Not classless or cashless, just clueless

This week I noticed an article by yet another yuppie burn-out turned eco-warrior trying, yet again, to introduce a cashless barter economy for people of limited means. Years ago these were known as LETS (Local Enterprise Trading Schemes), and a brief attempt at a Manx one crashed when the value of the basic trading unit for a task crashed like some stoner version of the 2008 international sub-prime mortgage disaster.

This was because the vacuous purveyors of various hippy-drippy “therapies” insisted that their “work” and “expertise” was worth far more than, say, a car mechanic, electrician or any other trained craftsperson whose work your life actually might depend on. How we laughed.

As it happens, for most of my life I have had a somewhat casual attitude to what some sniffily refer to as “the black economy”. If a down-on-his-luck manual worker does a small job for me and wants payment in cash, fair enough. But this casual attitude never extends to charities, the third sector and so-called “community activists”. Even if I give anything to them these days I want a receipt, and it goes on my tax form.

The reason is that, years ago, I worked (unpaid) for some similar set-ups. Most were set up back in the 1960’s by stoned optimists, doctrinaire Marxists or people whose odd religious beliefs later developed into full blown schizophrenia, so have long since collapsed.

The oddest, but most interesting, one was a small charitable project to provide farm holidays for inner-city kids run by Anglican monks. Though it was also not what it seemed.

In practice, the monk running the farm scheme ran an entire village. There was a 24 acre farm with animals and a large farm-house in which kids & parents stayed, plus three other cottages (quite large houses) in varying states of repair for volunteers – with one planned for holiday accommodation once restored by voluntary labour. And finally there was the village shop and post office, run by the monks and their friary. Given that not much money seemed to flow in or out of the project bank account, it was a mystery that it all paid for itself.

The original farm was a gift to the monastic order from a god-bothering aristo, possibly after a previous tenant went bust and at a time when land prices and agricultural subsidies were too low to sell or rent it. The other houses were similarly bought when you could pick up an entire row of abandoned country cottages for hundreds– not hundreds of thousands, mortgaging the main farm as collateral.

There was also a sub-postmaster salary from the GPO and fees from city councils who paid for the kids who came on holidays. As volunteers worked completely unpaid there were no wage bills, though a few were ex-cons or Borstal boys for whose supervision back into society, presumably, the monks got some sort of payment. Also, some milk and dairy products from a small flock of sheep and herd of milking cows were sold on.

The farm grew no crops. After each local market, though, traders dumped bags of soon-to-expire veg – enough to keep not only monks and volunteers but the animals from vitamin deficiency. Similar gifts of materials were also encouraged, and from time to time a passing wealthy well-wisher would hand over a wad of notes, though – curiously – the abbot never seemed to accept cheques and never pursued what would have been the practical giving solution – supporters making direct debits from bank accounts, getting receipts and claiming it back on their tax forms.

The abbot’s attitude to planning permission was also innovative. From time to time some official would come to inspect and note a staircase, new kitchen or even a bedroom with en-suite bathroom where none had been before. The abbot would solemnly assure them it had been there for years, though since recent repainting it looked entirely different.

Who would challenge a devout monk, involved in such selfless charity work? Not some local government employee on the first rung of the ladder, or a year or two off retirement and a fat pension, that’s for sure. Certainly the abbot’s own superior – then a newly appointed bishop – did later turn out to have spent his entire clerical life abusing novice monks, but it was not until his death – some 20 years later – that any of that came out.

In short, the entire project ran on black market principles, and if operated by anyone other than monks would have been regarded as organised crime. Then the abbot died suddenly, about a decade after I was there. His two fellow monks being semi-literate pensioners who had no part in the book-keeping, the whole scheme had to be unravelled by external accountants, and while nothing came out in public both the religious order and the Anglican hierarchy were stunned by what was found.

Admittedly, no holiday flats in Spain, mistresses or cocaine stashes were ever uncovered (though there was an upmarket estate car in a barn everyone but the bishop knew about) Nevertheless, it did, eventually, emerge that a monk who, according to the rules of his order, was (quite literally) forbidden to own more than a spare set of underpants actually oversaw a sizeable empire, including property worth millions and a staff of up to 20 people, all run on a bank account which rarely saw more than three figure sums pass through it.

Despite his religious beliefs (those, at least, were genuine) I liked the bloke and laughed my socks off when an old friend from those days told me how it all ended. A more un-monk-like monk I never knew. A six foot, 18 stone son of an East End docker who grew up with the Krays, with all of their nose for a good deal but a wicked sense of humour instead of a vicious streak. His outrageous scams hurt nobody, and were used solely for the benefit of poor kids and some adults who would, without him, have been lucky to survive to their thirties.

I have no such love for current day fun-suckers who hide behind religion, environmentalism and social reform, whine about materialism, and seem to regard it as some sort of “right” that we should fund their clueless, self-indulgent antics. Rather than adding any value or joy to the world, their efforts are, eventually, entirely self-centred. They annoy and bore me. Change the world? They could hardly change their own underwear without a hand-out.

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