This work is still ongoing, and is still being revised and updated in some places. The comments and contributions of other people, who may have lived through some of the experiences and times I have described here, may be welcome to have their input included here, at some date. Names, incidentally, along with certain other kinds of details in one or two instances, have been changed, to protect privacy, except in one or two cases where I was specifically asked to retain real names. I originally wrote this in response to a prompting from an internet contact based in Australia, who was unemployed and currently being confronted with questions about why it is that that only paid employment is seen as the only valid way to Contribute to Society. At the same time, it is not about unemployment at all, but rather more a refusal to be defined by unemployment, or for that matter any other socially-limiting label. However, it has expanded since then to become rather more than that. It is about the desire to be part of a community of like-minded souls, in a world where personal differences over beliefs and ideologies can often conspire to get in the way of that, even in the face of what can seem to be external systems that seem outdated and unfair, not least about the ever-present worm in the apple of power struggles over who is ‘in' and who is out’ and whose views are to dominate. That is no less true from what I have frequently encountered in various groups and societies over the internet in the last few years. It is about artists, and being an artist. And about bringing together like-minded artists together and drawing attention to the world what we are about. And, of course, about dreams and dreamers. I dedicate this to Norman Jope. For his support and so much more over the years, and for not buying into the 'work for work's sake' ethos. I also dedicate this to the artists I used to know in Coventry and to those who supported us.
Confessions of A Government Artist
When I graduated in 1981, it was reckoned that there were 500 graduates to one job. Thatcher had been following her monetarist policies since being elected and the result, as someone who understood economics better than I did explained to me, was this unprecedented figure of 3 million unemployed.
Until then, graduate unemployment had been unheard of. Now, it was not qualifications that mattered but experience, the Catch 22 being that you could not get a job without it, but it was only through getting a job that you could get it. And being highly-qualified could disqualify you from many, less demanding jobs.
I had read accounts about individuals who had caved into total despair in the face of endless days of mind-numbing anomie once faced with the prospect of signing on, but I did not understand why that should be the case. Surely, it ought to be possible to find some purpose to life without being so dependent on external structures, I wondered.
So I was prepared to be challenged in finding ways to use my vast abundance of free time productively at the prospect of having to sign on, but what I was completely unprepared for was the social disapproval and hostility I encountered, once I started signing on. I stayed with my parents briefly before moving on, but they had chosen to settle in a village, an enclave of well-off families who seemed very much moulded by the repressive and conformist 50’s and therefore felt the need to keep the subversion and chaos of the big bad city at bay, with its immigrants, vandals, layabouts and drug addicts.
From the 50's Twilight Zone enclave, therefore, there was either that cloying pity, which I found no less easy to stomach than the veiled or open antagonism that I all-too often, also encountered, once the terrible truth of my needing to sign on emerged.
The hostile attitude, often championed by gossip-columnists refanning the embers of Calvinist values and whipped up into a shrill frenzy by various right-wing tabloids, or semi-tabloids, went more like this: 'Anyone can get a job if they really try,' or: 'The unemployed are lazy scroungers who don't want to work.' 'The newspapers are full of jobs that nobody wants to apply for.' 'If you have been unemployed for any length of time, then there must be something wrong with you.'
The point about these rabid columnists who wrote these vitriolic articles about welfare scroungers living off tax payers' money was that they tended to be believed by most of their ordinary readers on some level at least, even where the logistics of the situation was clear enough: surely it was difficult to see how three million hapless individuals could suddenly become welfare scroungers overnight. And I had not, whilst still working for my degree, originally wished for this....
Later on, I got to hear of the importance of the Protestant Work Ethic and Calvinism, the idea that working automatically made you a Good Person, that mind-numbing drudgery was Good for You and even meant salvation of the soul. Idle people, conversely, were sinful and morally lax. They needed to be punished, on order to keep them on the Straight and Narrow. (At the appendix I have attached to this piece, I have included a link to Wikipedia’s notes on those visionaries who have written long critiques on this work ethic and the way it helped enslave people into a twilight world of drudgery as he saw it, rather than living more creatively. A noble aim indeed.)
Then, when the lives of so many people may fall short of many ideals, there may was the need to find scapegoats – someone else to blame. Others more familiarly versed than myself in the dynamics of political science might well be able to articulate more comprehensively than I could here on why it may be so convenient to find a 'folk devil' or scapegoat to point the finger at wherever there is significant inequality in any given economy, and Margaret Thatcher had famously stated that there had to the the right to inequality, in her 'chillier, but more invigorating world' of monetarism.
At the time, I was woefully naïve about how Calvinism and the Protestant Work Ethic had shaped the view of so many people. I certainly can remember well a brief encounter with a young man who decided to turn our date into the kind of interrogation, not much more competently surpassed by some of the more zealous Claimant Advisors I came across after Lord Young launched his restart scheme after the mid eighties (I did not see much of this date afterwards, though he did apologise for his bahaviour at a later meeting):
'Soooooo....how many jobs did you apply for this week?'
'And last week?'
'And have you been to any interviews recently?'
'Have you tried applying for many jobs further afield?'
'What about this place, that place....too far for you are they? Too much trouble, to commute a little? Don't like getting up early, is that it?' Oooooh yes, you have to get up early if you want to get a job.'
More often, fortunately, the response to the question was an embarrassed 'sorry I asked.' These individuals more often belonged to the cloying pity camp.
My mother, meanwhile, sought practical solutions to make me less Bohemian and more presentable to the discerning public. I found, kindly bought for me, 'nice' woollens and 'proper' trousers, as opposed to jeans. 'You must conform,' my mother told me severely. 'If you want a job.'
The periodicals for job-seekers were likewise full of good advice on how to package yourself as some kind of a commodity and render yourself acceptable as a scrubbed, clean, tidy and conformist, marketable piece of goods. Actually at this stage, my main concern was over whether or not as a woman, I was expected to wear a dress or skirt, having hated being forced to wear either dresses or tunics, which had been the case at school. The messages about conformity were still every bit as dispiriting as later ones would be about the inadvisability of being too goth in a commodified workplace.
Even the nasturtium lady, Melissa, who was supportive as a friend, gave words of warning. Like the cricket to Pinocchio. This came from her prior experiences as an employee with the-then DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security). 'You might be called in,' she told me, 'And asked why you have not been applying for more jobs. Or, you may be made to apply for jobs you might not like. ‘Better make sure you have a stock of rejection letters handy to prove you have been looking – just in case.’
It is possible that things may have been different had I not encountered the hostility or pity I did, which, were more profoundly disturbing and upsetting on a personal level than I ever could have imagined, prior to graduating. The automatic attitude that I must be guilty in some way – a scrounger – angered me on a very deep level, and that made me feel very rebellious. Where I had wanted just to be more 'cool' among all the militant radicals at Warwick University, but felt as much a sheltered small-town girl as ever, now what I encountered as certain political realities and the ugly face of a lot of the right-wing values I had grown up among, really struck home.
After my less-than propitious graduation in 1981, however, I spent the next few years dedicating myself to gainful unemployment - with varying levels of success - to Art, Personal Development and Radical Community Activity.
I shall be looking not just at what it meant to try to live as full-as possible a life without paid employment, but also at various experiences with different subcultures, creative, politically radical or spiritual, who were also trying to explore alternative ways of living from ‘mainstream’ society.
At the end of this piece, I have included links to websites, along with short articles, on the kind of thinking that had motivated me to question the prevailing attitude to paid employment in the first place. I had, for example, discovered and bought a pamphlet by one Guy Dauncey about how to survive unemployment. He, along with one or two other popular social critics of the time such as Jeremy Rifkin and Jeremy Seabrook were speculating about whether or not Work itself, and certainly the work ethic, might not be ultimately become redundant – and if so, how would the remaining labour be distributed. Perhaps four, or even three-day weeks would become the norm, or most people would work from home, on their computers.
Maybe, jobs would be shared on a regular basis. And maybe there might eventually emerge a Citizen's Income that would be the right of all Citizens, a basic income that would actually make the dole itself, along incidentally with the stigma attendant on claiming it, ultimately freeing up most people to engage only in various forms of small, creative enterprises or independent co-operatives.
The ideas all proved to be pretty well ahead of their time, and therefore pretty well incomprehensible to most of the counter-culture as I then got to encounter, in the early 80's and beyond.
It often seemed to be an unforgiving world then, and certainly now, in the face of new recessions in the new century, also, where questions of employment and unemployment are rearing their heads once again.
Our generation missed the affluence of the preceding baby Boomers. I was born in 1959, which makes me part of 'Generation Jones': not young enough to be part of the infamously Dispossessed Generation X, either. We are called 'Generation Jones' apparently, because we want to keep up with the ever-more elusive Joneses - of an ever-vanishing affluence. I think, however, that the Jones appellation might just correspond more accurately to children of the mid-60's Generation X-ers again. At least, 1958 and 1959 produced an impressive array of musicians - Madonna, Kate Bush, Michael Jackson who also shares a birthday, same year, same day, with the female half of the Cocteau Twins; Robert Smith from the Cure, Eldritch and Hussey from their rivalling goth bands.
My parents were born in 1933, so they had grown up during times of Depression, then war, then more years of rationing, but then coming into their own during the industrious, but conformist 50's. There might not have been the terror years of Stalinism that a landlady of mine lived through in Hungary, but there was certainly a fear of reds under the bed. Before parting the nest for undergraduate life, for example, I had been warned about falling into the clutches of 'Red Sue,' and her brainwashing cohorts. In the event, however, I doubt that Red Sue would in fact, have been particularly interested in enlisting in someone as innocent and geeky as me, in political matters.
Anyway in the 60's, there was that sustained boom time where lucky little boys and girls such as myself had never had it so good, as I remember repeatedly being told by teachers at school as well as at home, where at Christmas it was sometimes emphasised that here was an embarrassment of presents. So already, it did seem that I was part of a generation of undeserving brats, enjoying the thankless fruits of long-suffering labouring generations long gone. The preceding generation had found its niche of grown-up solidity. There had been no lack of Career Opportunities in the 50's-onwards and my family was now quite prosperous, enjoying a good life in a dormitory satellite, with all the amenities of a village, whilst actually having the population of a small town, but with absolutely none of the amenities of a small town. We moved there from Southampton when I was 10.
Here, life among the middle-class, middle-aged home-owners was ordered and thoroughly civilised. Here, nobody ever freaked out or had a fit of the vapours, life with its vicissitudes and disappointments to be borne according to fine, upstanding true-blue precepts and stiff-upper lip fortitude.
Often then, it did all seem so repressive as to be unreal, as though the Fifties had gone on for ever in a Twilight Zone caricature of ordered, though somewhat unforgiving, Conservative banality.
Only whilst still a full-time student did I find out that not everyone in this part of darkest Warwickshire was as conformist as all that. I had at one point got to know an amateur astrologer in this village before graduating (astrology is a long-standing interest of mine, albeit involving a somewhat complicated relationship) with whom to talk astrologese, and also became friendly with an 'alternative' family who had come up from London. The alternative parents meditated and had a guru and once gave me nasturtium flowers from their garden to eat with their salads, when I first came to visit.
As they pointed out to me, my interests would not have made me stand out as odd in any way in somewhere like London, although the Nasturtium Lady was at pains to point out that, meditation, vegetarianism and gurus aside, she did believe it was important to blend in and conform wherever you were, however straight and provincial the locals might be.
'I cannot be as outspoken here as I would be in London,' she told me once. 'Here, you have to be circumspect. You have to conform a little if you want to be accepted.'
Melissa may have been a Londoner, but she had slow, deliberate ways that somehow made her seem a whole lot more suited to rural life, and there were numerous walks in the countryside around the village, as we talked about things. Her partner was interested in setting up alternative channels of education and seems to have been something of a New Age economist, though someone in the family, apparently, had heard of him and warned me that he was, well, a dreamer. The husband, meanwhile, assured me heartily me that his New Vision was designed to bring about the downfall of capitalist dinosaurs such as my father. Dreamer or not, it was good to be meeting people who did seem a little more more willing to think outside the box. There were diversions to be had after graduating and signing on, as couple had a music studio in the back garden and on one occasion for example, got enlisted with several others to sing on a Eurovision song entry. So, there was a sense that Things could be Happening Here.
The astrology lady had made me feel 'got' and therefore accepted - something I had not until this point recognised to be so very hungry for, when she laughed at my witticisms for example - in an environment where I had never felt all that understood, though sadly this did not last (Neither did the sense of being especially ‘Understood’ by astrologers. On later encounters, I was to find that all too often, it tends to be applied according to very prescriptive and inflexible tenets for 'typing' people). Various unexpressed annoyances began to build up, though my relationship with the nasturtium lady, though sometimes a little prickly, did last.
Immediately after graduating, I had just felt a huge relief to know that campus life was over. I had spoken to other graduates - in one cases, one with a Ph.D. - before this time, however, who had told me about how impossible it was to find a job.
Any confidence to rise to the occasion as a doggedly conscientious job-seeker was not helped by the fact that there had been one or two dark hints about the suitability of my personality for corporate life, concerning unspoken and unnamed deficits in getting on with other people. Always I had had it emphasised that I had 'a good brain,' but there, that any gifts of mine might be outweighed by other, unnamed and obscure personal difficulties. School years had certainly left me with very mixed messages about my real capabilities. On the one hand, I had been told that I was gifted, especially in verbal/linguistic skills, whilst hopeless at maths, worse at science, and otherwise being dreamy and hopelessly lacking in common-sense. This in practice could mean being castigated as somewhat (sometimes, alas, very) inattentive and introverted, if not a bit slow to catch on the one hand, whilst having very high expectations placed on me on the other hand because of the unfair advantage of all these great gifts with which I was supposedly bestowed.
At school, I also had started to concerned with the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything, and after not finding the Answers to these great Imponderables in the Christian Unions and get-togethers at the school, was reading Jung, Existentialism and Self-Discovery movements, through looking at Astrology, whilst the dominant members of my sixth-form class smiled condescendingly or laughed embarrassedly at such pretensions to Higher Knowledge. But right from starting at that school my eccentricities had been noted by teachers and peers. Especially by my nice, kind peers. Alas, lessons on developing smoother emotional intelligence were not ever part of the school curriculum and it is hard to see why some people claim that schooldays can ever be the happiest days of our lives, when nothing could be further than the truth.
The brighter children tended to get 'pushed' at the secondary school I attended, which was proud of its record of rivalling grammar schools in the children it sent to University. Later on, I did meet more than one of these early academic stars turning against further learning in later life, because of this kind of pressure. One of these, a girl who had always been top of her class and so full of great promise, dropped out from a glittering career in academia, for a job as a pen-pusher at the village bank. I heard similar sentiments at least from another of the academic 'stars' from that school, who was always top of his class – ultimately, this kind of attention could be demotivating. Much later on, in a two-year stint at a Hungarian grammar school, I was to encounter other terminally unmotivated kids who had similarly reacted badly to being 'pushed.' I certainly remember being terrified of getting poor marks and being 'relegated' to lower-performing classes whilst attending the school I did, and of evoking the wrath of both parents and teachers.
So this was a school that invested heavily in the more academically-orientated classes of children, whilst otherwise being a large, rough rural school with a rough, rural culture with little sympathy or tolerance for differences in learning style or different interests – my brother, too, did not come off too well at his school from an academic point of view, his dyslexia dismissed simply as laziness. In that respect, I do wish now that there had been more of an opportunity to face these fears regarding any perceived gifts or deficits head-on, earlier in life, rather than later. Unemployment did give me the opportunity to develop my artistic skills, albeit with one or two false starts and some misunderstandings over what my art was about, and to be involved in a world very different from the mainstream one of full-time work and conformist multinational life, as I shall explore here later on. However, one way in which unemployment was particularly undermining for me is that it did not allow me to take the bull by the horns as far as confronting either any real or imagined deficits in personality or learning style. So it is probably fair to say that graduating at such an unpromising time involved something of a ‘crisis of confidence,’ as someone later put it.
After more than a decade's experience as a fully-freelance teacher, concerns such as these are now - no pun intended - redundant.
I could have gone to Italy to work, but after a difficult four-month stint there, which culminated in my losing a wallet with a lot of money lent me to tide me over, the idea of returning there did not appeal, either. 'Work' there had included getting to be exploited by a rich mother who did not tell me in the beginning that my (unpaid) teaching duties also included being a bodyguard against possible kidnappers (other families did give her a bad time for that when word got out there, though), though she had earlier told me I did not need to be paid, as there were no real responsibilities involved. I remember accompanying, or maybe, rather babysitting another student whom I now recognise was almost certainly suffering from a bi-polar condition; then moving away from a not-very well disposed student who was supposed, as my exchange student to have been my 'buddy' after the landlady decided to evict us without any warning. Finally I ended up living with a depressive student and her depressive pro-Mussolini landlady, who used to shout at any couples she ever saw snogging outside her balcony. They both seemed to have a strongly-developed sense of nationalism and did not mind telling me that for example, 'England was the mother of all homosexuality' which I was supposed not to object to as a self-evident truth.
The depressives were demoralising, according to them, as a foreigner everyone was out to trick or con me. My new room mate, who proved to be truly depressed judging by the letters she sent me after I'd returned to the UK where ‘everything was black’ and she wanted to commit suicide, whilst normally and basically warm-hearted (Aries-Sag, with a Cancer Moon, she was into astrology), she was happy to let me know more details about how the not-very well-disposed exchange student had been bad-mouthing me.
In any case, the exchange student did her bad mouthing to my face as well. 'I don't want to be friends with you,' she had told me. 'You English are like the Germans. You are cold and detached.' She continued to be helpful on a practical level, whilst being bitchy on a personal level. It is possible that her unpleasant behaviour was because she had been heavily criticised by her tutors for not having prepared properly for me on her arrival, but it certainly had the desired effect of not making me feel welcome, or accepted by any of her fellow students and close ones.
After returning to the UK, it did seem to me that dealing with English culture was enough of a challenge for me, without having to deal with prejudices against my nationality, too. In any case, I never really felt I could get on with the predatory approach to women in Italy, especially not towards fair, foreign women, who were even more considered to be 'fair game.'
To begin with anyway, I had just felt huge relief to be away from campus life, which had had its own special stressors. For me, where there was already an over-abundance of leisure time, this took the form of various post-adolescent existential crises, involving rather more exposure to obscure esoteric ideas about the nature of body, mind and soul than was healthy at a time when there was already plenty of time for introspective ruminations to take hold.
When I graduated in 1981 at 22 then, confidence had not really then been at an all-time high, knowledge of a deep recession prior to completing finals had not been an especially edifying prospect to look forward to. But to begin with in 1981, it was good simply to get back in touch with 'normal' life, as I actually started being able to sleep properly again and not feel so physically unwell: I had been eating a lot of bread and pasta on campus and didn't yet know that there might be any intolerance to wheat.
From that point of view, not having to immediately join the workforce after graduating was a life-saver, though certainly later on, the possibility of never being able to enter the workforce did get to be perceived to be that much more of a trap, especially when things did progressively begin to clamp down.
The Badge Machine and Other Misadventures
To begin with, then, life on the dole immediately after graduating in 1981 seemed like a grand holiday, particularly after the isolation I had experienced during undergraduate life, as one or two people had initially observed with some envy, as I started to look around for ‘Things to Do’ and in which to get involved.
That in part involved continuing with studies. I was allowed to do that, providing the courses came to under 21 hours, and I was able to give up the courses at any time, should a job come up. So I enrolled for an o-level in sociology, which I now deeply regret was not an a-level, as well as extra-mural courses in anthropology and yoga. Most important to me, however, was the opportunity to use this great gift of a time to pursue my main great love, of Art. And the college had no lack of short courses available there.
Some of these were enjoyable, though rather twee – there were courses in wax and tie-dyeing, crochet techniques hat allowed me to make crafty little boxes, life drawing, although my mother disapproved of nude models ‘showing the world their thing’ in these classes. In fact, I did undertake a little life drawing myself later on – 'the start of the slippery slope,' someone called it. (In fact, was just drudgery and often rather a thankless chore and not really any opening to a living, though I did once encounter a life model blessed – or cursed – with a strong work ethic, who did valiantly try to make it one).
All this meant, however, that these activities had to be seen as 'hobbies' or worse, 'occupational therapy' and in many cases, was. This was certainly the case with one course on making canvas works using fabric fragments I attended, where the ashen look of one middle-aged woman told me that here was tragedy – she had never got over the untimely death of one of her children. The tutor was kind but firm with her – and also, liberal with her criticisms of my performance, and of my folio, when I showed it to her.
She told me that my work had merit and might even have some commercial selling potential to designers of scarves and fabrics, but that my bright colours needed to become more muted to appeal to ‘more mature tastes’ and that I would have to stop doing art ‘purely for myself,’ implying, I felt, that there was something selfish and therefore morally wrong in my creative activities. Afterwards I felt chastened for having this grave character fault pointed out to me.
Actually, someone I had visited at what later became Coventry University, also reminded me that practising any form of fine art was, by its very nature, always a ‘selfish’ activity. By now, however, any sense that I might ever be able to make headway as either a commercial or a fine artist seemed about as likely a destination as reaching for the fixed stars themselves.
No doubt, I truly was a dreamer in this regard and almost certainly did have a pretty inflated view of my talents, which were at best naïve, at worst, woefully limited. I did exhibit in one or two local libraries, though again, though it was beginning to be clear that this kind of ‘community activity’ was a far cry from dreams of Great Metropolitan galleries and glowing reviews free of any condescension. A tutor at Coventry University had kindly obliged by writing the blurb to go with an exhibition opening of mine, but referred to my work as ‘charming and decorative.’ Meanwhile, at one of the more Bohemian cafés in Leamington Spa I was told that 'they did not just accept any old stuff.' The reality of rejection, certainly common in any creative field, was also making itself known. There were not yet the numerous internet websites like Red Bubble or Etsy, for example, where I might have been able to experiment a whole lot more with creating prints, designs or T-shirts intended for such pursuits, without either facing formidable printing expenses, or compromising my artistic integrity. Or for that matter, any way of being able to gauge what the level of interest might be in these areas of work.
There was also, always the potential for getting into trouble with my creative activities. I spent a good deal of my time drawing, experimenting with abstract compositions in shape and colour, and for a brief period in the early 80's, was fond of making designs for arty badges. At this time, however, the rules worked this way: if you were unemployed, you were not legally supposed to make more than four pounds in any fortnight in any kind of an enterprise or part-time work. At one social event I once attended, someone asked me a good many searching questions about these badges. However, I had heard that this particular individual worked for the DHSS, so I kept mum - there had never been much to report there, anyway, which might or might not have disappointed this budding DHSS sleuth.
Later on, Angela, an older woman who had always seemed well-disposed and somehow less critical towards me than most of the feminist community in Leamington, allowed me to use a badge machine that belonged to the Labour Party. Angela was later arrested several times for taking part in 'actions' against the police at Greenham Common. Later, however, this went to someone else for safe-keeping, but who was also amenable. I may have paid a subsidised amount for using this machine - until a 'friend' reported to me that this guy was now unwilling to let me use it. 'They are saying that you want to set up a private enterprise,' he explained, not without some smugness: the accusation may or may not actually have been his. He was a rapidly-becoming ex with highly-radical views on most things and a good few issues with anger.
This (the issues with the badge machine, that is) is an example of the kind of pettiness in ideology and rules that can completely stranglehold any real sense of autonomy from developing in anyone who ever gets caught up in the unemployment trap. Again, I felt horribly visible in what I felt to be an unceasingly stifling trap of parochial narrow-mindedness, though it was a long, long time before I could find the courage to get away from it to the lights of the big city later on in life.
As time went on, there were certainly other experiences that did rub in the fact that any experience of mine did feel pretty well surplus to requirements. The 'holiday' feeling immediately after graduating, where it had been remarked that I'd appeared to be really enjoying this period of freedom from honest blood, sweat and toil, was starting to be replaced by more complex and bitter experiences and feelings of exclusion.
Not all voluntary work was like this, but there were always those times when being asked to make paper chains certainly chafed. (That was via a the auspices of a well-meaning lady who worked for the Probation Services. Later on, I was to get some much better opportunities in another town to work with one or two people on Probation. Sometimes, this kind of voluntary did lead to the Holy Grail of a paid job, as it did with another graduate job-seeker I had encountered at the time). Or, it might have been a case of turning up for an arranged group activity, only to find out that the paid worker had decided to take her group off on an outing and clearly could not be bothered to tell me. At a Community Centre I got involved in, most people were certainly too busy to talk for long to discuss any viable community activities, whilst an element amongst some members of the women's groups did seem a little cliquey, an impression that was further confirmed when my minute-taking at one their meetings was heavily criticised. But then in Community Centre politics, I was most certainly a bit wet behind the ears: no doubt, it showed.
This was a radical community centre in Leamington Spa I often visited, although that did not really prove to be the most satisfactory area of involvement for me at the time: the Community Worker did seem to want to involve everyone who came but really, it seemed to function best as a free drop-in centre and crèche for single young mothers whose hands were too full with their offspring for much attention to be spared beyond that. Many of the women attending the frequent meetings did not seem to have a lot of tolerance or patience with those who wanted to get involved with the community activities, but who were not quite sure how to proceed. At one meeting, apologies were read out for one member, who had given her reasons for not attending as 'not being sure how welcome she really was.'
'So what does she want?' exclaimed one recently-divorced wife, now turned radical lesbian. 'A gilded invitation card? For us to hold her hand?'
Or, words to that effect. The militancy of a lot of Far Left groups frequently advocated political gayness, though I never really got on with that. I certainly believed that women should have equal opportunities, be free to decide what to do with their bodies, be free to 'reclaim the night' and generally live life free of any sexual harassment. It seem to me, however, that changing your sexuality as a political act did seem a rather strained and less-than honest choice to make, if it did not truly come from within. Neither did it feel possible to really have that much in common with the self-sacrificing mothers.
One of the women however, did show an interest in encouraging me in my creative activities, in her desire to be supportive towards the beleaguered workless. She certainly seemed to possess some talent and inclination for mentoring. She was 'just a housewife' herself, but as a post-graduate in anthropology, clearly seemed ambitious for more. She was very correct in lifestyle in liberal, Leftist policies, tastes and lifestyle, as well as being married to a black husband. There were other times when she could be hard. Flak from fellow campaigners - and later on, bookshop co-ordinators - whether or not unfair on lesser egos, was, it seems, to be heroically borne within the travails of the greater cause of liberating the Oppressed. She was a kind and understanding listener, whenever I poured out my troubles, on one occasion active in standing up for me when there was trouble with another woman in a project in which I was involved. At other times, however, I did occasionally suspect that maybe she enjoyed being the strong one in the face of any neediness in those people whom she knew to be economically disadvantaged.
It was something of a slow and painful realisation to acknowledge that ‘living well without a job’ was not entirely independent on how well or badly I chose to use my time, in any situation that involved other people and organisations and therefore, criteria not of my – or that of like-minded souls’ – choosing. What is deemed as ‘gainful activity’ is often externally defined by a consensual and usually far more reactionary mainstream, and there can be something of an imbalance of power within this relationship, in terms of who has the last word.
In other words, it was getting to be a whole lot easier to understand why some might feel that the official world of designated unemployment truly was, as I did see it once described, as a ‘poisonous, cancerous half-life’ and is every bit the ‘social evil’ all the cloyingly-pitying bleeding hearts have ever claimed it to be. It was only later on that I met artists who were able to avoid even considering the voluntary work option and the wholly time-wasting demoralisation this could inevitably entail, instead genuinely just getting on with the process of being artists, that went way beyond the the fusty and twee dilettantism I felt myself being forced into.
The attitude of many people I encountered still sucked, though and still made me feel very rebellious. One of these occasions had involved being stopped by a pair of middle-aged market researchers, who were organising a small trade fair on kettles. The first woman told me she would include me anyway, though she seemed distressed when I told her I didn't have a job. On proceeding further, the second woman then blurted out that they could not 'use' me for some strange reason in their market research study and that they were 'very upset.' The kettles stood in a row on the tables behind, their silly upturned spouts reminding somehow of the middle-aged ladies, one who now continued to blurt 'But how one earth do you manage to live?'
I was offered a chocolate bar in compensation for my time, but declined this small kindness. It could be, I should have dissembled a little more for the purposes of this survey by lying that I was a full-time student, but I did not see why I should have had to.
Actually, I don’t ever remember living as badly as all that, from a material point of view, it was certainly not absolute poverty in any Dickensian sense, no matter what depths of destitution these worthy ladies had in mind, in their most lurid imaginings. It did prove later on to be much more difficult to find good accommodation, often because landlords and landladies were unwilling to take on DHSS tenants perhaps because then, the income accrued from them had to be declared, or perhaps because of a dislike of claimants. Those private landlords that did, I found, could often prove to be there because of the opportunities for creating scams, of one kind or another.
The dilettante trap of 21-hour rules and the like was resolved more completely after talking to a volunteer colleague at an independent bookshop I was later involved with. She told me about a 2-year painting and drawing diploma course at the local college, with a timetable that luckily fell well within the 21-hour limit and I was accepted there. The Diploma in Art, however, provided a good deal more in terms of active criticism, opportunities to experiment with different media, along with more coaching in painting and drawing, as well as in etching. There were also lectures on the history of modern art and trips to London to exhibitions of artists such as Francis Bacon. We were encouraged to buy books on the subject and discuss these in classes, as well as to invest a lot more in canvasses, paints and boards. We were encouraged to imagine where our won artistic development might go in the light of these exemplars’ works. Droll lectures were given about the various adventures and misadventures of these crazy artists, in their attempts to communicate their visions to us.
The course in many ways proved to be a mixed blessing. One of the tutors went through my folio, then explaining that he 'did not wish to denigrate my work, but it was decorative.'
And therefore had no validity at all. The news completely and utterly crushed me. Had all the sense of wonderful meaning and purpose derived from my creations borne of what a lecturer I had been to see in a nearby had kindly told me was a form of art brut, all just a delusion?
'We can take you a lot further than you have managed so far,' the staff promised, and it has to be admitted that they did – up to a point. Large canvasses with depersonalised cityscapes began to emerge, and I began to experiment with airbrushes. I started to work with other more mixed media, though alas, a definite approach and technique was still slow to emerge and evolve.
So it seemed there were very decided views on what constituted real Art, and my work was expected to follow these criteria. Established names such as Klee or Kandinsky were suggested to me as possible exemplars of 'real' abstract art. Still, in in the meantime, here was a course that did allow me the opportunity to experiment and whilst the frequent comment was that my work more than anyone else’s attending that course progressed ‘in leaps and bounds,’ my own feeling was often that I seemed to be walking forwards in a train that was travelling backwards. Whilst I had already made a lot of line drawings with pen and ink, I was an absolute beginner in painting for example, and did not feel any innate talent there emerging. It seemed to me the tutors were getting impatient with me and did not feel I was much good – same for the other attendees, who were largely, already pretty fluent in expressing themselves in this medium. Things did improve once it was decided it would not be necessary to wean me off the habit for working within the language of pattern – all the same, the course was intensely demoralising in many respects. It was certainly true that my drawing skills were weak, but by disregarding the areas in which I was stronger – this really made me feel that my abilities in this department were woefully inadequate.
As in so many other areas of life I have encountered, however, this was partly due to coming up, once more, against an ideology. I believe it was Kandinsky, who was also a qualified lawyer, who had first felt the need to define what kinds of patternistic abstract art had some kind objective validity, and which did not. Kandinsky, incidentally, was also a card-carrying Theosophist, and so also, possibly wished to postulate various unchanging spiritual Laws, to which colour and pattern were to conform.
These intricacies of Kandinsky's arguments, however well I have understood them, were probably not in the minds of the tutors at this college – as far as I could tell. Their view was that any kind of abstract art was supposed to have a starting point, however tenuous, in Nature. My drawings and larger paintings involving honey-comb cheekbones were all very well and good, for example, because they had a starting point in Nature. but it still mystified me why derivations from these could meet with approval, whilst other, very similar kinds of patterning did not, just because they emerged from my mind.
One of the photographers at the college, however, pooh-poohed the idea that my earlier works were decorative. 'It is obvious that there is some kind of psychic process going on,' he added, also reminding me was someone else had done, that many people who indulged in this kind of work were often rather crazy.
Later experience reminded me forcibly that this was an albatross I could do without as well, not least because the position taken towards this kind of work is as patronising as that taken towards 'charming and decorative' glorified doodling. As, however by some standards, a urinal can be viewed as Art too, beauty will always remain in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps, who these beholders are, whether or not whoever created it is a full-time dreamer, or not.
A lot of the three-steps forward feeling did, of course, emerge from the fact that I had been studying as an undergraduate in literature before taking on these courses. Yet there was no way I could utilise my degree in pursuing these interests. The degree, which in any case by itself, without any experience, was a white elephant, whilst my art studies were taking place in a very limited vacuum.
Later on, I took up a similar course also seeking to evade the tyranny of 21-hour rules at Coventry University, in Craft Materials. Here too, I often got the impression that the staff did not think I was much good, though after leaving, an approach to the techniques I was learning to master, did begin to coalesce into a reasonably cohesive style.
Meanwhile at Leamington, it was rare to met other people my age: it was often a question of mixing with retired men and women, or thirty-something housewives, alongside 16-year-old Foundation students, though I did not really mix with these. The younger students made me feel, in my early 20’s, as positively middle-aged, whilst the genteel and well-to-do 30-somethings made me heel hopelessly immature.
On the diploma course, however, I did encounter and make a new friend. She was my age, and also unemployed. She good fun to talk to during lesson breaks and whilst painting, and had what to me seemed like an enviable talent for socialising – she always seemed to have hoards of friends around at her bedsit digs, including many of the New Romantic and post-punk exquisites I observed or encountered from the full-time Fashion and Foundation course at the college. She seemed very much more street-wise than I was, which I rather admired to begin with.
Sadly, it seems that she was not using the dole as a grant to finance Greater Things, but to continue in what appeared to be a downward spiral of dope-inspired full-time dreaming in the most negative sense. She proved to be a little too fond of cannabis, she was always chasing 'Nicuraguan' or 'black' resin whenever we met socially and there were evenings with groups of friends in her bedsit devoted smoking 'hot knives,' where the smoke from this resin was cooked on knives and inhaled from bottles, or jam-jars. This always had the uncool effect of hurting my chest and making me cough whenever I joined in and the 'hits' these provided tended to be short and anxiety-provoking rather than blissful.
She seemed to attract violent boyfriends. I don’t remember now if she actually finished the course. I certainly remember that after helping her by lending her a library book of mine when she had been late with an assignment, she did not return the book when I asked and the library staff had a merry time for quite some time chasing me up for it, as it was in my name, until I was finally able to pressurise her to return it. It seems somehow symptomatic that she still left me to pay the small fine on the book, after returning to the library. She was not the first woman my age who was also unemployed and interested in art to follow that route – I encountered one or two more individuals like her later on, in Coventry.
One of our tutors, conversely, reminded us that he had used the dole himself at a period in his past in order to fund his creative activities, as he showed us his superbly-executed and sophisiticated figurative paintings. He showed us several works that depicted a young girl in an advanced stage of anorexia. He explained that he had had to accept the model as she was, as he would have lost her co-operation if he had tried to lecture or to 'help' her. He had often signed on whilst being a full-time artist, he told us, at a time when most claimants were called in pretty regularly to explain why they did not have a job. There was nothing remotely amateurish or anything related to dilettantism or mediocrity in his works, and certainly seemed to put my own floundering efforts to shame.Now the internet is flooded with extravagantly 'decorative,' psychedelic work of every kind, so I do regret again that it had been so easy to take these criticisms of the direction of my work so much to heart.
'I used to have to dress up and look like an idiot,' the art tutor explained. 'In order to keep my claim.'
He was probably better at dressing up and looking like an idiot than I was when the worm started to turn and claimants started being monitored again, after the mid 80's.
Trots and New Agers
Many of the endeavours that involved any level of politics or activism, for me frequently involved sharp and sometimes painful and disillusioning learning curves in getting to know more about the divisions of opinion and attitudes of other people.
One of the main polarities I encountered in the 80's involved the split between those who felt change could only come about through political activism and that any kind of 'mystic crap' was redundant (my nickname for these is 'Trots'), or self-proclaimed New Agers, who believed that a peaceful society could only come about through changing the self. Most of the tales I have to recount here, incidentally, took place within a time frame from 1982 to 1988.
I should perhaps emphasise at this point that in using the word 'Trot' my intention is not to denigrate every kind of activist! Neither, conversely, do I wish to automatically denigrate any socially-idealistic spiritual seeker as a 'New Ager.' What I felt critical of then - and now - is a kind of a narrowness, or pettiness in the approach to such matters taken, in anecdotes I shall describe later on here. At the beginning of the 80's, there was only, in any case, traditional materialist socialism: there were as yet no Greens, nor any Green party, for example. Apparently, there had been in existence since the 70's an 'Ecology Party' but the ideologies for this movement had not yet really found a major voice in British politics.
The fear of imminent global mass destruction had to be in part due to the jitters many people were feeling with the intensifying Cold War - something that certainly struck a strong chord with me, after having been exposed to Too Much Science Fiction as a teen - in this case, post-Apocalyptic tales of a future world ruined by poisoned wastelands and genetic mutation from John Wyndham, or tales about the last days of sleepy Australian communities before the total wipe-out of humanity, from Nevil Shute, in On the Beach (I had read this at 17, having bad dreams for many a month after so doing.)
Bands like Killing Joke were helping to stoke up this jitteriness, that lay in knowing that we could all blow up the planet to kingdom come any minute, so that threat of the mushroom cloud hanging over us was ever-present. The news on TV showed the size of the bombs that each bloc had in graphic detail - made it all like a great game and in fact there was a board game you could buy and play, called 'nuclear war' - not sure exactly who got to be the winner, but the first part of it involved playing for World Domination, much like Monopoly. Ultimately, of course, once world destruction was 'achieved,' there were no real winners. I remember there was a satirical TV film too called Whoops! Apocalypse, where an illicit nuclear bomb is smuggled across borders, disguised as a graphically-sculpted phallus – the opening scenes of apocalyptic nuclear holocaust were nightmare-inducing enough to make the humour as black as need be (Not long ago, I recently also saw rival powers India and Pakistan parade their equally phallic-looking nuclear bombs in military parades).
One powerful dream I experienced at about 23 in particular, helped set me on this particular path of self-discovery. I dreamt I had been catapulted into a Britain of the distant future, in an alternative community in Scotland called ‘Findhorn.’ (I had heard that such a stronghold of mystics and visionaries did exist in Scotland, but it is not the kind of thing that would by any stretch of the imagination appeal to me now – however, at this point of time, it clearly symbolised some kind of lost Utopian ideal for me). England was now an uninhabitable, burnt crisp for the most part – and even here in Scotland, the whole countryside and terrain were a desolation of dead land. I saw a community form the future meditating, hands clasped, around a lake of dead water. Suddenly, I saw that there was a film of oil on the surface and tried to explain to the others that the problem was not due to radiation, but merely oil. However, I then found that the brains of these future inhabitants had mutated, and they no longer used speech. I joined the others meditating non-verbally, and painstakingly, we managed to make a small, green plant grow.
Strangely enough, the dream came partly true, at a peace camp I later visited with a woman called Jean, with whom I hitched all over the country to different camps, some put on by the then-infamous Peace Convoy, some not, with her then 2-year-old daughter. I had decided to try ingesting a hash cake whilst sitting outside the gates of military base – and quietly panicked whilst the others were meditating, because the chemicals had started to make me fear that I had lost the ability to speak and verbalise. I became afraid of being locked forever in a dumb world, though luckily the effect did not last long – though it put me off experimenting to any great excess with such things, afterwards.
