Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Swimming this morning, I was thinking about an event I helped out at yesterday, organised by Creamer and Lloyd. One of the speakers was Dick Mullender, an expert in how to talk to people. Among the many aspects of talking he covered was body language and conversation, the impact of asking questions and how to listen. He spoke, too, about trust and truth. He's an inspiring man and has learned his skills as a negotiator for the police force with people in crisis, when every word and gesture counts.

It led me to think about that old idea of wisdom and how it's manifest. Wisdom, in my mind, is linked with kindness and understanding as well as experience. People I've met whom I feel are wise also have the capacity to digest what they've experienced and find the core. The poet, Michael Longley, has the wisdom of a lifetime of writing and reading. When he was asked to talk about poetry in Limerick last year he said that at the heart of all great poetry is love - love drives a poem into being. It was a delight to listen to him.

I suspect wisdom is a quality that grows at its own pace. The compost it needs is thought and time. I guess this is why the archetype of the wise man is a monk on a mountain, and the wise woman is detached from the world by her age. At some point, though, a lifetime of listening and doing synthesises.

And this is also a time when good conversation comes into its own, when talk can lift and energise you like a mental massage. I have several friends whose company I know will always be sparky, whom I could listen to for hours. Reminds me of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself: "I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen......"

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?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A rat in the kitchen, my end of year tax form and paying the tax brought January to an anxious end. In fact, I was so disturbed by the rat that I couldn't even go out the night of my birthday, although a lovely walk along the seafront during the day with Li Mills compensated. And she bought me lunch at Maroccos, when really I should have bought her lunch, she's been such a star helping my son with his Brit School audition.

A couple of years ago at Tribe of Doris (our annual August pilgrimage to the Blackdown Hills) I did a session searching for my spirit animal. It was a rat. I wondered, then, about this creature turning up in my kitchen the day before my birthday and why it affected me so much. I'm not squeamish. I've shared my house with mice before, but it was the speed the rat shot across the kitchen when I was in there, with my daughter, a long dark line, that made me scream and then kept me awake that night. Each time I went to the kitchen I stamped my feet. I really didn't want to see it again. But I was working in the front room just before my walk on my birthday, the kids at school, it was very quiet and I had slippers on....I wandered towards the kitchen and saw it again. Sauntering this time.

Was that the message I needed? Maybe very appropriate - saunter, don't rush. It would be lovely to slow down to a saunter. Winter doesn't seem to allow it. Twice, sometimes three times a week in the mornings now I'm trying to pound the pool, work off some of the anxiety that winter induces. Mostly anxiety about money. Oh that is such a boring obsession. I hear myself, all the time now, turn off lights, don't have a bath, don't waste food, turn down the heating. Something's lost and the calculator switches on in my brain, what's that going to cost? My daughter's shoes, another old chestnut, seem to last under a month before they're growing holes.

Everyone I know agrees that everything's gone up. Price fixing everywhere. We live in a society where competition's the mantra but hollower than a blown egg. Stuart Rose seems to be the only voice of dissent - mouthing off, rightly, about London being the home of the international super rich and the rest of us, outside the M25, watching the wealth gap widening. Forget north south divide....when did we stop talking about haves and have nots? When did it become the role of the chief executive of a multi national company to point out what politicians have forgotten, in their London of four wheel drives, restaurants, taxis, clothes and comfy salaries? Well, good for him. I think we should be applauding M&S and I never thought I'd say that. I like their new ethics and I like the fact that Rose has the confidence to put those complacent politicos to shame.

I'm not alone in my money worries. Most people I know live with a calculator in their mind at the moment. No thoughts but pound signs. Reminds me of Dylan Thomas's letters - jam packed with money stuff.

Would the super rich like to swap for a week? Or my local politician?