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Hugo Rifkind

Twentysomethings: you won’t miss being poor. But you will miss not knowing what you’re doing

Graduate poverty, at least at first, carries a weightlessness – a sense of being able to observe society from the outside

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

What I miss most about being very young is the cluelessness. It’s enormously liberating, cluelessness. The boundaries of life are simply not comprehended. The boxes into which others will put you are not apparent. Thus, you float out with life, and you see all.

I moved to London at 22, with a vague plan to sleep on my dad’s living-room floor until something better happened. He was very good about it, although I’m not sure he’d been consulted. Before long, I moved to Camberwell with an old schoolfriend. Lord knows why we chose Camberwell; very possibly because it’s mentioned in Withnail & I. And anyway, this was more like Elephant & Castle, whatever the advert in Loot had said. Our back window looked out over Burgess Park, which was terraformed and Blade Runner-esque, and about which I still have strange and listless zombie nightmares.

I was an agency temp, and would be for the next few years. On good weeks, this meant proofreading; on bad ones something far more mundane, such as the month I spent in an engineering firm comparing printed lists of inconsequential bolts on the roof of the Northern Line with handwritten notebooks of the same. Altogether, this was a process I’d describe as ‘writing a novel’. At the weekends, friends in big, crumbly shared houses would throw parties, where we would all behave like the students we’d recently stopped being. After a year I moved to Brixton, into a mouldy flat with fleas. The previous inhabitants had all been Etonians and had left a syringe under the sofa. I liked it there enormously.

All of my strongest memories of this time are of stepping out onto frosty 3 a.m. streets, wobbly, and wondering how to get home. One night the Lambeth police were out in force, perhaps after some sort of riot. Few things make you crave sudden sobriety quite so strongly as the sight of two giant police horses clopping towards you down a deserted, glittery terraced street, steam whooshing from flaring nostrils. Have you ever seen The Fisher King? It was like that.


There was a precariousness to life that I remember very well: a sense that things were on the very edge of perhaps not quite working out after all. For every graduate generation there’s that period of sudden disunity, where the lifestyles and identities of the newly salaried accelerate away from everybody else, and there begin bitter, lasting disputes over bills in pizzerias. It’s about more than money, all this. There’s an arrogance to graduate poverty, at least at first. It carries a weightlessness — a sense of being able to observe society as a collection of boxes, none of which you are in. Which is a delusion, probably, but a strong one. Remember, I was ‘writing a novel’.

Obviously, you’ll end up in a box, like everybody else. That’s what it means to be middle-class: comfort is your destiny. Like a Terminator that never stops, stability will hunt you down. In the years to come I’d swap the urbs for the suburbs, night buses for taxis, and Saturday night parties for Sunday brunch. I’d even write the novel, and have it published, too, before the journalism caught. Today, strangers often remind me of the privileges I have enjoyed, as though this was how my life would always have been. By osmosis, I suppose I’ve come to believe them. Yet there’s a sense of loss that comes with it, in the distance I now feel from the person I once was. Who would have been surprised indeed, and delighted too.

Or partly. Today, I like my little corner of London a lot, even for its absurdities. I like its cosiness and safety and savagely overpriced artisan cafés. I like the way that so many of the kids in my daughter’s school have a second language, as do my own, even if they’re usually safe, smug second languages such as Finnish and Swiss German, and not the ones parents are supposed to worry about, such as Kurdish and Somali. I like the benign hypocrisy a place like this indulges, whereby you can feel that the life you have built is at once fascinatingly unique, and exactly like everybody else’s.

I don’t miss the aimlessness of my early twenties, nor the cashlessness, but I do miss that weightlessness. That cluelessness. That sense that the whole world is yours, with all its edges and dangers and spikes. And not just this little bit of it I have found, into which I have poured myself like jelly into a mould.

What the fake?

Anyway, it being Christmas, I decided to sort out our fireplace. There was a gas fire in there, forgotten and trussed up with chicken wire, so the builders came, charged me what I earn in about two days, and took it away. Then the chimney sweep came, and charged me about what I earn in a week, and cleared it out. Then I went out to buy some coal, and thought better of it, because actually, with the heating on, our house is already hot as hell.

Instead, I ended up with fire gel. Do you know the stuff? It comes in a pot and you set fire to it, and it crackles away with a merry orange flame, giving off almost no heat at all. So I sat there, gazing happily at my fake fire, meditatively sucking away on the fake plastic cigarette I’ve lately adopted. Wondering at what point to get the fake plastic Christmas tree we bought last year down from the attic. And glancing occasionally at the fake plastic lawn in our garden. Hmmm.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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