I used to visit peace-camp bases like Greenham Common and join CND marches, whilst kith and kin ducked behind their Daily Mails, which voiced the complaints of neighbours, who hated all these nasty women in league with communists and fouling up a respectable neighbourhood. My involvement with the peace camp at Greenham Common, however, was not as active as it could have been. I believed that women should be treated as equals to men and not be discriminated against, but the truth was, I did not always feel all that comfortable in the company of my fellow sisters - it was often not easy to know where I stood with other women, whose parameters for inclusion seemed to depend on political indeterminables that could seem very petty to me. Still, I was there to support actions with Apache war cries, as women created human walls at the gates of the military compounds where the Americans wanted their cruise missiles, spider webs and other artworks and slogans adorning the barbed-wire fences.
My family lived next door to a traitor at the time - that is someone, who had spent time in prison for having sold secrets to the Russians - which further raised the temperature of Sunday-afternoon lunch fights over politics. This was David Green, later known as David Brown, who, if the papers are to believed, was hen-pecked by his wife into a bit of espionage in order to keep her in the life to which she was accustomed. I had met Brown at a meeting for volunteers working for the Probation office – here, he was simply a Probation Officer, proud of his work in the community, keeping potentially Bad Boys on the straight and narrow. My family were not happy about having Green as a next-door neighbour, however. It was all rather hilarious at times in a M.A.D sort of way, though. My father used to conspicuously smoke Churchill-size cigarettes in the garden and I occasionally got carrots and other phallic-shaped objects thrown at me for my own traitorous activities, in supporting the women campers at Greenham Common. There were certainly rumours that the Russians were visiting the Greenham Common women at their camp sites, though I don't remember ever encountering any. I do remember once meeting a German single mother, who was portrayed with outrage by the Daily Mail, as one of those disgraceful scroungers: she was claiming dole during the sojourn at the camps.
Meanwhile at home, I was sometimes confronted over whether or not these CND marchers 'had jobs' and reminded by irate siblings that all the young men in the world wars had given up their lives 'for England.' Hitler aside, it had always seemed to my traitorous mind that England, along with all the other Jingoistic imperialistic powers of the beginning of the 20th Century, had had their fine young men slaughtered for very little real reason. There was, however, at least some levity to proceedings when on another fine Sunday morning, father once rang me at where I was then living and asked me if I would like to 'come home for lunch for my weekly punch-up.'
At this point in time, from 1982 to the end of 1984, 'home' consisted of a not very private flat above a radical/alternative bookshop, in the more Bohemian part of town. The bookshop in the end proved to be more an experience of the 'steep learning curve' variety; suffice to say that one individual in particular had made the running of the venture her special empire and well......in the end, maybe I might as well have had done with it and had the experience of being a bona-fide paid and down-trodden Bob Cratchett of an employee, rather than supposedly working voluntarily for a brave and free anarchically-run collective. Nothing I could do there was right, or so it increasingly seemed to me.
I had visited the shop as a student, where I had been able to find 'alternative' literature of every radical kind, or hard-to-find publications of other kinds. At the time, I had been most interested in astrological texts and esoterica, mostly of the theosophical/Alice Bailey persuasion. There were also volunteers who could talk about Jung and alternative forms of mysticism.
Most of the books were firmly polarised along the mystic/Marxist divide, but there were one or two exceptions. If there had been Weber's critique on the work ethic and how pleasure-denying Calvinism fed the machine of capitalism, robbing humanity of any birthright as joyfully creative 'Homo Ludens' then I did not encounter it, and those books that were either hard-core anti opium-of-the-people materialist Leninist/Maoist texts etc put me off as much as hard-core ego-denying mystic tracts, whether or not New Age, or Hindu/Buddhist, etc.
I enjoyed coming across those writers who did seem to be able to cross the divide - and, incidentally, I bought these books too: there was Theodore Roszak, who advocated, amongst other things, a thoroughly Green sensitivity to his non-violent activism, as opposed to just buying into the whole paradigm of perceiving Mother Nature as something to be controlled and exploited; a 'right-livelihood' approach to work and being true to the creative dictates of your Soul, whilst also bringing a virtually Dominican critical rigour to bear on some of the more indulgent Manichaean excesses to be seen on the so-called Aquarian Frontier. There were Marilyn Ferguson and Frithjof Capra too, also advocating new and more inclusive paradigms that did imply throughout that a Peaceful Revolution and Better World could only take place in the context of some kind of new and accelerated route to greater, collective spiritual awareness. The only problem there to my mind might be, what kind of spiritual awareness.
Also recently published and eagerly awaited because of the more apparently ‘feminist’ practice of allowing their women to play an active role in their church, had also come Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels. Interestingly, Pagel’s reservations against the Gnostics echoed more contemporary criticisms of some aspects of the New Age – that as a solitary path, this was potentially, always somewhat self-absorbed and could always become somewhat depersonalising in its quest for an overriding divine Self beyond and apart from our mere and feeble mortal envelopes. An intolerable and thoroughly unedifying Manichaean split in the psyche, was how it always struck me.
As an undergraduate, I had attended some workshops run by a loosely-run group esoterically-minded Jungians in London, also adept at alchemy and astrology – here, it was supposed to be all about respecting each polarity equally, within the mystic reunification of opposites. The leaders of this group were, however, extraordinarily condescending towards me when I questioned them. I was told by one of the woman speakers that as a mere woman of feelings and intuition and as a mere undergraduate without much education my intellect, or animus, was probably not integrated or evolved enough to understand the magnificent intellectual sweep of ideas that informed the Great Invocation. I was also told me that ‘going back to Nature’ was a purely regressive step. There was also a great deal of emphasis on the supremacy of the great, pure Self detached from any polluting, atavistic paganism, or mere, regressive emotions.
Even without the anti-intellectual stance of working-class heroes, there tended not to be much in the way of any desire to talk in depth of such matters amongst a lot of people I then know, though I had found a friend through an astrologer's group who was willing to discuss such matters. He had once worked as a librarian who, whilst not actually signing on, did not seem to be working either. For a long time, I supposed he could not be interested in me, as he had a girlfriend whom I had met, though later on I was to discover that in fact, he had been holding a candle to me. In the meantime, he always seemed pleased enough to meet up with me, to discuss paradigm shifts and astrology.
The shop also stocked a pro-Sinn Fein newspaper (which did make me uneasy, because of the advocacy of violence), books on how to make hash cakes (which did not make me so uneasy, though in fact, my experiments with hash, such as they were, never really made me feel that mellow.) The shop management was certainly uneasy, as under the vigilant, ever-seeing management at the back, I nervously tried to give a straight to visiting inquirers about the availability of literature on substances: apparently, I was supposed not to know too much about that, but at the same time, was not supposed to discourage genuine inquiries, either.
Complaints, meanwhile, about my performance were never just discreetly discussed with me in private, for example, but written down for all to see in neon lights – or so it then felt to me - in the Day Book: 'The live-in forgot to do this; the live-in failed to do that; the live-in was rude to customers.'
As remarked already, I began to feel that nothing I ever did would ever be right, especially where this involved being criticised and humiliated in front of customers, but criticisms from other unpaid staff could be shot down in stern and righteous flames and protective fury. It was suggested that 'perhaps.....we who were not women/Ethnic or racial Minorities/Mothers just do not like taking orders....'
I did not yet have the skills of self-assertion to challenge what seemed to be the case of an oppressed person using guilt to oppress other people in turn. Later on, in Coventry, I got to witness someone who was far more adept than me at nipping any attempt by Oppressed Minorities – or disabled, or differently-gendered - to ride roughshod over other people in certain situations (in this case, meetings): that is, using the defense 'I am black/female/Christian/Moslem or whatever to prevent having any bullying behaviour of their own called into question. Two wrongs don't make a right. Whatever the case, for a supposedly anarchist venture, there was a surprisingly strong desire to seem 'respectable' and not put the shop at too much risk from the wrath of the authorities, whilst radical-left tomes continued to stand in uneasy compliance with books on Eastern religions and divination.
Signs were up to warn the 'thieving mystics' not to nick the Tarot packs, as it seems that many Tarot novices took the old wisdom, that prices for these were not to be quibbled with, rather too literally.
A radical therapy group found a venue upstairs, where, the personal being political, the idea was to work on the Self, in order to redeem the larger social reality. This to begin with, had involved essentially non-confrontational pair work, where each pair took turns to counsel each other: very egalitarian, though the skills accrued in doing this, depended on the quality of training given by the leader, initially. This involved co-counselling, which involved some basic training with a leader, and afterwards individuals meeting in pairs, in order to take turns in counselling each other. It was designed to be non-confrontational, but by it nature, very egalitarian. The leader, Suki, was a woman very much involved in the New Age movement, and was also involved in rebirthing workshops (which would have been way beyond my slender means to investigate, even if I had wanted to). An out-of-work actor had first introduced me to the technique, though in the first meeting, I had considerable doubts about whether not I was going to get on with Suki. When she saw me take out some drawing to work on, she loudly and roundly told me off for not paying attention.
'I’m not a little schoolgirl!’ I hissed at her, ready to scratch and claw. Suki backed down and explored her own ‘stuff’ about seeming like a bossy and domineering schoolteacher in her own session.
I did not join this group because I felt as messed-up as all that, although I had hoped to be able to improve my social skills, as it did not seem to take much to unwittingly transgress some unwritten social rule, or politically-correct set of sensibilities. I would never claim to be brilliant at understanding social cues, but it does seem to me that the culture of any location matters: in Coventry, it proved to be much easier to find a network of friends, as it did in Brighton. At the time, however, I felt very demoralised indeed about my seeming inability to create any kind of viable network of friends. in Leamington, most people were more prickly than in other locales.
It is probably, also fair to say that life in the bookshop was getting me down: the robust criticisms of my lapses were not conducive to developing workplace confidence, whether this was paid work or not. There was also very little privacy, with the shop down below, so that Work could and did disagreeably break into moments when I might have preferred my own space, in matters of individuals needing to access the back office, or maybe in unexpectedly using the flat toilet. There was also little choice presented to me in who was to share the flat and one or two of these people, related to the management, were also proving to be very uncongenial company.
Again, one of the huge ironies of this time is that with or without the rigours of a paid job, 'work life' had become intolerable, if the boss could seem to be capable of being vindictive where crossed, something I was forcibly reminded of all over again when encountering certain language schools in Budapest, after moving here on the second occasion. Finding and establishing the right kind of relationships here with the right language schools, as with everything else, does matter.
As far as the co-counselling went, however, I was more excited by the idea of finding the opportunity to break through any negative conditioning and Discover New Potential Within, though one person in particular, was more happy enough later on to use this to discredit me, to justify the Clean Break.
One of the more interesting people to join the group was a psychology lecturer from the University of Warwick, whose adverts for ESP tests I had seen whilst still studying there full-time. These had declared ‘ESP can can in very useful at exam time.’ He was right – somehow, more than once, I had got through exams with virtually no revising, except through idly happening on one or two key quotes or passages. These often were the ones to come up in the exam. Obviously, that interested him – he called this particular talent ‘question spotting.’
Later on, however, the gentler co-counselling approach began to turn a more Est-style, confrontational turn. 'We all create our own reality,’ Suki lectured me. ‘You have to take responsibility for everything that happens to you.'
I see. The rhetoric was starting to become familiar. Graduating at a time when there were 500 graduates to one job - that was once again, All My Fault. Similarly, when I visited an acupuncturist in Leamington, I was told that on some level, maybe I had 'wanted' to be ill, when trying to be healed of a stubborn inflammation that would not go away. Did they tell those with more serious ailments such as cancer this? - I wondered, the short answer being that yes, they did, a topic extensively covered by Monica Sjöö, in her critique of New Agers.
I was beginning to suspect that New Ageism, with its magical tendency to blame all forms of poverty, disease and want onto either victim mentality or bad collective karma not ultimately be something I wanted to take on whole-heartedly as a set of guiding principles by which to run my life. However, I could get on with a lot of the Extreme Leftists I met either, with their opposition to interests I held dear, such as astrology.
It often felt that I was simply, congenitally unable to truly fit in anywhere.
During this period of my life, in fact, I had met someone who had appeared to have one foot on each side of the mystic/Marxist divide. I went out briefly with a self-proclaimed Communist, who was also interested in Jung and who had also written down channelled material about the nature of the universe, etc. There were long, earnest conversations about such matters in the small hours of the morning.
He was a scruffy scarecrow of a man nearing 30, darkly intense, whom I knew my parents would disapprove of on sight, as someone who 'was not making anything of himself.' On one level, I always suspected that something was wrong here because of that, however, something that went beyond any desire simply to refuse to compromise - something that was really not good news.
He really was a full-time dreamer. At one point, this involved trying to make the good time as a musician, incorporating my weak and wobbly vocals in a cover of 'The Night they Drove old Dixie Down.'
My old friend who was still living in the village where my parents resided, however, had a husband at this time who also had dreams of making records. When she met this guy, however, my old friend articulated concerns - the sense that there was something wrong - that I had supposed might have been my parents' rather than actually my own. 'He still does not really know what he wants to do, 'she warned me. 'He has no real focus. Such men can get very bitter...'
So, this was already an 'angry young man' in his adherence to Communism, playing me John Lennon’s record 'Working-class hero' whenever in one of these moods.
He had a way of trying to shoot down my beliefs, too. Especially of my interest in astrology, calling it petty personalising of a more grandly impersonal universe of stars. On another occasion, however, a more personal truth came out, where he admitted that he too had been 'badly psyched' by Alice Bailey's Books and those of Dane Rudhyar, and he was particularly critical of what he saw as the Nietschean fascism of the latter. I could certainly relate to that.
As I have remarked earlier on here, as an undergraduate with too much time to spare for certain kinds of introspection, I had been reading a fair number of books about astrology and other esoterically-related topics that had been taking a more or less 'esoteric' line, which treated astrology not as a form of divination, but as a spiritual path towards gnosis, that is, special spiritual insight - through discovering the holy grail of the divine Self.
However, then it had seemed that in order to evolve as these writers prescribed - in this case most especially, one of the most venerable of these writers, Dane Rudhyar - I was supposed to kill off my 'false' ego - there was supposed to be just this clear, pure Self on high, totally freed and divorced from the inferior sublunar world of messy feelings and emotions. As a woman very aware of the realities of sublunar messiness every month, something about this approach was starting to grate. I began to feel that I was up against an impossible spiritual double-bind and could see no way out. Some of my undergraduate ‘friends’ began to lose respect. There was also an intense relationship with another student who had been more than happy enough to play on these angsts, and more, by confirming my deepest dears on the matter.
These were the kind of post-adolescent concerns that had plagued me as an undergraduate student. Eventually I was able to resolve it in a fashion to some extent, with the help of a more-or-less understanding, listening ear in an inner-city drop-in centre, run by a worthy collective of tender-minded socialists on a mission to bring greater community to the deprived masses. But it seems this guy was already, firmly set on a far more wildly destructive trajectory than I had experienced to date.
Alas, this was not a relationship where either of us really prospered - he hated what he called my 'Crowleyesque' desire to remain a law unto myself, remaining jealous of my personal space and free time, whilst I was also growing to feel more contempt for his misogyny and neediness, and later on, and more disturbingly, his paranoia.
On one such evening, for example, an Othello-type scene emerged because of where I had, or had not, placed my crash helmet (not handkerchief). At the time, I was not able to truly empathise with the truly corrosive shame he must have felt over his madness, which did seem real and serious enough, and he did express the view that this was a burden it would be unfair to bring to any real relationship. In any case, he was the one besotted with me – ultimately I did not return his feelings. It did not take much longer, however, to find out how humbling it can be to be the one experiencing the misplaced arrows of Eros, where such fine and tender sentiments remain unrequited. Meanwhile in this case, there seemed to be an indulgence, along with a certain amount of misogyny that manifested in showing disrespect for most of my opinions and reasoning power, that had grown more and more difficult to meekly take on board.
From the point of view of the Revolution, however, most hard-core Leftists more often would make it quite clear that anything that smacked of the opiate of the people was to be ruthlessly sniffed out and condemned as heresy.
One such individual, whom I had allowed to stay with me when he was avowedly down on on his luck, really brought that home to me in the most unedifying possible ways. I had first seen him playing a dominant role in Student Union politics, where he had shown a certain talent for whipping up hysteria against the infiltration of 'Tory Maggots' when I had been an undergraduate, and I had heard enough stories about certain antics then to make me think twice and three times about getting mixed up with him, when he later had shown an interest in me.
To begin with, he had fully made out to me initially that he was a feminist and proved to be extraordinarily adept at doing 'sensitive and vulnerable New Man' when it suited him, weeping during sad moments in films, feigning empathy at strategic moments. Apparently his IQ was over 160, not the first time that has come to light regarding Significant Others who have come into my life: brain rather than brawn seems to attract. The unfortunate thing about the co-counselling, however, was that I had become convinced that all anyone ever needed to become decent and human was to be Sensitively Empathised with. So I duly listened to this guy's sad tales of Woe and Undoing, becoming hopelessly besotted in the process, whilst he was more than happy to keep on taking. Later on, it transpired that the rules of the game here were to be one-sided – I was not supposed to respond with any needs or sentiment of my own.
He was expansive at first, declaring magnanimously that after the Revolution, he would allow politically incorrect, though salt-of-the-earth writers like Dick Francis to be published, and expressed support for the Greenham Common cause.
As he become more secure in his position, however, this mask was dropped as the vicious and fanatical hard-liner emerged. It seemed that in order to gain his unadulterated approval as someone truly politically 'sound,' I was supposed to embrace the full Marxist creed in all its minute articles of faith devoid of mystic fluffiness in the cause of violent bloody revolution. He increasingly came across to me as a Jesuit or a zealous and vengeful patriarch, the hierarchy of (male) prophets upheld as being the sole sources of unimpeachable authority.
What was most scary, however, was the way he seemed to advocate considerable enthusiasm for killing in the name of creating a better world, expressing support for one or two terrorist groups. Revulsion for his views and conscience battled with my misplaced feelings for him.
Even dolphins were at risk. After watching a documentary together about their possible intelligence, and therefore maybe even rivals to humanity, he then suggested to me that maybe they 'should be killed.'
He was also very sensitive to slights. There was, for example, a chance encounter with an elderly colleague from one of my art classes. The elderly colleague roundly called him a 'fascist' once my live-in guest expounded on his views and warned me once aside to be 'gentle' with him once the time came to drop him. Afterwards, I was told that 'he would have broken his legs' for calling him a fascist, had he not been old and infirm.
Proving to the the the master of the double standard, he expressed an apparently well-and truly bourgeois disapproval of my bohemian lifestyle, whilst being out of work himself and seemingly living a pretty well parasitical existence – it certainly did not take him long to savagely discard me, after a spell in hospital for some minor surgery, in favour of another from among his clique of admirers, most of whom appeared to be perpetually playing off each other, and upon which he appeared to thrive. With friends like that, who needs enemies. Apparently, though, he had apparently routinely 'destroyed' many other women before me, whenever needing somewhere to live: 'he was always doing it.'
By now, at the end of 1984, I was coming to realise that 'bourgeois' concerns about whether or not a potential partner was 'making something of his life' or not may not always necessarily be about 'keeping up appearances' but rather some degree of sane and healthy self-preservation. It seems to be a sad truth that in dealing with a society where traditional values are openly challenged, there will always be a fair number of damaged or lost souls, some of which may also include tormented lovers as well as the occasional malignant narcissist.
Most Far Leftists I met were usually - fortunately - less either mad, bad, or both than this latter particular paragon of enlightened socialism, or simply possessed a little more in the way of certain, basic humane standards and conscience. However, it often seemed to me that in order to be part of their 'club,' in many cases, it was necessary not just to follow the party line in the most obvious articles of faith, but also to read (or sell) the right (but not 'Right') newspapers, but also to adopt the right kinds of clothes, lifestyle, accents (often a pseudo-Northern one) and tastes.
Similarly, but possibly a less extreme but somewhat more petty way, an activist whom I met later on in Coventry, an earnest young advocate for the rights of the Disadvantaged, seemed to write me off as hopelessly bourgeois, when he discovered that I kept cold tea in the fridge. At least the CND movements and others against the Bomb were a little less prescriptive in this respect.
In addition to visiting Greenham Common, in the 80's I also got involved with some New-Age camps of self-discovery, set in the countryside.
