I’ve been pondering various things around this theme for a while but I read a tweet this morning that brought things into sharp focus. As a society we are often too separated from the consequences of our actions, so we don’t recognise the actions we need to take in order to bring about the outcome we want. That’s a pretty abstract and amorphous idea, so let me give a few examples of the things I’ve been considering.
There has been a fair amount of angst over the actions of certain newspapers over the past few years: there are often complaints about press intrusion; their hounding of people; their objectification of women; their demonising of immigrants, the disabled, single mothers, the unemployed…the list could go on and I haven’t even mentioned the specifics of phone-hacking yet.
Yet how many people still buy the newspapers? Read the articles on-line? Comment below articles? The problem is that newspapers are funded by advertisements and that advertisers want to know how many people are likely to see their advert, whether it be in a print newspaper or as a sidebar on a website, before they hand over their money.
Advertisers don’t care so much whether you agree with the article or not, they’re simply interested in whether you visited that page. So from a newspapers point of view an article that generates a flame war running into hundreds of comments below the article, that goes viral because links to the article fly around the world accompanied by phrases such as ‘guess what [insert name of controversial paper here] has printed now, how awful’ is actually incredibly valuable to them.
By contrast an article that produces a gentle head-nodding in agreement in most of it’s readership, with perhaps one reader sending a letter to the editor agreeing with the article in measured tones once he or she has fully digested the ideas in the article, well that’s not going to be so useful as a way of bringing in money to keep the paper going.
To change tack a little, I once had a conversation with an atheist whose daughter was about to get married. She had chosen the local church to get married in, which he didn’t mind so much because she was only doing it because of the lovely setting – it was one of those stone-built medieval churches. He complained about the amount of money being charged for the privilege, which was probably less than £50. He thought the Church of England shouldn’t charge anything, because they were parishioners and the Church ‘had loads of money’.
The thing is, that’s not the reality as I have experienced it.
My husband works in IT and at one time he was a consultant. One of his roles was to work on the central accounts for the Church of England and their systems. Yes, there was a lot of money in those accounts, but it was an amalgamation of all the money from all the churches in the country, It’d be like the entire population of the UK sharing two bank accounts, a deposit account which you kept for emergencies, such as when the lead is stripped off your roof and the rain is coming in (more of that later) and a cheque account which you used to pay wages, food bills etc. Now imagine that the money in those accounts totaled £50 million. That sounds like a massive amount, doesn’t it? The thing is, there are currently over 64 million people in the UK, so that makes less than a pound each. To live on. For a year. That suddenly doesn’t sound like so much, does it?
It’s a similar thing with the church accounts. Yes, there is a lot of money in there but it has to go an exceedingly long way. Obviously there are some parishes that are richer than others, but the Church of England has a system whereby they subsidise other, poorer, parishes. Even so sometimes there is still not enough money, and these parishes amalgamate and sell off the old church buildings they can no longer afford to maintain to developers. Guess what? People complain they can no longer get married in their local parish church and that the lovely old building is now some swanky house or set of offices.
The trouble with lovely old buildings is that they are old. They are quite often listed, which puts the price of maintaining them up by a wide margin. The cost of materials to repair them is higher than modern material. The cost of specialist tradesmen who know how to handle things like lime mortar is more expensive than your average brickie – and that’s if you can find one. If a building is listed you need planning permission to do so much as replace a rotten window – planning permission which costs money.
Then there’s the lead stripping and petty vandalism – bricks through stained glass windows etc. Yes, churches are insured but insurance companies don’t pay out every time your lead roof is stolen. If it happens more than a couple of times they won’t pay any more. That’s it. Nada. Not a bean.
So, my view is that if you aren’t contributing to the upkeep of your local, beautiful, parish church week in and week out but still want it there and in pristine condition for a wedding or baptism or funeral then you can pay for the privilege.
To change tack yet again, the countryside is a wonderful place but, to quote Rudyard Kipling;
Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade
I live in the country and am constantly amazed at how much rubbish people throw out of their car windows as they drive around, tip out of trucks because they can’t be bothered to pay the council for proper disposal, leave bags of dog mess lying around. I mean, seriously. Dog mess unbagged would at least rot down eventually, but why on earth would you encase it in plastic and then leave it in the hedgerow?
Cleaning all this up takes money and resources. Frankly I’d rather the council spent the money on repairing the roads properly because I’ve had more punctured tyres than is reasonable.
And so to the theme of this morning’s tweet. Over the past few days I’ve seen references to the falling income of writers. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/typical-author-earnings-dropped-%C2%A311000-2013.html According to the article it’s fallen below the accepted level necessary to be considered a living wage. Unless you are as successful an author as JK Rowling the odds are that you would have to do something else to earn money besides writing.
Does this really matter?
In some ways, no it doesn’t. People have always had a variety of roles in order to gain an income they could live on, and you could argue that getting out into the ‘real world’ just provides more experience and material for a writer to work from.
There are problems, though. For one thing there’s not exactly a wealth of other jobs to choose from out there. Just how is a writer supposed to go and magic a job out of thin air if the 2.5 million listed unemployed are already chasing the 0.5 million vacancies?
Assuming that the writer is successful and finds a job. There’s a constant pressure to work longer and longer hours. People who leave a company are often not replaced – employers often parcel out the work to existing employees. If you know there are a dozen people who would love to be in any job, your job, then it’s not always easy to say no. If you’re working extremely long hours to pay the rent and food bills then there’s not going to be a lot of time or energy left for writing.
Even part-time work to top up income isn’t necessarily easier if it’s shift work. Irregular hours play havoc with life in general.
Of course, I’m not pretending that writers are some special, delicate, breed of human who must be protected at all costs from the irritations and injustices other people have to contend with on a daily basis – far from it. It’s just that there will be an inevitable trade-off. If someone is working a 12 hour day in an office, what’s the likelihood they’ll also be writing the sequel to a favourite novel?
This morning I saw a tweet by Ben Aaronovitch, author of ‘Rivers of London’ and its sequels, amongst other things (if you haven’t read them yet then please do, they are wonderful) which linked to a review of ‘Resistance’, the latest book by Samit Basu. It’s a sequel to ‘Turbulence’ which apparently explores what happens when superpowers appear. I say apparently because I haven’t read it (yet, I shall be going to my local bookshop to obtain them later today).
I could blame the publishing industry for not promoting the books enough to catch my attention. The thing is, the publishing industry is also trying to survive. If we choose to buy millions of copies of something simply because of the buzz about it then who is really to blame?
If we want to read good, challenging literature then we should take responsibility for going out and finding it and reading it. Buying it or borrowing from libraries. Share it with friends. Spread the word.
The tweet that made me sad and prompted this long screed of a post was from Samit Basu. When asked when the next book was due he replied, simply ‘Will start work on it as soon as I can afford to.’
If we want a vibrant, worthwile, culture then we’re going to have to learn to pay for it. If we have limited resources then we need to choose wisely. If we buy only fleetingly relevant pulp fiction then that is all we’ll be given, because the rest will disappear.