Burning The Book of Debt, Birmingham – photos.Leave a Comment
I had two very different Burning the Books sessions last week, opening The Book of Debts to both groups, in preparation for this weekends performance. In October, we tried to access a number of groups to whom the issues of this project might be specifically relevant, but it wasn’t always easy, given the subject matter, and our lack of knowledge and forthcoming contacts in Birmingham at that time. I am very grateful for these two invitations, both were thought and heart provoking encounters and I am hoping that many of the contributors present will be there on Saturday – it gives the event a meaning and fullness
My first, very small but intimate group, organized by effervescent actor, writer and storyteller Gavin Young, was at the Old Joint Stock Theatre (which used to be a bank, I like!) . They were full of curiosity, insightful and profound in their creative developing of the concept of debt and how it might influence their choice of story to add the project (still open for Birmingham contributions till this Saturday, 3.30pm).
My second, with around 30 young student writers, organized by Writers Bloc manager and creative producer Elisha Owen, took place in an art room at the top of Birmingham Uni. Just getting through the responses to the question:
What do you think about when you think about debt? Took most of the session, which was actually perfect as it (1). Always expands my own understanding of the subject (2). Felt like everyone had voiced themselves however briefly, and their written stories – of debts they were proud of/grateful for/frightened of/burdened by/ prepared to repay/may never repay/ share with others, went in written form, quietly, powerfully, into the book.
Although first thoughts go to money, it doesn’t take long for people to grasp, play around with and come up with what else debt can be about or bring up – and it quickly gets dramatic! Until someone points out that there is a solar side to debt too, then the debate gets interesting.
So here is the sweep of words and phrases that came up in response to
What do you think about when you think about debt?
Money, burden, loss, relationships, emotion, life – not speaking it, survival, pain, struggle, home, ancestry, duty, unreal, imbalance, power, chase and escape, suicide, responsibility, the diggers, immateriality, fear, born into slavery, feelings, powerlessness, actions, fluctuating, undead, a trap, cultural, anxiety, guilt, personal, community, a necessity, empowering, what we owe newton, Kentucky route zero ( a video game about debt!).
And the stories, well, they are in The Book of Debts and you are invited to add your own, come along to Cathedral Square to hear them being read aloud this Saturday . Event details on Facebook and here. We will be exploring the question of debt as part of an opening talk at 2.30 inside the Cathedral with myself, the Dean and John Nightingale of Jubilee Debt Campaign before we open up The Book for final contributions, prior to the recital and burning.
As I am going to be wandering around with The Book of Debts (and my firekeeper) on Friday 3.30-5pm and Saturday 11-12.30 in the Colmore District, I think these simple questions I asked of these groups may be all I need to open the conversation with strangers I encounter and businesses I approach (apart from assuring them I am not selling anything or trying to convert them to a cause). We will see!
I read with a combination of outrage and excitement the news that £900m of ‘ageing’ student debts have been sold on to a global private debt company. They were sold for £160m, what a bargain – Primark prices!. Phrases like ‘the private sector is well placed to maximize returns from a book (a book??) that has deteriorating value’ and this represents ‘good value for money’ (for who? not for the students obviously) made me my heart sink. My partner’s film school student debt will be one of those included in this ‘book’.
Having been subject to the manipulation of private debt companies in the past, I know the dark pressure they are capable of exerting on people and the impact this can have on one’s mental health, not to mention financial well-being.And we are talking about educational debts here, for a public service! not consumer debt.
I will give a personal example of this in my very next post, but let me explain why I used the word excitement. If there is a sector of society who are capable of drawing attention to and engaging in a movement of massive debt resistance, of arming themselves with the information need to question the morally reprehensible and still unregulated behaviour’s of the private debt sector, it is the student body. And this is has started, with the demonstrations last week .
I hope there is a connect between this sell-off –which happened today – and the attention recently and so powerfully drawn by the US-based Rolling Jubilee campaign via Strike Debt to the secondary debt market, which technically this ‘book’ will become part of. From what I understand, there is a legal case (in the US but not sure how it works here) for questioning the validity of the contract between the debtor and a company which has bought a debt like this, if the new contract is not acknowledged by the debtor as valid or the new creditor cannot supply the original version of the contract. I do not know the precise details but this must surely be worth looking into! Since student debt – and medical debt – has been a massive issue for a long time in the US, Occupy have devised ways to provide information for those who want to resist unjust debts, a lot of this is in the Debt Resistor’s Manual. I’m not endorsing everything in this manual, and some of it only applies to those in the US, but I know from experience that the more information you have as a debtor, the more power you have to draw a line between yourself and unacceptable but still legal behaviours in use within the debt collecting sector. Some debts we really want to pay – but some are blatantly unjust, particularly those sold on which then acquire the machinery of the manipulation and maximisation of ‘assets’ at the expense of the financial survival and mental well-being of the debtor -who is, after all, a human being. And those which are converted from public to private debt are ethically questionable to say the least – no student would have willingly entered into a borrowing agreement with a private company in the first place – although I have to say that my partner was sold a film school ‘student loan’ by Lloyds years back, which turned out to be a high interest bank loan , with PPI. He got the PPI cancelled and overturned by the ombudsman before this came to the headlines for millions of others, but was still liable to pay a front-loaded bank loan totalling more than his income every month – which tipped us over the edge initially -as opposed to the affordable monthly amount that comes off of wages once you start earning. So there have been some questionable banking practices already in relation to student borrowing and it dismays me to see how overt this move is in that direction.
During my recent stint in Birmingham Library with The Book of Debts Volume IV (which will be the next to meet a fiery end, on March 8th 2014, details to follow), I had conversations with quite a number of students about this and they put their debts in The Book. The total in student so far comes to £111,000. One of the students, who put in £36,000, also put this in the book:
‘That is the price tag of my degree, the fees only. I feel reckless about it at the moment, just enjoying my degree, and on top of that I want to do a PHD – at 6k a year, plus maintenance I am looking at owing up to the early 100k and that lasts 25 – 30 years. Does that mean I will die in debt! I heard that if you move abroad and become a citizen of another country, after three years your Uni debt in this country will be written off..?
I would not be without my education though, so…what to do!’
Taking this idea to its extreme, a mass exodus of educated young people from the UK is not what the government wants, but it cannot see beyond the delectable prospect of shaving hundreds of millions off its accounts book. And this is only step 1. The issue of how this sell-off will impact students lives in other ways are not even given a mention in its comments this last week. Perhaps because it isn’t considered by them to be an issue? But it is aligned with a lot of their other short term – goal oriented thinking on education generally so I do not know why I am surprised…
I look forward to seeing how this unfolds, I think there may be creative solutions to transforming this , based on what I have seen happening in the US.
All debts contributed so far –many of which are non-financial- can be browsed here. Volume IV is open for new contributions until March 7th 2014 before a finale event of talks, recitals and a ceremonial burning in the Centre of the City, host venue and details of related events tbc very soon!
As I posted this, I noticed that students are still in occupation at Birmingham University in protest at what has been happening.