Sound and fury, signifying nothing

I forgot to sign on a couple of weeks back. Neither more, nor less. I just forgot. By the time I’d remembered that I’d forgotten, it was two days later, and the next day I went to the Jobcentre to ‘fess up. My biggest concern was whether this degree of memory loss was some sort of ghastly precursor to incipient Alzheimer’s, but for some reason this was not shared by my advisor. (Advisor – why do they call them that? I’ve never had any advice about anything, but let that pass.) No, the advisor took me royally to task.

I remonstrated that this was a very unusual occurrence, and that I’d try extra hard in future, but this was clearly insufficient.

“Why did you forget?”

“Er, I just did.”

“But that’s not really good enough!”

“Well, I’m very sorry, but what would you have me do? Make up a reason? I just forgot.”

When you’ve been a naughty boy in this way, you have to fill in an excuse form, a bit like the ones you forged from your mother when you forgot your PE kit. The advisor said that just writing, “I forgot” would not wash. I had to have a reason for forgetting, and I could tell that offering early stage Alzheimer’s as an explanation was not going to go down well.

So I decided to write the real, unvarnished truth. There was a reason behind my forgetfulness, and it was as brazen as it was simple. I am entitled only to what’s called “contribution-based benefit” and this lasts for only six months, after which you get nothing. My six months had elapsed, well, six months ago, and since then I’d had the indignity of the signing-on process for no benefit whatsoever, either metaphorical or literal. Thus the incentive to see the ritual of showing up at the Jobcentre every two weeks as of any importance is small indeed. There are in fact many more important things that I need to attend to, not the least among them the filling-in of yet more applications and supporting statements.

When she read my excuse, the advisor shook her head and muttered darkly about some shadowy other figure to whom she had to show my form. This person would not take kindly to my impudence, and might stop my benefit. What?  I’m scared, really scared.

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To spend or not to spend

Before I continue, let me say here at the outset that I recognise that compared with many of my fellow unemployed having this dilemma is something of a luxury. I didn’t leave my job empty-handed, and looked at as a number my redundancy payment seemed quite a big number. It certainly represented by some distance the largest amount of cash that I’d ever had at one time in my life before. At first I was mostly concerned with putting it out of harm’s way, and working out how to maximise the interest that might be paid on it. That seems frankly laughable now as my lump sum coincided with the fastest and most dramatic decrease in interest rates ever seen since the Bank of England’s institution.

When I first got my notice, my natural inclination was to stop spending immediately. Certainly I didn’t want to spend any significant sums beyond day-to-day living. My wife didn’t see it that way, and I could understand her reasoning. We had already planned to spend some money on our house, for work that really needed to be done. If the worst case scenario were to play out, this investment would probably mean that we ran out of money a couple of months earlier than we would otherwise have done. But at least the work would have been done, and we would have lived more comfortably. And if I were never to get another job, then the chances of ever getting the work done would be zilch. What benefit would two extra months before hitting the crash barriers really give us?

And then there’s the psychological aspect. One of the key difficulties I’ve experienced has been, if not depression, then at least anxiety. Living as if every pound might be the last simply exacerbates and magnifies the sense of gloom. On the other hand, spending whilst not knowing where the next income is going to come from, or if it’s ever going to come, is unnerving to say the least.

So there’s no easy answer to the question. Sometimes it feels like an unenviable choice between penny-pinching misery or rising anxiety. Actually, it feels a lot like both.

I smell a rat

Nothing about unemployment this time! The twitterverse has been busy this week campaigning against the outrageous gagging order taken out by  Carter Ruck against the Guardian in an attempt to prevent it reporting on a parliamentary question. Outrageous in fact at two levels: first that reporting from parliament is covered by privilege and judges are not supposed to interfere; and second that the question in question, if you’re still following me, was about the appalling discharge of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast in 2006.

Which is where the smell comes in. The toxic chemicals involved (details here) are notoriously smelly and can damage lungs at minuscule concentrations. Physical contact produces terrible scarring and painful ulceration, sometimes permanent, and often kills.

Not surprising therefore that the perpetrators’ solicitors should be instructed to attempt to keep the whole thing quiet. What is less understandable is that our legal system should conspire (and I use the term advisedly) to assist them in their endeavours. The extraordinary outburst of anger and outrage that erupted on Twitter seems to have ensured that the attempt to take the injunction to court in order to defend it against the Guardian’s objections was abandoned at the last minute. And of course everyone on Twitter who was involved was jubilant and waxed eloquent about the cyber-power of outraged citizenry.

I’ve no wish to sound churlish, and @BillyNoJob did his bit in the campaign. But it does occur to me that Twitter is useful in organising concerned people around the flagpole of freedom of expression, but not so good at dealing with the substantive issues which underlie that freedom. We seem to be able to win back our right to know about things, but we’re no nearer winning the right to do anything about what we know. Most of the twitterverse, after it had congratulated itself on a job well done, went back to really important things like “Google Wave” and “Paranormal Activity”. The #trafigura tag dropped out of trending tweets like a stone. Bet they were relieved.

On this occasion your application…

Another day, another rejection. I kid myself that it doesn’t matter, that it was a long shot anyway, and,  that hoariest of hoary self-delusions, that it’s their loss. Like hell. There’s only one loser here, and it’s me.

Most of the time I function normally enough. I go to the supermarket, the petrol station, keep up to date with the news. I never watch day-time telly, and know that if I were ever to start, then despair would have truly set in. And it would be idle (sic!) to suggest that unemployment has no up side. It’s no bad thing to be able to do what you want, when you want to do it.

But it’s debilitating at the same time. I remember on the first day after I left my job going to Tesco at 11.00 in the morning. Morning it may have been, but it felt like a twilight world. Of course some of my fellow day-time shoppers may have been shift workers, but they didn’t look like that to me. To me it seemed that one thing connected us in our 11 o’clock shopping: that we were able to do it because we had no work. And, in my imagination at least, we were also connected by a shared sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the young mothers appeared no more comfortable than me.

Every day brings a handful of similar frissons of heightened awareness. A new introduction and the inevitable question, “And what do you do?” Or in the pub with a friend, “Better not have another, got to get up for work – oh, sorry…” And worst of all having to walk past my old offices, hoping that no-one sees me.

And so another rejection brings all these unwelcome thoughts back into focus. I try to dismiss them with the reflection that I have three more applications to write, and, who knows, one of them might be the one. Even as I’m thinking this the monkey on my shoulder whispers, “More like another three opportunities to waste your time!” I administer a sharp slap, and the monkey shuts up, for the time being at least.