On Friday, after a job interview in Ingerland, I jumped straight on a train and made my way to Dublin by boat.
Is it a bit precious to say that I found this… thrilling? Not just thrilling in a “wheeeeee I’m home” way, because I’ve visited home before; staggering off a plane after an overnight journey, jetlagged and tired, is nice but not exciting. What I liked was the scale, the ability to travel between countries, in a few hours, without ever leaving the ground. Like anyone sensible I hate flying, but the joy of this journey was more the closeness of a human-scaled landscape. One of the things that bothered me about Canada was its sheer size; as David Tennant’s character says in Broadchurch, “the sky goes on forever.” Cities in Canada are isolated in a way that you can’t really understand if you spend a lifetime in Britain or Ireland; surrounded entirely by wilderness, inescapable without a motor vehicle.
Maybe this is why the car is a symbol of freedom in North America in a way that people on crowded little islands don’t really understand. Cars aren’t necessary here to escape, they just bring you onto a crowded traffic system which is bursting with stress. In Britain or Ireland you escape by walking, and I like walking. Other people probably find the vast empty spaces of North America exciting, liberating even. I thought I would, too; turns out that I’m all about the close-knit rolling hills. How terribly bourgeois of me.
Anyway, on Friday I managed to convince a UK company that I’m employable – hurray! So, given that I started off talking about liberation, it might be a good moment to talk about dependency.
Dependency is a horrible word. It’s often used in conjunction with the word “welfare,” part of the bog-standard obsession with poor people that seems to exist as the obviously-wrong yin to the “bloody bankers” yang.
As I’ve alluded to a few times, I left Canada under circumstances that weren’t exactly happy. Many of these are personal, messy and not for public consumption, but the final push was so banal it begs to be shared: due to a mess in the immigration department, my work permit application (well, my office’s application for a Labour Market Opinion, but it amounts to the same thing) had been in limbo for three and a half months; as the two-months-out-of-work mark approached I decided enough was enough. This was partly financial, and partly just the cabin fever of not working, but…
…but. What began driving me demented, instilling me with that familiar feeling of restless languour that will be entirely familiar to anyone who’s been out of work, was the sense of not being in control of my own life. Since I had absolutely no timeframe for when the work permit dithering would be sorted, every day entailed waking up with the hope that today might be the day and waiting until about eleven for a phone call, ready to hot-foot it down to Niagara Falls where I could do the necessary at the border. At that point it passed the I-can-sort-it-today mark and so I would go out, without the money to do anything much, but it was better than sitting in a flat with crap internet and those basic cable channels that just dared me to keep watching docusoaps that featured white trash arguing loudly with itself in pawnshops.
Never, ever being in control – just waiting for officialdom to bestow me with a sense of self-respect again. There are no other options with a work permit – you can’t go and get another job because you aren’t allowed, and you can’t do anything to make it go faster because you’ll just end up yelling down the phone at someone and making it worse.
After a while, the rational part of my brain went quiet. The ridiculous delay began to feel, in some strange nebulous way, personal. I wasn’t deluded enough to feel that Canada had a personal grudge against me, but I was firmly convinced that it didn’t really give a toss whether I was there or not. This is empirically true for anyone, really; still, the feeling of being a file-someone’s-going-to-get-to brings this sense that you don’t matter to anyone. You aren’t part of the country, or the workforce, or the system: you’re outside everything, with no stake in how anything operates. In short you’re an irritation, and you know with certainty that everyone with any power over your situation wishes it would just go away so they can go home and have their tea.
This isn’t meant to be a poor-me whinge or a dig at the Canadian government. What happened is terribly unmalicious and boring; somebody decided to overhaul the foreign worker programme for reasons they probably thought were important, resulting in a bureaucatic mess being created at an administrative level, and so a procedure that took two weeks last year was lengthened to nominally six-to-eight weeks this year… and still hadn’t been resolved after fifteen weeks or so. Given that I have a Comfortable Middle Class Job and understanding employers, this shouldn’t have been – wasn’t, if I’m being honest – particularly catastrophic.
Yet in just two months of a reasonably comfortable, if frugal existence – I wasn’t going hungry, for example – I’d become apathetic, irrational, and didn’t really want my situation to be resolved. I didn’t want to go to the border, because it seemed big and scary and an opportunity for me to arse things up by saying the wrong thing to a po-faced bloke in a uniform. I didn’t want to deal with officaldom because I already half-believed it to be blithely inimical. I didn’t really want to go back to a job I’d previously enjoyed, because I felt conspicuous and out-of-place and like I’d fallen behind.
So the first thing to learn from this is that I’m a limp-wristed dick who needs a good slap around the chops every now and then.
But the other thing? Those who are part of a much-derided “dependency culture” live in a similar-but-worse circumstance of powerlessness, or at least the feeling of powerlessness (which is effectively the same thing). To borrow a quote from this sharp piece about the rise of the BNP among th U.K.’s poor: “In none of these places was there any sense of hope or a vision of how things could be. Basically, ‘life’ was something that happened to them, not something they had a say in.”
People demonise benefit cheats, and the retort of Lefty Pinkos like me is generally to say that the problem doesn’t exist to any meaningful extent. This is true. However, I’d go further and say I’m not actually that bothered about the few people who do scam the dole at all. To me, it seems a perfectly rational and natural response to being down the dole queue for too long; getting a few quid you shouldn’t, and doing some work without anyone finding out, is just about your only means of taking control of your circumstances. Sure, you’re cheating the system, but you don’t feel like you have any stake in the system so tricking it is a bonus, not a source of shame. You’re robbing your fellow citizens, but whenever you turn on the television your fellow citizens are telling you you’re a problem, so they can go fuck themselves too. And to use another favourite line, the one about the “culture of entitlement,” the point is that if you don’t have a job and you don’t see any prospects of getting one, your entitlements are all you’ve bloody well got. You know that all authority is out to get you, because that’s all its ever done, and your entitlements are the only weapon to use against it.
The cure for me was pretty simple: head to the UK, where I could actually look for work again. Most people don’t have an out, the poor sods. And frankly, no matter how ill-gotten some gains might be, I don’t begrudge them a penny. For most people in power, a two-month hiatus or a three-day wait for the dole cheque is an unfortunate-but-inevitable inconvenience of the system; there seems to be no understanding that, for those on the receiving end, it can be a choice between “don’t feed the kids” and “go to a moneylender.”
None of this offers any practical solution to the “unemployment problem,” although all the historical data suggests “give people jobs” will solve that one sharpish. It’s just that it should be talked about with a good deal less glibness and a good deal more fucking sense. That’s not so hard, is it?