A one-way ticket to Palookaville

At Motherwell Station, there is a reception committee awaiting me - or is it some sort of posse, with me in the Butch Cassidy role? One . . . two . . . three . . . no fewer than six ticket collectors bar my way. Golly!

There must be a certain frenzy involved in quitting the town - I envision flying wedges of berserkers without the wherewithal, desperate to board a local service for Garscadden or even a long-distance one to Berwick. Ever keen to lighten an official stoppage with banter, I say, "Whoa! What a lot of ticket collectors! I haven't seen so many ticket collectors in one place in . . . I dunno - like, never. What is this, some sort of job-creation scheme?" My sally is punctured forthwith by the hole-puncher nearest to me, a saturnine fellow with corrugated brows. "Ticket, please," he says, although what he means is: "I'd like to put a neat, two-millimetre hole in your fucking eye."
“What," I persist, as I pass the pasteboard, "are you not fond of a joke?"
“I am," he says coldly, "but only when they're funny."

I could see his point. Plenty of little girls and boys dream of becoming train drivers but I can't imagine that many fantasise about becoming ticket collectors. What must it be like to find yourself in a job that is not only tediously repetitive but also involves dealing with members of the fickle public, who veer between the enraged and the jocose? None of which explains why there were six of them.

It seems bizarre to suggest in these days of public-sector cuts and half-time working in the private sector, not to mention out-and-out redundancy, that crowds of superfluous personnel may be the order of the day, yet this is the case. A week earlier, dining at a gastropub on the A4 outside Reading, I was bewildered by the number of bar staff - there were more bodies behind than in front and, when I ordered a Virgin Mary, four of them collaborated in making it for me.

I spoke to one of these supernumeraries and it transpired that, until a year previously, he'd been part of a still madder crowd:
British expats in Dubai. He said he'd loved Dubai, despite a rather tricky time towards the end, when, due to, um, personal debts, he'd been unable to leave the country. "What did you do there?" I asked. He said he'd worked in human resources. I laughed bitterly and said that was rich, considering Dubai was a racist shit hole built on slave labour. He laughed still more bitterly and said that everyone was entitled to his opinion - although what he meant was: "I'd like to shove this two-litre vodka bottle right up your jacksy, then use
the optic to suck out your lifeblood."

At this juncture, I forbore from observing how wry it was to view his work history as a sort of arcade game - one of those penny cascades where the coins build up and up until they tumble down to the level below. Subject to the merciless buffeting of late capitalism, he had been catapulted from one overmanned economy to another and, in due course, he would doubtless tumble into the oubliette of unemployment. All of the above is my rather heartless way of pointing out that this crowd is crazed for a good reason: it senses the axe whistling about its ears.

Whatever works

The phenomenon of too many workers, far from being a sign of a booming economy, heralds the stage in a slump just before swaths get the scythe. Capitalism has a rotten skull beneath its toned, moisturised skin.

As a system, it is predicated quite as much on the supply of and demand for workers as it is on the supply of and demand for the things they make and the services they offer. In times of plenty - even mock-plenty - you will know capitalism by the scarcity of labour, which means potential employees, whether plumbers or prostitutes, are always being hurried to some location where money can make more of itself out of them; but, in times of crisis, look out for the masses deranged by their sense of being inutile.

Let us typists, however, not be immune to the vicissitudes of global finance and local indebtedness. It was the first time I'd seen six ticket collectors in one place but I've often seen six economically non-viable writers cheerfully congregate - and how deranging is that? The only solution is a carefully targeted programme of public investment in viable infrastructure - such as railways - and a literary set-aside scheme, whereby the government subsidises authors to produce books that will never be read. Only drastic measures such as these will give us the good mental health afforded by full employment.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.