John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for March, 2012

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Pub giants fall into debt, but publicans feel the pain | John Harris

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Pub leaseholders slaving away at £1 an hour are being squeezed by pubcos that are billions of pounds in the red

Besides the modern fondness for being home alone, what explains the decline of the British pub? There are two stock answers: the smoking ban, and cut-price alcohol in supermarkets. But there is another story, bound up with the frenzy of speculation that preceded the crash of 2008, and its aftermath. It involves huge, debt-laden pub companies – or “pubcos” – and scores of their leaseholders who feel they are paying the price for other people’s mistakes. Here, then, is yet another modern economic morality tale, with deep echoes of what happened to the banks.

Having been alerted to the issue in Paul Moody and Robin Turner’s inspired book The Search for the Perfect Pub: Looking for the Moon Under Water, this is what brought me to Millbrook, on the Rame peninsula in Cornwall’s Forgotten Corner. Here I found the Devon and Cornwall Inn, run by 49-year-old Russell Ham, and leased by Punch Taverns, who own around 5,000 British pubs, putting them second only to Enterprise Inns in the pubco hierarchy.

Punch was founded in 1997. To quote from one profile, it has since “merged, demerged [and] remerged” – and crashed, horrifically. The company remains over £2bn in debt. (Enterprise Inns’ figure is £3bn.) Between 2008 and 2011 its share price fell by 95%. In 2011 Punch announced the demerger of a division known as Spirit, and a plan to let go about 40% of its pubs.

Ham has had the lease on the Devon and Cornwall since 2003. He puts in a 95-hour week, and last year his profit came in at only £3,000: “I’m on a pound an hour,” he says. In the midst of the credit crunch, his rent went up by 8.5%, though Punch says that it has responded to the downturn by giving their lessees “rent and discount concessions” that cost them £2m a month.

On the face of it, the Devon and Cornwall has benefited: in 2010 and 2011, Ham successfully fought to have his rent temporarily cut by around 25%. But he remains anxious: he now fears another rise, which he thinks will make life impossible. It surely needn’t be: on the night I visit, the pub is full; the food has an enviable local reputation, and Ham puts his turnover at around £170,000.

In any case, arguments about his rent are offset by the most eye-watering aspect of his business. Thanks to what’s called the “tie”, he has to buy all his beer, cider and soft drinks direct from Punch, at rates that can be 50% higher than on the open market – and just to make sure that he does, an infamous metering system called Brulines ensures that his masters can keep tabs on every last drop.

The Devon and Cornwall’s story is hardly unique. In 2009, research commissioned by the House Of Commons business select committee found that 67% of tied publicans earned less than £15,000 a year, and 64% thought that their pubco added no value to their business. Punch tells me that it has “moved a long way in the last three years”, and has made the symbolic shift of renaming its lessees “partners” – but Russell Ham still wants to join the droves of publicans who have sold up and got out of the trade.

Unfortunately, there is one other cruel twist: with the pub industry as depressed as it is, the asking price for his leasehold has been cut by half. So the best that he can hope for is to walk away, having written off around £100,000 that he has personally invested in the pub.

As he and plenty of other lessees see it, they shoulder all the risk, and the debt-plagued pubcos are chiefly interested in maximising their cut of any profits. The point is underlined by another Millbrook local called Jenny Brazier, the ex-landlady of a pub called The Mark Of Friendship, who poured her own money into doing it up.

She says that Punch attempted to grab a cut of any resulting increase in takings by raising her rent. The business proved to be untenable: she left in 2009, and declared herself bankrupt. “I felt reborn – I had my life back,” she tells me. She now works in the Plymouth Marks & Spencer.

When we canvassed for views on Comment is free, one DaveAboard brought news from another corner of rural England. “The pubco-owned pub in my village is closing down this Saturday, as the couple who manage it say they have simply had enough of banging their heads against a brick wall,” he wrote. “The owners pay them 17.5% of the net take … Both of them also have had to take on jobs elsewhere on top of the 80 hours they work in the pub … To cap it all, the pubco just put the beer price up 15p-20p per pint… and with an inevitable further increase due in the budget, they realised they had better things they could be doing with their time.”

