Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Hell's delicatessen

Darcy and Hindenburg mooch, pheromoning and land-whaling, up to my desk.

Darcy is 30 years old and twenty stone of permanent dole culture craftsmanship. Round and unwashed, his circular turnip face stares at me uneasily from below greasy mop of blackish hair which appears to be void of either supercomputer or tiny wildlife The Lord be praised. He’s got the Super Economy Size dark blue tracksuit top and dark blue sloppy draw-sting trousers over whose straining waistband heritage Doritos hang in the elegant curve of a hairy white belly (mostly but not quite completely) hidden below an XXXL Asda T-shirt.

Have you ever heard of that TV sauce advertising slogan that goes: ‘I feel like Lettuce Tonight?’

Him neither.

He’s tall and afraid and about as cute as hemorrhoids.

Hindenburg is his girlfriend: his ‘partner’ in the box-ticking jargon of my grubby trade, and in the low twenties in both years and stones.

She’s a unique individual; a child of a benevolent Nature and loving parents; the peak of evolution’s finest experiment with a little spark of angel in there somewhere. She’s also a head shorter and therefore denser than Darcy but with the same mass. Whereas Darcy has his own atmosphere, Lump has a discernible gravitational field to which many, many cheap and brightly sparkling objects are attracted; never to escape.

This so isn’t going to be fun, I think; Clarice Starling mouth-breathing to avoid Darcy’s hydrocarbon-rich Ozone Layer and the happy couple’s micro-ecosystems.

‘You gotta help us, Mister Marlowe,’ they didn’t say.

Today was indeed going to be a murder mystery of sorts. No mysterious Egyptian assassins or American SAS veterans would litter the bathrooms of its brownstone tenements or huddle broken and gut-shot in alleys behind its cheap juke joint or uptown night-clubs.

‘Our benefit’s gone down, and we just can’t manage,’ he explains, logically enough.

Do not cheer, dear reader on the Right - for this is a tale of Mister Brown’s Britain, and little joy in it will last for long.

It appears that one gem in the tiara of benefits which adorns the lives of D and H has recently shrunk. By seven pounds per week.

They are childless; renting a four room flat in one of Castle City’s First Industrial Revolution suburbs, and on about two hundred pounds per week benefits in total. There is Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit and other bit and pieces to spend on treats and sweets and most of their rent and Council Tax are paid for by, well, you.

They aren’t disabled enough to be unable to reach the tobacconist judging from the coffee colour of their fingers. They probably get out and about to meet the happy owners of local convenience stores specializing in generic lager, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates.

But not, I suspect rather firmly, fresh vegetables or toothpaste.

And definitely not deodorant.

‘It’s getting too expensive to heat the flat. We can only afford to heat it for seven hours a day.’

Now my regular readers are aware that I have a mind like a steel trap. They’ll say you can tell that by the enraged squeaking of the mice trapped therein. I noticed immediately that seven hours of heating are about what a couple would need if they worked full-time. One hour for staying warm while getting up – and washed! – and off to work, and a further six hours from six till midnight after work.

But my job is to advise everyone who asks - but everyone - about their benefits. I’m supposed to help them get the most out of The System that can be got by honest and lawful means.

But here comes Magic Moment Number One.

‘It’s so bad now Mister Northwester that I’ll just have to go out to work. It’s the only thing for it.’

He’s got it! He’s got the idea that you can leave the house for something other than signing on and fetching groceries and cashing in Gyros! Despite a LONG time on the public teat, the descendant of Hengist and Horsa, Erik Bloodaxe and William of Normandy is going to stand up and fight for a better life!

My heart singing, I look on the computer screen for clues of previous employment before his whole income was purely benefits based.. Nothing in 2009 of course, or 2008. Let’s see, 2007? No. 2006, perhaps? Oddly, no. 2005. Nada. 2004…. I start to scroll rapidly down to find an unbroken record of solid and successful indolence all the way back to when he came to Castle City as a wee nipper with his old Mum who’d found a Council House and he was able to…sign on right after leaving school, officially, at 18 (poor bloody Sixth-form college that had him incarcerated in it!), and then his being booted out by Mum when his child-related benefits ceased to be paid to her.

Oh, no…nearly missed it. A two-month break when he went from Jobseeker’s Allowance to its training course version a few years ago. Ah, reality check. He went onto Income Support immediately after the course. That’s the benefit which you get for not having any disabilities as such, but where you are not expected to even seek work. Single mothers get it, and men with bad backs, and people waiting to get things like Disability Living Allowance or Incapacity Benefit.

To get the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance, your disability must be severe enough for you to have any of the following walking difficulties, even when wearing or using an aid or equipment you normally use:

…you need guidance or supervision from another person when walking out of doors in unfamiliar places.

There’s a git-harder version now, called Employment Support Allowance, but as it’s possible to ‘fail’ the fitness test and after a while they’ll put you on a rather watery ‘Well, what CAN you do?’ version intended to nag you a bit as to the likelihood of maybe thinking about considering the distant possibility of listening to someone talk about finding work.

It’s a nice thought but Labour’s running it so it’s probably going to be about as successful as Galaxy Celery Whirls.

Darcy gets ‘panic attacks,’ which are even more incapacitating than a bad back because they can strike unreliably at any time, for example when you find yourself in an enclosed space with strangers under stressful circumstances - such as almost any place of employment.

They’re difficult to diagnose because they’re unreliable and also hard for benefits tribunals to determine whether you’re really sick or just malingering.

Doctors can scan for bad backs now.

Here's Income Support:

If you're entitled to Income Support, you automatically qualify for:

free dental care free prescriptions free school meals Housing Benefit Council Tax Benefit

It’s not much. It’s not a fortune, and for the childless (thank Loki for tight underpants, generic vodka and Old Holborn!) it can prove quite a bit more lucrative to work even in Castle City’s post Housing-bubble economy. The benefits system is geared to large families and to the severely disabled and quite right for that latter group too.

