I have occasionally been alluding to taking a bit of a break from the blog for ‘personal’ reasons, and you lovely commenters have been very supportive about this when I have shared this fact.
It all sounds a little bit more exciting than it actually is: the truth is really quite underwhelming, if I’m honest. Here it is: for the first time in over ten years of work I have secured myself a job. A permanent job.
Yes, I refer to it my ‘day job’ and I’m probably underpaid and under-respected by most of the people I have to deal with on a daily basis, but it’s a job without an end date.
For the first time in my life I am not staring at the end date of a temporary contract as it creeps ever closer, or relying on a funding organisation to rate my work as worthy of existence.
For the first time in a long time I am not simply squirrelling away 20%, 50%, 80% of my fees to keep it for the fallow periods when the next job is uncertain or when an invoice isn’t paid on time.
And time. Oh, time. Free time is so wonderful! I didn’t know that evenings were for cooking, going for runs, rearranging furniture, binge watching trashy TV, reading books, writing, drawing, thinking about nothing in particular. For the first time in a long time I have been able to just be, and not worry about the next block of unemployment, not think about how to word my next pitch or cover letter, not fret about how to pay the next month’s rent.
I didn’t realise it until I had the opportunity to stop all this worrying, but a decade of going from contract-to-contract really takes its toll on you. The fear of never being able to take a break or go on holiday because a future version of you might not be able to afford it, or it clashes with that contract that you might just get if the arts organisation gets its funding on time.
There is the fear of getting sick and not being able to work that has the far-too-laughable effect of making one so anxious that one becomes too ill to work.
And there is the toxic environment of certain corridors of the arts world where it becomes a badge of honour to work the hardest and the longest for the lowest wage, and anybody wanting to embrace or enjoy other aspects of life simply doesn’t want it enough.
But we can’t all work endlessly like this: it’s not healthy, and it’s impossible to keep going if you don’t have blind hope, good luck or support. My last experience of the benefits system was eye-opening: it made me realise that there is not much of a safety net left there if I might need it. I’m not sure if the constant threat of sanction is supposed to be a great motivator in the grand scheme of Welfare Reform, but in my experience it had very much the opposite effect.
There are a generation of workers on low-paid, fixed-term contracts and those who have had to class themselves as self-employed in order to earn any kind of income, especially in the creative sector. Unemployment, or periods of no employment, are a certainty in today’s economy, but our support system is still not tailored for this.
I personally found it too exhausting to attempt to continue to mould my life around this uncertainty.
For the moment, I’ve taken a step back from the full-time cultural world. I might take a little longer to write a post or answer emails, and I certainly feel like I am contributing less to the world, but the comfort of a regular wage was just too tempting to resist…
Things have been quiet here lately. I am working on a new blog post to explain why… [drum-roll]
In the meantime, I thought that I would contribute to an uncheery and uncertain 2017 with some thoughts on Ken Loach’s brilliant I, Daniel Blake. If you’ve not seen it then I urge you to pack a multi-pack of tissues and get yourself down to your local cinema and see it: it’s one of the most affecting films of 2016, for sure. Thankfully a bombardment of nominations mean that it’s widely available in cinemas across the country over the awards season. I wouldn’t recommend it for a date night, though – unless you find snot particularly alluring. (No judgement if you do).
I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages now, but I’ve not found the words to do this film any form of justice. Spoiler alert: I still haven’t.
It’s been a little over a year since I was going through my Universal Credit ordeal and I can confirm that the events of I, Daniel Blake are startlingly authentic; the nonsensical bureaucracy, the constant threat of sanction, the effect of all this on one’s physical mental health, and the hold music.
Oh, the hold music.
The only part of fiction that I could detect in the entire 100 minutes was the character of sympathetic DWP employee Ann: I never met anybody like her in my time at the Job Centre.
Halfway through the film I caught myself sobbing mouth open, tears running down my face uncontrollably. There are scenes that only the coldest of souls could criticise. Frozen husks of former-souls belonging to the likes of Toby Young.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom though – there are laugh-out-loud bits. Mostly at the expense of the DWP: the opening credits feature Blake’s Work Capability Assessment interview, which is overwhelmingly impersonal and unrelentingly inane. This bit resonated quite a bit with a good few audience members, a few of them who had obviously had experience of these assessments commenting on how authentic this scene was. One guys next to us loudly asserted “laughable, isn’t it?” when we were snickering at the robotic countenance of the medical ‘professional’ conducting the interview.
From my own personal experiences, I would rate I, Daniel Blake as an astonishingly well-researched and accurate depiction of the benefits system today.
And if you have seen the film, I’m sure you will agree that this is a very disheartening thing to realise in 2017.
It probably looks like things have been really quiet here, but things have been bubbling away at ol’ Cultural Benefits HQ* (*erm, full disclosure: my current HQ is a Citylink bus from Glasgow – Edinburgh with a fairly reliable wi-fi connection. Such glamour).
