Hard Times

Throughout September I stood on street corners in Peckham and handed out flyers for the Peckham Fun Palace.  Well I tried to.  The first set of flyers were designed to encourage people to come forward with ideas and suggestions, or just enthusiasm, to take part in the making of the Fun Palace, later on and nearer the date I had flyers with things that people could come to – a choir, a monster workshop, a flash-fry-Frankenstein.  Everything was free.  It was also supposed to be fun.  But for some reason the idea of ‘free fun’ or ‘free fun event’ or ‘Peckham Fun Palace’ seemed like anything but fun to the people of Peckham as they laboured along burdened by shopping, kids or just a scowl.  I mean, of course, some people did take the leaflet, some people even smiled and said thank you.  Some people even came.  But it puzzled me that so many people would reject something that was free, easy (no registration or logging in, just turn up on the day) and could provide either them or their kids with two hours free entertainment.

So I’ve been thinking about that for quite a while now.  And I think what it is, is that people are thinking ‘Life is Hard’.  And if you think life is hard, then it probably is, for you.  That is not to say that the people I’m talking about are self-deluded millionaires who worry about Waitrose dropping their favourite flavour of crisps.  Life is probably not easy for these people, like it isn’t easy for you and me, they have to work, they have to pay their bills, money is tight – for some just for the necessities, for others saving for something special.  Anyone with kids and no ‘staff’ to help them look after them is going to be working hard, one way or another.  But if you keep thinking to yourself ‘life is hard’, ‘my life is so hard’, it creeps into your attitude to everything.  So you look at me, handing out my little postcards and you think ‘I don’t have time, I don’t want to deal with anything else, I can’t be bothered with that.  Are you crazy woman? that you think I have time for ‘fun’!’ and maybe you just turn your head away, or shake it, or even tut as you go by.  If you do take the card (because it’s easier than not and maybe you sympathise with me and my ‘hard life’ standing there in the rain) you look at it and think, ‘oh maybe, if only I had the time, if only I had the energy, if only my life wasn’t so demanding and exhausting I’d actually do this, I could do with some fun, but….’  So one way or another, that hard life of yours is actually stopping you from doing something that might make it a bit less hard.

I don’t mean just fun things, but other stuff too, because you don’t want to take on any more ‘burdens’ you don’t volunteer for things, you aren’t active in your community, you don’t protest, maybe you don’t even vote, you don’t complain until you really, really have to.  If more and more people retreat into their hard life shells, then it will all get harder for everyone.  Instead of seeing an opportunity to work together to make things better, people are staying clear of each other for fear of being dragged into something that will add to their work load or their financial commitments.  But maybe it only takes a few people to step outside of that hard life shell to make a difference?

In his track ‘Hard Times’ Plan B has this to say:

Through these hard times people see what it’s like for the poor

Through these hard times people really find out what it’s like to be ignored
Through these hard times people just don’t seem to give a damn, oh oh no
Through these hard times it really feels like no one understands, mm mm yeah yeah

To a certain extent I think more people now do see and understand what it is like for the poor.  The “squeezed middle”, may not be living in a damp, overpriced, bedsit living off value beans, but they are beginning to understand what financial insecurity feels like, what working harder for less feels like, what ‘hard life’ feels like.  And yes it does seem like people don’t give a damn.  And certainly politicians will have to search their memory banks to remember what it feels like.  And most of the cabinet and most of those on the other front bench haven’t got a clue (although I daresay some of them do think their lives are hard) and some of them also don’t give a damn.

In my own little world I divide people up into ‘people who give a damn’ and ‘people who don’t’.  There are some people who will take an active part in society, regardless of whether it brings them any direct benefit, because they care about the whole, not just themselves.  They are the people who will start an action group, go on a march, sign a petition, create an event, raise money for charity, volunteer, vote, do stuff that helps make the world a better place (even if it’s just picking up litter from a communal square).  Other people want it done for them. They might not articulate it like that, but effectively, they want a nicer world, but they either don’t think it is achievable (so why bother to try) or don’t think they have the capacity to do anything extra (hard life) to make a difference.

Despite the lip-service that is ‘Big Society’ the austerity propaganda of the Government, actually reinforces the idea of ‘hard life’ of belt tightening, hard times, financial insecurity, and that creates a climate of paranoia about the future and that promotes hard life thinking.  Far from believing that we are ‘all in this together’ hard life thinking makes us more concerned to protect ourselves and our own and less inclined to offer help out to strangers or the world in general.  It fuels the kind of paranoia that allows far right parties such as UKIP to gain a toe-hold.  Their simplistic policies are easily understood and provide no intellectual challenges or equivocations, their subliminal message is ‘we will protect you and your interest from all threats’.  Not un-surprisingly they appeal to the struggling workers who despite employment still find themselves on the borders of, or in poverty (8 million adults live in poverty in the UK, but officially only 2 million are unemployed – putting 6 million in jobs that don’t pay enough to lift them out of poverty).  Not understanding how that might feel, the other parties continue to bicker amongst themselves and rely on ad-men and pollsters to try and work out what might appeal to voters, usually resulting in unconvincing gloss over small changes in policy details, rather than anything that will make a difference than anyone can understand.  So maybe if we are to counter UKIP and its encroachments we need some positive propositions – how we can ‘all be in it together’, how being poor is not unalterably a bad thing, and being rich a good thing.  Yes we need roofs over our heads and enough to eat, but there is so much more we could have with that that doesn’t need to cost a thing – the c.60,000 people who attended 139 Fun Palaces over the weekend of 4/5 October found that out – free fun – how about that!  And many of the Fun Palaces, like the one in Peckham, cost very little to put on and make – maybe £100 for some flyers and supplies, but most run on voluntary effort, volunteered and shared resources and spaces.

