Universal Credit and the multiverse – and a tribute to a friend

6a00d8345295c269e201b8d12175b2970c-200wiWe Need to Talk has just been released by Jurassic London, the same folks who published Jews vs Aliens. I have a story in this new anthology, which is themed on ‘difficult conversations’. I am very pleased with this because it’s the only story I’ve written that comes to a mere 2000 words. When I’ve previously submitted 2000-word things to critiquing groups, I received comments along these lines: “This reads like the beginning of a novel.” But wow, here’s my first proper short short story. I’ve pretty much decided on this one for my reading at Fantasycon.

Jurassic is a not-for-profit publisher specialising in charity and benefit books. It worked with the Kindred Agency to produce and promote We Need to Talk, and proceeds will go to the Eve Appeal, a charity dedicated to supporting research into the early detection and prevention of women’s cancers. The stories were selected by Susan Armstrong, Anne C Perry, Anastasia Scott and Athena Lamnisos.

My story “Keep Them Rollin” in this anthology involves Universal Credit, quantum computing and multiversal weirdness, which results in a very difficult conversation indeed… It was inspired by my involvement with Boycott Workfare, which campaigns against forced unpaid labour and benefit sanctions.

When I was researching ‘in-work conditionality‘, the extension of sanctions and compulsion to low-income workers who claim top-up benefits, I never expected it to turn into a story. At the time, I was investigating a pilot scheme that started last April, reading through the DWP’s guidelines for ‘job coaches’ (once known simply as advisors) who would be harassing working claimants on these pilots. They were advised to initiate ‘challenging conversations’ with their ‘customers’.

And then when Jurassic London sent around an email announcing a competition for short fiction about ‘difficult conversations’, the story took shape.

A few of my friends have died from gynaecological cancers, so that’s another reason it means a lot to be in this anthology. I’d like to dedicate “Keep Them Rollin'” to my good friend Jill Allott, who died in 2012 from a secondary brain tumour related to ovarian cancer. Here’s a photo and a link to a little bio in History Made At Night. This was based on a Facebook tribute I wrote before I’d joined the blogosphere. Jill was a former stalwart of Brixton squatting and a wonderful friend, whose enthusiasm boosted many anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay and community projects.

Jill has also come up again in my thoughts because I’ve just been interviewed for a forthcoming documentary, London Rebel Dykes of the 1980s, which brought back many memories of her. In fact, we went together to the infamous Treworgy Tree Fayre festival in 1989 – referred to in the story – along with a posse of other friends. So this story belongs to Jill in many ways. And it is now available here on my Free Fiction page!

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Jill Allott on drums in our late 1980s-era band, the Sluts from Outer Space

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What’s wrong with work?

CMy9gZTWsAAF1QvThis is just a quick last-minute heads-up for a free event this Friday 4 September – an evening multimedia extravaganza at the Wellcome Collection devoted to the theme of rest and its opposite, presented by the Hubbub team.

It will include talks on fantasy and fiction, free time and mind wandering, and an audio piece exploring relaxation and cacophony. And I’ll be helping out with an interactive presentation that will ask “What’s Wrong With Work?”

Fed up with work? Don’t want to work? Actually hate work? Maybe work isn’t ‘good for you’. Explore and express what’s wrong with work: record your thoughts on tape, do a video or write a post card to your boss, the Chancellor, your work mates telling them what you think. Or just start a debate with the person next to you about everything and anything that’s wrong with work.

Johnny Void writes in his blog: “As wages and working conditions decline then unemployment will be seen as an ever greater sin. The Victorian workhouse principle of ‘less eligibility’ – meaning the life of somebody unemployed must be less eligible (more shit) than the life of the lowest paid worker – must be maintained. The screw is being tightened for everybody and as benefits shrink so will wages. It is more important than ever that we start to question whwork-makes-meat’s wrong with work.”

It certainly is when work for work’s sake or simply for a mirage of employment is expounded by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. “Work is good for your health” the head of the Department of Whoppers and Porkies proclaims. But we’ve seen how this ideology has led to death by sanction, and contributes to general ill-health. Work-related deaths are one of the largest causes of premature death in the UK. With authorities pushing a political religion of work – done for free or very little – let’s ask heretical questions and look at ways to oppose this.

The Friday Late will run from 7-11pm at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Euston is the nearest station; for accessibility information see Wellcome’s website.11917677_10153534487197359_5655180196874825367_n There will also be a bar, in case you were wondering.