MPs’ postbags and inboxes have long brimmed with correspondence about all this. The government favours a code of practice, which it talks up as a “tough and legally binding form of self-regulation”. But in January, pushed by campaigners who want to give tied publicans new rights, MPs voted in favour of a comprehensive review of the existing arrangements, which would report back in the autumn.

Not that anyone seems to have noticed, but the government has since decided to ignore parliament: the minister responsible for pubs, Norman Lamb, says the plan that was voted for isn’t “appropriate”. For Russell Ham, meanwhile, the pub trade grinds on: a life lived on loose change, and yet another example of what we are now getting used to calling irresponsible capitalism.

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Punk rock … alive and kicking in a repressive state near you

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Punk rock is ancient history here, but elsewhere disaffected young people are discovering its anarchic energy – despite the enormous risks they face from their oppressive regimes

It’s been a long time since the term “punk rock” could strike fear into the British establishment. The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon – aka Johnny Rotten – was long ago transformed into a pantomimic national institution, and now advertises Country Life butter; it’s 16 years since Tony Blair admiringly mentioned the Clash in a speech at the Brit awards. The spiky-topped punk look is as harmless a part of vernacular British style as Harris tweed; the concert nostalgia circuit is now home to any number of ageing punk groups, from the Buzzcocks to Sham 69.

The last few months, however, have brought news from abroad suggesting that in many places, punk’s combination of splenetic dissent, loud guitars and outre attire can cause as much disquiet and outrage as ever. The stories concerned take in Indonesia, Burma, Iraq and Russia – and most highlight one big difference between the hoo-hah kicked up by punk in the US and Britain of the late 70s, and the reactions it now stirs thousands of miles from its places of birth. Back then, being a punk rocker might invite occasional attacks in the street, a ban on your records, and the odd difficulty finding somewhere to play. Now, if you pursue a love of punk in the wrong political circumstances, you may well experience oppression at its most brutal: torture, imprisonment, what one regime calls “moral rehabilitation” and even death.

First, then, to Iraq, and news that will surely warm the heart of anyone who still believes the US and Britain attacked that country to introduce it to the wonders of democracy and tolerance. Last weekend, Reuters reported that at least 14 young people had recently been stoned to death in Baghdad, thanks to “a campaign by Shi-ite militants against youths wearing Western-style ‘emo’ clothes and haircuts”.

For the uninitiated, “emo” is short for “emotional hardcore“, and refers to a music and dress-code traceable to a variety of punk invented in Washington DC in the mid-1980s, lately smoothed out and rendered massively lucrative by such teenage favourites as Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco and Paramore. In February, the Iraqi interior ministry said it equated “the ‘emo’ phenomenon” with satanism, and warned of young people who “wear tight clothes that bear paintings of skulls” and favour “rings in their noses and tongues as well as other weird appearances”. The same ministry has since denied that emo had anything to do with the killings, claiming that “no murder case has been recorded with the interior ministry on so called ‘emo’ grounds. All cases of murder recorded were for revenge, social and common criminal reasons.”

One thing is definitely true: figures for emo-related killings are blurring into those for homophobic murders (put at up to 58 in the last six weeks alone), reflecting a widespread perception in Iraq that emo is a byword not just for devil-worship, but homosexuality. A leaflet distributed in east Baghdad gave any local emo fans four days to “leave this filthy work”, under pain of “the punishment of God … at the hand of the Mujahideen”. At least two lists of intended victims have been posted online, and tattoo parlours in the city have reported terrified young people asking for their punk-esque body-art to be removed.

In Moscow, a court ruling on Wednesday marked the latest chapter in the story of an all-female band called Pussy Riot, two of whom were arrested last month after they illicitly took over the pulpit in a Moscow church, and attempted to recite a “punk prayer” written in opposition to Vladimir Putin. Pussy Riot’s music is scratchy, unhinged stuff that takes its lead from a fleeting genre known as riot grrrl – once again traceable, at least in part, to Washington DC, and brought to fruition nearly 20 years ago by such groups as Bikini Kill, and a British band called Huggy Bear. Their music was clearly derived from punk’s basic idea, but took its lead from such feminist groups as the Slits and the Au Pairs rather than the Clash and the Pistols: apart from anything else, the controversy around Pussy Riot has at least served as a reminder of this overlooked strand of punk history.

