Gary Webster: Debt is a disease deserving of a cure

Gary Webster is best known for taking over from Dennis Waterman as Arthur Daley’s sidekick in Minder. But despite the success, financial troubles have struck in recent years. In a searingly honest and open piece he tells The Big Issue of his ongoing battle with debt

The woman in front of me in the queue for the cash machine at Sainsbury’s was modestly dressed, not at first glance in poverty but certainly not rich. She took her place at the hole in the wall, and with no concealment of her PIN gently pressed the keys on the pad. She turned and smiled as she waited for the balance to show then let out a slight howl as she registered that there was only £30.55 left in her account. It was clear why there was no need to conceal her number.

My heart sank for her. I knew that feeling. She turned to me again after punching the £10 withdrawal button and taking her cash into the store. Her warm smile had been replaced by a tired, well-worn but still dignified acknowledgement that once again it was going to be a tough weekend with only £20.55 left in her account.

As I pushed the same keys to find out my balance, I couldn’t shake off the utter helplessness I felt not only for the woman but also for myself, knowing that my balance wasn’t going to be much better. It showed up £45. That was all I had in the world and I could have done with keeping it in the account until the following week, but had promised my wife and our two two sons that I would do a shop for veggie burgers and chips on the way back so had got off the bus to make a special trip to Sainsbury’s.

After shrewdly spending just £20.35 on over 15 items I set about my route home to our rented house. I passed the same woman, sitting on the piss-ridden, dusty pavement while waiting for her bus, defeated as the reality of her situation had again been highlighted in the cruellest way possible. Nobody was willing to help her out of her grind. Her bags held a loaf of bread, four cans of beans, a pint of milk, apples, some chocolate and 10 fags.

Mentally, I made a tally of what she had spent and there it was… £10. A tenner buys you the absolute basics, the bare minimum. No luxuries in the way other people see luxuries, 10 fags her only pleasure. And that will be vilified by some as a luxury and one that costs the NHS – “so why doesn’t she stop smoking to save herself more money?” – an ironic argument always made at a dinner party full of meat eaters guzzling multiple bottles of wine, all heightening the risk of putting them in hospital by the age of 60 also.

I was battling the same disease: debt. Like cancer or a hardening of the arteries, it starts off small and left unchecked can grow and will ultimately kill you. Debt is no less deadly.

My debt started with reneged agreements on work done for which we had borrowed off friends and family to survive until the agreed payments came in. We were owed a lot of money and lived believing we were going to be paid on time. But until that time, we borrowed. That model is absolutely fine as long as the employer pays you. Almost four years after work had been completed, we are still waiting to be paid.

Of course, my wife and I have had other jobs in the last four years but none of them have paid enough to reduce the debt, only enough to manage it from getting bigger. Remission, if you like, in medical terms. But as soon as that work dries up the debt tumor grows again.

Depression follows and, more often than we would like to admit, death.

If you think that is a sensational statement, then you have never been in debt, never woken up with the same sense of helplessness you went to bed with, never woken up with the same sense of gut-wrenching worry you eventually closed your eyes to until finally getting to the point that never waking up at all is your best option.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

It’s the constant worry of paying the ever-pressurising landlord – who all too easily forgets what good tenants you’ve been over the years as soon as you are more than one month late on the rent. The constant worry of how you are going to pay back this friend or that friend or the loans from your ever-giving parents with the oft-repeated “Really, this is the last time I will ask”. Where to find the next £10 to do a food shop or the next £20 to get down to Primark to do a clothes shop for your kids, or pay the interest on the loan from the loan shark?

I have often wondered how someone ends their life due to monetary issues and debt. Surely his or her family would have seen the tell-tale signs, stepped in to help, sacrificed everything they have to help them battle the disease and get them well again? But debt still has an embarrassment associated with it. Most people impose a guilty distance between you in the hope that you will find a way out.

“He’ll find a way to get through this. He always does, doesn’t he?”

“Honestly, I think he’s got a bloody cheek. Maybe they should sell the car first before they come to us. They live in London… their kids can go on the bus.”

“I just can’t believe he’s killed himself. Why didn’t he come to us? We’d have helped him… wouldn’t we?”

Two thirds of suicide victims in the UK are men, three quarters being money-related. The rate goes up in difficult socio-economic times: 6.8 deaths per 100,000 in the age ratio 45-54. The impact of stress related to debt can be worse than that of a physical disease because someone with a disease is seen as needing help. Someone suffering with debt needs admonished and taught a lesson.

Who among us has not carefully avoided eye contact as we passed an outstretched hand? Eyes down as a ‘vagrant’, a ‘tramp’, a ‘migrant’ is asking for money from us. This is what we do to absolve ourselves of the guilt that we live in a society where our generosity, our sense of community and our care for others has given way to our selfishness and loss of compassion.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

People would not distance themselves so readily if I had Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. But with debt, it becomes about point-scoring. “I told you so.” “It’s called tough love.” “They have to learn the hard way.”

It’s a terrible indictment on today’s society to judge without care, to be interested without helping. 

Even though I am still experiencing the debilitating effects of debt, I am, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu once described himself, “a prisoner of hope”. I will never give up the fight to get the money we are rightfully owed. Will never give up on my promise to pay back those who I owe.

I know I am one of the lucky ones. It is my full intention to keep giving those many, many others a voice in this monetarily divided society so that the ‘haves’ don’t take it all before the ‘have nots’ have had at least a chance to experience parity; have at least had their disease acknowledged and attended to and possibly a cure found.

If you’re struggling with any of the issues mentioned in this article, visit Citizens Advice. Big Issue Invest works with Turn2us, an organisation offering help when times get tough, as well as Find Your Credit Union.

This article was originally published in The Big Issue magazine. Get your copy now from your local vendor or Big Issue Shop.