The UK election has barely entered its second week and already I'm losing the will to live. The big news this week was the nation's first ever televised debate between the three party leaders. I was out, thankfully, celebrating my wife's birthday, but the consensus was that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the least popular of the three main parties, 'won'. This could make things interesting if it leads to a surge in Lib Dem support at the expense of the incumbent Labour party or the wannabe Conservatives, and makes the intriguing prospect of a hung parliament more likely. However, Clegg's moment in the limelight will almost certainly mean the Conservatives, with most to lose from a Lib Dem surge, will employ their friends in the press - the British press is overwhelmingly supportive of the Tories - to trash Mr Clegg and his policies with glee. Much guff is spouted about avoiding negative campaigning, but we all know it works and buckets of crap are about to be poured over Mr Clegg and his party, much it most likely untrue, from both Conservative and Labour.
By far the most interesting intervention in the campaign so far came from a fellow writer. JK Rowling wrote a piece for The Times deriding the Tories and backing Labour. J.K is a multi-millionaire and has already been dismissed as a champagne socialist by the Tory press, along with a slew of other unflattering comments (funnily enough when the Harry Potter books began to sell in their hundreds of thousands, I remember articles in the same Tory newspapers proclaiming how the values and virtues enshrined in the novels underlined the Conservative world view).
Ms Rowling's support for Labour and her dislike for the Tories stems from her time as a struggling author and single parent in the early 1990s, under the last Conservative government, who believed single mothers to be the root of all evil, essentially feckless, lazy people who jumped to the top of the state housing queue by having kids, who then grew up to be feral drug-taking serial killers or something. Understandably, as a single mother who has gone to make something of her life, she still resents the slur.
But it's not just the stigma she resents. While she rebuilt her life after the end of her marriage, a phase she describes as 'rock bottom,' teaching part-time, living in rented accommodation, she lived on benefits. They were 'there to break the fall.' The same benefits that the Tories have said they will cut should they gain power, under the name of fiscal prudence, and hand responsibility for to various unnamed charities. Had JK Rowling not been supported by benefits she wouldn't have been able to write the first Harry Potter novel and plan five more. Eleven months later she was able to buy a house on the proceeds of the US rights to the first book and was no longer a burden to the state.
However, she says will remain forever indebted to the British welfare state for its support. And fair play to her for sticking around the UK and not, as she puts it, 'scarpering to the West Indies' with her millions. This in a week when I read that dear old Sarah Palin, a fellow author technically, has a list of exorbitant demands that people booking her to speak must meet. A contract rescued from a dustbin at California State University, which has hired her to give a talk - Why? Don't students suffer enough? - revealed that she must be flown there first class or in a private plane (must be a Lear 60 or larger), must stay in a suite a deluxe hotel with two other single rooms for her exclusive use, have all meals 'and incidentals' provided for, as well a laptop with high-speed Internet. Oh and my personal favourite detail, unopened water bottles with bendy straws beside each of them. It's welcoming to read J.K's relative modesty and learn that enormous wealth and celebrity need not always corrupt (though, in the name of research, I would be very interested in finding out whether the wealth bit corrupted me. For the record, I don't mind straight straws. Hell, I'll even swig straight from the bottle.)
The article made me wonder how many other authors out there are reliant on the Welfare State to help prop them up during times of financial and artistic difficulty. The average amount an author earns from books in the UK is £9000. To give you an idea how measly this is, the average wage is £24,000. Of course, many authors have day jobs that pay the mortgage and keep body and soul together, but for those who don't then benefits are a lifeline. I'm not a huge fan of the Harry Potter books but I'd readily agree that it would be a shame if they never existed, given the amount of kids who have fallen in love with reading after coming under their spell. There must be countless authors with great books inside them who have had to pack it in or lost faith because of financial hardship. So here's to the British Welfare State, friend of authors budding and successful. Long may it last.