Watching Jeremy Paxman’s programme about the Victorians may have given many people, in these uncertain times, pause for thought. The bit that would have spooked most of them would have been the stuff about the workhouse. The Victorians, explained Paxman, believed that if you were unemployed it was Your Own Fault and the idle and profligate had only themselves to blame.
“Idle and profligate” was the kind of language they used back then. And, having been called idle and profligate, or closely related variations thereof, for much of my life, I can’t help thinking that the shadow of the workhouse looms over me, even though these days the idleness is forced upon me and the profligacy – well, the profligacy isn’t that; it’s just necessary expenditure.
I know this because I had to fill in a form at Brent Magistrates’ Court, and they wanted to know what I was spending, and how much I was earning, in order to know how much they could fine me for neglecting to beep my Oyster card when travelling on a bendy bus to the British Library.
We’re quite a numerous crew, we bendy-bus defaulters. Arrive at the magistrates’ court and approach the security guard with any kind of hesitation, and he will say: “Bendy bus?” You will nod, and, after the business with the metal detector, he will say, with the air of a man who has said this many times in the past, and will say so many more times in the future, that you are to go up to the second floor, Court 4. (Or whatever.)
Being done for such a footling crime, I reflected, represented A New Low. When I think of all the things they could get me for . . . I imagine this was how Al Capone felt when he was pinched for tax evasion: indignant and foolish. Still, the list pinned up outside the courtroom goes all the way down to the floor, and while most people just plead guilty from home and forget about it, I felt that a trip to Neasden in the freezing drizzle was just the thing to buck me up. Besides, I had nothing else on, and I wanted to see what my fellow criminals looked like.
I fill in the form which asks you how much you spend and how much you earn. I have always been rather cavalier about the whole earning/spending business; as long as bailiffs are not actually hammering on your door, you’re fine.
The interesting thing about this form, though, was that it suggested that the courts are rather more forgiving than the Inland Revenue as to what constitutes a legitimate expense. You are invited, for instance, to say how much you spend on clothes per month. Mindful of the fact that the last time I spent anything on clothes for myself was in the spring of 2007, yet anxious not to look like some kind of weirdo, I put down £5 per month as a token sum.
They also ask you how much you spend on food, alcohol and tobacco. I decided that the best thing to do would be to deduct the £5 I had claimed as my clothing allowance from my drinks bill. It still came to a horrendous amount, so I revised that down in case they thought I was an alcoholic. As for food – how much does one spend on food? All I know is that the last time I found myself in a supermarket, I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually afford mayonnaise. When I eventually tot up my expenses and compare them against what, for want of a better word, we shall call my income, I muse idly (and perhaps profligately) that the courts won’t fine me: they’ll give me a grant.
And so this is what it has come to, I think to myself; I am 45 years old, I am, ever since taking up my wife’s suggestion that I leave the family home, sleeping on a fold-out sofa, I can’t afford mayonnaise unless I give up wine, which is out of the question, I share a house which, since the removal of a supporting beam some decades ago, now sags so much in the middle that pans placed on the electric hob actually slide on to the floor if left unattended, and – as a result of brooding about these things, instead of beeping my Oyster card – I am about to get a criminal record. I am turning, ahead of schedule, into Ed Reardon.
There are, of course, plenty of people in worse circumstances, particularly nowadays. And there is much to console myself with. I may no longer have a cat, but the hovel I live in has several friendly mice I can play with; my good friend J–, also exiled from his wife and children, shares the place with me; the pub down the road cashes cheques and the girl who works in the local Majestic is of surpassing charm. I forbear to ask the magistrate if there is a workhouse he could send me to.
Down and Out in London will appear weekly