Job losses are forcing us to be resourceful. Cue the comeback of retro tear-off adverts and homemade posters offering online tutoring, outdoor personal training or general handyman-ness. In London, these have popped up seemingly overnight; pasted onto bus stops, lampposts, park noticeboards, the windows of closed shops, at eye-level. They are the tangible signs of an economy in free fall. But they also might just restore some trust and hope in what communities can do.
We’re used to seeing leaflets on noticeboards in libraries or local cafes advertising freelance yoga teaching, spiritual healing or music lessons. But these new ads have an altogether different feel, with no sleek business cards or flyers in sight. Instead, improvised A4 posters with hand-cut tear-off strips, printed at home and put up haphazardly, and hopefully. Much like how we saw shops and cafes throw up hasty ‘sorry, we’re closed’ signs at the start of lockdown, these have a sense of urgency too.
Most are advertising online tutoring as those usually employed in the creative industries and hospitality (or anywhere else with large lay-offs) are dredging up history degrees or maths A-levels to try and figure out what to do next. People want to salvage themselves from the sense of powerlessness that comes from mass unemployment.
I’m not used to seeing these plastered across London. In the countryside yes – I’ve spent many a university summer holiday putting up posters in my village shop for ‘babysitting, gardening, ironing, cooking, waitressing, etc,’ with the results being some fairly wacky jobs.
In cities, we tend to advertise services online. Lockdown has seen an increase in people posting informal enterprises in Facebook groups, having hastily put together websites on Wix for cooking or jewellery. But tear-offs on the street are a physical presence that demands immediate attention. They are much more direct than wading through the online overload. They stop you in your tracks and prompt you in a certain direction. ‘Do I need a tutor for my kids?’ you might think. If the thought hadn’t previously occurred to you, why would you have gone online to look? Now, the possibility is before you.
Where I grew up, in Naples, this kind of homemade advertising is totally normal. Faced with Italy’s ailing economy, people are enterprising and exchange local expertise constantly, whether with flyers, business cards, or family recommendations. Then again, there has always been a casual approach in southern and eastern Europe. Its self-evident how useful it can be. Funny how in London something so seemingly insignificant as the tear-off becomes an epiphany, somehow it is an innovative political alternative taken from countries where they never left.
In Northern Europe and America, we’ve built up layers of bureaucracy, such as tutoring or recruitment agencies, to expand HR departments. All these agencies make it difficult – and expensive – to tap the wealth of local expertise. They created a chimera of respectability and quality, to the point where we no longer trust a homemade advert on a bus stop. Better if you’ve ‘gone through the motions,’ read, jumped through a series of annoying loopholes. For instance, having five rounds of job interviews just to secure a poorly-paid internship.
Homemade posters are also used in toilets or telephone boxes to advertise sex work. A sexy photograph with ‘New in Town, Sensual Massage,’ offers a mobile number to store in your smartphone. Ironically, classic red telephone boxes, those symbols of London, have been repurposed as magazine stockrooms promising happy endings. Not only, but twice during social-distance picnics in parks I’ve been offered handwritten business cards by desperate drug dealers. These are where the real ‘local knowledge’ is. Safety or verification are the last things people using these services are thinking of.
I called some of the numbers on these posters. Not the sex workers or the drug dealers, but the tutors. My suspicions were confirmed. They were furloughed or lost their jobs, they were worried about the future, they were trying anything. The government has promised a £1 billion fund for school children to have access to tutors so they can catch up with learning. Some were considering applying to recognised tutoring agencies to secure some work for next year against the mass of job losses.
The return of tear-offs to cities such as London has a striking poignancy. Though enterprising, they indicate the real tideline of job losses. Should we trust these homemade adverts, especially if it concerns helping out with children or loved ones? At least with the online sessions there is a chance to try somebody out at a comfortable distance. Chances are, they are a perfectly respectable person. Chances are, they are one of the pandemic’s economic casualties, just trying to make ends meet.
Words by Camilla Bell-Davies