Maybe in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher's much-hated Peace Convoy, houses were to eschewed in favour of tents and tepees and a movement wishing, on the surface at least, to return to a less alienated existence started to grow a little more in momentum. The first of these involved an astrology camp, the very first of its kind and this was a truly enjoyable experience. The main organiser of these camps always reminded me of a still-enthusiastic but now rather over-worked and harassed Boy Scout leader.
Here, then, is a topic that usually meets with either derisive skepticism or religious condemnation, if any interest in the topic is admitted to - then, there are the divisions of belief, approach and attitude within it, and the question of what to make of literature, where it can be very difficult to find the dividing line between genuine spiritual (or for that matter, empirical) insight, or bigoted kookiness. Here, however, the atmosphere was friendly and open - here, it could be possible to discuss the intricacy of your birth-chart, without being considered an oddball. I met an esotericist who was friendly enough, even though he talked a little too much about 'lower selves' for my liking. Then there were traditionalists, as opposed to the modernists, who use the chart as a map for inner self-discovery: a Horary practitioner, a Draconic astrologer, a speaker on the newly-discovered planetoid Chiron and how to delineate and interpret its position in your own horoscope. I was also delighted to be able to attend the workshop of an apparently Feminist astrologer, who gave a workshop on looking at moon phases and the mysteries of menstruation. Closer questioning about how she understood her spirituality, however, rather disappointingly suggested to me that she belonged far more to the 'White Light' - that is, New Age school of thought than with what one or two astrologers in more recent critiques of astrological thought in Garry Phillipson's Astrology in the Year Zero rather disparagingly called 'Earth Mother' die-hards, or as one individual on an internet forum I came across recently, christened ‘passive fundamentalism.’
By the following year in the life of these camps, however, rain clouds were making themselves apparent. I had become involved with a loose group of esoterically-minded affiliates in London, where the idea was to meet up at most auspicious full moons, in order to bring Peace, Love and Understanding to the world. Yet, the atmosphere was becoming less free and open. Power struggles between members were starting to develop, ideas about the planets and the horoscope and what was a valid form of self-expression and what manifestations of 'conditioning and reflexes' more rigidly prescribed. It began to seem that now, theosophical tenets about who we were as people were to be slavishly applied, with transgressions in belief and outlook to be admonished and corrected, rather than there being the open and free exchange of ideas and insights that had so agreeably impressed me at that first astrological camp. Self-appointed gurus began to emerge, whose job it seemed was to wise all his disciples to the tricks and triggers of 'the inner child.' Alongside all this, there was also a good deal of speculative chart analysis and scrutiny of each individual horoscope taking place between various members. The promise of radical transformation of self and society there might indeed be, but all too often, this noble impulse all too often does seem to get road-blocked by pettier abuses of power. That, along with a kind of a black-and-white extremism towards 'modern' astrology did seem to be way too much in evidence, along with a zero tolerance for any alternative viewpoints.
Strangely, more recently I have seen a similar phenomenon more recently on one or two astrological internet forums, along with the same curious tendency to over-polarise and for some individuals to band together and join forces against any perceived heresy. But perhaps in such a debated area where politics, sex and especially religion, or spirituality, are pretty well guaranteed to rear their heads, it will never be possible to keep all debate at cocktail-party blandness, at all times.
I rather gather that a sadder and wiser organiser of these events has wondered about what happens in situations where self-discovery is promoted in ‘alternative’ communities too, if my impressions from what he has written on his website are correct. The 'Noble Savage', once free of his/her cultural conditioning, does not seem to emerge as full of good will and Love and Light as might have been hoped: what often does emerge is a cesspit of power struggles, along with all the vying for top-dog position and the subsequent plotting and scheming and betrayals in attaining this.
What this approach to the horoscope and interpretation of sun, moon and stars reminds me of now, in retrospect, is of something I encountered as an undergraduate, when two members of a Moonie-type community started wooing me to join their commune - some kind of a rural small-holding not far from the University. Their women all wore long skirts and headwear, the men all had beards. There was music, partying, food, and the heady sense of being part of something greater, expansive friendliness, combined with criticisms and attacks on lifestyle and outlook on life in the case of outsiders who were being wooed by this group, to join.
The heady sense of being part of being something greater than the more narrow worlds of family and commerce is, bye the bye, something that has always been seductive to me. It does seem, however, that where there is the opportunity to satisfy this need, then such an individual is blessed indeed, it seems they even live longer. More recently, I got to teach a family in Budapest who belonged to a Christian group – and in many ways, I envied the solidarity and sense of being something greater that they seemed to enjoy. On one of the few occasions I have been able to co-operate with a troupe of artists again, just as I did in Coventry, this has been through a Christian organisation raising money foe charity. Yet I felt, without really feeling able to explain to them, that I could never have got on with their fundamentalism. It certainly beats the motivation called here ‘interest’ I have often encountered here, where friends and contacts only seem to be made outside ‘family’ or work, if there is something substantial to be gained personally from nurturing this contact.
The trouble is, the desire of a group or ‘something greater’ is something that can be exploited, and there is often a great deal of pressure to conform in these cases - to some kind of 'group think.' This is something that must surely make itself felt in the great, corporate world of multinationals - certainly it does with the imposition of dress codes, for example, an issue I certainly occasionally encountered, in my latter career as a sub-contractee teacher whenever visiting some of these establishments.
In the former instance, I knew there was no way I could ever have adopted the commune's fundamentalism, nor the highly conformist clothes and mien prescribed for the women there - nor would I ever give in to the heavy-duty manipulation of the group, to get me to join them body and soul: I despised both the sexual conformity and the manipulative Moonie tactics, which also involved, hugs, love-bombing, deep and prolonged eye-contact into the Soul and many searching statements about the state of my heart. The two young women who were trussed up for modesty in ways that reminded me disturbingly of Moslem fundamentalists appeared to make a beeline for me because I seemed isolated, and therefore a vulnerable target. Perhaps that group thought that it would therefore be easy to manipulate and blackmail me to their way of thinking.
Astrology, however, was about a philosophy to I was deeply attached - but here, too, my way of being was not acceptable. In the end, some of these people were after my soul too, if not my body - but all again, all by their standards and definitions, not mine. To me now, what I all-too often kept on encountering, and encountering again, whether or not it was a political creed or a spiritual 'science' such as Astrology, was a loose-knit variation of fundamentalism or authoritarianism, only now with the latter it was a question of converting me to their way of looking for the God Within - and being defined purely by these strict criteria – theirs, once again, and not mine.
By the second astrology camp, then, feuds and factions between members were beginning to make themselves felt between the enthusiastically - followed experiential sessions. One of my more disturbing experiences of this particular camp, however, involved the antics of a self-styled Kabbalist, who clearly thought that the one way to the True Self of another had to involve a combination of heavy-duty attempts at seduction along with the guru-tripping already beginning to emerge amongst the bringers of Peace and Love, where love would rule the stars.
After some of these experiences, I did wonder whether certain negative experiences at school, where I was the kid that was never really socially accepted, might have had something to do with my continuing with a group of people that seemed all too happy to continue to abuse my poor, simple trust. Either that, or I had read somewhere that the ability to withstand attempts to tread on your corns or push your buttons was all good, sturdy training for the spiritual athlete – either way, this kind of practice was starting very much not to appeal. So then, when verbal attacks started being made on me in relation to my horoscope, no doubt to expose my ‘triggers’ as part of the machinations of the dreaded 'inner child' on one of my last of these trips to London, in and around the distress of being turned on, again it made me wonder, and does still, what motivates this kind of desire to engage in this kind of power struggle. The conclusion I made after this is that astrology, whilst still absorbing and fascinating to me for some strange reason, will never, truly be really a ‘friend’ - at least, not whenever being used as an ersatz neo-Gnostic religious path.
In any case, even without all the angst here about 'inner child' and 'Self,' a more shrill and cynical inner voice – in this case, maybe an inner-skeptic, or Tory, though I should add that there is no danger now I will ever become a Tory - was certainly starting to make itself felt. This was along the lines that all this navel-gazing surely wasn't a little indulgent, even pathetic? Maybe in the end, all this preoccupation with 'Self' was nothing more than a rather destructive form of 'selfishness' with a small 's' for this gloriously divine selfhood on high and ultimately, nothing more than a narcissistic escape from the world? (More recently, the post-Jungian Hillman, also seems to be critical of the tendency to want to subordinate the richness of the soul in its diverse elements to an overriding Self on high, also calling this depersonalising and highly reductionist. He definitely did, also seem to feel that too much of an adherence to ‘spirit’ at the expense of soul – including links and connections to the world of community and relatedness, definitely to involve a good deal of self-centred narcissism).
The year afterwards, rather than attending yet another astrology camp where in any case the planets, stars and their meanings by now seemed pretty well done to death anyway, I decided to seek paid work as an Arts and Crafts instructor instead - and initially was, in fact, offered a contract, with a wage, for that one week, with what initially sounded like, well, Real Work. contract was, however, withdrawn: it was decided that there were not the funds to support such a venture and in any case, unpaid work might be better for our karma and possibly, their bank balances.
Not actually having much to lose, I attended anyway.
I got to meet an astrologer who had co-written a book more or less advocating a more ‘feminist’ type of astrology, though to me it only scratched the surface, and Monica Sjöö, an artist who was championing contemporary relevance of the Mother Goddess. Sjöö was infamous for one painting in particular, that she had titled 'God Giving Birth,' 'God' in this respect being very much a strong and androgynous black woman.
She was a large, statuesque woman with a somewhat deliberate manner, who could no doubt be formidable in most circumstances; she kept her Swedish braids long. Her ideas had first caught my attention whilst I was still a full-time student, where she appeared to be the only person going against the grain of a lot of the esoteric literature I had been coming across, inspired mainly by Alice Bailey's channelled writings. In the latter case, as it was with the group in London, the full moon was always 'celebrated, too' but this was certainly not in order to celebrate any immanent Divine Feminine, but in fact to move beyond that to the great solar logos on high. This was to be explored further by Monica Sjöö in a critique on New Age thinking I came across years later, though, after having come across some of her pamphlets earlier on, I was already wondering what she was doing at a New Age camp. Certainly, she had only recently undergone the much-publicised tragedy of the untimely loss of two of her sons, though over and above that, she did somehow seem spiritually troubled.
At the camp, she gave a talk and demonstration of her artwork and I bought her book of the Goddess, that set out the fruit of hers and Barbara Mor's research, with their thoughts on the matter.
A great meeting of minds, however, this was not to be: when I showed her the artwork of a set of Tarot cards I had designed, I was criticised for depicting some figures as being stereotypically blond and blue-eyed, without enough Black characters. In fact, I had included several Black figures throughout among my full 78-deck of cards. I knew that I had really lost her, however, after producing my pride and joy at the time (in 1987), which consisted of my pocket computer. Apparently, she was at one with Michael Shallis there, whom I had also once seen lecture at an astrological conference at Warwick University I had happened upon in 1980, as he was heckled by a prominent member of the audience, the equivalent to Russell Grant of that time. Apparently, Shallis believed that all computers were 'Ahrimanic' and therefore, somehow Satanic, because their electrical energies fed into negative brainwaves and emotions of the individuals using them.
More recently, I met someone in Budapest who had known Monica better than I did, who told me how 'privileged' he had felt in being able to see her artwork and in being part of her mission to 'Save the Earth.' He was, however, not blind to her more intolerant sides, and told me he could 'hear her voice' when I told him of her objections to my computer and my Tarot cards. 'She was a monster,' he told me.
The privilege of genius – or at least, dogmatism.
Sjöö’s reaction to me was profoundly dispiriting at the time, not least because of having contracted food poisoning at the camp. I had encountered so much of that rather polarised mindset when still in Leamington Spa, it could be so easy to get blackballed for not fitting in completely on either side of the great Marxist/Mystic divide. And that, only if it was clear that I followed the correctly-prescribed lifestyle, made all the right noises, as prescribed in all faithful details.
Possibly, quite a few others had been feeling the effects of the food poisoning too - the mood there did not seem to be good. The morning camp meetings - or pow-wows - seemed to drag on interminably, with little ever conclusively decided. Jasmine, a dark-haired and bespectacled woman, agreed with me that there did seem to be a certain 'hardness' in the attitude towards many things. At least, I had not actually been told my sickness at the camp was my fault and down to negativity, but I certainly remember how angry my travelling companion had become when she was confronted at the gate by Suki, the leader of the co-counselling groups I had attended in back home, for not having bought her ticket in advance and for living fecklessly.
'Are you on the dole?’ my travelling companion was asked. ‘Well then, you certainly have used your giro to get a ticket before coming here.’
Then, as the camp was drawing to an end, I watched the bespectacled woman get verbally and physically beaten up and her glasses smashed.
I read later that apparently the trouble between this woman and certain others at the camp had already been brewing up for some time; on one of the last days I watched her flounce into the eating marquee. I saw her in heated discussion with several others, then I saw her being shouted at, pushed and given a hefty kick, at which point one of the restaurant staff threatened to call the police. Apparently she had been involved in some decision-making with a radical therapy group whose approach included robust confrontation with fellow members. I could hear them singing songs about 'victims' and how these should be dealt with, as some kind of a spiritual parasite. The fact that this woman wore glasses apparently just went to 'show' that she was a victim who deserved all she got. Apparently, she also felt that she had been attacked because if her Jewishness (She could have been right to be concerned at this. A lot of the channelled esotericism referred to most at the time did seem pretty well unapologetically anti-Semitic, if the dark blue books I had seen in the radical/alternative Bookshop were anything to go by).
Whatever the case, I did later on see Suki, as well as several others, huddled in various quarters of the fields and concluded that surely, all this must be involving plenty of constructive negotiation.
What I later found out, however, was that the woman who had been attacked then went on to claim in open letters on the internet, and elsewhere, that she was in fact being invited to perceive what had happened to her as her fault, the result of the negativity and fear she had brought to the camp. It was her inability to 'respect the space' of those who had attacked her and who seemed ready to do so again, as after all we all create our own reality and should therefore claim responsibility for anything bad that happened to us. This along, no doubt, with every other cancer sufferer, internee of ethnic cleansing camp, or anyone ever caught up in a major recession, I daresay. And by the same logic, that makes it perfectly ok for me to rob, attack, or violate the rights of other people, as it would then be 'their' fault for being Victims too. Unjust laws against any kind of group unfairly discriminated or scapegoated for whatever reason – after all, why change this, why examine the attitude of the oppressor, when it is all, after all, only ever about the fault of the Victim.
These were the criticisms levied at most New Agers by Monica Sjöö in her book. Blaming the victim can be a wonderful way of justifying many kinds of political injustice and inequality. It is also an approach that can be used by quacks to justify either financial greed or certain kinds of incompetence. Sjöö recounts in her book New Age/Versus Armageddon that her terminally-ill son had been seduced by the philosophy of a particular sect of New Age healers, who claim that most human beings are by right, both rich and immortal. Therefore, to become ill or die must constitute some kind of spiritual failure. All the same, Monica Sjöö also reminded me of the many 'trots' I had encountered through the 'alternative' bookshop in Leamington Spa, where a big-brother political correctness was already starting to make itself felt. I got to hear of the occasion for example, where one attendee there was castigated by the management for being in a 'black' mood, because this was racist.
By the end of the 80's I certainly felt disabused of any notions that a Better World could be discovered any time soon.
Hillfields Artists Against The World
By the end of the 80's, it was time for a change of scene. After my less-than fortuitous stint at the bookshop, I had managed to find a room in shared accommodation, probably only because the landlady had been willing to show me the place and meet me on a Christmas Day. The bathroom facilities were not of the best, it had proved to be a big mistake to allow the electric bill to be put in my name, as this later meant the virtual part of one year involving chasing up and purposefully hassling one or two ex-tenants who had defaulted on their payments. Still, things had gone relatively smoothly until it was then suggested me that I should go along with the landlady in declaring myself a bed-and-breakfast tenant. It had been suggested I should stand up to her but I never really felt able to, not out of lack of courage, as one particularly dynamic Housing Benefit advisor had suggested, but rather for some strange reason I had not wanted to displease her.
After pointing out to her that it seemed dishonest to declare myself a bed-and-breakfast tenant when breakfast was not actually forthcoming, the landlady did on more than one occasion appear on one or two mornings with breakfast in bed for me. However, the Housing Office had made it abundantly clear that they still smelt a rat and I no longer felt any desire to continue with the situation as it was.
I decided to move to Coventry. This rather run-down city did not have any of the close new-age or politically-active community of Leamington Spa, though by now I did not regret that one bit. I had not got on with the culture in leamington, with what seemed to be its exclusive cliquishness and political correctness. Leamington, whilst not a village, was still the sort of place where everyone knew everyone, hence it was difficult to move on and away from certain kinds of cliquishness and communities where bad blood still lingered: I wanted to move on, and as someone pointed out to me, Coventry, whilst no metropolis, was at least 'a city.'
Coventry frequently goes through boom/bust periods, relying as it does on vulnerable industries, such as the motor car. So the recession had bit hard here in the form of structural unemployment: in the late 80’s, with one in five citizens purportedly being clinically depressed; the unemployment figure undoubtedly not far behind this figure.Faults in hasty town planning after the war are now cited as being responsible for also creating alienation and anomie in the city centre environs and beyond: hence, the notorious 80's no 1 hit song about Coventry by the Specials' 'Ghost Town.'
Coventry was scarcely a metropolis. However, there was more the sense that here, most people were not judged quite so much by the criteria of whether or not they were in paid work, and that this was not really the business of other people either.
In Leamington, I had often had the suspicion that I was viewed in a somewhat condescending or pitying way as a rather naïve or vulnerable character, which I could not stand. Most people there had either philosophical or political views that were so narrow I could not have made my viewpoint heard anyway, but the projects I had got involved in did not seem to be conducive to making any great or wonderful contribution to society anyway. Perhaps, however, it was more of a question of not being able to deal with all the hidden agendas and power struggles of office politics.
I had looked around for work possibilities in most of the manpower agency shops, but was told that there was ‘virtually nothing’ for my skills and qualifications in Coventry, often being given the sense that my questions about these things were rather silly. Of course there was nothing going in.... Coventry.
Unfortunately, the now newly-christened Employment Service had other ideas and not long after moving there I was summoned for my first visit with a Claimant Advisor. This was part of the new restart initiative, though a welfare-rights advice group I visited to ask about this had not as yet even heard of it. They suggested that maybe I had been shopped for doing a little part-time work, which at the time I was. Often, it has since seemed to me that so much time wasting and angst can happen due to getting advice or information that is actively wrong.
In addition to a little more part-time work washing up in a kitchen, I had also undertaken voluntary chef duties on a shared rota in a peace centre set under the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. The scheme had been set up as part of an initiative between the UK and Germany, as a gesture towards creating a better atmosphere of peace after WW2.
I made the design for a badge for the centre, among one or two other services of this kind. The Centre had a Day Book too that was also used to make comment on daily events. Luckily I was not especially bad-mouthed within these pages, though it was originally questioned what kinds of work could be found for me as a local artist. I was christened the 'LA woman.' Here, however, it was still easier just to get on with things. Making vegetable curries, soups or pastas or working together to get an exhibition up most certainly did not need to involve endless meetings or pow-wows that were all show, with the real power struggles going on behind the scenes or in the pub with the inner circles afterwards, nor were there quite so many unspoken agendas in the air. Neither did it need to have anything to do with being a self-consciously professional claimant.
It was an anarchic mix of characters, and each year, a new male volunteer from Germany would come to help run this, rather than serve conscription time in the Army. Visitors also included a refugee from Dresden whose jokes maybe (classified as 3-year or 5-year depending on how offensive they were to the authorities) had had him flee to Coventry, where he had championed his own cause against being deported. Later on, I did wonder if it was not his obnoxious character as well as his jokes that helped get him into trouble. Now, I wonder if he ever went back to Germany.
Once, when talking about my fears of getting conscripted onto workfare schemes with advent of the Restart programme, there was a wild and woolly character who gave me some special advice, in the event of being enlisted in a dead-end job by the Restart posse of claimant advisors. 'Feign madness!’ he told me. Your benefit will go up and you will no longer have to sign on,’ surreptitiously handing me some pills on order to achieve the desired effect.
