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.....
Mile upon mile of concrete and tarmac. No greenery in sight. Rain bounces off the paving flags. The glass pane of the bus stop for the 67 is shattered all over the floor. It’s after dark but the precinct has a “floodlight” glare from its array of security lamps that beam out a whitish light. Police cameras look down from every corner of every street. Men in high vis jackets and steel capped boots pull the death out of cig ends before a bus comes to take them to another night shift. Home Bargains, The Pound Bakery, MoneyLine, Cash Converter and the arcade are all closed. Only BetFred lights its windows up after hours. A crew of hooded lads in their low teens lap the precinct at increasing speed on souped-up bicycles with no lights, bagging out e’s and snatching bags and phones from anyone daft enough to let them. The only place open is the off license at the foot of my block. Inside, past the shelves of sweets and alcohol, Aubrey and his assistant stand to attention behind the counter, hip-hop music blasting. They are nodding in unison like Churchill dogs. Bouncing to Skepta.
In 1952 Salford Councillor Albert Jones proposed a massive urban regeneration scheme in an area of town called Hanky Park. Six thousand terraced houses were to be demolished over a three hundred acre stretch of land. Improvements to the A6 road adversely affected one hundred and forty-seven shops that ran along it and a further one hundred and sixty corner shops were to be caught up in the demolition. This was known as the Ellor Street development centred on Heartbreak Hill in the M6 postcode of the city. In more recent times the boundaries of the City of Salford have been redrawn to include what was then considered the far-flung and somewhat distant towns of Eccles, Walkden, Worsley and Swinton. You know, long before the private motor car was a standard luxury. But in 1952 Salford was a City hanging onto the coattails of the city of Manchester, to the west of the latter’s main concentration. A forty-five minute walk along Broad Street connecting the two. I still make this walk often.
The concept of Ellor Street at Hanky Park was to build two hundred and sixty brand new shops within a new shopping precinct, to recompense the retail outlet destruction wrought upon local businesses, more or less in neat mathematical symmetry. A hotel, offices and a multi-level car park would surround what would be the highest skyscraper in the North West and gave oxygen to the fervent chatter of this scheme being “among the finest in Europe”.
Ten years later, in 1962, the building work began and in 1970 the new local markets opened for business. In 1971, this being also the year that I was born, retail units began to open in the precinct proper and one year later in 1972, the flagship residential tower around which the whole complex spread, Heartbreak Hill, at twenty-four stories and a height of two hundred and fifty feet, welcomed the very first residents into the shiny new apartments that steepled high into the Salfordian clouds.
Soon, things were to go wrong. Councillor Albert Jones was jailed for financial corruption and much of the money that was earmarked to complete the project disappeared. Only ninety-five shops of the proposed two hundred and sixty ever came into existence while the hotel and car park were discarded from the original plan.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Heartbreak Hill and the buildings that spring from it were loosely designed in the fag end of the Brutalist/Modernist mash-up architectural style typical of that British era. Loud, courageous statements of concrete and prefabricated browns and greys, where form follows function, could suddenly be seen from miles around in a declaration of a utopian zeitgeist, crudely altering the lay of the urban horizon. There are no hiding places when the Modernists move in.
My home is at the top of a tower containing two adjacent elevators and no service lift. There are six one bedroom flats on each floor apart from the first floor which has a concierge office and an exit onto the loading bay areas on the roof of the retail outlet. The second floor has only four flats as the communal laundry and the caretaker’s office are to be found here. In total there are one hundred and thirty-six residential apartments, some containing couples and some with single occupancy. A garbage chute runs from top to bottom at the side of the lift shafts and there are two staircases. There are no corridors to speak of. On exiting the lifts you either turn left or right. There are three flats on each side and a staircase on each side. The whole thing is a vertical pile of concrete condo’s.
I live on the top floor. I moved in in the summer of 2015. This book has been written between mid-August 2017 and mid-January 2018 so as I write I have been a resident here for a little over two and a half years. Long enough to have settled in. Long enough to feel that this block is my true home. Long enough to fall in love with the place. To have surrendered my heart to Heartbreak Hill.
In the early 1990’s the complex underwent a £4 million refurbishment which gave some of the outdoor parts of the shopping centre an all-weather roof covering – effectively turning some of the local streets – including Heartbreak Hill, Marsden Way, Robson Way and Fitzroy Way, into homogeneous sections of strip mall – but the street history is given homage and testimony in the mall signage that sits overhead as you stroll among the shops. I have before and after recollections. In 1988, as a sixteen year old, I spent a day with mum and dad, traipsing the markets and shops. We had made the forty miles trip west across the Pennine mountains from Heckmondwike in dad’s car. It was the year of the Seoul Olympics and mum bought me a sports T-shirt from a stall on Salford markets that I would wear to race in the winning team on the 4X100 metre relay sprint event at The Princess Mary sports arena near Cleckheaton in the Spen Valley. On that day I was a student of Heckmondwike Grammar School, racing for Priestley House.
Extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton
It’s apparent to me how crudely we form opinions of each other when we receive knowledge about where a person lives – the part of town for sure, but also the look and feel of the buildings that we call home. When I lived in Greenwich Heights, London and Abito, Salford Quays I was a busy professional office worker. I had a lot of material things and a healthy cash flow, but I must confess that like many time-poor people – I was a little self-consumed. The edges of my lifestyle were problematic. I ate too much, drank and smoked. I swore a lot. I thought a lot of myself. I thought very little of anyone else. I didn’t smile too often. Yet because of my job and my relative money wealth, independence and career success, people revered and admired me. I remember once pulling up at my home in a brand new company car that I had collected earlier that day – straight off the production line – to be enthusiastically met by a neighbour who previously had hardly ever given me the time of day, yet on this occasion he was all smiles and hand-shakes, like a long lost friend or a sales pitcher – all eyes on the motor and making schmaltzy sounds of approval as if I had actually designed and manufactured the car myself. To my regret, equally as fawning and obsequious were two of my longer standing acquaintances in whom I’d never noticed, prior, such an ambitious material streak and such a willingness to confer on humans new upper levels of pseudo-respect based on the sum total of their “stuff”.
Heartbreak Hill Syndrome
Yet the superficiality doesn’t end here. It has a flip side – that I have come to witness first-hand in my time living in a less desirable postcode – here on Heartbreak Hill. In a mirror-image contrast to my experiences of living in Des Res – where people can behave rather poorly and irresponsibly but without consequence nor the drawing of adverse inferences from their peers and society at large, I have watched with glum fascination and later, as I grew used to it, outright enjoyment, at the way people treat me entirely differently. I meet with frowns and pregnant pauses loaded with critical judgment and disappointment. I receive sympathy – like somebody just died. People ask where I live and when I tell them they extend a hand to my shoulder, lean in and quietly whisper “I’m sorry.” People look at me with outright incredulity – you’d have to witness it to appreciate the full intensity of such a gesture – when I explain that I am on Universal Credit. It’s as if I had disclosed a long stretch in prison or a discreet affair with a teenager or some far-flung extrovert penchant. This is a very powerful experience to endure. Despite rationale informing me that such reactions were disproportionate if not entirely inappropriate – on an emotional level, I felt a strong sense of shame and guilt. This is not just very unpleasant but quite destructive because if my audience senses such emotion in me it can be used to confirm the validity of their initial position. This I refer to as the benefits feedback loop.
It can be intoxicating.
The above extract is from Chapter 1 of From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton - a new free social media book - coming soon in its entirety as a PDF download - currently under final edition and redaction for legal concurrence and personal protection.
