as St Paul’s C of E church to innocent passers-by, it is so much more. You’ll see as much if you take a minute to cross the threshold.
Set up by a couple of women who used to be homeless themselves, Lucie’s Pantry is my own GoTo. I take other people to all the others for company and to keep abreast of goings on. There’s never a shortage of people to help and things to do. A smile. A hug. A chat. Authentic personal enquiry. These are world changing devices to people who grew up without love or parents or school and are now dying of hunger.
Social supermarkets look like food banks but there is a crucial difference; personal dignity. They position themselves smartly between high street shops and soup kitchens. People newly unemployed who cannot afford to feed their families often get issued a food coupon at their job centre which can be traded for goods at a participating food bank. The thing is, this can be humiliating – the ultimate admission of defeat in terms of economic independence. It sends people headlong into the throes of the mental health system, Samaritans, A&E or worse. Social supermarkets recognise that solving short term poverty in a manner which generates a stream of equally dangerous situations is not the best way forward.
You cannot just throw people food. We are not dogs, even if we eat like them.
If you’re on Universal Credit and live locally you can join Lucie’s Pantry. This is a terrific social supermarket. You pay £2.50 a week in cash. Many people do not have bank accounts. You have to prove your benefits status and local residency status and you have to record the temperature of your fridge. You take a cold-storage bag to put things in. Each week you pick up a basket and shop. You get to take ten items. Four from the red shelf. Three from the green. Two from the yellow and one from the deep freezer. There are usually one or two freebies on offer. You check out with an item count. Pay up. Sign the attendance form and that’s the deal. If you miss a week you still have to pay so it will be £5-00 next week. Miss more than three weeks on the run and you’re out.
The place is like the size of a double car garage. The food is wide ranging. You can carb out on junk such as canned soda, cakes and crisps or you can grab staples: bread, milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and veg. I manage to fill my quota on healthy eats. Spinach. Nuts. Shin beef. Full fat milk. High fat condiments. Tomatoes. Salmon steaks. Avocado. Quinoa. It’s not always possible but usually I hit the jackpot. All the food is on the verge of turning but it comes in from all retailers. Tesco Finest. M&S. Sainsbury. The Co-op. Asda. It’s all here.
Crucial non-foods include sanitary towels, loo roll, kitchen roll, mouthwash, toothpaste, showergels, soaps and general hygiene accessories.
Immigrant families humbly scour the shelves, many not yet in command of English. It must be awfully frightening for them and while the women shop, I sense shame hanging off the men as they stand with their children near the door.
Yet Lucie’s Pantry takes most of that shame away because – and I speak from personal experience – unlike a soup kitchen – that low entry subscription fee transforms beggars into genuine paid-up customers and this is the vital quality we must offer our brothers and sisters at this end of society. The forgotten lonely and the never-quite-decriminalised and the immigrant citizens and the mentally ill and the uneducated and the abused and the shameful. Usually, people I meet carry more than one of these burdens on their shoulders.
Every now and again I come across a neighbour in the lift on the way up to my condo in the sky. He makes enquiry as to precisely where Lucie’s pantry is. He’s clearly interested. But when I offer to show him, perhaps because other people are in earshot, he proudly declares he doesn’t need it. He clearly needs it. Personal pride is just as big an obstacle as any other to people at the lower end of opportunity just as it is to people at the top.
Because just under the surface, we are all the same. Feeding people is not enough. All humans are worth their quota of human dignity. We can feed each other and leave our self-respect in tact. And we can do more. We can reach out – and not just metaphorically. Hug people. Sit down in the doorways with your brothers and sisters and look them in the eyes and ask after them. Get to know and use their names.
Just out of sight, Salford has a big beating heart. I love living here. We are leading the way. This is the most important work in the world. Turn your TV off and join us.
The above is an extract from Gary Knapton’s book From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Confessions of a Benefits Claimant. Coming soon.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit: A Contemporary Diary From The New British Underclass of 2019.
Go find the others
“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Go find the others…” Timothy Leary
Knowledge is not wisdom in the same way that learning is not comprehension. This is not an impromptu lesson in semantic priming. The consequences are stellar: a cold uncaring non-society or a common humanity of intuiting and wholly experiencing the essence of our bonding qualities.
The homeless sleeper with a dog. If, like some of my acquaintances, you experience such a person and instantly think ‘How come they can afford a dog? Hmmm. This implication of decadence really gets under my skin!’ … then you are applying knowledge – a kind of base retention of facts – and you are focusing narrowly on those facts. Zooming in myopically. Being clever. Honing your cognitive skills to argue a cool brand of razor like reason. The thing is, you have not noticed how your question seamlessly segwayed from inquiry to rhetoric. This leaves you superior, cold and unkind. Heartless.
Also now trending: the line of argument that homeless people are not really homeless or that they are so of their own volition.
Yet, whereas knowledge is a base retention of facts, wisdom is knowing what all the facts mean when they fit together. This is comprehension. A rounded understanding. A long lens zoomed out for a landscape view of the grand design. Not some dumb pinpoint inquiry.
The wise person will tend to get the whole context and break free from the attentive glare of the immediate knowledge: man with dog: ergo, dog costs money for upkeep: ergo sum, man must have money. This blatant inconsistency left swinging in the wind as a semi-conscious barrier to the dissonance we feel when we step over the shop doorway bodies without so much as a human nod, holding tight the loose change in our pockets lest it make the give-away chimes of mean-spiritedness. The whole rhetorical question constructed on instinct as a base foundation to justify our turning a blind eye. Our very questioning of the validity of the needy in our midst, paper-thin as it is, just the tool we need to continue on our ego-driven way without the nagging sense of shame or guilt. Move on quickly to thoughts anew. Best not dwell.
I’m not saying give all your money to the thousands of homeless people that line our streets. I am simply saying stop lying to yourself that some modern conspiracy has taken hold whereby wealthy people simulate neediness. Wake up to your privilege and the gratitude that it can unlock.
The wise will empathise and feel pity and gladness that some charitable projects have seen the light in funding the very poorest most wretched souls in our stinking rich society the opportunity for vital psychological company.
And the heart of the wise man and wise woman will see the cleverness of the knowledgeable for the disconnected damaging agent it is. This aside from the sheer dumb stupidity of choosing, of all demographics in our over privileged world in which to carry out a spot check financial audit, those with the very least.
Dogs for the wealthy and those with families are fine huh? You seem to want to deprive those with nothing to start with.
This is what happens when we retain facts and stop at the learning-knowledge level. It is vain glory. We look and sound clever. We give the impression of wisdom. But authentic wisdom only comes when we make the effort to execute the data banked into a genuine personal comprehension such that we know what sums of knowledge might mean. Without afforded meaning, we are cool calculating actors. Arrogant and unkind. Merely intelligent in the passive, sentient sense.
Wisdom is heart. Comprehension is compassion.
Turn the telescope around and zoom out to enjoy the all-inclusive perspective of panoramic detail. This is the birth of truth and context. This is the birth of unity.
Knowledge from learning is granular and atomic. Equipped thus we tend to see only our differences.
Wisdom from comprehension is our community: our common unity. Equipped thus we tend to see our true nature: that we are one.
When you are ready and able to find the humanity in the homeless guy with the dog. With the annoying guy in the office who won’t stop banging on about Brexit. With friends and relatives who have slighted you. With people who ask for favours all the time but never seem to acknowledge or give thanks with signs of learning or an expression of gratitude. With people who stand resolutely for interests that do not align with yours. With your perceived and actual threats and enemies.
Then you have gone and found the other people within those people. You have gone and found the others.
The late MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, was a dedicated humanitarian whose maiden speech to the House of Commons requested that we can all exercise the opportunity we get daily, for free, to concentrate on the things that bind us rather than the things that stand us apart.
Go find the others
Whenever you have an insight and, like a muscle, you exercise it and enshrine it with the frequent reference of new habit, personal growth occurs.
Often, at this stage, people will ask – what now? What do I do now?
It is a question of a practical nature and an indictment of our teleological consumer age, where we all have to be metaphorically “going” somewhere or doing something in a bid to continue the rush to get out of now and to make headway in the chase for some promised land that lies just up ahead. Over the brow of the next hill or round a bend in the road. Always just out of sight.
Yet, if you go find the others in the people you least like, as described above, there is nothing else to do because everything has already changed. This is change on a personal level.
And if you still care to satisfy that practical urge born of a utilitarian mindset, you can always take the phrase literally, and go find the other people in your midst who have discovered this self same insight. You can jump into their standing wave and in this manner you can hone the skill set and refine your relationship with it. You can join the existing community and continue along the curve of learning and inspiration that awaits for you there. This is a gateway to peace and joy.
Go find the others
Or, you can create your own standing wave for other people to join. Both such actions constitute change on an interpersonal level. Rather than embracing the existing community, you can take your new self, in demonstration, to the residual unwitting community at large. Again, this usually involves “doing” nothing. People, it seems, will be drawn to you for your newfound compassionate calm and the magnetic pull of the energy field you emit.
Since you have gone and found the others in a psychologically internal sense, the neonate others will come and find you in a very real and physically exterior sense. Personal begets interpersonal begets educational begets public and thus the ripple breaks out across the waters of culture and society at large.
These are the reciprocities of the higher chakras. The uncoiling serpent springing forth. Unity visible. This is kundalini rising.
Thanks for reading
The book From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit is in final edit and will be available to the public in due course.
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book from Gary Knapton
Love in a blue time
Why are robots replacing humans at so many jobs? Because they can. Ergo sum, humans, until the point of singularity, have wasted, are wasting and will continue to waste their lives usurping the function of machines. Doh! Small wonder that nobody in the globalised “western” world stops to appreciate the value of their eyesight or the sweet sound of rainfall on tree leaves. The sheer wonder of the anti-gravity nature of muscular architecture in bipedal hominids. You know, a viscous dense liquid, thick as fortified wine, pumping vertically upward from the toes of your feet to the neocortex of your brain continuously, successfully, subconsciously, for billions of heartbeats without one single incidence of failure. Bloody marvellous. No surprise too that people rarely reflect upon my point of machine reductionism. Afterall, robots don’t reflect. It’s only a short jump from here to the glum admission that we have turned ourselves into little balls of energy for productive material and tertiary output. We have commoditised everything and even objectified our own bodies to the extent that we can’t extract meaning or self-value without looking at our property or in the mirrors. But the mirrors present only a reflection of our view of the external from the same inner perspective. We are lost. The collective noun? Losers.
Can I speak, then, of an experience of what would classically be termed “poverty” in a hopeful way and with gratitude? Can I talk about Universal Credit and, by implication, its armoury of adverse qualities whilst standing resolutely outside that weary, weatherworn arena of modern day politics and personal egocentricity?
Can I reflect upon and narrate and address my own journey without falling easily into the wide avenues of blame and the cul-de-sacs of despair that have come to own this debate and have succeeded too often in all but drowning out the humanity and the humility which, stripped of its harpies of anger and bitterness, rings out in an altogether different tone to that which the mainstream media and half of my Universal Credit collecting brethren are singing in? From the midst of a world organised neatly into exclusive ownership, the glitzy temptress of “stuff” shelved, penned and caged. Exclusive sirens. Each new commodity: a dancer twisting like a flame in a slow dance – while the sleepwalking masses learn the attachments of need, desire and fear – can I summon the grace to walk from the erstwhile call of these Orwellian silos of “success” and induce instead, from my own personal bell-tower of human embodiment, a new campanology of gratitude, wonder and joy? The joy of witness. The wonder of question. The gratitude of this living, breathing, beating heart experience. Can I just do this if nothing else?
I doubt it. We’ll see.
There is a crisis of agency. Not just in the high castles of power and privilege. It’s easy and accurate to feel like a victim and play the victim. There is a crisis of agency within all of us.
We find ourselves paralysed within the polemics of superficial debate, held in the magnetic fields of partisanship, tribal loyalties, the pride of reputation, the appetite of ego and the neurosis-papered prison walls of political correctness. The echo chambers of our self-constructed feedback loops resonate our righteousness high into the cavernous rafters of our own organised groups – digital and non-digital. It is not good enough to blame social media for robbing us of the ability to be open minded and to take personal responsibility. We are social media. We are doing it.
Universal Credit went “live” in November of last year for many of us. This upgrade to the service-end of the benefits system manifests as an online interface that gives the recipient of the welfare payment more control over information in a bilateral manner.
This enables me to show you how Universal Credit “looks” when it turns up as money on the ATM screen and how it breaks down. There are only two components of it, for me, and the millions who receive this type of UC in Britain today – formerly a triumvirate of Job Seekers Allowance, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Exemption.
The single sum payment which justifies the adjective “Universal” is contained in the blue box at the top of the Payments screen when I log into my account. This is cut into two: one bit to pay my rent and one bit to live off.
Now, as opposed to in times gone by, I get to see what next months payment looks like a good seven days before it arrives, without having to call the hotline and ask. This is a good thing. At the breadline end of society people get jumpy and antsy about the short term future. There is often no need to, but we do.
“You said that your rent is £455.00 per month” is written in text in the Housing box. It’s not quite accurate. I didn’t “say” my rent was that amount. I was obliged to provide, in person, the original copy of the tenancy agreement as proof of rent. That’s fair enough.
And you can see that despite this acknowledgement, the Housing sum dispatched is actually lower than my rent – so the bit to live on takes a hit before it starts. Council Tax is no longer a duty from which I am exempt.
Yet I am housed. I have privacy and exclusive possession. I enjoy running water and electricity. I have a roof over my head and food in the kitchen. I am typing on a high-spec desktop computer supported by a pretty awesome fibre connection. I have a wardrobe of clothes. I am educated. I am blessed with both my physical and mental health. And unlike many of you, I am not interrupted by the busyness of business with its dollar sign attritional glare and its stealth drug of need and attachment that hovers just above the neon clouds of consumerism like a high precision drone. Out of sight – even though it owns you.
If you are working, ostensibly all is well. You possess free will and, even though you are a little time poor – and even cash strapped – you are in employment and as such you are rinsed in a wholesome sheen of worthiness, purpose and engagement.
And I agree. You are.
And yet you are not. Let’s just say “it’s complicated”. Such an existential line is a lie you have been fed. Deep down you long since began to intuit the con.
Agency – the will to power up our minds and bodies and actually do something – not necessarily to change anything on a physical plane but rather to play the cards we are dealt and make optimal use of the here and now – starts with clarity and perspective. And that starts with raw honesty.
My situation, although seen as a plight by my immediate peers – the guys I graduated with and my former colleagues in low to mid-earning salaried jobs with company cars and expense accounts – puts me way out ahead of billions of people on the planet who would literally give anything to be in my position. So I consider it my duty, in the name of raw honesty and authentic perspective, to compare myself to them and to them only.
I have friends out in the refugee camps just beyond the Syrian border working hard to pioneer a version of monetary Blockchain technology to replace food vouchers in the cardboard cities of 100,000 wretched souls where professional gangs are stealing and forging the paper coupons. This will enable everyone to eat. My friends have walked away from their lives of Western privilege to contribute, heal and serve, compromising their personal safety to do so. Doing it anyway.
Closer to home, in the soup kitchens, hostels, food banks and social supermarkets that line the streets of my neighbourhood, the biggest hearts – the people most dedicated to the ultimate charitable cause of feeding starving mouths and dishing out hot bowls of empathy and generous servings of compassion with a smile and a listening ear – are precisely the people in most need. The homeless, the hostelry registered, the sofa-surfers, the injured ex-military, the liberated ex-convicts, and all other constituents of the sour end of the social underclass – are the first on their feet to give every waking minute to help feed others in even greater need.
Last night a friend hosted the opening night of his new business development networker in Manchester – focused not so much on business as on personal growth and emotional intelligence. I went along. It was a mild evening on the edge of the British spring season so, living in the city, I walked through the urban bustle to the venue, feeling lucky for being a city dweller, always having chosen to live in the heart of the din. Not knowing anyone but the host, I made friends with six or seven new people and enjoyed an instructive and inspiring talk from the guest speaker who demonstrated the technique of resilience and the courage of vulnerability right in front of me. For free. No charge. She was kind enough to share and I drank it up.
In the course of the evening I met a lawyer, a couple of psychologists, a recruitment HR head, an asset manager, an organisational developer, people in construction, people in tech. Many of these people had enjoyed successful careers and were financially independent. They were wealthy. Rich. In their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. But they wanted more out of life. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they had decided to address the incessant nagging that haunted them so often that there had to be more than this material idiocy. And when their careers and dreams were interrupted through either personal tragedy or personal epiphany, their own crises of agency had died right there and each had taken huge steps, replete with risk and discomfort – to at least try and make the world a better place for others. A kinder, more patient and more compassionate place.
Away from the numbers
My point is that many of us who score “poverty” by all the standard metrics are actually wealthy. And many of us who score “wealthy” by the same are actually turned by an acute sense of poverty of the soul. Away from the numbers. In the currencies of focus and direction and resilience. On the abacus of creativity and connectivity. In the bank of authenticity and agency. Of meaning and purpose and value. My account is healthy. Of lung capacity and brain oxygenation and blood iron and the strength of my immunity system and a nutritious diet and my wholly attentional use of a gym and a psychotherapist. Of my basal metabolic rate. Of time to reflect and pause and to simply be in the moment. Of meditation and spirit. Of charity and hope and faith. Of vainglory and ego checked each and every time they rise up. Of all these things I am in credit by some distance.
People of all circumstance. It’s up to you how you live. You have the power to choose and the requisite duty to accept, like it or not, that the downsides – the costs – are the trade-off elements of the choices that you, alone, made, make and will make again freely. If you are sunken low in some deep-spun narrative of how, in your exceptional circumstances, free choice in the way that I mean it has somehow been stripped away, then you are in denial and your refusal to address the denial by seeking fresh perspectives from professional, independent, objectively qualified third parties is just another choice you are making right now as you read. Making the best of the cards you are dealt is no one else’s job. Being self-aware enough to realise that, in fact you and you alone, most of the time, are the card dealer is nobody else’s concern.
I threw my television set, freezer, toaster, facebook account and microwave owen away years ago and I read and write and run all day as it sets my heart on fire.
You have a choice and every day you wake to make that choice afresh. Even if you think you do not. You do.
I cannot presently speak to those of us with careers and private sector realised ambition, nor to those of us with assets to conserve nor those struck low by acute mental illness or shackled with onerous glee to the responsibilities of joyful, difficult parenthood. Clearly, it is apparent that within each demographic and within each circumstance there are opportunities. Agency, like deprivation, is relative. It is pointless to attempt to create qualitative leaps by destroying the concept of categories. It is better to see, truly, where we are and better to endeavour to work with, rather than against that position from a mindset of genuine acceptance. My socio-economic status and immediate financial situation right now might align neatly with the new social underclass of Britain in 2019. The underclass is dynamic. People move in and out of it in a fluidity that is not reported or computed. The underclass is not static. It contains a shifting sequence of personal journeys. It is there to catch you when you fall or need a while to regather. It is a compassionate support mechanism. It is not terminal. Nor dormant. Nor the final resting place of degenerates and sociopaths. For those, see most workplaces. And for the archangels at the severe end of the sociopathic spectrum, you’ll need access to the boardrooms and all such corridors of raw power. Follow the money to locate the malady, which like the waters of any mighty river are sourced in the seemingly innocuous springs of higher altitudes, where rarely trodden mountain paths give onto exclusive summer gardens and lush artificial meadows – their wholesome, beguiling properties a cunning, cosmetic camouflage of venomous evocations and dark energies. Orangeries in the desert. California love.
Whether you are an artist dedicated to following your creative path, the victim of a personal trauma, a recent immigrant to this island – and there are a million different reasons why my fellow brothers and sisters claim Universal Credit today – you can make the most of your life. You can turn ostensible negatives into positives in a flash. You can flip the script.
Ask for help. Take responsibility. Speak openly of your vulnerabilities and flaws. Throw open your closet and out yourself. Detach from your reputation. Change the game. Don’t be scared of the losers. Who are the losers? Refer to the opening paragraph.
For when I am weak, then I am strong
From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: The New British Social Underclass in 2019: a new book by Gary Knapton.
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit & Transcending Hardship: a new social media book by Gary Knapton
Fireworks are synonymous with red letter day celebrations – most obviously Guy Fawkes night and New Year’s Eve. Yet with a year-round bird’s eye view of a big city and its suburbs, I soon came to realise that the truth is otherly.
Sure, the landmark celebrations manifest a popular – near blanket use of pyrotechnics – but individual celebrations light up the night sky too – and they happen all year round on any day you care to pick. New births, marriages, prison releases, sporting victories, birthdays, anniversaries.
Looking out at the world from on top of Heartbreak Hill, I see them all.
Strontium red, copper blue and barium green regularly caress the walls of my lounge, kitchen and bedroom. At this altitude, sky stuff doesn’t just flash onto the window panes. It literally enters the depth of the living space. And such as fireworks constitute a most welcome invasion.
At distance, I will see but not hear the displays. An arc of cobalt or a line of sulphur climbing gently into the black infinity will no sooner catch my eye than corrupt and fade. Devoid of noise, fireworks lose their sense of ferocity and become a majestic, silent dance. Poetic. Soft at the edges. Graceful as formation dancers in water. Furtive as Morse code messages. Seductive as runway models.
Closer to home, I will often hear but not see the event – perhaps blocked by a building or should it be emanating from a position behind my viewpoint, implying its presence in a mute spasmodic sequence of long-fallen disco light projections or simply denying me any visual sense of itself at all. Now the fireworks encircle me with a stealthy imminent menace on a different spectrum – the electric hum of a drone of bees giving way to a frenzy of cracking and spitting – like food on oil burning in a pan.
And then on an equal number of occasions, I’ll get to enjoy audio and video combined. All these displays are on a more human scale – lasting for only a minute or two, if that, and featuring a modest armoury of technologies. Bearing witness, I am reminded of days gone by and a world where everything wasn’t taken to its logical mighty conclusion. Where audiences were local, events were unrecorded, peer pressures were anathema and vanity was but a child.
A flight of swallows. A flock of swifts. A wedge of swans. A skein of geese. Heartbreak Hill’s proximity to the docks ensures a vibrant mix of coastal and inland birds in flight. A colony of seagulls headed for the ship canal will ring in the new day – even beating the 5 am sunrise in the summer months. Each bird flies at its preferred height. A raft of ducks down on the water will break ground to form a brace before its members take off in unison and get airborne into a flock that usually only ever ascends to about one hundred feet above the earth – each bird almost touching the next to make the most compact shadow across the sky yet still way down below my homestead viewing point. Swans cruise higher. Geese higher still. The truth that birds fly in levels only gets demonstrably known by people who live in clouds.
The Canada Geese play out a delightful if arduous ceremony – the pack leader standing proudly near the water’s edge and calling its far-flung comrades down to the Central Bay at Agecroft with an intermittent bark that gradually increases in volume and urgency. Eventually, the response arrives as its brethren emerge and waddle across the grassland from under the bushes on Salford Wharf – others paddle in from waterborne positions and more still make landing out of the air. Each new arrival confirms its compliance with a nasal honk of its own such that within five or ten minutes a busy crowd of geese are reaching fever pitch. They all turn eastward in their own time and the crowd begins to surge down the landing pads, from a laborious wide-swing strut to a more purposeful forward , faster stride – all the time the noise level increasing – like a statement of intent. The gaggle takes off in a dense cloud of furiously flapping wings which deliver a whooshing, walloping thud like bedsheets beaten on a balcony or washing line. Yet once airborne, the gang swiftly turns north and flies a mile up the hill past my block before arcing off east again onto the downriver flats of the Irwell floodplain where it meets Castlefield near the city of Manchester. The collective has worked out a shortcut and simply bypasses a large meander in the river at Exchange Quay by taking a route inland.
I hear birds walking on the roof above my ceiling as I lay in bed at night. The patter of balance and patrol. Sometimes scattergun. Sometimes rhythmic like the snare drumbeat of a marching band.
High-rise audio on these old, cold and creaking, squeaking social housing blocks, or Chin Music as I call it, is like no other. This is Manchester and at these latitudes Mother Nature communicates in an Atlantic burst of original Skepta and Stormzy rants not platitudes.
A delightful surprise, when I first moved in, was rainfall. Not so much the sound that raindrops make when they come into contact with solid or liquid surfaces. It’s the sound that showers of water make when they pass you mid-air and continue their descent beyond earshot. It’s a consequence of altitude and if I stand by an open window as a light downpour sets in over Salford and Manchester this unique light bristle whoosh lends to the illusion that I am in the sky and travelling with the storm. The sensation of speed is awesome and the very volume of water contained in rainfall somehow makes itself known to me. It’s like taking a shower without getting wet. Overall, a very refreshing and uplifting experience. Humbling too, because the sky is a big place and I am in it.
If the storm is heavy these sounds will be drowned out by the crescendo pulse of rainfall crashing hard against my windows and the surfaces of the streets down below where the piercing hiss of car tyres ploughing through an aqua sheen on the converse camber of segmented tarmac roadworks rises like the wail of a banshee premonition.
Sounds travel up from the ground with astonishing efficiency – arriving at my flat with, if anything, a newly rinsed and far-flung echoing quality – their potency depending on their tone, pitch and provenance.
Acoustics, driven and pronounced by the wind, deliver a wide variety of ear candy that play tricks. I once had a neighbour who was an acoustics engineer for a music producer and he explained to me how sound ricochets off buildings in its path, turning corners on its journey. The upshot is a kind of illusion. Some everyday noises emanating from nearby – such as the beep of the pelican crossings down on the roads that encircle and lead away from the main entrance onto Heartbreak Hill. Or the airbrakes of buses making stops outside. Such inner city sound production and reverb might disappear totally for a few days and then return with crystal clarity, while long-distant sources of noise are thrown into range. Teenagers shrieking in playful delight as they walk home from a school five miles distant. A dog barking on the Littleton Road floodwater meadows – the former home of Manchester Racecourse and before that, the stunning folly of a Dublin physician’s crazy castellated manor house that became known as John Fitzgerald’s Castle Irwell. The pervasive drills and hammers of construction work in the adjacent city a couple of miles from here. Helicopters filming the match unfolding at United’s Old Trafford stadium or music concerts in the Cricket Ground of the same name will swing into view, silently. At other times, their blades will cut through the air like a snow blizzard yet when I look out, they are a good few miles off.
The city lives and breathes and to make a home here is to sit in the centre of all its vibrancy. All sounds are distorted and shaved. Emulated, garbled, contorted and coined and sheared and newly marbled. Engraved and re-engineered to create a unique piece of music. This Cotton City Orchestra. It might come across as you read this like some big commotion but it is not as rabble-drawn as I am making out. Everything somehow softens into a mellow background murmur. To live high up in the sky is not just to enjoy the amazing light and astounding views.
Like a long, slow exhalation of breath, the air whistles in clear pockets and rings out softly in currents of hope and question.
Much like when you stand high on a hill or a cliff edge – and you catch the near silent sneer of the mighty sky. There’s a solitude born out in the fact that all sources of noise are so far away, way off down below. I am in a tent at the end of a crane. I live in the hall of the mountain king. Each springtime I hear sparrows making a nest in the outer wall of my kitchen near the extractor fan – their rattlesnake tweets as clear as if I am holding them in my hands. Our energy fields conjoined.
At night a bunkered promissory, wholesome emptiness hangs with me up here in the clouds, co-existing alongside a deep-seated whirring whisper born of aggregates. An essence of old solitude: the night breeze on every leaf in every tree within a ten-mile radius. The soulful sigh of ever-so-distant cars on ever-so-distant roads. The coattails of the North Wind as it banks off the foothills of the Pennine mountains and scurries across the moors and down onto the Salford meadows onto which Heartbreak Hill looks out. Giving life to all the wind farms in its path. By daylight, I get to see every step of this story playing out from my north-facing kitchen window. Yet by night a few dozen terraced street lights flicker and the footlights of churchyards and their spires tail off into black nothingness where thirty miles of rolling countryside sit. This in sharp contrast to my east-facing main windows – where the chaotic neon hedonism of city nightlife and glorious human iniquity never lets up.
Darkness amplifies the sound. Charges it. Adding a sense of anticipation and emphasising the capricious, pseudo-nautical nature of my residential vantage.
I hang above the city, precariously perched. The quotidian dance of her sights and sounds become me. Inform me. Absorb, reflect and own me. I know her well yet she remains resolutely anonymous. Of all my neighbours, she’s my favourite.
An extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book on Surviving Universal Credit in the inner city. By Gary Knapton
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
Anna & Sasha
When I first moved onto Heartbreak Hill my immediate neighbour to the right was a big Spanish bloke called Fernando. He worked the night shift as a cashier and general-hand in a local 24-hour petrol station. Most times I didn’t see him as much as hear him coming and going. The key turning in the lock of his front door or the muffled patter of faint bass drums or the intermittent garbled audio of a television show. I’d get a nod and a smile when we arrived or left at the same time. Not much, but it was a kind and genuine smile that held deep columns of brotherly affection. You could tell just from this gesture alone that the guy was not Anglo-Saxon as we do the cursory nods of day-to-day passing in a much more tokenistic and mechanical way. Wooden with a shoe shine finish. We may both subconsciously and consciously have grown to be so instinctively self-important and time-pressed that this simple ceremonial gesture is perhaps a little too laborious for you and I, the glorious. Somewhere between the understated British and the “killing-it” American, there’s a broad channel of authentic, warm, humane Latino.
Then, after only a couple of months into my term, Fernando was suddenly gone and my new neighbours were a late-twenties/early thirties couple from Latvia. I think Anna had been living in England longer than Sasha as while his English was initially passable hers was fluent. Even the mannerisms and intonations. I thought she was British for a while. You have to talk to Anna for a long time before you get a real sense that she originates elsewhere. That’s how good her command of our language is. You know like when you’re watching Wimbledon on TV in the summer and the tennis players that have been on the global Grand Slam circuit for a few years end up so fluent in English that the only giveaway, besides their fame and their name, is an underlying and often subtle drawn-out twang or the occasional tripped inflection. Dutch footballers are the same. They end up with a slight hiss on an over- worked “s” but apart from that consonant, you’d never know. The only other giveaway is how good their vocabulary is.
Foreigners are always better than natives at vocabulary because they have, literally, swallowed a dictionary. That’s what language learning has you doing. I recall when I was younger having to look up “nonchalant” because my Dutch mate kept using it – correctly I might add. And I’d never heard of it. And my mate Verl from France throws out “diffident” and “obstreperous” – the latter of which I can only just say, let alone casually drop into a sentence correctly.
I first met Sasha when he knocked on my door and I answered. He didn’t have a basket of fruit and some home-made brownies and a bottle of red but then again I didn’t pull back the storm-screen and walk him down my verandah and round past my apple orchard by way of a tour of my New England homestead. But in actual fact, thinking about it, we very much did our own version of American middle-class greeting. Not so much Desperate Housewives as desperate high-rise.
I lent him my vacuum cleaner and my wifi router password and he gave me some delicious Latvian chocolates. Have you seen the Latvians with their chocolates? Get some Baltic friends. They somehow always have a small mountain of dark chocolates individually wrapped in brightly coloured tin foil and those fancy plastic wrappers with an inner and outer sheet, much like how Quality Street were presented up until about the 1980’s. And they usually keep them in a big glass wide-necked jar or bowl like Willy Wonka or your gran. Sasha and Anna aren’t the first Latvian acquaintances that I have made so I’m not just making sweeping generalisations from a sample of one. It’s more like a sample of five. And they have “day” names and “family” names which gives their first name its very own kind of birthday each year (day name) whilst at the same time bending or distorting it very subtly as a sign of patronage (family). So Anna becomes Anya (spoken and written) to her nearest and dearest – but I’m not allowed to use it.
These guys did what I and many new arrivals on the block did at first. We’ve been subtly conditioned by a world that has grown gradually shinier and sleeker and hospital-clean in every way, probably without even knowing it, and then you disembark into this shabby old creaky building, which at this height gently sways and rocks through winter gale storms, I might add, and you breathe in and you hold your breathe and you think “It’s only for short while. I’ll be out of here soon.” But then you breathe out and take in the actual experience and you begin to appreciate what Heartbreak Hill has to offer. You acclimatise to its original charm and its quirky style. It’s stunning views and spacious rooms and its collection of real people with real stories to tell. And you decide to stay and at this point, you begin to invest in the place with a little love and care. You begin to build a relationship with this unusual survivor of a classic era. An oasis of genuine in a post-truth wilderness. Beauty is in the eye, as they say. But it’s more than that. The Hill has taken me under its wing. Turns out, I didn’t decide to stay after all. The old high-rise tower block decided for me.
