Installing windows in cardboard

THE WRITER’S LIFE

EDIT: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS (below). Previously…

As we enter July, my battle with The Department for Work and Pensions moves into its tenth month. In the time it would have taken to grow new life inside me, I’ve written little as I’ve been exhausted by the struggle to regain the Personal Independence Payment I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, taken away like the benefits of millions of other claimants, along with much of the community social care infrastructure, so that this morally bankrupt, murderous fascist Tory regime can recover the vast sums they’ve wasted on Brexit, while awarding tax cuts to the wealthy and pay rises to themselves.

Ben FerenczBen Ferencz, The last Nuremberg prosecutor

I’ve not written much about the process of appealing an unfair benefit decision, because the incompetence of the government departments and out-sourced agencies involved is beyond fiction and farce. In desperation then, I wrote to my MP (a Tory), and in fairness to him as an individual, he did his job. I don’t have a resolution to my financial and mental health problems, but I’ve had the most coherent response I’ve had throughout this process from the social cleansing machine. My self-confinement box has a window.

In summary, I may still have another year to wait before I’m out the other end of this tunnel, and that’s going to be a year almost as hellish as the last, but I can see where I’m going. I’m over what could have been an immediate threat, if the machinery had somehow digested me completely and my housing benefit been cut, rendering me homeless (this time it wouldn’t have been my fault). What’s gone is a lot of the doubt, not knowing what’s going on because the machine is deliberately difficult to talk to. Now I’ve had human contact, from people who’ve taken the time to review my case as an individual. I feel slightly less dehumanised and statistical.

If I’m going to move on, I need to put the war with the machine to one side. Everything is in the hands of others now, and I can do nothing but wait. It’s a different kind of waiting than before, because at least I know I’m waiting for something.

But this isn’t all about me. This is for the thousands of others fighting for their lives with the social cleansing apparatus. My books are always free for the taking of leaves. If what I’ve done gives anyone else ideas, then I’ve not just written to shift this particular infection from my chest.

Here then is the abridged version of the last nine months, in the emails I’ve exchanged since making human contact inside the machine. Once I’d infiltrated it, I took advantage of the privilege to barely disguise a few side swipes. They must think me mad.

First, the email I sent to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in a fit of deliberate, barely coherent frustration, when the machine appeared to have chewed my case up and shit it out the other end, and which I copied my local MP into:

Dear Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service,

I’m growing concerned that I’ve not been given a date to appeal DWP’s decision to deny me PIP. I have a letter confirming that the case is active and that DWP have responded. I also have an SMS alert advising that I’d be given a hearing date by 7th June. The SMS provides a link to check the progress of my case, but when I enter my surname as requested, I’m told that name doesn’t match the appeal reference. It’s now one week since the date I was hoping to be advised of an appeal, so I hope someone can help. It seems the automated systems are at almost human pains to make life difficult, so I’m hoping for a more reasoned human input from the programmers.

I hope my local MP (Hi Tom) might forgive my unsolicited inclusion of him as a recipient of this, but not ignore it. My unconventional approach is representative of the many who wouldn’t be so bold. I represent the tip of an iceberg of people being slowly killed by the policies of The Department for Work and Pensions, presided over by his Conservative colleague, the Work and Pensions Minister, Amber Rudd.

I’m concerned that something may have gone amiss, so would be grateful of some advice as the situation has been ongoing with DWP since September (not your fault, I know). I’m writing to you in a state of personal desperation, in the hope I find a human, as this is the latest set-back / hold-up in my attempts to win back ‘benefits’ (human rights) I’m entitled to, and which the DWP seem to have a social cleansing agenda in the efforts and costs they incur to deny someone their personal liberty and independence. You are also the last place my case, my records and my paper trail existed. You’ll understand I hope that I don’t want to take this up with DWP as they are the opposing party and I don’t want to give them an excuse to cut off the remainder of my benefits (I’m now on non-enhanced ESA only).

If this is an opportunity to submit additional personal testimony as evidence, then I’ll add that DWP have made me much more unwell than I was when this process started. I suspect that’s their aim. I suffer from depression, anxiety and paranoia (as detailed in my original PIP questionnaire and notes on where I disagreed with the assessor (a physiotherapist, I believe, assessing a mental health claimant) in my mandatory reconsideration request.

