On a rubbish tip

Cote

I’m not a serial restaurant user, as I rather resent how much they charge and I like cooking, but it’s nice to go out occasionally as a treat, and I have been to the large French eaterie chain Côte. They do an especially nice breakfast deal for a tenner. In fact, oddly, I went to the first ever Côte, before it was a chain. (Get me.) It now has 72 restaurants around Britain and is one of those brands that ensures that everywhere is the same. It was last year bought out by the statutory private equity firm. It is dead to me now.

If I ever use a chain restaurant and the service charge is not automatically included, I will ask the waiter if they still get the tip if I add it to my bill on my credit card and then start doing the maths. I assume they are not lying if they tell me that they do. Or at least I did. No longer. Because, thanks to an exposé in my local free newspaper, I now know that Côte, which adds the “optional” 12.5% service charge, does not pass this onto its staff. It goes straight to the company instead of being kept by workers at the restaurant where the diner dined.

The chain defended this practice in the article, saying it “allows them to pay restaurant staff an hourly rate of around £7.50-£8, above the national minimum wage of £6.50 for over 21s.” (Good luck with that in London, where the Living Wage is £9.15.) A whisleblower told the Evening Standard One that the staff are supposed to be “grateful, but most of us would prefer earning the minimum wage and take home our tips for the hard work we do.”

Cote

The worst part of all this – and it’s probably occurring in every restaurant chain run by a fucking loveless, food-hating, bottom-line-chasing private equity firm – is that Côte staff are “told to tell customers who ask where the service charges goes that it is given out between workers.” They are being instructed to lie in order that they don’t get to keep their tips. It’s like living in Ripper Street times. I know, you can technically ask for the “optional” charge to be removed, and then put your tip, in cash, into the palm of your waiter’s hand. That’s the only way to get round it. Except that in Côte, management have got this covered. They said that waiting staff can “decide” whether to keep any cash tips left on top of the service charge or put it into a general pot to be shared with other members of staff. So the service charge doesn’t cover service.

One staff member told the Standard they were “told to hand over cash tips”. I’m sure there’s small print in the waiting staff’s contracts to cover this, otherwise it would be theft. One sympathetic politician failed to see his own joke when he told the newspaper, “This seems to be the tip of the iceberg.”

Or the tip for the iceberg lettuce. Côte’s profits rose 27% last year to £16.3 million. I bet private equity firm BC Partners went out for a nice meal at somewhere other than Côte. It’s all bullshit. Pizza Express, Strada, Zizzi and Ask Italian charge between 10% and 8% to staff to claim back their tips paid on cards, making up some flimsy excuse about having the pay for the administration of taking credit cards. Don’t take credits cards then and see how many customers you lose. Does anybody care about their staff? Of course they don’t. Staff are expendable units of labour

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t stand for it.

 

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2014: My Top 50 books

WeNeedToTalkAboutKevinBTheUnwindingGPackerPrivateIslandJMeekKristallnachtMGJoeMoranArmchairNExtraOrdinaryLifeFrankDerrick81CapitalTPikettyRockStarsStoleME

I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

Areas of outstanding booty

UKfrackingnatParks

I was being both playful and deadly serious when, last night, after the watershed, I Tweeted:

I fucking hate fracking.

I added a PS in brackets – (I waited until after the watershed to Tweet that – it doesn’t work with dashes or asterisks) – a hint of levity beneath the hard crust of protest. Hey, it’s a stupid medium. Sometimes only a stupid joke will do. It doesn’t mean that serious intent is out of the question: attention-grabbing is half the battle. Anyway, a number of like-minded folk re-Tweeted my 15-certificate statement. Also – and I was sort of expecting this – one man objected to the basic underlying implication of my Tweet. He wrote:

if you’d been born in the late 1800’s would you have hated underground coal mining?

There’s no apostrophe in “1800s” but I wasn’t going to pick him up on that and be a prick. So instead I petulantly replied:

Yes.

