Wednesday 13th May 2009 was a dark day, both in terms relative to the spring weather, which has for the most part thus far been charitable, and for myself, my own Down and Out In Paris and London moment, albeit the twenty-first century version of.
In other words, I discovered what it was like to be a beggar in a fast city, where no one has any time for strangers unless they are under the wheels of a bus, and where I wouldn’t stand a chance against Big Issue sellers and genuine tramps – I, with my American Apparel skinny jeans and Apple MacBook in my bag, would only meet grunts of derision and shaking heads upon asking for a little change to get a cup of tea, so I took to scanning the pavements for the opportunity of a dropped coin, but of course, the city streets are regularly vacuumed for such treats by the homeless. I was hungry, but at least had a pouch of tobacco and some papers in my bag; as Orwell attested in his first ‘novel’, cigarettes, in the absence of food, at least help dissipate the stress of penury, and take one’s mind off the grinding of the stomach, at least temporarily.
Of course, my inexorable slide into impecuniousness is entirely my own fault. I am about as financially astute as a spendthrift WAG, and since I left my job, just before Christmas, as a waiter in a French-style restaurant in the City, to pursue a path more conducive to literary success, my decline has mirrored that of Hull City’s slide from grace after winning at the Emirates, to the inevitability of relegation, at catastrophic financial cost. Hungry, and stranded in Central London miles from home in Zone 4, with two private views to attend in the evening, £4 on my Oyster card and not a penny in my pocket, I was beginning to wish for, as is possible in some computer games, the option to die and start all over again at a lower level.
My last hope was the bank, having exhausted all other options. I had already borrowed from all my friends, such few as are in a position to help. So I went to the bank with the idea of asking to increase my overdraft from something quite big to something even bigger, and queued for twenty minutes, only for the clerk to ask me which year of my studies I was in. ‘I didn’t progress past the first year,’ I replied, ‘but am considering applying for an MA, to start this autumn. I realise that I’m not studying at the moment but was advised by my Student Relationship Manager not to change my account from a Higher Education to a Current due to the obvious interest issue that would incur.’
A handsome young man, he had been jovial until that point, at which his face dropped. ‘Erm, let me have a chat with one of the Student Finance Officers. Obviously, with this new information, we’ll have to see how this might impact.’ And he went away. My new card sat in front of me on the desk. I crossed my legs. I shifted position in the net-backed chair, and crossed to the other side. My palms were sweaty, my frown muscles contrite.
As he returned to our little room, he sighed. ‘I’ve just spoken to one of the Student Finance Officers, and unfortunately, due to the information you have just given me, I won’t be able to process your application today.’
Or any other day. I nodded and smiled wryly. ‘Had you not told me that you were no longer studying, I would have gone ahead and continued the application, but because you told me what you did, you can see that it puts me in a bad position. I’m very sorry.’
‘And that’s how honesty is rewarded,’ I replied, gathering my things and retaining that wry smile. ‘Thank you for your help.’
So, if I’d lied and said that I was, for example, in my third year of study, in which the overdraft limit is up to £3,000, I could have left that bank with at least some hope, despite the fact that requests over a certain amount have to be assessed by a committee outside the branch. Instead, I thought, ‘well, if the banking system is founded upon a bed of lies, and encourages the customer to lie, no wonder such an institution as the Royal Bank of Scotland lost £24 billion last year’, and this bank didn’t fare too much better. The bank in question, with a shiny new premises in London’s Piccadilly Circus and a staff rota collected seemingly on the grounds of youth and looks alone, and for which every even minor decision requires a General Meeting, charges me £22 for every week I go even a penny beyond my overdraft limit, which has been an unsurprisingly often occurrence over the last five months, and for a struggling writer looking to make it, this treatment is paralysing. Indeed, such penalties have meant I have not even been able to pay my phone bill, and my service provider rightly cut me off. That isn’t the only bill outstanding and I am receiving phone calls every other day – infuriating, as I can’t make calls. And I refuse to get a job.
I have to substantiate that last comment. I don’t have a degree, and not a great deal of tangible experience doing anything in particular. My job at the restaurant took up almost all of my time, and since I have left, I have at least reaped the benefits of being able to do all the reading and research I have wanted, on subjects as varied as the Civil Rights Movement, Punk, Peter Tatchell (for an interview later this month) and Caravaggio. I have forged a burgeoning career as an art critic and centred myself within new, creative circles. It will only be a matter of time before I begin to register as a writer on the scene; the survival line is tantalisingly close, as it is for Hull City; if only our luck would change and we could both arrest our relative freefall. I understand that I have to look after myself, but how? Even a job in a library, gallery or bookshop requires an MA these days, and if I had to go back and work in a restaurant I would actually invoke that aforementioned computer game theory, whether it resulted in a new life or not. Besides, I’d be competing with twenty other people for each vacancy. Such a cruel, punishing, rewarding city is London.