Thanks to his father, he had a foot on the property ladder. They had bought a small flat in south east London, a modest maisonette consisting of the upper floors of a Victorian conversion. He liked it because it resembled a compact house, only minus a garden. A small sacrifice he could live with.
There had been a rush for property across the country, especially in the capital. One of his friends from university, who worked for Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank, had bought a flat a short walk away, and another friend, who worked for an American insurance company, had bought in nearby Honor Oak Park. Small flats like his own. Modest. Unpretentious. Safe. He and his friends had gravitated towards south east London for its affordability. According to those in the know, both areas were viewed as up and coming. For up and coming read down at heel. Ripe for regeneration. Ready to be gentrified.
When he viewed the flat with the estate agent, the seller, an Australian plasterer, boasted that he had removed all the original features to create a more appealing minimalist look. The owners were planning on buying another place in the marginally-cheaper neighbouring postcode. A larger place, he hoped, as they were living with the husband’s mother, who cared for their one-year-old and slept on a camp bed next to the child’s cot in the small second bedroom. He didn’t envy their life, but he did envy the money they had made on the flat, simply by being ahead of the game, of living in London before he did. That night he searched online for the masionette’s value at its previous sale. In less than ten years the owners had more than doubled their money.
He could not say with any conviction that the flat was something that he had earned, nor that he deserved. It was a product of good fortune, of his father’s hard work. He would always be forever in his debt. That he wasn’t the only one assuaged his guilt. Across the country, properties were being snapped up on the illimitable credit of the bank of mum and dad. Some received assistance with the deposit but could only cover an interest-only mortgage. His father had enough capital to be able to buy the flat outright, on the understanding that one day he would have to pay him back. There was little chance he could have saved for a deposit on his limited salary. He could barely make it through the month without going overdrawn.
The less-fortunate clung to home ownership ideal, only to see the bar raised just that bit higher each year as property values continued to go up. You could see them, noses pressed up against estate agent’s windows, a clutch of property specifications in their grasp. They had an air of fevered desperation about them, as if property ownership guaranteed freedom. They believed the maxim that an Englishman’s home is his castle. In the US, home-ownership had similarly become an integral part of the American dream of social mobility. Across the Atlantic, the subprime market had made this dream a reality by offering 95% mortgages to people who had next to no chance of keeping on top of repayments. People whose work was precarious or earned below minimum wage. Those in a far worse financial position than him.
In the lull between Christmas and New Year he and his wife watched The Big Short, the fictional dramatisation of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, which told the story of the outsiders and oddballs who had brought about the collapse of the US banking system less than a decade earlier.
Drawing upon Lewis’ heavily-ironic version of events, in The Big Short director Adam McKay zeroed in on the morally dubious and inherently corrupt practices at the heart of the US financial system. To emphasise the outsider status of the individuals who shorted the US housing market, A-listers such Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt had been carefully civilianised with ill-fitting clothes, terrible haircuts, patchy beards, awkward vocalisations and palpable weight gain.
McKay’s meta-referential approach recalled the immersive approach of Paul Greengrass, while drawing upon the self-reflexive documentary techniques of Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Adam Curtis. Characters broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Notable celebrities were inserted into the action to disrupt the narrative and explain the banking industry’s absurdly impenetrable neologisms, which seemed to have been specifically designed to confuse and bedazzle.
While the script’s acerbic humour elicited several moments of vengeful laughter, he watched the film in a state of acute agitation. His sympathies were being pulled in an uncomfortable direction. What should have been a powerful indictment of destructive hubris and corporate greed instead offered a subtle humanising of the oddball money-men behind the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The narrative actively encouraged the viewer to side with those who shorted the system, who deliberately brought it down in order to make money. As he watched the film, he found himself gritting his teeth.
Maybe it was because the cast was made up almost entirely of men. White men. Wealthy and entitled white men, male actors with an estimated combined net worth of over $200m, who were now lecturing the audience on the bad behaviour of wealthy white men. The masculine tenor of the entire enterprise gave the impression, were that impression not already well ingrained, that not only are all wealthy white men responsible for all the world’s ills, but that only wealthy white men are able to provide the much-needed emetic to a corrupt system. They did this chiefly by driving it to the point of collapse, a contradiction which the film happily ignored until its closing moments. At which point, it appeared to rediscover its moral compass.
