We’ve all seen those ads and articles. “Mother from Sheffield becomes a millionaire with this scheme.” “With ambition and hard work you can achieve anything.” “Friends are stunned as this guy gets rich quick.”
Almost all of these – even when rarely and remotely rooted in any kind of reality at all – are about individual success, financial rewards, and material accumulation. They’re never about helping people or making the world a better place. We associate income with success, because of decades of individualistic culture that places responsibility on the person rather than a collective system that offers opportunities for a dignified life for all.
So I thought I’d be brave, come clean, and give this piece a title that puts a spin on that theme. That’s right: the more good I have done, the poorer I’ve become. Yes, after numerous ventures and learning experiences, I’m enjoying more social impact than at any other time in my life…and I’m now on just over four thousand a year. Go me!
As a self-employed person now officially under the poverty line, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been at a social occasion and an acquaintance or family friend has asked me, ‘How’s business?’ They probably have no idea what I even do, but assume that because I’m a city slicker and self-employed “professional,” I’ll be looking to make money, and as I’m a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, that I’m looking to expand a business. After all, not-for-profit doesn’t mean you aren’t for generating those proceeds to pump back into the organisation, baby!
The fact is, as I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve never had a proper job.
My upbringing and education probably influenced my feminism, but I was never really “one of the boys” at school – I preferred hanging out with girls, and I was slightly camp, and really interested in not just football but art as well as She-Ra dolls, so suffice to say, growing up in working class Doncaster under Thatcherism, I was bullied quite badly, so I was taught at home by my mother after being pulled from the traditional education system, which later on – in order to gain some qualifications – I tried and tried to re-enter in some way, only to have a rough time at college, and then make some shitty films on a media degree at Barnsley College before dropping out, instead spending most of my student loan on travelling.
The Canadian tourists I’d met on a university trip to Paris, France, invited me to visit them, so I did – and while in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I met a leopard-print wearing, cigarette-smoking separated American mother-of-three whose redneck ex apparently warned her, “You’re making a mistake hanging out with your little Duke from England!” While visiting Toronto’s Hard Rock Cafe, making references to the obscene Howard Stern film Private Parts and its fictional “Duke of Rock” character, we co-opted her ex’s jibe and came up with the self-deprecating internet handle “Duke of Hard Rock.” With few options or plans in life at this point in my early twenties, I shocked my parents by packing my bags, getting a flight, and going to stay with her in Boardman, Ohio (which I referred to as “Boredom, Ohio”).
That’s when things got really weird. Believing I might do what her ex did and hook up with other women behind her back, she pulled a kill-switch on the internet whenever she went to work, so I was stuck jobless at home eating Pop-Tarts and watching shitty American television shows while my parents failed to hear back from me for increasing periods of time. I eventually couldn’t take it any more and protested her possessiveness, so she agreed to take me to the airport on the proviso that I never uttered a single word, which I didn’t for the duration of the 45 minute drive (I knew she was serious – she jammed the brakes on the car and told me to get out right there in a field near Indiana one time because I’d apparently said the wrong thing…I was young but not a total fool, so I promised to nod and agree and nothing more). By going to the airport, I’d just narrowly avoided the arrival at her house of her ex and his brother, who had an impressive collection of guns – and by the time my parents decided to finally contact authorities, my would-be partner returned to her house to a police squadron, the feds believing I was a missing visitor from Britain who could very likely have been shot dead (a slightly melodramatic overreaction). I was already on a plane, flying out of Pittsburgh Airport via New York just days before September 11th, 2001. I came out alive, and came home just as my money had run out, even if my luck hadn’t (my old friend Dez jokingly says the nickname should be “Duke of Hard Luck” instead).
After that, back in Tony Blair’s Britain, New Labour’s welfare-to-work programmes saw me put on a placement at Rotherham Arts Centre where I worked full-time, Monday to Friday, 9-5, for my welfare cheques, for most of the year. “A hand up, not a hand out,” according to Blair. Oh, it was a new kind of labour, all right. Be that as it may, I got offered a job in the multimedia department of young people’s services and somehow managed to become a qualified youth worker and, later, tutor in the community sector. When my youth project was shut down, my newfound arty-farty friends in community work encouraged me to apply for funds to continue it under a brand-new organisation, SilenceBreaker Films, which I spearheaded, in return for contracted projects those friends would then receive work from. There were bohemian parties and pansexual escapades. With many of us on unstable incomes, we tried to band together and take care of each other, we even founded Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR), but just as with welfare-to-work it was, ultimately, survival over sustainability. There was no real long-term plan or genuine solution on offer to the problems presented. Yes, I ran film workshops in disadvantaged communities, I organised anti-racism concerts and set up numerous initiatives. But we started and completed projects, leaving communities upon completion, grabbed whatever we could to keep being paid for work with value, and we even became protectivist in our approach, while I yearned for some sense of sustainability. Communities were often back to square one once our funding had run out. These anxious feelings – of protectionism while missing sustainability – would only be amplified for me for a while by my decisions that followed.
SilenceBreaker Films was now seeing annual turnovers of hundreds of thousands, and I’d made a couple of overly-ambitious guerrilla documentaries about various social issues, bringing in some funding to cover costs and hire my trusty band of camera and sound operators, musicians, and editors, but ultimately – seeing as I’d accidentally found myself working so hard single-handedly managing massive budgets and projects that I’d somehow earned £40,000 one year – pumped almost half of that back into the cost of the films and on artist fees, meals, travel, and accommodation for my friends. I myself never received any pay for any of it (after all it was my own wild ideas that were being made into films and subjecting everyone to this bizarre adventure!), and I never even thought to try and claim these expenditures back from the Inland Revenue. What I had left, after living costs and rent on a £300 studio apartment in West One overlooking Sheffield’s Devonshire Green, I spent generously on social occasions and travelling whenever I had chance.
I met someone in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto, while visiting there, and we connected, with both at crossroads in life. Another artist, she was separated from her husband, with two small children, and was moving into social housing while re-evaluating her own life aims and plans. She suggested that I move in with her, but aside from having “Bordedom, Ohio” still fresh in my mind, I had further projects to run back in Sheffield, England, so for a while it remained a painfully challenging long-distance relationship. Nonetheless, as trips across the Atlantic became increasingly frequent for me, and connections I made there in arts and activist circles became more interesting and inspiring, I set a date to make the move permanently (visa permissions pending). “This will be nothing like Boredom, Ohio,” she promised me.
Despite several of my artist friends back in Blighty starting to become irrationally resentful of my impending move overseas, my oath of loyalty to them meant I kept postponing my projects until their own schedules permitted them to work on them, leaving myself hardly any room to get the projects wrapped up in time, and my committee had already processed some payment to me up-front, so I had to try my best to come back post-move to get everything completed, but failed miserably as time eventually ran out and I was stuck in Canada. My musician friend expressed outrage at my decision to move away, bizarrely suggesting “a clean break” in a reaction I couldn’t understand since we were best friends, and then, while I was 3,000 miles away, persuaded the committee to remove me completely from the projects and SilenceBreaker Films itself so she could step in and take over, before shutting the whole thing down and transferring all of its assets – from production equipment to even a fully mobile cinema – to an organisation she and the others were now running. She absolutely buried me with British funding bodies in a way which blacklisted me with some still to this day, completely assassinated my character to the rest of our group of friends and collaborators, wrote songs about me, and procured Arts Council funding to spend seven years making a theatre show about a sinister caricature of me, portrayed by an ex-Hollyoaks actor.
