Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A Pair of Phenomenal Women

This week's blog delves into the recesses of my CV to celebrate two extraordinary women - both now deceased - with whom I had the privilege of being professionally associated. 


Image by Celine Marchbank; Tulip documents her mother's demise.

Sue Miles died back in 2010, aged 66. Not only did she have lung cancer, apparently, but also a brain tumour. How very Sue, to have a second fatal illness as back up, in case the cancer was taking too long.

Leslie Kenton died unexpectedly, but peacefully in her sleep, aged 75, at her home in New Zealand on 13th November last year, of 'natural causes,' appropriately. She was all about natural causes, not to mention effects, was Leslie, with whom I collaborated on a Juice book in 1996.

Sue Miles was a proper caffiene addict: her skin was coffee-tinged. She was the first person I ever met - I struggle to think of the second - who had an espresso machine plumbed into her domestic kitchen. Because she couldn't be forever refilling a reservoir, or farting about with stove top coffee pots. Sue needed her drug of choice to be on tap.

My association with Leslie bought me limited cred. with the raw foodies because of Raw Energy, the truly seminal bestseller that she published with her daughter, Susannah, in 1984, which advocated a 75% raw diet. Still, when I visited Leslie's cottage on the Pembroke coast a decade later to work on our project, the raw food lady served me sausages.

Imagine Sue & Leslie encountering each other, perhaps at some fabulous party in the Seventies, while Leslie was re-inventing Health & Beauty writing in terms of diet & lifestyle in Harpers & Queen magazine and Sue was Time Out's first restaurant critic. Both had residual American accents and alcoholic fathers. Sue's dad was US correspondent for the Daily Mirror and she grew up in Hollywood. Leslie's father was Stan Kenton, the jazz pianist and band leader, who sexually abused her.

On the wall of the loo at Sue's house in Camden was a letter from Albert Goldman, scurrilous and profane biographer of Elvis, fishing for gossip, re:Lennon. Her ex, Pearce Marchbank, had told Goldman that it was actually Sue who had introduced John to Yoko. Did she wish to tell him about it and, if so, could she give him a sign? "Yeah, I'll give you a fucking sign, buddy!" cackled Sue, making the universal FU gesture.

With her first husband, Barry Miles, Sue had run the gallery where Yoko met John and had generally hung out at the groovy, swirling epicentre of swinging London before getting into cookery. As one does. Aged 19 and new in London, through a mutual friend, I got a job washing up in her kitchen at L'Escargot from its opening night in June 1981. Word was, Sue had talked a callow young Commodities Broker, Nick Lander, into buying the gaff!

My favourite Sue story is the one when Alastair cut his finger off. Alastair Little, Sue's co-Chef, was accident prone. One hot night he stood on the hoist to open the heavy trapdoor in the Greek Street pavement, which swung back on its counterbalance and severed the tip of his finger. I was delegated to phone Sue at home, asking her to come in and cover for him. "That bastard," said Sue with characteristic tact and diplomacy, "he's done this deliberately to spoil my night off!"

I met Leslie on the phone early in 1994, when I wrote a weekly 'food gossip column', Gastropod. When some re-packagings of her books were re-marketed in January, I took the chance to tell her that she was a heroine of wagamama where, I informed her, there was a 'Raw Energy' section on the menu. "Actually," she told me when we eventually sat opposite each other at wagamama, "that phrase is my trade mark."

At Glastonbury Festival in 1995, I implemented a juice bar, a pretty radical proposition, which sufficiently impressed Leslie to bring me in as her co-writer on Juice High. I spent a weekend at her Pembrokeshire place planning it and we went on a short tour together to promote it, when published in the Summer of '96. Our Manchester appearance was cancelled by the IRA.

Before Leslie moved down under, we had lost touch. Sue, I introduced to Emily Green, but I rarely saw her; then, not at all. Though hardly friends for life, both these women deeply impressed me. It was my pleasure to have worked with them.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Start Working For Free

Freelance writer sites are wrong.

My Universal Credit work coach suggested I pitch for writing jobs online, via Fiverr, 'the world's largest freelance services marketplace for lean entrepreneurs.' The reason they are so lean, I suppose, is because they can't afford to eat. Minimum payment for any job - or 'gig' - is only $5 and Fiverr takes 20% commission - one of those five bucks.

As Fiverr is a global marketplace, one competes with people in far-flung corners of the former British Empire, who are not so much lean as downright skinny. Still, their written English is OK and they are willing to work for next to nothing. Talking of which, some online hucksters suggest the easiest way money may be made, selling digital services through Fiverr, is by outsourcing the actual work via SEO Clerks.