DWP’s deliberate aim of derailing my progress is blatant in the paper trail of incompetence I have accumulated. Beginning with their mistakenly treating my request for a mandatory reconsideration as a new application. I need to ensure therefore that this appeal is to retain the PIP I’ve been paid for the last four years. Furthermore, DWP’s mistake has led to me being called for a health assessment for ESA, when I’ve been in the support group for the last four years. I have had to reschedule once already as the prospect of having to attend another assessment triggered a panic attack. When DWP mistook my request for a mandatory reconsideration, they sent me 800 pages of copy: my original application, and the same with notes for my reconsideration, all in duplicate. They seem to have two cases running at the same time, when I also have a letter from them setting out my ESA payments for the year ahead.

This is having a severe effect on my life: PIP qualified me for the self-carer (enhanced) element of ESA, which ceased at the same time as the assessor denied me the PIP I’d received for four years. As I live alone, I’ve been unable to care for myself (with help from friends) as I did when I was in receipt of the payments I’m entitled to. Again, I suspect this is part of DWP’s agenda, as well as grinding down my personal spirit with this whole process.

I’ve become socially isolated since my money was withdrawn. Without company, my anxiety and paranoia (and of course, depression) have grown worse. Where I was previously able to cope with flashbacks to events which caused my PTSD (the original knife attack in Lewisham, then various assaults on me when I was homeless and transient), I’m finding them gradually stronger and more disabling. If DWP’s ultimate goal is to reduce the number of benefits claimants by killing them, they should know that they’ve already caused me suicidal thoughts. It’s only the thought that I might get to see my children more often when I get PIP reinstated which keeps me going.

I understand PIP isn’t for helping with family and social needs (DWP have told me so in one of their many dehumanising letters), but being able to see my family is the nearest I have to being away from complete social isolation. My dad has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and DWP’s actions mean I may not see him again while he still remembers me. I feel not only that I’ve been dealt with unfairly by DWP but quite cruelly in fact.

The paperwork I have from DWP is overwhelmingly confusing and contradictory (perhaps deliberately so), so perhaps this submission of anecdotal evidence might prompt them to audit their dealings with me so they can see the errors they’ve made.

I would be grateful if someone could advise me of the status of my appeal, so that I may present myself to three professionals with the appropriate knowledge to judge my entitlement to PIP.

If someone has taken the personal time and trouble to read this, then please understand that I am genuinely grateful if I’ve finally been heard by a fellow human. I’m desperate, alone, afraid, and in need of some help to get my life back in my hands.

Apologies for length.

Cheers,

Steve.

That was just over a week ago. To his credit, my MP was quick to raise the matter with HMCTS himself:

Dear Mr Laker,

Thank you very much for your e-mail. I am grateful that you have raised this matter with me, and am sorry to hear about your troubles securing your PIP.

I have written on your behalf to Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunal Service. I attach a copy of this letter for your information and will be in touch as soon as I receive a reply.

Please let me know if there is any further action you would like me to take urgently on this issue otherwise I shall await their response.

Best wishes

Tom

HMCTS letter

Thoroughly nice chap. And today, I heard back from the courts:

Dear Mr Laker,

I am sorry that you have been given misleading information by our Track Your Appeal service. Unfortunately, the waiting times for a hearing date at Ashford are quite lengthy. Currently, the average waiting time for a PIP appeal to be listed for a hearing is 62 weeks. Your appeal is now 16 weeks old. Waiting times are only estimates and they do fluctuate.

I can appreciate that this is very disappointing and not the response that you were hoping for. I am going to treat your email as an urgent hearing request, which can then be considered by a Judge – they will make a decision about whether an urgent hearing can be granted.

Miraculous. Otherwise 62 weeks to wait for an appeal: It’s indicative of just how many appeals there are against DWP decisions, and an indictment of the fascist Tory social cleansing machine driving them. I’ll try to stay alive that long, where others might not make it (all by design of the cleansing system). I let my MP know and thanked him for his help:

Hi Tom,

HMCTS got back to me. I have to say that a 62 week wait for an appeal is indicative of the state of DWP and their agenda of denying payments to worthy claimants, and further observe that this whole approach must be costing the social cleansing machine much more than it would to pay deserving claimants rather than make them ill by making them feel like criminals begging for their human rights.

