Monday, January 09, 2017

Becoming unemployable

When I woke up after nearly two weeks of several types of cheese, crackers, wine, cake, pastry, sauces, spirits and above all, chocolate, the drive to clear shelves that started before Christmas and was suspended for present-swapping and eating came back even stronger.

It was as if I was standing at the tree recycling space on the Level, breathing in the smell of forest.

This month I am 62. My last summer was ruined by neighbours' endless building work and for some reason it still bothers me. Perhaps because the summers in front of me are numbered. Or that I needed to get manure for the allotment. Recently I had been dreaming about being surrounded by giant fish.

Whatever the reason. I woke up, went to my laptop, opened Gmail and wrote my resignation. I've thought about that decision quite a bit since. It halved my already diabolical income (around £9,000 pa) from so-called teaching. But the course I was 'teaching' on has been a nightmare from the start and I felt more mistreated than I have since I worked for Goldsmiths University for a year. In fact, when I queried the fact that it wasn't teaching, I was told I wasn't meant to be. I was meant to be moderating.

The Literary Agency, Curtis Brown, puts it succinctly in publicity for its own creative writing course: "Right now, writing schools are multiplying like mould on jam."

The Open University, my employer, describes the group of associate lecturers it employs to deliver its creative writing courses as "a vibrant and experienced group of over a hundred and fifty practising writers". Its website adds: "Since 2003 The Open University has recruited over 30,000 students to its undergraduate creative writing modules. These have proved enormously popular with students…."

I have had a lot of respect for the OU, particularly in the quality of the course materials for A215, the course I still work on. I admire its clarity in marking criteria and the care it takes to discuss marking criteria among ALs each year. But let's face it, as an AL I am cannon fodder. I am delivering a course other people have been very well paid to write, I probably put in more hours than I am paid for (most ALs do) and have next to no contact with the far better paid academics based in Milton Keynes. I have never felt valued, let's say.

It's a capitalist arrangement, of course. I work, I am paid. At my age why would I need anything more? Well…. every year in September I am kept waiting to see if there will be enough students to re-employ me. I have been working for the OU for at least 10 years and I still don't know, year on year, if there will be work in September.

Many have written about the exploitation of casual staff. I don't quite qualify as that with the OU but it is still precarious. There is no career progression. The OU charges each student £2,786 for the course I've been working on for a decade. On average I have a tutor group of around 15. My group, therefore, generates income for the OU of more than £40,000 and I am paid around £5,000.

It doesn't take a major intelligence to work out that creative writing's a money spinner. As Curtis Brown so aptly puts it, there are plenty of courses out there being delivered by people like me who are earning a pittance to enable institutions to make profit.

And the one I rather rapidly realised wasn't for me will be earning a fortune. But I felt like I was working in a call centre.

I am as sick of these unchallenged arrangements in which working conditions are regarded as irrelevant, or an inconvenience, or something to be put up with out of desperation, as I am of the books gathering dust that went to the charity shop on December 21, the plates, cushions and old sleeping bags that went to Shabitat the same day.

Fucked over by the government so I can't claim my pension till I'm 66, I am now earning less per day than I was 25 years ago. So I am increasingly intolerant and have decided that this year is an experiment in being frugal and shuffling off the exploiters. It may leave me with no work at all. It may be I've become unemployable.

The one light on the horizon, excuse the cliche, is the Royal Literary Fund, which is (aside from the National Union of Journalists) probably one of the only institutions in the UK that respects writers, pays us properly and has our interests at heart. The current wave of strikes on public transport may be irritating, but I say, go for it and thank god someone is still standing up for working conditions.