It’s Anna who I bump into most often. Two or three times a week. Sasha I see every month or so. And occasionally I see them both together. Going off to play tennis or headed to the gym or queueing up at the tills in Aldi.
A fine couple bonded no doubt by their conquering of barriers that we as native locals fail to see – homesickness and cultural ticks and the immigrant judgment – that millisecond, almost imperceptible flash reaction of everyone they meet – even the well-meaning kind-at-heart – as the out-of-towners. It’s over before it began but they saw it. They felt it. A movement behind the eyes. An unconscious yet palpable shift in interpersonal dynamics – perhaps only once and ever so fleeting yet potent enough for our brothers and sisters from lands afar to register that somehow in the essence of the code of the ether of this new situation, there exists a home advantage that will never be theirs to hold. A cold unconscious tribalism seemingly encoded into the marrow of our shallow, silly species.
Newcomers to any institution are nervous until they get past the induction and are awarded a sense of belonging. That they are accepted. They are “in”. We think you’re alright. You’re one of us. Recall your first day at a new school or your first week in halls at university. Think about starting a new job or commencing a stay over with guests – anywhere. A business trip. Au pair. A stretch in hospital. A prison term. When you get the mortgage approved and the chain moves like clockwork and you turn up in LimeTree Crescent or Newbuild Gardens or The Heights to despatch three dozen boxes of personal effects into the entrance lobby and adjacent bare rooms before, as night falls, you head off down the local boozer – and as you enter, hand in hand with your partner – the chatter dips and heads turn and new pairs of unwittingly judgmental eyes give you the once over. No harm intended and no offence taken. But still….. it’s an energy field known only to the outsider. I think of Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe – the tale of a man arriving in a new town and how by virtue of his sheer newness the walls of suspicion and intrigue rise up – and how that very book was authored by Mary Anne Evans – a mid-nineteenth century novelist smart enough to use a male pen name because she knew only too well how we all judge a book by its cover. George Eliot.
I am using the word “institution” rather loosely – giving it a wide berth – but this is what a social high-rise really amounts to. Like all the above examples I cite, this is a new club with long-established members sealed off in a variety of cultural and physical and psychological ways from the world at large. You are invested in it. You’ll be here a while. And like any club, there are written rules, unwritten rules, nuanced habits and stealthy precedents. There exists an impressive variety of members and on Day One you are as green as you are cabbage looking. Welcome to the Big Brother house.
Anna and Sasha both work in blue-collar office jobs. I know Sasha does telesales and account management as I’ve chatted with him as he’s on the verge of breaking out into a run for the bus in morning rush hour. The 38 to Piccadilly and then a train to Stockport. I think Anna manages a project team in a financial capacity for a big household brand somewhere in town.
Good neighbours in high-rises make home feel like home. These two are great. They are quiet, polite, smart and positive by default. The kind of people you want next door. Followers of a clean- living code. People who reach out.
For we are all and each the sum total of our human connections.
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Surviving Universal Credit by Gary Knapton
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. Coming soon.
All names of people cited in this extract are real.
Standguide, Staffline, Adidas & The Work Company
It is Tuesday 5th December 2017. I am doing a job search on the communal computers in the red- brick complex of the Salford Foyer. I am at Standguide under threat of a benefits sanction. These days they require me to do a job search in front of them. There is a distinct lack of trust in me which underpins this order. The first terminal I log on to is not connected to the internet. I have more luck with the PC to my left (there are about a dozen terminals in the room and the room is empty but for me). I open a job spec, read it, and it advises me to email the HR team for further details. I then quickly discover that all webmail sites are blocked – Hotmail, Google, iCloud. So I cannot do anything. I can view the history of the jobs I have applied for. But I cannot apply for jobs – which is the precise function of my attendance.
I walk about the complex and accost random members of staff. Martine on reception helps me out but she’s clearly very busy with her own workload and cannot help me with this IT matter anyhow.
After sixty-five minutes of being in a room where I am unable to make job applications, I raise the issue with Stacey, my long-term contact. The iMac on which I am writing this very book, with its fibre connection and office desk space in my disturbance-free private flat is but one Tesco’s car park away from me. I can see the Heartbreak Hill block from where I sit at this unforgiving, locked-up PC through a window fitted with a security cage. It seems incredibly dumb to leave my private high- end facility and to sit here with this unworkable one. I get that StandGuide wants me to prove that I am making job applications of a certain quality and quantity. I politely make the point that every single application and progress action has been precisely logged every week for years into an online database facility which the “other” job centre can access. I am told that this job centre (the private one) does not have access to that. So it seems the burden of proof is mine to shoulder. Lazy and idle until proven industrious. I submit to the attrition. I spent a good chunk of my redundancy cheque on my own desktop computer. Each month I buy home insurance and a fast data line. Yet here I am.
Having completed my one-hour lock-in, I make to leave and as an aside I ask Stacey to check if I can bring a neighbour with me to an employer recruitment day that is scheduled for the following lunchtime. Lee is not registered with Job Centre but he’s a worker and keen to get in at the Adidas factory a couple of miles down the road from where we live. Adidas are using a recruitment agency called Staffline to undertake a recruitment drive for many new zero-hours workers. I want Lee to come along. Yet, when Stacey places a call to Staffline to clear this, we learn that the recruitment session has moved forward from 12 pm tomorrow to 10 am today. I check my phone for the time. It is already 10:10 am. Then it all goes a bit Frank Spencer. Roll up folks, it’s comedy hour!
The Innovation Forum
Stacey knocks me seven quid from the petty cash, promptly signed off and dished out by Martine, and a cab is called for me. I don’t have a say in this. I will be making a very late attendance at a meeting and that’s that. This is now panic stations. We speed across to The Innovation Forum – one of those vanilla business parks with the grandiose names that have in the last ten years become the hallmark of modern vanilla strip-mall Britain. All glass atria and wooden mock Skandi panelling on the outside. An exterior skin of sleek promise. An army of bolshy sales staff with no manners and bunches of biros and paper application forms on the inside, ready to scalp the hoards of zero-hours potentials that get shepherded through the double electric swing doors. Everyone I encounter is too busy or too tired or too target driven or too passive or too dumb to receive in earnest the sweet, sweet irony. You know, here in the “innovation” forum.
Due to DWP staff incompetence I am twenty-five minutes late for a meeting that I understood got underway at 10:00. Why did they taxi me to a meeting for which I am really quite late? Simple. Because they are paid an introduction fee for my presence. I announce myself at the main reception but before I can finish speaking a young man in chinos, a jersey and spectacles hastily envelopes my shoulders in his out-stretched arms. He softly yet swiftly glides me away to the airport hanger-styled waiting area where another four people are bent low over a central coffee table, scribbling away on application forms. This is the post-digital form of data capture in 2017. Staffline, like Louise Croston at VSO, shoves a bundle of questions in front of me with a pen and orders me to fill it in, quick as I can, no questions asked, while in the fore of my mind I recall the Job Centre allocating this very meeting a mandatory status. Which means, bluntly, give this strange person all of your personal details now, or risk having your benefits cut and being evicted.
The idiots are winning
Is it me or are some of these questions, by their very nature, dodgy for legal reasons? Couched in a concern-for-health framework, Question 11 in this shot, which is the form that Staffline asked me to complete for the Adidas role, about pregnancy, is surely pushing the boundaries of acceptability and is also surely outing the employer as discriminatory at least in its initial intent. Maybe paranoia outreaches me now. The answer to Question 7 is very easy. Question 7 asks: Do you have any condition that causes difficulty sleeping? Yes. Exposure to the idiots. And the idiots are winning.
Having disclosed my address, mobile and bank details, I am then accosted in a very forced-but-friendly way by a lady who walks toward me from the centre’s main thoroughfare with a stern intent. I watch her approach with misgivings that I have not the time to develop before she is upon me.
“What’s your name love?” she smiles at me like an air hostess. “I’m Gary” I reply.
“Come with me“. She actually physically stewards me into an office of admin staff with a few chairs as a reception area. I presume she is a colleague of the chap in specs who led me with such zeal to the zany pre-flight waiting-area seats some moments ago. It’s like a comedy farce. Everything is frantic. I feel both guilty and stressed for no apparent reason. Perhaps this is the idea.
“Don’t worry. This is voluntary” are her final words to me before she leaves me in the charge of a bewildered chap who is busy at his workstation. These words make no sense whatsoever yet I am not given a chance to ask questions. I am not in a dialogue with anyone. I am literally being “placed” in certain office spaces while unidentified adults lean into each other to converse in a whisper.