McKay’s script deployed more than a smidgen of back-shadowing. As two young traders celebrate profiting from the oncoming collapse of the subprime housing market, their mentor, a former trader played by Brad Pitt, rounds on them. When unemployment in the US goes up one percent, 40,000 people die, he tells them. If we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. Pitt’s speech condensed the entire film’s moral premise, its righteous anger, its urgency. And its market appeal.
Listen to this, the film seemed to be saying. This is important. But it’s also funny. It’s a tragicomedy. Like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Like Pynchon or Nabokov. Like Shakespeare. These people are assholes. Greed will be their downfall. Their fatal flaw. And they made a lot of money when the corrupt practices of other assholes brought capitalism to the point of collapse. Fortunately for all concerned, capitalism survived. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be watching this right now. You’d be selling your kids for food. That’s how close to the edge we came.
Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, had produced the film. At the 2015 Oscars it picked up best original screenplay, an acknowledgement by Tinseltown of its value as a Very Important Movie. Made for $50m, it grossed just over $130m, netting a handsome profit of $80m while positioning actual economic catastrophe as profitable entertainment.
Making movies is big business. Not as big as investment banking, but still pretty fucking big.
Too big to fail, at least.
Everyone knows the story. How there had been rumblings for some time about soaring property prices and unsustainable levels of personal debt. These were nothing new. It was party time on Wall Street and there was always some jackass out to spoil everyone else’s fun. All that mattered was that the people in charge, the architects of the system, the wealthy white men like Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, believed that the system was strong. And, in turn, the politicians and the media and the people, believed them. Until it was too late.
For two decades, anyone with a scrap of capital had been investing it in property. By contrast, individuals and institutions with serious amounts of capital invested in derivatives. Those without capital were encouraged to borrow. When property prices soared, more credit was made available to those on low incomes. The difference now was that loans that were not going to be repaid were propping up the system. Eye-watering levels of personal, institutional and national debt became acceptable within a booming economy. So long as the economy continued to boom and borrowers could meet their monthly repayments, there was nothing to worry about.
It was less of question of if, but when.
No one saw the crash coming because they were too busy making money. Few realised how important, how pervasive and how potentially destructive unregulated financialisation had become within the global economy. No one outside of the banks had even heard of mortgage-backed financial securities and collateralized debt obligations. The sub-prime mortgage crisis didn’t exist yet because few expected the US housing bubble to burst. Aside from a few voices of caution, barely anyone knew that there even was a bubble. A phenomenon which crippled the US economy, stymied the flow of capital within the global banking system and triggered a deep worldwide recession, was impossible to imagine. Before the end of the decade, it was all anyone could talk about.
The contagion spread quickly. Each month brought more bad news from the global financial markets. Crashing share prices. Bankruptcies and bailouts. Every week another story about a failing institution in the US or Europe. First, Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America, who latterly bought Merrill Lynch. Bear Stearns was bought by JP Morgan Chase. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out for $200bn. Across the US, scores of smaller banks failed when mortgage defaults shot up. And this was just the beginning, the blown scrap of paper that heralds a hurricane.
In August 2007, the British bank Northern Rock, heavily reliant on borrowing from the international money markets to fund its lending, was unable to repay its loans when the market for securitised mortgages evaporated. Spooked by scaremongering reports in the news, across the country depositors began arriving at their local branch of Northern Rock to withdraw their savings, causing the first run on a British bank for almost two centuries. The bank was bailed out by the Government with taxpayers’ money. It wouldn’t be the last.
By late 2008 it was the turn of American International Group (AIG), the insurance broker, and Lehman Brothers, the fourth largest American bank. Both had been caught out by their over-exposure to the market for credit default swaps, a market established by Christian Bale’s character, Dr Michael Burry, in The Big Short. The US Treasury bailed out AIG for $180bn. With its ties to millions of Americans pensions and insurance policies, in addition to its interests in the Eurozone, AIG was deemed by Hank Paulson to be too big to fail.
There remained the problem of Lehman. Paulson and his team decided an example had to be made. When the British government blocked the sale of Lehman Brothers to Barclays, the US Treasury - run by former Goldman execs - forced Lehman’s CEO Dick Fuld to announce its bankruptcy.
Lehman had a large office in London for its investment and equities teams. Under UK law, once the firm went bankrupt its employees were expected to leave immediately. That morning, thousands of employees streamed from Lehman’s office in Canary Wharf, carrying the contents of their desk while the world’s press milled around them, asking them questions, probing for insights, querying where it all went wrong. Some paused to give a quote. Most scuttled into the underground like worker ants returning to their nest.
