Please Remember My Daddy
He had lots of reasons - he was in debt, he was out of work and had no pension, he was 59 and on his own - most of which make no sense to those left behind. No money, no job, no partner, these may have seemed to be mountains to him, but to us, grieving his loss, they seemed like molehills. That is the magic trick that death plays upon you: it reduces the daily pecuniary and professional irritations of life to nothing and amplifies what is important: relationships, love, passion, enjoyment. But who can really enjoy life, in an increasingly material, technology-driven and ageist society, without the means to pay for it? Dad had ceased to exist for employers, at whatever level, but the local council were determined that he wouldn't get out of paying his council tax. When my sister quizzed them on their heavy-handed tactics, and their failure to notice that he was on benefit, the man on the phone got cross. 'Everyone's trying to fiddle the system' he said. But for every person trying to fiddle it, there is another bona fide case trying to fathom it.
My Dad was no saint; he'd borrowed and spent a lot of money that he didn't have on dubious pleasures. However, his debt began with a very simple purchase, a purchase that everyone in Britain is encouraged to make (unlike other Europeans for some reason we consider renting somewhat infra dig), if only because when we reach retirement age we want to know that we’ll have something. He bought a house. Unluckily for him he bought it in 1988 and as interest rates rose and the housing market collapsed he and his partner struggled to keep pace. By the time the pound crashed out of the ERM in 1992, his house was worth 2/3rds of its purchase price. When his relationship ended, and he could neither afford the mortgage nor sell the house, he began to borrow. Then he couldn't stop. And he didn't need to, since every day another offer of a credit card or loan came through the letterbox. Eventually he, like a record 27000 people this summer alone, declared himself bankrupt.
It gives me no consolation to think of him as part of a trend, to realise that the figures for personal insolvency have increased 100% in the last two years. Rather it makes me fearful for the future of the UK. My Dad, like many other people here, was trying to survive, in one of the most expensive places on earth, on a very average income. When he lost that income, through his own fault it has to be said, and tried to start again, tried to work, to pay his bills, he found no open doors. His house had been his pension but, as a bankrupt, it was no longer his. He knew he would get very little from the State. He knew that he had little chance of a job or enough benefit to survive. And thousands of others, especially after another interest rate rise today, are facing similar problems.
We’re bombarded with the statistics, with the numbers declaring bankruptcy and insolvency, with the pictures of those surrounded by the credit card upon credit card they have used, in some cases to survive, in some to spend. But where is the policy, where is the think tank looking at the fundamental reasons for this crisis: that our housing market, and our reliance on its bounty, is distorting our material expectations; that our government, sitting on safe final-salary pensions, is not confronting the fact that many cannot afford to save for a pension, let alone worry about spreading their risk; that our basic costs of living are beyond the means of many? Shouldn’t every citizen have the right to food, warmth and shelter and their continuation through old age? Shouldn’t we be questioning why our society can’t afford such basics yet, in many instances, insists on the right to much more than that?
Like those before a sudden death, we are blasé about what’s important, dismissive of the small things that actually make life livable, unaware of how little we need and how lucky we already are. But the shock, the wake-up call that will make us long for our innocence is, I believe, on its way. My dad died, I sometimes think, because he couldn’t afford to live here. I fear he won’t be the last.