I have no way of knowing what I would have hated in the late 1800s, as it was a very different time. Anyway, then I went to sleep. It was after 10.30. This morning, I found that the man had not let it lie. He’d responded, with a trace level of passive aggression, I felt (and no initial capital letter again):

presumably you have a masterful alternative to fracking up your sleeve, that the energy companies have failed to note

So I gathered my thoughts and, with about 15 years of being very interested in green issues behind me, I typed:

Use less energy.

Touché? Who knows. I only publicised my aversion to fracking in the first instance to reflect the fact that, far from being a destructive, money-motivated process only being perpetrated in faraway North Dakota and East Texas, it’s coming to the UK with an awful lot of political will behind it (and by that, I mean corporate will, obviously, as waived through by politicians with financial interests in energy companies). I care about this, and not because it’s literally going to happen in my urban backyard.

National parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites, all will be fair game for exploration and drilling for shale gas across this land once the bids are in for “onshore oil and gas licences”. But don’t worry, ministers are asking energy firms to “submit an environmental statement” before they are allowed to start tearing the arse out of Britain in the name of cheap energy and profit. This statement has to be “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near a protected bit of the map. But since when did a bit of paperwork stop big business?

I’m glad this brutish form of gas extraction actually termed hydraulic fracturing comes colloquially giftwrapped as “fracking” from its heartland in America, which nobody seems to have noticed is a bigger country than the United Kingdom. You just know that the marketing departments of the energy giants looking for a piece of the action, or “fracktion”, will be tearing their hair out trying to come up with a way of rebranding it. Too late. The word fits.

Frackingpeakoil

Here’s the truth: I don’t have a magic solution to the country’s energy problems or the world’s, but I do know that the people in charge (by whom I mean the people who run the private corporations that run our governments) have known that the world’s oil was going to run out for decades. In 1956, Shell geoscientist (ie. not a hippy) M. King Hubbert predicted that “peak oil” would be reached in 2000. They named a curve after him. It certainly looked pretty dicey by the Millennium, although other experts have adjusted the end of days to the more palatable 2020, by which time the world will have solved the problem, apparently. Forgive me if I have zero confidence in that happening. The Market has failed to sort everything out previously. Why trust it this time, when so much is at stake?

It’s the Shale Of The Century! Just as Ed Miliband’s compromise solution for the railways is to allow the public sector to bid against private companies, it’s always a “competition”, as that’s how free market economics works, even when an apparent “Labour” party is tinkering with it. (It’s capitalism that led us to this precarious point where the massive oil-consuming nations have encouraged everyone else to consume more oil in order to compete in the global market and thus, we are running out of the stuff.) The “competition” for UK fracking licences is, we’re told, “likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves.” Of course it is. There’s money to be made. It’s a gold rush where individuals with a pick and shovel may not apply. (This is a shame for all those fashionable men who have massive beards, as they already look like gold prospectors.)

Bad luck if you’re in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. We must hope that the protests that sprang up in Blackpool and Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage will be replicated in these new areas of outstanding profit. The licensing round was announced while the MPs were on holiday, so they can pretend they didn’t know about it.

Frackingdiag

The Tory Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the other Lords and Ladies, “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.” Planning consent is going to be a pushover. Eric Pickles is going to bypass the usual channels and sign it off himself.

And yet … there may be hope. From Conservative voters. Who live in many of the areas that are to be fracked. If they don’t actually live in rural constituencies, there are the exact types to aspire to do so (fantasy Countryside Alliance members who actually live in the suburbs), and they don’t like it up ’em. Quite why Cameron is prepared to put the interests of the corporations that fund his party above the actual individuals who might vote him back in without the pesky Lib Dems is beyond me. He is, if nothing else, shallow, self-serving and bloodless. Dozy, platitudinous twat that he is, surely even he can see that this is a potential electoral timebomb. (Unless, of course, he never really was in it to help anyone, and is only an ideological zealot up to a point. I’m not sure which is the more skin-crawling: a rightwing bastard, or someone pretending to be one.)

fracking oil pump

Greenpeace are not happy (“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside”), nor are the Green party (“Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal”), but, according to the Guardian, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, seemed fine with it, assured by the government’s “highest possible safeguards.” (Good luck, rural England, with this bloke backing your protection.)

In the interests of balance, I would say that the British Geological Survey has estimated that shale gas deposits under your house and garden could supply the country with energy for up to 40 years. And luckily, in order to extract it, all the energy companies have to do is sit near it with a tanker and it will magically evaporate out of the rock under the soil and fill the tank, which can be then safely and noiselessly driven away.

The Institute of Directors said three cheers for “a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK.” Pardon me if I sit on my hands and save my applause for later. The man on Twitter who thought he was being very clever probably thinks I am a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, anti-business Guardian-reading lefty with no answers to his difficult questions. He’s kind of right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be furious about the fact that nobody has done anything about our untrammeled consumption of energy thus far except invent energy-saving lightbulbs. Why didn’t we – and why don’t we – just turn the lights off when we leave the room?

 

 

Keeping up appearance fees

ACFilm24Apr11receptionbWhen you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too, but this will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. Because James Gandolfini sadly died, I was contacted yesterday morning, by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm yesterday afternoon. Having just gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

Without wishing to come across as some kind of bread-head, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I am currently writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline after all, and I’m being paid for that.

Having worked for 25 years in the media, I would say I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay them for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with, but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster today at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

I declined, politely. So I wasn’t on. I kind of wonder who was? But it doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. But what right does a broadcaster ie. employer or client, have not to pay for honest work? Every TV show you watch will probably have interns working, often unpaid, on the first rung of a TV career, but that is their decision, and a time-investment in exchange for “work experience”, which can be invaluable. Also, you get free coffee and get to work on a TV programme. Me? I’m 48. I don’t care about free coffee and I’ve seen hundreds of TV programmes being made. I have written some of them, and been in some of them. I no longer need the work experience.

Richard used to take the piss out of me for screen-grabbing my occasional TV appearances, but these are my work. I don’t have a library of tapes, but I do have some grabs. Plus, they’re fun to look back at.

ACOneShowSep17096

OneShowACGreerACFilm24Apr11ACMastermindwide

I didn’t get paid to be on Mastermind, of course – my appearance fee went to charity. Typically, they paid for my train fares. This is weird only when no fee is forthcoming. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee yesterday offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Pay contributors with that instead!

So, what else could I hope to gain from a brief, unpaid slot on a news programme? An ego boost? Those who still think I am on the telly all the time as a pundit or “talking head” may assume I have some need to be seen in pubic. I don’t. I may once have been excited by it. But not any more. This is why I have consciously scaled back on the frequency with which I say “yes” when asked to appear on stuff. Because my mobile number is on some general BBC contributors’ list somewhere, and I haven’t changed it for a long time, I am called up by researchers looking comments all the time. I decline almost all of these requests, as I find they take up more time than they are worth in nominal appearance fees. (When I used to write books, I would appear on anything in order to promote them – you do not expect a fee in this instance.)

If I was on the staff of the Guardian, or Radio Times, I might happily be ferried to a TV studio for an hour or two, just to get out of the office, but I’m not on the staff of anything. (I explained this to the producer who wanted to not pay me yesterday, so there was no confusion.)

stop working big

It’s a burning issue in the media. Barney Hoskyns, the august music scribe and curator of Rock’s Back Pages, has started a campaign for media freelancers called Stop Working For Free, whose Facebook page is here. (I can’t access it as I’m not a Facebook member, but you might be.) While people with “proper” jobs might think that media work is cushy and “a laugh” – which to a degree it can be – it is still work: a case of time taken and effort and expertise expended, both of which should by rights be recompensed, by verbal or written agreement with the employer. I’ve complained before about how much free work – “on spec” – you must do as a writer, and how many meetings you must attend for no financial return or “call-out fee”. You accept this as part of the world you work in. But exploitation is never far round the corner, as Barney’s manifesto makes plain:

STOP WORKING FOR FREE.
Calling all freelance content providers (musicians, writers, actors, photographers, designers etc): Join me in WITHDRAWING UNPAID LABOUR from the creative and media industries. The exploitation of freelance content providers has gone on too long, and we are all responsible for letting it happen.

Things have got much worse in the digital age, of course, where images and words are shared around as if nobody is responsible for them. (Hey, I write a blog; I bet at some point I have used a photo that an agency, and therefore a photographer, should be paid for. I do my best not to, but it’s a wild west, isn’t it?) As a creative person who gives a lot of writing away for free – which is my choice – I feel I am on the moral high ground, but there’s a lot of grey here.

I would be interested to hear from people in and outside this weird industry. How do you feel about anybody working for nothing?

In the meantime I’ll leave you with more of Barney’s stirring words:

If you allow yourself to be seduced by the myth that your unpaid labour will “look good on your CV” (or equivalent blah), please try to see that you jeopardise not only the welfare of your replaceable elders but your OWN long-term economic future. You set up a paradigm whereby you in turn become replaceable.

Lost in the stupid market

I cannot tell a lie. I chanced upon this blog entry, originally written in August 2011 at the cusp of the UK’s “double-dip” recession, and realised that it is all still true, and all still relevant, which is quite depressing after 18 months of the world turning and money coming in and going out, so please forgive me if I republish it for anyone who missed it, or remembers it. I’m glad I wrote it. (If, at the end of it, you wish to read the 20 or so comments left under it at the time, they’re here.)

This is a picture of a market. I understand it. On this market, people sell things to other people and the people who sell the things make sure that they sell them for a bit more than they paid for them, so that they can make a profit by which to pay for the opportunity to have a stall on the market and with enough left over to pay for things that they need to buy at other markets. What could be simpler?

All the newspapers today are reporting meltdown in the market. But it is a more complicated market. It is the stock market. It is not based upon things being sold, it is based upon the idea of things being sold. It is based upon selling the idea of something. The people who sell these ideas do not meet the people that they sell them to. In fact, most of the selling of ideas is done by third parties, who buy and sell the things that do not exist on behalf of the people who actually own the things, and are paid to do so. Already, this is a more complicated market than the market in the picture.

I am not very good at economics. I understand how much money I’ve got, which is a minus figure, as I owe money to a bank who foolishly lent it to me to buy a house I cannot afford, on the understanding that I will pay the money back to them by a certain date. Unfortunately, I have to pay them back more than the sum they lent me. This is how they make money. I make money by rearranging the English language, mostly by hand, occasionally by mouth, and every month I hope that enough people pay me to do this for me to pay the bank what I owe it for lending me a sum of money. Any money I have left over after paying the bank, I am free to spend on whatever I like, although because I have a house, and a car, there are certain things I have to pay first, to insurance companies and to the council, for instance. It sounds pretty stupid when you lay it out, but I do at least understand it. Once I have bought food and household goods, I might have enough left over to go to the market and buy something nice for myself.

Because I am self-employed, I do not have a boss, and cannot be sacked, but neither do I have any security. Those who pay me today are under no obligation whatsoever to pay me tomorrow, or ever again. Because of this, I tend not to go to the market to buy nice things as often as I’d like. Why? Because there is a recession on.

The recession started in 2007 and really started to get serious in 2008, when house prices fell and people who had been lent more money than they could pay back defaulted on their mortgages, meaning that the whole house of cards came crashing down. The banks and building societies had been lending money for years to people who couldn’t pay it back based upon the idea – another idea – that house prices would just keep going up. They stopped going up and started going down. It turned out that all the countries that thought they were rich and doing well, were only rich and doing well because they expected house prices to keep going up, thereby making everybody richer without actually doing anything. If you watched Property Ladder with Sarah Beeny in the mid-2000s, one thing you knew was that the amateur developers who tried to increase the value of a property but spent too much in doing so by buying stupid taps could have made money by just doing nothing for three months. Because the market went up anyway while they were mucking about with taps.

There was a banking crisis, which I understood, because it was to do with the banks having lent money that wasn’t theirs to people who couldn’t pay it back, so they ran out of money, and the money wasn’t even theirs. It was our money that they had lent to other people. Some people tried to get their money out of the banks but many banks had to be lent money by the government, who used the money we had given them through tax to help the banks. I’m not stupid, but I couldn’t really work this one out. Since 2008-2009, the best thing I could think of doing to beat the recession was spend less of my money. So I did.

