Why I Can’t Talk About Money (Ever!)

(Image/Josh Appel/Unsplash)
During my early thirties, I made the stupid mistake of completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing. I thought I was doing myself a favour, instead I just got into debt.

After I’d finished, I started writing small ads for a local newspaper in Bristol while the bills mounted up. I occasionally changed jobs, but my wages couldn’t keep up with the payments, so I filed for bankruptcy. Then my father found out.

‘Why didn’t you ask?’ he inquired. ‘I could have helped.’ He wasn’t rich, but generous enough to help out when someone in the family needed it.

‘Because I can’t talk about money, Dad.’

Still can’t.

Only last week during a job interview, I couldn’t get round to talking about money. And because my prospective boss didn’t mention it either, the matter seemed closed.

When I got back home and my wife asked me about wages, I just stood there like a dummy. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I didn’t ask. The minimum I guess.’

This wasn’t the first time. Years ago, I’d worked for a guy selling Christmas trees. And yet three weeks into the job, I still didn’t know how much I was getting paid for standing around in a freezing cold car park selling half-dead conifers.

As time passed, I became more terrified. Each morning I wanted to ask, but as soon as I saw him thumping about the yard like a bulldog with his equally terrifying son, the fear overtook me, and I got on with the job.

I mean, who does this? What loser works for three weeks without knowing how much he’s getting paid? True, my boss was a fierce bastard you wouldn’t want to be up against in a bar brawl — unless you wanted your arms and legs broken. But was I always going to be the coward hiding under the table?

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around (it’s amazing the number of trees sold on the 24th), I still hadn’t asked, and the matter was only resolved when he palmed me a nice roll of twenties. ‘Bet you thought I wasn’t going to pay you, eh?’ he ribbed me.

‘Ha! Not at all,’ I laughed it off, practically fainting from exhaustion and mental fatigue.

When I recovered and started looking for another job after New Year, I vowed never to let the same situation happen again. And yet here I was, almost ten years later, doing exactly the same thing. Attaching no more worth to myself than a man walking up the thirteen steps to the gallows. Even killers had a price on their head — I didn’t even have that.

I had to fix this situation. The thought of starting another job with this kind of uncertainty would kill me — I may as well start knotting the noose myself. Which was why I was standing outside my new employer’s office the following morning knocking on his door.

‘Come in,’ came his reply.

I waited a few seconds, then walked in. He was at his desk, looking straight at me as though he’d been waiting for me all night. I hadn’t slept a wink either due to the worry, so I told him why I was here.

My boss eyeballed me. ‘I’m sorry, didn’t I mention it? It’s the minimum hourly rate. Is that OK?’

I was about to say, ‘That’s fine.’ When a thought opened up in my mind. Was I meant to wrangle here? Was this what normal people did? Negotiate?

On the few occasions I’d bought something at a private sale, the vendors had always looked shocked when I’d paid the asking price. I once bought a van for 900 quid. It was a total wreck. I knew it, the seller knew it, everyone in the entire world knew it. But I paid the owner anyway. Four months later, I sold it for scrap.

‘Could we go for twelve?’ I asked my boss. I was sweating now, this was new territory for me.

‘I could do ten fifty,’ he proposed.

I breathed in. ‘Eleven.’

The boss paused, then shrugged, then pretended to look at some data or chart on his desk, which I saw was actually a blank sheet of paper. ‘OK. Fair enough. See you Monday.’

As I walked home, I felt elated, my pride restored. For once I wasn’t walking into a job with a rope around my neck. And even though I’d only negotiated £1 more, it felt like a million. As though all my numbers had come in at once. I’d overcome something big. Some error in my programming that I’d been carrying around with me for years, had been miraculously rectified. Just like that. Just by being bold.

I’d even enjoyed it and was secretly looking forward to the next interview. Which, if my past job record was anything to go by, wouldn’t be too far away. What would I say? Something like this perhaps:

‘Hi, thanks for inviting me in for the interview. Look, I don’t want to be rude, but before we start, can we please talk about money.’


My novel Le Glitch - a story about getting lost - is out now! Click here for details

The Dead Art of Letter Writing

Last Saturday while reading What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin in the bath, I was struck by the thought: When was the last time I wrote a letter?

When I lived and worked on a farm in Provence in 1994, I had no phone, no radio, no TV, and of course no internet. Only a guitar, cigarettes, wine, and a cat, whose name I can’t remember (Pascal, perhaps), to entertain me. I used to write regularly to my parents and my friends, and always looked forward to receiving a letter back. It was an incredible event.

I remember the yellow La Poste van rolling slowly up the rutted driveway at about ten-thirty in the morning to deliver the mail to the farm’s owner and some of the other workers who lived there. About once a week (strangely it was always on a Saturday) there would be a letter for me. Either a brown manila envelope from my father, posted from his office, or small, cheaply-made white envelopes from my friends.

I used to save it until the evening and open the envelope under the ancient olive tree in the yard, reading it many times over. Laugh and reminisce and sometimes want to be back in Nottingham with my friends going out on the town, drinking and meeting girls.

Then I would go into the cavernous kitchen of the farm to cook some strange Anglo-French concoction — normally a steak sandwich with brown sauce — and settle down to my reply. Sometimes writing five or six sides of A4 about my life on the farm or things I was looking forward to on returning to England. I would then address it and get excited about posting it in the village on the Monday, which I went to anyway to buy cigarettes.

Now I think about it, it wasn’t really the news or the puerile banter in the letter that counted, but the process of sending the letter. The writing of it, addressing it, sticking on the stamp, walking to the post office in the village. The routine was far greater than what I had to say to my friends— I could have drawn doodles for all I cared. True, I may not have got many replies, except for, ‘Are you OK out there?’ But the ritual of traipsing down to the post office to converse in my mangled French with the postmistress once a week was priceless.

For my brother and sister, who are fifteen years younger than me, the idea of communicating by letter with their friends, is utterly ludicrous. They’ve never done it; there’s never been the necessity. So why would they?

By the time they reached the age of nineteen (the age I was in Provence), the internet and the smartphone ruled, and letter writing became something their parents did — or their older brother. The very time-consuming process of writing on real paper, addressing it and walking down to the post office belongs, in their minds, to the Middle Ages.

The only exception I guess is the Christmas card. But rarely do these contain any pearls of wisdom except a photo of a robin and Happy Christmas scrawled inside. Love Bob and June xxx

When I did return to England after my adventures in Provence, email, texts, and mobile phones were much more in abundance, and I never really experienced that joy again. I wrote letters, but the frequency decreased until one day I must have written my last letter.

And that’s what I was thinking about in the bath last Saturday. When was this? When did I write a letter addressed to a person I know? To be honest I have no idea. Bar job applications, paying bills, or sending documents out, it must be twenty years since I wrote a personal letter. And I miss it.

And brings me back to a topic that floats around my head most days. Has technology made life better?

I can actually make a good comparison here. Because as it happens, I’m living on a farm in France right now. Alas, not in Provence, but in rainy Normandy. But I’m still on a remote farm, and if I was here in 1994, things I guess would be very similar.

Except now I’ve got the internet, TV, films, and two mobile SIM cards (although I haven’t got a Smartphone). True, the reception and internet reliability isn’t great, but I can still phone, write and converse with people pretty much instantaneously

A yellow La Poste van still comes up the lane a few times a week (not the same one obviously), but it isn’t carrying handwritten letters anymore. Oh no, today the postman’s arms are filled with supermarket advertisements, bills and Amazon parcels. There are no badly scrawled letters from my friends giving me the latest news and gossip. No firm instructions from my father to keep working hard and keep learning French. Now it’s just photos of people’s lunch on Facebook.

I blame myself though. I could write a letter, and I often ask myself, why don’t I? But it would feel strange, wouldn’t it? People might actually think I’ve gone crazy (again).

They might ask: ‘Philip? Why are you writing letters? Haven’t you heard of the internet?’

‘Yes, I have,’ I would fiercely reply. ‘That’s why I’m writing you a letter.’

I’m 45 now and a long time has passed since those letter-writing days of Provence — pre-email, pre-mobile phone, pre-social media. Sitting under the olive tree in the sunshine looking at the ants crawl over the baked ground reading letters from my friends. Now I just get an annoying beep to read someone is going to the movies or a new restaurant. Great, I think! Why don’t you tell me about it in a letter, it might be more interesting?

Le Glitch by Philip Ogley is out now. Click here