My year of living dangerously: a tale of liberty, pasta and harsh economic truths

Going up to Oxford in 1997 from my unremarkable state school (oh, god, it’s another freaking “My struggle at Oxbridge” post, when will you wingeing twats realise we’re just not interested and shut up, etc) there was this guy on my course. We both took Cicero for our Special Subject. I only ever had a couple of conversations with him, but he seemed perfectly nice, if a bit of a classic rich-Tory-public-schoolboy-from-Balliol, and he was certainly bright. We both got Firsts, I believe, and we both won scholarships.

Then what? Well, I carried on in the groves of academe for a while, largely funded by you on account of being awesomely brilliant (cheers; I owe you a pint), then chucked it in and did the normal thing all graduates who don’t have any money behind them but find strategy consulting and banking inimical have to do. I got a job, a boring, averagely-paid, first jobber’s job in a large company where I’d have space to develop, in a line of work I thought was probably moderately interesting once you got a bit higher up. Well, that turned out to be a total disaster, so I took another job, a stressful, slightly-below-averagely-paid, second jobber’s job in a different line of work I thought would at least keep my mind active and me off the breadline while I pursued more inspiring projects in my free time. That didn’t work either, so I chucked it all in and decided I’d rather be free and poor and answer to no-one. I was going to decide how I wanted to live and what I wanted to do with my time on earth, and then try and fit the money-making in around that. Hooray!

A year into the experiment, little by little, it’s working out. People periodically give me interesting work that I’m good at largely on terms of my choosing. I don’t have to get out of bed at the same time every day. I can’t yet support myself on freelance work alone, there are some weeks when feeding myself is a struggle, and every journey into central London in particular has to be carefully costed and weighed against the probable social/professional/financial benefit of making it. Temping is ever more of a bind, particularly because the people whose well-remunerated task it is to find you the work don’t always appear to appreciate the basic calculation at hand – is it worth my while to get out of bed and do it? One agency tried to get me to take a four-hour per day job at £9.50 an hour in central London, and for the benefit of those lucky enough not to live here, a monthly zone 1 ticket from where I live costs somewhere in the region of £100. You, as they say, do the math. But, day by day, I inch a bit further towards vindication.

I certainly couldn’t have got this far without a ferocious and unceasing barrage of support from family and friends, and while some of that support has been financial, no-one is in a position to bankroll my whimsical idea of what I should ideally be allowed to do with my time (least of all me, it seems). But I like the freedom, I like the way my interests have blossomed and sometimes brought unexpected gain (I’d have stayed an armchair supporter of the Lib Dems in my old life, for one thing) and I still think my original calculation will probably turn out to be correct: if you do things you like and are good at, you’ll end up roughly solvent anyway, and much happier than if you just pay the rent at the expense of all else.

So I’m going to stick with it and see how Year Two pans out. If nothing else I have acquired a properly solid grasp of what it’s like, how exhausting and soul-destroying and mind-numbing it is to live on a low income. And I’m someone with no dependents and a way out! This isn’t a sob story – I’ve chosen this life, and I could go and get a middlingly paid third-jobber’s job tomorrow if it really got unbearable. But it has given me at least the shadowiest inkling of what it must like to live on something like a minimum wage and not have a way out, and believe me, it’s the stuff of the most shuddering twitchy nightmares imaginable.

What strikes me most of all is just how tiring it is. All those little daily calculations – shall I spend this pound on a packet of pasta I can live on for four days or shall I save it for the journey in to work tomorrow? How much is on my oyster card? I can only top it up from my credit card at the moment, and that’ll put my minimum payment beyond reach unless that cheque finally arrives. How many more pay dates are there before the rent is due? And of course, the classic which will raise a groan from every economic liberal – is it worth my taking that work, or will I lose more in housing benefit than I gain from the extra pay? You expend so much energy just thinking through how you’re going to survive.