I did not, however, avail myself of them. I had seen enough, by now, enough of how destructive a process madness can be, to be disabused of any earlier. Post-Laingian notions and how easy it can be to use this kind of label to stigmatise others, fairly or not.
The Dresden refugee might have made a beeline for me but for the determined efforts of the ex-welfare worker who Wanted More. The Dresden refugee was to meet me one morning in order to arrange some shopping for an event or activity I cannot now remember, but the ex-welfare worker made a very determined point of arriving first unexpectedly, before I had even got up properly. On seeing this, the Dresden refugee then shouted at me, telling me that I could do all the work myself, obviously reading more into the intervention than there was. Hereafter, he was always rude and cutting towards me, even at my own parties where I had invited him. Clearly, not one for giving the benefit of the doubt.
The welfare-worker befriender who Wanted More had a much younger mate, a Coventry-born Irish would-be poet whom the Claimant Advisors would have loved, as he brazenly announced to us that he had no intention of getting a job. He was on the chef rota, too.
Sit-com type humour could and did abound in what was called by the German volunteers a 'soup kitchen' - and later got closed down, for having this role only. But whilst it remained open, it was fun. For example, there were mornings when I arrived at the Centre only to find that the statue of the Devil on the new cathedral, which stood next to the ruins of the old building- bound at the feet of the victorious St Michael, had had a condom fitted on its rather generous endowment. I did wonder how the perpetrators had managed to climb onto the figure in order to do that.
Trips to Birmingham were also pretty frequent, I had found out about a Green collective called the New University. They had bought a house there and were holding meetings to discuss how to create a more peace-loving, and eco-friendly world. The leader of this particular group wore rugged short trousers at all times of the year, and most of the people in the house made do without many, more decadent luxuries. Other members included a Pagan woman who once admitted to me that she too had been put off and alienated from the astrological scene by the heavily-prescriptive way in which her chart had been interpreted by the Experts. Then, there was another ascetically inclined young man who nevertheless was a quarter-millionaire, but still somewhat ascetically-inclined, refusing to indulge in the decadence of any kind of walkman. Another worthy member, I was later told, had written myself and my partner off as fun-loving dilettantes. Later on, he was allegedly spotted in a suit, working for IBM. There was also a radically earnest Anarchist, and who later, allegedly trashed his record collection, as a gesture against being ‘bought’ by the ‘system.’ Sometimes, it seemed to me that in England, the old conflict between the puritanical Roundheads and decadent Royalist cavaliers was still being played out in the mindset of much of the counter-cultural scene I encountered. Regular meetings and discussion evenings were held in order to discuss the new policies of the emerging Green movement, so naturally, there was room for ideas such as the concept of the Citizen's Income, though finding ways to scale down and green the inner cities was another hot topic. Many of the people in the house were Quakers and were genuinely idealistic, in looking to create a Better World. So, the atmosphere in the earlier days was very congenial though as ever, it seems a more fanatical edge was creeping in. Apparently, other people complained at this venture that if they chose to consume cow's milk with their coffee instead of the more correct Soya milk, for example, then they could encounter some pretty heavy-duty censorious disapproval.
Eventually, some Anarchist hard-liners moved in and took over. The meetings and lively discussions abated, in favour of endless, tedious meetings over the running of an organic café that had been set up in a working-class part of the town. I gather, however, that many of the working class locals failed to patronise it.
In parallel to the New University Project, here were also Pagan meetings afoot to investigate, both in Birmingham and in Coventry. To begin with, the group in Coventry had consisted of a small group where the leader had maybe wanted to set up a Wiccan commune, though other members seemed to be more cerebral in approach: here, at least in the early days, meetings tended to get bogged down in what kinds of orthodoxies to approach.
The idea of making an alter to Brigid, or of pathworking with Greek gods felt stubbornly alien to me – however, there was still a sense of enchantment – real magic in the sense of being inspired - that did truly appeal. 'Look at the Moon!' The Pagan leader once remarked to us, on the occasion of seeing heavily full over the horizon, one balmy Summer evening: 'Isnt she beautiful!'
So there was less of an emphasis on painstakingly trying to wrench out from the bowels of our ignoble unconscious complexes and compulsions a God, or even, Goddess Within, but rather in perceiving the Divine in the world outside ourselves – this made a very welcome change. Later on, a second Pagan group formed, of individuals who had a clearer idea of what they wanted to achieve than the earlier group. Some of the earlier meetings were interesting enough, though possibly my background made it difficult for me to wholeheartedly embrace goddesses such as Brigid, that were neither Christian nor neo-Gnostic in any shape for form, though it is possible that my Christian upbringing, along with a stint of being part of an evangelist group at school and getting confirmed had left more baggage than I was able to fully recognise at the time. Also, there was a strongly anti-intellectual approach to the business of being a card-carrying Pagan, that certainly did not appeal, as neither did the infighting between various factions and egos within the movement, that I sometimes heard dubbed 'bitchcraft.'
There was, however, the opportunity to put on the occasional tarot workshop, as one of the members kindly allowed me work amongst her medley of cats and alters at her home, though there was another who was roundly critical of some of the fairs I occasionally frequented, because of the fact that readings did involve the crossing of the palm with silver. I tried to explain to him that probably many of the psychic readers at these fairs might simply have been hoping eventually to be able to make an honest living out of these services, but he was adamant. 'It is wrong to charge for gifts of the spirit.’
I remember that Monica Sjöö was likewise critical of many New Age workers and gurus who charge far more imaginative fees for their healing, life coaching and what-have you than were charged at the psychic fairs I attended but the fact is, my experience of the psychic fairs is that the work, whilst sometimes very rewarding, could only ever have to a modest life indeed. Also, whilst the fairs could sometimes be successful, there was less success in keeping teaching courses going long enough to stay of the dole for any decent amount of time (and signing off for part-time work proved almost always to be more trouble than it was worth, in terms of negotiating red tape, particularly over what percentage of the rent could still be subsidised, if I were not to be worse off than on the dole).
Meanwhile, however, in Birmingham, the main talk of the town was a dark-haired woman who had grown up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses family, and who now seemed to be set on making up for lost opportunities for scandalous notoriety and for some strange reason, other Pagans had turned against her, as somehow bringing the Pagan scene into disrepute. The main arbiters of this being, apparently, a self-styled (and male) Council of Elders. Uh-oh, I thought to myself on hearing this. Power struggles as usual.
Disappointingly too, most Pagan events appeared to be excuses for drinking copious amounts of beer or cider, coupled with an aversion to discussing any really interesting ideas in depth, whilst the notorious lady had accused me of being too donnish at one such event.
Meanwhile in Coventry, meetings had started to figure in my life again - long and tedious, with the definite sense that the 'real' decisions were being made behind closed doors. They were, however, attended by the main members of a local artist's group that I also wanted to join. Dave and Arthur accordingly came to visit me in my new flat in Douglas House after the meeting in the community centre, in order to view my artworks for themselves.
In retrospect, I daresay that my work, though prolific in some ways, was still not as yet impressive. My creative activities had begun in my first year as an undergraduate, but in literature, not in any fine arts. It consisted of a glorified doodling, covering every square inch of a piece of A4-size paper, with highly intricate pattern-making. There was never any desire to direct the work and I was told that this kind of artistic activity involved a kind of 'automatism.'
Whilst it all seemed very deep and meaningful to me, as explained before, the feedback I had got from the tutors of a part-time course I attended in the mid-80's was that there was no real validity or merit to what I was doing. My work had been called 'decorative' and I was instructed to work from any kind of starting point in the 'real' world. So when Dave and Arthur, the main driving force of the Hillfields Artist's Group, this later evolving to become the Dream Illustrators' Group, came to see me, there would have been a lot of still pretty well amateurish experiments intermixed with what I now call my 'soul-work,' my more 'decorative' work.
Some of these pieces, as a kind of a soul work, seemed to involve an almost Shamanistic process, for want of a better word, though on one occasion, the process once nearly got me into a lot of trouble. Whilst still living in Leamington, for example, I returned home feeling 'stuck,' very depressed, but there was a canvas still there to be worked on, in the corner. I started hurling, grinding and tearing layers of tissues and wallpaper with masses of rich and bloodily red paint, then set the edges of the paper layers alight.....the fire nearly got out of control. But I did not feel stuck or depressed any more. (I was once told that a a larger canvas piece of mine looked like a huge wound. Much later, in Budapest, one of my students, a surgeon, gave me several wads of bandages with which to work). Later on, the flatmates cheered when this particular piece was taken away by Jan, whom I first got to know whilst in Hillfields. Later on, I got to work with crystalline glass fragments from busted car windows, wreckage remains from burnt-down cars.
I had only recently moved into Hillfields, after being rehoused by the Council, after one of their interviewers had come to see my in my damp bedsit in one of the 'nicer' parts of Coventry. Who had seemed relatively unsurprised by Dickensian tales of mushrooms growing out of the carpet of the tenant's next-door flat (the subsidence, or whatever it was, along with the rigged electric heaters so smugly denied by what was maybe Coventry's answer to Nicolas Von Hoogstraten, was not apparent when I had first viewed what had appeared to be a far more attractive dwelling than the one I had to get away from whilst still in Leamington Spa. Along with the schemes and scams my landlady had wanted to implicate me in there).
The flat was one of a series of brutalist high-rise flats on the edge of the city centre and was then a notorious inner-city estate of decay and vice. In fact, Hillfields was known as a 'frontline' area, where local Rastafarians were determined to make their own stand against the evil empire of Babylon. Helicopters could on occasion later on be seen to be hovering above the flats, in occasional search for miscreants or occasional rioters.
My father was 'appalled' when I gave him the news of my pending move there, telling me there was Aids and the threat of rape and even of getting murdered in my bed, my mother disapproving and angry at my wallowing in this council-house squalor. Although in part there was maybe a little perversity and rebellion in my decision to take it, that was not all it was about. I had always been fascinated by the way the flats loomed over the city edge anyway, the wing-like contraptions on top of them always looking like some kind of Wellsian Promethean vision of Utopia – alas, now, painted very much as a 'sink estate,' its lumpen inhabitants stuck 'up there,' as a local councillor called it, rather than trapped in any subterranean setting.
I regret now that I never photographed the flats at the time, nor depicted them in other ways, when I had had the chance.
Actually, what I had associated Hillfields most with, as an undergraduate a few years ago anyway, was a place you went to when you looking for advice; in my last year there, I had come across a community centre based there, ready to serve the beleaguered people in the heart of the inner city. All these ministrations were in the interests of building Community, where there was never the question of ever having to be 'deserving' - it was enough simply to be a human being. But that was then. What I saw now was the flat of my dreams, that I knew would look really good once I could tidy it up and decorate it. I did get a little help from the Council in tidying it up because the last tenant had left it in a bit of a state, and once decorated, did apparently look good enough to generate a good deal of envy – from the girlfriend of the paradigm-shift focussed male whom I had known in Leamington and who had, apparently, been holding more of a candle to me that I had realised.
The quality of light in the flat was superb, there was room in the hall for my artworks, there was constant hot water as opposed to immersion heaters or cheaply-installed showers, and no unfriendly flatmates or crooked landlords to have to deal with. Later on, I was also given a cat by someone from Walsall involved in the Pagan scene, a small black-and-white part-Burmese, with a kink in the top end of her tail. She was a post-traumatised inner-city cat: she had been rescued after having been thrown down a rubbish chute in a box along with her kittens, by her former owners.
And then there were the artists.
I had visited the attempt to build Community and Community Spirit in the midst of besieged Front-line Hillfields the year before, in their answer to London's Notting Hill Carnival - the Hillfields Happening. In the tent, there were artworks of various kinds, along with some highly-accomplished, Dali-esque surrealist paintings, signed by one Dave Patchett. And now, here he was, along with his ever-faithful side-kick, Arthur Quest. At an earlier meeting, I had seen Dave eyeing me with a sardonic glint, though Arthur, whilst somewhat voluble, did not seem to have quite so much in the way of an edge. Afterwards, when I disclosed an interest in Tarot and Astrology, Dave tutted in what sounded like what could be standard Trot exasperation to me. 'Ah, so you're a mystic. I knew you were too sensible.'
Dave's questions, on coming with his sidekick to my flat, then, were designed to show me more of an edge, if I were to be allowed to get my hands on any grant money intended for genuinely talented, but impecunious Hillfields Artists. 'Have you got any habits?' he asked me.
Habits....I sifted through the contents of my blameless soul, looking for possible, untold vices to confess...but could not really find much in the way to confess to. Well, there had been some of my experimenting with psychedelics at various festivals, licit and otherwise, at Glastonbury at Greenham Common, this being edifying on some occasions, scary enough to deter me from making a lifestyle out of it. But now.....true, I enjoyed a good glass of wine too, especially in congenial wine bars with congenial company, but no......as I confessed to Dave and Arthur, I did not much in the way of vices or habits and my life was now pretty boring, really. 'You have one vice though,' Dave reminded me, in an accent that belied origins not Coventrian, but rather south of Watford, 'You're a mystic.'
Nevertheless, I was now In.
Actually, Dave was right to interrogate me in this way - one of our newer Hillfields Artist members who had joined the same Crafts Materials course at the local University I attended, went on to develop a serious problem first with weed and then in the course of time, graduated to be a junkie, whilst what Dave had first described as huge artistic 'ambition' on her part was forgotten about. She lived on the 6th floor of the flat facing the main road, and the quality of light in hers made mine seem like a dungeon in comparison. She chose the block because she had liked the idealism of the name 'Unity House,' whilst acknowledging to we more cynical oldies that she might still have a lot of youthful naivete. Another 'artist' who had received some spending money from the Arts Council grant once came shopping with us in Birmingham, but then made his excuses to return to Coventry before making any purchases. Dave then explained that he had later spotted him spending the precious share of the artist's funds with a local drugs dealer, not far from his block.
Quite a bit later on, conversely, there was Neil, who had actually graduated with an arts degree; his work was intricately figurative, like Dave's. It depicted futuristic mechanoid dystopias, and in which he also immortalised me, as an android.
A German volunteer at Coventry Cathedral once called most of the people he knew in Coventry socially as 'full-time dreamers.' Dave, however, made me realise that I had been, if not a bit of a full-time dreamer, then certainly a dabbler, as far as my pretensions to being at all creative went. He invited me to join himself and Arthur in his flat some evenings, in order to paint, promising by the bye 'not to make a pass at me, as he already had his dream woman.'
And he was as good as his word. And many an evening was spent at his flats as part of a threesome community of artists, all beavering at our easels. At the beginning of our association, he also made me an easel, and much later on, he asked me if that might not have told me that maybe he might have felt something for me 'other than just friendship.'
I was more interested, however, in finding a comrade in arms for the noble cause of Art, beyond such things as limiting relationships permeated by controlling possessiveness and jealousy - as he put it to me. It certainly sounded good.
Probably, he enjoyed being a bit of a mentor too, as he showed me how to prepare and frame boards for painting, along with one or two new painting techniques. However, as with the painting course I had completed earlier on, I did still sometimes feel that I still had a long way to go. But that could be because I kept on, still encountering the bugbear over whether or not my work was valid, or just 'empty decoration.'
Dave used to set himself time-sheets and full 8-hour working days, as his satirically intricate fantasies came to life – often of political figures, but also caricatures from his own imagination. I had never before encountered anyone displaying that amount of self-discipline and dedication. He had once worked, along with Arthur, as a dustman and as far as the trot label went, he had certainly been a card-carrying member of the Socialist Worker's Party for many years: Lenin was avowedly his hero, though by now, along with Arthur, he had mellowed. He was on the dole. Arthur, when I first met him, however, was still working as a dustman. His artwork was more delicate than Dave's and made more use of patterning - in this respect, his work was closer to mine in style, but his painting could also make very subtle use of light.
Dave warned me not to let him distract me too much with his talking, which someone later described as some kind of a 'nervous thing.' He was the kind of person whom I suppose could be described as 'the salt of the earth' - he was the one who tended to be in charge of any record-taking, or being the treasurer, along with other such responsibilities. He was a likeable person to know, but exasperating too - because of that talking. At the time, I do remember speculating from an astrological point of view that maybe he had a 1st House Mercury, as I had known once before a compulsive chatterer, who did have this. Whatever the case, perhaps it is a pity now that more people did not confront him a little more about his inability to communicate two-way a little more, but then it is always easy to look back on past omissions in retrospect. Anyway, his talk when we met in Dave's flat - which was on the 15th Floor in one of the tallest blocks - could occasionally be distracting, but he did once snap that maybe I was critical of his excessive talking.He also confided a little in me - like me, he had had his adventures with 'alternative' living and trying out psychedelic drugs. 'But I had to stop,' he then told me. 'I got a bit depressed. Got into a bit of a state.'
I did not repeat this to Dave, as I thought that if they had known each other for 20 years, there could not be that many secrets between them. I did sometimes think that out of the Three Musketeers of the Hillfields group, Arthur was the most vulnerable of us. With Dave, any hassles from the dole would be like water of a duck’s back, I would not be nearly as tough but would fight back anyway, but Arthur.…would simply cave in.
Arthur shared a house with the keeper of the main museum of Coventry, a man endowed with a spectacular beard and a house full of Hindu exotica, though later on, he took a flat nearer to where we lived.
Most of these flats since, 7 in all, were demolished, against the wishes of many local residents, to make way for a new site for the City college - designed to usher in a brave new world of Prosperity and gainful employment to the area. The remaining flats have been renovated, though the future of one of these may still be in question and recently, I got to visit someone who had campaigned to stop the demolitions from going ahead - strangely now living on the same floor, in the same block, as Dave.
I now live in a block of flats very similar to the one I lived in Coventry. Here, there is no drug-dealing in the lobbies, no rioting – sadly though, no artist community either, though the quality of the light is just as good and the ergonomics and infrastructures of the area better-planned. Hillfields - at least judging by a recent visit - now seems very bleak, the new grey painting-over of the remaining flats emphasising what seemed to me a thoroughly English dampness, even in Summer.
Other artists who joined us in exhibitions in Coventry Cathedral and later on, in the Herbert Museum showcase and in environs beyond, included Andrew, who also doodled but unlike me was truly Working Class. Then there was Jeanette, who lived in one of the now-defunct blocks, though her speciality was choreography.
This period was one of the happier times of my life, even though there was always the fear that conscription into punitive Workfare schemes could soon be round the corner. Until the early 90's recession deepened, however, I had been more confident that my entrepreneurial activities and part-time teaching might eventually get me off the dole, on my own terms.
A lot of publicity was generated in the local paper for our exhibitions, as well as for my own creative activities, and for the courses I was putting on at Coventry University and at Warwick University. The more upbeat feelings were certainly in part down to the sense of being part of a creative community, and my artistic style was maturing a little more, in comparison to what it had been. The inspiration fed on itself: I occasionally had intensely mystical dreams after taking certain photos, trying out new colour/pattern combinations. In one such, I was given a beautiful Persian white cat, called Moon Ray, or something like that, had transmorphed into an unearthly, softly pearlescent and white light of unimaginable beauty. In another, I got caught in a strange storm of pouring fish. One such slid down my neck and then all manner of untranslatable insights flooded my mind.
One of the highlights of the beginning of the 90’s and also included a trip to New York, with the friend-who-had-wanted more. Here, I was assured that for artists, it was not a question of the schools you attended, nor ‘who you know,’ but purely the quality of the work itself that mattered. The land of equality and liberty.
Securing the part-time teaching at the local university was a real fillip, as were the more substantial sales of my artworks – some pieces to textile agencies, who regularly visited both New York and Italy, others as simple works of fine art. I realised, though, that textiles were not really what I wanted to do – here, designs had to follow the predicted fashions and follow certain mathematical rules, when I felt that my work came from some kind of deep and more spiritual place from Within (Right from the beginning, I had always felt irritated by those well-meaning people who would look at my work and then declare ‘why don’t you try to use these as scarf designs etc?’) All the same, the money was welcome, though the agent to whom I was introduced became very unhelpful with my queries, afterwards.
Whilst I had decided to keep away from astrological happenings and the manipulatively cultish people it seemed to attract, I did find that I enjoyed giving astrological and Tarot readings at psychic fairs. I had attended some workshops on Tarot in London, which had proved to be very enjoyable, not to say also fun. Different kinds of spreads were introduced, interpretations for cards, suits, trumps explored and creative suggestions and interpretations encouraged. The different kinds of artwork also motivated me to begin the long long process of designing my own Pack, which was also generously encouraged by this group.
The psychic work is something that really took off at the beginning of the 90’s. The 10-week astrology courses were proving to be popular, which even meant even signing off for some periods, although this could frequently prove to be more trouble than it was worth. The fairs meant a different from every weekend, even on some occasions, very far-flung indeed. I enjoyed the theatre of the work, working on a stall with Tarot cards and pocket computer, with books and forms for setting up charts. The advertising for the punters has already been done by the fair – all the readers have to do is sit back and smile, although there was always the enormous pressure of being ‘spiritual’ whilst covering the costs of the stall, travel expenses and guest house – and it was always possible to make a loss, if the fair organisers did not advertise enough.
It is work I might in the right conditions, turn to again. My main problem at the time was that the nebulousness of this kind of work means that the expectations of the customers can be very mixed, and this could present its own special difficulties. Most of the punters were not interested in the kind of navel-gazing and introspection so characteristic of ‘modern’ astrology – they simply wanted to know their future or the answer to some pretty black-and-white questions, though I was to find that many clients came as they were experiencing either difficult Saturn transits (meaning Troubles) or outer-planet transits (meaning Traumas). Many, however, were also expecting to find a medium in touch with the Dead, not helped maybe, by the fact that I was working with Tarot too. Certainly, the thing that most people wanted to see was clairvoyance, which was apparently a whole lot sexier than boring old ‘scientific’ astrology.
Astrology and palmistry, I found out, were frequently perceived at the fairs as being rather backward and unintuitive, if all it took to undertake them was a little book-learning. Why bother with that, if either could be undertaken clairvoyantly, the argument went. Spirit, as the argument went, was all you needed. This was, no doubt, an attractive idea for those who had any kind of inferiority complex about their 'book-learning' skills. Still, however, I enjoyed the psychic fairs and was very hopeful by the beginning of the 90's that it might eventually be possible to sign off altogether through these.
Private work in this area, however, never really materialised enough in a way to make me feel that it might be possible to become fully self-employed, which was not the case with the English teaching that did eventually provide the means for me to get away from benefit traps once and for all. There was the occasional private reading, but more often, there would be appointments broken by spouses where the original inquirer did not have the courage to tell me directly they had had cold feet for example, or from inquirers who seemed hung-up on the kind of person they wanted to have read for them.
At the beginning of 1991, however, there was talk once more of recession. A palmist sent to me to be vetted, told me that I had to stop dreaming and dabbling, forget about Art and make money instead, or I would commit suicide.
It might be worth making clear at this point that I do believe that a good reading, whatever means of divination may be used, whether or not involving applying 'cold' character analysis, as it is called by sceptics, or applying genuine arcane insights from the Beyond, can be worth its weight in gold. It can cut to the chase in what may take weeks of probing or puzzling from more conventional roots to solving emotional/mental dilemmas and therefore suggest possible solutions or decisions to be made, far more quickly.
However, most astrology schools at least, always warn against being 'clever,' an approach that 'can always do more harm than good.' Most counsellors and coaches of any kind will also, always frown those within their ranks who may attempt to use or abuse the power their insights may give them, over their clients.
I suspect that this particular woman may have had her vanity excited when I had earlier disagreed with her on one or two minor points of view, one of these involving whether or not milk should be drunk with Earl Grey tea. Perhaps she was a rather negative sort of an individual anyway. Whatever the case, she certainly know how to hone in on where legitimate or real fears might lie, with hobnail boots. I was already beginning to fear that I might now be completely trapped by the situation in the UK, and that there might be no way out. Neither had this been the first time that a reader had dismissed my creative interests as somehow not being part of what my Real Aim in Life was supposed to be about.
I have since wondered if this diviner had not been working as a Claimant Advisor as part of her day job, or maybe she had discovered that an effective way of keeping her punters was by scaring them into paying her more for her services.
All I can say to her kind predictions is that I never did give up with my artistic activities, with or without the income question. Most of the the people I encountered who did readings either professionally or semi-professionally were kindly on the whole, preferring to encourage or empower rather than demoralise – but there is always the occasional one with less-than noble agendas towards their clients, or who maybe are simply inexperienced and do not recognise the effect their words may have on others.
But to return to the mixed art exhibitions, there was an assortment of different artistic styles, ranging from conventional landscape pictures, which sold, statements about peculiarly female dilemmas to do with fertility and wombs, from Dave's girlfriend which also sold, and my pieces, which did occasionally sell until the new recession came along in 1991, and then didn't.
The star of the show, however, was always Dave, he was the one whose hard work got the breaks, all of which were smugly appreciated, although he also reminded me with all bitterness that whilst sending literally hundreds of applications to galleries, very little emerged there in the form of Breaks. There were few breaks in Coventry either, or interest from any prestigious galleries within the Midlands. It may or may not have been because Dave wanted our Hillfields collective to be a 'working-class' venture. None of us apart from Neil had been to an art school, it was true, and he had not arrived on the scene until quite a bit later. However, it seems that we were all-too easily written off as being either 'illustrative' in the case of Dave, Arthur or Neil were not 'merely decorative' in my case.
At one community centre, where the reception had been lukewarm on first inquiring there, I asked someone what might have been behind this indifference. I was told that 'probably my face did not fit.'
When, however, I asked what I would have to do or be in order for my face to fit, the answer was 'Black!'
Being female and unemployed, then was clearly not enough. As a graduate and white with no obvious disabilities, then, it seemed I had no chance of getting in. Still – there is always a downside to positive discrimination - that of condescension. Later on, when it became fashionable to start labelling others through perceived impairments in neurology rather than neurosis, the sense of shame where I feared there might be some truth to this was corrosive enough to the soul to disabuse me yet again of wishing to romanticise the suffering Laingian outsider.
In 1992 my style crystallised, in the form of large, textural volcanic abstract realist landscapes. Others involved experiments with reflective materials such as glass and mirror fragments, set against luminescent paints, whose mood always depended on where the lighting was focussing on my work. As the style developed I was able to burnish away all remaining forms of mediocrity and amateurishness in style.
Once again, however, the storm clouds were continuing to gather.
Dave told me that he had been grilled by a Claimant Advisor and sent to a compulsory workshop designed to 'fix him up' on retraining, which he accepted with more equanimity than I would have done. However, once he showed the workshop leader his paintings, the leader was impressed enough to lay off the pressure - which apparently did not happen a decade or so later, once Blair was in power. Then, he was finally offered a non-negotiable post as hotel porter or guard through the auspices of New Deal, though again, he accepted he post with equanimity, until reaching retirement age.
At this point in time, though, there did seem to be something of a Custer's Last Stand mentality in the face of a deteriorating ideological climate, especially when Thatcher got voted in a third time in the beginning of the 90's.
Arthur, meanwhile, had left his job as dustman. Dave had remarked to me some time before that he had concerns whether or not Arthur would continue to be able to keep up with the rigours of his job at his age. It was revealed later, for example, that he was in the early stages of emphysema. It is also possible that there had been stresses amongst colleagues of we did not know the full extent – apparently there had been a lot of banter directed at him, apparently not all of it entirely good-natured. Now, however, Arthur had hoped to be able to dedicated more time to his Art. The dole, however, had other ideas. Hitherto, the ‘21-hour’ rule, where the unemployed could undertake part-time study, and which I had certainly exploited a great deal, was suddenly withdrawn – and so was Arthur’s benefit claim. Arthur tried to keep cheerful about this new setback, but it was clear that it had rattled him badly.
I had had some unpleasant experiences of my own. The first was at the beginning of '91, just after the nice palmist had told me I would commit suicide if I did not stop being a full-time dreamer and think about making money instead. At the next restart interview the advisor gave me the biggest grilling yet. This included pooh-poohing the schemes I was then involved in to turn my hand to textile designs, telling me I should give them up, telling me 'I could do all this in my spare time.' This was just after I had been told the funding and support for this would be withdrawn if I took up a part-time job I had then been offered. This later proved to be wrong. It did become clear though that once travel expenses were paid for this post, I would have less to live on than the dole in real terms.
Then in 1992 I was interviewed by the resident office bully.
She was the one who had given Dave a bad time – I recognised the name – and I had observed her earlier on interviewing a client – her body language had looked about as benign as a vulture just spotted some soon-to be tasty meat. I had just landed some part-time teaching work at the local university, but in full intimidating mode, this was brushed off and the woman told me roundly she did not think I was looking for a job at all. She promised further interrogations in the future, as on this occasion I got angry enough for the woman to decide to hastily abort the interview.
It can be difficult to convey in words the sense of existential threat that these interviews could evoke. The trouble with not being able to get off the dole – and for many years now I had wanted this, as long as it could be on my own terms – is that the world can begin to seem increasingly Kafkaesque. Despite being supported emotionally, and buoyed up by the fulsome visions of an Utopian future proposed to me by one or two political visionaries close to me, where there would be no claimants, just a Citizen's Income for All, by now I suspected that such wondrous things would never come to pass. (In the Appendix included in this piece, there are some links to websites that support the proposal for Basic, or Citizen's Income, which basically involves every single citizen of a nation having the inalienable right to a stake in that nations' wealth. A dole of sorts, in fact. Allegedly, this does not, in fact, promote laziness, but rather is enabling, especially of small businesses. And co-operatives.)
In very significant ways, my experience beyond what any ideology might have to sell me, there is very little real control or autonomy in being dependent on the State, with the sense that the right to survive depends on saying the right thing, telling the right lies, going through the right motions and playing certain games during interviews to assess any 'true' availability for work. By the end of the 80's, benefits could be cut for up to 6 months, should a job be left voluntarily, or if a job is turned down, however unsuitable it be perceived by a claimant. However nebulous the threat may be of being denied any means to subsist where there is in fact a genuine shortage of jobs, the sense of being coerced could never feel like anything other than a violation, from my perspective. The experience of being a claimant was too much like being a child, inmate or patient somewhere, having things done for me or to me without any real consent from myself as a consenting adult, being sought.
Before the second recession of the 90's I had slowly been edging my way towards viable self-employment through a portfolio of skills, but these, like tender new buds, were by now one by one all freezing in their tracks by an unremittingly severe spring frost. Visitors to psychic fairs were holding on to their money. There was certainly no more interest in any of my artworks. I was not getting students on any of my part-time teaching courses – furthermore, my popular astrology course had been disqualified by the university by the Powers that Be, who had sent my syllabus to one HJ Eysenck for evaluation. Probably the latter event would have happened sooner or later, but for now, it just seemed like another nail in the coffin.
For many posts, I was hopelessly overqualified and lacking in experience. However, I am slow at counting quickly and in undertaking apparently simple clerical tasks and/or shop work, and this claimant advisor made it clear that she was trying to steer me into a clerical job. I had already been fired after a humiliating experience working in a sweet shop at the age of 16 for 'not being quick enough,' though my parents had been at pains to emphasise to me that I had actually been sacked because the job had already been promised to another girl, who had unexpectedly re-materialised. It still wasn't much of a precedent, however. My fears that any giftedness of mine might be accompanied by some unspeakable, dark curse involving 'learning difficulties' continued to grow like a cancer.
The problem with math also excluded the possibility of being able to undertake any post-graduate certificate in teaching. In any case, the employment schemes I had attended never seemed to constitute much more than fairly demeaning kinds of what often felt a lot like 'occupational therapy', and certainly did nothing to provide any truly 'marketable' skills. At the beginning of the 90's I had been told that there was a Tesol course in Coventry, but as yet I did not see any means to be able to take it I could not have afforded the price and doing it under the auspices of the Employment Service also made undertaking part-time clerical work a condition of doing it, which seemed like controlling my movements as though I were some kind of criminal. I also knew for a fact that in London, there were no such conditions set, which did not seem fair to me.
I never anyway thought it would be possible to remain trapped in the same workplace week after week, year after year. But being 'available for work' was not supposed to take into account differences in temperament, at least not according to Claimant Advisors. There is also the fact that negotiating these interviews did tend to involve telling the staff the things they wanted to hear, going through the insincere motions, what was often called 'playing the game.' As someone later put it to me at an unemployed centre in Brighton, we were in a position of dependency, therefore we had to play their games- once put that way to me, I realised there was only one logical answer to that, ultimately.
As stated before, thern, a lot of the business of being a claimant seemed to involve negotiating so many hoops that were to be taken in the process of singing for our subsistence. We were in a position of dependency, therefore we had to play their games. The trouble was, I still could not see how to get off the board . Most people I knew who claimed, especially, for example Dave, seemed to possess a certain saving cynicism, so maybe could cope with these games a little better than I could and would still suggest to me that my attitude to such things is still a little too precious. Or, conditioned by bourgeois thinking, not having had the benefit of a true Working Class Hero outlook, which would be beyond such virgin pangs of conscience altogether.
Perhaps that delightful palmist was right and I would end up either committing suicide or selling my soul to become something I was not. The edge of malice when she looked at an artwork of mine and declared 'you will never sell any of those' felt like a curse (had there been some kind of jealousy, or had she simply not liked my work?).
More virgin fears from the wicked old superstitious subconscious – the evil deep, dark fortune-telling curse was about to descend upon my hapless soul.
So after this calamitous meltdown with the good Claimant Advisor, eating and sleeping were getting to be more and more difficult and there was a bomb in my chest that would not go away. A doctor, however, promised to sign me off sick if I were forced onto one of these courses, referring to the pressure of this kind of interview as 'harassment.' I complained to my MP and was listened to on this occasion - the dole apologised. But this, I knew, could not resolve the question on how to get free of this situation long term. And there were Dave and Arthur too, likewise under pressure, although Dave always maintained that angsts such as mine came from bourgeois conditioning, from which he was thankfully free. Still, at that point in time.....
'Hillfields artists against the world,' Dave told me.
Mickey-Mouse Schemes and the Quest for Breaks
After completing the Diploma course at Leamington I saw an advert at the college recruiting for a so-called Community Arts team with the County Council. Supposedly in place to help me take my place in the real world of work as a worthy citizen, here was the opportunity to work as part of a team of Artists within the Community.
The reality, though, was less inspiring. The supervisor was not incapable of a little bullying, no doubt briefed about the potential laziness of her charges – jobs I was asked to do, never seemed to materialise into anything complete. For example, some designs I had laboured over for some hours were rejected, only to be told curtly, after it was all done, that the work was ‘out of perspective.’ Other activities then had the ominous sense of not being far removed from the dreaded spectre of Occupational Therapy. On one occasion, for example, I was required to make paper maché masks. ‘Just like Juniors!’ I had overheard someone exclaim in disgusted terms, on seeing my glorious handiwork. As remarked before, the trouble with many arts projects is that they might already be seen to overlap with what looks a lot more like ‘occupational therapy’ rather than any form of pure modernist or post-modernist self-expression. I believe now that in the UK, there are now any number of tenures and projects for artists to get involved in, though I do not know if these are genuine positions, or connected to New Deal schemes and the like.
Eventually, I did get to paint a number of Community Arts display boards, in what would have been at one time, old-fashioned sign-writing. Old-fashioned, as in a skill that may well have already been pretty well obsolete. Later on, when the Restart initiative was in full swing, I was asked to fill in a questionnaire 'designed' to set me a course especially tailor-made to my needs. As a graduate in English, I was asked to decide if a sentence comes at the beginning, middle, or the end of a sentence.
However, the Claimant Advisor who had told me about a course there that might be suitable for my needs, however, followed me up, asking me why I had not taken up the course she had recommended there. This was a scheme designed to help claimants set up small businesses. The trainer had a strong Birmingham accent and whilst constantly reminding us that we were supposed to be ‘volunteers,’ obviously believed and foresaw a time when such courses might not be and he did not seem to be distressed by the idea that maybe in the future, more people would be forced to attend his courses. He was happy to make personal criticisms that could hit home too, no doubt in the interests of promoting sound Character Development.
'Slow up,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be so impatient. Try to consider the feelings of other people.' - he had ignored me when I had wanted to make a simple request.
The scheme later proved to be more to do with keeping tabs on the participants: after complaining to the management when told that we were to be monitored and checked up on every two weeks in ways that seemed punitive to me, I read from their handbook that the aim seemed less to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit amongst the participants, but to ‘control’ their movements. The heavy-handed approach to rehabilitation showed in the way a ‘review officer’ checked our appearance to make sure, no doubt, that we had not forgotten to wash behind our ears.
I felt under pressure to get results with the ‘entrepreneurism,’ but at one of the few outlets I had found for some cards I had designed, it proved to be all-too easy to alienate people whilst under this kind of pressure, after getting a little zealous and maybe, even aggressive in chasing them up: they were no longer interested.
In some respects, I now believe that certain workfare measures might be preferable to these kinds of Mickey Mouse schemes, if they actually, genuinely do provide quality training for paid work or some viable kind of self-employment, as the Tesol course I eventually undertook, finally did. Such measures might involve a whole lot more dignity too for the individuals undertaking them, if they really do provide quality training. Such measures might be more valuable still, if this could involve training for work of the claimant’s own choosing, even if there are clear conditions from the outset that certain levels of benefit might be more conditional than any survival Basic Income. If these were to involve something other than the kind of half-baked time-wasting schemes that all-too often seemed to do more for the bureaucrats or charitable bodies that run them, rather than for those people who are most supposed to benefit from them.
As full-time dreamers, most of us certainly dreamt of having some kind of a Break, where our work would somehow and miraculously be noticed, and ourselves catapulted into Fame and Recognition – more modestly, just a few sales. Dave certainly had one, when the front man of a ‘doom metal’ band, Cathedral, spotted his work and asked Dave to do the artwork for his CD covers.
I had had occasional small breaks too, though with the new recession after 1991, these evaporated. Someone introduced me to a textile agent in London and I managed to sell one or two pieces at what seemed like good prices then – however, the individuals concerned proved not to have the patience to deal long term with someone who was completely ignorant of printing techniques. Some of the group exhibitions, meanwhile, did yield the occasional sale.
There then appeared, however, to be breaks not just for Dave but for myself and others too, when a new gallery owner in Stratford expressed an interest in our group. She was certainly as sweet and nice as pie when I also visited and showed her my work.
Could it be we were finally on the map? When I rang her later, though, she was offhand and indifferent. As time went on and little emerged from the promises I kept hearing from Dave about how she intended to feature our work in her gallery, I began to voice warnings to him about her intentions: 'I think she is too good to be true.'
Dave then told me that he had gone much further than I ever could have imagined sensible in entrusting his resources to his woman 'as a romantic gesture.' few months , he was to find that his trust in this gallery owner had been misplaced – everything handed over to her had gone. After that Dave changed and, as another friend of the group observed, he 'became nasty.'
Our creative matrix of full-time artists, dreamers and performers did attract other kinds of hangers-on, who whilst not being out-and-out opportunists or crooks, could and did certainly promise the moon, although we did attract the occasional honest patron.There was a professional with a closet interest in all things recondite and gothic. She was, however, genuinely prepared to bring business to the group, also attending the theatre group events. She became a patron of Dave’s work, but even condescended to buy one of my pieces. She was an old goth, just as I was becoming one, who enjoyed visiting cemeteries, and once we visited Highgate Cemetery together. She loved looking at the coffins in the mausoleums.
She was a psychiatrist and attended my vampire course – one or two staff at the university seemingly relieved that pastoral help might be at hand for my students, in case my course might prove to be too much for them, in unleashing any Demons from within the dreaded Id. The staff concerned might have been less happy had they known, however, that this good psychiatrist had been organising trips to London with myself and a few others, to a venue of S/M techno nights and revelry, called The Torture Garden.
Another was a friend of mine who after finishing the Yoga best-seller using my artwork, had grand-scale plans for the rest of us, where she would act as some kind of an agent for us. She was devastated, however, when her ideas were picked to pieces by an aggressive Black ex-community worker from Brixton.
