The helplessness of the redundant

Before letting rip at HMV staff, remember that while you have lost your £10 gift card, the person you are screaming at has lost their livelihood.

On Christmas Eve 2008, I found out I would be losing my job. There is no day of the year to find out something like that, but it seems that Christmas Eve is a particularly bad one. I remember it very clearly, even down to what I was wearing. I was packing to go home over Christmas and I got a text off my friend Susie, telling me that the shop we both worked in had been taken over by administrators. And just like that, I knew my job would be gone.

The truth is, it was actually eight months later that my job finally went, but it did go, in the same way a terminal illness sucks the life out of a human. Long, slow, arduous. I worked in Zavvi, previously Virgin Megastore, in Cardiff. I started out as a Saturday girl, and when I graduated university and still didn’t know what to do with my life, I went full time. I’m not looking at it with the rose-tinted spectacles of time, but I loved that place. I loved the fact I was surrounded by music all day. I loved that I worked with strange, beautiful people, who liked all the same stuff I did. If they ever read this, they may laugh, but that shop was the first place I ever felt like I belonged somewhere. I did a lot of finding out who I was while I was there. And let’s face it, as full time jobs go, mine was a complete doss. Maybe I was just lazy. But there was always time to stand around, debating over what music went on next, gossiping about the last night out you had, sleeping off your hangover in the stockroom. It was a wonderful place.

There were tell tale signs for ages. Little things that, had I been more clued up on life, might have made me realise what was coming. Overtime stopped getting paid, fewer Christmas temps, problems ordering new stock, etc etc etc. I remember there being rumours of trouble, talking about it behind the tills. But when I got that text off Susie, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face. And so I reacted in the way any rational person would. I cried all the way home on the train and then I drank two bottles of rum with my friend Brett. I don’t have very good memories of Christmas 2008.

When I went back to work, on 27 December, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To this day, that shift is still the worst eight hours I have ever had. That day I realised how selfish and horrible other people can be. We all got to work and there was a grim determination in the air. It was like none of us wanted to be there, but we would get through it together. Then trading started, and all I remember is being shouted at by angry people who couldn’t use their gift cards. If you know anything about companies who go into administration you will know that gift cards immediately become invalid. It is not the choice of the staff. Let me say that again. IT IS NOT THE CHOICE OF THE STAFF YOU ARE SHOUTING AT. If you are the kind of person who would get angry about that, then think about this. You have just lost your £10 gift card. The person you are screaming at has just lost their livelihood. You may not think there are many people who would be that thoughtless, I certainly didn’t. But for the following six weeks, its all I can remember. We had people who were very understanding, kind, sorry for us. But my overriding memory, sadly, is not of our regulars who came to offer best wishes, but the many people who were angry at us for their loss. I understand the frustration, but I was too busy worrying about how I would pay my rent or find a job in January to be too sympathetic.

So Zavvi remained for a further six weeks. In that time, administrators tried to find buyers for the company as a whole, and then as parts. Smaller shops were closed and their stock passed to bigger stores like ours. It was like bucketing water out of a sinking boat, except it wasn’t water, it was people and their children and their mortgages and their homes and their ability to support themselves. Finally it came down to the last day. We learned from our manager, a long-haired jumpy character named Pete who loved caffeine and flowery shirts, that there was a potential buyer for our shop. He was buying five other Zavvis, turning them into his own company and he wanted ours. But there were negotiations first and it might not happen. So we had to pack up the shop. Literally everything had to be put into boxes and taped up. Every single shelf cleared, every corner of every stockroom emptied. It was the most depressing day ever. I remember wanting to cry, and being really glad my friend Jess was there. She ran the book department and I don’t know what I would have done without here in those few weeks. After work I went to the cinema with my housemates. When I came out of the cinema, I had a text.

"We’re bought!"

Someone had bought Cardiff Zavvi! I still had a job! The next day we rushed back to work, signed new contracts and unpacked the boxes. We were trading by the afternoon under the name Head Entertainment. It was amazing! Back to the pub, this time to celebrate.

But the joy didn’t last long. The following seven months were a stark lesson for me in just how underhand and ruthless some people are in business. It’s quite shocking really. I won’t ramble on with the many, many details of how the whole Head Entertainment mess began, but a basic description would be; evil man buys out desperate shop, evil man screws desperate staff about, desperate staff realise they will lose jobs and also any redundancy entitlement. Evil man wins, desperate staff lose.

It’s a long, complicated story, that I don’t understand entirely, even now, but suddenly, less than a month after we were bought out, we found ourselves in the awful position of knowing that our jobs would end, and that we wouldn’t get any money at the end of it. Somehow it was even worse. And for the months leading up to summer, we all worked not knowing if we’d have a shop to come to the next day. But we had to work. I couldn’t find another job. Some people left. But the ones who remained were all in the same position. Stuck. Helpless. When the final cut came in July and we learned we were closing for good, it was almost a relief. We had to pack the shop up again. We all walked to the pub and had our last lunch together. Then we spent the whole night drowning sorrows. It was nice in a way, the whole thing bonded everyone quite tightly. Some of those people are still great friends of mine, and I hope they will remain as such. But really it was terrible.

It would be another month before I finally found a new job, this time in HMV. I didn’t want to go, and true enough, I hated every day I worked there. I don’t know why. I made some great friends there, people who became a big part of my life at the time, and we had some amazing times together. But I was utterly miserable, and less than a year later, they cut my hours down to one day a week, with 24 hours notice, essentially making me redundant again. And the old feelings returned.

In a society that is built on debt, when you spend two months out of work, and you have credit cards and rent and an overdraft to pay, you can easily be defeated. I had to admit defeat. I moved home, more experienced, maybe wiser, but completely broken. It took me a long time to pull myself back together. It took even longer to get the redundancy money owed to us by Head Entertainment. A two year court battle between us and the owners, entirely put together by our incredible floor manager Ev, a wonderfully funny, eccentric man, with a love of birds and woolen hats. He took them on, at an incredible cost to himself, and he won us the money in the end. But he shouldn’t have had to.

At the end of the day, you can't rant for hours about the government, and corporate companies and business and management. You’d probably be right. None of it is fair. People are screwed over all the time, just because they are small and the companies are big. Companies go under all the time because of mismanagement and greed and power hungry egomaniacs, and the people who suffer most are the people who started off at the bottom anyway. They just get trampled. But ranting doesn’t change anything. Neither does blogging about it. Because now HMV is in trouble and if they doesn’t find a buyer, that’s another 4,000 jobs gone, and whatever you read or write about it on the internet isn’t going to change that.

Except it's not 4,000 jobs. It’s 4,000 people. 4,000 families. 4,000 homes. Just like when our shop went under and it was me and my credit card bills. Jess and her mortgage. Dan and his kids, Tony and his retirement plans. People’s lives thrown into absolute chaos. It’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me, and probably to a lot of them too. I hope people realise that in the next few weeks, when they walk into a HMV and find out they can’t use their gift card anymore.

This piece originally appeared on A Barefoot Girl

People walk past the HMV shop in Piccadilly on January 15, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caitlin Leyshon blogs at A Barefoot Girl.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder