Tuesday 19 March 2019

Martina Devlin: Hard times bring out the inner strength in people

TALES from the dark side are filtering through now. The theatre director I met who is working as a tour guide. The advertising executive waiting tables in her brother-in-law's cafe. The taxi driver, first day on the job, who trained as an architect.

This recession is starting to take prisoners: hostages to misfortune rather than fortune. And those of us still on the outside are doing what we can to get by -- to weather the storm which shows no sign of blowing over.

Survival requires pride to be sacrificed, though it isn't easy to shed. That takes moral courage. Not just a flash of it, but determination and resilience on a daily basis.

Some of these people, who once worked at more prestigious or rewarding occupations, are embarrassed by their change in station. Faces darken from pink to brick red as, struggling to sound matter-of-fact, they outline the volte-face in their fortunes.

"The tide will turn -- in the meantime, we're all just trying to keep our heads above water these days," you tell them. They nod, too polite to contradict. To say they know damn well there'll be blood on the walls before the longed-for recovery swings in. Maybe theirs.

Others are defiant. It's almost as if they dare anyone to express sympathy. They recognise that life has played a mean trick on them -- after all, architecture used to be a high-status career choice; qualifying takes brains and application -- but they have mentally switched into shoulder-to-the-wheel mode. Making ends meet is what matters now.

On every side I see couples counting the cost of recession. Not alone in the monthly tussle to make their mortgage repayments, but in the strain on marriages and family life. There are children who hardly see daddy because he's on the red-eye flight to London on Monday mornings, not back until late Friday night. Surveyors and builders, engineers and IT consultants are obliged to leave their wives and partners to raise their children.

I meet a friend for coffee, and all she can talk about is her marketing executive cousin who's been out of work for six months. He was living on his savings but the well has run dry. Now, after months of being afraid to open the post, he's putting his house on the market. He wasn't reckless in buying that property -- his loan was 50pc of the value -- but he can no longer manage the repayments and it's on the brink of tipping into negative equity. He can't afford to defer that decision any longer.

Moving isn't a catastrophe for a single man, compared with uprooting a family, but it's a wrench all the same. Houses aren't simply composed of bricks and mortar. Not to the people who make a home in them.

In a shop, I fall into conversation with a businessman's wife who resents the loss of her fun money now that his companies are folding. Bitter enough to confide in a stranger, she wonders why she threw in her lot with him rather than all the boyfriends she could have married. She feels betrayed, rather than a victim of circumstances.

"I didn't sign up for this," she complains, manicured fingernails holding a credit card for the dress she can't afford. But is buying anyway.

That's the terrible beauty of relationships. You throw in your lot with someone at 20, 25, 30 -- not having a clue about what kind of life you'll make together.

I compare her with the enterprising wife whose husband's business is also in difficulties. Her response is to cook meals to order for friends who still have an income but no time to prepare Sunday lunch or birthday dinners. Her initiative brings in a little more money for the family, and gives her a sense of purpose. She feels she's doing something positive rather than drifting where the tide takes her.

Then there is the woman whose fiance is a property developer with all his developments in NAMA. She lies about it if you meet her. She raises the subject herself, so she can issue the denial. The couple have cancelled their fancy wedding plans, but she can't bring herself to contemplate what she calls a "hole in the corner celebration". There are three of them in that relationship and her ego is the interloper. Their life is in limbo because she won't set another date.

The domino effect is contributing to these tales from the dark side. The economies we're all making for prudent reasons -- can't afford to get the house re-painted, not able to justify upgrading the car, can manage without a new winter coat this year -- have a knock-on impact. Jobs are lost on the back of them. Small businesses are going to the wall because of them.

Are people keeping the wolf from the door by selling things they never dreamed they'd part with? In Edmund de Waal's family biography 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' he describes his grandmother selling art at bargain basement prices -- paintings collected by her Jewish financier forebears. She did it to pay her children's school fees in Britain in the aftermath of World War Two, when her family, like others, found the wealth they once took for granted had evaporated.

His grandmother's brother moved to Tokyo to work, and saw it happen there too, as the Japanese tried to cope with punitive post-war taxes. Dearly-loved treasures came on the market in the 1940s and 1950s, peeled off like onionskin: Satsuma vases, chests with bronze handles, lacquer and gilt swords. His grand-uncle bought a Ming bowl for the price of a carton of Lucky Strikes.

Few of us have Ming bowls to offer up. But that waiter, that taxi driver, that tour guide I spoke to would have identified with the desperation behind the decision to sell the family silver.

People with qualifications -- exam certificates they imagined would carry them through life -- aren't taking low-paying jobs because they are bored with working in offices or running their own business.

This is a case of needs must when the devil beckons. But let's see their tenacity for what it is: stoical, valiant, inspirational. They aren't going down without a fight.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss