How Character Is Made

Rejoice! Divinity revisits the earth and all will be well! Though it may take some time.

In religion, only the divine being is infallible.

ImageThe Catholic church argues about whether the Pope is infallible or not but it would seem that we are in an era when there are several thousand infallible people and they all work for the same organisation: Job Centre Plus.

The brown envelopes with the window that shows a font from the 1970’s never bring good news but unlike many of her friends Marianne forces herself to open them as soon as they arrive. Today, a Friday, one arrived around 2pm to let her know she’d been sanctioned by the DWP and would not be getting any money for the next month. £280 is what keeps Marianne from month to month, direct debts for utilities coming out regularly (Direct debits are the cheapest way to pay bills and she avoids the prepayment cards at all costs because they are the most expensive way of paying for light and warmth.) a carefully judged and seldom varied weekly food shop and £5 for travel takes up the rest. There is no room for manoeuvre. So removing that £280 means hunger and an overdraft accruing interest.

The people at Marianne’s Job Centre are fairly helpful and she went round there with the letter to speak with one of the managers who was surprised and then, looking at her computer, became quietly angry. What had happened was that Marianne had been moved from fortnightly to weekly signing on, but the Job Centre hadn’t told her that. She’d arrived on the date arranged a fortnight after her last sign on to be told she’d missed a previous appointment and needed to sign on at the late desk, in three days time.

Marianne arrived at the time that had been written on her appointment card but the computer had a different time booked, so she sat for half an hour watching the man at the late desk 4m away from her do precisely nothing. He knew she was there and he was going to make her wait. When he called her over he had to go and get her paperwork because he hadn’t prepared for the meeting. He asked her why she hadn’t signed on, Marianne told him, he refused to believe that any one of his colleagues could make a mistake.

Two weeks later Marianne gets the letter, rings up for a bank balance and finds she’s £150 overdrawn.

The manager was instantly helpful, typing in some kind of appeal and giving Marianne the paperwork for an emergency loan. Marianne had to go to an ATM to get a printed statement to return to the Job Centre so that she could get the loan processed ASAP. A friend met her as she was rushing to the nearest ATM, asked her what the problem was and offered to lend her the money there and then. Marianne tried to ring the Job Centre to thank the manager and let her know what was happening, but got no reply.

Now, Marianne has to find £300. £210 will pay off the overdraft plus the interest, the rest will be eeked out for just over two weeks. She has no idea how she will find the money to repay her friend but it’s better to owe her the money than the Council. The person who made the decision to sanction her has done their job and I wonder if they even remember her name. Why would they?

People who are unemployed and rely on state benefits have to behave in particular ways in order to get that money. Get in, do exactly – exactly – as you’re told, be optimistic, don’t talk about any problems, comply, get out. If you need special support you have to play up every little element that might work in your favour. Hunger is your fault. Your hungry children are your fault. Having to find an extra £14 a week because you have a spare bedroom but there are no 1 bedroom homes to move into, is your fault, it is you who will be evicted. You may have to cry. If you’re not already, you may have to appear utterly helpless. You will have to demonstrate how vulnerable you are.

Never, ever even appear angry with anyone in power. You have to create a character that mollifies and soothes the people who have almost total power over your life, from where you may be physically at any given time to what you eat and how cold you become.

It’s very easy to become this character.