Nonetheless it’s a reply, and reassurance at least that my claim isn’t lost.

Thank you for your assistance sir. Although I’m not a Conservative voter, it’s nice to know there are humans in the party (I’m only repeating the general rhetoric in some sections of community). On a personal level, I’m very grateful that you took the time and for your help.

Cheers,

Steve.

Update: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS:

Dear Mr Laker,

Please find attached a copy of a letter I have received from Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, following my letter on your behalf.

I appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for. If you would like me to take this issue further then please let me know precisely what further steps you think might be required.

Best wishes,

Tom

HMCTS Page1

HMCTS Page2

So that’s all for now. There’s nothing more I can do, except try to put it aside in my mind for the next year (although being skint is a daily reminder). Although I don’t feel fully in control of the situation, making contact with human operators of the machine has cleared some creative space in my mind. It pays to rattle the cage and speak to your abductor.

My writing hiatus has lasted a human gestation period, and I have a lot of material backed up and waiting to come out. Bigger subjects; things on my mind, now that I’ve escaped the Borg which the fascist apparatus made me part of. The machine stole my time. It’s time I got back to being a writer.

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Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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As the middle generation of my living family, I’m the filling in the sandwich. Since my benefits were cut (my human rights taken away) by the government, my parents have helped with the humanitarian cause of visits to see my children. With my war on the Department of Work and Pensions looking to last at least another year, my days out with the kids are likely to become less frequent; and with dad’s health not improving (he has a Parkinson’s-related condition), getting all three generations together in one place will be a rare event.

I usually update the mothership with personal news during our weekly phone summit, and she relays highlights to dad, which of course he has trouble remembering. So I thought it might be quite nice if the sandwich filling wrote a letter to one slice of bread from the other; something for mum to read to dad, to keep the moment, and to read again when dad needs reminding of who everyone is and where they are.

Marmite2

THE MARMITE REPORT

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday. They said to say hello and back atcha with the love.

The day started well, when I got to my local rail station (West Malling) and the ticket office was closed. There were three other people there already who’d taken the seating area, so I stood like a hat stand at the ticket window. Eventually the curtain went up, and ever aware of people in the same space and their perception of me, I felt I should ask if I’d jumped the queue (if so I’d surrender the window, but I hadn’t). I was rewarded by a splendidly distinguished-looking headmistress of a lady, who simply smiled at me and said, “Well done.” Rather than increase my paranoia of being followed, studied, monitored and reported on, I felt a little self-satisfied with this approval.

The spirits continued to favour me when I thought to ask if I could buy the kids’ London Travelcards at the same time as my own ticket, gaining a 1/3 discount with my Network Railcard. Usually I buy the kids’ wheels tickets in London and they’re £5.60 each. It turns out, if the kids are travelling with me, I can buy their tickets on some grey market on the other side of that curtain behind the Perspex. I pointed out my lack of children as proof that they wouldn’t be travelling to London with me, just meeting me there. “No problem,” said the wizard, “Your ticket doesn’t say they’re travelling with you, only theirs do.” And that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, that small piece of human logic, meant I got to ferry the kids around London for £2.50 each.

We went to Spoons for lunch, as it’s always nice to sit down with the next generation and have time to talk (I continued the value day out by not eating or drinking; I was there for conversation and decoration). Both are doing well at school and applying themselves in their respective areas of personal interest. One is taller than all of us, and the other is almost as tall as our shortest.

The eldest is enjoying media studies, especially journalism and screen-writing. He’s looking forward to some upcoming modules, including one where he has to watch science fiction films. Naturally this makes me happy. The littlest is quite the accomplished artist, and has a thirst for language. As well as the three European ones she’s learning already, she has a fascination with all things South Korean, so she’s thinking about learning their lingo as well. This also makes me proud, while I myself can just about hold a conversation in British Sign Language. Handy when standing in front of a mirror.

The littlest’s linguistic timing skills were demonstrated over lunch, when she unexpectedly emerged from one of her existential trances (she stops talking when she’s eating, and switches to deep thought mode): “You know what really pisses me off?” my 12-year-old daughter asked.

The kids’ mum and second dad are fairly liberal when it comes to personal expression, and neither of the young people use expletives for their own sakes, nor because they lack vocabulary; they use syntax appropriate to the prevailing environment, reserving their more colourful language for deserving causes, and often to great comic effect. Anyway, what was pissing the littlest off was lost in the moment and buried in the subsequent outpouring of thoughts from trance mode. At various moments, we were transported in retrospect to North Korea, Japan, and Trumpland.

Both kids have a keen interest in world politics, far greater than I did at their age. They’re much more aware than I was in their technological age. We talk about the planet, about science, the future, and inappropriate humour. I envy the choices they have in education now, but they question its validity when there might be no tomorrow with freedom of choice. I’ve apologised on behalf of preceding generations for everything we’ve lumped on them. But as our sans Les Deux Magots intellectual debate concluded, we all need to work together and bear no grudges for the past.

The younger’s hunger for all things Asia was fed by a visit to a new South Korean food market which has popped up on Tottenham Court Road, then we were off to a Manga exhibition at The British Museum. It was less extensive than I’d expected, but it added to our collective knowledge of art and culture.

Wandering around the West End and Soho, the elder demonstrated something I hadn’t previously been aware of: an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. Several times he ran down the Top Trumps scores of the various supercars we saw (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren…) and pointed out the many electric vehicles in central London (including police cars), while reeling off their stat sheets. I was impressed, and once again proud.

Like all days out with the kids, it finished with a heavy heart as all good things must end. I made it like that, but I can never stop being their dad. They’re a credit to their mum and other dad, which is why we enjoy such engaging, intelligent and witty conversation on the odd day out. What makes me most proud, is that both of the kids ask me questions, about life, the universe and everything, and they note my answers. They bear a great burden, but they don’t begrudge it. Our children, and their children’s children, can teach us a lot. I have a faith, not in some human construction of a false deity, but that the next generation will see their own grandchildren, in a world which we’ve repaired. We can never stop being parents.

They send their love (again), but still refuse to pose for anything other than school photos. I admire their freedom of choice, as I know how much I hated having my photo taken as a teenager. Now we have social media. 

Times change and people change, but we’re all in this together and grateful of the past, when we wrote letters and closed personal sentiment in an envelope.

Marmite leafMarmite on toast recipe on BBC Good Food

So there we all (and you) are. Just as my parents used to read bedtime stories to me, and me to my children, now I’m writing stories for mum to read to dad. An occasional budget travel and social culture dispatch, whenever the reporters are free to roam, The Marmite Report binds the sandwich.

*Other yeast extract products are available.

The antonym of motivation

THE PHILOSOPHICAL CAT

I got an SMS from the fascist regime today, commanding me to call them. After queuing for 47 minutes and listening to messages on how I could otherwise fuck off, I was told I may need to provide photographic evidence of how that might make a criminal begging for their human rights shit in an envelope. In other news, the cat came home:

Cat Philosopher procrastination

The antonym of motivational is unmotivational. Positivism through pessimism and procrastination. If you’re a cat counselling humans.

On platform two with heels

FLASH FICTION

Ghost train

FOUR COACHES OF THE APOLOGISTS

Yesterday I felt like I’d turned on my favourite group of animals. My guts told me I’d swallowed a snake, and now it was writhing around, trying to eat me from inside.

I was on my way for a health assessment, not for my knotted stomach but the root of that anxiety in my head. My presence was demanded by the fascist regime’s social cleansing machine, and if my head didn’t win the battle, the contents of my guts threatened to make me late.

They’d never get what was going on with my head. It’s all in the mind, they say. Which of course, it is. But that’s where it stops with the machine. An incentive to make the appointment was to get that far with the contents of my stomach intact, ready to unload on any assessor who asked me how I was feeling.

You’re damned if you do or don’t with the machine. Clause 22 states that if you’re well enough to attend an assessment you’re fit for work. But if you fail to turn up (because you were struck by a panic attack, for example), you’re not engaging with the system, which is all the machine needs to cut you off financially, effectively ending your life.

