"Write what you know" they say.

Even of what you know is benefits advice work and writing stories about it only pays enough to keep your colleagues in biscuits!

Friday, 6 March 2020

Writing Again!

I've been having a break from writing new, serious fiction for a while (although Sonning the Boating Bear has been busy at his blog) but I seem to have rediscovered the energy to start thinking about both my boat-based amateur sleuth Daphne Randall and the team at the Solent Welfare Rights Project.

The plan for the next few months looks like this:
  • Compile serial written in Autumn/Winter 2017/18 into a new Social Insecurity series ebook entitled 'Universal Support', to publish mid March.

  • Serialise current welfare rights lit draft story (working title 'Natural Migration') on this page from April.

  • Work on Daphne's new adventure 'Black Country Blues' first draft, hopefully while exploring the BCN by boat.

So, for now, it's back to the proof-reading!

Friday, 12 October 2018

Episode 1 - Harry's Game

Harry Biddulph decided to deploy a little of his old-fashioned Potteries chumminess towards the young man in the Jobcentre, in the hope of breaking the deadlock.

'I know what you're saying, mar mate,' he smiled.  'But I dunner want to claim this Universal Credit thing.  Mar lady says I need to put in for...'  He checked the note Daphne had given him again.  'Contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance.  She says that's what I'll get now mar sick pay is running out.  So how about you let me have a form?  I'll fill it in and send it off and, if it's not the right one, they can get back to me and let me know, eh?'

Harry smiled benevolently, as if he was doing the clerk a favour by being so little trouble, but his efforts were in vain.

'I'm sorry sir.  Like I said, there's no such thing as ESA for your postcode.  You have to claim Universal Credit.'  The lad sighed.  'If you need help to learn how to use a computer, you can go up Hanley library.'

Harry explained that his IT skills would be more than adequate to the task should he wish to claim Universal Credit, but he did not. 

'Could I get a form for my sick money there?' he asked, sensing a way out of the impasse.

'Sick money?  Do you mean PIP?'

'No.  I conner claim PIP.  I should be better before I need it and, even with this bloody thing on my leg, mar lady says I'm getting about too well for it.  I mean my employment and support money.' 

'Then no, you can't.'

'Then there's no point me going up the library, is there, youth?' 

'They can help you with your claim for Universal Credit.'

'Look pal...'  Harry's patience was wearing thin.  His injured foot was starting to ache, this lad's smile was starting to annoy him and he was irritated that he would be meeting Daphne for lunch without having completed the apparently simple task she had set him.  She would probably glare at him, get her phone out and have it all sorted in seconds, making him feel a fool for failing.  He had tried to claim by phone but, as soon as he had given his postcode, the woman had told him he had to claim Universal Credit instead.  For reasons which now seemed entirely ill-founded, he had assumed attending the Jobcentre in person might resolve the issue.

'Please don't shout, sir.'  The young man raised his voice enough that others close by fell silent, in expectation of an altercation.

'I'm not shouting.'  Harry dropped his voice almost to a whisper.  'All I want is a perishing form for contribution-based whatsitsname, and I'll be on my way.'

'I can't give you that.  It's been Universal Credit since June.'

'Mar lady says that's summat different and I conner get it because I have a house I let out.  She knows about this stuff, you know.'

The clerk looked unconvinced. 

'She works down the road.  At the CAB.'

The young man's expression changed, as if he might be doubting his own position.

'Maybe she thinks you come under Newcastle,' he suggested.  'But your street is actually inside the Full Service area covered by this Jobcentre.'

'It's not a street.'

'What is it?'

'It's a marina.'

'A what?'

'A mooring.  For a narrowboat.'

'I don't know if you can get UC if you live on a boat.'

'I dunner care, youth.  I want to claim...'

'Contribution-based ESA,' said the clerk wearily. 

'That's New Style ESA now,' corrected a passing colleague.

'It still exists, then?'  Harry was pleased to see the lad loose a touch of his snugness.   He addressed the woman.  'Can I have a form for that then, duck?'