Don’t worry. This is voluntary. Sounds a little bit like “trust me, I’m a doctor.” Not one ounce of this experience feels voluntary. None of it, in fact, is. Such considerations enter and flee my brain in nanoseconds.
Everything is becoming a bit of a blur. I have now told two people my name, upon them requesting it, and neither has had the decency to tell me theirs. I feel like fodder. The cattle in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. If I get down on all fours and moo in a drawn-out bovine yawn will everyone present come clean about this agri-business set-up through which I am being fed?
It turns out that the guy in glasses is called Peter Blasco and this new lady who whisked me away is called Sarah Whetstone. Peter is an employee of Staffline but Sarah is not. She works for a company called The Work Company although when I ask her who she works for she tells me that they are called “The Growth Company.” Welcome to the privatised welfare sector. All these little ten-a-penny “agencies” are just private businesses grabbing at the public purse. Treating me and my kind like a herd of animals. Round them up, grab their data, collect a fee. I rather like being at the coal face of this madness. I soak it up and think of this book and the new material that endlessly pours forth. For this I am grateful. Or is it nothing but Stockholm Syndrome?
Yet, Sarah Whetstone (I only found out her name by asking her colleague who is also called Gary) really is beginning to annoy me. She is smiley and polite but the whole “come with me and ask no questions” charade is patronising, to say the least. Jobless adults are treated like infants in the presence of grown-ups.
Gary Smith is the first polite and professionally competent person I meet so far. He gets up from his workstation and shakes my hand. I say “I still do not know who you guys are and why I am here.”
Gary replies “We’ll go outside and talk“. And with that, it suddenly feels like a scene from a John le Carré novel. If Gary had only mumbled that last line into the lapel of his jacket it wouldn’t have felt incredulous. At this point, being abducted by the secret service would be a real boon to my spirits.
“Can you make me a coffee first?” I ask. He pauses. He hears it like it sounds – a very unusual request – you know, jobless humans acting with self-respect and making demands like working humans – but he yields and asks me if I take sugar. I get seated back by the door which I note has the words “The Work Company” stickered across the lower pane. In yonder jobless wilderness, here we find the least appropriately named business imaginable. Orwellian art-house, surely. This whole building could be an Emin exhibition at Tate Modern. “Innovation Forum” by Tracey Emin Wins Turner Prize. This headline has wings.
Gary Smith then goes to sit back at his workstation, facing me in the guest waiting area and continues to work. I watch him and count three minutes on my phone. I have been dragged away from what I was taxi’d here for, without any explanation or even human introductions, and I am sat like a child or freshman or apprentice on their very first day. Feeling like the teas-maid or Mr Cellophane. He’s clearly not making my coffee – sugar or not – unless he has a very fancy PC on his desk that produces beverages. If it exists, I am not familiar with this version of Windows.
Eventually, I make my point and The Work Company gets the size of me. It lets me go, I complete the Staffline paperwork and leave. Nobody says goodbye or stands up or shakes my hand or even acknowledges me upon departure. All these workers and all such staff in the privatised wel- fare sector are abysmally trained, untrained or just damn lazy. Everything is slipshod. It is my pleasure to politely but firmly make it known to them that this is the state of affairs.
Sarah Whetstone’s holiday brochure smile and sunshine demeanour quickly transform into a scowl when I let her know she has rudely interrupted me from my arranged appointment by literally physically pulling me away while I was in the very middle of a meeting with another company entirely, failing to introduce herself, plonking me down in the waiting area of a different office and then simply walking away to leave me wholly at a loss and wondering what the hell was going on.
“I was not rude.” she asserts in response, all gaiety and charm now a distant memory – the grittier truth shining through. The irony entirely lost on her. I fail to respond and leave her words hanging simply to avoid a scene, although I am quite furious and I sense that she senses it.
The Work Company gets a fee for training unemployed people in the basics – like “What is a mouse?” IT skills, personal hygiene and time management. Ms Whetstone, as far as I can gather, has worked out that a good way of getting new heads onto training seats and making her cash tills ring, so to speak, is just wading out into the common areas of Innovation Forum and grabbing the Staffline applicants. A nice smile. A charming few words. Who wouldn’t fall for Sarah’s ruse? She’s not happy when I tell Peter that I take exception to her manner and style. Her pleasing countenance fades and she gets quite feisty. I could rise to the occasion but for me, these people hit way below the intellect and in some way or other they would find it within themselves to earn extra salary bonuses by sanctioning my Universal Credit. Recall Chelsea Shannons’ story. I leave the building and walk home. Raped of my personal data for nothing in return by a bunch of cheap sales target rabble. Again.
I state my availability as “nightshifts” on the Adidas warehouse application form. Nights pay at £8.65 per hour compared to a daily rate of £7.50. I am told by Peter that I will get at least thirty- two hours per week with a promise of overtime if I pass the induction period. I don’t ask or get told how long this induction period is for.
I quickly calculate that on the base rate for nights this would gross me £276.80 per week, or an annual income of £14.393.60. This comes in at £1,199.47 per month and this is the unit of measurement that allows me to make a direct comparison with my existing Universal Credit payment – which is a monthly payment of £729.48 as I may have mentioned earlier. Of course, this is on the basis of my salary being tax-free – and so this would only be my take home pay (thereabouts) on the first ten thousand pounds worth of earnings, and national insurance deductions, of a sum I could not deduce from the top of my head, would accrue from day one.
When basic rate tax kicks in and NI continues to deduct, I would be bringing home £959 (after 20% tax) less National Insurance – so I figured that would come in at about £900. So I would be working nights in a factory five days a week for a gain of about two hundred pounds a month. If you then deduct work clothes, work travel and work food I do not think I am being a drama queen when I announce that this job has actually no material (financial) advantages. But it would steal all of my time and energy. The experience of working at Adidas would be great material for this book – but would I have the time or headspace to even keep writing?
If you are of the opinion that people in my position should not be comparing a benefits payment against an earned wage and calculating the differential as the real wage, you are simply coming at it all wrong. So here is my reality check for you: the “benefits” label is a misnomer. Firstly, there is no benefit. This is not free money. It is all used up on heating. shelter and food and still leaves me short of heating and food for at least one week per month. And don’t even think about laundry and new clothing. So first off, the benefit is, per se, way too low for any human being. It is derisory and insulting. Secondly, if a multi-million dollar international company is offering me a payment in return for fifty to sixty hours per week of hard manual labour that only over-reaches the aforementioned excuse for a human benefits payment by a few pounds and pence – they are engaged in nothing short of white slavery and this should be illegal.
The whinging benefits recipient is not out of line. Everything and everyone else in the employment chain is. And if you can’t see that – if you have been co-opted by the system to such a degree that you can’t even see what is staring you in the face – then so are you.
If you starved your pet dog and cut it’s access to heat and shelter this would be deemed as abuse and neglect. Yet with humans it appears that the accepted lexicons are “benefit”, “support” and “welfare”.
The Adidas dress code
I was precariously balanced with the recruitment agency’s application form sliding off my lap, painstakingly completing the block boxes with a black biro pen. Peter Blasco, the Staffline representative was kneeling down to meet the eye level of another such applicant – a lady about half my age who was sat opposite me and executing the same task. It was a one-on-one kind of “T&C’s” chat that Peter was to reel off to each of us before we left the session and handed him our completed documentation – after which we would wait to receive a telephone call from his agency about progressing the application further – meeting the employer, no doubt.
A whole bunch of adults leaning over to write with a pen onto paper forms on a very low-slung coffee table with the host literally kneeling on the carpet to talk to each of us. Fawlty Towers.
As I wrote out my National Insurance number, employment and education history and all such nonchalant applicant data, I could hear Peter telling my fellow scribbler that if she was to turn up for a shift wearing clothing that bore the logo or name of a sports competitor – such as Nike or Reebok – and that even if it was not so much in-your-face as a base ball cap but something hardly noticeable – she would be sent directly home and told to change, whereupon she would miss the shift, be denied payment for that shift and effectively “warned” not to repeat the behaviour. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.