Fiverr is like a brothel: sellers flaunt their wares - or 'gigs' - for buyers to choose. In order to catch the eye of a horny john, however, a whore needs a decent ranking. "So," comments my UC work coach, "you work cheaply at first, to build  a reputation." It is not so simple to get one's first gigs, though. A Top Tip for new sellers on Fiverr, unofficially, is to ask friends to pretend to buy your services and then leave glowing reviews. If you don't have friends, set up bogus accounts.

Appalled by the amorality of  Fiverr, I looked at Upwork, where freelancers bid on jobs posted by prospective clients. For instances: 'The rate is 1.5$ per 100 words you write'; 'Total pay for the two 1000 word articles is $5'; '$2.40 per 400 word article.' Crumbs! I asked on the popular Facebook page, Stop Working For Free, 'Can anyone suggest UK-based freelancer sites that may offer more realistic rates?'

The answer was an emphatic, NO: 'Freelancer sites, in my experience, all suck,' said one. 'Stay away from the freelance writing sites. Please,' beseeched another. 'They don't pay more than peanuts and they never will.'

Thing is, as any fool knows, only monkeys work for peanuts: 'I need native English writers - $13/1000 words. Please note that we have very high editorial standards compared to most other blogs. Article must be 100% original. This is a ghostwriting position and I will retain all rights to the work.' Buddy, if you expect to pay me £8.50, net, to craft 1,000 words, how high can your editorial standards really be?
On Twitter, the Writing Gigs feed offers, 'an opportunity for those who have writing skills and want to make up to $79 per hour... We have unlimited work load and you can work at home remotely, part time or full time.' It's URL defaults to a 'job application' form that lets one choose how much one wants to be paid for however many hours one is disposed to work. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?

Completion of the form leads to,, which hosts a very persuasive video, enticing wannabe writers, irrespective of experience, to sign up for as much well-paid work as they can handle. 'Now Available In: England. With 16221 Facebook Fans'. All you have to do is pay £27.50 (equivalent) to access their 'dashboard'.

'The intro, 'are you ready to make $2000 to $10K just by writing from the comfort of your own home,' was enough to know it's a scam,' was one comment on the absolutewrite forum. 'It certainly has all the hallmarks of a scam: hard sell; limited opportunities countdown; offers lots of money really quickly,' said another. 'I sat through the really long hard sell video so you don't have to,' said a third. 'Save your $34.00,' was the consensus advice. In fact, you'll save more than that if this iteration of the scam is exactly like it's predecessor, Real Writing Jobs!

Earning real money writing from home - or anywhere, on my laptop! - remains an implausible dream. Still, while there's evidently no shortage of budding writers, how many can write engagingly? Similarly, there's plenty of prospective clients, but where are those who recognise quality and are prepared to pay for it? Not at, that's for sure: 'No actual jobs at this site. Use Upwork instead because it is free, you can filter out the dross, and they have 1,000s real jobs that you must be qualified for.' I hear that!

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Playing Property Roulette

Pullens, 10.06.86, when voting Labour may have made a difference.

Likesay, I own my home. I exercised my right to buy my council flat at the turn of the Millennium, when Blair's government first capped the discount to long term tenants. Word went around our Pullens Buildings, Victorian tenements near the Elephant & Castle, to act now or forever lose the chance to betray one's principles. I duly qualified for the full 70% discount, thank you VERY much.

Our buildings were saved from demolition by squatters, following a legendary battle vs. bailiffs backed by cops in the Summer of '86, but now we're a Heritage Conservation area. South Wark recently valued my place at £430,000, but the more desirable flats regularly achieve £480+. I saw a Facebook post from two years ago, when the record stood at £365,000. Our flats have been earning leaseholders, like me, a grand a week!

According to one analysis, I should thank Thatcher for making me rich by bringing in the right to buy. I'm not going to apologise for having taken advantage of the circs. as they presented themselves, but I did not buy into the Tory mindset. Never say never, but I have yet to leverage the equity in my home to become another blooming property developer.

I have exploited my capital asset by travelling on its rental income. In late 2010, I found a reliable tenant and went to India for six months. Only I neglected to take out travel insurance and came home in four months, badly mangled, with bits blown off. It is quite a tale. Being able to recuperate in my very own home, surrounded by good neighbours, some of whom I've known for decades, has been a major factor in my recovery.