'You have to phone,' she replied.  'We don't have forms.'

'I tried.  They asked for my postcode and told me I had to claim Universal Credit.'

'Who did you call?' the woman asked.  'Was it the ESA new claims number?'

Harry was sure it had been and told her so.

'That's where you went wrong,' she answered.  'You have to call the Universal Credit number.'

'To claim contribution-based ESA?'

'New Style ESA!' she corrected pleasantly.

'Then why the foo...?'  Harry stopped himself cursing.  'How would I know to call the Universal Credit number when I want to claim summat else?'

The woman ignored that.  'Not the new claims number,' she said.  'It's the number for people with an ongoing claim for UC.'

'But I don't have an ongoing claim for UC.'

'They can help you set one up at the library,' said the woman helpfully.

'He doesn't want to do that,' said the clerk.  'We've discussed it already.'

'Are you sure?'

'Yes,' Harry answered shortly.  'Do you have that number I need, please duck?'

She wrote it, in very large, neat numbers that even a small child could comprehend on Harry's note from Daphne, crossing out the words contribution-based and writing New Style in their place at the same time. 

'There we are, sir.'

Harry gave a weak smile and a begrudging word of thanks, picked up his crutch and limped back to the street.  He got out his phone, meaning to make the call, but thought better of it.  If he messed it up, he would leave things in a worse state for Daphne to sort out later.  He might as well go to the cafĂ© for a coffee and wait until she and her friends met him there.  Between them, they might be able to make sense of what he had been told to do.  None of it made any sense to him and he began to wonder if the smug lad and the patronising female had been winding him up all along.

'Just as well I should get my pension in a few months,' he muttered.  'The whole system's gone completely fooking crazy!'

There was a beggar on the street opposite, the bank.  Harry didn't usually find any change in his pockets when confronted with these characters but, this time, he made an exception.  After all, if he had been given the run-around, what chance did this poor sod have? 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Meet the Team - Autumn 2018

Over the next few weeks/months, I'll be sharing some new chapters in the lives of characters with links to the Solent Welfare Rights Project, a fictional advice centre based in a south Hampshire town just a little bit like Eastleigh.

If you haven't already met Hilary Carrington, Lyn and Terry Walker, Toby Novak, Catherine Collier, their families, friends and clients, it's never too late to start reading Welfare Rights Lit.  If you aren't sure it's for you, there's always some available to try for free.  The most recent effort in draft form exists on this blog as a series of chapters starting last November.  The first ebook in the series, set eight years ago and entitled Severe Discomfort, is free to download on the first Friday of every month with all the subsequent stories free on dates stated in their blurb. 

Here's the link for Severe Discomfort, which is on free download today. 


It wasn't written to make me rich (and it didn't) but to explain what was really happening to people needing benefits to get by under both the New Labour Governments of Blair and Brown and the Tory/Libdem Coalition that followed them.  Things have, without any question, got much worse since and are continuing to deteriorate.  It's a challenge to keep the overall tone of the stories upbeat, cheerful and positive but I choose to do so because it is possible to win appeals, to find love and friendship, to make society better, fairer and kinder.  It is important to let the people suffering at the sharp end know this and to know that others want it to happen for them. 

I don't have the resources for professional proof-readers, designers, marketing campaigns or paperback giveaways.  Reviews (respecting these limitations) are welcome, or at least a 'found this helpful' tick to someone who has already placed a review with which you agree. 

Daphne Randall's 4mph thrillers are the more commercial end of my writing efforts although I do give them away free too, intermittently.  There are little cross-overs between these and the Welfare Rights Lit stories from time to time, including the first episode of the making-it-up-as-we-go-along blog-novel to come which I'll be starting any moment now...

Reality Bites...

Sincere apologies to anyone who has been waiting for more Adventures in Welfare Reform with the staff and clients of the Solent Welfare Rights Project.  I had high hopes of spending this summer getting last year's novel-by-blog proof-read and turned into a proper book and of writing revised prefaces and making minor corrections to the old tales, before launching into another saga, not least to reassure myself that I had got all my character's ages, relationships and histories firmly implanted in my mind before subjecting them to another slice of austerity.

