The Debt Quilt

James Meek

Rebecca Simmonds spread her debt duvet out over the sofa in the rented one-room flat in East London she shares with her partner, Aaron. The first panel in the quilt is a letter from the Alliance & Leicester bank, dated February 2005. Simmonds was 25. She had no assets and no steady job (she was trying to become an actor) and the bank was, the letter says, ‘very pleased’ to be lending her £5000. Simmonds can’t remember the annual interest rate or the term but a scrawled note on the letter suggests that at one point she owed the entire amount of the loan plus 46 per cent. ‘I think I had some debt before that – quite small, a couple of thousand,’ she told me. ‘I thought I’d get this debt to pay off that one and I ended up spending it on something else.’

There are 82 panels on the duvet, charting Simmonds’s journey deeper and deeper into the red. She gathered together all the offers of loans she received, together with the threatening letters from utility companies, solicitors and debt collection agencies, and scanned them with the help of Aaron, a graphic designer. She took sheets of A4 paper, spray-mounted squares of fabric onto them, ran them through an inkjet printer and hand-stitched the printed panels together into a kingsize portrait of insolvency. She hopes to sell the quilt to defray the debt, which peaked not long ago at £18,000. Since she consolidated her debts with an agency this has shrunk to just over £15,000. It is an expensive duvet.

Some of the panels on the quilt are menacing. NOTICE OF INTENDED LITIGATION sparks from the centre in angry crimson capitals. But Simmonds learned that debt recovery in 21st-century England prefers the chronic ache to the sharp pain. ‘You get used to it and you realise it’s just a performance,’ she said. ‘Final warning! How many final warnings have I had? A million.’

According to the money education charity Credit Action, the average British household is £8000 in debt, not including mortgages. The banks may lose out when a borrower goes bust, but they benefit to the tune of £173 million a day in interest payments on various kinds of personal loan.

The burden is unevenly spread. In a speech on 15 March Ben Broadbent, an external member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, said it wasn’t true that Britain’s financial crisis occurred because ‘we all borrowed too much.’ In fact, he said, British households had only increased their borrowing in step with the increasing value of their property, which has since fallen by far less than in the US. But what about the people, like Simmonds, who don’t own any property? Even if the average numbers look cheerful, Broadbent conceded, the mass of borrowers aren’t necessarily those with big assets to borrow against.

‘I wanted to see what a debt duvet would look like,’ Simmonds said. ‘I thought of a duvet because it worked on a lot of different levels. Debt was such a part of my life. I was living, breathing, sleeping with my debt, so I became quite comfortable with it. Also I got into debt because of wanting to be places, dreaming of this, that and the other, things I could have and do, and I want to dream myself out of it, in a way.’

Getting £5000 from the Alliance & Leicester, she said, was the easiest thing she’d ever done. ‘It was a form online. It was literally: “How much do you need?” I was on a borrowing binge, a money crawl, like a pub crawl. Each time I took out a new loan I felt like it was OK because I was fooling myself that this bit was going to pay off that bit.’

The money went on rent and on impulse buys of things Simmonds wanted but could have lived without, like an iPod. A proportion went on acting classes and head shots. ‘I don’t think I would be in London if I wasn’t in debt,’ she said. She was born and grew up on the Essex coast. ‘I could have not got into debt. I could have worked first, saved up the money, the logical way, the way everybody tells you. But then London might not have happened.’

The quilt records that Sainsbury’s Bank and the NatWest also advanced Simmonds thousands of pounds she couldn’t afford to pay back. None of the loan applications involved talking to a human being; her only face to face encounter was when she went to the bank to beg, tearfully and without success, for a reprieve from an overdraft fine.

According to Rosa-Maria Gelpi and François Julien-Labruyère in The History of Consumer Credit, it was Calvin who did the theological spadework that enabled the Tudors to break the old Christian prohibition on usury. Henry VIII legalised it; Edward VI recriminalised it; since Elizabeth I restored her father’s financial initiative in 1571 – albeit with a cap of 10 per cent – lending and borrowing money at interest has stealthily metamorphosed from rarity to commonplace, from commonplace to norm and from norm to something like a duty. Many students in the US and increasingly in the UK would laugh at the small scale of Simmonds’s borrowings. If Simmonds had a medical degree or a regular role in Downton Abbey she might laugh too, and see the loan as an investment. But she doesn’t.

‘They should be allowed to lend money. But if you want to borrow money you should be obliged to speak to somebody directly, not just speak on the phone or fill in a form on the internet. When they’re just throwing money at you, it’s really cold. Isn’t it terrible that after all these years I’ve never actually had a one to one human conversation? I’ve been to the Citizens Advice, but that’s not the bank. You need a face. You need a person.’

Simmonds works full-time as a teaching assistant in Tower Hamlets and pays £60 a month towards paying off her consolidated debts, a kind of mortgage on existence. She couldn’t tell me when the debt would be cleared. In her spare time, she’s writing a novel and tending her blog, www. rebeccasimmonds.co.uk. A few months ago her flat was burgled. The thieves took Simmonds’s laptop but not the quilt. She wasn’t insured, but her writing was backed up.

The last panel of the debt duvet, a recent letter marked ‘Priority Invitation’, has an echo of Calvinist predestination – that no matter how indebted the debtor, they can never be damned to eternal insolvency, because they have been Chosen. ‘Rebecca Simmonds, You Have Been Pre-Selected,’ the letter reads. ‘Apply for the Vanquis Bank Visa Card with no annual fee and all these great benefits.’ The annual interest rate on the card is just a tenth of a point shy of 40 per cent.