I've considered moving, but continue to live in my over-valued gaff because I like it here, #SarfLDN. The people are more tolerant, I speak their language, and the food is better. Besides, whatever my mission might be, I suspect that it's specific to this location. I'm not selling up because, if I had the money, I should like to buy a nice flat of my own, like the one in which I currently reside. I do not wish to re-mortgage to buy another flat, somewhere cheaper, and don't even talk to me about AirBnB!

Peoples' memories are short. Few remember the last significant property crash, 25 years ago. In London, the 2008 shenanigans arrested market growth for a couple of years, but the madness soon resumed. In South Wark, the Labour-led Council that was elected in 2010 initiated a massive programme of urban renewal that involved the social cleansing of local estates. Rents in the new developments, even those that are supposedly 'affordable', are sky high and there are next to no new 'social rents' (i.e.: Council flats).

The reason I got my gaff valued is because I face a bill for £13,117.27 (including fees of £375). The Council will lend me the money to pay its bill, secured against 3.05% of the equity in my flat; the interest is determined the amount its value increases before it is sold. However, although hardly anyone seems to believe it, even London property prices may tumble. By exercising the 'equity loan' option to pay this bill, I have entered into a game of property roulette with South Wark, praying for a  crash.

Housing is such a massive problem in London because of the stinking thinking that surrounds it. More than a place to live, one's flat is an investment vehicle or a rung on some notional ladder. That's why the Elephant is being filled with residential towers that locals cannot afford to live in. Still, that situation can quickly turn around. Most of those new flats have been bought off plan by foreign speculators, who expect to see a profit before they pay the balance. When the market stalls, they will write off their deposits and precipitate an avalanche.

Maybe I'm mad, but I am playing a long game, gambling that by the time I come to repay South Wark, the loan will be worth considerably less than the sum I borrowed. If I'm wrong, 3.05% is not a bad interest rate. It may be that London property continues to defy the laws of nature indefinitely, but I've been forecasting an imminent collapse for years, now. Surely I can't go on being wrong forever?

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Not My South Wark

#NotMySouthWark dot guv.

I am much better off than most people - never mind most Universal Credit claimants - because I own a flat in Central London. The unseen assessors who administrate UC can't seem to get their heads around it. Three times, I've been asked at the Job Centre about my residential status. Why have I not applied for help with housing costs? It is because I am a mortgage-paid leaseholder, thank you VERY much.

As such, I don't have to worry about paying the rent, which I am glad about, since that's the biggest glitch in the system. I do, however, pay service charges, including an extraordinary one of £13K+. I'm sure your heart bleeds for me. As I pointed out to a former neighbour and ex-squatter who now lives as a rentier in some rural idyll, her bill for the external renovations will be less than a year's rental income at market rates.

I might be blamed for the lack of affordable housing, because I legally stole my Council flat. I would have to plead guilty, although I am not ashamed. Still, I would argue, the true culprit is Southwark Council, which is engaged upon a programme of urban regeneration, creating a new quartier, 'South Central London', based around a 'skyscraper cluster' at the Elephant & Castle.

Within weeks of taking office in 2010, the new Council Leader, a barrister called Peter John, cut a deal with the lead developer, LendLease. Not only were they sold a large tract of Central London, then occupied by the Heygate Estate, at a knock-down price, but Southwark also agreed to clear out the riff raff before demolition could commence. Basically, they gave it away. Peter John was rewarded for his perfidy with a junket to Cannes and an OBE from the Tory Governbent.

In 2009, the Council moved from the old Town Hall in Camberwell towards the City, to its shiny new office block at 160 Tooley Street. It bought the building in 2012 and then flogged off the old Town Hall to be turned into a Groovy Centre. Somewhere along the line, Southwark ceased to be a representative community organisation and went comic book corporate: it turned into South Wark.

The new idiocy was confirmed on TV when South Wark CEO, Eleanor Kelly, featured in an episode of the Channel 4 series Undercover Boss. She revealed that, although she is paid close to £200,000 per annum to run our borough, she sees herself primarily as the mother of a handicapped teenage daughter. Another highly important ancillary job, apparently, is to appear in promotional videos for LendLease.

In 2013, South Wark responded to central government spending cuts by insisting that even the poorest people in the borough must pay Council Tax. One may claim a reduction via their clunky 'MySouthwark' web site. The man who put his name to the demand is one of those plutocratic Local Authority officers listed on the annual Town Hall Rich List as earning over £150,000. I wrote and asked him to justify this new feudalism. He did not reply.