I had a few minutes before my train was due, so I smoked a cigarette. A young girl asked me for a light and we struck up a brief conversation. She was going to London to visit her mum in hospital.

Back on the platform, the train was delayed by twenty minutes. I thought about phoning ahead to let the machine know I might be late. The smoking girl sat beside me, gazing at her phone. As the screen reflected her face, she could be sorry for being alive. I went out for another cigarette but we didn’t continue our conversation from earlier.

On the platform again, a mechanical centipede snaked around a corner in the distance, one minute away, according to the indicator. The train was formed of four coaches, so it might be a bit busy. Certainly I wouldn’t get a seat without neighbouring passengers.

The train pulled in at the other end of the platform (it only had four coaches), so I had to walk as others climbed into the mechanical animal. The driver smiled as I passed his cab. He was probably a man with a family, like all those in the body of the beast behind him. I watched the smoking girl board and decided to wait for the next train. I wouldn’t want to hold her up from seeing her mum, kept alive by machines.

I wondered if there was anyone else I should call. The next train was already going to make me late for sure. According to my phone history, there were only four numbers who’d called me lately anyway, and one of those was the machine.

The machine announces arrivals and departures, on the indicator board above the platform.

The omnipresent Kung Po chicken

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My real and online lives have always been blurred, and my fiction contains much which is real. The places and people of my imagination connect and fold in on each other and into parallel worlds besides. Where it all plugs in is The Unfinished Literary Agency, above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington: a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own.

mp_chicken_keyboardFollow me on Twitter

I have much written in longhand journals but little published lately, because I’m unable to finish anything with all that’s crowding my head personally. So it was ironic that I opened a page in ‘642 Things to Write About‘ today, to see ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

Sensing an urge, I stuffed 642 Things into my satchel and made my way to the Unfinished Literary Agency’s office, a place I feel I belong. Home is where the heart is, which is probably why I still have fond memories of being homeless in a world without judgement. Ink pumps through my veins, which is why I feel at home in the agency I wrote, one of many homes I created for myself.

When I arrived at the office, I found I wasn’t alone (even though I’d travelled that way). Not only is the agency home to myriad unpublished manuscripts, filed where most people think indie creative writing belongs (there is no direct sunlight in the office), now it was a nest for a familiar chicken.

Helen (‘Len’ in the short form) was the chicken I’d created when she hatched from a Campbell’s Soup tin in my kitchen back home in Catford. She’d subsequently disappeared in a flight of logic, when she proclaimed herself as God and we’d disproved her over dinner. That was a few weeks ago. Now she was seated at my desk (standing on the chair), pecking at my typewriter by candlelight.

Naturally I was curious about what Len was writing, but every time I tried to look, she obscured the paper in the typewriter with her wings. I asked her what it was she was working on, and she pointed at a pile of papers on the desk. It was at least a ream of A4, typed on both sides. Sensing I wasn’t going to get any keyboard time, I picked up the manuscript.

It was a report from The Department for Work and Pensions, their response to my appeal to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to hear my case for having my human rights returned. Was Len turning it into a surrealist novel, or writing a damning critique of its inaccuracy? For now the chicken wouldn’t let me see, so I tried to catch some sleep in a place I might find it easier than usual, away from home.

The hardest thing about writing is starting. Once you’re into it, things flow. Sometimes you can’t stop. Most of the time, the writing can’t keep up with the thinking. And so I slept, while a chicken transcribed whatever it was in her head.

When I woke, the chicken had gone. She’d apparently also found the switch for the desk lamp I once wrote into existence, in case I should ever run out of candles.

Everything else was as I’d left it after I’d last visited, except the in-tray of The Unfinished Literary Agency, a place where stories are told by writers, of people unable to write their own. There were suggestions, some so sparse and vague that they could be ideas for novels, typed on a space as small as a compliment slip:

The waters on Earth contain the answers humanity needs to explore the oceans of the cosmos. Over time, new bacteria will grow on the human pollution which floats on the oceans, and human science and technology will advance as it learns more from nature. Eventually, human scientists will realise that a single strain of DNA can hold more information than any artificial storage medium, and it can survive almost any environmental condition practically indefinitely. And ultimately, humanity will see that the new bacteria on the plastic polluting the oceans contains DNA encoded with a message of extraterrestrial origin.