His friend from university, who had diligent attended the milk round events in their final year, who who worked at Lehman for ten years, and worked his way up to Vice President, who had bought a property and married a year earlier, lost his job. But his friend was lucky. When Nomura took over Lehman’s investment banking and equities business, they retained him to help oversee the transition. Others weren’t so fortunate.
A few months later, the Royal Bank of Scotland, an institution whose imperialist ambitions under the ruthless stewardship of Sir Fred Goodwin had briefly become the largest bank in the world, was bankrupt. Sir Fred’s nickname as chief executive had been Fred the Shred due to his ruthlessness in cutting waste (i.e. people), but ironically it was his surname which was most apt, a portmanteau which more concretely personified the ethos of global finance. When the financial crisis hit in 2007, RBS was already severely in debt after its aggressive and needless takeover of Dutch bank ABN Amro. RBS, along with Lloyds TSB and Bank of Scotland, were propped up with a capital investment of £37bn in taxpayers’ money by the UK Government.
At the Conservative Party conference of 2009, the last before the next year’s general election, the shadow chancellor George Osborne announced a manifesto pledge of public sector spending cuts totalling £7bn. This was the first part of a longer-term plan to cut £175bn of public debt, the majority of which had been spent on propping up a financial system on the point of collapse, a system which had been deregulated under the previous Conservative Government, a system whose major banks and their executives had argued for that deregulation, a system which had been allowed to grow too large and which was now, after a string of mergers and buy-outs, even bigger. And somehow, it was everyone else’s fault.
We’re all in it together.
After the US housing market collapsed thousands of Americans lost their savings, pensions, retirement funds and their homes. Many thousands swelled the huge numbers of homeless living in tent encampments across the country. In The Big Short, an image of the tents flashes up for less than a second. After that it was back to the egregious wealthy white men. Because that is always the nature of the narrative. We can only begin to deal with the consequences once we are absolutely certain we know the cause.
In the wake of the financial crisis, several tell-all exposes of the financial crisis penned by former bankers were rushed into publication:
Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile (Geraint Anderson, 2008).
How I Caused the Credit Crunch (Tetsuya Ishikawa, 2009).
Gross Misconduct: My Year of Excess in the City (Venetia Thompson, 2010).
Confessions of a City Girl: The Devil’s Pinstripes (Suzana S, 2010).
At the same time, a deluge of journalistic accounts were also published:
The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It (Robert J. Shiller, 2008).
Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System from Crisis — and Themselves (Andrew Ross Sorkin, 2009).
Fools Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe (Gillian Tett, 2009).
On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System (Henry M. Paulson Jr., 2010).
The End of Wall Street (Roger Lowenstein, 2010)
All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, 2010).
13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Simon Johnson and James Kwak, 2010).
The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--and Spawned a Global Crisis (Michael W. Hudson, 2010).
Crash of the Titans: Greed, Hubris, the Fall of Merrill Lynch, and the Near-Collapse of Bank of America (Greg Farrell, 2010)
Slapped by the Invisible Hand: The Panic of 2007 (Gary B. Gorton, 2010).
Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, 2011).
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Michael Lewis, 2015).
Of these, The Big Short and Too Big to Fail both made the highly profitable leap into celluloid. Inside Job, a documentary about the financial crisis narrated by Matt Damon, which drew on a number of these books, was released in 2010. That year it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Greed is always more interesting than hunger. Greed is compelling in a way that hunger is not.
Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.
In 2010, after almost three years of economic crisis, the UK went to the polls. The Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown effectively surrendered the election one grey afternoon in Rotherham, when a microphone recorded him calling a lifelong Labour supporter, Gillian Duffy, a sort of bigoted woman. When the BBC screened footage of Brown listening to a playback of the exchange, you could pinpoint the precise moment Labour lost the election.
Throughout the campaign, David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, barely put a foot wring, but it was Nick Clegg, star of the televised debates, who presented himself as a Prime Minister in waiting. Everyone seemed to agree with Nick.
Which was why, on the morning of the election, he voted for his constituency’s Liberal Democrat candidate. He spent the evening of the 2010 general election at a private event at Tate Britain, tagging along with his chief executive and a public affairs manager colleague, supposedly networking but instead circling the fringes of the crowd, drinking the free beer and sneaking off to the gents for a line or two, until he grew bored and paranoid and headed home.
