Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

One of more curious aspects of the Farepak fiasco has been the incredulity that has characterised some of the reaction to it, as much as to suggest a general air of disbelief that such things as savings clubs, and the people who use them, even exist in this day and age and that the whole debacle is some curious intrusion into modern life from a bygone age.

The First Post, an online refugee camp for disaffected Thatcherite emigres from the Daily Telegraph, takes an all too predictable line on the whole issue:

Christmas is coming and the media’s trove of tear-jerking Farepak stories gets fatter by the day. This is Bob Cratchit meets The Little Match Girl, a three-hankie weepie that everyone except the 150,000 sorry losers of their Yuletide savings can enjoy…

…All this over a Christmas club? I very much doubt that any of the glossy London media types piling into the story even knew such things still existed. Christmas clubs were what your grandparents subscribed to before the war, in an era of debt and shortages. The idea was to put a little money aside each month to pay for the festive goodies.

If there is really a story here, it is surely the fact that in the age of telephone banking and online accounts there are still people prepared to put their cash into unregulated savings schemes that pay no interest.

As one might expect from an online magazine whose ‘star’ columnist is that doyen of all reactionary old reprobates, Peregrine Worsthorne, the milk of human kindness soured long ago leaving behind only a faint whiff of goulash and lifetime’s supply of piss and vinegar for sustainance.

Stevie’s site, in the absence of a pair of brain cells to rub together, takes a much more personal look at whole fiasco:

Whatever the story, this picture appeared in the paper and I couldn’t help but laugh at the coke-bottle-bottom glasses Grandmama was wearing. It made her look like she was trying to hypnotise the readers into donating to the fund. See for yourself.

A paragon of compassion is our Stevie. Words might fail me, but for the inclusion in the English language of the wonderfully utilitarian word ‘twat’.

Even the normally reliable Longrider seems a little bemused by the whole business:

While I have some sympathy for the victims – we have all made bad calls in our time – it is rather limited. In the first instance, a bank or building society savings account will not only keep money safe, it will pay interest…

…Also, since when did a hamper, i.e. luxury goods, become a charity case?

Christmas is something of an obsession in this country. But, then, I’m biased; I hate Christmas in all its garish, tacky superficiality with a vengeance and eschew it in its entirety. Yes, I have some sympathy, but not enough to put my hand in my pocket. I will however, dispense some pretty obvious wisdom; put your money in a proper bank or building society account in future. Consider this a life lesson – there, that’s a useful Christmas present for you. Harsh, I know, but true.

While, in the comments over at Longrider’s blog, Chuck Unworth, has decided to give his neaderthal side a good old airing:

So, some bastard’s done a runner with the Christmas Club cash. A story repeated over decades, if not centuries. Admittedly this is on a bigger scale, but so bleeding what?

Why do these ‘victims’ think we’ll all want to cough up our hard-earned because they’ve been stupid enough to trust the ‘Directors’? All they’ve got to do is track down and offer some physical ‘advice’ to these con artists. That may prove rather more effective than crying to the world about how hard done by they are.

Anyhow I can’t stand the sight of these snivelling prats being ‘interviewed’ by the hordes of ‘journalists’ – who are obviously having a pretty slack time of it.

Chuck. If ever you find yourself up to your eyeballs in debt having been royally fucked over by a millionaire businessman then, please, don’t hesitate to give me a call…

I’ll take great pleasure in telling you to fuck off and pointing you to the nearest soup kitchen.

There is rather more to the Farepak story than simply the age-old and oft-repeated tale of consumers taking the fall for the failures of a businessman, a tale that Chris Dillow (whose blog, Stumbling and Mumbling, could still desperately do a search facility) would, I suspect, understands very well.

Corrie demonstrates the greatest political wisdom of all – that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.

In Corrie, people are not simple ciphers, to be boxed, stamped, labelled and managed as managerialists think. They are real, multi-dimensional people. Take Roy Cropper, the mocked and bullied geeky, autistic loner, with his Christ-like humility. Or his wife Hayley, who has done more than almost anyone to show that trans-sexuals are not freaks. Or Eileen, showing that single parents aren’t feckless scroungers, but battlers against adversity. Or the sadly-departed Sunita, showing that the mousy Asian shopgirl has an intelligence and sensuality beyond the cultural stereotype. Or Steve MacDonald, showing that ex-cons can come good.

What’s more, Corrie, more than any TV programme, embodies a tradition. It’s hinted at by that prominent but never discussed poster in the Rovers advertising Wilfred Pickles, the homage to Donald McGill within Jack and Vera and Les and Cilla, and the distinctively Northern character types represented in different ways by Emily, Ken, Norris and Blanche. In all this we see an embodiment of a part of English – Northern – history, a history we are in danger of losing.

What the sorry tale of the collapse of Farepak proves, above all thing, is that the working class is still alive and well and living in Britain today and that is remains what it always was, not a sociological experiment for the benefit and edification of the middle classes, to be consumed vicariously and from a safe distance in the received wisdom of newspaper columnists (Polly Toynbee take note) nor a ravening hoarde of asbo-ridden chavs, but real people living real lives, people who struggle from day to day and week to week, just to make ends meet.

The good, old-fashioned, honest poor did not, in Britain, ‘go gentle into that good night’ alongside ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and Watney’s Red Barrel, its still here. Today. Now. As much a part of Britain and British life as it was when George Orwell wrote of England in ‘The Lion and The Unicorn‘:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Tommy Atkins didn’t fade away to distant memory, become just a name on a plaque on an empty ceremonial tomb, in harsh and unforgiving glare of Thatcherism and the me-first 1980s.

He’s me. My family. My friends. The people I grew up with. The people I work with. The people I see around me every day.

The Farepak fiasco hurts these people, these communities, in ways that the most of the effete, consumerist, middle classes seem unable to comprehend.

These people are poor, but they’re what used to be called the honest poor. The thrifty poor. People for whom the Christmas period is not about religion and the Church, nor about shopping and consumerism, but about a simple yearly act of dignity. If you’ve struggled, scrimped, saved and gone without all year, just to make ends meet, then it will all be worth it, and for an all-too brief period the world will be made right, if only you can have a good Christmas.

When you grow up poor, in a working class community, then to have presents under the Christmas tree and a decent spread to put before the family matters, and it matters in ways that the middle classes cannot even imagine, let alone comprehend.

The gobshite (William Langley) who wrote the article that appeared in the First Post may well sneer at the image of Bob Cratchit but in doing so he demonstrates only his own ignorance. Bob Cratchit is not a figure of pity but the very emblem of a traditional working class Christmas, as Dickens must well has known when he conceived of the character as a counterpoint to the miserly Scrooge. Cratchit is no mere plot device, nor is he a cipher whose sole purpose is to provide a literary crutch for the introduction of Tiny Tim into the tale of Scrooge’s moral apotheosis. He is the everyman of the working class, and the simple festivities he shares with his family (before the appearance of a reformed Scrooge) the very archetype of a working class Christmas that continues to this very day.

And if one might wish upon Langley just one thing this Christmas, then a visitation from Jacob Marley would do very nicely indeed.

There is something altogether despicable about the character of those who, on seeing good honest people cheated of their savings and asking only for a little justice, would rather deride them as undeserving charity cases in search of a handout or as fools for placing their trust in an unregulated savings scheme.

These are people who, in the main, will have little or no choice in the matter. If they have a bank account at all, it be only a basic one, no interest (either paid or from their bank) and certainly no credit facility. The only plastic you find in many of these household this Christmas is likely to be of moulded variety encasing a toy bought from their local 99p Store.