I used to regard people on benefits with low incomes with extreme compassion but no real empathy. Like most thoughtless young sprigs, I thought they (it’s always “they”, isn’t it) had either been unreasonably unlucky or made bad choices and, poor things, didn’t have the psychological werewithal to leverage themselves out of trouble. It’s a far less sympathetic and extreme version of this philosophy that prompts Tories to bark “Well, what’s stopping them from working?”. Left-liberal answers usually reference lack of skills and low self-esteem, but I would add to these sad truths a bus fare, an interview suit (or equivalent), no familial obligations and a decent meal in the belly, and the time it takes to figure out how to acquire the money to assemble all that – things even the most empathetic lefty or liberal finds hard to conceive f unless they’ve been there. These days I don’t just empathise – I salute every last one of Britain’s benefit claimants for carrying on at all. How the hell they do it is beyond me.

Withal, Tory-chap-who-took-Cicero-with-me hadn’t so much as crossed my mind in over half a decade when suddenly, hanging around the blogs one day, as is my wont, I come across a name on Lib Dem Voice that rings a bell, and a few clicks later I am looking at  said chap peeping out of a photoshopped Tory mock-up! Yes, my erstwhile co-classicist is Robin Walker, Tory PPC for Worcester, his father’s old constituency. Good grief! thinks I. I wonder what he’s been up to? Hm, he left university and started his own business. Ve-ry nice. Then after that went into press communications in the finance and industrial sectors. Thence to the PPC candidature. There are those who would use phrases like “well-worn groove” to describe this particular path of progress.

Now, to be plain, I am not for one moment denigrating the achievements of someone I don’t know much about. And the whole game of trying to quantify the advantages of a PPC who has a former MP for a father is so beset with complexities and caveats as to be basically unplayable. But the observation remains that at a time when the academically bright lower-middly class kid had to go and get a boring job, the academically bright moneyed upper-middly class kid was able to “start his own business”. And by all means shoot me down in flames if you’re out there, Robin, but I’d be extremely surprised if you had to temp to support your burgeoning career (and two weeks’ paid work experience at the Adam Smith Insitute secured by a family friend doesn’t count).

Whenever we talk about poverty of ambition, we generally mean kids whose parents have my financial situation, but not my education or basic advantages. If it was unthinkable for someone like me to leave university and start their own business, it’s unthinkable for some kids to do what I consider my fallback position – go and get a middlingly decent job. Unlucky them. Lucky me. Luckier Robin Walker. Occasionally someone from a truly impoverished background does break out – gets the university education, gets the good job. I’ve made a much smaller, but still upward progression – I’ve (belatedly) done something that normally only rich kids do, because they have a fallback position that I don’t have – financial support to a decent standard of living.

They seem to get very upset about this, by the way. I’ve known moneyed people complain vociferously when I put this theory to them, and protest that they “never take any money” from their parents. That’s not the point, I explain patiently (assuming I believe them; often it seems to turn out that actually they live in daddy’s town flat rent-free but don’t consider that to be money changing hands). It’s the mindset that coming from money gives you. That anything is possible. That there will always be a second chance. That you can take a risk. That you can leave university and not instantly be panicking about how your CV looks at the expense of all else. Essentially, as the Cleggster pointed out in his conference speech, it’s freedom. No point in, as the libertarians have it, owning yourself unless you can feed, clothe and otherwise take care of what you own.

On the whole, then, a Good Year. It has shown me that poverty of ambition is a graduated thing, and the magic circle of those who are totally untouched by it is actually vanishingly small. It has been the making of me as a liberal, and of my social conscience as a sophisticated instrument of analysis, as opposed to a great big wobbly cuddle for the disadvantaged. Most of all it’s made me less fucking complacent about where my next meal is coming from, and accordingly I recommend it as a lifestyle to anyone who has ever thought of people on benefits and/or low incomes as a great big unwashed lump of “them”.



  1. And this is why I’m a barmaid on les than £6 an hour. Because I had to take a job, any job, to pay for stuff while I was looking for a “proper” job and then you realise that once you are IN low paid work, nobody in high paid work will so much as give you the time of day…

  2. The most valuable lesson I learnt when temping was to live in the moment when at work and leave all your financial issues at home. It was sometimes hard to keep focussed on my job when I was wondering whether I would get paid at the end of the week. You totally have to look beyond the money and try and edge in somewhere quietly. Don’t attract too much attention when temping and make yourself indispensable. If you can join a union whilst a temp, join it. Get friendly with other colleagues in other offices who won’t see you first and foremost as a temp. If you can fill in for someone else when they are off sick do it without asking. You will gain extra skills and your employer will think twice when considering the end of your contracted period.

