True Tales from an austere kingdom (1)
In times like this, rumour spreads quicker than the plague, and when I awoke that March morning the streets were already full of people rejoicing, praising god and singing Happy Days.
“Austerity’s ending” Mrs Mannish explained, when I asked her on the stairway, “The latest bills show a fall. They say the worse is over.”
If this were true, of course, it would be considerable news. London had been reduced to unprecedented poverty, with the bills of requested redress rising from between 27 and 53 per week to well over 1,000 in my parish alone, with similar rises across London. Only Westminster had seen a fall in all that time, and that was most like because of the Bill parliament passed for its own backyard, providing for the execution of anyone seeking solace or redress within the walls of Westminster.
However, there was no immediate sign of the problem having abated. As I walked out of the door I was pestered by the usual mob of people mistaking my gentlemanly attire for ownership of a vast business empire. “Ere, mister, I’m a hard working, honest man in need of employment,” they’d always say. “Any chance of a job mister?”
At first I used to take great care to listen to their pleas and answer that I was sorry, but I had no work for them. I soon tired of giving time of day to them, however. If they were really so hard working and honest as they say, why were they not at work? Why were they asking me for work, and not the employer they had served so well and honestly?
It’s strange to recall that in those times London was without the Spectator, the Courant, the Review and the dozens of other papers, daily and weekly, now circulating through every coffee house and street corner. How would I form an opinion today without first checking the facts in those reasoned and researched fonts of wisdom and knowledge. In those days, bar the occasional handbill, news travelled by word of mouth, and thus became even more exaggerated and unreliable than the news we read today. In short, news, such as it was then, was nothing more than scandal and gossip.
Rather than succumb to rumour, I decided to check the facts and took a walk to the local charitable redress centre. Ignoring the usual crowds bustling for support, I pushed my way to the sign on the window, on which was pinned the latest week figures for requested redress. The rumours were true, they showed a fall from 1,527 to 1,413.
I went for lunch at my club, where everyone was most surprised at the news of the fall. Indeed, some were most concerned, not least amongst them Sir Clifford Ironside. “Does that mean we’ll have to start paying wages again?” he asked.
It was Sir Clifford who had recognised the New Business Opportunities being created by the austere period. The requirement on all redress seekers to provide such labour and service as they were able to free of charge, as payment for the charity bestowed upon them were, Sir Clifford realised, a profit-rich source of labour. Indeed, such was the efficiency with which Sir Clifford organised his business, he worked with his local parish charitable centre to ensure that his entire workforce were both laid off and forced to continue in their same jobs free of charge, all in the same day, without a single one of them needing to leave their work stations to receive the bad news. In return he made a small charity payment toward the upkeep of the poor, and a slightly larger underhand payment to the head of the relief charity.
Sir Cliffords ‘zero wages contracts’ were soon adopted by every gentleman in London, and in no time at all, my fellow members of my club had all become rich as a result of the New Business Methods. Indeed, as a shrewd investor, I myself made no small amount of profit and have never enjoyed such wealth before or since. The period of grim austerity people called it, or just The Grim, but for me and my friends it was the happiest of times, where a businessman could make a healthy, honest return on his investment.
By the time I left the club in the early evening, the mood of celebration and optimism has all but disappeared. According to Mrs Mannish, who rents rooms to many of the lowly sort, there were no jobs to back up the figures. Indeed, the streets were as full as ever of destitute men and women, kicked out of their lodgings (well Mrs Mannish can hardly give her rooms away) and no work to be had anywhere.
It also soon became apparent that mine was the only parish showing any fall in numbers, indeed the bills in other parishes continued to rise at the rage of hundreds per week. Word of our fall soon spread and within no time we were being besieged by men, and women, who had walked across the whole of London to seek work in our paradise parish, and our streets were heaving with enough bodies to rebuild the seven wonders of the world, would any employer be so minded as to build them. Alas, no such adventure entered upon and, in spite of the figures, I never heard of so much as a single man, woman, or child gaining employment.
All hope ended with the next week’s figures. The new bills of requested redress, which showed a considerable increase to 1,833, far in excess of the figures from two weeks ago.
The apparent fall soon became explained away, due not to any surge in jobs and prosperity, but to the charity-house keeper taking a vacation with a pretty young girl said to be ‘willing to do any such thing as needs be’ in order to find work. He not being around to process the claims, the numbers had fallen.
I alone laughed at the rise. I had placed a wager of a guinea that the next set of figures would show an increase. I made a profit of three pounds and four shillings, having cunningly assessed that where there is hope in this dire world, there is profit to be made betting against it.
The entire three pounds, four shillings profit disappeared over the course of a long, drink and food-fuelled day at my club, the exact details of which I am unable to recall.