So how do we get round this, how do we change our state of mind from ‘hard life’ to ‘good life’ without changing our actual circumstances?  Well to quote Sam Kogan ‘we think what we want to think’ so we could just think about it differently.  It isn’t always easy to do that, and even with an effort of will, the small obstacles that life throws up can easily dump us back into our hard life thinking.

But here is an example from my own life.  In June I got made redundant from my part-time job.  The job that paid the rent and the bills.  I still had another freelance job – but it wasn’t going to keep me afloat.  Just before I got made redundant a friend had approached me with some freelance work and that would keep me going for a bit too.  I figured with my pay and redundancy money (not much, about two month’s wages), and some savings, and the freelance job, I could probably keep going till November.  So I decided I would only apply for jobs I really wanted to do.  I decided that I wasn’t going to panic until the money actually ran out.  I still had the occasional panic (of course), but I reminded myself that things had been worse in the past, in fact my financial situation had often been worse when I was in full unemployment and with a good salary.  I had to keep reminding my friends (who were practically coming round with casseroles) that I had been made redundant not bankrupt and that the two were not inextricably linked.  In fact I hated my job and was trying to leave anyway, as soon as I got over the shock of being told I was being made redundant I felt like an enormous burden had been lifted.  In the months since, when I’ve begun to think those ‘hard life’ thoughts again I’ve just had to remind myself ‘at least I’m not working at xxx anymore!’ and that is often enough to put me back on track.

Whilst I was trying to pull together the Peckham Fun Palace I had a lot of ups and downs, as the time neared for the actual weekend, I got more and more apprehensive, things seemed to fall apart a bit in terms of arrangements and I definitely got sucked back into ‘hard life’ thinking.  But was it really so hard?  I had several happy volunteers to help me on the day.  People did turn up for at least part of it.  They enjoyed themselves.  I enjoyed helping them make monsters.  But dragging a shopping trolley full of paint and a wheely suitcase full of other stuff back in the rain on the Sunday evening I felt miserable.  But really I was just tired and hormonal (PMT) and I needed to get over myself and not wallow in a rut of hard times.

Because what I have found, since becoming poorer, by losing my job, is that I’ve actually got richer.  I have time to do things that make me happy.  Time to do more of the things I enjoy and care about; working on What Next? Southwark, making a Fun Palace, writing, painting, teaching a friend to draw, dog-sitting and walking, acting, reading, getting involved.  So far I haven’t run out of money, and of course I save money because so much of the stuff I’m doing is either free or costs little.  I don’t need to self-medicate with lunches from Pret and a treat for dinner when I get home.  I don’t need to go shopping for clothes and shoes I don’t need because I need to feel that working for money has to have a point to it, if I hate the work itself.  The money I’m earning now comes from things I do care about, things I do want to be involved in and do.  The people I’m working with respect me and treat me like an equal and a colleague not a minion, so I don’t need to bolster my self esteem by enhancing my appearance, I can just be me (and it turns out I’m very cheap to run if I’m just myself!).

So I’m staying in this moment, and living like this is going to be my life. I’m not thinking, what if the future is bleak, what if I die old and poor, what if…. Because I’m not a clairvoyant and I can’t see all the details of my future so I’m not going to worry about the details of my future.  I think if I make an effort now to make the world I live in a better place, if I make an effort now to live in a more sustainable way and work with people who are trying to make governments understand what needs to be done to sustain the planet and sustain the people on it, then by the time the future comes round maybe it will be the better future I’ve made, rather than one I can imagine from the fixed point of now.

So here’s another little song lyric from one of my favourite albums – The Harrow and the Harvest – it’s from a track called ‘Hard Times’ by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

“Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”

So there you have it: hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.  Give it a go.

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3 Responses to Hard Times

  1. barjennings says:

    Great post, Deb. Really thoughtful and interesting. You’re so right about people getting caught in their “stories”, and then not having the energy, or the vision, or the will to break out. I’ve found that if I’m caught in my own ” hard life” story (as if I have a hard life!!), it’s always human interaction which pulls me back and makes me more open and appreciative, so it’s doubly sad that people didn’t want to take the leaflets and exchange a smile. As they say, pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional

  2. TVClaw says:

    Reblogged this on tvclaw and commented:
    A very thoughtful essay on what life is like in hard times. And how to make a difference. From the always interesting and interested Deborah Mason.

  3. Pingback: Aspiration, poverty & art | debdavemasondotcom

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