Now, we read the news and find that America, the richest country in the world, cannot afford to pay money back to the people who lend it money. Why is America rich if all its money is borrowed? It is rich because of an idea. The idea is: if everybody works really hard, especially the poor, and if we allow the rich to keep all their money, they will create more money. The stock market deals in ideas. Wealth is an idea. If you do not own the house you live in, your house is an idea. You might own some of it, in that if you ran out of money, you could sell it to pay off the money you still owe, but it’s not yours. Because Greece and Spain and Portugal and Cyprus and Ireland are all in financial trouble based upon an idea – the idea being: all the money we have is borrowed but we might carry on making more money if house prices continue to go up – there are fears that the Eurozone will collapse.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m not very good at economics, but I know that the single currency for some but not all European nations was introduced so that money could be simpler. Instead of lots of currencies which have to be exchanged all the time, some but not all European countries would have the same currency, which would make trading between some but not all European countries easier, and fairer. However, this Utopian ideal seems to be in trouble. Because Greece, which doesn’t really make anything, or Ireland, which doesn’t really make anything, or Spain, which doesn’t really make anything, built the idea of their wealth upon the idea that house prices would continue to go up, and they have gone down, almost an entire continent using the same currency seems to be in more trouble than it might have been if it still had lots of different currencies.

I love Ireland. It is my favourite country. I have been there a lot, and regularly, over the past 20 years. It used to be a small, modest, rural economy, self-sufficient, surrounded by water, and with enough tourism to give it a bit of spare money to buy nice things at a market. It joined the EU, became eligible for all sorts of grants and funding, and built better roads. These were really good roads, and they joined the place up a bit. Having joined the Euro, Ireland started advertising itself as a great place for foreign businesses to move to. So lots of foreign businesses did indeed move there, as rent was low, tax was low, services were almost free, and labour was cheap. And money came in. And Ireland started building houses, which people who couldn’t afford them borrowed money to buy. And people from other countries moved to Ireland to work for the businesses, and rented houses from landlords who had bought too many houses. Then, when it stopped being a good place for foreign businesses to be based in, the employers and many of the employees moved out again, to find a cheaper place to work and be based in, and Ireland’s wealth, based on an idea, disappeared. This is how quickly ideas can disappear. Now the people of Ireland are moving out, which means less tax, and tax is not an idea, it is real. This is why U2 moved their business to Holland. This is what happens if you have actual money. You move it to where people can’t get at it. (This involves not caring about the country you are moving it from, which U2 clearly don’t.)

If the current “whichever-dip” recession tells us anything about wealth is that it is only real for the wealthy. The rest of us might feel wealthy because we have credit cards and big tellies, but we are just as poor as we were when we didn’t have them. Men in stock markets are moving money that doesn’t exist around a huge, global market, and it’s not our money, and yet the success or failure of the men who move it around affects us all. Why? Because global meltdown affects the amount of extra tax we are expected to pay on goods, and the amount of interest we have to pay the institutions who lent us money we can’t afford to pay back.

The previous government in this country ran it on the basis of an idea, and that idea turned out to be a bad idea. They spent all our money, which was not even money we had in the first place, and then borrowed against money we had not yet paid them to save the banks which had lost all of our money. Luckily, this money didn’t exist, so in a way, we had lost nothing, but we had lost nothing twice. Does that sound ridiculous? It should do. The current government didn’t actually lose our money as they weren’t in power when it was lost, but they have decided that the best way to pay it off is to put quite a lot of us out of work, so that employers won’t have to pay us. But when we are out of work, other people who are in work have to pay us not to be in work, and it’s not very much money, so we can’t afford to go to the market and buy nice things, which cost more because the government have put up tax on nice things in order to pay themselves back for losing all our money, twice.

The bad thing about our government is that is that it is run by men who are rich. They were rich before they went into politics and don’t know what it is like to be poor. (Poor being what nearly all of us are, in reality.) So they have come up with a Plan A that protects people who are rich, but hurts people who are poor. It is a shit plan.

