David Gaffney

David Gaffney was born in West Cumbria, and now lives in Manchester. He has worked as a film studies lecturer, a holiday camp entertainer, a medical records clerk, a pub pianist, a debt counsellor in Moss Side, and now works for a shadowy government organisation. His short short story collections Sawn Off Tales and Aromabingo have been highly acclaimed. Never Never is his first novel.

David Gaffney tells us 20 things he didn’t know before he was a debt counsellor

1: You wouldn’t put all your soup in a basket so don’t put all your debts in one
One easy payment, the adverts say, as if a little light tidying were the solution to chaotic debt problems. Faced with insurmountable multiple debt most people try to borrow their way out. This is like mending a leaking bucket by joining up all the little holes to make one big hole. Repeat this several times before realising it doesn’t work.

2: In multiple debt land, time is geological
When I told my first client I would offer 31 pence a month off a debt of £12,000, she gasped. It would take three thousand two hundred and twenty five years to pay off the debts. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said cheerfully, ‘Just think about it as being in debt for the rest of your life.’ This, it turned out, was an insensitive way to explain the situation to my client. Time becomes geological in multiple debt land. But think about it positively: governments will fall, continents will shift, cities will crumble and be rebuilt, but your debts will remain standing throughout. My bedside manner improved over the years and I learned to explain in a more sensitive way that my client’s finances were completely screwed.

3: It is legally permissible to laugh at bailiffs and drop milk bottles on their heads from upstairs windows
There’s case law to prove this. Bailiff law is like vampire lore. Bailiffs can come into the house only if invited over the threshold. Once inside they take an inventory of goods which they can return to remove. The courts can even leave a bailiff on your premises to check you don’t move anything. This is called Close Possession and a bailiff has to provide his own flask and sandwiches. Bailiffs are not allowed to take away wearing apparel in use, so balance your plasma TV on your head and say it’s a hat. In one case a landlord gained entry to the flat above by jig-sawing a hole in his ceiling. This was held to be lawful entry.

4: Debtors are expected to roll cigarettes from the hair of their dead pets
A bailiff hammering on your door doesn’t usually encourage you to stop smoking, but if you include fags in your financial statement, creditors will be as angry as if you were employing two personal pastry chefs and a private pole dancer. Creditors dislike lots of things, mainly things that you spend money on instead of giving it to them; things like pets, and costly middle-class pastimes like horse-tasting, dance-upuncture or aromabingo – anything that might make them think that you are having fun while they sit up at night writing your night-club bills into a fat ledger.

5: The principles of debt counselling are there are no principles
The debt counselling method is to maximise income, sort out emergencies like fuel disconnection and eviction, then contact what we called non-priority creditors – the credit cards, catalogues, and door to door loan companies. Non-priority creditors don’t like debt counsellors. No one likes to be anyone’s non-priority. The technical way to describe the relationship between your client and his non priority creditors is ‘fuck ‘em, look after yourself, they’ll survive.’

6: It’s sometimes a good idea to borrow money off one card to pay another
This can work for a short time but never works for long. It’s like trying to stand still by running down the up-escalator at the exact same speed as it rolls in the opposite direction. You can do it for a while if you keep the timing right, but it takes a lot of concentration and energy, and in the end its easier to get off and stand on the floor.

7: Having multiple debt problems can be fun
Most of my clients were cheerful optimists who liked to live life to the full. This meant that it wasn’t at all unpleasant to sit down with a succession of debt clients and talk about solving their debts – there was laughter and joy sometimes.

8: You have to pay a fee of over 200 pounds to go bankrupt
– and the court won’t accept a credit card.

9: People who sell bedsheets and Christmas hampers door to door are not your best friends
Before I was a debt counsellor I thought a brimming xmas hamper was a sign of great luxury and abundance. But I discovered that door to door peddlers of this sort of thing also do extortionate loans at APRs of over 100% and, although these companies aren’t illegal loan sharks who decorate their walls with your knee caps, they can be very persuasive and like to come up your path on giro day.