I playfully but firmly challenged Peter. How could I resist? The lady that he was speaking with was duly nodding along and it strikes me that the fearful acquiescence of potential candidates in such a situation is interpreted by the employer and recruiter as some form of fawning obsequiousness – a servility that only encourages the work provider and their dutiful helpers to turn into such little Hitler’s as I was witnessing. It is out and out bullying. Playground tactics. No rabbit-in-a-hat tricks.
I pointed out to Peter that the night shift workers at Coca-Cola in Wakefield (I used to be one) are not reprimanded and docked work for turning up in Pepsi attire. That at my first job out of college – The Financial Times – we used to keep copies of all major competitor publications in the building as a form of good practice. At Loaded magazine, we bought copies of FHM and Esquire and had their posters adorning our office walls. That perhaps it would be good for Adidas to see their competitors clothing modelled on its own employers as a form of competitor analysis – the same as most normal companies in the world at large actually do. When I was in an executive role for Manchester United as its Value Added Services Projects Manager with two season tickets, company car, an office on Baker Street in the West End and one in the ground with first class train tickets between London and Manchester and five star hotels at my behest, they knew I was a Leeds fan. Even the players are not club loyal. When I worked there in 2002 Ron Gourlay (Head of MU Merchandising and later at Chelsea) was from Glasgow and tied to The Firm. David Beckham was a West Ham fan. Roy Keane was Spurs. And the sky didn’t cave in.
How stupifyingly childish of Adidas. Brand apocalypse? Badges and icons given priority over humans and humanity. Nice touch!
Have you worked out what’s really going on? OK. It’s like this: back in the early twentieth century in the U.S, car maker Henry Ford knew that his biggest market for new cars was his own employees. He envisioned and sublimely created a kind of pyramid scheme – you get in on the project and you become a customer. You get your mates and your family relatives a job at the plant. They become customers too.
In return, Henry was a philanthropist, looking after all of his workers by paying top dollar and building community infrastructure such as parks, schools and setting up a range of charitable trusts – all directed toward improving the living standards of his staff.
In a cheap imitation of the above, Adidas has seen the opportunity for the pyramid scheme – but then gone all shy when it came to the philanthropy bit.
I knew what was coming. Peter just looked at me blankly and churned out the standard lines that he had been programmed to churn out. Rules are rules are rules and all that jazz. I was tempted to prod him to check he was not a ‘bot. A three-stripes Germanic droid. I resisted.
Don’t you see ? This type of rule is nothing to do with a dress code. It is to do with employee subservience. In a world where employer responsibilities have vanished while at the same time, worker responsibilities have reached a kind of post-modern zenith, things are arriving at their logical conclusion. In a zero-hours contract world we now have a situation where the worker is not even guaranteed as much as one hours work per week, yet in return will have to work extraordinary and unsociable hours at absolutely (zero) no notice for a derisory sum of money and here at Adidas – will have to be a genuine “Company Town” kind of character. A walking three-dimensional advert to the brand. I have to be Mr Adidas for my £8.65 per hour. I’ll never have a social life or any kind of healthy private life – I’ll hardly ever see my friends and family. Adidas cannot guarantee when the shift of each work session will conclude due to the nature of the work, so I don’t know when I’ll be home. But that’s not enough. Now I have to filter my wardrobe for anything bearing Umbro and Fila and Nike and Tacchini – which is no easy task for most people because a large proportion of the demographic that will be taking on such jobs will have grown up adorning sports clothing as casual daily wear most of the time.
Ah! Precisely. Not only is this super wealthy brand exploiting workers in terms of pay and conditions and contractual rights – it knows that the kids from the hood ALL wear casual sports gear ALL of the time. And in banning anything but its own brand ostensibly for work purposes, it has just guaranteed that thousands of low paid workers in Trafford Park in Manchester will buy new trainers, tracksuits, baseball caps, sweatbands and countless tops, hoodies and T-shirts – from now on ONLY with the Adidas logo on. It may as well pay them in Adidas coupons rather than real money. In a way, it kind of is doing just that.
Brands are sticky. From banks to cars to sportswear. The ramifications will bounce around and filter through generations of families and friends. In a bid to knock Nike off its perch – a perch bought with sponsorship of the local football team – which is a global brand in itself – here comes the chief competitor with a new plant less than a mile from the football stadium and a dress code stipulation that, from most angles, just doesn’t make sense. Company Town indeed. People are less than pawns to BigCorp. It’s Nike versus Adidas and everyone living in the area is but a Lowry-esque factory slave. And oh how the locals comply like good little Lemmings!
Needless to say, Peter Blasco, having witnessed my dialogue with Sarah Whetstone, whereupon I called out her patronising tone and manner, didn’t call me back later to discuss work opportunities, as I had been given to understand was normally the case. I may have been a tad too disobedient in the core of my personality, for the type of shift clone they were seeking to take advantage of.
Move along, move along. These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
I cannot say that I lost any sleep over any of this.
The work delusion
Think about it. Everyone in the system that could speak up is a stakeholder in the house of cards so it’s in all of their interests to spin the line that the work is out there. You know, actual decent paid work that allows one to build a life of sorts. Not this thinly disguised slavery. They all play this game of illusion as if the date was 1949 and the country is in deep recovery from a war so labour-wise it is all hands to the pump. Except this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The recruitment agents need to project an image of market buoyancy – much as we know estate agents do with regard to the housing market. The government is under similar pressures – accountable to an active electorate that is largely ignorant of the real state of play. The media these days is a super-corporation (cable and satellite) if not a government mouthpiece (obligatory licensed channels). The public at large believes the media. It totally buys in. People like to think that they are living in a society where hard work always pays off and that idleness is penalised. The vast swathes of upper-working-class and lower-middle-class Britain that have grown wealthy by sitting on their hands through three huge housing bubbles since the late 1970’s needs to believe that it is worthy of this newfound fortune. There needs to be a sense of profound psychological entitlement.
The upshot is that precisely nobody wants to believe, let alone hear, the unfolding of my own personal narrative. The idea that good, honest, hardworking people cannot find work even when they persistently try to do so does not chime so well with the big song and dance. I’m pointing out that the emperor’s new clothes are too skin coloured to be taken seriously and I have a strong sense that even as most people read these words they have switched off. Emotion kicks in. Denial kick in. Excuses abound. I will be discredited for this reason and that.
Perhaps the idea that there is no work generates a fear that people will have a license to sit back and put their feet up. So what? Maybe, after all, we should decouple the notion of money from that of work at least where that money represents the most basic of provisions – which in the fifth richest nation on earth would include housing, utilities including fibre and mobile, health, insurance, pension, education from cradle to grave, healthy nutritional intake and a healthy lifestyle – perhaps a bicycle or a gym membership. Bill Gates is proposing that we tax the robots and I love this way of coming at the world’s problems.
If work, in the main, does not contribute to society, why are we rewarding it? Why are we enshrining it in moral armour? Why are we seeing it as good or of worth in any real sense? For most people, to “work” simply means to expend all their efforts on improving their own lot and to hell with everyone else.
If we were to give everyone an annual income of thirty thousand pounds, excepting those who are very wealthy, I’m sure everyone would spend it. The economy would be flying at full tilt as all this money goes around the system rather than being locked in a private wealth fund or in some off- shore bank account. And better still, we’d see a total drop off in rip-off Britain, fervent sales scams and incessant commercial cons.
Work, in the modern age, is just an incentive to offer totally useless and annoying services that nobody really wants. The high street is dripping with dross and everybody is skint. Who has the courage to totally flip the script on this set-up? Me, for one. Those of us not invested in the status quo are the ones who dare to think bigger, think earnestly and think in favour of what would really work for the good of all of us. Not just me, me, me. The good news is that there are so many people like me, with nothing to lose, that one wonders whether the economy has inadvertently reached some kind of tipping point where the “nothing to lose-ers” so far outnumber those wishing to conserve and preserve their stinkingly grotesque nest-eggs. This, coupled with high levels of education and a consensus of individual confidence and creativity lends itself to optimum conditions for something new to spring forward. Maybe the system, like all systems and all empires and all states of normalcy – all establishments – has simply eaten itself such that some form of new ground-up architecture begins to shine through like an inevitability. I am confident that large tracts of young people and the poor and the disenfranchised are arriving at similar conclusions with no help from me.
Work lost its contributory soul
It’s hardly like everyone is busy building schools and hospitals and irrigating crops. When work stopped being about making positive contributions to our communities and money stopped being its reward, what happened is that work became this selfish thing we do and money became the end goal. If I were to secure a job as a lawyer and, due to it’s restrictive supply of “club members” fashioned by its union (The Law Society) I were to command a huge salary largely for nothing short of robbing peoples pockets in exchange for a bit of tedious administrative work, and if I were to spend all of my huge salary on me and my kin – houses, cars, holidays, a second home, private education fees, jewellery and fine dining – people in our Western material world would for the most part be both admiring and envious of me. How fucked up is that?
Public purse arrears
My public purse arrears are way lower than anyone working and earning less than £100,000 per year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) publishes an annual report to confirm it.
And anyone earning above that sum? It’s still a moot point. You’re still not off the hook. Not by a country mile.
It’s perfectly alright to give birth in an NHS hospital, drive on public roads and get married in our churches and put your kids through state schools and recruit staff that were trained and made literate by the state but then you want to call grabbing obscene amounts of money in return for no positive contribution to society “work” while you disappear behind big electric gates with your hideous kitsch “stuff”, spend every penny on you and your lot, ignore everybody else, look down on the people you are depriving and whinge about a tiny amount of tax. Who pays for the traffic lights and road works and pollution controls and the legal framework that protects and enables your business and the emergency services and the entire real world infrastructure that supports the end-to-end supply chain system so you can “click n collect” without even having to mingle with the un-washed masses ? Santa?
You think you’re some C-Suite big shot but you’re just as hooked up to the supply chain system and spoon-fed like a babe-in-arms and just as owned by the benefits system as anyone else. It’s hardly as if you can feed yourself or clothe yourself or keep yourself warm. You’re just one juicy seventy-two hour power cut from having to descend to street level and fight for your food as the hungriest homeless sleeper. And all the mortgage equity in London ain’t changing that, cowboy.
Yet right now as I type I am less than twenty-four hours from James Smith – my Job Centre work coach -advising me that I really should take a dead end job and not let my charity work get in the way of it. His words were “I wouldn’t want your little six hours a week get in the way of a job.” The little six, huh? He was precisely referring to a nine to five admin job or a drivers job and he was exactly referencing my intention to do some voluntary work for Citizens Advice Bureau – as I had completed an application, met the head of North West recruitment for CAB – a chap called Gareth Hughes – and at the time of writing I been informed that I would be trained for an advisory role at Salford University with a position opening for me in early 2018. In the end this did not transpire due to personnel changes at the charity.
I have actually grown to like James Smith – my work coach. He’s a hard-working young family man just trying to get by. My indictment of sub-standard quality thresholds within the DWP system is not always a personal one. As a nation, as a society, as a human race, as a species – our values and priorities are incredibly askew.
Consider the moral mess we are in. How fallen are we? Don’t help people Gary! Be the low paid servant of businesses that damage our planet and our mental wellbeing. The former is stupid and we look down on it. The latter is normalcy and to be admired.
Work is a massive decoy. It is no longer work in fact. So why should money follow it? If you are co-opted into the money train, grasping wildly on behalf of yourself and your kin, that’s your greedy dumb problem. There is no line of logic that holds that because you are too weak to resist it, I too should give in. You’re the idiot. My hands are clean..
The sad fact is that people at large will not hear what they do not wish to hear. Yet I will continue to call the truth as I see and experience it. And I guess you’re just going to have to deal with that. After all, this is my true story and I have made the effort to tell it. My evidenced narrative gives me an authority that you presently lack. If you disagree, prove it. You know what to do. Oh no! It really does involve turning your massive television off and creating something for yourself for once. Too much to ask? Of course, it is.
We have all been conditioned to react in a most knee-jerk fashion to the very idea of any sort of systemic revolution and the fashion that I speak of is ridicule. People call up images of communist China or Russian Gulags but aren’t these all just rather childish? Look at the state of Britain. People are starving on the streets while the rest of us are blissed out on TV soma. And too much food.
In our land of plenty, too many have not even enough to survive. You and I are both complicit in this. Don’t you think it’s time to wake up?
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill. A new book coming soon.
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
As I begin writing this final chapter, the winter closes in. It is a dark November morning as I type out these words. Three months ago, in the long lazy heat of a summer afternoon, workmen arrived to give me a new front door. They’re doing every flat on the block including the common area inter-connecting doors and as far as I can tell from chatting to the workers, every block in town. It’s the direct political fall-out of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy which will no doubt tag this year as the grim keynote event that defines a troublesome period for the British underclass. Us. Our lot.
The irony is that I have a bathroom suite as old as me which is rotting off the wall and doesn’t work properly – yet I’m now getting a new fire door that I don’t need.
The two lads stripping my door frame and fixing new locks and handles are in their early twenties. The one I make conversation with is called Lonnie and after a few days, he brings manual assistance in the shape of his father – a quiet, hardworking chap who looked a little older than me.
All residents were told to set days aside for these guys to get the job done, but rather than sit around feeling imprisoned, mindful of all the outdoor errands I need to run that I cannot attend to – I decided to sit at my desk and write.
This is how this book started. I don’t have a TV and reading can get pretty tiresome in an on-call atmosphere – occasionally the lads would request my attention to answer questions about the flat – yet I’ve always found writing a different kind of creative entertainment – where interruptions or at least a climate of potential disturbance somehow doesn’t negatively impact on my ability to write nor my enjoyment of writing. Something about the commitment. The action.
I’ve called this chapter “Transcendence” because I want to try and describe how I have overcome the trials and anxieties of living under a cloud on Heartbreak Hill by getting into a frame of mind whereby the bad things do not matter that much. It has long been my firm belief, and happy experience, that if one can genuinely arrive at a place in one’s heart where the difficulties in life are not that much of a concern, then miraculously, life is not that difficult anymore. It’s an old technique borrowed from Stoic wisdom and Zen Buddhism that I like to think feeds fittingly into a rather quaint notion of British resolve – and in any case, it works for me.
From Easterhouse to The Pepys Estate
Each one of my neighbours on the block and all of us that find ourselves deep inside the welfare state – residing in the housing projects far over on the wrong side of the tracks up and down the country – from Glasgow to Newcastle; from Sheffield to London; from Manchester to Nottingham – shunned and lambasted by mainstream society at large – from the upper working classes and middle classes to all arms of the establishment from media to government and it’s police and judicial support services – have found ways to cope and actually enjoy life a little.
We are grateful for the little things and quite accepting of our fate. The secret is to access the power of surrender whilst retaining one’s personal agency. To accept without being defeatist. To strive for change without resisting the present day status quo. Everyone has managed to transcend the horrible plight in one way or another. You find your personal Jesus and you run with it.
This is a laudable mental achievement by me and my kind – by which I mean my socio-economic demographic – and as it never gets mentioned by a distant, other-worldly media that seems too concerned with celebrity high fashion and abstract political concepts that mean nothing to most of us – such as Brexit and cabinet reshuffles – I want to give it fair oxygen here.
What follows is a closer look at a number of the things I do: daily behaviours and techniques that I deploy – to ring-fence the survivor mentality and bring me peace of mind along with a deep sense of authentic inner security in this awesome, beautiful, dangerous urban jungle.
Extract: From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
This reproduction of the author’s dedication from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill explains the title of the book and the inspiration behind it.
I was inspired to write this book upon reading a mid-nineteenth century memoir from a resident of the Indiana State Hospital For the Insane called Anna Agnew. Her memoir – From Under a Cloud at Seven Steeples – attempts to set the record straight with first-hand accounts of life within the confines of an insane asylum. Her book ignited massive changes in attitude toward that class of vulnerable citizen, exploding myths, dispelling ignorance and forcing people to shed their prejudices and utilise their own agency. She, in turn, was inspired to put pen to paper when, on en- countering her in a state of melancholy, a doctor once remarked;
“Surely as the sun comes from behind the cloud, just so surely will you come from under the cloud now enveloping you.”
Anna’s book was the impetus for far-reaching structural and attitudinal change that swept the western world once people woke up to realities that had for too long lay hidden behind mainstream media propaganda.
I do not consider myself needy, vulnerable or at risk in the same way that many of my neighbours are. I am one of the lucky ones. Yet I nonetheless find myself under the cloud of social dependency. And although it shouldn’t even be a cloud, it is. It occurs to me now that I have a clear opportunity to give voice to a vitally important story that largely remains untold.
For her inspiration and for the title of my book, I thank Anna and I dedicate this project to her.