The next morning, he along with the rest of the country woke to a collective hangover and a hung parliament. Labour support had collapsed a number of constituencies, and the Conservative Party had secured the most votes and the most seats, if not enough to form a government. As leader of the third largest party, even though his party had lost seats at the election, Nick Clegg became kingmaker.
It took a week for coalition talks between the Lib Dems and the Tories to conclude. At the end of that week, Cameron and Clegg appeared in the Downing Street rose garden together, as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Politics as bromance. Cooperation as coerce. Coalition as culpability.
Welcome to the Age of Austerity. Keep calm and carry on.
We are told that things change. Times change. People change.
Change is the only constant.
Change is good. Change works. Change is right.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Markets don’t want change. They want certainty. They thrive on confidence. Without confidence, the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart.
In the current economic climate.
In straightened times, when people begin to feel the pinch, they shift priorities. Shop around. Seek out the cheapest deal. Buy online.
Our financial institutions are strong.
Property values remain high. Rents remain high. Business rates remain high. Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change.
Buy now, pay later.
High streets empty. Retail parks grow. Traditional retailers fall into administration. Small businesses close. People lose their jobs. People lose their homes.
Sale. Sale. Sale. Sale Now On. Up to 80% off everything.
Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change. Retail parks empty. Picking warehouses expand.
The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts.
Property values remain high. Rents remain high. Business rates remain high.
Britain can only spend what it can afford.
Consumer behaviour changes. Retail strategies change. Companies issue profit warnings. Reduce their exposure to market volatility.
We used to think you could spend your way out of recession.
Consolidating, retrenching, rolling back. Cutting waste. Closing stores. Expanding automation. Slashing jobs.
Ethel Austin, Phones4U, Virgin Megastore, Allied Carpets, USC, Dolcis, Borders, Birthdays, Threshers, Blacks, Habitat, Homebase, Principles, Athena, Tie Rack, Mexx, Diamonds and Pearls, Land of Leather, The Officers Club, Jane Norman, Focus DIY, Comet, Whittards of Chelsea, Maplin, MFI, Kwik Save, Music Zone, JJB Sports, Toys R Us, Poundworld, Staples, Banana Republic, Evans Cycles, Austin Reed, British Home Stores, Woolworths, HMV, Debenhams, LK Bennett, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, House of Fraser, New Look, WH Smith, Waterstones, The Works, Waitrose, Jessops, John Lewis, Morrisons, Currys, PC World, Miss Selfridge, Poundland, Sainsburys, Next. Next. Next.
Store closing. Everything must go.
Times change. People change. Change is the only constant.
He knew the rest of the story. Trillions of dollars were pumped into the global financial system to prop it up. Disgraced bankers walked away with watertight pensions and billions in bonuses. After the crisis had subsided, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland closed hundreds of branches, shedding thousands of jobs. In 2016, RBS was accused of crushing small businesses by pulling loans and hiking interest rates on their properties, and making profits from the resultant fire sales. Barclays Bank was accused of rate-fixing and tax evasion. Even his beloved Co-operative Bank, with its supposedly ethical investment strategy, struggled under the weight of its debts, and its Chairman was forced to resign after caught being buying crack cocaine as part of a newspaper sting.
Plan B’s green-lighted a seven-part series based on Colson Whitehead’s slavery novel, The Underground Railroad, developed in partnership with Amazon Films. In the US and the UK, Amazon had been criticised for its low tax contributions and poor employment conditions, including low pay, use of zero hours contracts and insufficient toilet breaks for staff. In 2018, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, headed the Forbes Rich List with a net worth of $140bn.
A decade after the financial crisis, an IMF Global Stability Report warned that public and private debt had risen 60% to the record level of $182tn.
Times change. People change. Change is the only - you know the rest.
He often wondered how his life would have been had he not met his wife, had he not fallen in love with someone whose attitude to affluence matched his own, whose aspirations corresponded with his acceptance of the limitation of possibility. What if he had met someone who worked in the financial sector, if they had overreached themselves to buy a home, front-loaded their mortgage and lost their jobs, lost everything when the economy went into recession. What if he had followed his friends into a corporate graduate scheme, started at the bottom and worked his way up, find himself discussing the gaps in his CV with a recruitment consultant by the autumn of 2008.
