The resulting programme that your columnist did not appear in. Photo: BBC/Wingspan Productions/Richard Ranken
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Why I was edited out of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s BBC4 show about “bohemians”

This programme and I have a history.

I am standing in the second-hand bookshop, waiting. The man in front of me has brought along a pile of issues of The Face that I recognise from the 1980s and 1990s. One, with Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James on the cover, I remember fondly. (If you do not consider their 1989 hit “Baby I Don’t Care” a glorious song, you are dead to me.) The buyer at the counter does a sum in his head. “Sixty pounds cash, £120 exchange,” he says.

This is excellent news. Dire financial necessity has brought me to this shop, as well as the encroaching upon my Lebensraum of several weeks’ worth of review copies. The two situations mesh nicely and the ex-wife has agreed to give me and the eight boxes of books a lift into Notting Hill. It is important that I get a good price for them and if they’re going to give away 60 big ones for a pile of ancient Faces, they’re going to go crazy over my review copies, each of which has been a wrench to part with and is a significant contribution to the literary consciousness of our time.

“Fifty-three cash, £106 exchange,” says the buyer.

“Oh, come on,” I feel like saying. I have taken an old Penguin collection of G K Chesterton’s essays from the shop’s shelves, priced at two quid, and am wondering whether to put it back. “Cash,” I say, wearily.

The man, young enough to be my son, looks at me with something approaching pity. “Call it £55,” he says. I wave my Chesterton at him. (This sounds naughty but isn’t.) He tilts his head to indicate that he’ll chuck that in for free, too. Well, £55. That helps the finances considerably and also allows me to nip over the road to the Uxbridge and say hello to a few people over a pint.

This recent incident came back to me vividly as I watched, on my manky laptop, Victoria Coren Mitchell’s BBC4 show How to Be Bohemian. This programme and I have a history. Because I was once rash enough to write here that the Hovel represented one of London’s last surviving examples of true bohemia, someone thought it would be a good idea to interview me for the show and emailed me. I replied that, in my experience, involvement with TV production companies means that they come round and pinch my best ideas and two hours of my time for no money and I do not appear on television. They said, “How does £150 sound?” I said we had a deal.

Things got a bit sticky when two 12-year-olds from the production company came round and picked my brains for two hours and, at the end of it, asked me if I had any questions. “Yes,” I said. “Where’s my money?” (Not my exact words. I give you the gist.) “Ah,” they said, “what we have just undergone was not actually an interview.” At which point the atmosphere, hitherto congenial, curdled and I sent them off, with imprecations, back to their lairs. I mentioned this to my compañero Will Self and not only did he say that he had been collared for the programme (at, I suspect, a somewhat higher rate than mine) but he told me to write to them instantly and tell them that if they did not pay up, he wouldn’t appear on their show. This was writerly solidarity of a high order and I protested but he insisted.

So even though, in the end, Victoria Coren Mitchell came round to interview me and I got my £150, the filming process was fraught. I was grumpy and hung-over and said that anyone who called themselves a bohemian probably wasn’t and the idea of being considered bohemian, or wanting to be so considered, was silly in the extreme and that if you go back to the source, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, you’ll see that the defining condition of bohemianism is poverty and if we say, for the sake of argument, that bohemianism is a definable, non-ridiculous condition, if you’re able to afford a holiday abroad in a hotel, then, honey, you ain’t bohemian.

Victoria asked me why I didn’t “find a nice lady off the internet” or, in order to combat penury, drive a minicab in the evenings. Having never been asked such questions before in my life, I could only reply with a startled silence. Hence the return to my home in TV land: the cutting room floor.

I could only manage 15 minutes of the second episode in the series before giving up on it. This is not Ms C M’s fault: she is an experienced broadcaster who delivers what the format demands. At least I got to see Will making the point about rich bohemians being frauds. As for me? Baby, I don’t care. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.