The Record and the Numbers
The man is in his counting-house counting out his money
J:“… Data Protector/Accountant in The House…. emerged from your exploration of the pressure to perform value inside a system that is squeezing the life out of you. The figure of the Data Protector/Accountant echoes my experiences of trying to support social theatre practice in various ways as an evaluator by providing ‘evidence’ of impact, performing value in a way that resonates with Data Protectors/Accountants, but that also tries to present a more complex, diverse, critical and challenging view of the value of theatre practice. The Data Protector/Accountant, for me, also emerged from between the lines of the incredibly precise and detailed bureaucratic documents that were produced as part of the administration of the New Poor Law of 1834, which determined every last detail of life in the workhouse by means of ledgers, committees, minutes, tables, budgets, including the weighing out of amounts of food. Can you tell me more about her?
C: She was also inspired by the archivists I encountered during the research. They are part of a bureaucratic army that collates, classifies, preserves and recycles. They are threatened now because of cuts to public funding so they are charging for their services. Because family history is big business as people search for a sense of security and identity, this formerly free service is very lucrative. And so here personal and public life become data, which then becomes pounds, shillings and pence. In the workhouse the Master kept the accounts, which were checked by local authorities and fees were payable for certain services offered by professionals such as
doctors. This system of accounting so loved by the Victorians caught my imagination. The Data Protectors/Accountants are the black and white people – magpies – they get stuff from people, parcel it up and act as if it belongs to them. I encountered an example of this when seeking my mum’s adoption information. They are lovely and helpful, occasionally careless, and they ensure that every penny gets added to the photocopying bill that accrues from the discovery of your own history. They enforce rules on access to data, even if it’s your own story. So, the Data Protector/Accountant comes in place of the absent Master. A business opportunity filled by an administratively constipated quango that keeps a check on what we are all doing, how we are all doing it, and whether it’s up to the standard.
Extract from Jenny Hughes & Carran Waterfield (2017) Digging deep: a dialogue on practice-based research, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 37:1, 114-135, DOI: 10.1080/14682761.2017.1282404
The above was written four years ago. More recently I have been thinking again about numbers and the counting-house. I am an elected local authority councillor, in my third year in a counting-house. I got to the counting-house through an electoral counting system.
In 1995 I made a performance called ‘Godiva, the Naked Politician’. It was very much about councils, counting and protest. It was a woman’s story – you know the one about riding naked through the streets of Coventry in protest at the high taxes to prove a point to the man in charge.
I am struck by the vast evidence of counting that comes through my council mailbox daily. Reams of reports from hardworking officers proving their worth. There seems to be a drive to prove something by counting. How many this and how many that? What percentage this and what percentage that? Counting became more prevalent during the pandemic. Figures became important evidence on our TV screens and in internet searches. Word of mouth and gossip caused problems through inaccuracies and political football. How many in hospital? How many dead? How many had the first vaccination? How many the second? How many self-isolating? For how long? How many positive? How many negative? How many deniers? What if this and what if that? Calculations and/or guesswork? It may be both – fixed figures, true figures, skewed figures to make it look like this or look like that. You can manipulate anything to look like anything. What about zero? Can that be manipulated? When you get down to zero what happens then?
I find understanding millions and billions difficult. The volume and sheer vastness confuse me. I would much rather think of one person at a time. How does all this affect Ms A or Ms B or young C?
Recently I have noticed the volume of agencies, marketeers, and institutions requiring feedback. We are encouraged to write feedback, click numbers, write reasons. We are required to give reports, make assessments, value judge. They want a mark out of ten, according to some criteria or other. Our daily shopping and use of services are under constant scrutiny. The whole system works that way from birth to death. Give your doctor a mark out of ten, give your food deliverer a mark out of ten. How did we do today? Good, bad, satisfactory, not so good? Terrible? It’s getting in the way of actually delivering the service.
“I am a one in ten, a number on a list”. I remember that UB40 chorus from the 80s and I know my national insurance number off by heart. I don’t know my National Health number off by heart. To record my lateral flow tests I log in as a guest. I fear the tracing. I have noticed no one checks up. The system relies on honesty and integrity. My password list is fast becoming a spy proof document that only I would ever be able to explain. Such is my paranoia. But, it’s not foolproof. I fall into a hole on Outlook when I can’t get to my uni email because of my council email. My password passes the test for one when it’s meant for another. I’m confused.
Once a year like all councils we have to set a budget. It’s baffling. You need at least a degree in accounting to understand it, especially the stuff on reserves and borrowing. I am grateful that the officers with responsibility for counting in our house know what they are doing. For the last decade the income for services has been decimated by government budgets. I have noticed this in my professional area of work in the arts. Like residents I have come to accept that that is just the way it is. Each financial year our figure wizards concoct spells that evoke worse case scenarios. Their calculations conjure best-case scenarios. And we live in hope that it will fall somewhere between. You don’t need an 11+ pass to know that it’s relative according to where you live.
Everything is the luck of the draw and according to what street you land on in this real-life Monopoly game. Nothing was ever fair in the first place. So the counters in the countinghouse spend hours working out how to even out the stakes. How can we make it all a little bit fairer with less and less to go round.
But we mustn’t forget there are incentives, especially if you behave yourself. You can go cap in hand to the King in the Westminster counting-house. If you play your cards right you may well be able to lever something from him to spend on your smaller house. If you live in a middle-sized house like a combined authority you will be able to ‘ask for more’. You can then substitute that delivery through a bidding system, but you can’t spend it on the basics – it has to be on something new. Ah, I remember -this is how it was with arts funding too.
I know this so well as a performance maker dealing with funding bids for some twenty-odd years. I don’t know if they do this now, but they never let you make the most of what you had and develop that, you always had to come up with a new show for the money.
What to conclude? Being in the counting-house that counts the money to be spent on basics has taught me much about how the system is stacked against the little people. I knew that anyway in those years of full-on arts practice:
The man is in his counting-house counting out the money.
The woman is in the bedroom taking off her clothes.
The servant is at the window peeking through the shutters.
‘Godiva, the Naked Poltitican’ ended with a harvest and a sense of hope. One felt the naked politician had achieved something for the people.
Now our numbers are all crunched, what are our politicians achieving for people? Do we need a new Godiva?
“So now we can sit comfortably
Since summer days have come
Alice, that was brilliant
In Canaan’s pleasant land.
Now all the world’s your field
‘Cos you put a silver penny
In the old man’s heart.
So ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see the fine lady
Whether you should or not,
Whether you should or not.
And when the veil lifts up
And her pure radiance pours
Then see her golden heads
Which give you daily bread,
For the man in his counting-house cannot take it back.
For the man in his counting-house cannot take it back.
For the man in his counting-house will not take it back.
© Carran Waterfield: Godiva, the Naked Politician. (1995)
In 2017 I considered the effects of government cuts on people through a performance called ‘The House’. The following clip demonstrates a counting-house character called the Data Protector/Accountant who is referred to in the extract I used to introduce this blog entry.