The ramification of the collapse of Farepak will stretch far beyond this coming Christmas. Having been robbed of their savings, pride alone will dictate that many of these people will go heavily into debt to rescue some shred of dignity from this debacle, and oh what debt. While the middle classes agonise over the prospect of a quarter percent hike in the base rate and ponder merits of the various deals on offer by different credit card provides:

– should I take the 6 month free on balance transfers at 15.9% interest rate or the 9 months free and 16.9% rate, what do you think Tarquin?

Many of these people will find themselve liberally gouged for interest rates of anything up to (and even beyond) 171% by an industry that the Competition Commission admits is overcharging its customers by £100 million a year and yet is too spinelessly in thrall to the ‘market’ to regulate properly.

Still, if it is competition that the ‘regulator’ wants then perhaps we should give it to them, and them some.

Perhaps it time for Gordon Brown (best wishes for Fraser, BTW) to don his Santa costume in time for the next budget and arrange for a fitting Christmas present for those who’ve been screwed over by Farepak and are getting screwed over, again, by the ‘home credit’ industry.

An industry that has been gouging its customers to the tune of £100 million a year in excess profit must surely be ripe for a visit from the windfall tax man and that £100 million (or maybe more, this has been going on for years) would make for a nice little social investment in, say, local credit unions, who would, of course, provide the home credit industry with just exactly the kind of competition that the regulator believes it need.

Its a win-win scenario all around.

Whaddya say, Gordon? Would you be up for donning a bushy white beard and bringing a few good honest folks a bit of Christmas cheer? I happily shout you a wee dram or two, if you do.
(And all that, I suspect, is probably the most openly socialist thing I’ve written in quite some time – damn it feels good!)

10 thoughts on “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

  1. Unity, the problem here is that Gordo will lob money taken from the poor who were not silly enough to invest in Christmas hampers and give it to those who were. Do you think that it is only the rich who pay tax?

    I don’t even have the money to put away for a Christmas hamper (and so luckily lost nothing, since I have nothing to lose) and yet you would advocate using the money stolen from me by the government in order to compensate those whose Christmas is going to be, admittedly, a little more bleak this year?

    Yes, one could say that it is a tiny amount of money — a mere drop in the

  2. Being short of a few bob myself (self employemnt has not been particularly lucrative) I am extremely careful with what little funds I do have. So, I remain bemused. Putting money in a bank or building society means keeping it safe – and available for emergencies should they arise. Consequently, being as skint as the Farepak victims, I find it difficult to get too upset about their plight, despite having residual sympathy with them for having made a bad investment decision. Like DK, I wouldn’t dream of seeking a payout to rescue me from my bad decisions. They were my decisions and I must live with the consequences. I got myself into this mess, I will get myself out.

  3. >>> and yet you would advocate using the money stolen from me by the government in order to compensate those whose Christmas is going to be, admittedly, a little more bleak this year?

    Actually, DK, that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.

    What I am suggesting is that the home credit industry – companies like Provident and Shopacheck – who’ve been gouging working class communities for years with interest rates running to 150-200% and who the Competition Commissioner has identified as overcharging their customers to the tune of

  4. Longrider:

    Its a matter of perspective.

    You see an inherent risk in these savings clubs. Most if not all of those who got stung did not, nor did they see their savings as an investment.

    As far as these people are concerned, they were saving their money by paying into these schemes, money that would be ringfenced to pay the good they were ordering.

    It’s a mindset thing.

    The only way I can explain this is illustratively.

    Imagine that you’ve gone to the pub with friends and lodged

  5. Oh, I understand it perfectly – it’s the environment I grew up in, too. I’ve moved on, though. These days I wouldn’t dream of putting money into any form of savings that didn’t pay me interest. At least hire purchase (the conventional way around) gives you the goods up front.

    As I said, I have sympathy for the bad call, but as someone who is also suffering financial difficulty following a bad call and determined to sort it out myself, I can’t stretch beyond that. These types of thing are an anachronism, so I stand by my advice given on my post; put the money into a building society account.

  6. I think the biggest scandal isn’t that Farepak collapsed, but rather that the donation fund, which has since closed, managed to collect only

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