To finish, I’ll share a few of the #fakeDWPstories inspired by the DWP’s fabricated spiels from ‘Zak’ and ‘Sarah’ delighting in their benefit sanctions – all thanks to a Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly. We’ve heard from Mr Morrissey already; others that resonated most involved ‘real’ fictional characters! I must apologise for the messy patchwork below, but unfortunately WordPress won’t let me decoratively arrange them. Not like InDesign!


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Workfare for the fae

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Reading from Helen’s Story
Photo: Gary Couzens

I was excited to be going to the first World Fantasy Convention outside of North America since 1997, particularly when I was offered a reading slot and invited to join Jana Oliver, Tessa Farmer, Alison Littlewood and Emma Newman on a panel about fairy lore and literature. This was part of the stream of programming celebrating the work of Arthur Machen on his 150th birthday.

Maybe some of the convention missives sent out beforehand had us worried, especially when we were informed that lost badges incurred a fine of £75 for replacement. But once the con got underway, people were very friendly. A programme of pop-up pirate events, a kind of World Fantasy Fringe, also added some spice to the event.

Along with the usual social buzz of conventions, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet online friends in person for the first time. This included Lynda E Rucker, who I corresponded with on a TTA Press e-list way back in the late 1990s.

Now, I attended a lot of events. These included readings by Lynda and by Jack Dann, panels on style vs content, broads with swords, whether vampires have lost their bite, several connected with the Machen @150 stream of programming, late night ghost stories… 

However, to keep this at a manageable length I’ll focus on the events that I was personally involved with. So,  let’s start with my reading…

Someone had to be doing stuff at the same time as the Terry Pratchett interview. And if that someone ends up being me (among others), I figured that I’ll just have to give it my best shot. Perhaps I was more concerned when I realised that I was scheduled at the same time as a panel on Machen and modern horror. After all, I’d been planning to attend it – had it circled and all!

The reading room was most impressive, featuring a very high-backed Alice-in-Wonderland chair near a table provided with all the reading essentials. I read from Helen’s Story and  “Lambeth North” from Horror Without Victims, a story that I had begun as a take on Machen’s story ‘N’. This was the first time I took a long look at these two tales together, and I was struck by the common themes as well as their differences (well, nothing of a sexual nature takes place in “Lambeth North”).

Both stories exemplify the dialogue – and sometimes argument – I have with classic works that inspire me. As I’ve written previouslyHelen’s Story developed out of years of fascination and frustration with The Great God Pan. 

In his story ‘N’ Machen imagines a gateway, a rending of the veil, in Stoke Newington, while nothing of the sort would be found in the ‘unshaped’ reaches of South London.

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And a visit to north Lambeth
Photo: Gary Couzens

So as I wrote this story, I found
myself rambling down that strangely silent stretch of Lambeth High Street, staring at the frieze and intricate moulding on the old Doulton pottery building, then entering the tiny park that had once been a burial ground for cholera victims. And while I enjoy stories where fellows of a certain age imbibe in pubs and tell peculiar tales to each other, here I imagined several gals quaffing their whisky and having a laugh. 

Given the other events taking place at the time, I was pleased that anyone at all came. And what’s more, the half-dozen or so in my audience included one to two individuals I DID NOT KNOW. At the end, most of us quickly decamped to catch the rest of the Machen and modern horror panel, which ended with short readings from Adam Nevill, Michael Kelly, Thana Niveau, Tim Lebbon, Paul Finch and Ramsey Campbell.

Touched for the very first time…
Now… the fairy panel. As a total panel virgin I was very nervous. With a reading, I just lose myself in the story. But a panel means talking about things. And even myself. And what do I know about fairies anyway? Eeek! But I emailed Jana Oliver, the moderator, to see what points she might raise. (Be gentle, it’s my first time, I entreated…)

Jana kindly sent me the points she wanted to bring up. I discovered that I knew more than I realised about fairies and the fae. In the end, the panel turned out to be a very enjoyable conversation about favourite books and provoked me to think more about their themes.

In the wake of controversy regarding gender parity on panels, I was interested to find that this panel consisted of all women. An artist of the male persuasion had been on the programme, then he couldn’t make it. But we did have another perspective from the visual arts with Tessa Farmer, an artist who also happens to be Mr Machen’s great-grand daughter. She talked about her strange wire and insect fairy sculptures, and described how her creatures are likely to bring down larger and larger mammals… until they get us. And in a rather chilling aside, she added that parasitic wasps have been providing inspiration as to how this will happen.

Jana asked us about our favourite stories about the fae, particularly those that took the theme in a new direction. I first suggested Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand (interviewed by me here), a potent brew mixed with measures of the pre-Raphaelites, the ever-mad Richard Dadd, Swinburne, folk music, punk and the realm of faerie.