Clever poultry. It’s amazing what you can do when you have someone else to write it for you. Apparently I hadn’t disproved Len that last time, but her creator. She’d also left some sketches of road plans based on Mobius strips, so she wouldn’t get run over again.

I rushed home to start writing again. It was only when I got back that I realised I left my DWP paperwork back at the office.

Pink Chick

Every night as you drift off to sleep, you sail through purgatory. The only way to pause and remember is to float on the lucid waves.

Being here and now and there and then, is what it feels like to be a writer, unable to know what happens next, but knowing where to go. Writing from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Making music and singing out from where the sun rarely shines.

This post was brought to you by the writing prompt, ‘Five ideas for a novel that you’ll never write’.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (Volume One) is available now.

Andy Warhol looks a scream

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION

With my fight for independence still very much ongoing with DWP, and mindful of a personal promise to keep writing and not let them take this from me, I remembered I’m a part-time surrealist, and I’ve not written much which is real or unreal lately.

Initially I thought I’d write a short story about poverty, food banks, and the UK government’s economic genocide. I decided that could wait, after I spotted a writing prompt which might permit me wider thought: ‘A can of soup’.

So I mixed up some paints to tell the real and fictional lives of a writer…

Chicken soup

CAMPBELL’S CHICKEN SOUP

I was hungry and lately I’d had a cold. I fancied chicken soup and CBeebies, or repeats of Doctor Who with Tom Baker and Matt Smith. But my cupboards were bear and my pre-pay meter low, so I decided to use the last of my electricity to heat a tin of Campbell’s soup given to me by Andy Warhol.

This being a piece of art history, the can displayed no use-by date. Given who it was from, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found an egg inside. Instructions too. I was to place the egg in an oven at the lowest possible setting, checking on it every two hours until it hatched.

My cooker is electric, so the lowest setting is 70 degrees. Fearing this might be a little warm, I left the oven door open. An egg was unlikely to attempt escape, but it would eventually hatch. My anxiety dictates I don’t go out much, but I had someone else to feed now, so I ordered some seeds on the internet.

After a couple of days, a yellow chick hatched and began frantically chirping at me. Too small to peck at the seeds I’d bought, I fed it liquidised food from a syringe I happened to have lying around.

It was impossible to tell if my chick was a boy or girl. In any other setting, if it’d been a girl, she’d have been reared for egg-laying, or fattened up for human consumption. A boy would be discarded, often destined to be reptile food. I called it Lenny, or Len, after Leonard Hofstadter, or Helen of Troy.

For the first few nights, I slept in the kitchen next to the warmth from the oven, waking every couple of hours to feed Lenny. In return, she (I’d decided) gave substance to my lonely life, where lately I’d have put my head in her home if I cooked with gas. After about a week, Helen was pecking at the seeds I’d bought.

I let Len live in the oven and left the door open. If she wished, she could have the run of the flat. She grew quickly and after a month, she was of a size which wouldn’t look out of place in a supermarket freezer.

Some birds are born with very large head-to-body ratios (the corvids, penguins, parakeets and parrots), and many are as intelligent as dolphins or the great apes. All birds are born with instincts. The first is imprinting the face they see on hatching as that of their mother.

I was Leonard Hofstadter’s mum, noted psychologist Dr Beverley Hofstadter. As though prompted by that, Len developed some strange behaviour, and I wondered if it might also be instinctive.

Lenny kept getting out of the cooker and pressing the buttons on the front. She started plucking at her feathers, as though preparing herself for roasting, like an old Doctor Who on a carving trolley at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I had a depressed chicken. Was it because mine was the first face she saw when she’d hatched? Or was Helen actually Leonard, burdened with a childhood lived in shadows? I switched the oven off at the mains.

Just lately I’ve been so broke that I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. Now I’ve got Len, I took a doorstep loan and put money on the electric key, so she wouldn’t need the oven to keep warm. It means she can watch TV as well, and she loves CBeebies.

Tomorrow we’ll visit the local charity shops to buy my chicken some toys. We’re out of food, so we’ll have to go to the food bank as well.