Ordsall Health Surgery, on Phoebe Street, is a new build and is laid out like countless GP surgeries that have sprouted up across British metropolitan districts in the last fifteen years to cater for an ageing and generally less-healthy-than-ever-before domestic population. Us. The waiting area is spacious, welcoming and bright. Shadows fall long across the lobby where a communicating door leading to the back of a high street chemist retail unit has been removed to provide direct access for patrons to the drugs they are prescribed. Huge panel windows reveal a perennially inaccessible landscaped inner quad rock garden, therein beckoning large waves of natural daylight to flood the rows of seats where patients wait to be seen after having announced their arrival at the reception desk. The standard auto check-in kiosk is out of order, as too is standard in most GP surgeries and hospitals. A quintessential British feature – new equipment, not functioning, left in-situ with a make-shift OUT OF ORDER note blu-tacked to the screen. Cute in a peculiar British islanders way. Like queues-of-one at taxi ranks and bus stops and our reflexive apologies when somebody rudely barges into us in the steeet. Like Japanese tooth-pick holders in Tokyo city.
The staff at Ordsall Health are great. The service is efficient. Fourteen appointment rooms, seven on each side, lead off one single straight corridor – dim strip lights above me, IKEA beige walls to my left and right, a featureless neat cloud-grey carpet beneath me and frameless frames of picture-postcard-esque stucco side streets at eye level every five or ten feet as I walk the walk. Possibly Cornish or Irish scenes. I remember a day trip to the thatched-cottage village of Cockermouth during a weeks summer holiday in Devon with my parents when I was young. All the rooms leading off contain GP’s be it residential or Locum, and nurses doing flu jabs and periodic health checks. Rarely has my full name scrambled from right to left – delineated in red dots – across the wall-mounted black rectangular monitor in the seated waiting area at a time later than that for which my meeting was originally appointed.
I know my Doctor quite well. When my former GP, Dr. Lucy Fernandez, left the practice to take up a new position in Winton – a town a few miles down the road – Dr. Catherine Saxby and I would chat at length about my whole medical history and my concerns – pretty much like what happened in times gone by. Less of that robotic reflexive reference to the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual and the lazy scribbling out of a prescription for a chemical concoction, and more an old fashioned listening ear delivering a tailor-made service.
I always level with my doctor and my priest. I have always preferred high-level psychotherapeutic counselling rather than a jar of pills. My doctor was well versed in my continuous commitment to that course of treatment in the past set against the context of my career and personal life and the pressures I placed upon myself. Gym for my body. Shrink for my head. It works for me.
Here is my latest sick-note signing me off for a period of 3 months, as is denoted where the red arrow is pointing, and from a start date of the tenth of October 2018 and for “Anxiety with depression” – as you can see stated within the red circle that I have drawn toward the top of the sick note.
This means that, as I write this little tale, on Monday 7th January 2019, it is Catherine’s professional opinion, knowing me as she does, that if I were to be, say, forced to drive a delivery van in rush hour or operate heavy duty machinery or maybe lay out motorway road cones for high speed contra-flows up the M6 at night, then, as this Statement of Fitness For Work document shows, I am still days from it’s expiry – and I might be a danger to both me and any member of the public relying on my accurate execution of responsibilities while holding such an office. You really wouldn’t want to board a flight, short or long-haul, with a mentally consumed person in the runway control room or even in charge of baggage collection at the airport terminal, I’d wager. How about if I were checking the metal content of meat that would go on sale in supermarkets for you to buy, or the chemical mix in the soft drink vats at major global confectioners? I don’t make mention of such roles haphazardly. I’m not pulling them at random from the top of my head in a show of creative talent. All such roles are coming my way as I write.
The story writes itself
My condition for mild anxiety and depression is low end on the mental health spectrum and pretty common these days – a rather standard situation – yet it has presented me with a bona fide ticket to ride, first hand, the patient journey through the DWP and NHS roller coaster corridors of bureaucracy and to witness for myself how mental health in the context of both unemployment welfare and in the context of low earnings manual labour is metered out by the state. All sufferers of any mental condition – from mild to extreme – are subjected to the treatment and communications I am getting. What better way to sympathise than to empathise? Perversely, then, having signed off on outing myself as both a Universal Credit claimant and a mental health patient, I came to see my current position less as a predicament and more of a golden and for, me, personally, a very necessary opportunity to live as many others live and have always lived. And always will. While I was all cosseted and entitled as a very comfortable home owner living in London twenty years ago, I had no idea this world even existed. Flash forward and now my eyes are open. Suddenly I realised that if I could document everything and write it up into a book, I would not be narrating a story as much as being the story and producing an evidence-based diary of my life. For any writer – this is living the dream. Real wealth. The book writes itself.
I thanked Dr Saxby and left the Phoebe Street complex, headed for home and duly ordered to submit the above paperwork to the DWP at my next appointment.
The supply-chain system
I couldn’t have known it at the time but this note would be over-ruled as null and void, even before I had a chance to submit it. And I would be frog-marched into the market place. The same market place where you go about your daily shop. The restaurants where you eat. The make-up you buy from high street shops. And the purity refiners in your local desalination and sewage plants that directly feed into the mineral content of your tap water.
Oh, you didn’t know? Yeah, turns out your vital supply chains are populated with unfit workers officially diagnosed as such by professional GP’s but over-ruled by faceless suits at the DWP who, when disaster strikes – deaths from customers with allergies upon eating contaminated food and multi-car pile ups on the highways – remain conveniently faceless and therefore just beyond the scope of prosecution. Jeez I hope I haven’t spoilt your appetite or your commute.
Welcome to the strategic, highly planned Machiavellian world of Work Capability Assessment.
Le Corbusier & I
Yet on this fine day, with my sick note acquired, I put the radio app on my ear-phones and headed for the subway passes that connect Ordsall to my home town of Pendleton – a 1960’s subterranean labyrinth leading back up to Heartbreak Hill. At no point in this two mile journey – at least while at street level, did I lose sight of my lounge and bedroom windows. Being a Brutalist architecture fan I especially love all things modernist. The icing on the cake for me – the coup de grace – is the near extinct family of survivors – the original concrete high rise blocks. The direct offspring of Le Corbusier’s Utopian vision.
My condo is two hundred and fifty feet in the air and while I love her dearly I sense that the world at large has turned its back on such long fallen projects of innocent optimism. She winks at me in the deep distance. As I walk, the silvery autumn light falls away, permitting my distant windows to emit a soft glow-pad of sandy yellow like a deep-seated homely smile that beckons me through the opacity of freezing foggy air. A distant camp fire. A friendly nod. Tunnel lights. The promise of warmth. I hear an old Pet Shop Boys song in my head. There in the distance, like a roll-call of all my urban dreams. Shunned and neglected and unloved by almost everyone else. Yet to me, her beauty has depth and dimension and a deep-seated intelligence. An elegance born of a shattered shot at new hope that makes her, for me, the perfect companion. As if back in the schoolyard when I was a kid – she looks across at me like the nerdy quiet girl with horn rimmed glasses that nobody else wanted to kiss.
Wherever I go in Manchester, she sees me. High-rise living is commonplace these days but Heartbreak Hill reminds me of the old Hyde Park estate in Sheffield or Red Road in Glasgow and The Byker Wall in Newcastle. All were somehow permanently carved into the distant horizon. Day and night, their shadows and their outline shape grew into the very fabric of the city in question. Embedded and familiar as old furniture. Now there’s character!