“We somehow developed what [those groups] did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance,” one band member called Garadzha Matveyeva has explained, “which leads to all of our performances being illegal – we’ll never give a gig in a club or in any special musical space. That’s an important principle for us.” The band, who always perform in identity-concealing balaclavas, has a free-floating membership that can number up to 15 people – it amounts to “a pulsating and growing body”, as Matveyeva sees it. This week, the two members who were arrested had their detention extended by six weeks: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alekhina are both young mothers who are reported to be on hunger strike, and face charges of “hooliganism” that could lead to prison sentences of seven years. One of Russia’s leading Muslim clerics, Muhammedgali Khuzin, this week suggested they should be sentenced to “removing garbage from the streets of Moscow”: a way, he says, of “clearing your head of trash”.

In Burma, the country’s punk rock milieu has been fomenting since around 2007, when musicians came together in brazen opposition to the country’s ruling junta. Its most notable representatives are two bands, No U Turn, and the Rebel Riot, both of whom favour the mohicans-and-studs look de rigeur on the Kings Road circa 1980. The Rebel Riot are led by 24-year-old Kyaw Kyaw, who works in a Rangoon textile factory for around £40 a month. His band and their fans seem to be tolerated by the authorities, but are regularly harassed by police; there are also widespread suspicions that punk audiences are usually smattered with undercover police.

The Rebel Riot’s lyrics need no explanation: “No fear! No indecision!/ Rage against the system of the oppressors!”; “We are poor, hungry and have no chance/ Human rights don’t apply to us/We are victims, victims, victims.” According to a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel, many of their gigs are organised by a local punk impresario called Ko Nyan: his founding place in Burmese punk culture was sparked when he found a magazine featuring the Sex Pistols in a bin behind Rangoon’s British embassy.

What all these stories highlight is the ongoing vitality of a musical form that, in its homelands, has tended to fall into self-parody. To jaded western eyes, many of the groups and fans appear to be straight out of central casting, and the music can sound hopelessly derivative, rather clumsy, and in thrall to influences whose cultural charge faded three decades ago. Some of the musicians’ chosen western reference points are almost comically unlikely. But that is our problem, not theirs: to paraphrase Johnny Rotten, they mean it, man.

In the altogether more placid environs of Copenhagen, an organisation called Freemuse – which claims to be “the world’s leading organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians” – attempts to keep tabs on the persecution of musicians across the planet, and its programme director, Ole Reitov, is all too aware of the fact that punks currently seem to be disproportionately in the line of repressive fire.

“You hear a lot about the clash of civilizations,” he tells me, “but often, these things, they reflect a clash within civilizations. You’re seeing the same symptoms in all kinds of countries: it’s a matter of what you do if you feel you’re powerless. You can only be extreme, relative to so-called normality.”

He thinks all this will only increase given two parallel developments: the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the increase in networked communications, which means that every aspect of a subculture can be globally spread at speed. “Think back 50 years,” he says. “People didn’t necessarily know what the Shadows or the Beatles looked like. These days, you immediately know. Someone in Ulan Bator immediately knows the body language that comes with rap music; in Iraq, the young people who’ve been killed knew how to dress a certain way.”

In December last year, a punk gig took place in Aceh, Indonesia, the ”special province” of the country that has its own police force pledged to maintain sharia law. Supposedly because the event’s organisers had forged official documents to gain the requisite permit, 64 of its attendees – who had travelled from all over the country – were arrested, and taken to a nearby detention centre, before being transported to a “remedial school” 37 miles away. There, their mohican hairstyles were forcibly removed because they were deemed “insulting to Islamic traditions”. According to a police spokesman, the group was held there to “undergo a re-education, so their morals will match those of other Acehnese people”. Demonstrations followed not just in Indonesia, but in London and San Francisco.