If you are actually rich – in other words, you own the house you live in, something only the rich actually do – you can pay people to prevent you from having to pay the government what you owe them in tax. This is a luxury only the rich can afford. So the rich, the very people who should be paying tax, don’t pay it. While the poor, which is nearly everybody else, pays tax that it can’t afford, but can’t afford not to pay. This is also an idea. This idea is called capitalism.

So all these sweaty men in coloured jackets and on phones we keep seeing on the news – who are, at the end of the day, just men with jobs they could lose as quickly as you could lose yours – are the most powerful men in the world, but unlike the people who work on the market in the picture above, they don’t have anything to sell. They don’t even have a stall. If you went up to the desk and tried to pay for the idea that they trade in with cash, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put the cash, and you wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

I wish the cakes weren’t so pricy in the British Library. But the British Library, which is a public service, pays a private company to make and sell its cakes. This is not a market, as there is only one place to buy cakes inside the Library.

Save £££££££££££s!

I had a realisation yesterday, and it may be a sign of the times, but it hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead all the same: I get much more of a kick out of saving money than I do from spending money. I made the vanilla and almond biscotti that I have very badly photographed above, and, on carving out around 48 biscuits from one baking tray and popping them into Tupperware tubs, I decided to calculate exactly how much they cost to make. (It was fun to cook them, by the way, and took just over an hour.)

In a possibly over-forensic manner, I worked out how much I’d spent on flour, sugar, eggs, butter etc. (this is easy to do if you know the price of the food you buy), and the grand total, discounting the electricity I’d used to bake the biscotti for a total of 40 minutes, was £3.88. Now, I could have reduced this total sharply by not using organic eggs, organic almonds, organic butter and – added ingredient! – about eight squares of Green & Black’s chocolate. (I had to buy the flour round the corner, having spontaneously decided to make the biscotti, and they only had non-organic.) Although I saved on vanilla pods by using a drop of essence, I used flaked almonds instead of whole, as I had some in the cupboard; next time, it would be much cheaper to smash up whole almonds bought in big bags. In other words, I reckon it could be done for closer to £2. Even at my organic price, that’s about 8p a biscuit, but at £2 it would be more like 4p. I sometimes treat myself (those words) to a shop-bought box of biscotti and they cost £2.19 for about 20 biscuits – the rest is packaging – which is almost 11p a biscuit. Over 40 biscuits, that’s a saving of £1.20, which would rocket to £2.80 if you spent less on the ingredients, as I will do next time. If you buy a single biscotti in a high street coffee shop, it’s 99p. You don’t need to do the maths (which is lucky, as I am shit at maths). The maths does itself.

In yesterday’s Observer, the ever-reliable David Mitchell was writing about Michael Gove, chiefly, but had this enlightening thing to say about saving money.

In my life, the money I would otherwise spend on shampoo is very dear to me: I buy the cheapest possible shampoo. When I can steal it from hotels, I do. I use every last squirt from every bottle, eking out days’ more use from each one when most people would have thrown it away. I dote on the thought of that saved money. It may amount to as much as £14 over my lifetime. Meanwhile, the money I waste because I’m perpetually on the wrong mobile phone tariff is sent out into the world neglected and unloved.

Now, Mitchell is a well-recompensed TV personality and broadsheet columnist; he has less need to scrimp and save and worry about money than most. But unless you’re actually in the 1%, we really are all in this recession – or these recessions – together, and if Mitchell instinctively squeezes shampoo bottles, so should we all. And if we’re not squeezing them, we should ask ourselves why not. It may be the vilified “bankers” who got us into this mess – or more rightly, the governments that let them get us into it, or even more rightly, the free market that so dazzled the governments in the first place that they turned two blind eyes to the deregulated sleight-of-greed that was going on in their name – but we were happy to spend, on credit, when the going was good, and it’s up to us, I think, to put the brakes on and adjust to the new world order.

In the past couple of weeks, as you can see, I have made beetroot soup, a banana cake, and a radish and mint soup (which tastes a lot nicer than it looks). My imperative for doing this has been to use up what we’ve got. My fruit and vegetables are delivered, in a box, and that means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. One week, you might get 700g of beetroots, which is exactly the amount required for Delia’s beetroot soup recipe, which is free online [see: Factsheet at bottom]. Rather than see the beetroots going wrinkly and unloved in a drawer, I used them, and it serves four, which means it serves me, four times, over four days. The banana cake was, like the biscotti, a cunning method of giving myself a sweet treat in my packed lunch which obviates the need for me to buy expensive cakes and biscuits in coffee shops, or the overpriced British Library café.