Here, it was Dave who raised the red flag. 'She is too sensitive,' he warned me. ‘She’ll never do all the things she says she’s going to do.’
In fact, she was self-confessedly bi-polar and became too manic to stay on course for anything for long. This happened again, but in a different way later on. I got invited to one of the biggest and most lavish birthday parties I had ever seen, at the beginning of one August. He was a man in his 70’s who behaved as a gracious King in his Camelot, and there did seem to be something almost god-like in his demeanour. I tried to return the favour by inviting him to a party of mine, but he curtly declined: 'Out of the question,' he told me, and I felt very rebuffed. It was later explained to me that he had a serious mood disorder and that promises had been made to put on an exhibition – however, these, along with a prized piece, also dematerialised once the depressive phase took over.
Not long after moving into Hillfields, I had also taken up a job, another community venture, though a friend begged me not to take it. This new scheme, however, had sounded promising. There was the chance that a real enterprise could be developed from the project, in designing educational punch-and-Judy toys for inner-city schools. To begin with, the woman whose brainchild it was, also thought that my work, with what she glowingly called my emerging, distinctive style, could be just what this project required.
The friend was right to try to warn me off it, however. The money was little better than what I had been getting on the dole and for this, I was to be cooped up in cold, dark workshop-style premises all day - furthermore, ideas were being copied from books with no regard to copyright whatsoever. For all the dreams of True Enterprise, Mickey Mouse still emerged anew, writ large. I was asked to make the designs for a story-book, so laboured over monochrome line illustrations - only then to be told that I had made a tactical error by mentioning it to another Council employee, meaning that now approval for publication would now have to be sought from everyone of the project, were it ever to see the light of day. After that, I just found the whole thing insufferable - especially, having to deal with other people day after day, ever-amongst other people, whether or not in either office, staff room or workshop premises. The woman whose idea it was got impatient with me, though there had always seemed to me to be a condescending streak to her makeup. Earlier on, for example, she had told me that ‘all you had to do was work hard to get free of silly schemes' – though that had not been my experience to date. Too much of what I poured my energy seemed simply to fall onto stony ground. Or so it often felt to me.
I left before the contract expired and had my dole docked by half for 3 months, but I just lived on cheap packets of instant pasta in that time.
At this time, another volunteer at the International Centre also asked me to illustrate her own best-seller for children, but after giving her the illustrations, she never contacted me about her book again. Not so much a question of not working hard but being a fool in negotiation I realised. Later, she did tell me that she worked with groups of unemployed who had been forced to attend her restart workshops. Had she enlisted people into fruitless 'art' projects for her, too?
Later on in Brighton, I was to hear of similar laments, where the 'job-plan' workshops, mandatory after one year of signing on, were often run by arts workers sympathetic to struggling artists; judging by what one attendee told me of his experiences of the kind of 'help' on offer, which again resulted in a lot of promises made him with very little to show for his efforts, there was little that was positive to show for 'help' from the Employment Service, where iron fist was becoming increasingly visible through the velvet glove of supposed 'support' for its hapless 'clients.'
This particular attendee had been one of the co-organisers of the gallery with which I had been involved. Later on, he too was to take the Tesol route, whether or not the motivation was simply to escape the permanent paper chase of coercion and 'playing the game' of being a Claimant. Apparently, he was to settle in the Czech republic.
As time went on in Hillfields, other community activities receiving grants sprang up, including a theatre group, in time to be managed by another individual living in the flats and Jeanette, the choreographer. We were joined by a professional actor, Andy Smith, and now, my concern lay not with illustrating some of the scripts to go with this, but with writing them. And with acting. As it took up all my evenings and more of my own capacity for rampant ego emerged along with that of others, my taste for this diminished. By this time, the idyllic sense of solidarity I had enjoyed with Dave had gone - now, he more often tended to carp and draw attention to various weaknesses of mine: obviously, the fiasco with the Stratford lady still rankled, but then there were other, easier targets for this misplaced bitterness closer to hand.
A choreographic play on unemployment was the first fruit to emerge from this particular venture, directed by the ever-energetic Jeanette, then there were evenings arranged with an assortment of comic skits. The one thing that really did make my day there was being able to get fangs fitted by a dentist in order to play a vampire part - in fact, in addition to teaching an accredited astrology course for one university, I also got to teach a vampire course for the other, at Sidney Stringer school - no need for the City college then, which is now proudly standing where the old flats used to be.
We were joined by a lively 30-something lady who seemed determined to have a little 'fun' during what was maybe a certain amount of midlife angst. From the point of view of inventing clever skits full of double entendres and outrageous performances, creativity was again on a roll. The ‘fun,’ however, included this new member having affairs with almost every male in the group, though there was an innocence about it that did not leave me inclined to condemn the woman – in fact, I had liked her and had found her pleasant company. She did not have the edge of a trouble-maker, out to deliberately set members against each other, for example. It seemed that she had had troubles with bouts of depression, though she was down-to-earth and amusing to talk to.
It did occur to me, however, that this kind of 'fun' could eventually create a good deal of jealousy and divisions amongst members – and indirectly, over time, it did. However. other more tragic factors proved to be pretty well instrumental in sounding the death knell for the group.
It could be easy to say in hindsight that these things - that is our creative community - are unstable by nature and never 'meant' to last. I had often felt restless, but would never have wanted things to move on in quite the way they did. Arthur had succumbed to a deep depression. Facts had come to light about loved ones, and it seems that these truths were beyond his means to accept. He was stoical about it all when he handed me all his responsibilities, including all the treasury funds, and I remember that this bequeathing did raise at least a yellow flag, because a few days later, he jumped off a moving train.
There is always a tendency to speculate afterwards about the outcome would have been different, had this been said, that done. At the time I thought that maybe just mentioning the Samaritans might have put the idea in his head, to exit in this way. One or two others, however, remained absolutely convinced that it was the way his benefit had been withdrawn after it was known that he had undertaken part-time study, as so many others had done before him without any comeback, that had 'helped kill him.' His only source of income had been removed, which 'would have been enough to push anyone over the edge.'
Perhaps, everyone I knew at this time in Hillfields had been a full-time dreamer in one way or another, and the trouble with having dreams is that they can lead to a good deal of disillusionment when things don’t quite deliver as originally hoped.
Personally speaking, the biggest disappointment in this direction took place in 1993, when hopes were raised about a possible publication of my Tarot deck: they were turned down, on the grounds that the big marketing moguls had decided that ‘they would not sell.’ At the time, I was gutted, though this period saw a string of several, similar experiences, in many areas of life. More recently, the major cards were, in fact, published in a limited edition, though since then, I have redesigned several of the cards. I redesigned several after that original main rejection and probably now, could safely safe that it would have been infinitely more disappointing now if the pack had been published then, with so many mediocre cards still present there.
Dave left his flat to try his luck in France with his then-new partner from the now-defunct theatre group, Neil had taken a teaching post far afield, later to settle still further afield abroad. Dave then returned to the UK to settle in Brighton and meanwhile the crack dealers had been allowed to have their day in Hillfields, along with some 'Chav' neighbours who had decided that my gothic face did not fit any more. Almost all my friends had now moved on and I had lost my astrology course after the panel had conveniently discovered it was not quorate, by the time they were finally ready to see me. Meanwhile, the recession had also meant that many people were now, no longer willing to spend money at the psychic fairs. Self-employment seemed about as feasible a destination as reaching the fixed stars themselves.
I decided to move to Brighton and Dave's now ex-partner, Jan, became my flatmate, along with three or four others in a shared flat.
On the Beach
I had repeatedly dreamt of finding myself walking along a beach whilst still living in the Midlands, but in practice, in all the 2 years I was there was in Brighton, I scarcely ever ventured there. The beaches at Brighton are stony.
What attracted me to begin with, anyway, was still the sea, and that every kind of self-expressively eccentric 'character' could be found on the streets here when in Coventry, such self-expression could just result in a knifing. (Neither were the villages of Warwickshire entirely violence-free, I might add – most small villages and towns had it share of local yokels and Hells Angels wannabes). When in the Midlands I had dreamt for years of moving to London, which also seemed an incredibly open, free and exotic mecca compared to what had often felt to be the small-minded pettiness of the provinces - but equally, I felt turned off by what I often encountered as the metropolitan snobbery of one or two people I encountered at various time, of people who lived there. My actual experience of London as a place to live, after later spending one month there during a barren summer term away from Hungary was that where not a pleasurably destination for short and extravagant holidays and city breaks, locality tended to swallow up boundaries. The infrastructure is infinitely more cumbersome and expensive than that of Budapest and in fact, if stuck in one particular area of London, then the reality of everyday there might well end up being as provincial as any longer commute.
Brighton, however, seemed an exotically and superbly open and free sort of a place to begin with, a real London-by-the-sea - with two old friends from Hillfields there on the one hand, an old friend now based in Worthing who knew astrology and whose Tarot workshops I had attended in London on the other: best of both worlds. Plus, there was another, less terminable factor, that took much longer to work out - and also why returning to the UK after first working abroad, further south in terms of latitude, did not appeal - it was the quality of the light.
In Brighton - it was simply brighter - and in the summer months in Hungary, likewise. Everything afterwards, always seemed so dank and drab in the Midlands. It is possible that I had never noticed this quite so much whilst in Coventry, because of the quality of light in the block of flats where I had lived.
I had been warned, however, that Brighton could also be highly 'competitive:' it did not take long to find that out. On one occasion, for example, I had advertised a Tarot workshop, only soon to find another advert for the same thing, at the same time and date, was now smugly sitting right next to it.
It was lovely to still have my old friends from the Hillfields group around and to be making interesting new friends too, but I had hoped that this would be that much more of a career move, where I would be able to sell the occasional artwork and get to find a corner in which to do psychic work. After four months, from that point of view, I had realised that from that point of view, I had made a huge mistake: if anything, the doors here seemed to be closed even tighter than in Coventry. And by now, because of the inquisitions of Restart with its increasing powers to send claimants on courses on a compulsory basis along the loss of what could have become piecemeal self-employment in Coventry, I now loathed being on the dole. I was desperate to get off it. And once ensconced in Brighton, the expanse of the sea looked more and more like a tantalising view to be glimpsed through the bars of a window in jail.
Jan became a long-term friend. However, the problem of sharing a flat after having had one to myself for so long, frequently made me regret my decision to give up my home in Coventry so quickly. Toilet rolls were used up as quickly as they were provided and not replaced, the bathroom involved antiquated heating systems and showers again and was all too-often occupied, whilst feuds from less-than friendly flatmates were expressed by piles of washing-up evicted from the sink I had left in, to ‘soak.’
Perhaps, the problems started because Brighton was that much more expensive – with landlords and landladies able to charge ‘unfair’ rents that exceeded even generous Housing Benefit scales and cut further into the pockets of those who were lucky enough to have a home.
Such was the case with the place I was sharing with my former associate from Coventry. The landlady, typically with a double-barrelled name, whilst sympathising with the plight of those unfortunately able to find paid work, was quick to condemn the 'Housing Benefit mentality' whilst levying not only unfair rents, but having some of her tenants live in cupboard-size space that would put Harry Potter's beneficiaries to shame.Such was the case too, with she who resented my leaving my washing-up to soak. I had once overheard her in a fight with one of the other tenants – she seemed to be under the impression that he was plotting to have her discredited and evicted. Later on, I took on the role of Persecuter in her mind – she later became convinced that I had shopped her for malingering, to the DSS. Perhaps she had never got to know me well enough to recognise that I might have wished to find other methods by which to exercsie any actively vindictive campaigns against others.
Meanwhile, on every street corner, there was someone aggressively trying to sell Big Issue, the magazine sold by homeless vendors. 'Don't forget your Barclay card,' one sarcastically admonished me after I had bought one of his magazines. Perhaps I should be glad he did not pull my hair, which is what a homeless street vendor, selling a Hungarian version of the Big Issue, once did to me in Budapest.
Everybody, it seemed, wanted to be an artiste, or just talked about it even more than did the full-time dreamers of Coventry, seduced maybe by a laid-back 'hasta-manyana' approach to life engendered, perhaps, by mellow sun and sea, if not sangria, of the beach.
The psychic shops, where I had been so confident of finding a spot, proved either to go very quickly by first impressions, or could be very protective of their turf. The resident astrologer of one big shop, for example, blackballed me on the strength of my chart and no doubt, also on the strength of my telling her that I considered white-light esotericism anathema: apparently, she told the management that with my horrendous afflictions and my lower self having full sway, I would bring ruin and infamy reigning down upon the place.
Perversely, her character assassination made my day. Way before moving to Brighton, I had become fatally drawn to all things gothic, and had decided to whole-heartedly adopt both music and cultural style. A promising new avenue of outlets had also opened up, as I started contributing articles and book/music reviews to a fanzine that eventually was well on the way to becoming at least semi-professional in its approach. Even after I had started teaching in Budapest from September 1996, books and CD's were still regularly appearing in the post for me, like so many Christmas presents, for me to review, a happy sate of affairs that continued, amidst occasional problems with the PC until they were finally shopped to the taxman for being an undeclared private enterprise, rather than just being 'a hobby.'
I also got the chance to interview authors and bands. The authors I got to interview included Brian Lumley, Storm Constantine and Brian Stableford, the latter of whom I met personally, in his home. He had recently written a superb SF novel that had also crossed over seamlessly with vampires and female gothic - Young Blood. A sort of a gothic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I got the interview published and he also gave another novel of his to take away and read. Kudos to me than, as well as having the opportunity to meet these people, making it all just like Christmas yet again.
It seems, however, that I had chosen my subculture with better discernment than I had imagined. One critique on the whole goth zine made the comment that here, shadowy inversion of all kinds was a way of life and applauded the ‘evasiveness’ of the true gothic spirit, where it was not really possible to pin the soul down in the way the astrologers seemed to want to do. The hunter could just as easily become the hunted, the vampire slayer a vampire in turn. Here, there was no crass assumption of an overruling essence under the crud of roles and simulation - gothic, it was declared, at least by the suitably-pretentiously named Richard Davenport Hines, had no time for vacuous hippy preoccupations with either Inner Child or Real Self. Everything was a simulation, a burlesque of reflected masks and roles – which is as it should be, in a cosily Sophist, or perhaps, rather post-modernist, world where Everything was Relative.
All this was now music to my ears. In fact, most goths really weren’t interested in knowing about the navel-gazing of studying birthcharts or star signs, though some could certainly be happy to receive a Tarot reading, at certain day-long events.
Apart from anything else, I wanted to have a little more fun, without any of the 'heaviness' or the power-mongering I had so often encountered amongst either the New Age or Trot circles. It was sometimes difficult to convince others that aesthetics truly was, what the style was all about, rather than there necessarily having to be any other ideological or religious meaning to it. When I first arrived in Hungary very soon after leaving Brighton, I was well-and truly interrogated over this by the daughter of my then-landlady, who had been a real old Communist in her time.
As far as other activities and interests went, there was an art gallery with whom I exhibited, I put my work in various cafés, but there were no sales. The gallery owner castigated me for being, as she saw it, overly-concerned with 'money' - but then, she herself was not actually signing on or being either monitored or pressurised as a claimant. She was on invalidity benefit instead.
With Dave, we also half-succeeded in getting a new theatre group together and might have done, but for the destructive behaviour of one new member, who had our director sacked. Bad blood was in the air over treasury policies, letters of recrimination were then sent by the destructive ex-member to Dave, where an intense friendship had briefly flowered. He signed himself 'Jesus,' although afterwards he apparently claimed that this had only been intended as a joke.
As for 'making trouble,' I had joined a campaign against new measures against the unemployed at an unemployed centre.
One middle-aged American character at this venue told me he had never worked and promised me a poster with the words from the concentration camps inscribed on his placard: 'Work sets you free.' Arbeit macht frei.` Yes well, point taken. I could see in the guy something of a kindred spirit though, whilst possessing somewhat similar vices, in terms of stubborn rebelliousness in the way he showed off his stance, to mine.
Ultimately, though, it was disheartening to see how many people were happy to attend the compulsory courses, as opposed to making a stand against them. I had refused to go to one of these compulsory workshops, when asked. I had my benefit docked for two weeks, which did not bother me so much, but had several weeks of rigorous questioning on several occasions when signing on, which did. On one occasion I nearly walked straight into the path of a car going at full throttle, when leaving, after contemplating how pleasant it would be to beat up the middle-aged woman who seemed to be taking especial pleasure at interrogating me, whilst knowing that jail would probably afford many opportunities for much worse kinds of humiliation and violence.
The people I first worked with at the Unemployment Centre had seemed fine to me to begin with, one a recent graduate, the other a veteran in campaigns, until meetings started being attended more and more by coldly-bland staring individuals who did not seem to be satisfied with what they saw. As if I didn't already know the type by now. When it was obvious that for this new group of trots, the only way to get brownie points for the noble cause of liberation for the lumpen proletariat was by getting arrested at marches rather than refusing to go on the compulsory government schemes, I lost interest. One member of the group who had constantly twitched at meetings I had attended, went in full on the attack in condemning me at a later meeting for not getting arrested at a demo which, if my memory serves me well, was not even connected to the campaign against the measures of the Jobseeker’s Allowance.
By now I was beginning to feel either hopeless apathy in a situation that not only left me feeling totally trapped in a punitive 'move-directly-to-jail' set of moves, or murderous rage fuelled by listening to New Model Army's anthem, which had as a chorus, 'I believe in getting the b........ds.' To me, the lyrics sounded more as though it was 'killing,' not 'getting' the b.........ds.' Whilst the lunatic ravings of 'violent bloody revolution had been off-putting to say the least from one or two of my earlier encounters from my joyless stint with the radical/alternative bookshop in the Midlands, now violent, bloody Che Guevara-type fantasies were becoming more and more intrusive as day-dreams. The trouble was, apart from the new hard-core clique of Trots that had descended upon and more or less taken over, my overwhelming impression was, that these were different times indeed from the militant, gory days of the 80's: most people on the street seemed either fatally complacent or totally irritated with my zeal to promote the cause.
'But you can't fight Pluto,' I was cautioned by one such fluffy, astrologically-minded individual.
My response was probably better -thought out than my more frustratedly vitriolic ones, where rolling eyes might be among the more charitable responses. 'You have Pluto somewhere in your chart,' 'I told him. You have a certain amount of power too.'
The guy was probably right, though. Public opinion, with or without Pluto or collective power does seem to be very powerful and manipulation of it a very special skill, perhaps not mine. I did not think that just getting arrested just to make a point or show class solidarity was the right approach and certainly not be instrumental in changing the way most people thought about work and leisure. It just seemed clear that most people these days were unconcerned about the possibility of compulsory workfare for those claimants unlucky enough not to have a way out of that trap altogether. And by now, I most certainly and unequivocally wanted to be out of that trap, and preferably for good.
I had found a flat to myself in Hove, which was pleasant, but which had such a high rent I knew that any chance of ever becoming financially independent in any way was impossible. Along with the advent of unfair rents, there were now no limits imposed on what a landlord could demand for rent. Perhaps it might be worth remembering that Housing Benefit mentalities work both ways, where there is total and glorious freedom to ask whatever the landlord likes. After all, where the tenant isn't paying, why setting limits for reasonable rents matter.
My 'career' as a government artist finally saw the end in sight after I finally managed to successfully complete a certificate in Tesol in 1996, when I accepted my very first post as a ‘proper’ employee at a State school in Budapest, Hungary.
In 1999, I returned to Hungary, after finding out that there was still very little in the way of paid work for me, with my level of experience and skills, in the UK. A major rift developed between myself and my family, perhaps as a result of unvoiced criticisms from the past along with unchecked assumptions now vociferously made, though it had never been my intention to look back, however it may have seemed at the time. I became fully, though continuously precariously, officially self-employed at the end of 2000 but the, there were new difficulties with the post-Socialist Immigration authorities that brought new challenges that in some way were almost bad as anything the dole might have devised, and in certain cases worse, until the EU accession of 2004.
Since leaving the UK, the pendulum has swung full-circle. In place of social security, there is now the tyranny of social insecurity. I have been fully self-employed since 2000, though could never claim that Tesol would have been top in my list of ideal jobs, with the day-to-day nit-picky pedantry of trying to explain to my ever-doubting students, why the present continuous will not do here, and why the future perfect will not do in that sentence. Admittedly, however, it has also enabled me to make a living through striking up and maintaining interesting conversations on a variety of topics, some related to initiating social skills such as small talk, others involving topics involving rather more meaty areas of discussion.
Instead of being able to choose when I wanted to get up and work, now there are starts that may take place at the crack of dawn, stretching on occasion to late into the evening, with weekend work and therefore either 6 or 7 days a week, not unknown phenomena. Work can be very unpredictable, so there is often the pressure to grab each opportunity as it comes, rather than to be able to set aside free day with any long-term confidence. And where the State supported me in the UK, now it seems that 22% of tax payers can and do end up supporting the rest of Hungary, through the extortionately high taxes that they have to pay.
It is also an intensely competitive world, where both schools, other teachers and students frequently take a highly mercenary approach to the acquisition of the English language and to hiring teachers, and where, as one other ex-colleague once pointed out: 'Teachers here,' he said 'are two a penny.’ As one particularly cynical colleague once pointed out me, 'You are only as good as your last lesson.'
At the end of the 90's and the beginning of the millennium, I also did have occasion to remember what it could be like to work for an employer where there was little or no room for common sympathies, as before being able to set up my own company in Budapest, I was briefly the employee of a Business English language school where the staff certainly reminded me of the attitude I encountered all those years ago, in that delightful little bookshop, all those years ago. There are a lot of language schools that adopt all the worst sins of the abrasive cultures of the multinationals. One of the lonely powers of being self-employed where there are few employment right laws to protect my interests, however, is what one former colleague had christened the 'f-off factor.' In other words, if a school does not like me or how I teach, then......
One complaint I heard articulated, was that many language schools do not even try to develop their students, they are simply dropped the minute any negative feedback comes in, no matter how unfounded regarding the the performance, or lack of it, of the teacher. Finding the 'right' people with whom it is possible to enjoy a constructive working relationship, took many years.
So in many respects, especially in the first years, my feeling was that all too often, teaching English as a foreign language is the most profoundly alienating, thankless job in the world, where my only dubious commodity is a skill that requires nothing in the way of any real talent. In the world of Tesol, natives are often not expected or encouraged to learn the local language, which was not the case when I had studied for my first degree in English and Italian. This often reinforced the feeling that I had no other role to play beyond my native tongue, as a commodity. As natives tend to get paid more than locals for this great gift, however, this could occasionally mean that jealousy precluded much in the way of co-operative collaboration between colleagues, certainly kinds of information about measuring performance in exams withheld. To begin with especially, there was also a rather depressing insistence on conformity which I continued to flout, with consequences that might be predicted, over dress codes, though in more recent years, interest in subcultures has waned. The music is no longer as atmospheric or intriguing and there is an unpleasant tendency amongst goths in Hungary to adopt far Right Nationalist sympathies.
In other respects, the world of Tesol made for a refreshing contrast to the murky world of Bohemia I had left. There was no more what I have seen described as 'undressing the soul' of clients in readings, not what had often seemed to be what could often seem to be the rather spiteful labelling or categorising through star-signs I had grown to loathe so much from the world of the psychics and mystics. In any case, it was also very interesting in its way to get a glimpse at the big, bad world of multinationals and commerce all the self-styled hobbits had been pitted against in the so-called 'alternative' areas of the provinces. The other saving grace of this kind of work was that it never needed involve being stuck in the same workplace day after day, year after year – there are always different venues to visit and attend.
I encountered enough students with anecdotal tales to tell that reminded me exactly what the 'alternative' world had been pitted against 'back home', however. One student who worked at a big American/British conglomerate, for example, explained to me that her immediate boss had shouted at her over the phone to quit skiving and come into work or face the sack, even where she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. She was also in the habit of bringing cats from outside into her office to feed them, when her boss was not looking, and my function was at times to warn her when the boss was coming – his eyes peering through the door in an inquisitorial manner whenever on the lookout for any illicit feline presence. Another student of mine, the co-boss of a car industry fanchise, was also to come to the lesson with a walking pneumonia. I had just been asked to be strict with him for his 'malingering.'
Some of my discussions, where the student does not possess enough post-Communist regime reticence to hold back, can prove to be meatier than I may have wished for. On one such occasion, my student, a somewhat controlling character in his mid-50's who more usually preferred simply to nit-pick over minute details in grammar, once chose instead to wax expansive about a supposed project among an exclusive elite of billionaires, to solve the world problems of over-population and hunger. Apparently, this was to assume a little discrete and humane genocide of certain groups of 'genetically inferior' peoples.
All these great and occasionally less edifying opportunities for Work, however, came at a price. Instead of endless scrutiny and inquisition as from Claimant advisers from dole offices came endless showing of papers and monitoring by the thoroughly Kafkaesque Immigration Authorities of a post-socialist regime instead. This one occasion included having to undergo AIDS tests, blood tests, poo tests, but that nothing compared to the time on one particularly traumatic occasion when a uniformed female officer read out a notice to tell me my papers were not in order and I was to leave Hungary in a month.
It transpired that I had been working illegally all this time, due to a hitherto-unnoticed loophole involving the foreign owners of small businesses. Apparently, if you were the employee as well as the employer in a company, then you still needed a work permit, and this finally came to light only after all of three years. However, I was saved by the bell once Hungary joined the EU. However, it did seem prior to the run-up to the First of May, that this would not come about: many countries, with the fear of being invaded by hordes of gypsies and the Great Unwashed all clamouring at the Immigrations gates, reintroduced work and residence permits, though the UK, luckily, did not.
On this date, there was also the opening of an exhibition of small artworks I had created in the previous 3 years. That too was a pivotal experience, although the attitude of the language school to it continues to baffle me. None of the staff attended the opening, though the exhibition is still there, six years on. At the time, however, it rekindled a good deal of full-time dreams that had remained on the back-burner because of the need to retain my residence permit. This is all very well, but at the same time….This is nothing, this scarcely scratches the surface, were my chief thoughts then. What might have been here, if I had been able to put more into this…..
Accordingly, by 2005 when I bought the equivalent to my old home in Coventry in Hungary, complete with space for studio work. Now, the quest to be an artist, however part-time it was to be from now on, was resumed with full commitment, yet again. Throughout 2005 I felt intensely inspired, engaged upon a series of A4-sized mixed-media collage pieces, that involved bastardised marbling as well as layered working-in of these designs. Once ensconced in my new home, I also began working on larger mixed-media pieces again, working with glass fragments from smashed car window screens, which I like because of their crystalline quality, wax, fabric remnants and melted polystyrene, as well as golden metal flakes against a backdrop of luminescent shades of gold and pearls, and Klimtian patterning.
Budapest, however, is no London. Here, inner circles of creative-minded individuals tend to be very exclusive – as with Coventry, a lot does seem to depend on 'who you know,' as many local people here have explained to me.
On my first year in Hungary, I did encounter an artist who had been a dissident in he old regime. He told me that any artist who persistently did not work was sent to jail. Perhaps, however, working in that time was no hardship as apparently many 'official' posts involved extended periods of idleness. This was the then-favoured way of massaging employment figures, or the reverse.
These days, my sense of community amongst other artists, along with exhibitions more often virtual than not, takes place online. I have encountered a remodernist movement that challenges much of what I found was a permanent slap in the face whilst living in Hillfields: what it calls ‘the hegemony of post-modernist tyranny.’ Along perhaps too, with the tyrannous idea that any personally-felt work, if not following the strict criteria for abstraction as set by the Great They, can be written off as ‘decorative.’
There have been some modest successes along the way with some of my artworks, which I would now define personally as ‘soul work’ though by more more strictly Hillmanesque, rather than any other terms. Perhaps, being an artist will always be a gamble: it may be noticed, but there is always the ever-present risk that it will fall on stony ground. Recently, for example, I was in a private email by a New York dealer on the internet that 'without a Name, promoting my work was about a good idea as 'breaking his own legs.' This statement, was, however, denied on the internet thread where the call for 'unknown' artists was made.
Currently, some of my day-job work involves teaching Hungarian doctors and dentists the linguistic skills they need in order to get out of Hungary. The wheels of fortune are forever turning. A while back, I almost landed work from a tender where I might have ended up teaching unemployed people English, on a drop-in basis. I wonder how happy the people I might have ended up being sent might have reacted to me on that basis, had this tender gone ahead. Interviews skills trainings are certainly, increasingly becoming part of the curriculum I have to offer.
I still do not know what solutions are most likely to work regarding the great question of Work, as far as creating a world where there are more opportunities for enabling saner work/life balances for most people. Neither do I really feel much closer to being able to answer that perennial question, 'what comes first' in creating a Fairer and More Just World:' is it a question of changing the individual first, or society. Possibly, a rhetorical question. For my part at least, I am glad I did have the opportunity to be able to engage in personal art projects I certainly would not have the stamina to undertake now on top of a demanding day job with anti-social hours, such as the Tarot deck and accompanying booklet I designed.
Whilst unemployed, as is the case with Tesol, I did get many opportunities to get a window-view glance at any occupations without ending up becoming too committed or tied down to any particular one. However, I also wish that less time had been wasted in dead-end projects and false trails and that it had been possible to either have become self-employed or decisively moved on a whole lot sooner than I did.
It would be pleasant to think that in time, a system such as Citizen’s Income might be introduced, however limited, that might remove the sting of stigma from signing on. Other times, I do feel that maybe, most people will always need someone to blame for poverty of any kind, and the unemployed do make such a convenient target for the this kind of scapegoating (I believe that Jung called this the 'projection of the shadow'), when economies and infrastructures go wrong, a depressing need always to go for short-term solutions at the expense of possible, better long-term ones and to be more comfortable in infrastructures apparently designed to limit and curtail freedom – and free time – rather than to enable or to set free. To say nothing of allowing any individual, should at any time they find themselves at some point in their lives in the position of being a claimant, the dignity of being able to make choices of their own free will, rather than being coerced or threatened into something that may be even less of a choice than becoming unemployed in the first place, during a major economic slump.
Labour Of Love: Appendices
Challenging The Work Ethic
As stated early in my piece, I did encounter writers in the early 80'd who held the view that the Work Ethic is a very shorted-sighted answer to the question of how to practise a Right Livelihood, and that the nature of work may itself, eventually become relatively redundant. Here to begin with is a link to Wikipediafs notes on Max Weber, on his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
Wikipedia also provides a link to Jeremy Rifkin's book on The End of Work. One of the reviews of this books states that Global unemployment is now at its highest levels since the Great Depression. Rifkin's argument, apparently developed in an earlier publication titled Biosphere Politics, sees in this book the Information Age is the third great Industrial Revolution (this must refer to the effects of the internet in particular). The review goes on to suggest that the attendant, heavy decline in employment, and as he saw it, purchasing power, would lead to further economic collapse, with the corresponding need to find corresponding solutions. The 'good news' scenario was the one I encountered at the beginning of the 80's: that a workless Utopian world of leisure would open up – or at least a world in which there were more opportunities to choose more fulfilling work activities. He did, however, also foresee a 'bad news' scenario in which unemployment would remain the 'scourge,' the 'social evil' it has always been, and ever still instrumental in being used as to create further polarisation between the haves-and have-nots – a scenario with which, maybe, many people are already, all-too familiar.
Creating A Better World
There are always those political commentators who state that that it is not actually possible to create a better world in any way at all. However, as might be seen from The Spirit Level, it does seem to be demonstrably true now that in some countries, the quality of life does seem to be demonstrably better than in those countries where there is more inequality from the start. Here is a recent article I penned on an admittedly-obscure blog of mine, about Oliver James’s Affluenza:
Affluenza, a pun on the words 'influenza' and 'affluence' is a hard-hitting critique of what is behind a great deal of social malaise - where it is all work, work, work.
In some respects, Oliver James, to use an old-fashioned Brit derogatory term, can and does come off as something of a prat (and he willingly acknowledges this): he writes as he talks - of his swanning off around the world to chat to millionaires and billionaires, whilst throwing out off-the-cuff psycho-analyses of their mental and physical states. With the little woman, of course, holding the baby and everything else together in the home, meantime.
He has a beef, against the System. But not against capitalism per se, but what the calls selfish capitalism, of the kind first made popular' by Thatcher, then by Blair, at least in the UK, though he makes it clear that this is a global issue: where, as Thatcher famously, or rather, infamously declared: 'There is no such thing as community.' No subsidised education, so childcare, so welfare dependency - just the freedom to keep on earning for bigger and shinier goods.
This can only be something that can be powered through enough emotional deprivation to make Wanting Things seem even more attractive - this is where James gets psychoanalytical again, with his diagnosis lent to the title cover Affluenza.
Money, points out James, however, cannot in any case buy you love, not everyone can manage to get to be a millionaire, and can we really afford an unbridled dystopia of neurotic over-achievers and over-spenders forever?
James's solution is elegant: the cure for Affluenza is Back to Basics. As in provision of childcare that is less likely to result in the kind of avarice and workaholism borne of severe emotional deprivation in the first place, and he points to the Danish way of doing things, which whilst maybe flawed in other ways, maybe serves as a possible paradigm (though he was unable to resist a more 50's-style critique on relatively-Utopian solutions of the reds-under-the-bed kind 'You will also be bland emotionally and creatively, but you will be so happpyyyy!'
It is a pity he did not also examine other Scandinavian systems of childcare, which also look at the impact of compulsory childcare for small children: it may somewhat stolid citizens make, but also has been cited as a way of avoiding certain kinds of social inequality......
Over all, a most interesting and timely book.....
The Spirit Level - or Why Equality is Better for Everyone
By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket
After writing about Affluenza, I was very kindly given this book as a present during a recent stay in the UK. It is interesting to see now so many critiques of what Oliver James called 'selfish capitalism' in the 80's.
Could it be that more and more people - in Europe, elsewhere, are getting fed-up of the dog-eat-dog world of the post-Thatcher and Reagan era? Just getting the sense that surely Things Could be Better?
This book is a very brave attempt to statistically prove what maybe many people have always suspected all along intuitively that Inequality not only Sucks, but has a truly iniquitous effect on most societies?
Live in the inner city? Scared to go out at night? - well, the shame and humiliation of being unable to get a good job can create violence among Young People. And more crime. (The writers tend to take a realistic view of the limitations of 'human nature' with its need for the trappings of a certain amount of status, but then the sociologists who look at the effects of relative poverty on the tender psyches of the relatively deprived, already knew that.
Is everyone you know either stressed, an alcoholic, or depressed? Well, guess what. Inequality in any given society to tends engender more mental illness.
It may also lead to the need to scapegoat. Perhaps in countries where there is a more balanced economy with – confessedly more welfare provision, this kind of ugliness may tend to be neutralised a little.
Tired of being squeezed out of your seat at rush hour by obese people? - well, as the book explains, once a certain amount of affluence has been reached and, unlike in developing countries, nobody need starve, then interestingly, it is the poor, not the rich, who seem statistically to end up becoming obese in the most unequal parts of the developed world. Beyond a certain point, affluence neither brings happiness nor health to a nation.
Too many teenage pregnancies? As EastEnders has always been at pains to reveal in its wonderful storylines, this is one way a young woman without much in the way of education can achieve 'adult' status.
It has to be stressed that the writers of this book are not calling for Revolution from Without, but rather transformation from within. And suggests hopefully sustainable ways in which this might happen - in fact, arguably, is happening. And all without the dreaded spectres of the Reds emerging from under the beds too.
One could be for the employees of a given company to buy it themselves, which coincidentally means that the means of production lie in their hands, making it, as the writers wryly suggest, less easy to keep saying when turning a blind eye to any nefarious practices that 'they were only following orders.' It addresses what originally Marx defined as the problem of alienation from a totally new angle - suggesting that businesses become employee-owned, and if that happens on a grass-roots level, then there may be more equality, less alienation and therefore less of the amoral dog-eat-dog reality of corporate life in general. Because we saw the corruption of allowing most utilities and providers where they were State-owned, no other possibilities were ever adequately explored.
Examples looked at include instances in the US where this has happened with electric utility providers, and in the UK with several employee-run co-operatives including the John Lewis partnership. In parts of Northern Ialy where many such co-operatives exists, the local communities around them are allegedly 'healthier' than those where things are run on more traditional grounds.
It could be that employee-run organisations are certainly not immune to corruption from within, but the authors are sanguine on their hope that initiatives such as these could still create a more long-term type of accountability than an average feedback form might provide.
In case this rather basic critique does not appear to begin to do justice to the ideas examined here, here is a link to The Equality Trust: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/
Meanwhile, this is what Guy Dauncey, whom I also mentioned earlier on as being something of an inspiration to me, as one of Thatcher's hapless 3 million way back then, is up to currently. I do not know if he still makes the proposals for Basic Income I first encountered in the 80’s, however, or whether he became more supportive of various compulsory Workfare schemes, to 'help' the long-term unemployed: http://www.earthfuture.com/publications/default.asp
This is Wikipedia’s link to Theodore Rozsak, who wrote so eloquently in the 80's of the right for everyone to enjoy Right Livelihood, rather than endure exploitative or demeaning jobs that neither actually contribute to the well-being of either the planet from an ecological point of view, nor in terms of not being alienated in the classical Marxist sense. In case, the idea that a job - any job – is in itself the holy grail to full adulthood, or personhood: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Roszak_(scholar)
Here too is a link to the website of Frithjof Capra, whom I also mentioned in relation to his theories for a closer connection to future vision for a more ecologically aware and less alienated world, both ecological and holistic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritjof_Capra
Palden Jenkins. An organiser of New Age Camps. I thought he did sound a little sadder and wiser after the 80’s, however. Here, you can judge for yourself:
The following is a link to a site that stands as a tribute to the creative works and social critiques of Monica Sjöö. Her view was that the authoritarian, life-denying aspects of patriarchy were responsible for an inability to create a truly ecologically-sound world where there was no exploitation of the labour of others, nor discrimination against women, along with the corresponding contempt for all things that seemingly have to do with flesh and matter. More recently, her ideas may gain more support from the research carried out by the likes of Riane Eisler, in her ground-breaking book, the Chalice and the Blade where, incidentally, 'patriarchy' does not necessarily imply any need to make war on men per se.
The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact...
From the point where it takes only 1,000 hours per year or 20,000 to 30,000 hours per lifetime to create an amount of wealth equal to or greater than the amount we create at the present time in 1,600 hours per year or 40,000 to 50,000 hours in a working life, we must all be able to obtain a real income equal to or higher than our current salaries in exchange for a greatly reduced quantity of work...
Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. The present crisis has stimulated technological change of an unprecedented scale and speed: 'the micro-chip revolution'. The object and indeed the effect of this revolution has been to make rapidly increasing savings in labour, in the industrial, administrative and service sectors. Increasing production is secured in these sectors by decreasing amounts of labour. As a result, the social process of production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time basis. The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation and work-based society is thrown into crisis (Andre Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, Gallile, 1989).'
World wide, supporters of a basic income have united in the Basic Income Earth Network. BIEN recognises numerous national advocacy groups, describing one of the benefits of a basic income as having a lower overall cost than that of the current means-tested social welfare benefits. Viable proposals are still being looked into, though it certainly does seem in Namibia that the scheme can be empowering: as noted earlier on in this piece, it seems to have reduced malnutrition, child truancy at school and empowered self-employment.
Two other writers proposing such ideas include James Meade in his book Full Employment Regained? He believes that a return to full employment ’might only be achieved if workers offer their services at a low enough price that the required wage for unskilled labour would be too low to generate a socially desirable distribution of income that the required wage for unskilled labour would be too low and that therefore a citizen's income would be necessary.
Meanwhile in his 'Robotic Nation' essays, Marshall Brain argues that the growing amount of automation in the workplace will eventually displace a large percentage of workers, and that in order to be able to maintain the economy, an annual stipend will be needed. A similar argument was made by Jeremy Rifkin in his book The End of Work.’