Last year, I found a pair of trainers in our communal recycling bin: Nike Air Max in black and grey size 10, very smart and hardly worn. I’d been wearing them a week when the teenager who lives in the flat below pointed at them and laughed. He told me that he’d discarded them because they were scuffed. This is where I’ve got to, I thought: wearing trainers that I found in a bin on a council estate. Such foraging isn’t un-usual for us. The sideboard in our kitchen, the bookshelf in the hall and the big mirror in our bedroom were all found on our street.
I worry that we might be dropping out of the middle class entirely. Our daughter, who goes to the local primary school, now has a strong south London accent. Particularly impressive is her version of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, which consists entirely of glottal stops. It’s contagious. I no longer pronounce the ‘t’s in the middle of words. My dress sense is slipping too; most days I do the school run in a tracksuit. My car is turning into an eyesore: it has a crack on the windscreen that grows every day and the paintwork is blotchy with bird droppings. The household plumbing is erratic but the thought of calling out a plumber at £80 an hour terrifies me.
At my age, pushing 40, my father had his own business and three children at private school, and owned a large house in Buckinghamshire. My family lives in a former council flat. Our neighbours are, to put it politely, colourful. The couple in the flat next door have late-night drunken arguments. I’m convinced the single mother on the other side is selling drugs; the police are often round. If you’re in one of the big Victorian houses on our street you can isolate yourself from all the goings-on. Not when you’re in the council block.
I blame my parents, for teaching me to follow my dreams. My father was steered towards accountancy despite having a temperament better suited to academia. He therefore encouraged me to study whatever I wanted — and I chose English literature. The days when you could get a liberal arts degree, work hard-ish, become successful and follow in your parents’ footsteps are over. None of my friends who work in arts and the media earn more than their parents did. They do not even contemplate sending their children to private school.
I now earn far less than the London median salary of £35,000 and as a writer there is no chance of that rising any time soon unless my book is optioned by Hollywood (unlikely, since it’s about the British and wine). Freelance rates have plummeted. Ten years ago 50p a word was normal: now I’m lucky if I get 30p. Many publications try not to pay at all. I find myself eyeing part-time bar and kitchen jobs, anything for a steadier income. It’s not just writers but also musicians, printers, travel agents, photographers and middle management corporate headhunters who have seen their income plummet because of the-internet.
Every politician — from Cameron to Corbyn — talks about social mobility, claiming it is vital for the proper functioning of our society, but no one ever mentions that if people are to rise, some must fall. I wonder if my fellow arts graduates and I are the 21st-century equivalent of those well-paid artisans who were put out of business by the Industrial Revolution? But there may be a poetic justice to it all: my father’s family arrived from Poland in the 1890s with nothing, worked hard and eventually became middle-class Englishmen. Now I’m slipping down to make space for more hardworking immigrants.
I’m not complaining — well, not a lot. In many ways we’re very fortunate. We bought our flat cheaply before house prices went ballistic. We have a good life. I enjoy my work. I love living in London and we’re lucky to have state education and healthcare (for all their many faults). I certainly couldn’t afford to live as I do in Los Angeles, where my wife is from. I owe my position of comfortable decline to my parents, who helped me with a deposit for a flat — I simply couldn’t afford to rent in London.
I doubt I will be able to do the same for my daughter. My advice to her will be to learn a trade — either something technical like coding, or else plumbing or bicycle repair. Or, if she has the patience and aptitude, I’d encourage her to pursue a career in the law or accountancy. ‘Go into something boring, work hard, earn money and then maybe become a poet or something in your thirties,’ I’ll say. My daughter, however, is adamant that she’ll be a princess.