I was intrigued by the hints of quantum physics in Hand’s book  – a glimpse of the fae as beings trapped in two places at once, living between universes. This view was made more explicit by Justina Robson in her Quantum Gravity series, where a hadron collider meltdown results in a blurring of borders between the realms.

Then I got onto Clive Barker’s Weaveworld. This is about a magical world called the Fugue that is hidden in a carpet, a place of refuge from persecution for a race called the Seerkind, who have been mythologised as fairies and demons. A young woman called Suzanna inherits this carpet and the secrets that it hides, and she is joined in a struggle to defend the Fugue by a young man who accidentally discovers the nature of the carpet.

What made the far-out fantasy so effective was the realism of Barker’s portrayal of Liverpool in the early 1980s, just after the Toxteth riots of 1981. In Barker’s book a police chief called Hobart is engaged in a crusade to hunt down any remaining rioters. A sworn enemy of the Seerkind, Shadwell the Salesman, engages Hobart in his mission to destroy the Fugue. As far as Hobart is concerned, the world of the Fugue is a perfect hide-out for fugitive rioters.

When I read the book, I was struck by the way the police chief Hobart immediately accepts that this other world lurks behind an old rug. As far as he is concerned, it is only another place to be controlled and subjugated.

At this, Emma Newman commented: “I imagine that’s how the Tories would react if they encountered the fae.”

Indeed. Certainly I could see IDS as Hobart and salesman Shadwell rolled in together. Or perhaps the latter role would be played by George Osborne.

The feckless fae would inevitably be targeted by a new government Daily Mail/DWP hate campaign, complete with ‘documentaries’ on the BBC through to the Daily Mail of the Air, Channel 5.

And oh what a contract! The whole vile roster of poverty profiteers would stick their snouts in the trough – G4S, Avanta, A4e, Igneus… As I write I can hear the grunting and gobbling and snorting as they concoct their new money-making forced-labour schemes.

So there you have it – workfair for the fae!

From austerity to fairyland

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Bethnal Green Hospital 1978: The first work-in at a hospital casualty department

In the next few weeks I’ll be taking part in two very different events. At the London Anarchist Bookfair next Saturday – 19 October – I’ll contribute to a meeting that will look back on hospital occupations against closure and discuss their current relevance to defending health services. And at the World Fantasy Convention two weeks afterwards I’m on a panel about… fairies.

From austerity to fairyland: the leap between these two subjects first provoked a few bemused chuckles. Then I looked into these subjects a bit more, and you know… I had to think again.

So, the discussion at the bookfair will ask the question: “Occupying is good for your health?” This meeting is part of a stream of radical history presentations and discussions at the bookfair. The people from Past Tense, who are coordinating these meetings, write:

“We don’t see ‘history’ as a dry ‘subject’; it isn’t separate from our own experiences and the struggles, and situations we are part of now, and the ideas and movements we hope can help build a freer future. Our own stories are also history; but reversing that, history is made up of experiences, battles, events, individuals and mass movements – linked to ours by both resistance to the hierarchical and unequal social relations they faced, and the desires, ideas and dreams of what life could be, and how to get there.” 

In this spirit, we will cast our eye back on campaigns in the 1970s through the 1990s when staff and patients occupied hospitals under threat of closure. I took part in the occupation of the South London Hospital for Women from 1984 to 1985, so I’ll bring reflections on that to the discussion. My friend Myk will share his experiences of occupying at UCH in the 1990s. Currently the NHS is under threat again. How is the situation different now? Are tales of previous occupations relevant? The NHS, vital as it is, has never really been under our control – are occupations a step in that direction? We’re also very keen to hear from others who are currently involved with opposing health service cuts and hospital closures.

The bookfair itself is well worth a visit and you don’t need to be a card-carrying or flag-waving anarchist to find something of interest here. The event takes place at Queen Mary’s University at Mile End and features workshops, stalls, books and music,  talks and films. Two crèches are available and there is also disabled access. Check out the bookfair website for more  information.WFC_small

Which brings us to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, from 31 October to 3 November. Though I’ve been to the UK Fantasycon many times, this will be my first world fantasy event. I’m looking forward to four days of schmoozing, socialising, panels and discussions, drinking, drinking, drinking, curries and curries… and meeting other readers and writers from around the world(ish) who are passionate about fantastical fiction. And I’m also excited to be involved in two programme items.

Tickets are no longer on sale for the convention, but if you happen to be going you might be interested in the following. On Friday 1 November I’ll be at the Reading Café 3-3.30. Given that one stream of programming at WFC will mark Arthur Machen’s 150th birthday, I’ll read from my novella Helen’s Story and from “Lambeth North”, my short story in Horror Without Victims. As you can guess from the title, “Lambeth North” will shed a different light on a part of London that Machen had once described as ‘shapeless’, ‘unmeaning’ and ‘dismal beyond words’. But here South London holds its own.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Then on the Saturday at mid-day I’ll be on a panel, The Little People: When the Fairies Come Out to Play. This discussion looks at how Arthur Machen and other authors and artists have used folklore, the landscape, science and literature to create stories of the faerie otherworld.

So what is the connection between these topics? When musing on this, I had another read of Simon Bestwick’s excellent blog post, The Shrinking Space, which addresses a similar question. Simon describes the fallout from austerity and the ‘shrinking space’ it leaves for enjoying life and exercising the imagination. Simon also looks at the legacy of Arthur Machen, As well as a classic writer of dark fiction, Machen is often read as a father of psychogeography. An impoverished clerk in his younger days, he wandered the streets of Edwardian London to discover worlds of wonder and dread “a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station”.

But in the modern-day ConDemNewLab dystopia there’s little time for wandering, and the otherworldly and unworldly transcendence of Machen’s vision will find little room to thrive. Nowadays, those in employment face continual compulsion to work more and more for much less and give up their live to their work. The clerk of today would be subject to repeated performance reviews, team-building exercises and examinations of their ‘attitude’. Meanwhile, those who are unable to work or refuse to submit to this regime are hounded and starved by the DWP, ATOS and a vile cabal of poverty profiteers such as A4E and G4S.

Machen’s character Lucien Taylor in The Hill of Dreams “craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose”. But there’s no chance of doing that for those who get forced onto a workfare scheme or – as Universal Credit would have it – get forced to do time in the job centre if their clerk’s salary is too meagre without a top-up for stratospheric 21st century London rents.

Machen became a bit of an old Tory himself and waxed jingoistic over WWI, but Simon’s article nails how the literary legacy of his best work still stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary neoliberalism. I tend to think that ‘authorial intention’ is often distinct from how the core of a story is perceived by those who read it in years to come.

Moving on from Machen’s day, Johnny Void has also pointed out that a mere 15 years of neoliberal  regression could have prevented Harry Potter (among the creations of many writers who put in a few years on the dole) from ever seeing the light of publication. “Under this Government’s plans for single parents, JK Rowling would have been on workfare rather than creating some of the most successful characters in children’s literature in history.”

On one hand, the regime of austerity and intensified work aims to crush any attempt to use the imagination. On the other hand,  the active use of imagination is what gives social movements their power. Fairies might not have had much bearing on our occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital – though we did tell a few ghost stories about the walk along the underground corridor between the main building to the annexe, which happened to pass the morgue.

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This is the balcony where we sang “What shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”, dressed up in nurse uniforms and surgeon’s masks. Good times!

But our campaign showed resilience because we went beyond traditional meetings and petition-writing. We didn’t only defend the health service as it was, but created a centre where women came together to take action, discuss and start to create the kind of health care we wanted. And beyond that – a vision of the kind of world we want to live in.

I still sometimes come across the idea that fantastical fiction is always escapist. It can be – so can anything. It can also be subversive – it is what we make it. In this context, a classic line from the 80s punk band Zounds comes to mind: “I’m not looking for escapism, I just want to escape.”

Is there a difference between escapism and wanting to escape? Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

And with that I’ll sign off with a song…

Horror Without Victims

Good news! My story “Lambeth North” will appear in the new anthologyHorror without victims_thumbnail from Megazanthus Press, Horror Without Victims.

So what is meant by ‘horror without victims’? Along with a few other writers, I was scratching my head for a long time as I turned the concept over in my mind… Initially, I came up with a satire on ‘positive thinking’ and psychobabble. In this regime,  someone who gets critical, angry or even mildly distressed will often be damned for not being ‘proactive’ and for playing the ‘victim’.

I discussed this idea with my “Turning Track” collaborator Mat Joiner, and we conceived a story based around an enforced job-seeker’s workshop. Within the context of claimant compulsion and the welfare-to-work racket, the ideology of ‘positive thinking’ has been assuming sinister and invasive – as well as laughable – aspects. See here for an account of this at a workshop run by poverty profiteering multinational A4e, and here for an example of compulsory and  nonsensical psychometric testing for JSA claimants.

Other online discussions suggested that ‘horror without victims’ could be found in any story that summons feelings of unease, dread or darkness, accompanied by a low or non-existent body count.  Work from writers such as Aickman was mentioned, or classic stories like Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”.

Well, in the end I submitted a totally different story than the one I started with Mat. “Lambeth North” was partly inspired by one of Arthur Machen’s less known stories, “N”. However, the locale is moved to South London, an area that Mr Machen apparently held in some disdain.

My collaboration with Mat will still go ahead, but we’ve come to realise that under the circumstances, we might really want to have some  &%!! victims in this particular story after all!

Suggestions, they want!

Given that this blog is called “Writings and Rantings”,
it’s time Imageto get a good rant in before someone complains to Trades Descriptions. And it’s not long before something suitably rant-provoking turns up, furnished by those lovely folks at the Department for Works and Pensions.

Many writers work in precarious trades, in addition to the most precarious trade of writing. They may receive top-up benefits like working tax credits or housing benefit to supplement their work income. Workers in all sectors of employment are in a similar position as they face uncertainty and lower pay, a situation aggravated by outsourcing and privatised contracts. The government has been boasting that unemployment has gone down, but its figures have been distorted by a) people on workfare not counted as unemployed b) people on DWP sanctions who have no income at all and c) people who have taken up self-employment, part-time and short-term jobs.

And it’s this last group who will be most affected by the forthcoming attack on top-ups. Previously, these benefits were based solely on income, with no need to visit the job centre and jump through hoops. But with the institution of Universal Credit (aka Universal Stitch-Up), the government intends to impose ‘in-work conditionality’ by 2015.

And here’s Lord ‘Fraud’ Freud launching a ‘call for ideas’:

“The fact that those in work will come under the ambit of the JobCentre Plus for the first time as a result of universal credit gives the government radical new opportunities.”

Profiteering, time-wasting, life-sapping
Having learned their lessons from New Labour in the spin of framing retrogressive steps as ‘radical’, the ConDems aren’t content with their attempts to grind down unemployed and disabled people. They now want to extend workfare and ‘conditionality’ – a euphemism for profiteering, time-wasting, potentially life-sapping harassment – to working claimants when Universal Credit kicks in.

There are already warning trickles of the flood of lies that will burst forth from the Shite Mail and others, dedicated to consigning those previously known as the ‘working poor’ to the ranks of alleged scrounger-dom. However, the government is also well aware that the standard divisive rhetoric about benefits robbing The Taxpayer will be more difficult to direct against people who are actually working and paying taxes. The architects of austerity are so boldly going where no poverty profiteer has gone before.

At the sharp end
Therefore, the DWP and workfare thinktank Policy Exchange are asking for suggestions on how to widen the range of their nets to self-employed, part-time and low-paid workers. In a document with the catchy title of “Extending labour market interventions to in-work claimants – call for ideas”, the DWP requests feedback from “employers, behavioural economists, social psychologists, think tanks, welfare to work providers, academics, charities, application designers and those at the sharp end of delivering existing services”. Of course, this call-out doesn’t include those at ‘the sharp end’ of DWP schemes.

The document goes on to ask: “What ideas could we trial to best support people in work, in receipt of Universal Credit… to take positive steps to achieve financial independence, both in the Tax Credit system and when Universal Credit is introduced?”

 This seems to acknowledge that UC, particularly for working claimants, will be a longer time coming. But will the government look at steps to impose conditionality within the current working tax credit system? This doesn’t appear plausible, given that the current job descriptions of HMRC employees do not include enforcing job-search conditions. But this does need watching. If UC continues to founder, then IDS, Lord Fraud and co may indeed turn to messing with tax credits. There have already been sweeps on monitoring the 30-hour rule.

Deeply dodgy
The DWP document goes on to push the discredited Universal Jobmatch website: “Automatic job matching means the system works 24/7 to find jobs that fit with people’s skills set or supplement their existing employment so their CV is working for them even whilst they sleep…” So, when working claimants aren’t working, they should be divulging their private data on this deeply dodgy website.

And it adds: “Universal Jobmatch also provides information on individuals’ job search activity, including their CV and application history.” Universal Jobmatch is not compulsory now, however, And even if signing up is made compulsory in the future, claimants will still be able to refuse the DWP access to their account, and refuse cookies that will enable snoopers to follow their activity. Anti-tracking sofware will foil snoopers too. Meanwhile, those who are already getting pressure to sign up for Universal Jobmatch can find more information here and here.

The DWP call for ideas will run until 25 March 2013. It asks that people submit ideas to: uc.newapproaches@dwp.gsi.gov.uk Though the Policy Exchange call for ideas has officially closed, it invited comments ‘on a personal basis’ for Matthew Oakley at matthew.oakley@policyexchange.org.uk

So Mr Oakley may continue to be open to more informal comments at this email address.

Suggestions, they want? We’ll give them suggestions. Let ’em have it!