Earlier in the year I contacted Angela Constance MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities, with regards to Scotland’s devolved powers around social security. Her team have been very receptive to the idea of artists being included in the response to the consultation on social security and we have had some encouraging conversations around this area.
Firstly, I would like to urge everyone to read the consultation, which can be found on the Scottish Government website. If you or anybody you know are experiencing low pay, claiming ILA or PIP, or could be affected by the introduction of Universal Credit / cuts to Tax Credits then this is an opportunity to share thoughts, concerns or suggestions that come from a place of experience.
Secondly, I am looking into securing venues for a number of drop-in events to collect some thoughts from individuals working in creative, insecure or unpaid roles in order to build a consultation response from Cultural Benefits. Due to my own work / life commitments, these will likely happen in Glasgow and / or Edinburgh, but in this world of wi-fi on CityLink routes, I’m sure that we can engineer a way to collect responses from further afield.**
Comment below, email, Tweet or Facebook me if you would be interested in being part of a drop-in event, likely taking place in an evening or weekend between the end of September – mid-October (especially if you happen to be in charge of a venue!)
And so to round up this brief post by mentioning a book that has given me hope for positive change in progressive politics and the potential for change – Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:
Just as fashions are more likely to originate in the street with poor nonwhite kids, so are new stories likely to start in the marginal zones, with visionaries, radicals, obscure researchers, the young, the poor – the discounted, who count anyway. […] To admit that these people pose a threat to the status quo is to admit first that there is a status quo, secondly that it may be an unjust and unjustifiable thing, and thirdly that it can indeed be changed by passionate people and nonviolent means.
**(England, Ireland, Wales, NI: I have not forgotten about you, and I would be very keen to explore ideals of what a social security system could look like in your country, but the Scottish consultation has a very imminent deadline!)
The blog has been quiet for a while. I spent June nervously preparing for my talk at LeithLate: Panel Talks (thanks to everyone who came along – it was a great event, despite taking place on the strange day that the news of Brexit broke…) and then I spent some time on Eigg for the Lost Map Records Howlin’ Fling festival.
Eigg, if you have never heard of it, is a beautiful island in the Inner Hebrides. It has a tiny population: a 2014 news article anticipated that its population could reach 100 by 2015. Toty. It’s a wonderful place to be with a huge feeling of community spirit and empowerment, possibly driven by the community buy-out that took place nineteen years ago. And just look at that view…
I came home to Edinburgh thinking about culture, community and ‘scenes’, questioning the elements that attribute to successful places. I want to put out a request for more submissions of artist accounts, this time focusing on some of the cities that have been proposed as potential candidates for the UK City of Culture 2021. I have a bit of a fascination with the brand: I grew up just outside of Glasgow and I have certainly used “1990 CITY OF CULTURE, ACTUALLY” as a defense for my almost-hometown. I would argue that all cities are cultural, but some are seen as more successfully cultural than others. I’m curious to find out what factors can help create a creative scene that truly reflects its people. What does success look like? Is it a bustling creative economy, or is it something more intangible?
I was fortunate enough to attend the premiere of Lost in France at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. The documentary is a snapshot of a time in Glasgow’s musical history, featuring the early years of Arab Strap, The Delegados, Mogwai, the Chemikal Underground record label, and gives a glimpse into the friendships and relationships that would enable a scene where the likes of Franz Ferdinand and RM Hubbert would find their success. As the documentary reveals, a lot of musicians and artists were signing-on or involved in schemes like New Deal for Musicians in the 1990s. Music venues like the 13th Note and Nice n Sleazys supported young artists by providing affordable venue hire (and a crowd of reliable regulars to show support at gigs). Glasgow has benefited from a successful music scene, but to what extent was this aided by the access to time and resources offered to artists by the dole and supportive venues?
I realise that the blog is pretty Scotland / Glasgow-heavy at the moment, so I wanted to put out a call to people in Hull (UK City of Culture 2017!), Sunderland, Coventry, Aberdeen, Cardiff, Hereford, Milton Keynes and Paisley, who have all been rumoured to be contenders for the 2021 title. What makes a ‘successful’ cultural place, and do citizens recognise those attributes in their own cities? What are their experiences with schemes like New Deal for Artists, and has welfare reform and increased tuition fees / the cost-of-living had a noticeable impact on the accessibility of the creative industries?
Please share with folk living and working in those regions and let’s hear their thoughts!
I will be speaking at Leith Late: Panel Talks later this month on the subject of the Value of Art and Artists. Alistair Gentry will also be on the panel, chaired by Yasmin Sulaiman.