Before they married, his girlfriend had decided that she wanted to become a librarian. A safe, salaried, middle class job. She enrolled on a part-time Masters in Library and Information Studies at City University. At the same time, she began a new job at Kings College London’s medical library, writing several essays for her Masters in the evenings or during slow Sundays at work. She was awarded a Distinction. Her Masters thesis, which consisted of original research into emerging artists and their use of information systems, was published in an academic journal. She left her job at Kings and found another job as a library assistant at a small museum in south London. During this time, she became pregnant.
When the coalition’s first round of spending cuts were announced, the museum where she worked faced a significant shortfall in funding. One of the museum’s plans early to make up this shortfall was to close the library and dispose of its collection. After being told the news by her director, his distraught wife called him at work. Worried about the effect the new would have on her pregnancy, he immediately offered to come home. She suddenly seemed to compose herself. No, she said, I’m fine, and hung up.
At first, he thought he had done something wrong, had said the wrong thing or not said enough to comfort her, but when he returned home, he found his wife had already begun formulating a plan to keep the library open. I’m not going to let them do it, she said. He had never seen her so determined about anything.
Over the coming years she reduced her hours and made savings to ensure the library would remain an integral part of the museum. She reviewed all the rare books in the library, some of which had been ignored for decades. Hidden among the library’s huge collection of books was an original book of cyanotypes by the Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, the first known publication to carry photographic illustrations, and one of only a handful in existence. Had the library closed and the museum disposed of its collection, it might have been lost.
For two days a week, on less than half her original salary, his wife got to keep her job. The library remained open as a research centre, and a place for the public to visit. As thanks for her endeavours, the museum began using the library as an informal meeting room, as a storage space for defunct or unwanted equipment from elsewhere in the museum, and from time to time as over-spill office space during renovation work. Her discovery of the rare book of Anna Atkins cyanotypes was belittled and ignored.
A few years later the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam staged a major exhibition on Atkins work, giving pride of place to its own copy of the cyanotypes.
Across the UK, other libraries became easy targets for hard decisions about local council expenditure. In less than a decade, almost 500 libraries closed. Those that remained open were volunteer run. Around 8,000 librarians lost their job. As public libraries disappeared, the job market went with them. His wife was fortunate. One of the lucky ones. She kept her job. Thousands didn’t.
Keep calm and carry on.
When people have no money, when they cannot find work or borrow any more, when their benefits are frozen, when they lose their health, they stop shopping altogether. When people have no money, when they default on their mortgage, when they lose their home. When they have nothing left.
In The Big Short, when the US financial system was bailed out by the Federal government, Mark Baum, the pugnacious fund manager played by Steve Carrell, observed: I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.
In the calm of the new year, he watched another film, I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s docudrama set in a contemporary north-east of England. Daniel Blake is a middle-aged Geordie joiner approaching retirement who is forced to stop working after suffering a heart-attack on site. Despite being passed as unfit for work by a cardiologist, he fails the Department for Work and Pensions’ work capability assessment, which stops his employment and support allowance (ESA). He appeals against the decision and begins claiming jobseekers’ allowance, whose arcane requirements and continual threats of sanction are a source of continual stress.
Blake befriends a single mother at the Jobcentre, helping her make improvements to her council flat and accompanying her to a food bank. After being caught shoplifting, she turns to prostitution to feed her family. When Blake spray-paints a protest slogan on the wall of the job centre, he is arrested and cautioned by police. In the closing scenes, while waiting in court for his appeal to be heard, he suffers a heart attack in the toilets, and dies.
He watched the film in a state of acute agitation. The script by Paul Lavery was heavy on exposition, making the dialogue seem laboured and sometimes unconvincing. Loach’s trademark cinema verité style, relying on unknown actors, now seemed old hat, and the performances lacked the effortless insouciance of Loach’s best work. It seemed to miss its mark, but when screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, I, Daniel Blake was awarded the Palme D’Or. It also won the BAFTA for Best British Film, in addition to several smaller prizes across Europe and the US. Part-funded by the British Film Institute and BBC Films, I, Daniel Blake took $15.8m in box office receipts.
In the UK, the film was criticised by some for being too political, too left-wing, too fictional. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary and architect of the system to which Blake is subjected, called it ‘unfair’. The DWP denied any causal link between work capability assessments and instances of benefits claimants dying unexpectedly or taking their own life.
In 2018, Philip Alston, a special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the age of austerity as ‘a social calamity and an economic disaster’. Since 2010, the economic policies of the coalition and Conservative governments had left 14m people, one fifth of the population, living in poverty. Of these, ten per cent were classed as destitute. Penniless. Homeless. Without hope.
He had watched I, Daniel Blake to share some of Loach’s rage, but found it didn’t make him furious enough. It made him angry, but he wanted it darker. Instead he looked at the photography of Jim Mortram. For over a decade Mortram had been photographing the community in his Norfolk town, those who were at the sharp end of cuts to welfare and social services in the age of austerity. The isolated and infirm. The homeless and bereaved. The ignored and forgotten.
The title Mortram had given to his project was Small Town Inertia. The photographs him a little of that of Paul Graham and Richard Billingham, with some Don McCullin and Nan Goldin thrown in for good measure, but had distinctive social realist vernacular of its own. It was raw, polemical, humanitarian.
He knew of Mortram’s work from following him on Twitter, but he didn’t really know the man, hadn’t met him, shook his hand and held his gaze, but he felt that he recognised the Loachian quality to his work. Mortram was angry. He could see that. The photographs bespoke his rage. They insisted on being seen, on upsetting sensibilities, resisting interpretation. They were pure and true, returning dignity to those who had seen their dignity seep away over countless years, where each day passed the same as the last, where nobody came and nobody noticed and nobody cared. The sanctions and sectionings, the squats and temporary accommodation, the estranged families and lost children. The unpalatable facts of life that I, Daniel Blake skirted around.
In February 2019, a Jeff Hayward, from Clithero, Lancashire, won a fit-for-work appeal seven months after his death. Hayward had spent the last eighteen months of his life fighting against the health assessor’s decision to refuse him ESA, and he died just two weeks before his appeal tribunal. In the same week, the Work and Pensions secretary, Amber Rudd MP, admitted that the roll-out of universal credit, the new benefits payment introduced by the coalition government in 2010, had lead to a rise in the use of foodbanks across the UK. Up 52% according to the Trussell Trust.
Life imitating art imitating life. A picture tells a thousand stories.
Small town inertia. We’re all in it together.
In the summer, quite unexpectedly, he received a wedding invitation in the post. One of his university friends, the last confirmed bachelor, was finally getting married that autumn.
Since leaving university, his friend had worked principally as a trader, a job which he was capable of but perhaps not well suited for. By his friend’s own admission, the stress of working in the financial sector had taken its toll on his personal relationships. His friend’s frustrations were not uncommon. He knew that had he entered the financial sector, his response to the job would have been much the same. Over time, his friend had succumbed to the pressures of his job. After an incident at work, he was put on gardening leave for twelve months. During this period, his friend returned to university to start a Masters.
A few months after he left his job, he met his friend for lunch at a restaurant near his home. Over steak and a mid-range Pinotage his friend told him what had happened. He seemed like a man reborn, rejuvenated and excited about the future. His friend’s old gleeful self, the self he had first encountered at university, had returned. He mentioned that he had started seeing someone, and that things were going well.
By coincidence, the weekend the happy couple had chosen for their wedding was the same weekend as his own wedding anniversary. He and his wife had been planning an anniversary trip to Amsterdam for the autumn, but being financially unable to do both, they decided to put their city break on hold.
The wedding was to be held in a converted coach house just outside Whitney, an affluent market town in Oxfordshire in the heart of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency. He and his wife booked a room at the aptly-named The Blue Boar, an upmarket pub with rooms in the town centre. If this was to be their anniversary trip, they might as well treat themselves.
On the afternoon of the flight, the first winter storm of the season swept in from the Atlantic. Approaching Bristol airport, their plane was pitched violently from side to side as it made its landing approach, the landing gear hitting the runway tarmac hard. The entire fuselage seemed to bend on impact. They disembarked in driving rain, and hastened to the car hire facility, grateful to still be in one piece.
On the day of the wedding, he arrived early with his wife and a handful of friends. The vast coach house was almost empty, save for the ushers and a couple of other guests. The ushers he knew from London, but several he hadn’t spoken to in years. For a time, they had all socialised together. When people he knew had lost their jobs during the financial crisis, he had said nothing. Secretly, he was glad. He wanted everyone in that sector to suffer. For their arrogance. Their hubris. Their assured belief in trickle down and property-owning democracy. Their lack of empathy. Their general disinterestedness.
