I follow a few blogs, including that of the poet Roy Marshall and was interested to read this in his latest blog:
“I write reviews and quite often read my poems for no fee. There is always some debate amongst poets about the wisdom of reviewing and performing, and even offering poems for publication, without being paid. Of course I have sympathy for this view. I work very hard on my reviews, sometimes spending days on them. But no amount of wanting to be paid will result in me being paid or make the experience of writing the review any more or less pleasurable. If I have a bit of time, like and respect the magazine that has approached me, want to be paid in free books and relish the challenge of writing about them as best I can, I’m your man. And no amount of not being paid will stop me doing what I do. As for readings, I love them. This might mean I make a two hundred mile round trip and end up out-of-pocket. People at the reading might tell me they loved my work. But this doesn’t mean I should expect people to mob me to buy my book. They may have already paid to gain entry. They may have just enough in their pocket to buy a drink. So their appreciation and the time they take to tell me of it, is priceless, literally. And sometimes that means I’ll end up getting home at one in the morning hungry and with and empty petrol tank and pockets thinking ‘Art for art’s sake. Money for God’s sake.’”
This really resonated with me on various different levels. Having spent most of my working life in the public sector I have always been in the privileged position of having my pay divorced from the work that I do. As a child of a primary school teacher and a nurse I was brought up in the same paradigm – that one went to work and gave one’s best, and your salary would be paid at the end of the month. That salary wasn’t a lot – in the case of my father, despite achieving a headship at a young age, the salary meant that his four children had free school meals and I had a full university grant throughout my five years at medical school (those were the days, when students got grants!)
I think this idea of work and income being essentially separate definitely influenced my political development, and my fundamentally anti-capitalist views. It certainly created interesting discussions between my now husband and I when we first met (in fact in continues to do so) as he is the eldest child of two business-minded parents. I felt very clear that there was a big difference between ‘the workers’ (a horribly derogatory term) and ‘the bosses’. The former go to work in order to be able to live – nowadays those at the bottom of the income pile may have to take two or three jobs in order to eke out a living. Into this group of people fall many unskilled and manual workers, although of course unskilled does not mean uneducated – a trap into which many politicians fall. University-educated women may end up in cleaning jobs because they can be done in unsocial hours when relatives are available to provide childcare. The bosses on the other hand are interested in profit, profit, profit. Margins are cut to increase profits. Wages are pared to the legal minimum (and below) to increase profit. Profits feather the nests of small business people, and those of the shareholders of large businesses. Large profits inevitably involve exploitation of workers, even if only through unfair and unequitable division of income.
Enough of my anti-capitalist views though; Roy’s blog provoked different thoughts. I was reminded of a time shortly after I had qualified as a psychotherapist (and was still working in the NHS as a doctor) and I innocently talked to a psychotherapist friend about my provisional plans to offer to work for free for selected patients referred from a local short term counselling service. This prompted an extremely hostile response, and reminded me of a session that we’d had during my final year of training about setting fees (and other aspects of private practice). I was told in no uncertain terms that a) patients would not value therapy that they were not paying for – (even low cost therapy services expect their clients to contribute in the region of £15-20 a session), and b) if I thought about charging low fees, or even worse no fees, I would be declaring war on all the other therapists in the area who depended on their current fees in order to live.
Roy doesn’t say what the current debate amongst poets is concerning performing poetry, reviewing or even publishing without a fee, but I suspect that it is similar. He argues that he loves doing the work and appreciates his audience. I argued much the same; that I loved the work and was fortunate enough to have a paid job that enabled me to give some extra time for free. In fact my situation was slightly different – I felt strongly that there was a group of patients who would really benefit from longer term therapy but would never be able to afford it. I saw a tiny number of such patients in my NHS clinic, but could not expand that (although I tried hard). I was morally and ideologically opposed to seeing patients for the type of psychotherapy that I was interested in only if they could pay me £60+ a session. Consequently I saw no-one.
This was a few years ago, but I suspect that little has changed. Do I believe that people don’t value therapy unless they pay for it? No I don’t. The majority of people are deeply grateful for the service they receive from their GP or their local hospital without having to pay for it at the point of delivery. Most families appreciate their local schools – the support that schools receive from parent teacher associations is testimony to that. I have had cards expressing gratitude from patients who have not paid a penny for the therapy that they have had with me through the NHS – patients who could not possibly have paid even £1 for the sessions (one lady walked five miles to the hospital because she could not afford the bus fare). I didn’t believe that people who don’t pay don’t appreciate their therapy when I was first told this, and I still don’t.
The second point is more pertinent. Do I believe that offering one’s services for free undermines one’s colleagues? Actually I don’t. I think that what it does is threaten their sense of themselves and their security. Commonsense dictates that there are enough people who could benefit from therapy that me seeing a few patients a week is not going to threaten my colleagues’ livelihoods – especially if I see only those with very limited means. Equally, Roy writing reviews and performing his poetry for free is very unlikely to stop his colleagues collecting fees for the same activities.
I think that the real question is whether I value myself/ Roy values himself if we offer our services without monetary reward? I think (being bold and speaking for Roy as well) what we are saying is that we are rewarded for what we do; but that reward does not have to be financial.