The story was the latest twist in the 20-year history of Indonesian punk, explained down a phone-line from Jakarta by 30-year-old Fathun Karib, a member of a punk-metal group called Cryptical Death, and author of a doctoral thesis on the subject. He puts the events in Aceh down to local politicians running for elections. “They want to build up an image,” he says. “They use sending the punks to moral rehab as a pretext, to prove they’re doing a good job. In the perspective of people in Aceh, punk is a social problem. So it’s really a game.” He goes on: “But now, the punks have access to international networks, so the issue became bigger than the local politicians expected.”

There are, he tells me, two kinds of punk in Indonesia. “One is what we think of as a poser: they adopt punk fashions.” This group, he says, tend to be “street kids” who fall into begging and petty crime, and thereby provoke the authorities. “The other punks are part of a community that has developed since the late 80s – a moral, ideological type of community,” he says. “They’re totally different. But the government and society thinks that if you have a Mohawk and boots, you are a punk, and all punks are the same.” The kids arrested in Aceh, he thinks, are likely to be the genuine article, because they were arrested at a gig, a reasonably sure sign of true believers.

The first wave of Indonesian punk stretched from 1990 to 1995, and saw the arrival of groups called Submission, Antiseptic and the elegantly named Dickhead. It was sparked by records by such British punk groups as the Sex Pistols and the Exploited, a Scottish band whose take on punk could charitably be construed as somewhat reductive (older readers may remember their debut album, Punks [sic] Not Dead, and their only performance on Top of the Pops in 1981, much discussed in British schoolyards the following day).

A second Indonesian phase began in 1996, inspired by a US punk fanzine and record label called Profane Existence, and the British band Crass, who shared an essentially anarchist ideology. This development played into a sea change in Indonesian public opinion, as opposition to the Suharto regime – which fell in 1998 – hardened. With the regime on its last legs, says Karib, punks tended to be left alone. “We continued to play, without much attention from the authorities,” he says. “They were focused on the student movement, not music.”

A third phase, he says, saw the punk scene become “more international” – a development marked by a famous occasion when the Exploited played in Jakarta in 2006. And from then until now, punk rock has rooted itself across Indonesia. “There are thousands of bands now,” says Karib. “You can find punks around the country. They’re in Sumatra, Jakarta, Bali … everywhere.” Given punk’s arrival in ultra-conservative Aceh, he suspects that events of last year will be replayed, and that the reaction will once again be global.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask him the inevitable question: what appeals to him about a music and subculture that will soon be 40 years old? His answer is spoken with the same passion you would have found in London during the hot punk summer of 1976. “It’s simply an expression of freedom,” he says. “It has those do-it-yourself values. And it’s always opposed to the dominant culture. That’s why people like it.”

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Pub closures: why ‘pubcos’ leave landlords Punch drunk – video | John Harris and John Domokos

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

What explains the decline of the British pub? John Harris meets a pub landlord in Millbrook in Cornwall, who explains the ‘onerous financial conditions’ imposed by the ‘pubco’ that owns his pub

John Harris
John Domokos

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Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe

The Kent village of Dungeness sits in the midst of a landscape unlike any other in Britain, or possibly even the world: as close to desert as to make no difference, dotted with an uneasy mixture of clapboard dwellings and fishing boats, some still in use and others long abandoned. The abiding sense is of humankind’s place in the world dwindling to nothing, like the fade-out on a record; beyond the immediate horizon, there is nothing but nature at its most sparse.

But as if to mark civilisation’s last word in spectacular style, there is one final, jaw-dropping, man-made sight: two nuclear power stations, Dungeness A and B, respectively opened in 1965 and 1983. Dungeness A ceased generating electricity in 2006, but will remain here for the foreseeable future, while crews of workers see to the process we know as decommissioning; Dungeness B will shut down in 2018, but also remain intact for decades to come. One local I meet says she calls the power stations “the candle factory”; much like a lot of large-scale industrial installations, they are possessed of a strange but undeniable beauty.

Look at them closely and you can make out a rather anomalous sight: a solitary row of white terrace houses, just beyond the power stations’ perimeter fence. Called RNSSS Cottages, they took their name from the Royal Naval Shore Signal Service and were built as dwellings for forces personnel. Now they are owned by French electricity firm EDF Energy and leased via a property company. There are 11 in all. Thanks to Dungeness’s huge nature reserve, the most spacious is used as a residential bird observatory (”Great white egret – up to three seen occasionally,” reads a notice in the window), but most of the other 10 are home to an assortment of families. Each house has three bedrooms; the rent is a very reasonable £400 a month.

Ask the people here what brought them to live, as the cliché would have it, “in the shadow” of a nuclear plant, and most of the replies touch on the same themes: not just the low cost, but a very familiar view of most modern lives being beset with danger, annoyance and worry – noisy neighbours, traffic, petty violence, anxiety about what might happen to children. Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.

Janice Patterson and Dave Johnson have lived in their house for four and a half years. She works as a care assistant with autistic adults; he’s an activities co-ordinator in a nursing home in nearby Littlestone-on-Sea. They have two children, Rhys, five, and Jack, born just under three months ago. Dave has a sideline as an amateur magician. His cupboards are peppered with instruction DVDs hosted by American conjurers; presumably thanks to Dungeness’s lack of competing distractions, his mastery of card tricks has been honed to perfection.

“I don’t think I would be able to sleep without that power station there,” he tells me.

“Very often,” Janice says, “it’s got a very odd hum to it. It’s difficult to describe.”

“When we have a window open of an evening… It’s like a car ticking over, only very faint,” says Dave. “I listen to it as I’m drifting off.”

Like most of the people here, the couple were raised in and around the area whose eastern edge stretches through nearby New Romney to Hythe – which makes them what the local argot calls “Marshans”. Janice’s father used to work at the power station; Dave has strong memories of repeated school trips to its visitors’ centre, closed thanks to security worries in the aftermath of 9/11. But do they understand why some people might feel more twitchy about how close the power stations are to their homes?

“I can understand why people are a little bit funny about it,” Dave says. “Three-eyed fishes on the Simpsons and all that…”

“I get it all the time at work: ‘Are you glowing yet?’” Janice says.

“As weird as it sounds,” Dave adds, “when I first went to the visitors’ centre, they had a display telling you how electricity’s made: that it’s like boiling a kettle, and the steam turns the turbine blades. I must have been seven or eight. And for years I always imagined a huge kettle sat in there. Sometimes I look at it now and think, ‘There could be a big kettle in there.’ That’s about how threatened I feel.”

A few doors away are Hannah Smith and Joe Ward, both 30. He is a maintenance man on a caravan site in Rye; she’s a mature student, doing a degree in social work. Upstairs, asleep, are 10-year-old Joshua and two-year-old Devan.

“If you live this close to a power station,” Joe says, “you know that if anything happened to it, and it went up, you’re not really going to know about it. And the closer you are, the quicker you’re going to go, so the better it’s going to be.

“Last summer,” he adds, “we had people with meters and stuff checking… They come round every so often. They’re constantly taking checks themselves anyway; we’ve got friends who work there, and some of them do that.”

“You always see people from the power station walking around Dungeness,” Hannah says. “Always.”

A lot of people resident in big cities, I suggest, would take one look at how close they are to the power stations and feel terrified.

“But I would be like that about living somewhere with so many cars,” Hannah says. “Oh my God, that’s worse.”

“The new people down here, who sold their houses and want to retire somewhere a bit quieter or get a holiday home, they might freak out a little bit,” Joe says. “But a lot of people are scared of the unknown, aren’t they?”

As people who are opposed to nuclear power often do, it would be easy to take a brief look at life here and imagine no end of awful possibilities. As becomes clear within an hour of arriving, a dedicated police team makes regular circuits of the village, looking out for security threats. Every Christmas, the owners of Dungeness B send local residents a calendar, featuring safety instructions to be followed in the event of a serious accident, built around the imperatives to “Go in”, “Stay in” and “Tune in” (to local radio). Everyone who lives here well knows that in the event of a release of radiation, they will also have to visit a nearby chemist quickly and stock up on potassium iodide tablets.

Of late, particularly apocalyptic scenarios have been conjured up by people campaigning against the mooted extension of nearby Lydd airport, who have put up posters featuring the slogan “60 seconds to disaster” and suggested that, either by accident or design, airliners might one day crash into the power station.

But as with most of the supposed threats to local safety, this all tends to get batted away with brief rebuttals of the idea of looming disaster, followed by very British summaries of the futility of worrying: “You might get hit by a bus tomorrow” is a line you hear a lot.

In fairness, however, if the residents of RNSSS Cottages sound almost comically unconcerned about such supposed threats, they have good reason. Though Dungeness B was bedevilled by no end of design problems and cost overruns, like 99% of the world’s nuclear plants, both power stations have an admirable safety record – so good, in fact, that local people enthusiastically lobbied for one of the next generation of British nuclear plants to be sited here, only to be turned down, ostensibly because of the surrounding land’s status as a nature reserve.

That said, from time to time, there have been the kind of minor incidents and accidents that happen in any plant of this scale. In 2009, for example, there was a fire in an annexe unit in Dungeness B, subsequently rated as a Level 1 incident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (Level 7 is the highest, representing Chernobyl-esque disaster). No one was injured and there was no release of radioactivity, though what happened caused a noticeable local kerfuffle.

“I was upstairs feeding my baby,” Hannah says, ”and we saw all the fire engines and that coming round.”

“I actually know what happened,” Joe says. “A hydraulic pipe burst, and because of the pressure of the oil coming out of the pipe, it caught fire, and you sort of ended up with a 12ft flame-thrower, melting everything in its path: you had steel pipes just turning into liquid. They panicked and hit the button and did an emergency shutdown – which we knew about, because it started at two in the morning and didn’t finish till eight in the morning. There were about 24 fire engines.”

And what did they think?

“It could have been anything: a drill, or a fire outside, where someone had been welding. It’s one of those: you wait until you see one of the blokes that works there and say, ‘What was that?’ If it was anything serious, you’d get a call, or a text, and there’d be people coming to tell you. So we haven’t really got anything to worry about. And if anything that bad did happen, we’re that close that…”

“You wouldn’t care anyway,” Hannah says.

“You’d be gone,” Joe says.

The next morning, I meet 30-year-old Carrie Collins and her other half, 52-year-old Simon. He is an accredited Marshan, who has been a local lifeboatman for more than 20 years; she was born and raised in Weston-super-Mare, and eventually found herself, with three kids, in a housing estate in Stoke-on-Trent. She made contact with Simon via an AOL chatroom; after two visits to Dungeness, she decided to move down here, much to the bafflement of her family and friends.

“They all hate it,” she says. “They couldn’t imagine living here. My best friend drove me down here when we moved, in a van. She was like, ‘I couldn’t live here – it’s horrible.’ She didn’t like the sparseness of it; she couldn’t see how people survived, and she couldn’t imagine living next door to a power station. But it didn’t register with me.”

She glances at a window at the rear of the house and the towering buildings that are essentially at the bottom of their garden. “We never gave it a second thought,” she says.

“It’s out of the way here, isn’t it?” she goes on. “I moved here from a council estate, which I hated. I lived there for nine years. Noise, fights all the time, nosy people, kids not being safe – that was the main one. They’re safe here. I can send them out, the neighbours all keep their eye on them. You don’t even have to ask them; it’s just an instant thing. Whereas I used to have to keep them in the garden in Stoke, in case they got hit by a car or… do you know what I mean?… got taken off by someone. I reckon my oldest son would’ve had an asbo by now, with some of the kids he was hanging out with. But it’s a better way of living here.”

This, rather than any nuclear dangers, is the kind of thing the people who live at RNSSS Cottages talk endlessly about. The social life here is built around a core of people who are linked by family ties and friendships going back to childhood.

For all that the reference points of their lives – Xboxes, satellite TV, Facebook – are as 21st-century as you would expect, the way that doors are left open and neighbours relate to each other with an easy intimacy might remind you of the world of three decades ago.

Millie Ward, Joe’s sister, has lived here with her partner and two children since Janice, an old schoolfriend, tipped her off about a vacant cottage. “In the summer it’s like a commune,” she says. “If there’s a kid causing havoc outside, you shout at ‘em. Doesn’t matter whose they are – they need telling off, you tell ‘em off. If someone’s hungry and their mum’s not around, you give them a packet of crisps. If someone fancies a barbecue, we’ll club together and take over someone’s garden.”

One thing, I tell her, has been bugging me. Within eight hours of arriving in Dungeness, it starts to do funny things to your head. Places this flat tend to feel full of an unfathomable mystery, but they’re also inescapably bleak. The lack of streetlights and constant wind compound the feeling. And I wonder: do people here not have moments of feeling isolated?

“Yeah, but it’s great,” she says. “Dungeness is so unique. It’s got its own natural beauty. In every season it looks different, but it’s got the same beauty there. There’s something melancholy and passionate about it in the winter, and in the summer, when the wind drops and you’ve got baking, blazing blue sky. I absolutely love it here.”

So, as far as I can tell, does everybody I speak to – and as strange as it may seem, their attachment to the place extends to the industrial leviathan that so defines the local landscape. “The power stations suit Dungeness,” Dave says. “You see these bits of rusty fishing boats on the beach, and hoists to lift them up, which are falling apart. There’s something beautiful about them. And then you look at the power stations, and for some reason, they kind of reflect that. And everything just fits in, somehow.”

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A4e: one customer’s experience of structured job searches

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

‘I found a job as a carpet salesmen. They were patting me on the back. Then I remembered … they get money when I find work’

Stuart Webb was mandated to become an A4e “customer” under the government’s Work Programme in January this year. The 40-year-old from Lincoln, having worked as a bus driver, had been unemployed for a year.

As with all Work Programme participants, A4e was paid an initial “attachment fee” of £400 for its work with him, with the prospect of two further tranches of money if he stayed in a job for at least three months, and “sustainment payments”, made “every four weeks when a participant stays in work longer”, according to the Department of Work and Pensions.

During his first appointment with an A4e adviser, Webb was told he would have to attend weekly two-hour sessions, titled “structured job searches”. He expected “an individual, tailor-made service”, but found he was “just expected to sit in front of a computer for two hours” in the company of about eight other people, and “go through job sites”.

His adviser’s motivation, he claims, appeared to be “to get you to fill out as many job applications as you could within a two hour period. He wasn’t bothered about what you were applying for.”

On two occasions Webb was called to A4e’s Lincoln offices for meetings, but the people he was meant to see were absent. One of these visits involved a round trip by foot of 90 minutes; the other, petrol and parking costs of about £8. “When you’re getting £135 a fortnight, that’s a lot of money,” he told the Guardian.

When he complained to the company about these experiences, their written response claimed that one member of staff was called to “attend training on the same day” and “forgot to rebook” the appointment (though there was an apology for “the oversight”), and that another had tried to reschedule their meeting, but had been “unable to speak” to him.

Webb says no messages were left on either his home or mobile voicemail, and he received no emails about changing the latter appointment, either.

During the fourth session, Webb found a vacancy as a carpet salesman, and was offered the job. “I could just as easily have found it the day before or the day after on my own computer,” he says. “They didn’t flag it or highlight it to me … There was no help from them, other than providing the computer. All they did was switch it on.”

When he told A4e staff he had been invited for an interview, “they were really happy and cheerful, shaking my hand and patting me on the back.

And I was leaving their office, I suddenly remembered that they get money when I find work: they’ll say it was down to them that I got that job. And it absolutely wasn’t.” “

A4e said that some of his comments about Job Search sessions were “entirely subjective”, and that advisers are always available to “support individuals” as well as helping them “structure their job search”.

They said their “staff are always ‘bothered’ “, and that Webb’s view of his adviser was “disingenuous”. They also refuted the claim that A4e gave him no help. One of its staff had informed Webb of the vacancy that led to his new job, the firm claimed.

Webb also received a letter notifying him of an appointment with an A4e adviser named “Ann Other”. He says he was told that this was “a made-up name” A4e staff attach to appointments “when they don’t know who the appointment is with”.

A4e said: “It is not our standard practice to issue letters in the name ‘Ann Other’. This is something that was done at a local level, and we are addressing it directly with the Lincoln office.”

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