Capital / by Alex Williamson

By the time he moved to London, some three years after graduating, almost all his university friends had progressed their careers. Keeping true to the commitments of the milk round, most had entered the financial services sector, either as traders, financial analysts, underwriters or accountants.

He moved into a flat in south London with a close friend, a stifled creative spirit who was working on the trading desk in the London office of a US bank, a job ill-suited to his temperament. The rent at the flat was £400 per month. The flat was on the top floor of a converted house overlooking Lee High Road, just outside Lewisham, and was owned by one of his friend’s work colleagues, who was a few years older than them. This was the first flat he had bought with his annual bonus. He was about to move into the second.

The flat was a short walk uphill to Blackheath, an enclave of conspicuous affluence in south east London. Looking across from the heath, the city stretched out like an elaborate and bedevilling three dimensional jigsaw, one awaiting the piece with him in it to be complete. It was a thrilling feeling, like being an understudy about to step out onto the stage, on the cusp of some magnificent performance.

Every weekday morning at 6am he was woken by the funky clavinet riff to Stevie Wonder’s hit single Superstition when his flatmate’s alarm went off. Then again at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 and so on, until his flatmate eventually rose from bed at 6.30am and proceeded to shit, shower and shave in the bathroom.

They threw a flat-warming party where the raucous friends from his hometown rubbed awkwardly against the serious-minded university diaspora. For his own part, he was unsure which side of the fence he sat on. Inspecting his room, one of the university girls looked at the copy of Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’ pinned to his wall, and said simply, That’s a bit weird.

The poetry was there to remind him of his greater purpose. Unlike those he knew from university, he had moved to London not to find work, but to become a Poet. This remained uppermost in his mind. He hoped seeing these poems each morning would bring focus to his days of idling, for much idling was done during those early days in London.

Inevitably, things soon became muddied. Prior to moving to south, he had applied for several editorial roles listed in The Guardian Jobs supplement, receiving in the post a handful of rejections entirely disproportionate to the applications mailed. He applied for jobs at bookshops in Blackheath and Greenwich, without joy. With almost all his savings frittered away, he began trawling the Evening Standard’s classifieds.

Few of the roles advertised in the Standard gave any real detail about what they entailed. Kitchen porter. Night staff. Stock supervisor. Warehouse assistant. All required at least one year’s experience. There was no clue as to how he might go about acquiring the requisite experience without first securing the job.

Then there were the roles that he was spectacularly unqualified for. Hairdresser. Receptionist. Nail technician. Undertaker. Alongside these, several requests for volunteers and general assistance, all unpaid.

He briefly contemplated becoming a librarian, before realising that librarians were now known as information assistants, and that you now needed a qualification to stack shelves.

There was, however, a surplus of media sales positions, but he wondered who in their right mind would want to work in media sales? Or be an estate agent, for that matter? There too an abundance of roles in recruitment consultancy, or people-shuffling as he’d heard it called, which had always struck him as an entirely manufactured profession, the last refuge of the useless.

All these he ignored, along with anything that involved working in a call centre. He discovered that in London, even the most nondescript job involved selling of some kind. This narrowed the field considerably.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to work. There were simply certain types of work he didn’t want to do. He had been raised to believed that it was better to do a low-status job well than a high-status one poorly. People could be roughly divided into those tenacious few who worked hard, and those who were adept at convincing others to work hard on their behalf.

A degree of romanticism had coloured his relocation to the capital. Some months before his move he had read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit, Orwell intoned.

Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?

What could he possibly know about poverty? He knew about hard work, having worked on building sites in the employ of his father, but this was something altogether different. While he was quite prepared to scrape by with next to nothing, to eke out a living in a series of dead-end jobs, he was quite unprepared for what this might entail, what would happen if he failed to find work.

If push came to shove he could always go back and work for his father. He could always go back.

He couldn’t go back.

By now he was desperately short of money. That autumn he responded to a small ad offering commission-based work in the city. Must be fit and enjoy listening to music. Little additional information was provided. When he was offered a day’s trial, unpaid, he gladly accepted.

I’ve found a gap in the market, the managing director explained during the brief interview.

Consumer shopping habits change by the day, by the hour. By the minute. They don’t listen to the radio anymore. They don’t buy singles anymore. We bring music direct to the consumer. We give them the music that they want, when they want it.

For the rest of that unseasonably warm day in November he tramped the streets of south London in his suit and jacket, attempting to sell CDs from a holdall to shop owners, passing strangers and pub drinkers.