The new stuff going up is just homogenous steel and glass lego-land CAD fodder. I should know. I spent most of my adult life living in it. Packed tight up against each other, block after block, like sardines in a tin. Such claustrophobic mapping matching the urgency of developers to cream the real estate market in its latest bull run. No class. It’s all about the money. Yet, back in the day, good old Modernism grabbed geographical promontories, escarpments and city boundary hills to make its massive concrete and breeze block statements. Landmark design. Sturdy as coastal lighthouses. There was a pride back then from architects to go out on a creative limb. To take risks. And to shout their design art from the rooftops. A sophistry that has long since been drowned out by sheer commercial ambition.
My flat and the building she lives in represent the very last remnants of a long dead era. One that may never breathe life again. There’s a haunting, prosaic, stoic fragility to Heartbreak Hill. This old vertical ship is in my soul.
4 months earlier – 26th June 2018
My sick note was over-ruled – mine and many thousands of very ill people who are running things in your society as you go about your day despite the fact that they are medically proven to be unfit to do so – courtesy of a sinister government process known as Work Capabilty Assessment. In the Kafka-esque arena of acronyms and euphemisms, Work Capability Assessment or WCA for short, is executed by the Health Assessment Advisory Service, or HAAS. HAAS is located, for people in my area, in a building in central Manchester called Albert Bridge House.
I just get mild depression and intense bouts of anxiety – nothing to write home about – but many people I know on the block are forced into public infrastructure and safety jobs whilst heavily medicated on antipsychotics and the lithium end of anti-depressants, directly against the advice of their GP. This never makes the headline news on your television.
On the 26th June I received this letter from HAAS about WCA. I’ve red-inked the date and below that I have circled the bit where I am told to provide a host of documents, should I choose to back my case up, with the specific stipulation that the certificates and communications that I provide must be originals. This is important as you’ll learn up ahead. The deadline I am given to complete the task is July 27th – which is in the text of the letter if you care to read it.
3 weeks later: 18th July 2018
Then, the heat goes up. Still nine days from the stipulated deadline I get another letter sounding all urgent. This new letter is headed “We need your questionnaire urgently” in bold type – which is simply untrue but serves its purpose of making me feel like I have stepped out of line. It contains the euphemism “Your Universal Credit Payment may be affected” – a pretty firm warning that I could be out on the streets if I fail to comply. Arbeit Macht Frei. This letter, like its predecessor, insists that any documentation I send back with the completed questionnaire to support the case that my doctor knows how to do her job and that I am in fact genuinely ill, must be originals and not copies. And the destination of my submission is stated as the same Albert Bridge House. Here it is:
I have taken the liberty of circling a few things in red ink. The date – the 18th of July is a good way off the deadline of 27th July as earlier mentioned. I am getting a “final warning” styled take-down for no reason. Imagine receiving an “urgent” reminder to pay your electricity bill or your cable TV bill a whole nine days before it is due with a warning that your service may be cut if you do not comply. You’d process the insult by changing your supplier, because you have the leverage of buyer power. Who else but the down-at-heel and vulnerable have to put up with such vulgar psychological bullying?
I have an inclination as to why state agencies may be acting thus. They are creating a bread crumb trail for immediate sanctions should the benefits recipient step out of line by as much as one single day, or in the case of appointments, by as much as half an hour. Having interviewed sanctionees, from a young gentleman in a neighbouring block called Ollie to a single mum in her early twenties I met at a Job Centre recruitment day, called Chelsea, I know this to be true. Think about it: who emits a continuous stream of warnings and final warnings but those who intend to enforce them with haste ? It’s but a way for DWP to cover its tracks, legally.
There is, of course, a much simpler reason in addition to this: the classic enabler. They are doing it because they can and because they think all members of the British underclass are too weak and shame-addled to tell people like you. They are gambling on the probability that I will not call them to account and go public. They are placing all their chips on red. On the media-enforced supposition that all signed-up members of Benefits UK are smoking so much weed they don’t know their own postcode. The “getting away with it” fallacy, I call it. Endemic institutional discrimination. Embedded as the steel piling foundations of my high rise world.
My completed questionnaire and supportive (original copies) documentation:
Like stick figures in a Lowry painting, lines of identically dressed people lean symmetrically into the Mancunian rain and march in unison through the large gated entrance to Albert Bridge House. This futile subconscious alignment – this harmonious programmed defeated existence is ample testimony, as well as a contribution, to the somnambulistic state of a tired metropolis. A damning indictment of the hollow ambition of modern globalised first worlds. That grubby neon-strip sales pitch now glistening with nothing but the fake gold of fools. Money money money money money money money money.
July 19th 2018
On July 19th 2018 I completed the questionnaire on my computer, went to the library to get paper print-outs of the pages, applied my signature and date to the contractual end sheet and then , instead of popping the whole thing in the post, I jogged into Manchester with the submission in one hand and I personally delivered the thing over the desk at HAAS reception and while I was at it, got my self a stamped receipt as proof of submission. Here is an image of that receipt.
Below I have included a couple of pages from the questionnaire itself. Most pages are concerned with very basic physical abilities such as tying your own shoe laces and cooking your own food and your ability to take public transport without a personal carer and dress yourself of a morning. But under pressure from social justice lobby groups and the mental health sector, DWP had lately added onto the end a couple of open ended questions concerning mental health. I filled them in as honestly as I could, without understating anything despite the magnetic pull of potential shame and without overstating anything despite the siren temptress of personal favour. I made sure that any claim I made as to my illness was fully backed up with original copies of third party evidence from psychologists, the HR teams of my most recent full time employer and my GP’s. Where I listed the medications I take, I provided prescriptions as part of my submission.
In the purple section of this part of the questionnaire I was invited to provide details of my illness, its manifestations, its likely causes and its timeline history. If you read it you’ll note that I have written bluntly and openly, exposing my personal details in a bid to assist the Work Capability Assessment process.
Likewise, in the parts of the questionnaire that dealt with my physical abilities, I was equally up front and made no secret of the fact that on the physical plane I am extremely fit in every sense, running over six hundred miles a year for fun and using the gym for lean muscle build on a near-daily basis in the long term. I described my healthy eating habits, my high energy levels, the fact that I hardly ever get so much as a cold and my recent stint doing ten hour night shifts of continuous heavy lifting – not so much keeping up with the men who were twenty years my junior as much as showing them how it’s done.
Here is another page from the same questionnaire that I submitted to HAAS on the 19th July 2018. You’ll see that I have listed my medications for asthma and for low level anxiety I included the things that you can buy off the shelf in most countries – benzos or “valium” as the Americans are fond of calling it. When my GP refuses to prescribe me valium I buy it off the internet from abroad for personal use, using my UK real address and ID – which is perfectly legal by the way – and then I take the product with me to my next appointment with Catherine (my GP) and she’s cool with that. She is lent on by big pharma to restrict valium and push anti-depressants in a commercial tie-up. If you are deadly honest with your doctor, you’ll see that, by way of return, many of them are deadly honest back. A new kitchen. A new car. An extension on the holiday home conservatory. Private school for the kids. It’s amazing what doubling the dose of a patients Xanax, Citalopram or Mirtazapene can do for your private life, should you happen to be a member of the BMA. If you ever wondered why your GP often offers to double your dose of Citalopram from 2mg to 4mg even when you report that it is working fine, wonder no more. I have it from the horses mouth, as it were. If you don’t believe me that’s cool but maybe research the subject in a little more detail. I recommend renegade Dr Ben Goldacre’s award winning book Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken or watch his TED talk on YouTube.
