Thursday, 18 February 2010

Why Being A Young British Writer is Good

I try very hard not to wade into healthcare/environment debates out here in AmericaLand. As a tree-hugging lefty who cares about how chickens/cows are kept this means I practically have to staple my mouth shut sometimes (I would consider my own views quite mainstream at home but here I think they may verge on communist...)

So I never thought I'd spout my opinions on this blog but I saw something posted today that made me think about the difference in being a poet starving in your garret in the UK, as opposed to the USA.

Tania Hershman pointed this out: the average earnings of writers in the UK.
The 'average' writer in my age group earns £14,564, although the median, i.e. typical, earning is £5000. That's not a lot. Generally, you'd have to do something else to keep the wolf from the door. However, I could very easily live on £14,564.

And that's because of something called the National Health Service.
Now, like most people I hadn't given the NHS a lot of thought until I became too ill to work for nearly three years. I had to give up my job. I could barely leave the house and couldn't drive. But, because I had paid National Insurance (this is taken out of your wages and is compulsory) I was given Incapacity Benefit. Not a lot, but it helped. I also had exactly the same access to medical care that I'd had when I was working. After all, if you're not working the idea is to get you better so you can, right? It was all entirely free.

I started writing as therapy - you have to do something all day - and loved it. It really helped me and I slowly, gradually, began to feel better.

I started my own business part time, going into small (generally arts-based) offices and working as a project manager/consultant. This sounds more glamorous than it was, but I was able to work my hours around my illness and never tell my employers about it. There is still a terrible taboo around the words 'Mental Health', and even though I don't think it would have mattered, I still didn't want to say anything.

The rest of the time, health allowing, I wrote.

As a self-employed person working part-time, I didn't have to even think about medical costs. I wasn't forced back into a large company with a health plan. Insurance for cars etc is cheaper because you don't have to worry about massive medical bills. Until I could drive again I could rely on (generally expensive but at least it's there) public transport. Where I live now I'd be stuck without a car.

Student loans in the UK are run from one central body and you don't have to pay them off until you're earning a certain amount (possibly £20,000/$30,000 now?). If you never earn that much you never pay it off. It is supposed to be a tax on the successful, giving back what they have got themselves.

I wasn't earning enough to have to repay my student loan, so I didn't have to consider that in my finances. In any case, the amount is small as the fees for my year (in any university in the country, including Oxford/Cambridge) were £1000. (I don't agree with fees; successful people pay enough taxes anyway and it discourages people from poorer backgrounds. I certainly don't agree with the recent increases. All higher education/training courses/apprentiships should be funded from taxes in my opinion. But.)

By the time I came out here to East Coast America I had started to sell my stories and articles. It was a unique opportunity to do what I love pretty much full-time.

One day, I'll earn enough to be entirely self-supporting. (I still pay National Insurance for self-employed folk out here, by the way). I'll pay back my student loan, pay lots of taxes and be a worthwhile member of the community (by 'community' I mean Bristol, my husband and the cat we'll have by then). I'll be doing something I love and hopefully giving something back. I may even make a difference in other people's lives.

I just don't think I'd have got there if I'd had to worry about medical bills, insurance, student loans (I have a Masters, how much would I owe here?) and running a car by myself.

In my opinion, living in the UK makes things a lot easier for young writers/musicians and artists, people starting up businesses and people on a low income, whether in good health or not.

Off to get on with that novel now. I have nothing to lose but my tea going cold.


Tania Hershman said...

Jen, you make excellent points. First, I am sorry to hear that you weren't well for so long, I know how that feels since I was unwell for most of last year. But it's amazing how many writers started writing because illness gave them the time (Ali Smith and Peter Hobbs both talked about this on the Arvon course I did a few years ago). It must be a little scary to now be in the US with all the health insurance issues over there. We saw the film "Sicko" while on a trip there a few years ago and it made me terrified to try and cross a NY street! Not to scare you :) Anyway, excellent points, sparked by the table of writers' fees. Much food for thought. Yes, I could live nicely on £14,000 too.

Coming back to Bristol soon?

Jenzarina said...

Thanks, Tania.

My illness turned into a huge oportunity for me to learn about myself, appreciate life and start doing something that fulfilled me. Unfortunately, not everyone finds something this positive in their experiences.

Many of my writing heroes have had experiences with mental health issues - is it something about writers or is it just that common among the population as a whole?

I'll be back in the South Westerlies in a couple of years, although I hear Bar Chocolate in Clifton has closed down, probably because of the loss of revenue when I left :)
Cider, Boston Tea Party, interesting grafitti, country pub lunches and walking up Park Street on a windy day. Sigh.

Anj said...

"Boston Tea Party, interesting grafitti, country pub lunches and walking up Park Street on a windy day. Sigh."

Awww sentiments exactly :)

Regarding your post which got me thinking/reading, one thing about tuition fees is they are means-tested so you don't always have to pay them, though heard they might go up up up up again..

One unfortunate thing about student loan is that it goes up with RPI inflation rather than the other type, so poorer students entitled to a bigger loan might be paying it back til retirement (except this year it's 0% as we had deflation but government didn't want to pay interest!) So that's unfortunate.

However, feel very grateful we got to go to uni, and it's great to see a positive blog about the nhs! Very interesting :)