Friday, 22 May 2015

From the Salt Mine to the Treacle Well

Yesterday was a very fine day. Nippy at first, as I set off for the labour camp at half past seven, but then bright, and gloriously blue. It was partly the rather insipid poetry-and-espionage blue of Cambridge, and none the darker blue of this fair city's older university, which would have presaged the sort of weather I like even more, but a real sky blue, the sort you wish you could grasp in your hands and bundle into a pocket to fling into mundane spaces like a bathroom or a bedroom, and make them glorious. What could be more mundane than the walk to Maximus? and yet even that was made glorious by those magnificent skies.

I'm not sure if most people have heard of Maximus. It's the outfit the Jobcentre sends the no-hopers to, if they've been on the books over a year. It's a private, profitable, company, run by Americans. I believe they are soon to take the "fitness for work" testing over from the unlovely Atos, and they can hardly do a worst job than that barbaric shower, but being American rather than French, I imagine they'll ask the taxpayer for double the profit.

You are promised all sorts of things at the Jobcentre - and also when you are farmed out to Maximus. Your minder is called a "work coach", which is marvellous, as they seem to have comfortable jobs doing very little at all, and I wouldn't mind being coached as to how to get a slice of that inaction. But it doesn't seem to work that way. Or at all. Years ago, when I signed on as a student in the summer holidays (long since disallowed as it makes the summer unemployment figures look bad, when migrant farm worker should be making them look good) you queued up for quite a while sometimes, and were seen for about two minutes by someone who didn't usually look at you, certainly didn't use your name, told you to sign, and you went away. Now, you can have ages and ages of chatter. And then you sign and go away. In a year, my minders have found me precisely two jobs to apply for - I duly did, no joy. I've gone on every course recommended, asked for courses that aren't available (publishing, for instance, or a computer course which doesn't start from scratch). I've asked them to write to my bishop for me, but they didn't fancy that. My new Maximus minder saw that I was drawn to work in the universities and suggested that I might apply to be a porter. It would have required a handsome helping of humble pie, but I might have done it, except that it didn't pay enough.

There is a holy grail in my search, which is work that pays £18,600 a year. This is the price at which the Home Office permits you to be married to a foreign citizen. If you earn less, your right to marry - and to live and work and get on with things - is curtailed. I strongly doubt that this is legal under the Equalities and Human Rights Acts (both English laws, nothing to do with Europe) but those who could afford to bring a case, don't need to, and those who need to, can't afford to. Nifty that.

They are generally polite and respectful. At the Jobcentre the man I see to sign on each fortnight is a niggardly little fellow with big glasses, a moustache, and a tendency to talk over me which has brought me to the brink of an official complaint. But he is the exception. They are nice people. They mean the best for everyone - and they have targets to encourage everyone to do their best too. But actually, they do nothing. There is nothing they can do. They can't make employers employ people who don't look like a good bet. There was talk in the papers a while ago about "guaranteeing" interviews for the longer-term unemployed, but I hear nothing of it now. I'm rather good at interviews, it's my paperwork that lets me down. Who wants to work with a middle-aged, sacked, vicar (probably a child molester) with a history of depression? And there's no disguising all that, short of telling lies. One of my minders saw a job for a Humanist Minister - "you could do that", she said with an encouraging smile (because in a way, so I could, but) "I'm an Anglican priest, I am the antithesis of a humanist minister". "Oh". I doubt she had any more clue what an antithesis is, than a humanist. And why should she?

The offices are huge and lavishly, modernly, furnished. They have the finest technology of which the staff have but the slenderest grasp. The Jobcentre does at least look busy, not bustling, there's no urgency about the place - not like those old two-minute days - but Maximus is a huge office, and yesterday you could have got all three staff, and both clients, comfortably in the kitchen. A family of eleven could have lived equally comfortably in the rest of the space. There are twenty computers for the striving punters to use. Only two were in use. The other punter was shouted at for not trying harder - "I'm going to break up with you if you don't find a job soon" - said the cross minder, clearly not thinking that their beautiful relationship would end anyway if he found a job, and they'd probably never meet again. I don't think any normal commercial enterprise could operate at a profit in such a huge space in George Street, in the centre of the most expensive city outside London. And there's no soap in the gentlemen's lavatory. Tea and coffee are, however, free. I don't indulge - I have a four-mile walk home, and the Maximus one is the last lavatory before the ones in Bury Knowle Park in Headington.

So, I did my duty, as we used to say when we took the dog out in the evenings, filled in application forms, sent off CVs, made enquiries, nagged the people that ignored me last week, and then left, after an hour and a half in an over-heated warehouse office, with horrible artificial lighting, and absolutely nothing going on.