    Of course, it depends on where you temp and how they treat you. I’ve heard some awful temp stories and have experienced some myself, but that was also good as I knew I wouldn’t have been happy there anyway.:@)

    My salary is still s**t but I’ve managed to find a good job that gives me a great level of satisfaction. I try really hard to live in the moment and focus on delivering the best service possible within our limited resources for our customers at the council.

    But I’m very jealous if you’re managing to freelance. :@) Keep going!

  3. A fine tale, and interesting as I’ve done the reverse in terms of income (late teens / early 20s no Oxford, bar jobs and sales jobs, University, more bar jobs, somehow blag reasonable job in office, wages eventually increase, get interesting and reasonably-paid job); I can empathise with the time spent calculating costs thing and whilst this is a fading memory, I slightly appal myself each month with the casual way I now throw money around. At these times I wonder why it’s seemingly impossible to be on a decent payroll and also maintain a degree of parsimony.

    To attempt a vaguely policy-related point, there are two issues here relating to social mobility – monetary (inherited) wealth and educational wealth. Personally I feel more problems come from inequalities in the latter than the former. Of course incentives in the benefits system don’t help but ignoring that for a moment, the trap alluded to above is caused by the actual inability to ‘fall back’ onto reasonably-paid, skilled work. Hence (again, as mentioned – sorry if I’m repeating the points) why Alix has the choice, whilst Person Without O Levels has less choice. On this I’m afraid I slightly disagree with Jennie – I started my first post-(second)-degree job, in an office, whilst being a barman. I actually continued the bar work very part time and had two jobs for a while. The reason I was able to get the office job was (presumably) due to the degree and ensuing internship. Whilst only paying £15k to start, this was still survivable on and soon became £18k, then £21k, then “management”, hence £25k, then “Hey, I’ve made you lots of money, give me a pay rise”, so £29k et cetera and so the wonder of meritocracy kicks in, entirely irrespective of parental wealth but very dependent on the cushion of education (or at least paper qualifications) to start it off.

    Of course parental wealth can provide all kinds of boons, such as being able to start a business with the reassurance of a safety net if everything collapses; yet the narrative above seems to show more of a difference in choice, with Mr Robin electing for a rather amusingly typical Tory path, and Ms Alix seeking a different approach to this working life business.

    Not sure where I personally stand on this as both an unashamed member of the ‘Rat Race’ and proponent of the virtues of commerce, and simultaneously someone who wants to live on a boat with a dog in a red cravat and be a “writer”. Pass.

  4. Thanks all. *Sniff*. It’s very nice to know I Am Not Alone.

    Jo & Jennie, is there any mileage in a Women Workers party or support organisation, I wonder? Workers in the non-Marxist sense, I mean. Do you know of anything like that? I do wonder about the WI…

    Oh god. Stop me.

  5. And I should point out, Julian, what you already know – boats, dogs and red cravats do not assemble themselves into pleasing arrangements and then put out an ad on Gumtree saying “Ginger Lib Dem Writer wanted; must be flippant” 😉

  6. Have you ever thought of living outside London? I can assure you it’s a lot cheaper up here. 😉

    Well, that was an excellent post. As with all the best posts, it left me feeling rather ashamed of my attitudes and my general existence.

  7. Oh dear! I shouldn’t like to think I had disrupted the work in progress. Don’t mind me, I’m just bitter 😀

    And yes, as I rattle towards thirty, a quiet life in the provinces looks increasingly attractive…

  8. There’s a council tenancy available next door to me. The previous inhabitant is in prison for violent crimes 🙂

    I’m just struck by the fact that everything in London is so ludicrously expensive, and earnings are barely higher than they are elsewhere, unless you’re something in the city!

  9. “…earnings are barely higher than they are elsewhere, unless you’re something in the city!”

    I’m not convinced this is true but indeed can’t be bothered to look for evidence right now. However, another point – the level of wages is not the only appeal of London (and large cities in general) but rather the range of opportunities.