My other household expense, the Service Charge, is estimated at the beginning of each year and eventually balanced with a further payment. However, due to institutional incompetence, South Wark can't keep track of these extra payments. With predictable monotony, it spits out threatening letters about imaginary arrears.

Following the latest erroneous missive, I wrote to the Collecting Officer, informing him that I would henceforth levy my own administrative charge of £50 for each unnecessary response. He wrote back, saying the error was with me. I replied, correcting him and attaching the first invoice. He said, 'The Council does not agree with you that you can invoice it for responding to an email which was a response to a correspondence received from you clarifying the Council’s position with what happened to your payments.'

He also said, 'I clearly advised in my email the reason behind your payments being misallocated was your error and not the Council’s and that the issue has now been rectified.' I suggested that, if the error was with me, he should ultimately be able to explain to the Judge how 'you were able to remedy it at your end without me doing anything other than advise you of it?' I added another £50 to the bill and updated the invoice to £100. There has been no further response.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

I, Daniel Blake Too

#WeAreAllDanielBlake - "I am Spartacus and he is a mad Scotch bloke!"

Asked if I've seen that Len Loach film, I quip that I am living it. Besides, I don't have spare cash for the cinema. Still, one can now watch it online for free, so I did.

The film accurately portrays the workings of a system that's compartmentalised, so decision makers have no interaction with those whose cases they adjudicate. They have no discretion, only data in the form of ticked boxes. At a work capability assessment, I'm asked, "can you walk a hundred metres unaided." My answer is, "yes, but..." But there is no space on the form for, 'but,' so no mobility allowance for yours truly.

It's also deadly in their pass/agg. use of scrupulously polite language. They refer to you as, 'Mr,' while talking to you as if you're a child. As his neighbour, China, tells him, "Dan, they will fuck you around, I'm warning you. Make it as miserable as possible. No accident: that's the plan. I know dozens who have just given up."

Daniel is a carpenter, the kind of tradesman I admired while working with my hands, but "dyslexic when it comes to computers." I am fairly literate, if not quite a code wrangler. I did learn .html, twenty years ago, in order to compose rudimentary web pages like those that survive in Pot Culture and my archived food blog, Gastropod. But when web design moved on, to forms and php, I did not follow. Instead, I mostly did manual jobs which left my mind free for other considerations. I did not anticipate being maimed.

Daniel scored 12 in his assessment, three short of qualification. I scored zero in early 2013, meaning that there's absolutely no physical impediment to my working full time, despite losing my left hand less than two years previously. I still have the right one, after all. I can sit at a desk, even if I can't stand on my reconstructed foot for too long. My benefits advisor, bless him, suggested that I appeal. Naively, I told him I couldn't see the point. It's not as though the discrepancy in my case was marginal.

"In that case," he told me, "our conversation is over and you'll be meeting my colleague, who administrates the JSA." Our convo. had reached the point where we had agreed that I should refresh my qualifications, perhaps as a proofreader. I had identified an online course that cost a few hundred quid and might take me six weeks to complete. "Forget it," said my new advisor. "We haven't got a few hundred quid to spare, unless paid work is guaranteed, and you haven't got six weeks. You need to start applying for jobs straight away."

My dealings with these two chaps were cordial. Both are old school, around my age, with careers in the DWP that stretch back to the halcyon days of the DHSS. Neither was happy with the way things were going. "I'm not here to find you a job," the first told me, exasperated. "My task is to ensure that the incumbent Minister doesn't look too incompetent, however unworkable his new rules might seem."

More than a month after being struck off ESA, I saw him in the street. He asked how it was going. It was awful, applying for jobs as an under-qualified fifty something with a sketchy work history. "I did try to warn you," he said. "If you'd appealed, we would have had a few months to work something out. Still, perhaps you can get back on the sickness benefit on other grounds?" Such as? "You might be depressed," he suggested. "Nobody could be surprised, after all you've been through, if you were." Looking me in the eye, he added, "and nobody can prove that you're not!"

Daniel Blake describes himself as, "a sick man looking for non-existent jobs that I can't take anyway. I'm just wasting my time, the employers' time, your time. And all it does is humiliate me. Grind me down to the point where you can get my name off those computers." Hashtag, WeAreAllDanielBlake.

Spoiler alert: Daniel's heart attacks him, finally, right before his appeal is to be heard. Whatever comes or goes, that won't be my story. I may be damaged, but I am not frail. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, I am superhuman.