Next chore was the landlord's agent in St Clement's. The lease comes up next month, and he wants another £25. That's a 3.3% increase. Last year it was the same, 3.4% then. Inflation that morning was a half-century record low of -0.1%. I suggested that the recent murder round the corner (in a car in the street, not a nice quiet domestic) might have lowered the tone sufficiently for us to be spared yet another increase, but the landlord wants to sell the block, so it's in his interests to show maximum profitability, and the agent said "if you don't want to sign, tell us when you plan to move out". Possession is indeed nine tenths of the law. Apparently he wants a million for it, which seemed a bit steep, but on reflection if six flats are forking out £9,000 a year, then £54,000 is over a 5% return, and then there's the rise in capital value too. Maybe he'll get it.

New lease duly signed and witnessed I had over three hours to fill before doing an amusing experiment at Nuffield College (for money). I wandered around Christ Church Meadow, trees and hedgerows all bursting with life, with some magnificent views across to the dreaming sandstone spires against the glorious blue skies. And then what? When you have time on your hands, everything you think will take twenty minutes, takes five. I resolved to walk along the river to Oseney, and then back through the churchyard and parish of S. Thomas Becket. But I was at Oseney Bridge in no time, still with two hours. Could I make it to Binsey and back? I hadn't been there in years. Turns out, I could.

Binsey was made famous by our (college's, university's, city's) patron saint, Frideswide. There are lots of stories about her, almost all of them made up, but this ancient Saxon church, with no light or water, is probably one of the true stories. Her well, at the West End of the church was the model for Lewis Carroll's Treacle Well. It is a very modest affair now. There's an inscription mentioning both Frideswide and Saint Margaret of Antioch, the patron of the church: a saint we know little about, and a saint we know they knew had never existed when they dedicated it to her. There was a bird's egg, and, I think, a dead mouse, at the foot of the steps. I couldn't see any water, but that's not really how wells work.

I have a deep fondness for this place as it's the first church in which I ever took a service. It was a summer evensong, when the vicar, Father Robert, was away. He lent me his cassock, the one he was ordained in (the year I was born) to give the occasion verisimilitude. Robert used to sing it, which I couldn't, but no one seemed much to mind. At the end, a man older than my grandfather said "thank you Father - oh don't mind about the the singing; I do like a parson who can pray".

Like a lot of ancient places, it's not very spectacular, but the atmosphere is the thing. It is full of tried and tested holiness. Mooching around the churchyard, I saw four graves I knew something about. One was the classics don at Christ Church who laid his head on the railway line nearby late one night until a passing train sliced it off. Binsey is a Christ Church living, and Father Robert offered to bury the suicide. For years after, Dean Heaton would ask "was it us, was it our fault?" Then there was the Hindu chemist who was loved by all and sundry and served his community for many years. Father Robert sent half the ashes off to the Ganges with his blessing, and put the other half in Binsey churchyard to popular acclaim. Olive had been churchwarden when my first ex and I lived in a little house in the graveyard of another church in the benefice at the time - S. Thomas's. John Coombes' House was so cold her sister Helen gave us a crochet blanket that had been made by one of the Sisters of S. Thomas's (the community lived from 1844 to 1955). I still have it. And then there was Father Robert's mother, described as his father's widow, but not bearing his surname. A place of ghosts, perhaps, if ghosts would have been visible on that bright blue day.

And so, back along the river, past Bossom's Boatyard ("curious name, Bossom, neither the one thing nor the other", said Winston Churchill) and on to Nuffield to be experimented upon for twenty quid in Amazon vouchers.

And so, finally up the hill four miles to home.

The only real bit of the day was by the Treacle Well. The rest was sheer absurdity, under the bright blue sky.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
May 2015


  1. A very interesting walk.
    What happens to those already married to overseas citizens when their earnings fall to below £18,600 or to those who marry,as you did, when their earnings are zero ? If you get banished to a foreign land, I hope you'll be able to maintain the blog.
    It is good to hear that what used to be called 'resettlement officers' now work in plush,modern surroundings rather than the dreary,cheerless, upstairs government offices of the nineteen sixties and seventies. At Labour Exchanges,later called 'Employment Exchanges' and then 'Jobcentres', it was usual to be interviewed on first signing-on by a clerk,and looked-at. When one called on dole day for one's money, the clerk not only looked at the signer, and asked the usual questions, but looked through the file to see if another clerk had put a card in there with a job on it. The card was handed over with the cash ( literally notes and coins. In 1967 it was £4 for a woman or single man ) and the claimant was expected then to go along to the prospective employer. No computers, no carpets, no chit-chats. I can't remember how many jobs one was allowed to turn down,but there had to be a jolly good (in their eyes ) reason. I don't know if 'Better off coming here every week, Missus' was seen as valid.
    Married men with children could get more money on the dole than working in certain occupations. When I worked at Welfare Services it drove me crackers when able-bodied unemployed blokes with more money coming in than our Welfare Officers earned wandered into reception, mistakenly thinking we were a source of hand-outs. The worse-off-in-work position is an age-old problem that governments shirked at facing between 1598 and 1983 and nobody's quite got it right yet.
    I tried signing on the dole when I was a student in my first long vac, looking for a change of workplace. I'd paid my stamps for seven years so I thought I might as well get my money's worth. They sent me back to the corporation office I'd previously worked in,where I found I'd been replaced with four men and was needed to cover for one of them.