When I worked at Zen Internet in Rochdale, I gave permission for the HR team to speak directly with my GP. For a year or two I paid privately for a psycho-analyst. I had weekly fifty-minute hour sessions with a highly reputed psychotherapist in Stretford in Manchester.
It was just something I wanted to do to try and improve my mental outlook and eliminate aspects of my behaviour that I had come to learn, from close friends and family, were a little disturbing. I was highly agitated for no reason. People were reporting that I was aggressive in my manner and sometimes verbally offensive and just rather unpleasant in waves of emotional intensity that left as quickly as they had arrived, often without my noticing them. I also gave my employer permission to talk directly with my therapist too. I signed off on what was then the Data Protection Act privacy privileges (Now the General Data Protection Regulations or GDPR) to enable these professionals to discuss my health and share my health records without reference to me. I felt that this was in my own interest and I trusted all those involved very much. I knew they were trying to help me and that they could indeed help me if I was courageous enough to let them and I was prepared to invest the effort that was required from me. A kind of long-haul and rather exhausting team effort. At all times I felt very lucky to have this type of support to hand.
The image below is taken from a letter sent from my employer to my GP in 2013 that only came to light, for me, a couple of months ago, when I used GDPR to get copies of my medical records. I’ve encircled the date and the blurb where my employer describes my erratic behaviour at work to my doctor. They are both trying to work out what the best course of action would be to get me back to good health.
I submitted a total of twelve original documents to HAAS at Albert Bridge House. I’ve just included copies of a few of those here – to give you an idea of my efforts to assist the process by disclosing and communicating as requested. Some of the documents concern my current course of psychotherapy and how I qualify for it, lest you were thinking that most of the stuff here is a little long in the tooth. I am able to show, and have done so, that my condition is ongoing.
For example, here (right) is a letter dated 5th February 2018, which is only four months old by the time HAAS takes an interest in me. It is from Greater Manchester Mental Health and specifically from the Primary Care Psychological Therapies department. It confirms that I am on a waiting list for psycho-therapy. Now. Contemporary, as it were.
So it would appear that against a backdrop of such matters dating from 2013, both my GP and my psychoanalyst are signing off on the fact that the issues are still in hand.
Then, in early September, I was invited in to see the team at Albert Bridge House to undertake a face-to-face interview. They wrote to me and said that they had received my submission and a meeting was the next step.
So Albert Bridge House, here we come. I put a shirt and tie on and turn up as requested.
Like an A&E ward on a bank holiday weekend night, Albert Bridge House on the inside is bereft of the cool, collected, clean Modernist lines and pastel tones projected from a view of the outside. The woman behind the desk – which is sealed off by a glass screen like bank tellers used to be, is rather intimidating. She screams at the small posse of foreign people that present themselves to her as I look on that if they cannot speak English and require a translator they should have requested one on the website. Somehow, I’m not sure this helps. They don’t know what she is saying but they sure pick up the incandescent glare and impatient tone. Negative energy fields don’t get lost in translation.
Forty or fifty people sit close up on five rows of bolted-down chairs. Both water coolers lack water tanks above them. Off to my right, on the edge of a window ledge, unannounced, a jug of water accompanies a stacked pile of thin blue disposable beakers. I pour myself a drink and take a seat. The windows are small and have prison bars across them. This feels pretty much like a Reporting Centre where newly arrived “unprocessed” immigrants into the UK have to check-in every week. Even though it is not one. I feel like a criminal. Like I have been tagged on a curfew. Lord only knows what most of these other people are made to feel like. Yet I already sense the shame seeping into the air. I am white-skinned and savvy to the system. I speak English. Just imagine being in their position. This is utterly disgraceful and entirely strategic. Right wing and racist. It makes me want to run around the waiting area apologising to my fellow brothers and sisters. Yet somehow I think they’ve had their fill of white English people postulating at them in wide-eyed bouts of confrontation.
Right: From a nearby Michelin-starred restaurant – Albert Bridge House falls away in a sheer cliff-face of Modernist glass and breeze block. Never judge a book by its cover.
Doctor David no-surname sits behind a big rectangular desk in a square room with green walls and one small window. Dull light that penetrates the glass doesn’t quite make the far corners of the room we sit in. Alone together.
“My name is David and I am your Doctor for this session. I need to make an assessment of you for your Work Capability Assessment.” He speaks firmly and calmly. No smile.
“But surely you have seen the documents I submitted?” I ask.
“No” Says David. “I am just here to take some information from you and pass on my report to the department.”
“But this is where I was told to send them. Surely, this is the department?” I proffer
“So let’s make a start” he says, ignoring my line of enquiry.
In a weird self-mocking parody of everything that had taken place to date in the form of written correspondence, David then asks me the exact same questions that I had completed on the forms that I had submitted to this very building.
“Can you convey a simple message to strangers?” Yes. You might want to run that one by your receptionist. I keep that line to myself.
“Can you raise at least one of your arms above head height” Yes. I resist the temptation to prove it.
“Does your vision prevent you from finding your way around familiar places?” No. Although how would I know the place is familiar if I can’t see it? Again, beyond the one word answer which I provide out loud, I somehow manage to subdue the rest as thought energy. I think of people who exclaim “I can’t read my own handwriting!”. So how do you know it’s yours then?
Anymore silly questions on the agenda David? Do I snore in my sleep? Recall any event from the year before you were born?
I wait for the hidden camera crew to declare themselves, exposing some cheap media gag and the punchline. But they don’t materialise and the punchline is not forthcoming. And the realisation dawns: I am the punchline.
This goes on for about twenty minutes. Finally, when I was asked if I had any additional information to add, I told David about my mental health problems and the correspondence from HR teams and my GP’s that I had really hoped he would already have been briefed on as it rather made all what we had just done entirely superfluous. He smiled and re-iterated his position as The Patsy. I was escorted from the building at the end of this session.
To this day I still do not know where all my valuable original documentation has gone and I have a sneaky filling it will not be coming back to me.
The state has confiscated the heart of my case in a stealthy back-handed cheap move. Somehow I figure that I am not the only one. I feel like a fraud. Like a fly-on-the-wall. But as time goes by and I weave deeper into this web of state iniquity I feel less bothered by my status. More still, I feel grateful to be given this opportunity to report.
Lauren is a para. She reminds me of Suzi Zucchani who I wrote about in the book. The new breed of PR-savvy staff at the Job Centre whose job it is to float around and show up in timely fashion when a “customer” is showing signs of sailing too close to the wind. Lauren hovers between job centres like a military drone.
Soon after I receive my verdict from HAAS that I have scored a clean 0 out of 15 on ALL of the “descriptors” as defined in their assessment of me – including the mental health one about being totally OK at working alongside other people – I am called to attend a Job centre appointment. And like an echo of the incident a year earlier when I had complained about staff behaviour, I was told at the last moment by my normal job coach that I would today be seeing Lauren. I guess a second round with Suzi would be a little too obvious. These guys are like a new breed of mitigation counsellors. Hazard avoidance specialists. Pest control. Well spoken. Not a local accent in earshot. A little smarter in the dress-sense. And a little more practiced in bureaucratic speak. It falls off the tongue like a default language. English coming a poor second.