© Steve Laker, 2019

It all started when Andy Warhol painted a Campbell’s soup can. I just wondered what happened to what he painted. Can’t tell them apart at all.

Increased risk of independence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Almost exactly six months since the process started, I’ve made progress in regaining the ‘benefit’ of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). There’s a long way to go, and I might have been out the other side of the mincing machine by now, were it not for the Vogon incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions. But I’m one stage nearer to winning a human right back from the Tory social cleansing apparatus. Here’s what’s happened so far, including an insight into the dehumanising methods the machine employs to encourage applicants to give up (on life, to kill themselves).

Vogon assessorA DWP decision-maker

In short, it’s like being put on trial when you’re reaching out for support. Meanwhile I’ve survived the last six months on charity, but with little of the independence I had six months ago.

Way back on 3rd September last year, I was required to attend a biannual health assessment, or ‘Fitness for work’ (despite being signed off sick pretty much for life). The assessments are out-sourced to a private company (with shareholders focussed on profits, and whose directors recently awarded themselves £40m in bonuses (presumably for saving the government so much money by denying benefits to claimants)), and the assessors are all ‘medically qualified’. But unlike a GP who might know the claimant personally, or another health care specialist who may understand their patient’s condition, these out-sourced assessors are ‘medically qualified’ as having once worked in any field of medicine. At my most recent appointment, the assessor was a physiotherapist: hardly the best qualification for understanding mental health, which is where my disabilities lie.

The assessments are timed to be around 3-4 weeks before a claimant’s previous benefit period ends. The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made. This deliberate timing is just one of a number of factors which stack the odds against the applicant by making the whole process as difficult as possible.

My depression was diagnosed as an underlying contributor to a number of my life functions back in 2011, following a knife-point robbery after I’d been drinking in Lewisham. After an initial diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my alcohol dependence was linked to depression, where one quite happily fuels the other and often leads to the kind of mental breakdown I had in 2013, when I was unable to cope, so I drank my life away, lost everything and ended up on the streets, where I found many more causes for the multiple PTSD diagnoses I now have. I have physical function, but it’s impaired by my anxiety. This has entitled me to PIP for the last four years, as I’m almost constantly anxious of reminders from a life on the road haunting me with threats of repeat. All of this had gone into my re-application form, and was conveyed verbally while not being able to maintain eye contact with the government-outsourced automaton.

Like so many others, my application was denied, and I was judged to require no help with anything, by someone who’d never met me before and didn’t care to know me. The next stage then is to ask for a ‘Mandatory reconsideration,’ which concludes as the first assessment found, after a second decision-maker has given the initial application a cursory glance (which takes a further 6-9 weeks). It’s just kicking a can down the road. It’s at that point where one is able to appeal to have their case heard at tribunal. This is where the phone calls to DWP’s PIP helpline engage gears in the social cleansing machinery. I was sent the wrong letter by DWP, so was prevented from launching an appeal. On that occasion, it turned out they’d treated my request for a mandatory reconsideration as an initial claim, despite the fact they’d already declined the latter, and asked me to notate the 32-page report from my assessor and decision-maker.

Finding someone who’ll treat you as human at DWP is like a game of telephone Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike lucky, but often you won’t. You’ll fail, or that’s how you’re meant to feel. But back to the telephone system, the largest grinding machine in the apparatus, like a steam punk combine harvester protecting a Victorian dehumanising farm behind it. If DWP were a private company, they’d be as financially bankrupt as their government is morally, all the while committing economic murder.

If the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had words, I’d know them by heart, having spent several hours in all on hold. But they play the Karaoke version, at deafening volume, and as though through a really cheap, tinny sound system. That distortion of reality is only the start of a process designed to break you down, without even any direct human contact, like military drones operated remotely and killing civilians.

While listening to Antonio’s work being strangled, there’s no indication of a caller’s position in the queue or the time it might take to be answered. My waiting time has averaged around 20 minutes every time I’ve called, which has been daily for the last couple of weeks. Once you get through, you’re in a minefield.