After falling out with the groom, he had lost contact with many of them. Most worked in the finance sector, as traders, underwriters, IT consultants. As financial collapse gave way to a global credit crunch, some had lost their jobs at Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan and others. Some took lower prestige roles at small-scale start-ups or consultancies, while others switched institution. Some had cashed in on their London homes and moved to the Home Counties. All had ridden out the recession. They were doing well. Making good. Being content.
One of the ushers invited the guests to take their seats. They rounded the corner into another hall, an old stable where a string quartet was playing. He and his wife took their seats near the back. The groom entered with the best man and took their positions at the front of the room. After a short pause, a flower girl walked up the aisle. Next the bridesmaids arrived, one by one, as if teasing the groom. Finally the bride appeared, arm in arm with proud father.
The ceremony was mercifully quick, with a brief exchange of vows and a smattering of short readings. The groom’s father read a poem about a mountain that he had written in Welsh. Once the register had been signed, everyone was invited outside for the group photographs. In the press of people offering their congratulations to the bride and groom, he missed the chance to do the same.
Once seated for dinner, he took the chance to survey the familiar faces dotted around the room. Everyone looked older. It was to be expected, but it still surprised him, the changes in complexion. The men were looser round the middle, some with bald spots and greying beards. Age had lent greater elegance to the women, wedded to a faint weariness from balancing motherhood and career. There was a closeness and an equanimity within their social group that he envied, for he had never been wholly part of that group, but always slightly outside of it. All the couples had endured save for one, and the wronged half of that failed marriage, with new beau in tow, was by the time of the speeches almost insensible from drink.
This, he thought, was what Hank Paulson had meant by too big to fail. The laughter-lined faces, the clinking glasses, the tipsy and relieved mother of the groom, the proud and austere father of the bride, the confetti snagged like technicolour dandruff in the hair of the kissing couple, the three course meal and string quartet and the luxury stationary.
He wasn’t sure if this was what George Osborne meant when he said, We’re all in it together.
Listening to the speech by the best man, whose affectionate, gentle ribbing of the groom alluded to the all-too-familiar foibles of their friend, and perhaps it was the copious amounts of alcohol he had drunk by that point in proceedings, or simply fatigue, or the emotional undercurrents of the occasion, but sat at that table in the recesses of the room, it dawned on him that he had not been a particularly good friend. To the groom, but to others as well. To all those he called friends, in fact, in some way or another. Close friends and acquaintances, from his schooldays through to university and work, people he had met in London or left behind in his home town. By allowing himself to be persuaded to end friendships by others who did not have had his best interests in mind. By not keeping in touch, by permitting their expiration. By being unreliable and unpredictable.
For him, friendship was determined by how much solitude he could endure before he needed the proximity or comfort of another. It was hardly surprising that none of his friends had asked him to be their best man. Why would they? He had been a bad friend. He recognised that now.
He doubled down on his drinking, wondered if he should try to get hold of some cocaine. People were leaving their tables in twos and threes, so he knew there was some around. Instead, after being struck with hiccups, he staggered outside. Frost was forming on the grass of the ornamental garden. The moon cut a sickle in the night sky. Cursing, he paced back and forth. Clenched his fists. Held his breath. Slapped himself in the face. Eventually, the hiccups passed.
His wife appeared at his side. When they returned to the party, the covers band had kicked into Uptown Funk, and the ushers were bouncing the groom in the air, like a five-a-side team whose hapless striker had finally ended his goal drought.
He woke the next morning with acute stomach cramps. After his wife went down for breakfast he walked into the bathroom and put his fingers down his throat. Feeling better, he showered and followed her downstairs to chew morbidly on a croissant and sip sweet tea.
There was some activity out on the street. Then he remembered it was Remembrance Sunday. The centenary celebrations for Armistice Day. One hundred years since the end of the Great War. Across the country, town centres and city squares had been swept and polished like barracks prepped for inspection, ready for the respectfully sombre gathering crowds. The market town where they were staying had already been festooned with commemorative poppy displays. Now the roads were being closed for the big parade. Members of the British Legion were milling around in uniform, medals proudly on display. Baby-faced cadets circulated among them, looking hopeful, poppies pinned where one day medals might be.
As his wife pulled away from the Blue Boar to begin their journey back home, the roads were virtually empty. He had been tempted to watch the wreath laying ceremony, but he felt like shit, and that shitty feeling superseded any good intentions about paying his respects. They had a plane to catch. A home to return to. Children to collect. Instead, they spent the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month listening to the satellite navigation system urging them to keep straight ahead.