For example, Lauren is the first and only person I have ever met who casually drops the word “descriptor” into the conversation. She accentuates the first vowel and I mis-understand. I hear “de-scriptor” as in a script writer erasing their work. Later, at home, I look the word up and the penny drops. “Ah! Descriptors.” I say to myself. But I’m a wordsmith and this is the Job Centre confounding me. Aren’t they meant to be, kinda, layman accessible and comprehensible in a work-a-day sense? I think of all the other poor people she will be speaking to each day and I am incensed that Lauren is no doubt trained to communicate like this to the lower working classes. It is intended to intimidate. I mean, come on!
I don’t bother to express my opinion of the result and the detail of the content contained within the result “letter” with Lauren as I sense a degree of futility in walking that path. Although I do so love the HAAS findings that I am perfectly healthy in every single respect. I re-read it for the poetic irony. I can’t resist sharing it with you. The red arrow on the image above is where DWP says that it has found, given my submission and my interview that I fail to qualify for either of the “limited capability” for work elements. In other words, I am not either properly ill or even a little bit ill.
Jeez! Sack my Doctor, my therapist and reprimand the entire HR team at my former employer who are all clearly playing some depraved conspiracy game to fool the state that I am a little unhinged. What utter bastards!
On the second image, above, I have circled the bit where HAAS details all of my physical abilities as a reason for its decision. Kinda turning a blind eye and rewarding my honesty with a stitch up job. “Gary has a bath or shower every day. He does his own laundry. He deals with his own bills. “ I’m pretty sure most serial killers would pass this excuse for a quality threshold of fitness for work in the community at large. Suddenly my Arbeit Macht Frei comment earlier doesn’t sound quite so inappropriate.
The column of clean zero’s above reflects my physical health and that’s totally fair enough. The very fact that such inane questions should constitute way over ninety percent of the entire assessment is more of a moot point. The pass threshold is so low that most critical ward patients of your average hospital would churn out the same results.
But given the strength of my evidence in terms of third party professional submissions on my erratic behaviour, upsetting people and intimidating people on bad days, with reports of potential violence and actual aggression, I love best of all the HAAS findings specifically relating to my behaviour with other people. As encircled in red in the ultimate image I am including in this little tale of the professional, the patsy and the accomplice.
“You behave in a way that would be acceptable at work. Score 0 of 15”.
I began to wonder what would happen if I assaulted someone in a work environment when my GP, psychotherapist, analytical therapist and most recent employer have been warning that I might. I began to wonder who the victim could sue. Who caused this?
Surely the government?
Indeed, this is a line of inquiry I aim to pursue in the course of 2019. How many deaths and serious injuries are the upshot of medically signed off people being forced into the workplace? Speeding trams overturning. Safety checks left uncompleted. Poisonings. Faulty fittings. Incorrect counts. Adult products being sold to minors. Contaminations. Staff invested with public safety responsibilities turning up at work inebriated. And just plain old violent assaults. I began to wonder how many of such cases are actually, really, the direct cause of the state and its WCA HAAS policy. Entirely censored by the mainstream media.
One thing that all GP’s know about mentally challenged people is that, compared to the mentally healthy masses, they tend to consume alcohol at inappropriate times. It is known as “self-medication” and I should know a little about that. Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts for take-off. After we have made thirty-thousand feet, I’ll be sending Gary round with some alcoholic beverages. He may have had a few of them already for himself and please don’t mock him. He has unresolved issues which occasionally manifest in violent outbursts. And besides, he’ll be landing the plane later so I’d prefer him to retain a balanced countenance. Enjoy your flight!
Is there a huge story just beneath the story that we think is the story? A hidden multi-party lawsuit of such proportions it makes Erin Brockovich look like a pay day loan? Perhaps I can find out. Somewhere, I say, a human being is accountable. May be I can find them and post their photo up here ? Is it the government Cabinet Member of Parliament for DWP or is it a cabal of unaccountable civil servants. The latter, I’d wager. Or both. I sense that I’m gonna have to dig deep.
Who has blood on their hands ? Perfect crimes, they say, are the ones that don’t even get registered as such. No legal come-backs. No TV news coverage. It’s kinda cute, don’t you think ? When all arms of the establishment come together in harmony. Boy that’s beautiful!
I wasn’t quick enough to record Lauren advising me not to appeal against my HAAS decision (an illegal act) nor her shameless admission that if I order a Mandatory Reconsideration of the initial decision it will just come back exactly the same as in fact there is no genuine reconsideration. Flagrant illegalities. And why not? Who can blame them? When you can push people around so easily without any come back, bullies tend to strengthen their resolve and flex all the more.
I leave Lauren to it and head off back to Heartbreak Hill.
Sure enough, when I decide to order Mandatory Reconsideration of my decision, the girl on the phone from DWP, who refuses to tell me her surname despite her demanding that I tell her my Mother’s maiden name and nationality, demands that I send her my original documentation. I point out that she already has all my originals as her department insisted on original copies for my first round of submissions. Like a ‘bot, she simply repeats that demand.
Now, who in society has duplicate originals? What even is a duplicate original? Only the most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves are treated in this way. And I’d wager it is entirely strategic.
Three tales. Sixteen images of supporting evidence. One nasty little right-wing device. And all kept just out of your sight. Because, odds on, if your television doesn’t tell you it is happening, it is not happening, right?
An extract from From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill: Transcending Hardship: Surviving And Exposing Universal Credit – a new book from Gary Knapton
In Imperial Britain and Colonial America sufferers of mental illness were branded insane. They were derided, mocked, feared and cast out. Later, under the new Republic and as Victorian society emerged and evolved here on the Isle of Great Britain, it was deemed more fitting to care for and protect these less fortunate members of society. Great buildings were built. Great asylums. The word “asylum” in the dictionary imputes qualities of care and protection. A reprieve.
Yet in the course of time, the new compassion was corrupted by the old taboos and prejudices such that the great overarching systems and institutions of the welfare state wound up exacerbating the sufferings they were designed to alleviate.
This very gradual fall from grace – a stealthy transformation from a function of care to a function of containment, castigation and even punishment, held sway for centuries. It is only very recently that structural changes began to address the tragedy. Very large mental institutions, the insides of which remained a secret to the public at large, often wound up seeking to preserve themselves at the cost of those at the heart of their original purpose.
Their very magnitude, complexity and unfortunate mission created a great curtain of mystery and invisibility ripe for the incompetent meddling, mismanagement and outright abuse of the powers that be.
I am a forty-seven-year-old Englishman living in Salford in Greater Manchester and as I write it is but two weeks from 2019. I am not insane. I am not in the throes of the acute mental health system. I am on Universal Credit – a modern form of Unemployment Benefit. I live in a high rise block in what might loosely be termed a social housing scheme typical of these social, political and economic times.
And from the inside of this type of social and political institution, I see parallels with state institutions of the past.
This is my story from within.
Gary Knapton, December 2019
Mr Writer. Why don’t you tell it like it is? Stereophonics
Books are engines of change, windows on the world. Lighthouses in the sea of time. Barbara Tuchman
Moving onto the block, they say, will either give you heart or break you. This development sits high on a hill a couple of miles north of the old Manchester docks, now known as Salford Quays. Therefore, out of a respect for its notoriety, local residents refer to my block, one of nineteen high rises and the most notorious in a huge inner city sink estate, as Heartbreak Hill.
PREFACE TO A NEW BOOK BY A UNIVERSAL CREDIT CLAIMANT LIVING IN MANCHESTER . ME. GARY KNAPTON.
