Categories
Honesty Uncategorized

You want to live like common people?

When the Welfare Reform Act was introduced, Iain Duncan Smith was famously quoted as saying, “I could live on £53 a week if I had to“.  A petition was set up to see if he would like to prove it but of course he could live on £53 a week ‘if he had to’.  We all could, because in a situation where you have no choice, where you have little income and are reliant on the state to support you to some extent, or totally, then you just get on with it.  Many families already do.

This is not about to become a tirade against people who rely on benefits, nor a lengthy defence.  It is simply requesting a little more understanding of how bloody hard it can be to work your way out of that situation.

When I was growing up, both of my parents had low-income jobs.  Dad got home from work in the late afternoon and immediately took the parenting baton from mum so she could go to her evening job at a shampoo factory.  Our family was ‘dual income’ but we had bugger all to show for it.  No holidays, just hand-me-downs and great smelling hair – thanks Alberto Balsam! 

We did, however, have an appreciation of the importance of work because during the periods when my dad didn’t have a job (it was the 80s, redundancy was ‘a thing’) it massively impacted our household budget.  This was to become permanent due to his ill-health and subsequent death – without the benefits system I have no idea how my family would have survived. 

Now, when you are poor and a teenager, and wishing that your dad wasn’t dead, and that you had enough money to get the bus instead of walking to town, and that you didn’t have to wash your clothes in the sink because the washing machine is broken, and that your clothes didn’t smell because you try drying out a pair of jeans that haven’t been through a proper spin cycle, and that you didn’t have to keep asking the neighbours for bread and sugar, and all the other stuff that goes along with living on almost nothing and everybody knowing about it, you are in quite a precarious position.  You really are only a couple of choices away from being reliant on benefits for the rest of your life. 

But, if you can see through the grief and the shame and the sick and tired feeling that comes from relying on hand-outs, it might light a fire underneath you that makes you work like crazy to get out.  Which is what I did.

And because of that I know how hard it is to leave home at eighteen with no safety net. To decide that you cannot afford to go to university despite the college telling you that you’d earn a place. To leave behind friends, family and siblings that need you and to spend 90% of your wages on rent and train fare which means you have to live off Marmite sandwiches. 

I understand the difficulty in making friends when you’ve moved to a place where you don’t know anybody, of feeling out of place, lacking confidence, not having the right social skills and struggling to shut away the part of you that thinks you don’t belong. 

I know what it’s like to rent a room in a house that seems fine then the landlord starts telling you that you are, “not permitted to bring boyfriends round” and invites his friends from work over who knock on your bedroom door and ask if you’re naked, so you don’t feel safe and end up jamming your bedroom door shut by putting a chair under the handle. 

It is far, far easier to not do this stuff, to ‘stay put’ where you feel more comfortable and are among the people you grew up with. 

But I’m so glad I didn’t go back because every minute of effort was worth it. Not just for the incredible achievements that I have made in my professional and personal life but also for the evening when I was introduced to the man that is now my husband. I cannot overstate the value and importance of having a partner who has truly ‘got your back’ when you don’t have the benefit of the family safety net that many of us think is a given.

So far, so heart-warming. See kids – getting ‘on your bike’ works! But my point is this. Finding the strength to invest that kind of effort and cope with the moments of loneliness, being broke, and generally feeling like you’re dragging the weight of the world uphill on a sledge is just about do-able when you’re young, single, healthy, positive to the point of naivety and have a couple of A-levels. But to find yourself in that position in your forties, with a family, or because your partner has died, or because you are ill, or if for whatever reason you came out of school without an armful of qualifications. How much harder is it then?

The Government wants people less reliant on benefits and more inclined to work and of course I agree. There is pride and fulfilment in going to work, bringing home a wage and feeling that you have made a contribution. It gives you confidence when you have your own money and feel in control of your circumstances. It feels incredible to achieve the goals we set for ourselves but what if something happens that takes those things away or knocks you so far back that you wonder how you’ll recover? Could you just ‘snap out of it’ then?

To our MPs I say yes, help people to make changes, find a way to bring more work into families and make more choices available to young people who aren’t starting out from a solid foundation. But do it with a little more understanding and perspective and don’t think that platitudes like those once offered by Iain Duncan Smith work when delivered by someone with a basic salary of close to £80,000 a year. 

We could all live off £53 a week if we had to, but we sure as hell wouldn’t choose to. 


With thanks to the Diversity and Inclusion in Nuclear team for featuring this post in their newsletter on social mobility. You can view the full newsletter here

The original version of this post is featured in my book, Reasons to be Cheerful, Part One. You can order a copy in paperback or as an eBook via Amazon.

Want to get your pupils or employees thinking about social mobility? I regularly deliver talks about my experiences in schools and as part of diversity programmes. Drop me a line at toni@tonikent.co.uk to find out more.

Categories
Uncategorized

Why freelancers and homeworkers need to get out more

I’ve been a freelancer and a homeworker for nine years now. It has saved my sanity, whisked me away from a corporate life gone sour and significantly improved my health and family life.