Ask a question they can’t answer and they’ll cut the line (never lose your patience or raise your voice. My tongue is sore from being bitten many times). Even when you think you’ve got somewhere, once you’ve had your query (their mistake) rectified, they simply don’t do as you’ve asked them to, and which they say they will. In fits of wanton inefficiency, they send the wrong paperwork, lose information you’ve sent in, or forget to act at all. Anyone less able (infirm, with a shorter fuse, with less tenacity) would give up, which is what they want. It becomes like a conspiracy against the person, and with depression and anxiety comes the third of the unholy trinity in my head, the paranoia (that this will never end).

I reached the end of some sort of tether today, when I tried for the fourth time to extract the ‘Manadatory Reconsideration Notice’ necessary to start an appeal, because I’d been sent three copies of the initial refusal in the course of as many weeks. Despite DWP allowing themselves up to nine weeks to respond to applicants, it’s only 28 days allowed when the boot is on the other foot (although it’s more like your opponent removing their outer footwear to lend you their socks). So when it came to asking for the correct letter to be sent by post today (DWP use 2nd Class mail), I had little faith in my fourth attempt being successful, or of the dates on the incorrect letters being changed to give me back the time DWP had wasted. My period of grace to appeal was coming to an end. I was running out of time.

I don’t believe in God, but if he (or the aliens, or whomever) woke me up this morning, they hadn’t finished with me yet. They had plans for me. I didn’t so much pray before I got on the phone to DWP, as prepare myself to break down if I met yet another wall, after a further several minutes of excruciating Vivaldi and of eating my own teeth. The game of telephone Russian roulette got me through to someone who was human, and like any good operator at a functional enterprise, they put my call through to a different department. I feared being lost in the system again, but I’d found myself on the phone to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The divine intervention, the extraterrestrial contact, whatever it was which answered my half-arsed prayer, what happened different today was circumnavigating DWP.

I found myself talking to a human at HMCTS, who told me I could launch an appeal against DWP online. This was news to me, and not information which DWP will volunteer themselves (they don’t want to be sued). But now they’re ‘The defendant,’ and thanks to that (God-sent) human (or alien) at HMCTS, my appeal is now lodged, with me as ‘The appellant’. If I’d been told I could do this a month or two ago, I might be out the back of the machine by now.

There’s a long way to go still. I have to attend the appeal hearing and win, then I have to wait a further 4-6 weeks for my payments to be reinstated. But it’s hopefully more of a downhill slope now than the slow and steep one which got me to this great height and nearly had me throw myself off it. Because it did, and now I can admit it. There were times over the last six months when DWP’s incompetence convinced my paranoid mind that I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t see an escape from the frustration, and instead saw a life where I’d have no independence. That was one I didn’t want to live.

It means I can get on with life while I wait. It means I can regain my independence, by spending the time I’d have liked with my parents, and more with my kids (And being more cheerful company). I need to win the appeal, but I have the last two times, and over 70% of appeals are successful. So it begs the question: Why incur the expense? Why put people through it? Because in fascist economics, enough will be beaten that those who make it to tribunal only represent a few of those who originally applied. This is not Britain’s Got Talent.

That’s where I’ve been for the last six months, in some competition where the aim is not to fail, but everything’s thrown at you to ensure you tire and give up. It’s been a constant worry, day and night. I’ve not been sleeping or eating. I’ve not been taking care of myself, which is what happens in the deeper depths of depression, and I’ve become more unwell. That’s lived in my mind with me alone in the midst of it, unable to explain what I can’t understand, and once thinking I couldn’t carry on in that confusion. I reached out for help and I’m still on public trial. How many others don’t make it?

Discouragement conspirator

I deal with the life inside my head by employing fiction to try to convey what’s in there, to make it more entertaining than the reality, and perhaps helping me to understand it by getting it all out while not being completely open. It’s my writing as therapy. Now I can write those stories I already outlined, but which I couldn’t concentrate on because a Vogon Bureaucrat would creep in from the real world which was consuming me. I need to rebuild this home I made for myself, by insulating it with words. Our minds are a dangerous place, mine especially so, when I have so much time to dally there alone and excluded.

Your pain could be for a reason, a necessary path which is already predetermined to get you to somewhere you once wished you were. You may not want to exist right now, but someone’s glad you do. Keep moving and try not to dwell, for this too shall pass. Now I can write again.

Buy me a coffee one off