And he realizes it!

I’m still staring at my PC screen chronicling an ‘adult’ lifetime of this chap sitting somewhere when Magic Moment Number Two arrives.

‘You’ll have to get a job at a nursing home again, Hindy,’ he remarks to his blushing ladylove and to our joint amazement.

A wave of golden nostalgia does not illuminate Hindenburg’s face like a bright new dawn. Painful recollections cross her face like the flitting shadows of a magic lantern show: thoughts of doing stuff someone else told her to do when she wanted to do something else. Anything else. For a moment she glares at Darcy with the cold, conscienceless, predatory eyes of a serial killer or an accordion teacher. It passes, and the word 'cud' fills my mind.

Little Hindy is a rugged individualist alright. On your tab.

Honestly, taking minimum wages at 38-40 hours each and they could probably look at £400-odd per week, ahem, gross. Even with Gordie’s cut to bail out the banks and gainfully employing Harriet Harman to disdain AA batteries and sending a roll of oven foil to Afghanistan once a year to keep the boys safe, they’re still looking at a hundred or so net above what The Social gives them.

The System’s fixed – I say again – fixed against childless couples.

So the mystery is, why don’t they?

Planning to shop properly in the various cheap and cheerful supermarkets – the Aldis and Icelands; the Nettos and Farmfoods they could eat better and more and free up pounds to add to that hundred or so and buy some soap. Or a book. Or a book which explains about soap. Maybe some more sparkly objects.

Hell, private pensions start at £50 net per month, I’m told, but don’t hold your breath; unlike me at the time. Three hundred quid’ll get them a six-months to the MOT or the scrapyard banger, and they could get out and look at a bit more of England.

Remember at the beginning and the tragic dilemma that faced them so painfully that they left their beloved home to come and see me? Seven measly quid goes down the chute and their carefully-contrived cycle of sign-and-cash-and-spend at the corner shop at top prices falls to the ground like MPs receipts?

Mrs. Northwester, bless her, complains that many working-class people have lost the knack of counting the pennies and putting so much a week away for rent and so much for ‘electric’ and so on, but these are smart Maryland cookies and they do.

These people can budget. They know how to match their expenditure precisely to what they have in their weekly purse. They even know; both instinctively and consciously, that working is a way to get more.

They know about work and, faced with the dreadful necessity to get some, Darcy is immediately prepared to volunteer himself (despite his phantom panic attacks), and also to offer his beloved Hindenburg’s services to the aged-people herding business (which is not too hellish around Castle City, I’m told, for pensioners or staff alike) which constitutes a considerable chunk of the employment in the city.

Six square-cut, crinkle-fried, cylinder-wrapped and exquisitely vacuum-packed meals and 40 satellite TV channels are enough for this pair of love-birds.

Talk about the banality of evil – this is the evil of the banal.The poverty – the true poverty - is inside the souls of two young people who should be out having proper fun and using their brains and bodies for something other than sopping up TV transmissions and ending forever and ever the freedom of movement of bag after bag of spicy corn chips.

But they won’t do anything of the sort because they don’t want to: someone somewhere lowered the bar on their dreams down to sofa level. Someone murdered their gumption and is keeping it dead - to everyone’s bitter cost.

Oh, and I was able to find their seven pounds – and then some – thanks to a trick of my trade which I’d much rather be directing to war veterans and spending on formerly runaway and abused kids getting a second chance at life.

But there you are.

For such as these, the Welfare State is a great big tube of Pringles, and once you pop, it’s damnably hard to stop.


Pavlov's Cat said...

most excellent, bravo

James Higham said...

He’s got it! He’s got the idea that you can leave the house for something other than signing on and fetching groceries and cashing in Gyros! Despite a LONG time on the public teat, the descendant of Hengist and Horsa, Erik Bloodaxe and William of Normandy is going to stand up and fight for a better life!

Yes and there have to be jobs to be had too. That brings in the ridiculous NVQ mentality for even toilet cleaning and the taxation of any enterprise out of existence plus it being a hirer's market.

It all needs to change at the same time.

Beware of Geeks bearing GIFs said...

excellent NNW!

JuliaM said...

"‘It’s getting too expensive to heat the flat. We can only afford to heat it for seven hours a day.’ "

Heat the flat? It's summer!

North Northwester said...

Thank you , thank you all!

James, I think I know where you're going, but given how likely it is that the Tories are going to blow their chance next year by doing not very much, I wonder how long it'll be before a freedom-loving Parliamentary coalition with a bog enough majority will be sitting in Westminster.

I should say that I draughted the first part of this in 'springtime' and kept it on the back-burner.
Even statistically unlikely things do occur, and so I like to put a bit of time between my experiences with 'customers' and the time of posting for fear they'd read this with it fresh in their minds.

Now, I really do have to start my own contribution for Culture Wars Day - or week....

Louise said...

Teach them to purge and then, at the very least, they'd be less offensive on the eye.

North Northwester said...

Welcome Louise, and thanks for your comment.

Not quite sure how to answer it, but to start I'll state that the chief reason I use 'social schadenfreude' as a tag in these posts rather than 'pity' [which is what I usually feel once the smell goes away] is to point out that I know I'm not above snobbery myself.

This is the soft class warfare of low expectations, but it isn't the merchants and the bankers and the manufacturers and small shopkeepers who are keeping these kids in all kinds of poverty: it's the special part of the middle class that has turned pity for the poor into chains to hold them down. Every excuse that we accept is another link in a chain that attaches them to the taxpayers and keeps them neck-deep in misery and a lack of beauty and joy from which they may never escape.


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