If you’re a freelancer or homeworker, you’ll recognise the kind of benefits that come with this lifestyle:

  • Less time travelling (saving time, money and earning you eco brownie points!)
  • Incredible flexibility – work when it works for you!
  • More time to get on with the task in hand. No queuing for coffee, meetings about meetings or time thieves hanging about your desk.

And if you’re running your own business, there’s the sense of accomplishment that comes with earning a living that isn’t dependent on you fitting a performance bell curve or a compensation system that has been created by a data wizard. A data wizard that hates people.

Why you need to get out

There is plenty that can go wrong in the life of a freelancer. You can spend waaay too much time on your own. And when you spend too much time on your own. Stuff like this happens:

You will live in your dog walking clothes

This look is fine for walking the dog in wet weather. It’s not fine 10 days on the trot. You don’t want your only change of clothes to be out of a wet set of ‘leggings and a hoodie’ into a dry set.

You will get distracted by housework

Distracted by washing

How many conference calls have you been on where you can hear a washing machine whirring away in the background? I rest my case.

You’ll get bored

And we all know what happens when people get bored. They start wearing elf hats. Or even worse, trying on the dog’s ‘cone of shame’ to see what it’s like….

Yes I did do it. Told you.

The benefits of getting out more

Having realised that I’d reached peak ‘working from home’ I made a conscious decision to get out more and what a REVELATION it has been! Here’s what you can look forward to:

Wearing decent clothes

I took this photo in a service station car park – so thrilled was I to wear clothes that were neither waterproof or incorporated a hood.

Wearing impractical clothes

These shoes are Gucci – I bought them second hand from Vanilla Essence Lodge. My son says these make me “a Flexer” I say they make me a fabulous sustainable fashion eco-warrior.

Time spent with interesting people

In the past two weeks I’ve participated in two workshops in beautiful shiny offices where the coffee is great and the people are engaging and nobody has dog hair or mud on their clothes. I’ve talked tech with men and women who are twenty years younger than me and fresh in their corporate journeys – so vibrant, so free of cynicism! We ate mince pies from West London and I learned that cropped jeans and ankle boots are now ‘a thing’. When you live in the sticks there is NO FASHION. Unless you count Jack Wolfskin and Dubarry as fashion.

Time spent showing off your skills

As well as feeling like I made a proper in-person contribution to the the clients I met, I also got to perform for a fantastic WI group. They plied me with Christmas cake and proved to be especially well-educated on gangsta rap. One lady told me how her brother was ‘born in the same month and the same year as Dr Dre.”

Inspiration!

I love ‘the deal’ I have – but noticed a real boost in my creativity and energy levels from having spent more time than usual outside of my four walls. This led to finding an excellent webinar hosted by Ginger Public Speaking, securing a preliminary conversation with a speaker’s bureau and a call with a very interesting organisation that I hope to work with in the future.

How to get out more

When I started as a freelancer, my children were very young and needed a huge amount from me at the end of the school day. In the past nine years this has changed and yet I hadn’t rethought my working pattern. Something that I now realise was a little bit nuts!

If, like me, you’ve been doing the homeworking thing for a while, I’d recommend taking a fresh look at where you’re spending your time. And if you’re almost always indoors, perhaps it’s time you got out more.


Like my writing? Check out my books.

Want to help me get out more? Book me to perform or come along to one of my upcoming performances.

Categories
Dogs Honesty Storytelling

How to work from home when you’ve got a new puppy and a dog

What do you do when your dog gets a little bit easier to manage? You get a puppy – that’s what you do! And so it was that our family recently welcomed young Luna to join our 2 1/2 year-old Vinnie – completing our family (hopefully) for once and for all.

Having written previously about what having a dog does to your life, I thought now was a good time to update you if you’re wondering whether to add a puppy to your brood.

1. Wake up. A lot.

You know ‘Rock Around the Clock‘ – where Bill Hayley sings “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock”. Having a new puppy is a bit like that, except those are the times you’ll be waking up as your puppy decides:

  • One o’clock: She doesn’t want to be in a crate
  • Two o’clock: She needs a wee
  • Three o’clock: She needs a wee
  • Four o’clock: She wants a cuddle

And let’s not forget the times in between when your dog gets annoyed with the puppy cuddling up next to him. Or hears a noise. Or thinks that there may be a cat within 15 miles of your home.

2. Feed the dogs

While you have trained your dog to sit patiently and wait for his food, your puppy still needs to learn. Until she does, she will shriek like a banshee and pogo like a punk. You will regret the open-plan extension you built and wish for the cosy sound-absorbing kitchen you used to have.

3. Go for a walk

Now with one dog that is fully mature (although robbed of his knackers – poor boy!), and one puppy that cannot go on long walks, you have the following dilemma. Do you…..?

A. Walk the dog, crate the puppy, then walk the puppy later.

B. Walk the dog and the puppy together, but put the puppy in a rucksack on your front once she’s had her requisite mini-walk.

I went for Option B, because I thought it would be fun. And she would look cute. It was, and she did, but my puppy weighed close to 7 kilos. That’s is a lot of kgs to carry on your front. Especially when your dog likes a good three-mile stroll to start his day.