  10. Amusingly, I’m not in a very different position than yours, though my aim is def to start my own business.

    My point though is this. You say:
    Essentially, as the Cleggster pointed out in his conference speech, it’s freedom. No point in, as the libertarians have it, owning yourself unless you can feed, clothe and otherwise take care of what you own.

    But this is what leftist ideals are based on right? The point that because society is unequal, and people have unequal opportunities, sometimes the state has to intervene to hope those who do not have as much ‘freedom’ as others.

  11. Yes, absolutely. This is as much as to say “lefties and liberals share a frontier”, which we knew. I’m definitely in favour of state intervention in terms of benefits, health (not necessarily education though), any number of other things probably if I put them to the test. But it’s not as much of an all-or-nothing question for me.

    For some libertarians (as distinct from liberals) it is, and for all lefties it definitely is. In practice, I’m more likely to agree with libertarians, but I don’t really have much sympathy for any such extremity of position, to be honest. Anything so simple, said the Senior Wrangler, can’t possibly be right. The Preamble gets this rather well (as one would hope):

    “The LDs exist to build and safegurd a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community…”

    The balance bit is key.

  12. Excellent post.

    One related thought – when it comes to developing policies about how to reduce poverty and so on, the real experts who know best what needs to be done are the people who have direct experience of it. Yet the people who make the decisions are a mix of those who went from Oxbridge to civil service fast stream, and politicians.

  13. All absolutely correct, in a self-aware liberal kind of way – like Polly Toynbee’s sojourn in the Clapham Park Estate. How about this for a wealth distribution idea to use the rich, entrepreneurial Walkers to help the long-term Mortimers: set up a state-sponsored (but not run) venture capital fund, specifically for investment in social enterprises. The fund can be managed by city types, and give a return on investment if it backs the right horses. The money for it comes from a mixture of compulsory top-slicing of city bonuses (it’s not taxation, it’s forcing them to invest their money in a particular way) and contributions from the public, similar to national savings. People faced with large inheritance tax bills can choose to avoid some or all of the tax by investing some or all of their gains in the fund instead – but unlike the charity exemption this decision rests with the beneficiary, not the deceased. Money not directly invested in social enterprises is placed in national savings until required. What do you reckon?

    I found your blog whilst googling to see who links to newsbiscuit. Do you scribble there as well?

  14. “like Polly Toynbee’s sojourn in the Clapham Park Estate”

    Youch! 😀 I do keep meaning to write something for Newsbiscuit actually, but the reason I have it on my blog is that every other political blog in the world has heavy serious newsfeeds in the same position and I rather like the idea that people arrive at mine and do a double take at the news. In my fond imagination, this is.

    There are elements in your social enterprise scheme I really like – is it a think tank thing? Use of private enterprise to fund uplift at the bottom of the socio-economic opportunity scale, but without exposing the bottom end in any way, all very nice and Lib Dem. Loving the national savings and bankers’ top slice (though I’d be more in favour of incentives than coercion – even public naming and praise for the donors would have some incentivising effect, I think) but I wouldn’t include the IHT funding – seems silly to perpetuate the system which creates the Mortimer/Walker disparity in the first place. But then I am rather more hardline on IHT than the party is, regrettably.

    However I think all such schemes which seek to tackle the wealth gap are contingent upon basic fairness being a part of the tax system first – otherwise you’re just using state money to create a fund to make up for all the tax you’re taking in. If you let more tax remain with earners at the bottom end of the scale in the first place, there will be a higher proportion of low earners funding their own enterprises.

    Which brings me round to DonP’s point – I think a panel of NMW workers, for example, sounds like a great idea, especially if that was then set alongside another panel of, say, 10k-15k earners (a large proportion of the population). It would quickly come out, I think, how difficult it is to, e.g. pick up your kids from school without a bus fare, juggle utility bills payments against when your new paycheck is coming in etc. They might *then* start talking about the need for upskilling, opportunities, higher self-esteem and all that, but all that would come second to the basic business of survival.

  15. but I don’t really have much sympathy for any such extremity of position, to be honest.