His companion for the day was an out-of-work bassist in his early thirties. Shortish, pudgy, thinning brown curls. After starting at Peckham Rye station, by lunchtime they had slowly but surely crept into East Dulwich and stopped for lunch at a greasy spoon on Dulwich High Street. As the bassist lit a fag, he asked him how long he’d been doing it for.

Since the tour with St Etienne finished, he replied. And the session work dried up. So a year or so. No money in music anymore.

There was no gap in the market. This did not bring music direct to the consumer. They could barely get a foot in the door before being turned away. It was demeaning, demoralising and utterly fruitless.

And painful. By the end of the day his heels had been rubbed raw by his cheap shoes. They finished up in Nunhead in the early evening, before calling it a day and heading back to the office near Old Street with their unsold CDs.

As they arrived, he could hear the clanging of a bell. Walking into the office, he saw a blonde, rakish man in a sharp suit ringing the bell over his head, like a Mod town crier.

Looks like he’s had another good day, said the bassist. Sold all his CDs. Always does.

That evening, he saw an advert in the window of The Railway pub in Blackheath asking for part time bar staff. He walked in and picked up an application form. The pub was an upmarket brand, but part of a larger chain. Dim lighting, wood interiors, shabby chic furniture. Run by a couple with two boxer dogs and staffed by undergraduates on minimum wage.

Within a few days he was pulling pints and cleaning ashtrays. Meeting new people. Lee and Karen. Nikki and Guy. Iso and Alice. Kate and Nina. Naomi and Lydia. Nipon and Phil. Unfamiliar faces who briefly became firm friends. Sometimes more.

Money, Orwell wrote, frees people from work. Unlike Orwell he had no money, and a small amount of personal debt, in the form of two credit cards, which he watched slowly increase each month. There was little hope of clearing it. He barely survived on his meagre earnings from the pub, and the small white envelopes containing tips meant for the barmaids.

He registered at a local employment agency and was offered a job at a warehouse in Charlton, picking magazines bound for newsagents in Greenwich and Blackheath. For a period he got the train to work at 7am, headed home for a shower and supper at 5pm, then started at the pub around 6pm, finally finishing around midnight.

It was the hardest he’d ever worked. It was the most money he’d ever earned.

Still every decision he made remained subject to financial pressure. The ability to stand a round in a pub. To split the bill in a restaurant. Invited to join friends for drinks after work, he took the northern line up to Bank, against the flow of commuters fleeing the City. His friends favoured upmarket bars with upmarket prices, and he arrived knowing he could barely afford a single drink, much less several.

Instead he drank away his earnings elsewhere, heading to the Live Bar in Deptford after last orders in the company of his new friends, or sitting in his room, smoking and writing and drinking his flatmate’s mid-priced bottles of wine, late into the night.

That December, on a break between shifts, he sat by the open fire in the Prince of Wales up on the heath, nursing a pint of Guinness and smoking a roll up while reading J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, believing himself the reincarnation of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, or Donleavy himself, or any of the other writers who had called a great city like Dublin or London their home.

God’s mercy / on the wild / Ginger Man.

He and Dangerfield shared a certain fecklessness, both being fiscally reckless. When he moved to London, he bought his first mobile phone, a contract device. At the time he could only afford the contract itself, not the insurance to cover its unexpected loss. A few months later, he got pissed with friends in Covent Garden and left his mobile on a bar table.

The next morning, unable to find his phone, he went to the police station to report it stolen. After calling his network to block the device, the operator informed him that several calls had been made that night. These calls totalled over £300. It would have been more, but the operator viewed the calls as suspicious and eventually blocked them. As he hadn't taken out any insurance, he was liable for the charges.

Every time his bank account went overdrawn, which was often, his bank debited a £30 fine against his account. If he went further into his overdraft, they took another payment. When the standing order for his rent cashed in on the same day as direct debit payments for utilities or card payments for food and travel, he could be left with hundreds of pounds of debt, without any way of repaying it. An ill-fated trip to Scandinavia with his flatmate pushed him further into the red.

He was simply incapable of managing money, of holding onto it. It ran through his fingers like water. In a city awash with liquidity, like the muddy river coursing through it, he had none.

But he had made it. That was irrefutable. He had finally arrived. And now, like the protagonists of the many Bildungsroman his adolescent self had read, he awaited the next electrifying chapter in the novel of his life. All he had to do was sit, and wait.