Thursday, February 21, 2008

When you're 53 and still living on £21,000 a year, before tax, bringing up teenagers, £5,000 a year away from benefits that might cut your council tax, you wonder about a lifetime of working and why you've done it.

I am earning less now than before I had children, less than when my children were babies. My earning power, it seems, as my experience has grown, has gone down.

Part of the problem is writing poetry. I earn nothing from it. I earn little, too, from most teaching work. The very part-time Open University job pays about the same as cleaning might. Most of my income is from self-employment, which means no holiday pay, sick pay, enhanced pension contributions, no perks, company car or paid time off in lieu.

Added to this, I am crap with money. In these days, when the economy is based on money earning money, this could be an even bigger problem than the poetry. I am no economist, clearly, but from experience of watching people I have realised wealth comes from a combination of elements: inheritance, opportunism, investment, property.

Is anyone out there working? Ah yes, Stuart Rose's underclass outside the M25. Outside the ring dividing us from the superrich, there are builders, plumbers, shelf stackers, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and writers. We know everything costs more, but most of us haven't quite caught up with the shift that's taken place in our collective UK mentality.

It's this: we are not encouraged to produce anything except wealth and profit. Money makes money, celebrity makes money, houses make money, youth makes money. Ripping people off, too, that makes money. Selling bottled water and refusing tap water makes money, telling people they need new brake discs when they don't makes money. Small print and asterisks on adverts make money. Selling shoes that last a month because they're 'not meant to be worn everyday' makes money.

When I started in journalism, pay on the Surrey Advertiser, owned by the Guardian, was dreadful. It was a sign of things to come and I should have paid attention, but I loved to write and I believed in freedom of expression. I was an idealist - we need to debate, to examine, to question.

I have survived as a freelance longer than I ever had a 'proper' job. My output? Hundreds of features on everything from equal pay to school mergers, poll tax to the sale of a circus, a crumbling country house now lived in by pop stars, from racism in Liverpool to children leaving care, land rights and travellers to a holiday in Romania during Communism.

I've interviewed ordinary people about how they do their jobs, some brilliantly, some badly. I helped write a book on design for the lovely Rasshied Din, the only man who's ever taken me to Bond Street. I've written an 80,000 word analysis of how goods are sourced and sold globally and been shocked in the process, but particularly by a man from Tesco, edited a book of writing by Sudanese refugees who wouldn't talk about the new wave of Rackmans, written two plays (unproduced), three novels (two unfinished), four books of poetry, a pamphlet (reprinted) and been in several anthologies.

I've taught, tutored and facilitated people from backgrounds as diverse as international law and banking to crack dealing. Kids with a vocabulary of single syllable words, to the gifted and talented, kids in expensive public schools and failing inner city ones. I've run workshops in luxury hotels and youth centres with slashed plastic chairs.

So I'm wondering, not bitterly, but genuinely......why am I earning less now than before I did even half of that?