For all the things that life can be, what it ultimately is, is relative. Whatever you are and whatever you have can only be measured by what somebody else is, what somebody else has. So, if you have £100 in your pocket, there’s somebody out there with £101, and there’s another with £99. Your position in life is determined, for better or worse, by these people either side of you and your situation.
In the last year, I moved properly into the realm of adulthood – I made a more concerted effort to pursue my journalism outside of the confines of a staff job, I moved into a place all by myself, I got an overdraft (my first in almost four years!). With that shift came a lot of rewards – I got to write for a national newspaper, speak on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (and meet Jenni Murray, SCREAM) and crucially, perfect my stern invoice-chasing letter writing skills. I found that my own company is delightful, and that there is nothing better than eating fried plantains with your fingers, sitting in your vest and pants while watching Sex and the City on late night telly. I got to learn that pitching is often a soul-destroying exercise in rejection but that contrary to what the websites tell you, editors are *not* out to get you – if they like your idea, you’re in.
But there were also the opposite of rewards to be had. Chief among these was the stark and upsetting realisation that I, freelance writer and chronic Tweeter, am technically ‘poor’. As I said at the beginning of this essay, all things in life – including poverty – are a matter of relativity. For many people, the image conjured upon the utterance of the word ‘poor’ is one of intense deprivation; usually typified by hunger and destitution. But I am rarely hungry; or at least not for very long. And I live alone in a tiny flat in London of all places, an arrangement which suggests that I have more money than sense. Plus I have electricity, running water, and heating. I have an internet connection, a little netbook, a teeny radio and a television with Freeview, all of which are useful and necessary for my work. Plus I subscribe to William Morris’ idea that everything in your home should be either beautiful or useful, and so have acquired useless but gorgeous decorative bits and bobs too.
The happy accident of my place of birth affords me my various privileges: I have access to excellent healthcare which is free at the point of delivery thanks to the NHS. I am educated to degree level, having secured the credit of a student loan to fund it. I have clothes in my wardrobe – enough to legitimately pack some away as the seasons change – and food in my fridge. As a member of both my local library network and the British Library, I have access to a vast number of books and other diverting material. I have a bank account and that recently acquired overdraft. I even have two credit cards – one of which is paid off, thankfully – and an ISA (which… isn’t exactly full, but still). Sometimes, I buy magazines that have nothing to do with my work at all. How dare I call myself ‘poor’?
Simple: it’s all relative. I am poor by the standards of my friends, my colleagues, my peers. Next to many of the people I can reasonably compare myself with, I am woefully, painfully broke. I am wary of coming across like the author that ill-judged Daily Mail article that kept trying to make the term ‘nouveau pauvre’ happen. My biggest problem is not having to curb my Christmas spending; the writer, Charlotte Metcalfe, was forced to live on only £5oo a week and buy her wrapping accessories at Tesco, not VV Rouleaux. I do not lead an extravagant life, by the way. I am teetotal, I do not do drugs, I don’t smoke. I am not a huge clubber, nor am I a shopaholic forever seeking that designer item. Last year, I bought precisely two pairs of shoes. Clothes-wise, I bought virtually nothing, save things like tights and socks and underwear. I live quite a frugal existence as befits my earnings; I really do cut my coat according to my cloth. A quick glance at my receipts shows my biggest extravagances to have been food and transport fare, followed by books and newspapers – how thrilling!
It is oddly tiring trying to explain my position to people. I was invited out to drinks a few weeks back. I really, really wanted to go – I hadn’t seen this group of friends in yonks, and everyone knows that November and December are the twinkliest and most beautiful time in London – but I couldn’t afford it. I simply couldn’t – the transport fare would’ve maimed me, right before the cost of a single round finished me off. So I sent a text to say I couldn’t make it as I was too broke. I got a sympathetic one back – oh no, poor you, drinks on me. It felt wrong and embarrassing to say “Yeah, even so, I’m still too poor to attend. Plus, we’re both adults – I’d feel awkward having you pay for my drinks.” I was too poor to leave the house. I explained it as best and delicately as I could, but I got the feeling that he didn’t quite get how poor I was. Short of showing him my bank statements for the last six months, I wasn’t sure how to.
You’re probably not boo-hooing into your cereal at my predicament. I don’t blame you – it’s not like I’m under house arrest. Am I expecting your sympathy for being in a career which does not provide a steady and sizeable income? No, not really. I chose to go into journalism and the economy ensured it would be in a freelance capacity (for now). And I’m not asking you to pay into a benevolent fund for poverty-stricken freelance journalists.
It’s pretty embarrassing to be writing all of this, to be honest. But I’ve spoken to a few people – most in situations similar to mine - and I know I’m not alone. We are among you. *ominous piano music* So please take this essay and read it when next a friend cries poverty. Allow us our dignity – it might be all we have left in the coffers.