Other events during the day include panels on the Politics of Public Art and Gentrification in Leith (featuring a past contributor to the blog, Tim Brinkhurst). I’m really humbled to be asked to participate in such a great festival: I’m looking forward to hearing from the panels and audience and exploring some of these issues in a bit more depth.
There has been a bit of a delay between blogs because I have been busy conducting my own jobhunt whilst working full time. An exhausting and tiring thing that gives me little time to spend time on the activities that make me feel happy or productive in a meaningful way. Yay! I received this account from an author (who wishes to remain anonymous) a few weeks ago, and it feels like an appropriate time to share it. She has experience in both claiming benefits as well as offering advice and support to those who have suffered sanctions or problems with their own claims.
Although this blog as a whole is centred around the experience of those working in creative fields, I feel that it is important to recognise that issues with unpaid work and access to opportunities can be seen across all of society. Third sector roles are similar to many arts roles in that they often rely on the applicant being able to have engaged in hours of unpaid activity, which is difficult to take part in when one is trying to make rent. The increasing centralisation of opportunities into urban areas combined with rising rents mean that young people are being priced-out of both cities and jobs. The following account features some of those experiences and fears for the future.
“In February my contract was unexpectedly ended after financial difficulties led to cutbacks being made within the company that I worked for. I am no longer naive, the world is not my oyster. You see, I was an entitled millennial.
I didn’t feel entitled to a large house in an expensive city, but it would be great if at least one town or city near to where I live and work had affordable housing. I didn’t feel entitled to walk out of University into my dream job, but it would be nice to have a permanent position 8 years later, rather than a succession of 6-18 months contracts. I didn’t feel entitled to earn a lot of money from what I do, but the realisation that so much of what I am passionate about has no funding at all, and relies upon people offering their work for free, was a painful one.
I graduated on the cusp of a recession and took the sensible option of moving back in with my Mum for a while; I found a basic customer services role while I volunteered and worked towards a diploma in counselling. To this day I have this image that everyone else was in a big city living life ‘better’, but I am aware that everyone struggles during this period. I knew that I wanted to help people, I knew that what I am good at is counselling, advising, and helping people towards their goals. I knew that this would not make me money, but I was determined nonetheless.
I lost that job after 12 months and so came up against the joy of the dole in 2009. Two week meetings with a bored adviser (always a different person, appointments always running late) and a simple instruction to list every job I had applied for. No advice on job hunting, no discussion of what my skills and eventual plans were, and I was told that I would need to keep my volunteering to a minimum as, if I did too many hours, I would be counted as not having kept myself available for work. The system is far harsher now, and no more helpful.
After that, thankfully brief, experience on the dole was a time of short term contracts, voluntary social policy assistance and fundraising work. Now I live in a small but cosy home, near to a city I love, but I couldn’t afford anywhere close to central in the city itself. But I still am in-and-out of work, I still have never worked anywhere for more than 18 months, I still am reliant upon the stable employment of my partner for the standard of living that I am able to have (something that haunts me a little, having had strong opinions about women having financial autonomy from their partners).
My experience dealing with these clients has made it clear to me that I am better off not applying for benefits – I would simply not have the opportunity to look for work while jumping through the current hoops.
I am aware that I am lucky to have got a foot on the ladder now, and that my partner and I are lucky to come from relative affluence. I worry for those that don’t have the “bank of mum and dad” to loan money from when they are just getting started, I worry for those who have nowhere to move back to when they need to get back on their feet.
I am currently out of paid work, but am engaged in fundraising and helping out at my local Citizens Advice Bureau. My experience dealing with these clients has made it clear to me that I am better off not applying for the benefits I may be entitled to, as I would simply not have the opportunity to look for work while jumping through the current hoops. Applying for benefits would keep me out of work and set my career back years, by limiting my ability to volunteer, and by forcing me to take the first job that comes my way, whether permanent or not.
Two major things have become very clear to me; Firstly, this is having a large impact on the career aspirations of those who cannot afford to work for free, or take time to decide what their next step should be. This will impact pretty much any industry where people do not earn much money to start of with, if at all. Careers in the arts, in education, and in non-profit work will all be out of reach of those who do not come from affluent backgrounds. To a certain extent I fear this has already partly taken place, as many of the places I have worked and volunteered are filled with middle aged affluent women and retired men. People who work in low-paid but important work will not be able to afford to live in the cities where they are so desperately needed. Young people will be cut off from the places where they could thrive.
People who work in low-paid but important work will not be able to afford to live in the cities where they are so desperately needed. Young people will be cut off from the places where they could thrive.
Secondly, the welfare system desperately needs a re-think. I simply do not understand the mindset that leads to a system like the one we currently have. The simple focus on getting people off benefits and into work as soon as possible, with little reflection upon how to keep people in employment, and whether that employment has any real benefit to society. I have witnessed the fear in peoples eyes when they have been sanctioned for being late for one meeting because they were stuck in another in the same building, or for applying for all their weekly quota for job applications on one day rather than meeting the daily quota, or because they were in hospital (all genuine examples). I worked on my local area’s report into Foodbank usage and saw that it is almost always delays in benefit payments that lead people there. I am not sure that somebody jumping into any job simply because they were terrified of going hungry is helpful to society as a whole, and it certainly is not making the best of peoples’ skills.