10: A giant magnet with ACME written on the side clamped on to your meter won’t reduce your fuel bills in the end – but plugging into the street lamppost supply might help. I met a client who had learned how to fiddle her electricity token meter by fitting a Benson Hedges cigarette packet into the slot (other brands are available, but it’s the metallic coating, you see) and striking the end with a gas cooker igniter. This sent an electric surge through the meter and put loads of credit on her meter. She showed her neighbours and it was free power all round until the electricity boards found out. When I visited she had car batteries running the lights, and a power lead snaked out of her window into her neighbour’s house for the heating. Back in the days of coin meters I had a client who used to make 50ps out of ice; when the inspector opened up his machine it was always empty but for a damp patch. If you steal fuel, the fuel company will estimate how much they think you stole and charge you for it.

11: County Court Judges like debtors more than they like solicitors from the bank
The average County Court Judge hates solicitors but loves normal members of the public like you. This is because he used to be a solicitor but he’s never been a normal member of the public, so to him you are exotic. And it is usually a he. A Judge will find every way he can to humiliate the solicitor. Take advantage of this by pointing out grammatical errors in the solicitor’s papers. Never wear a suit to court – the judge will ask you with a friendly smirk on his face whether was it was from the Next Directory, which is one of your debts (Next Directory is always one of your debts). One of my clients wore a mascot suit for the local football team to his hearing as evidence of the extra job he’d taken on.

12: Credit companies actually want you to owe them money. They like it. It makes them happy.
As long as you aren’t, like, really poor or anything, this is how credit companies make their money. Creditors like people to be in debt. More interest, more charges. But they don’t like it if you take the piss and pay nothing all. Their ideal customer is someone who borrows regularly, messes up now and again to incur a few penalties, but has enough dying aunties to pay it all off now and again

13: You can buy stuff on credit –as much stuff as you like – and they can’t take it back
In the old days we had Hire Purchase or HP, also known as the never-never, or the drip. HP was invented so Edwardians could buy sewing machines, pianos and moustache wax. Nowadays, you just use shop credit or plastic and the stuff is yours. In fact you can buy stuff and sell it to pay off your other debts (though beware of this – if you go bankrupt this will be considered an offence and you can go to prison)

14: A garnishee order does not involve salad
A garnishee order means a creditor can take money out of your bank account. They find out about your bank accounts by ordering you to attend court for an Oral Examination. This is not like what happened to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. But nevertheless, the best tactic to avoid this is not to go. If you don’t go, and you keep not going, when they get round to it they will hire a van and drive round to all the houses of all the people who haven’t turned up for stuff in the past, arrest them and take them down to court. The best way to avoid this happening leads me to the next point.

15: Never be available at home to personal or telephone callers.
If credit companies can’t get hold of you they give up. The statute of limitation says that if a creditor has had no contact for 6 years then a debt can’t be enforced – this means you should never reply to a letter. Ignore them all. Treat ‘em mean and it doesn’t keep ‘em keen – they just lose interest. By the way, this does not apply to all debts – check with an advisor first because…

16: …Your house can be taken away if you don’t pay.
I know your house is a bit rubbish, with its built in footspa and Uncle Joe’s Liver Pills painted on the gable end, but these people have no taste.

17: The quiet ones are the worst.
Beware those creditors who send measured and polite threats – they probably mean it. The louder and more persistent the threats, then the more desperate that creditor is and the weaker their position. One creditor was so desperate for leverage he acquired an office on a street called ‘High Court’ and wrote these words in red at the top of every letter. When one of these desperate creditors rings you tell them they are being put on hold and play the piano accordion down the phone. Piano accordions are available on credit agreements at most large music stores.

18: Your local council hates sending people to prison for not paying their council tax, they really hate it, and hardly ever do it so you can take them to the edge on this one, just for a laugh.
But some creditors are tough. The Inland Revenue are Uma Thurman out of Kill Bill. If you don’t pay them ahead of everyone else, they will shove their hand down your throat and yank out your heart. They are taught this by martial arts experts and it is performed under medical supervision. It has no effect on encouraging people to repay their tax debts, they just like how it feels.

19: If someone rings you up and says they want to hire a bouncy castle and you agree to hire them a bouncy castle even though you know nothing about bouncy castles and you then continue to trade as the bouncy castle hire man who used to live at your address, and who turns out to owe lots of money in back taxes and VAT and who, to all intents and purposes, you have now become, you will end up in court for fraud.
This happened.

20: Normal life is beyond some people’s means
A debtor is someone who hasn’t got enough money to live the lifestyle he chooses. Most frequently this is a lifestye most people call normal life – like having a phone, a telly, some clothes, heating the house, and running the water. What should we do, kill them all?