So what happened?  Well, for one thing, we had a really hot, dry summer (despite this being North Staffordshire) so I had to spend a couple of hours most evenings trundling round the garden with watering cans trying to stop my crops and best flowers from dying, before trekking down to the allotment, accompanied by Himself towing a water barrel, to repeat the process.

The biggest problem, however, has been the actual roll-out of Universal Credit in my patch.  It's meant having to do more hours training, writing info leaflets, going to community events and generally helping the front-line fire-fighters on the advice side try to figure out what the actual bloody hell is going on with the DWP.  Mercifully - and perhaps unexpectedly - we've had some funding for this from local MPs (not the Tory one) who have realised just how unprepared their constituents actually are for what is coming. 

It's also made me realise that there are more dire pitfalls with this pathetic excuse for a Social Security system than I ever envisaged from listening to other people's accounts and reading blogs and reports.  Every day we seem to be confronted with some new twist, some completely unexpected idiocy.  It's hard to believe that after five years of a so-called "Pause and Fix" approach, there are still so many major bugs in UC.  It is an utter disgrace.

So, when I finally stop being too depressed and angry to turn any of the real stuff into inspiration for stories, I will have no shortage of material.  In fact, I think we'll probably begin soon with a conversation between Hilary and Daphne, as the latter tries to pick her own way through the mess slowly engulfing her home town - and mine.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Severe Discomfort Revisited

I've had a quiet summer regarding writing, but have plans to catch up again soon with the Solent Welfare Rights Project, although whether this will involve getting the gang together for one last job or will leave their door open for more welfare-rights do-goodery in future, remains to be seen.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I've been quietly reviewing some older work.  I'm planning no changes to plot or characters and minimal changes to the text, except to correct typographical errors, although I will be writing updated prefaces for the Kindle editions of all the Welfare Rights Lit stories in turn and, depending on costs and practicality, might be inspired to do new look versions of the paperbacks.

One thing that has inspired me to do this is the sense that, at last, I may not be swimming against the tide in calling for justice and fair treatment for benefit claimants.  When I started writing Severe Discomfort, New Labour Work and Pensions spokespeople were as likely to talk tough on benefits as their Tory counterparts - by the time I had published it, they were pledging to be tougher.  By contrast, as I blogged my most recent story, we had an Opposition at last worthy of the name and the sight of a Tory in tears at the hardships faced by Universal Credit claimants.  

Not Esther McVey, of course, though even she has baulked at challenging the Court of Appeal's ruling that the Government's shameless rewrite of the PIP mobility regulations was blatantly discriminatory against people coping with mental health.  Instead, hundreds of thousands of claims are to be checked for error and underpayment.  Meanwhile, having considered the evidence from claimants, advisers and disability charities on the inaccuracy of the contractors' reports, the Work and Pensions Select Committee is calling for all ESA and PIP face-to-face assessments to be routinely recorded.  There is serious talk at looking for a public-sector alternative to Atos, Capita and Maximus when their current contracts.  If the tide hasn't yet turned, at least the rip current is no longer dragging us towards the rocks so violently.

Something else which was seen as the impossible dream of a handful of idealistic hippies and the Solent Welfare Rights Project's utopians has also gone mainstream, namely the concept of a Universal Basic Income.  It isn't just being talked about either - it's being trialled; in parts of Finland, Belgium, Canada and, soon, in four districts in Scotland.  Along with their pledge to ditch Trident, it's one of the issues which keeps me in the Greens rather than switching back to Labour.  It has to come; machines and AI are overtaking so many jobs that it's either UBI (and a taxation system that supports it) or Luddites and Swing Rioters taking up their cudgels once more.

In the meantime, there are still tales of social injustice and wrongful benefits refusal to tell.  Let's get the old gang together, eh?    

Friday, 16 February 2018

Spring Cleaning

I'm pondering a new writing project, catching up with the Solent Welfare Rights Project team after the Universal Credit serial published on this blog at the end of last year but, before getting that underway, I want to read back through the earlier Social Insecurity stories, pick up any odd typos still lurking in the text and write new prefaces to them.

There have been far more damaging cuts to Social Security since Severe Discomfort was published than I saw coming in 2012, particularly for families with children, which are likely to be the focus of the new story.  Homelessness is very visibly increasing and the response to it is staggeringly polarised - from decent, humane individuals and charities organising soup runs and night shelters to Councils remodelling their street furniture to deny homeless people a place to lay their heads.  There are, simultaneously, signs of worse to come and reasons to be cheerful - not least, perhaps, an Opposition worthy of the name at last and genuine, mainstream debate on Universal Basic Income.  The latter would have seemed inconceivable when the Solent Welfare Rights Project's workers were discussing their ideas for a Citizens Allowance in 2010 (written 2012/3).

Something else the new preface probably needs to point out, if a few negative reviews are considered, is that the 'patchy' style of the stories is deliberate.  With chapters or sections of chapters being seen through the eyes of different characters, I made a quite deliberate effort to use language, imagery and insights to fit that character's age, background and viewpoint.  For some of the principal characters, particularly Lyn Walker, I hoped the reader would note a gradual change as she gains understanding and confidence.  I thought that stylistic quirk was obvious enough not to need an explanation but it seems not. 

So look out for both new stories and new editions of the old ones during this year.  Not just yet, though - it's a bright morning and time to start sowing my broad beans!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2018 - Benefits, Boats and Bears?

Well, I've finally completed chapter 42 of my 'real time' Universal Credit story, leaving the keen few following it with the thought that perhaps what they had been reading wasn't a story in its own right but the subplots behind a totally different character's odyssey through UC. 

I'm drawn to that idea by the timescale and the chance to show how even a UC claim which goes to plan and is paid on time still means weeks with no money.  If my new character had family responsibilities, perhaps as a carer, it would bring into sharp focus what that really means.  I'm inclined to let Deepak take the lead as their principal adviser at the Solent Welfare Rights Project, as he needs more development as a character.  There are also, however, compelling arguments for letting this story unfold over a subsequent six weeks.

The problem with revisiting the Solent Welfare Rights Project, even for a Christmas short story or similar, is that I'm reminded how fond I am of the old characters and how I enjoy writing them.  I could easily keep adding episodes to the blogged story with no final destination in mind at all.  There are plenty of loose ends left.  Will Ashley find a place of her own or, with her experience as a care worker and Lyn's wish for a surrogate daughter, will the Walkers want to keep her around?  Will Catherine pay her rent before Christmas, in full and on time and, if so, will her ill-tempered landlord keep his word about letting her stay?  Will Hilary's latest bid for funding work out or will the Project really have to close this autumn?  How will the dynamics of the whole place change with the new cohort of staff and many of the old guard moving on, cutting their hours and taking a back seat?
The Catherine/Ralph romance also has scope for endless twists and turns, both family-focussed and financial, as anyone familiar with the rules on Widowed Parent's Allowance will appreciate.  So, perhaps instead of rewriting this story with a new protagonist, I'll leave it as it is and we'll have a new series for the spring or summer, picking up some of these threads and weaving them into a fresh narrative.

Before I start that, I have a Daphne Randall boat-based murder mystery in need of rereading, redrafting and turning into a manuscript ready for proof-reading, plus plotlines sketched out for several more.  I enjoy writing these stories as much as the SWRP ones and, I have to admit, they are slightly more successful commercially, although my self-employed tax return is unlikely to appear in the Paradise Papers any time soon.  (It looks like HMRC owe me seven quid).

The other fun writing exercise has been a new blog for Sonning the Boat Bear, the little chap rescued from an elderberry bush near Uri Geller's mansion during our summer narrowboat journey.  Sonning aspires to be like Paddington - to do good deeds and to help poor people and their furry friends - although he isn't a political animal at all.  Sonning's blog is here: https://bearonaboat.blogspot.co.uk/ 

Whether it becomes a book for anyone other than 'Grizzly's Grandcubs' remains to be seen.