I used to work in a rented office, but that had to go come the crash of 2008, when all but the most affluent belts were tightened. I have been working in the Library ever since, as it’s free once you have a Reader’s Pass. But in those early days, I used to buy my lunch, and a mid-morning snack, and even sometimes breakfast, in the cafeteria or café. Even though I was cutting back on expenditure by letting the office go, and cancelling my gym membership, and picking up my newspaper rather than having it delivered, it’s amazing how much I found myself spending per day on food. So the packed lunch became my creed. I cook up something meaty and long-lasting on a Sunday, and apportion it out Monday to Friday. I add to that something sweet, and maybe a Tupperware tub of plain yoghurt with dried fruit or stewed apple in it. Lovely! Although, yes, some days I wish I didn’t have quite so much in my bag, I always relish getting it all out for my lunch. (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory.)

I have, it seems, turned into a 1950s austerity housewife. And that suits me fine. It takes time to make your own food, but as long as you enjoy cooking, as I do, it’s a surefire way of de-leveraging. We are all feeling the pinch to varying degrees, but it feels good not to throw your money away, doesn’t it? Capitalism requires us all to feel constantly dissatisfied, and to want to own more goods, and better goods. I have had my car for 11 years. By now, according to capitalism, I should have replaced it, or, at the very least, started to envy the better, newer cars of those around me. I don’t. I just don’t. (I am lucky enough to live in London, with its excellent public transport links, so I really don’t use the car much. I feel sorry for those who don’t have that luxury and can’t get about without a car.) I remember reading Will Hutton’s excellent The World We’re In a few years ago and being struck by the observation that the middle classes are the engine of free market capitalism, as, according to the rules, they own some stuff, and it’s the people who own some stuff who are in a constant state of anxiety about their stuff not being enough, or good enough, so they thrive to work harder and earn more money, so they can spend it, and thus, they motor the economy. This, one assumes, is why right-wing politicians are keen to convince us that we’re all middle class now. If we are, then we are the suckers.

This is a horrible period to be living through. I am personally not on my knees, but that’s mainly because I’m self-employed and cannot lose all my clients overnight in the same way that someone who is employed can lose their job overnight. Even in the media, budgets are being cut everywhere, and the BBC, one of my main employers, is public sector. And we all know how much love the Tories have for the public sector. It’s hard to imagine that, a few years ago, I had a gym membership. That seems so wasteful now. (Walking, I have discovered, is free.) Surely it’s better to bake your own biscuits than to buy them?

Oh, and my biscuits taste better. They’re not as sweet as the Arden & Amici ones, but the money I’ve saved is sweet enough.

 

Factsheet: the recipes mentioned are here, although I have customised them freely, as I often do, to accommodate what’s in the cupboard and fridge, which is a frugal way of doing it.

The almond and vanilla biscotti came from a Waitrose recipe. I used plain four instead of self-raising, so added bicarb and baking powder. I also added choc chips. The beetroot soup, Polish apparently, is a Delia recipe; again, adapted – I added red chilli for kick, and have tried both bacon for the stock, and the giblets from a chicken. The radish and mint soup was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, although it’s designed to be eaten cold and I warmed mine up and used yoghurt instead of creme fraiche, and paprika for cayenne pepper (again, through necessity), which may have changed it for the worse. The beautiful banana cake – which lasted me for a week and a half, rationed to one slice a day – is by Dan Lepard, from the Guardian magazine. (I must admit, I was so exited by the outcome, I sent him the photo on Twitter, and he replied and everything.)

Incidentally, my food photography is rubbish because I don’t have a mobile phone with a camera, and instead use the rudimentary and awkward PhotoBooth application on my laptop. I don’t have a posh phone for the same reasons that I don’t belong to a gym or pay 99p for a biscotti in a coffee shop.