strimmer head

I’ve been doing a lot of strimming (US: weed whacking, Aus: brush cutting) recently. For money (more on that, soon). Which made me notice that the insert for my strimmer head was actually wearing out. I didn’t know how badly it was worn until I bought a new one (pictured right).

It will interest almost no one to know why I never fell in love with money or capitalism, but it’s my blog and I’m going to tell you anyway. (There’s a lot about money in the news at the moment – and it’s about time I got a few things off my chest and onto yours.)

In July 1989, two days after my university final exams, I went to London to be a rock star. I felt 18-something years of education was long enough and had a life to get on with. London was the centre of the universe and so that’s where I went. I was deadly serious. I’d joined a band and everything. Unfortunately it was a shit band.

My debts were modest, at around £2,500, almost exclusively a result of running the car, then van, I used for band practices, gigs and recording.

But the debts didn’t stay low. Finding a job with an arts degree is notoriously difficult – and the NatWest Bank was charging me, if memory serves, £2.50 per day, plus 29% interest, plus other charges. Every cost, from the £220 a month rent, to the £2.60 a day Travelcard I bought to go into Soho to look for a job, to the £10 spent on pizza to feed me and an even more broke friend all came out of my overdraft.

(One of my greatest mistakes was to not sign on at the job centre or claim for housing benefit – information I feel strongly should be part of the school and university curriculae.)

Letters from the bank, which came often (at a cost of £25 each to me, plus interest), were left unopened. What could I do, when I was already doing my best? I tried eight jobs in seven months, all of which cost more money than they earned me. Finally, by Christmas 1989, I got a job in Ratners for about £95 a week – the first serious money I had ever earned. By this stage the debt had grown to an impressive £10,000 (at 29% interest, plus charges).

To put this in perspective, a three-bed house with garden in Fulham cost around £40,000 at the time.

Eventually, the bank called poor, young, jobless me in for a meeting and I signed papers to turn this overdraft into a loan. Very nice for the bank. Seven long years of paying back £250 a month for me.

Two years later, I remember talking to a Financial Adviser in a bar in Leicester, where I’d gone to find a full-time job in advertising. I said all I wanted was to be rid of this debt. That’s easy, he said. Take out a life insurance policy with me today, and kill yourself tomorrow. OK, I said with a strained smile. All I want is to be rid of the debt and still alive.

Four and a half years after that, back on the outskirts of London, I received a statement from the bank that I thought said I had paid off the debt. I remember sitting there, looking at the paper, nearly crying with unexpected relief. Then I saw I had another six months of my sentence to go. No change there.

Six months later, I resigned my job. I’d gone into advertising to pay off the debt, and the debt was paid. It was 1997. I was 30.

So, for the almost no one still reading, it should come as no surprise why I never bought into the acquisition of stuff thing. I never had the money. Nor did I put money into a pension (despite attempting to sell life insurance, commission only, during that summer of 1989), because the bank took it. A bank I believe acted with criminal negligence that, if I had followed professional advice, would have cost me my life.

As a completely unforeseen side-effect, the bank’s unforgiveable behaviour has led to the life I have now. It’s a good life (except, one day a week, when I have to put on a suit and earn money to pay for diesel and insurance – because I can’t barter eggs and sausages to fill the car yet), and one that I see increasingly being promoted as the only way forward.

I suppose you could say I was lucky. Because I was never seduced by the owning of many shiny, new, precious things, and never had the prospect of a pension at the end of it all, I could walk away from capitalism with ease. But I can tell you, it hasn’t always been easy. And as you may or may not know, there’s no such thing as luck.

One of the possible reasons the mayor came round the other week was that, after two and a half years of living without an income, we are now – officially – Poor.

(The reason for the delay is that your rights to benefit in France are measured on what you earned two calendar years ago. I earned over €26K in the first half of 2007 – and was self-employed – therefore had no rights until this January, despite the fact that we spent all of that income buying yurts. This January, I got a letter from social services saying how poor we are, based on our 2008 income, which I was told to take it to the mayor’s office to see if they could help pay the kids’ school meals. The reason why I think it prompted the mayor’s visit is that the first words out of her mouth were: “Are you OK for money?” And: “Can you feed the children?” The implication here is that it’s OK for adults to starve to death – just as long as the kids are OK. Although what the kids do after they lose their parents is anyone’s guess. I reassured her, telling her were we eating our pigs.)

When I had my follow-up meeting with the mayor, she said I must go and see the CAF (social services) to see if they could help pay for the kids’ school meals.

I arranged an appointment and was told (apart from what a great idea a yurt camp is) it was nothing to do with the CAF and I should go and see the CIAS to see if they could help pay for the school meals.

I arranged an appointment and was told (apart from ‘school meals don’t cost very much’ – they do if you don’t have any money) to go and see the mayor’s office to see if she could help pay for the school meals.

Which brought us back to square one. A familiar square. (Perhaps I should give it a Proper Name. Square One has a nice ring to it.)

We went without an appointment and were told ‘lots of people are in difficulty – and look at what’s going on in Portugal and Greece’ – though not by the mayor.

Naturally, we could waste more time going round and round in circles. But we’re busy people. We decided to take the kids out of school for lunch after the holidays and went back to work.

I suppose picnics in the park near the school, next to the river, with our own ham and home-made bread, might be nice. Especially now the good weather’s on the way.

The Very Exciting Idea I had the other day is a way of raising money to make écovallée even more fabulously eco.

It’s called: “YURTOPOLY”.

As might be expected from the name, it’s a Game/Prize Draw/Thing where players pay €2 for the chance of winning a week in écovallée in July 2010. Having investigated it a little further, it might well be illegal.

But the possibility of super-eco-luxury having raised it’s beautiful head again (rather than the less glamourous although less expensive and therefore open to more People Like Us alternative), I carried on thinking.

And my think went like this: What we’re doing here, fighting the French system to open a sustainable, forward-looking etc etc business, is a bit like cycling from John O’ Groats to Land’s End and back again – several times – only more demanding. And people get sponsored to do that kind of thing. Which is how “FRIENDS OF ECOVALLEE” came to be.

It would cost €10 to become a Friend; for €50 you could become a Good Friend (and have a free massage when you’re here); for €100 you could become a Great Friend (and get two nights free when you book a week); and for more than that you could become a Soulmate and enjoy our unending love and appreciation (two people have already done this).

My question to you is: What do you think? All comments welcome.

I could get used to this.

Two weeks ago, we were at the point of wondering if we could afford toilet roll or whether we should put the appallingly low-quality junk mail to re-use. We had €3.15 to last until September, with bills to be left unpaid, a mortgage to put us overdrawn – all that not-so-fun stuff.

Then my older brother arrived and, very generously, stocked us up on beers, juice, wine and sundries. Then I opened a letter with belated money back from the solicitor, as you know. Yesterday, I opened another letter with a tax rebate from my paltry income last year: €1,000 euros.

‘Yes,’ said the fairly godless mutha, ‘you shall have the sand for your second-stage sewerage treatment before winter.’

I feels very much like we’ve hit financial bottom and bounced back up again. Again.

(One day, if you’re very good, I might even tell you the story about how the criminal banking practices of NatWest at the end of the last recession nearly killed me; a tale which, although disgraceful, criminal and almost unforgivable, put me firmly on the anti-capitalist, anti-materialist path that will have me and my family living happily ever after.)

You know when you get some unexpected money and then something comes along, like a car service or a broken boiler, and takes your excess spondoolies away almost to the penny? This has just happened the other way round.

Last week we got a letter from the social services telling us we’re entitled to €280 euros to send The Daughter back to school (which means we can pay the mortgage and phone bill).

Today I opened a letter from our solicitor with a belated rebate cheque that will not only pay the outstanding (and very impressive) water bills, put petrol in the car and juice on the breakfast table, but could even pay for the upcoming Controle Technique (MOT equivalent).

Minor miracles, but we take them where we find them.

(Just came back from the social services in Bergerac, where the woman who’s given us months of grief has been replaced by a young, good-looking, very helpful temp; I had a feeling things were going to go well when I found a free parking space outside the office. On the way home all the traffic lights were green – if I didn’t know better, I’d go out and buy a lottery ticket.)