4. Hop on a conference call

All I can say is thank christ I am freelance. And that working from home is the norm for most of my clients. And that most of them have dogs. One call involved four attendees with five dogs between them. The person who didn’t have a dog was under pressure from his wife to get one. I’m unsure whether the assorted yipping, whining and barking from everyone’s hounds convinced him.

WHAT I WILL SAY IS……despite all the distraction – including my colleague’s dog barking because she heard me say “postman” (!) – we managed to hold it together enough to conduct a detailed discussion on virtual desktops. Perhaps having that level of distraction sharpens your game. More likely we’re all so bloody desperate for non-canine contact that the call was like a lifeline to the outside world and we devoured those technology words like a meal at Le Manoir.

5. Try to write something

A call is one thing, getting into “flow” is quite another. If you don’t have a puppy, you can have an immersive, ‘virtual puppy’ experience by doing this:

  1. Stab yourself in the hand, ankle or thigh every five seconds with a fork to emulate a puppy’s teeny tiny teeth.
  2. Go and stand in your garden every ten minutes to experience the joy of ‘encouraging’ your puppy to have a wee or poo. This can be made even more realistic by squealing, “Wee-wee – good girl!”
  3. To mimic a dog clambering onto your laptop while you’re trying to work, press the palm of your hand firmly onto your keyboard. Then swipe your hand across like Little Richard giving it the full Tutti Frutti. For an enhanced effect, lick your thumb and wipe it across the screen.
  4. Make a cup of coffee. Slosh it liberally across the table.
  5. Depending on the breed of virtual puppy you have in mind, trim an appropriate amount of hair from your head and sprinkle it on your clothes / in your keyboard.
  6. Steam clean your floor.
  7. And again – your virtual puppy has just wee’d in the hallway.
  8. Give up on the idea of writing then notice your puppy is sleeping. Write like a demon.

6. And finally…

Book a meeting for the following day. Announce to your partner the moment they get through the door that tomorrow it’s their turn 🙂


Want more puppy dog tales? Try these:

What to expect when your dog has been neutered

Doggy style

Or you can buy the books.


Want to hear some of my material? Book me for stand up or come along to one of my performances.

Categories
Family Storytelling Work

What Camping and Business Travel Have in Common

Not so long ago I wouldn’t have set foot inside a tent.  The aversion to canvas was in part formed by an early experience with the Brownies where we camped on a rugby pitch in Abergavenny; one of our party had (to put it delicately) a “very upset tummy”, the rest of us were just “very upset”.  It was also informed by a strong desire to avail of as many 5* hotel experiences as possible – which, as it turns out, was a very good plan as once children arrived, the cash with which to do this vanished under an ocean of costs associated with sports clubs and the buying of shoes every six months.

Eventually I acquiesced and our family has now celebrated five years of tent-ownership which began with borrowing a tent, and ended with us owning not just a tent, but an awning, several flash gadgets and a habit for campsites that come with great facilities.  What began as a way to holiday cheaply has resulted in something that is not too far off business travel because….

Small = smart

I once managed a week in Washington with just carry-on luggage (ok, Business Class carry-on but it still counts!).  Miniature toiletries, layering of separates, strategically positioned shoes to maximise space, anything to avoid queuing for hours at a carousel or the magical game that is wondering whether your luggage will reach the same destination as you…. This habit has now transformed into the decanting of shampoo into small bottles, sleeping bags that fold into teeny pockets and collapsible colanders (who knew the joy that little gadget would bring?!).

A little luxury goes a long way

Some people won’t travel without a scented candle for their hotel room (I never once did that, but I get why you would), others insist on a glass of champagne after take-off (I definitely did that).  For camping this transforms into good wine, proper cutlery, farm shop burgers and cheeseboards.  Our friend once brought a glass cloche to protect, display and serve a rather nice cake from.  It was a crazily fragile thing to take into a field full of children and guy ropes but not one of us did not appreciate its beauty over a Tupperware pot.

You will covet other peoples’ stuff

On a business trip it’s all about admiring your neighbour’s shoes / laptop bag / Luis Vuitton toiletry bag.  Back when we had to share rooms with other people at conferences as part of a cost-saving / how to make employees feel deeply uncomfortable exercise, I tried on my roommate’s Manolo Blahniks while she was out.  Upon her return I confessed to my terrible behaviour. And then she let me try them on again – yay!    

Now we remark favourably on our friends’ camping stoves, tent carpets and camping mats, and harbour ambitions to one day own a kitchen stand.  It will be ours…

The day hasn’t started unless coffee has been served

In a business context it’s mega hangovers thanks to dinner with clients and all-nighters. When camping it’s being woken by what sounds like a concrete mixer (when in fact it is deer nibbling at grass) or having to take your child for a wee in the dark several times during the night.  All of these fade away with the first cup of strong, hot coffee.

The feeling when you get home

Whether it’s a five day business trip to the US requiring inordinate amounts of smiling nicely at customers and a cast-iron constitution, or a long weekend of fresh air and outdoor pursuits with your family, both of these things are true:

  1. You will feel like you need a holiday afterwards   
  2. There is nothing like your own bed!