It’s said that changing job, moving home, or getting married are three of the most stressful things in modern capitalist society. I did all three at the same time – get ‘em all out of the way in one go! Settled in Canada with all my worldly possessions shipped over and with the safe refuge of new-found friends and artists, activists, and academics, picking up an accent along the way, I set about creating a broader community organisation there: SilenceBreaker Media, utilising not just the medium of film but various media, all in ways to amplify the voices of marginalised groups there. Given my Canadian partner had been married twice before and we initially shared no enthusiasm for marriage, our wedding was something we agreed on as a way to increase my chances of getting a visa – what the heck, why not? (Yes, I know, I’m a romantic bastard.) Living in our social housing co-operative, I continued with my big plans for SilenceBreaker Media there in-between days of Play-Doh and Dora the Explorer, raising her two young sons I absolutely loved and adored, while she went back to university for a degree in Communication Studies. I held the official premiere of my documentary there after eventually getting hold of its footage, following a period where my friends back in Britain literally held it hostage. They seemed to enjoy sticking the knife in as much as they could. But there was nothing I could do about the shit being done or said about me over there – it hurt, but my partner understood and supported me; I was in Canada now, forging fresh initiatives, with a $4.2m bid for funds to open up a dynamic local community media centre in the works, though I was still stuck on what the sustainability of it all was, and struggling for that elusive visa I naively assumed was to be easily obtained. My partner seemed quite content with my status not enabling me to work, and I was increasingly at home taking care of the kids while she was out clubbing with our newfound friends, and all this became a point of contention as after several months I realised things seemed to be progressing for everyone except me, where I couldn’t carry out the work we’d planned, and couldn’t even have a bank account, and once again, my own money had run out and I felt dis-empowered and I wasn’t acting like myself. I wanted things to change, but promises made to me were never kept. This wasn’t what I’d made the move for. I had run out of patience, and requested changes, or, I said, there was no point continuing as we were, and we should re-evaluate the situation by strategising to spend some time apart, amicably, in a way where I could stand on my own two feet before we made a better go of it.
The high road, she did not choose. In a total shitstorm, I was kicked out of her apartment, told to tell her sons goodbye, and forced to crash on the floors and sofas of basements and spare rooms of friends for weeks – while overcoming the shock of it all and contemplating stupid decisions, major mistakes, misplaced trust, and that concept of “Boredom, Ohio.” I took a casual cash-in-hand job as an arts dogsbody but quit after being treated in a way I felt was unfair. The only other job offer I had was selling pot for the local dealer, and though naturally I was flattered, I had a sneaky suspicion that it wouldn’t quite get me a visa. Call me crazy! I was fast running out of options for survival in Canada, and down to my last few wrinkled dollars.
Yes, it’s also often said that a major cause of stress can be losing your marriage, your kids, your home, and your job prospects – in my own inimitable style, I did all of these in one fell swoop, an utterly heartbroken, dishevelled mess when a good samaritan gave me a ride to get me on a plane out of Pearson Airport and I literally laid up in Manchester Airport flat-broke for a day until my parents finally flew in from Mallorca, Spain (where they’d retired to), to collect me and my bag of rags and take me back with them. I spent a winter there, as I found out all my links to Canada were being severed one by one by my ex-partner, cutting off any chances of me returning there to finish what I started; she ripped up the paperwork for the $4.2m bid, and put a stop to all my initiatives, graduating from university and essentially replacing them with her own versions and enjoying success and accolades, and hey, I can’t resent her for that. It doesn’t matter who gets credit for what, if it’s doing some good – and besides, men have profited off of the unpaid labour of women at home for centuries. This was no big deal in the grand scheme.
You must possess strength to inflict pain, Bob.The Joker in Batman, 1989
But it was still a big deal for me, of course. There was indeed some underhandedness and malice to it, too; I’m not so naive as to fail to recognise that. She knew better than anyone how to hurt me, and did a fine job of it, even befriending some of my old friends in Britain she’d previously declared sworn enemies after what had been done to me.
Holy shit, it was like hating me was not only a veritable institution now, it was setting up franchises. Every single morning for me in Mallorca brought with it a fresh breakfast bulletin of bad news; this plan had been scuppered, that opportunity had been taken away. I contemplated throwing myself in the Mediterranean a few times, but thought that, knowing my luck, I’d suddenly instinctively learn to swim and even fail at suicide like I’d failed at pretty much everything else. But I was still staring out at the abyss.
However, if that was a low point for me in my life, it was the finest teacher: I learned to let go of things I couldn’t control, like bitter people saying shit about me, and stopped caring about any of it, taking comfort in the fact that everyone I’d had any meaningful friendship or relationship with, personal or professional, came out of it way better off than when I found them. I never went out of my way to hurt anyone, even in this comedy of errors. Yes, I’d made a lot of mistakes but, oh, I hadn’t even begun paying for them fully. The teacher was to provide me with more lessons.
By now in my thirties, having never had a proper job — practically unemployable — I returned to Britain, back at the bottom, back in New Labour’s punitive welfare state. I still had a few contacts left, and came up with an agreement with some of them to live in spare rooms until I got myself back on my feet. One of them confided in me about our old group of friends:
We all saw you as a cash-cow; you were good at raising funds and getting us jobs and paying us well, and when you left, well…why did you think people were angry?
Also lying in wait were Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, and as soon as I was back in the system they hit me with the biggest tax penalties I could have imagined: my friend on my committee who shut it down and transferred its assets was also a former credit union guy, and I’d naively – and if I’m honest, unfairly – assumed he was understanding, processing, and taking care of my tax paperwork that I found baffling while I was over in Canada, but this communication was also severed by him shutting down my old company, causing us to stop talking altogether. In addition, my ex back in Canada refused to help me regain all of my own belongings – some deeply personal, treasured items – or even pay anything towards the divorce, so I had to find a way of covering that, as well. Mighty mountains of debt were built, with greater demands for repayments only kept at bay by my threats of declaring bankruptcy. I will likely spend the rest of my life paying these off, not least because the interest slapped on tends to match my repayments, meaning it never decreases.
I still wanted to do something worthwhile. It was at this time I was realising that community projects weren’t just about doing things for people – they had to be about helping them do things for themselves. I was accepted onto the School for Social Entrepreneurs, which enabled me to reimagine what a community-driven digital media organisation could be: socially, environmentally and financially sustainable; giving both paid and free options for communities needing digital inclusion, re-using and refurbishing hardware, and using free and open source software. I’m now in my forties, and the last ten years have been about the building of that, with SilenceBreaker Media and FreeTech Project part of Libre Digital, and there is now a clear long-term vision, having met my partner, Jane Watkinson, through that, and been together through it all too, so if there is a happy ending to this story, it is that. All I ever wanted was someone with a good heart, and a more intelligent, beautiful, or goodhearted person than Jane, you will never ever find.
Unlike David Cameron – he’s a total prick. His “Big Society” proved to be a con trick less about community empowerment in a time of public sector cuts and more about volunteer labour in libraries and social causes across the country, with funding absolutely wiped out apart from a few grants here and there; I have worked between 40 and 80 hours a week on not just Libre Digital but also other community projects, most of those unpaid.
One of those projects has been AFC Unity, something Jane and I came up with through our mutual passion for the unifying power of football, and which takes up massive amounts of time, energy, efforts (and, in the past, stress) to create a counter-cultural independent women’s football club that is ethical, positive, friendly, welcoming, and has garnered several awards, and changes the lives of hundreds of people not only through football but through its community initiatives such as Solidarity Soccer, Football for Food tackling food poverty as a result of Cameron’s austerity measures, and Unity for All, which promotes trade unionism for collective bargaining for working people. It takes hard work to create such a culture and help sustain it. Jane acts as secretary, handling all the administrative tasks, emails, day-to-day finance, data protection, and more; I handle the coaching and football philosophy, public relations, websites, social media, messaging and marketing work. It takes up most of our free time – most of each Sunday, and at least two evenings a week for routine football activities. We’re hoping a collective, co-operative approach will mean more of these largely unpaid tasks will be taken off our hands in the months and years to come.
If I’m honest, AFC Unity has been one of the biggest barriers for me ever approaching the earnings of the old days, and at its start it had to exist as a football team first, with a ragtag bunch of many traditional players, before it could evolve into a more radical collective as it is today, which caused many headaches and heartaches for Jane and I. It’s been worth it. Now it’s a true collective, where the people involved believe in doing football a different way, and being a force for good – for the greater good, not just the individual. It’s why we’ve continued and even expanded season after season despite our commitment to a positive ethos and passing football, even at grassroots level, hurting us statistically up to this point. But it’s been an incredible success story, an accountable limited company also registered as strictly not-for-profit – almost unheard of in football. What’s more, the first team players have set out a “2020 Vision” with a signed “player pact” to provide a working document for me to merely facilitate as Head Coach – part of Unity’s “co-operative” approach, where players who pay to play also get an ownership over their team and club, something that is only going to become more prominent in those months and years to come.
If things like the 2008 financial crash, austerity, and Brexit have taught us anything, it’s that communities – citizens – want and need a sense of self-determination. Nye Bevan said, “The purpose of having power is to be able to give it away.” And this not only applies to AFC Unity. At Libre Digital, I no longer sit on the Board of Directors. As you can imagine, it took time for me to reconcile that, following events of the previous years, but as one adviser told me, if a board wants to oust you, let them – you still have your passion and your ideas, and if you’re doing such good work, why would you be worried? He was right. The people who have tried to take away my opportunities to contribute further to creating positive social change have spited a greater good in exchange for their own pettiness, and that’s their choice. But even at organisations like Libre Digital, there is an “alienation of labour” for the Board of Directors, and this is why, yet again, the co-operative model makes more sense. Indeed, if the workers are the ones running the company, there is no such alienation; if there is no differentiation between employees and employers, then there is no capitalist class…which means we can move further away from capitalism (which we must do if we are to survive on this planet). If I tried to apply my skills by finally getting a so-called proper job (if that were even possible), I feel I’d become part of the problem, not the solution. And I’m so close to making many of the initiatives I’m involved in sustainable; it’s hard when you don’t have any capital to inject into them to start with. If I die in absolute poverty, that’ll be fine, as long as I never stopped trying to contribute to making the world a better place. One of my favourite lines ever is hidden away in It’s A Wonderful Life, one of my favourite films, as well: ‘All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.’
Given the capitalist culture we live in, where everyone is making a pissing contest out of how many hours they’ve worked or how early they got up this morning, while maintaining slick successful-looking profiles on LinkedIn, it’s hard to announce you make very little money, and what you do make goes straight back out on debt and hiked rent. Most of us are so frightened of being judged as unsuccessful, as failures, that we dress the best we can and attend social events and buy our food or drinks even with a worry in the back of our minds that we can’t really afford the cost of any of it. That’s wrong. Everyone should have a right to a dignified life, and the slashing of public services, mass privatisation, rising living costs and rents for private landlords, alongside staggering personal debts and the erosion of social security safety nets, are all ideological choices by the rich and powerful and it’s wrong for us to carry personal blame. People are lying in the streets. All in all, I have been one of the lucky ones, as I’ve been fortunate enough to have people I could count on to help me out in tough times, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. But I still work as hard as any of the people I know who do not work in social impact but rather in insurance, or advertising, or something — in fact, I often work harder. Yet the system does not value work with social impact. It’s not my fault that my work is undervalued and underpaid, but it is my responsibility to help create change. Raising awareness is a key catalyst for that change.
So yes, that’s my story of how I went from earning over £40,000 a year to just over £4,000 a year – and you can too! All you have to do is give a shit, spend most of your days working for social change rather than to, say, create profits for shareholders betting on businesses, and voila! Yes, I made a few tragic comical errors of judgement along the way, as you can see, which did not help, and I take full ultimate personal responsibility for every single thing I’ve mentioned here – I’m not asking for a shred of sympathy, or pity; my point is that if your intentions are good, mistakes are fine, as long as you learn from them. Hindsight is 20/20 vision. I’m hoping I can take these initiatives to the next level. Please feel free to support them and those like them, as and when you can – and support me too, if you don’t hate me! (There are franchises, you know, if you’d like to join that club).
I am available for hire.
Like my work? You can support me at Liberapay.