There is a lot written and spoken about the benefits system – but rarely from anyone actually living
within the confines of its rules and obligations. Media effortlessly promote their judgment of the
welfare state and of their perception of a “culture” that resides within that state – from reality-
styled TV documentaries and undercover exposés to Sunday newspaper features, daily tabloid
breaking stories, radio phone-ins, endless social media dialogues featuring raging-troll ambushes
to current affairs panel chat shows and even the odd big screen feature such as I, Daniel Blake
from Ken Loach in 2016. The latter stands out for being disturbingly accurate, albeit coming from
a different angle to the one I intend to project.
All the world, it would seem, has an opinion of both the function of the benefits system and of the
type of people that the system is supporting. Indeed, the very idea that the system is “supporting”
the people within it is often taken as a given. It should not be.
Here is my story. I have no interest in persuading ignorant people into my favour. I neither need nor care for their affirmations. I am interested, though, in truth. I have always known that the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society are ripe for manipulating not because of any financial limitations – even though these are often the most visible traits of that demography. Rather, they lack self-confidence and self-worth and often they lack a decent level of basic education such that some are not very literate nor are they articulate in their dealings with officialdom. Don’t get me wrong. They are some of the most articulate and street-smart people you could ever meet, in their local neighbourhoods and in their familial settings. In, what you might argue, are the places that count most dear. Just not so in the tautological, euphemistic and ceremonious world of the establishment bureaucracy and the silky sophistry of national media platforms and twenty- first-century communication etiquette befitting of this higher-education-based, digital age. You know, the clever way we all talk these days and the bright, clean-cut images of ourselves that we are expected to show to the world.
For a start, the quality of my expression and my grasp of real processes and politics belies the
misapprehension among many of you reading this that the British social underclass is an illiterate
Many people suffer bad luck and wind up in the benefits system. I know. They are my neighbours. Injured soldiers. Factory workers suffering asbestosis. And many more than you’d imagine are highly educated victims of economic recessions, doctors and scientists from far-flung war-torn lands or simply your average workaday citizen managing to keep their head above water until personal tragedy strikes, such as an acrimonious divorce, bereavement or individual personal trauma. Some carry a short or long-term mental illness. Many are young single mothers who are constantly finding ways to make ends meet and hold it all together. There are young fathers deprived of child custody who are wrestling with depression and self-loathing. There are blue collar workers such as airport customs officials whose demanding work and long hours have driven them to abandon their personal health for their jobs and are now struck down with acute obesity and heart problems. Some, many women, have found themselves on the wrong end of a violent relationship or abusive treatment in the recent past. And often in the present too, as new marks and bruises on their faces and arms testify. In the last two years, I have met them all. They have become my neighbours and friends and in this book, you’ll get the chance to meet some of them. But the point here is that people who have been knocked back by trauma, mistakes, bad luck, or a poor start in life lack confidence, right now in the present moment when the benefits system receives them. And as a result, they lack the sense of self-worth and self-value that we all normally take for granted. They need guidance and they need a break.
This, then, nurtures a culture of learned helplessness which means that such people tend not to
stand up for themselves. How can they? Where has it ever got them? They rely on authentic sup-
port and compassion. They would be an easy target for less scrupulous interests.
The Outlier Within
How should one shine a light into such darkness and let what was hidden be seen?
What is required is a dedication to the truth and an acceptance of responsibility. An observant, confident and system-savvy person on the inside. An individual with a half an eye on the grand design and with a streak of cynicism coupled with a rough working knowledge of media, the law and corporatocracy. An outsider on the inside. And not somebody just dipping their toes in the water for a short spike of caprice. Tokenism is not what I speak of. A long-term bona fide benefits claimant living on the wrong side of the tracks, deep inside what might be dis-tastefully referred to as “Grenfell territory”. Somebody who has known a good life. A university educated person with a long career in the digital and creative ad industries behind them. A positive individual with a loving supportive network of family and friends. A clean living writer and life-coach with a keen streak of longing for social justice and the requisite political engagement. Deep within the system yet refusing to be eaten by the system. Just biding their time. Watching. Learning. Recording. Not smoking weed. Not drinking alcohol. Not sleeping until midday. Not letting personal health and positive outlook slide. Not rebelling against their current plight by constructing a castaway image and identity redolent of so many poor souls who have long since become invisible to eyes and hearts. Somebody who feels that they may have found themselves in this very position at this particular juncture at this particular time for a reason bigger than a corrupt boss, an economic recession and a long-since spent redundancy cheque.
Somebody with a clear head. An iMac. A fibre connection. And a point to make.
I am a person who is both within and without. Mine is at once a message of hope and optimism as well as an evidenced diary of personal truth. This book may be taken as a stand alone campaign and research project. Not so much inspired by real events as a direct report of real events as personally experienced, very often I have backed up my claims with real evidence which ap- pears throughout the book in the form of photo images. Of course, there is a narrative style to my coverage but only in the interest of readability. Some of the names have been changed to protect the residents.
This is not an out and out political book although there are clear political ramifications to the con-
tent and what the content implies. I am interested in architecture and the sounds and sights of the
inner city and how it feels to receive a life of inner city habitation in acute poverty. How it looks.
How it sounds. How it tastes. How it feels. How it really is, sensationally. These interests influence
my reporting. I am grateful for being alive and I am a keen observer of small details – what many
people may classify as the mundane and the everyday, I find myself examining and reflecting
upon. This attitude bears an influence on the book and the findings contained within it.
I firmly believe that things can and will change for the better and that in time we as a nation and society will rise again to be the best that we can be by affording the most vulnerable people among us the financial, social and psychological help they need and deserve. All that is required to get things in motion is a shift in cognition. We shall vindicate and accept our more needy brothers and sisters for what they are and upon sensing this the needy will, in turn, grant them- selves permission to live happily and free from shame and worry. They will return to collect the sense of value and self-worth that has been stripped from them. They will embrace their personal agency when society at large indicates to them that they are worthy of doing so.
Does it pay to work under the Universal Credit system?
It is claimed by the government and DWP staff that Universal Credit always makes working pay. That is, you are always financially better off taking a job than staying at home. Whereas under the old established (and still at the time of writing primarily the default system) JSA you couldn’t work without losing your benefits status, the big boast of Universal Credit was that you keep some of your benefits and you can earn too.
It’s just not true. Even yesterday (Wednesday, November 1st) I witnessed a young mother in the job centre at Paddington Close, Salford, point this out in despair to a smiling, well-meaning DWP member of staff who was attending to her. His wry smile revealed his silent agreement and I discretely attempted to record the conversation taking place as the claimant became animated and began to say things like “Who brought this system in? Are they on crack?” Sadly, as I started recording other conversations closer to me flared up to drown out the evidence.
So here’s the maths from my own encounter; On Monday 18th and Thursday 21st September 2017 I did night shifts at a warehouse in Irlam. Irlam is a suburb of Manchester about five miles from my inner city block. The pay was £7.80 an hour and the shifts ran from 10 pm at night through to 6:45 am the following day on the first shift and a little later – 7:30 am for the second shift. This netted me a total of just over £136. Here’s my payslip from this work:
Here’s the wage slip I got for two night shifts;
You can see in the PAYMENTS column that the “Units” refer to the hours that I worked and the
“Rate” is the hourly rate of pay.
The thing is, the DWP then reduced my Universal Credit payment for the next month by £86 because the deal is that they take away 63% of what you earn. Bear in mind that while I am in this position and interacting with the benefits system in this manner, I am one of the poorest people in the country fortunate to have a roof over my head at night. Yet I am single and healthy without any drug addictions and I don’t have any dependents. So it is very easy to imagine that many people doing this type of work are much worse off than me. Fathers. Family members. People with CSA liabilities. People who have illnesses and so who cannot work 100% of the time. People who have drinking and smoking habits. Workers who live far away and who thereby incur larger outgoing expenses than I did just to get to work in the first place. Yet this is the rule for everyone on Universal Credit. Think about that for a minute.
Below is a portion of the letter I promptly received from the DWP after I had undertaken the work mentioned.
In no time, the DWP write to me, deducting £86 of my £136.50
Let’s do a little math…
It was £4 each way on the bus. I couldn’t get a return bus ticket since I was traveling out on a different day to when I was returning – such is the nature of a night shift. So to even make attendance, the job cost me £16-00 in travel expenses. Considering that I have a 67 bus service running from right outside my block to within a couple of hundred yards of the warehouse in Irlam, I was one of the lucky ones with a direct public transport link.
Suddenly I have netted a total of £34.50 pence for two-night shifts. My final expense was food. I only ate a couple of tins of fish and a bar of coconut flesh and I also bought a couple of two-litre bottles of mineral water.
In the final analysis, I netted just over £20 for over 17 hours of work. That’s going on for one pound per hour. And if my expenses had been any larger – for instance – if I was a smoker or if I ate carbs like most normal people do, I would have been in arrears for my pains.
Recall my incoming and outgoing tally earlier in the book which left me with less than £5-00 per
week from which to acquire both food and electricity? Now tell me that I would have to be a lazy
job shirker for trying to avoid this type of “work” in the future.
It is no surprise to learn that people biting the bullet and taking any job available, such as that which I have described, for the sake of pride or the manifestations of the British work ethic are quickly in arrears with their rent and facing eviction. They are so mentally anxious that they are prescribed SSRI’s (anti-depressants) at the doctors. And the worse thing? The system and society at large allow these poor people to blame themselves for their acute situation. We as a society pile all the blame and shame and guilt onto the people who have all the odds stacked against them because we have loaded the system in this manner.
Enslaving people like this enables politicians to stand up on TV and proudly declare that unemployment is down. And you who know no better are primed to take their words and their claims at face value.
Behind the Scenes of a Household Name
Everybody has heard of Curry’s and everybody is familiar with Carphone Warehouse. These two
brands are one corporate entity in fact. They are two branches of one commercial enterprise.
You’ve seen their adverts on mainstream TV and no doubt most of you have visited their stores on
the high street and made the odd high value purchase.
Profit rose 10% period-on-period to just over £501 million according to the latest financial re-
leases from July 2017.
So I guess I am not alone when I imagined that working in the warehouse of the logistics arm of
this company would be an experience in modernity and sophisticated state-of-the-art technology.
There’s a clue that this might not be the case from the payslip I just declared a few pages back.
£7.80 per hour is the night shift rate this £501M profit-making entity offered fully grown adult men
It occurs to me that most people doing this type of work do not see what I see. Most of the guys that I worked with (we were a team of eight men) tended not to have done any other kind of work but hard manual labour for such a return. This type of deal and the conditions that come with it were normal to them. They have no context or tools of comparison. Most people in their world live similar lifestyles. Yet my experience of executive positions in media and tech companies in London after leaving university – my “normal” career conditions up until this point, in fact, have given me a sense of objectivity that enables me to see the Curry’s Knowhow set up for what it really is. I have the advantage of context.
I was earning £50,000 a year (see my salary slips in the first chapter) whilst working for media firms in London until 2008 and when I left Zen internet in 2014 my basic was £32,000. (again, refer to evidence laid out in Chapter 1) These jobs came fully expensed and with sick pay and pension rights and cars and all of that stuff. These kind of packages were normal to me be- cause they were what I had always known since leaving university and starting work in my early twenties. My salary packages were low-ball compared to most of the people I studied alongside at uni. My friends who went on to become lawyers and bankers would typically take a sum bigger than my annual salary in their Easter bonus each year. Nonetheless, beyond the money sums, there’s a distinct, almost palpable value in being an employee that is implied from an employer in office work and executive roles. A basic level of respect and gratitude are so commonplace they are taken for granted. Such things are entirely absent from the culture of low-paid manual work such as Curry’s Knowhow. It’s a world away from any office job you ever had and I am proud to be able to say a little more about this here. I suspect that most people in the UK have little clue what goes on. Everybody has a political opinion and many take advantage of their right to vote – but many of you don’t have a clue about how the people at the bottom of the pile are treated and how the system is skewed to subsidise rich employers and penalise those who can barely afford to put food on the table and a roof over their own heads.
My contact at the recruitment agency that placed me at Curry’s KnowHow – Ashley Thomason –
texted me the full address of the warehouse. I typed the postcode into google maps and just after
dark in late September – at about 8:45 pm – I headed outside to the bus stop to make my way to
work. The shift started at 10 pm and I’d been told that the bus took about half an hour to make
the journey. I had gotten hold of a pair of steel toe-capped boots and I needed to pick up a high-
visibility bib and some heavy duty gloves from the warehouse before the shift began. I wore a pair
of old jeans and a plain T-shirt under a black pullover. In my bag, I brought water and food and I
had just enough money in change for the bus out and the bus back in the morning.
My neighbour, Les, from the seventeenth floor, had been working similar shifts for the past three weeks and I’d picked up a bit of basic information from him. But tonight, as I set off, he was out with friends and so wasn’t available to give me last minute tips.
Heavy manual work agrees with me. I’m from an industrial area of West Yorkshire and from a long line of working-class labourers on both Mum’s and Dad’s side of the family. I was the first generation to have an opportunity to opt out of such hard graft – go to college and pursue a career in an office, pushing pens, typing keyboards and wearing a suit. Mum came to England in her teens when her parents left Ireland to find work over here. They hail from the labourers that built the railways and suffered from various famines when the crops failed. Mum always held down three or four jobs at once whilst managing to raise three kids and keep an orderly house. Cooking and cleaning jobs in schools and cafes. At one point she was a dinner lady at one of my schools. My dad was a machine hand (it says “Machine Operator” as my father’s profession on my birth certificate) in the local textile mills of Dewsbury (the town in West Yorkshire where I was born) and Batley. These towns were the world’s centre for low quality types of clothing fabric known as Shoddy and Mungo in the industrial revolution. He was managing the shop floor when I was a teenager so from the age of sixteen, in the summer holidays and Easter breaks from school, I’d work eleven-hour shifts in the cotton cellar of Rest Assured Beds in the Smithies Mills near where we lived. Seven in the morning through to six at night, Monday to Friday.
It was 1988 and I must have been on about £2 per hour for this work because I distinctly remember getting paid over £120 per week. This was huge for a sixteen-year-old. All of my friends at school either had paper rounds, Saturday jobs in shops in town or they didn’t work at all. And you did get paid each week. Every Thursday, mid-shift, the team leader or one of the bosses (including my dad) would stroll through the factory floor with a tray of sealed brown envelopes. On each would be the full name of an employee handwritten in black ink. The whole place was literally a deafening din of Victorian style machinery: all needle boards and rollers so you didn’t see pay-day
Santa until he nudged you and stuffed the envelope into your hands or into your pocket if your
hands were busy working.
The envelope had a small window where you could count the notes by flicking their corners without opening the package, and you could up-end it so that all the coins within fell to the bottom and then you could finger them through the paper to identify each one and in this way complete the count. If you thought your pay was wrong (mine never was) you took it back. But once you opened the packet you were acquiescing to the contents as a fair and just payment for last weeks work.
The only women in the factory would sit at a line of what looked like heavy duty sewing machines and with a co-ordinated fast hand and foot action they would turn coil into springs. The springs would line up in a large rectangle and be fed into a super-hot oven. When the oven had baked them all together into a mattress frame my job was to get the mattresses out of the oven and pile them up to cool behind me before they were sewn with fabric and turned into beds. I wore two pairs of industrial gloves and a t-shirt because the heat was stifling. The mattresses would bend and fold as I lifted them over my head and where the metal came to rest on my upper arms would leave smart straight lines of burns. Within a dozen lifts, the gloves would burn clean through to my skin and I’d replace them just in time. Health and safety cultures were future generations away.
Having clocked on at 7 am I got a twenty-minute break at 9:30 am, a one-hour lunch break at
midday and another twenty-minute break at 3:30 pm before clocking off at 6 pm. I was not paid
for the rest periods and there was no such thing as sick pay so if you missed a shift you lost all
the money you would have earned working it.
Even in 1988 it felt harsh but it wasn’t a thankless task. The camaraderie was palpable, Radio One boomed live over speakers which you occasionally got to hear at full volume when machines finished their cycle, and natural interruptions in work batches meant you could catch one or two minutes to chat with your colleagues about a dozen or so times throughout the day. Because everyone was full time and because you could earn enough money to build a decent life, all the people I worked with lived locally and had a sense of investment in the local community. We talked about our hobbies and interests. About crown green bowls and football and wedding anniversaries and moving into bigger, better houses with more rooms and bigger gardens and about buying new cars and plans for the summer holidays. We were working class men dreaming working class dreams. And living those dreams.
1988 Compared to 2017
Back to the summer of 2017, KnowHow is a ten thousand square feet warehouse space – open in
style like an airport hangar, in an industrial estate down a side street behind Lidl in a run-down
part of Manchester. Loading bays for vehicles of all sizes – from HGV’s to small vans, run along
the two lengths of the site. At one end the open space gives way to a large office behind a glass
screen containing a dozen admin desks, a check-in counter where you clock on, clock off and get
the permanent members of staff to sign your time-sheets, a small canteen with a handful of chairs
and tables, a fridge, a vending machine and a kettle with a hot water tank and some cutlery by a
sink – and a toilet cubicle.
It’s not hard for me to describe the contents of the warehouse in earnest. Hundreds if not thousands of what used to be called brown and white goods in cardboard boxes. American style fridge freezers weighing over 100 kilograms. Cooking ranges. Hobs. Washing machines. Dish-washers and huge flat-screen televisions. Some over 70″ in diameter. And then ancillary bits, support stands and additional “parts” for each of these were so big that they came as stand- alone items.
Most items stood in a random massive assortment in the middle of the room and thirty yards to the right stood a double-length articulated truck that had been driven right inside the hanger, its side sheet dropped and its entire contents emptied onto the warehouse floor to produce the array of gear I just described. The truck was soon reversed out again. There were eight of us in high-visibility jackets and some of us wearing gloves if we wanted them. Grouped around distant loading bays were temporary sign-posts made out of wooden sticks and paper, giving each bay a “name” such as D3, followed by E3 then G3 – obeying a loose alphabetical and numeric order but with some inexplicable omissions. And at the foot of the signs were gangs of metal trolleys – small aluminium frames on two wheels with a fold down ledge – the type I used to hold my tabloid stash as a paperboy when I was twelve years old. The very type I still make use of today to bring my groceries in from the Click ‘n Collect van in the Tesco car park adjacent to my flat on the block in the ‘hood.
In 1988 Rest Assured was slightly more lenient in break times. Here at Curry’s KnowHow, having clocked on at 10 pm, we would get a forty minute lunch break at about 2:00 am with a fifteen-minute pause at either side of that to break the shift up. The structure of the shifts was not neat and the finishing time could roll back to fit the size of the work coming in. Shifts of indeterminate duration created an uncertainty that meant work was devoid of a rhythm.
There was no radio to listen to and a very post-modern, honest sense of non-camaraderie among my fellow workers – no doubt a direct consequence of a generation of zero hours contracted employees living insecure lives from one week to the next and never earning anywhere near enough money to build anything lasting – in an economic sense – such as a stable home life or a long-term financial investment or a steady and reliable work schedule or sleeping pattern worthy of building solid family and romantic relations on. Nobody was local. No workers here were from this town. Nobody knew each other from school. This employment didn’t gel a community together in any sense.
Winston was about 30 years old and looked rather like me. Bald. In shape. Attentive. But unlike me he was quiet and withdrawn. He lived near me in Salford and he’d managed to get low rent or “mates rates” off his mother by taking one of her flats down Chapel Street near Manchester city centre for a mere £50-per-week. By sticking out this job and that tenancy deal he was in clover for now and was grateful for it. You were meant to do five nights on and five nights off at Curry’s KnowHow – netting you about £300 a week before tax (about £250 net) but Winston kept working through his days off where the offer was there. While we were loading a van together he told me that he’d just completed twelve shifts back to back and had only managed to carve himself a weekend off by turning down the offer to keep that run going. “Before I collapse” – were the words he used.
Wes was just a little younger than me. In the smoking shelter out in the car park during our lunch break he told me that he was 42 years old. I liked this guy from the minute I laid eyes on him, for Wes was your typical northern working man. A slim build but all muscle. Manly without signposting it. He was quiet and of a humble countenance – of I type that I always find effortlessly charming. Throughout the shift, he worked continuously and without complaint. He concentrated on his task and completed it skilfully. Being new to the job I had to watch the other guys technique in a bid to imitate and thereby learn quickly. I soon decided to track Wes. To me, he had a momentum and a style that belied a good mental attitude. I sensed that he took pride in his work and I also sensed that this pride stemmed from a deep-seated personal pride. I didn’t announce to Wes that I had designated myself as his understudy. I wanted the non-complicit version of the way he went about his work.
Joseph was a man in his mid-thirties. He was of Afro-Caribbean descent and he wore a baseball cap and a big grin. On your football team, you’d want Joseph as your captain. Quite the opposite to Wes, Joseph was happy to keep an eye, not just on me, but on the whole team, and shout out words of guidance and encouragement as and when they were required, though never in a patronising manner. Joseph’s voice gave this motley crew of decent desperado’s a sense of team spirit and personally, I found his shouts and warnings an absolute life-saver. I need guidance in new jobs and when it is not forthcoming I tend to feel a little lost and a little sheepish. Fortunately, with a combination of Wes for imitation and Joseph for instruction and tips, I was beginning to enjoy what was at core a rather thankless and backbreaking piece of work.
Hamza was much younger than Joseph, Wes and I. We were all between five foot five and five eight in height but Hamza was a strapping young man in his late twenties who towered over all of us. What I loved about him was his tendency to come over and take a minute out of his busy schedule to offer a few words of advice on technique – say – on how to unload a fridge-freezer that was double stacked without doing myself an injury. Hamza would say “imagine you are dancing with a woman and hold her here – then turn like this” and he’d step forward to demonstrate his point. Wow! I thanked him profusely and in a half hour or so he’d be back to repeat the advice which I had demonstrably failed to take on board. I never detected one ounce of judgment or frustration in his voice.
All these men, complete strangers a few hours ago, were going out of their way to help me. Industrial manual work is hard but you know what? The struggle is a powerful bonding agent. It is the kind of experience that is all but extinct in the modern world and I felt lucky to have happened upon it once again – thirty years down the road.
The above is an extract from a new book on transcending hardship and surviving Universal Credit called From Under A Cloud On Heartbreak Hill by Gary Knapton.