When we complain about poor customer service, we might want to think about how we get people into those roles, and how we encourage those who choose to be there and who enjoy it. When we feel proud of our art and our culture, we might want to think about how to support aspiring artists while they learn their craft and find ways of supporting themselves with it. And when we increasingly rely upon the charity sector to pick up the pieces when the state fails to adequately provide the support, we will need people who are willing to do that work. Preferably evenly-distributed rather than clustered in the few places they can afford to live.
In April both my brother and my sister’s contracts were unexpectedly ended after financial difficulties led to cutbacks being made. They are no longer naive, the world is not their oyster. They were entitled millennials, you see.”
I’ve had a number of people get in touch with me since I posted my own personal account of being on benefits. Several folk have written to tell me their own complicated stories in confidence: some wanted to vent about a subject that they feel they cannot talk about publicly, and others were grateful for stories that chimed with their experiences and lifted some of the sense of shame and stigma that still cling to the dole. Most of those who got in touch mentioned that they were glad that they weren’t alone in their experiences. Unemployment, in all its guises, can be a fairly alienating endeavour, and it’s good to know that someone else has been there, signing the same porridgey-yellow Job Centre paperwork, falling down that same bureaucratic rabbit-hole, and that maybe things might just get better.
I recently read In the All-Night Café – A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian’s Formative Year by the band’s former bassist, Stuart David. It’s a great read if you’re into the 1990s Glasgow music scene: the book follows them from awkward initial meetings and clumsy early gigs, right through to the recording and release of their first LP Tigermilk. Despite being a fan since my high school years, I didn’t realise until very recently that the band met back when the founding members were on the dole. In 1994 there was a scheme that allowed musicians (or would-be musicians) to sign onto a music course, giving them access to recording studios, instruments, tutors, and an extra £10 a week and a travel allowance on top of their basic dole payments. I’m not sure if the scheme was available across the entire UK, but in Glasgow this specific scheme was called Beatbox, and it was in Beatbox’s cold, windowless rooms that Belle and Sebastian were first formed.
There was a chapter early in the book that struck chord with me:
Getting out of Alexandria on the train and heading for Glasgow had always been something I’d done as often as I could afford to. And I was looking forward to having a travel pass that allowed me to do it every day now. A few years earlier I’d read an article in The Glasgow Herald by a journalist following the campaign trail for the 1992 General Election which had described the journey in the opposite direction.
“We trundled through Garscadden and Clydebank,” he wrote, “passing all the gap sites Hitler and Thatcher left behind…I hail a taxi and head into Alexandria. Alexandria is a dump. Half the town is broken, demolished, vandalised, neglected or concrete. I wander nervously through the shopping arcade; this urban jungle horror, like Keith Waterhouse’s Brighton, looks like a town helping the police with their enquiries.”
So going the other way always meant going in the right direction. Glasgow shone like a beacon for me. It was a place of grandeur and leafy streets, sandstone buildings and a vibrant energy.
Having grown up in one of the grey, broken West of Scotland towns listed by David in the passage above, I could relate to the need to escape to Glasgow and its far more glamorous surrounds. Again and again the notion of escape creeps up: small, former-industrial towns can trap you; whether it’s Alexandria, Clydebank or Easterhouse, the book is peppered with anecdotes of folk who felt stuck in towns with few prospects, and music and art offering that route out.
Beatbox wasn’t all glamour and excess, though: the music space sounded more like Byker Grove than Electric Lady, and there is an honest amount of boredom and waiting-around depicted within the pages, but it’s from this boredom that creativity emerged. Schemes like Beatbox, complete with its liberating travel pass, didn’t only offer its participants a glimpse of life in the big city, but demonstrated that creative careers are (or could be) available to everyone, and afforded the time to make that possible. As much as I hate to give the Tories any kind of credit when it comes to welfare policy, Beatbox happened under John Major’s government, which shows that the Conservatives once saw the social and (more likely) economic value in providing artists with a little bit of extra financial support at the start of their careers. The beginning of the band’s career also coincides with Stuart Murdoch’s own health journey as he navigates his way through his recovery from ME, something which may not have been viable in today’s welfare system as cuts to disability payments hit those unable to work.
These stories and cultural legacies left behind by the likes of Belle and Sebastian show that there should be little shame in being on the dole. I hope that these stories can help remove some of the stigma felt towards those claiming benefits and that we can embrace, enhance and support the talents living within our broken towns, giving them a wee bit of much-needed colour.