    Neither do I of course. Saying that though, lefties in my opinion should and usually do have a healthy distrust of the state. Most environmentalists I meet are anarchists who would like to phase out state interference as much as possible 🙂

    In fact, I’d like state interference as less as possible too, within parameters set for equality and standard of living etc.
    Anyway, my point is – don’t generalise about lefties loving the state! Most don’t!

  16. Adjusting the tax rate for low earners will help people live with dignity but won’t provide the spare cash required to start a new business, or borrow the money to start a new business, in the Walker mode.

    I think the IHT part of my idea is just as important, because it transforms what can feel like a slap on the face from the state on the death of a loved one into the seedgerm of hope for the future. It’s too crude and it’s too blunt. You identified money as being about freedom, and every parent wants their children to be free. Do I think there should be good quality education for all? Yes. Do I pay income tax willingly? Yep, at the higher rate. Do I think there should be a free health service? Absolutely. Do I even think that the workers should rise up and grab control of the means of production? Why not! But should all this affect the transfer of freedom-giving wealth from my hard-working dead father to my small children? Fuck off – do you think I’m a fucking socialist or something?
    I would rather know that his cash could simultaneously help others to work themselves up from nothing, whilst benefiting those of us he worked for. In the meantime, sorry, but we’ve tried to hide it.

    There is no think tank, just me trying to work out how to balance my principles with what I do in practice. If you were to adopt my idea, I’d join your party.
    PS – Don’t forget that freedom can also mean freedom to become a polyglot, work in Brussels,then enter politics knowing that all things are possible.

  17. There’s nothing remotely socialist about wanting to reform IHT, emotional triggers notwithstanding. The Lib Dem principle is to make the tax system fairer and at the moment I think that’s incompatible with not reforming IHT (I must stress though that this is an argument with me, not the party).

    House prices have now risen to such inflated levels that vast amounts of the (highly notional) wealth of the nation is now locked up in property, and the current IHT system means this wealth is cycled within a tiny number of families. I’m on the absolute sharp end of this, in that I’m from the south east, but also from a middling income background without vast cash reserves sitting around (we do exist). My “inheritance” is therefore tied up in my parents’ perfectly ordinary three bedroom suburban house, and I won’t be able to use it to buy anywhere to call home until they are, in fact, dead. This seems rather sad to me. I’d much rather they lived, but I paid a lot less tax on my low income so that I’d have a better shot at building up a deposit and get closer to being able to buy somewhere myself. And in exchange for this I’d be quite happy to pay over a larger amount of tax when they do pop their clogs – because I’d have had a stable LIFE all those years, and been able to enjoy it WITH the company of my parents.

    There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of experiences like mine. It’s just daft to keep wealth tied up within one generation’s assets disabling the next generation’s quality of life – especially when it is that next generation that society relies on to do the donkey work and feed the pensions of the older generation.

    IHT stays in the news and remains a no-no for reform solely because it is paid by a vanishingly small percentage of the population who complain vociferously about it – and have the public platform to do so. The Daily Mail et al have contentedly conned their readers – very few of whom will ever be within sniffing distance of having to pay IHT – into believing that it’s a national outrage.

  18. Fascinating post Alix! I feel we are soul mates. I have a 1st (from the only uni that would have me) and should be on my 3rd job now but… after almost 4 years at work, I’ve had enough of being treated as an impoverished slave. I am about to claim benefits and do the odd bit of cash based freelancing. Definitely the way to go if you can pull it off. I have my 1st freelance job coming up and the freedom that exists outside the rat race excites me daily. Let’s hope we don’t all starve in the oncoming economic apocalypse.

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  20. I somehow missed this post at the time, I suppose I was caught up in the London elections.

    It’s interesting, of course, because I’ve shared some of the path you’ve taken – the same Oxford college, only a year apart, and then the “boring, averagely-paid, first jobber’s job in a large company where I’d have space to develop, in a line of work I thought was probably moderately interesting once you got a bit higher up”, which was where we met (although, this was a second job for me!).

    My current job pays me well, and although saddened not to get another job I wanted earlier in the year, it’s a relief not to take the pay cut because for the last year or so I’ve been financially supporting my mother to an extent.

    Life does indeed influence and develop one’s political viewpoint(s). I agree here with Don Paskini (who I knew as a student).

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