Show Hide image

''We've had to let six staff go this Christmas . . . people with families and mortgages''

Families all over Britain are bracing themselves for hard times. For some, they have already started

On first impressions, Rayne Precision Engineering is a neat little company. Tucked into the hills of the southern fringe of the Peak District, it consists of four solid modern sheds, built of a fake stone material that blends in with the local housing. These are arranged around a tidy yard next to a mobile hut that serves as office accommodation. The atmosphere in the yard is pleasantly quiet. There's a faint hum in the air, but none of the clashing or screeching of metal on metal that you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason for this. The company's founder and managing director, Andrew Simmill, leads me into first one shed and then another to show me an array of laser-cutting and welding machinery, all of it standing idle. The signs of recent activity are all around - a scattering of little metal shavings; a neat pile of ring-shaped components bound for the automotive industry. Today the firm is having a shutdown, Simmill explains.

In the summer of 1997, Rayne Engineering, which is a few miles outside the market town of Leek, had 47 full-time staff, working five days and sometimes nights or Saturday mornings as well, making parts for JCB, GKN and a range of other engineering companies. Simmill bought a people-carrier so that his welders could drive in from Stoke-on-Trent, 20 minutes or so down the road. He had diversified, too, into making shopfitting parts for Waterstone's.

The crash, when it came, came fast. In April this year Simmill took on a salesman to try to boost a flagging order book, but to no avail. Now Rayne Precision is down to 26 staff working four days a week. There have been 12 compulsory redundancies. The remaining staff agreed to their hours being cut from 39 to 31 last week.

"Last week was my worst week," Simmill says. "We had to let six people go. You're looking people in the eye just before Christmas . . . these are people with families and mortgages. And there's nothing I can do - I've got to protect the business."

Simmill is a big, weather-beaten man in blue overalls and a sweatshirt. He looks out of place in the firm's meeting room, under the glossy banners he ordered so they could push for scarce orders at trade fairs. He looks as if he could shoulder quite a burden - and that is exactly what he is having to do now.

"Carol, who does the stores and the planning, came to me last week and said, 'I'll take redundancy, Andrew.' She's over 60. She didn't want a younger person with a family to lose their job. But she's a key part of the business. I don't mind admitting I've had sleepless nights about finding enough work for my men."

This little local heartache is solid evidence of the tectonic shift that has affected businesses across the world in recent months. The plummeting housing market, the struggling construction industry, banks cracking under the weight of bad mortgage debts and overextended credit, all lead here to this little office.

For Simmill it trickled down in part from JCB, which dominates the heavy industry in this area, previously employing 5,000 at its plants in Rocester, Uttoxeter and Cheadle. The digger manufacturer - for whom Simmill has nothing but praise - was forced to cut production by a third and to make nearly 600 staff redundant this autumn as orders, even from previously buoyant markets such as Russia, began to dry up.

In the nearby Potteries, there have been 350 job losses at Wedgwood and Spode has gone into administration, putting a further 150 at risk. The misery goes on, the figures stacking up in tens here, twenties there. On the day of my visit the front page of the Sentinel, Stoke's local paper, carried the news that Hinks Fine China, the UK's last china flower manufacturer, was to close with the loss of another 16 jobs. At Uttoxeter, Dairy Farmers of Britain announced it was closing its Fole Dairy with 250 to go. At Phones4u, another major Staffordshire company, 240 IT jobs were reported to be at risk. Simmill ("I'm 47 but I feel 67," he says, then laughs) has been here before. Twenty years ago he started an engineering business with his father during the tail end of the 1980s boom.

"Nineteen eighty-nine was an extremely good year, but 1990 . . ." he pauses for a moment. "I was financed up to the hilt. I had £70,000 debt on one machine. Then I had 12 months where my father died of cancer and my brother was killed in a road accident at 23.

People are buying cheaper cuts of meat rather than the high-end products on sale

"Everything came at once. I got married, my daughter Carly was born, and two weeks later the company went into receivership. I had finance people chasing me; my house was on the line. I was on the verge of being made bankrupt."

But Simmill doesn't give up easily. For a year he worked for the man who bought his business, then rented his machines. "It was just 12 months after I went down," he says. "The banks and accountants hadn't had any faith in me, and it was almost to prove them wrong. I'm a determined sort of fellow."

He and his wife Clare now have three daughters - Carly, 17, Sheri, 16, and Kate, 13 - and they never stop hearing about the evils of credit. "I was out shopping one time with Sheri when she was only four or five," recalls Simmill. "I ran out of cash and so I thought, 'I'll wait until next week.' She turned to me and said, 'Put it on your card, Dad.' I was really taken aback by that, and I thought about it a lot. What I'm fearful of is my children going through what I went through. There are too many credit cards, too much easily available credit. That's put us in this mess."

About 18 months ago this niggling worry turned into a family crusade. Sitting around the table outside their house one summer evening over a meal, they began drawing out a game on sheets of A4 paper. Then the girls got busy with clip art and a boardgame, Credit 4 Life, was born. Players start with £1,500 and on a throw of the dice they pay bills - mortgage £600; night out £50; credit card 30 per cent debit interest - and, if they are lucky, draw wages. The game, now in a smart box with a laminated board, has been sold to about 20 schools and is being supported by Caudwell Children, a charity funded by John Caudwell, the local Phones4u tycoon.

Simmill says he talks to his children about the problems his business is facing, and after school they often come to see him at work instead of going home. But he has no plans to bring them into the family firm. "I'm not being sexist, but I think manufacturing is a hard game," he says. "If the government doesn't believe in it there won't be any manufacturing here in ten years."

As you drive into Leek along the Ashbourne Road, the signs of economic gloom are easy to spot. A 19th-century mill stands with its glass grimed and a board outside advertises a small business within. Further into town the White Lion and Talbot pubs are both boarded up. The Leek Post and Times has a picture of Gary Clewlow of GJ's Greengrocers holding a sign saying "Closing Down (sorry)", over the headline: "Shoppers urged to stay local as credit crunch bites hard". Clewlow tells the paper he cannot compete with Aldi.

To be fair, the former textile town, which weathered the decline of the silk industry in the late 19th century and the globalisation of synthetic fabrics in the 20th, is not completely down at heel. Its market square is wide and cobbled, and a queue of shoppers is keeping its well-stocked fruit and veg stall busy. There's a half-timbered Marston's pub, the Bird in Hand, flanked by Cancer Research and Oxfam shops.

Businesses such as Simmill's are at the sharp end of the recession, and others in the area are less gloomy about the future. Off the A523 between Simmill's works at Ipstones and the town of Leek, signs point to enterprises with a more rural flavour: Beaver Hall Equestrian Centre, Middle Farm Bed and Breakfast. Down a long track, Janet Phillips runs the Threshing Barn, a small shop selling craft supplies and meat reared on the farm she runs with her husband, Dave.

Phillips says she always has a pot of coffee on the go in her shop, which is packed to the rafters with skeins of brightly coloured wool, Christmas wreaths and knitwear; it helps to make the place feel welcoming, she says. The craft workshops she runs - a launching pad for sales of equipment and materials - had their best October ever, she says. But the meat is doing less well. People are buying cheaper cuts rather than the high-end products they sell here.

"I think long-established businesses will survive, but January and February are going to be grim," says Phillips. "From December, we would usually expect big orders, and they're not coming in. I don't think people are going to go for the big items this year."

On Derby Street, a Butters John Bee estate agent stands with property details in its windows and a To Let sign above its door. At first glance the business seems to be occupied, but a closer look reveals too-neat desks with phones and notepads and nothing else, and a notice on the door confirms, "Please note: This office is now closed. We will continue to provide our services from our Hanley and Congleton offices." Just a few doors along, the Ponden Mill shop also bears a To Let sign and big banners announcing, "Twenty Per Cent Off - Everything Must Go", though an assistant says she doesn't know whether they're going to close.

Round the corner, near the now-defunct GJ's Greengrocers, is Photoprint, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brian Johnson, now the town's mayor and president of its chamber of trade and commerce. His assessment of the situation is relatively upbeat, and he attributes several of the town's business failures to a lack of initiative or staying power. Despite having spent half a million pounds on opening a horse livery last year and carrying a lot of debt ("You don't want to know," he says when I ask how much), he is investing £20,000 in a digital colour printing machine, which would have cost him £34,000 in normal times.

"You'll often hear people saying, 'Leek's always in recession - what difference does it make?'" he says. "People round here have been used to tightening their belts.

"But the new businesses have never had to face this before. They don't make allowances, they don't think ahead far enough. People will have to promote their businesses - they'll have to think positive."

Others in the town are struggling to follow his advice. Looking for the Diva shoe shop which, according to the local paper, is to close after Christmas, I stop to ask directions from a couple huddled against the cold and carrying a plastic bag of meat bones. They cheerfully offer to show me the place and as we walk along together the man, David, tells me he has been out of work for the past six months, after being laid off by a firm that makes parts for car exhausts.

"My old boss closed the doors," he says. "I'd take anything, but if you put on your CV that you were in engineering, they think you don't want a menial job. They think you'll take off as soon as something better comes - and I would as well.

"JCB has a massive effect on this area. Last year employees had a £1,000 Christmas bonus, but this year they'll be lucky if they get anything. I've given up."

He asks if I'm going for a job interview. I tell him no, I'm writing an article about the credit crunch for a magazine. "Well," he says without a trace of rancour, "at least someone's making money out of it."

Fran Abrams is the author of "Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage", published by Profile Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood