Some years ago a coffee company came to me with a proposal to lease the ground floor and basement of my little house in Spitalfields, East London. They wanted a period property and were enthusiastic about the 1780’s late Georgian shop front and the 1930’s signage with its fading TO LET posters. They would remodel the interior and be part of the first wave of retail to realise that the City and its wealth were near by. My house had been on the market for fifteen years before I bought it, but suddenly the moneymen were noticing this part of town. It was absurd that only artists and activists, romantics and misfits, should live here.
They were offering me a lot of money and I had none.
It wasn’t a bad idea to open a shop. My house was hawking for business in 1805, year of the Battle of Trafalgar, and while the Navy were firing cannonballs the size of prize onions, we were selling those onions. Later we became an oranges importer called JW Fruits.
I wish I were making this up but I am not.
I had restored the property and its original shopfront. It is a Listed Building and it had a Dangerous Structure notice. It was uninsurable and not mortgagable. I bought it because I fell in love with its broken beauty. My friend Ruth Rendell lent me half of the purchase price, and I took the money in cash, and I mean cash, to the vendor’s solicitors. I am not sure that kind of thing would be allowed now.
For the next year everything I earned that did not have to be converted into food, went into the bank accounts of a bunch of Irish builders who slept the week in sleeping bags on my floor, then drove each weekend to Blackpool Casino in a borrowed BMW to lose all the money they were supposed be saving to buy bungalows in Dublin.
Every Monday morning they were hung over, happy and broke. Their attitude to money was simple; saving is for suckers. As things have turned out with the Irish economy, they were right not to have bothered with the bungalows.
To finance the gaming habits of Paddy, Teddy and Jimmy, I flirted with the film business and rented the ground floor to Merchant Ivory. They were making a film of Henry James’s novel, The Golden Ball; my shop became the pawnbrokers. It looked perfect – businesslike but racy. A number of nervous city gents knocked on the door fingering their Rolex’s until an irate Spitalfields neighbour jumped on me in the street yelling, ‘ Jeanette Winterson! Have you got planning permission for a pawnshop?’
I wished I had; it would have solved all my financial problems.
I managed to repay Ruth out of an advance for a book I hadn’t written. No matter what your circumstances, you must clear your debts to friends above all else – even if you have to go out and clean toilets. Nothings destroys friendship faster than money loaned and not returned.
Later, one morning. I was gazing in amazement and pride at my newly finished house on the corner catching the sunlight, its windows clean for the first time in two hundred years. From out of nowhere, a couple of men in suits appeared, and started taking photos of my building. I assumed I was going to be arrested by Special Branch as these men knew my name, address, and quite a lot about me. But no, they were waving a bag of gold.
You know those fairy stories – the miller and his wife are eating their last piece of bread when pop through the window comes a furry fellow with red eyes and a good sales pitch – here’s the money you need, swap it for that old pot/goose/broom, new baby etc.
What you risk reveals what you value.
Lattes would be good for the neighbourhood, said the men. Hedge funds, lawyers, insurance, banks, barristers and baristas. All good. Sign here.
I took their card and set off down the street thinking about value, about money, about what is for sale, and about what isn’t or shouldn’t be for sale. I was strangely depressed. I have always believed that you should love violently and leave the rest to fate.
By which I mean do it from the heart or not at all. I had bought and remade the house from my heart, because I loved it. The smooth-talking guys thought I was an easy sell. They had no idea that money can’t buy everything – or more crucially, that it should not.
I grew up in a house in Accrington in Lancashire. We had no bathroom, no telephone, no bank account, no car and no central heating. We had coin-slot meters for our gas and electric, and on Thursdays we ate boiled onions or boiled potatoes in front of the coal fire, the room lit by a paraffin lamp. My father was paid on Thursday night but his wages only lasted through Wednesday. I’ve seen Mrs Winterson reading the evening paper under the street-lamp outside our door; the house in darkness, her with her coat on, cup of tea balanced on the window ledge.
She said to me ‘It’s no shame to be poor but it’s inconvenient.’ Then she went in to use the last of the week’s gas to bake a Sad Cake – a currant flecked flat pastry that doesn’t rise.
This wasn’t the 1950s it was the 1970s
I left home at 16 and earned my own money to pay my way as I continued my education. I was living in a Mini for a while, so my overheads were low in every respect.
When I went up to Oxford I took part-time work and holiday jobs. Whether I was dating boys or girls I realised early that I needed to be the one who could pay. I paid for the boys so that they wouldn’t imagine that the bill for a soggy pizza and a glass of Vinho Verde was a sex coupon. When I dated girls, I paid because there was a good chance that they would view it as that.
I never cared what work I did so long as I could be free to think and free to live in my own way. Menial jobs offered me that freedom, and rents were low. Rents are not low any longer, and working in a dry cleaners for £6:08p an hour, juggling kids, moonlighting on a second shift at Tesco stacking shelves, would not feel like freedom. Yet there are plenty of well-paid economists and businessmen who consider the minimum wage to be a socialist indulgence and a machine for destroying the economy (unlike hedge funds of course).
When I voted Tory in 1979 – the first year I was able to vote, I did so because Thatcher was both a woman and someone who knew the price of a loaf of bread. She had admirable qualities but she was a wrecking ball. There is such a thing as society and we need it. We need community, friendship, civility, neighbourliness. Those things are easily destroyed, and destroyed most easily when the dominant ideology is as follows: Turn all of the planet and all of its people into one vast money-making machine.
Moneta was a Roman goddess, the equivalent of Juno, and her temples were also places where coin was struck. This muddling of values – spirit and mammon – is the back-story behind the famous moment when Jesus turns the moneychangers out of the Temple.
It is an interesting moment and to be compared with the example of the disciples not wanting to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus holds up a coin, asks them whose image is on it. ‘Caesar’ They reply. The answer is render unto the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s. That is, the image of the Divine is stamped on the human soul. In other words – the most important things are not about money, and they are not for sale.
I grew up with the Bible. Mrs Winterson read it out loud every day, and although I find the Church reactionary and uninspired, there is much in the teaching of Jesus that is crucial. For me, I believe that I must pay my way, pay my bills, render unto Caesar etc. But my soul is not for sale.
Practically therefore, I will not invest in any activity or commodity that does harm to others. My profit cannot be at the expense of others’ misery. My comfort should not be another person’s ruin.
This isn’t pious. Like JK Rowling, whose values are sound, I know what it means to be short of a tenner a week. I have been homeless. I always give to people on the streets as well as to the charities that support them. I was in the act of passing a pound to a street beggar when a City guy said to me ‘Don’t encourage him.’ I said, ‘You mean don’t give him a bonus this year?’
What is the matter with our humanity that we imagine a life on the streets is an easy doss?
I might run out of money – I am a good writer and I have lived on my wits for 27 years, but if your pit closes even the best miner is worthless. The future of print is uncertain. Publishing is in trouble. I have done well, and had my bling moments – a Porsche here and there, and a couple of fancy houses. I am a working-class girl made good and I have enjoyed my version of gold taps.
But the world is darkening. Greed has spoiled life for all of us.
I hoped that the global meltdown would prompt a generational shift in values. Instead, all we talk about is money. When money is in short supply we need more than ever a cultural life, an inner life, an imaginative life, a way of life not dependent on shopping and spending.
I didn’t rent my shop space to the coffee people because I don’t like their coffee or their politics. Instead I cut a deal with a chef who wanted to run a tiny jewel of a food store but couldn’t afford market rents. I don’t need a market rent because I own the building. I needed some financial return, and that is what I get. Just as importantly I feel pleasure and pride every time I see the place. It is an asset to the neighbourhood. People are employed there at decent wages. It is useful and it is beautiful. Why don’t we have a box for that on the balance sheet?
Answer: It isn’t a balance sheet. There is no equilibrium or stability in our attitude to money. I have learned to balance my own books, because the ones I write are dependent on the person I am. I have to be able to live with myself before I can write a word.
To me, the cost or the gain is much more than money in or out. I am interested in the real value of my life. My net worth is not what I own; it is what I am.
Or as the saying goes; no such thing as dirty money, only dirty hands.