There is a keychain of anxieties attached to the fact of growing up poor in a relatively affluent circle of people. Some petty, some less-than-petty. Burden anxiety, clothes anxiety. Social anxiety: field trip absence, no pocket money for weekends, and the fear that every council home child knows of inviting richer friends round for a sleepover.
What would Marguerite, with her mosaic toilets, crystal-stoppered water, vaulted, arched, and soundproofed house – where I first learnt the word storey to describe its seven levels – think of my tower-block flat, the plastic storage boxes (wardrobes) and windowless capsule bedrooms giving the impression that the whole place was a collapsible Lego construction?
As a bursary child at private school, this was the plague of my days. Funnily enough, it led to telling stories, or – once you’re too old for it to be cute – lying. I’d invent fantastical excuses for why I never invited friends round for play dates or birthday parties. “My real father’s Eddie Murphy and he’s filming a documentary about his life on location”, I explained apologetically. The life of a celebrity child is a lonely one.
It comes as no surprise that a child primed on self-criticism, exaggeration, and subterfuge will turn into a writer. That such a child may grow up without the comfy trampoline of financial security is proof of what imagination can do. It turns scarcity into wealth. It’s used to working with nothing.
Yet this magic snags on a reality: that growing up poor and creative so often means having your every dream or musing or whimsical notion countered with a dozen practicalities to crush it. I remember coming to my mum all buzzed in that post-daydream state of euphoria when everything feels possible. I was telling her all these grand plans, about being a film maker or going to Lake Como. My mother would sigh heavily on such occasions, as if I were being hurtful, then say something involving the word ‘realistic’ or ‘that’s all very well, but’ or, worse of all because it was always said in the saddest tone, ‘that would be nice, wouldn’t it’.
When I type ‘arts internship’ into the search engine on the Gov.uk website, 22 matches come up. Of these, 17 are based in London. The remaining 5 are divided between Manchester, Birmingham, and Bristol.
The majority of UK internships in the arts are in London. The salary (if any) is too low for independent living, and the working hours (full time) too high for part time work. If you aren’t lucky enough to have parents willing to subsidise either a hefty commute or full bed and board in an expensive city, your option to choose is eliminated. Inability to pay comes with an emotional wage: a seeming compromise of dreams and desires for arts-aspiring graduates without a financial safety net.
The internship problem does not just lie in the arts. A friend of mine was halfway through filling out an application for a global business internship program, when a button labelled ‘Further Details’ caught her eye. Investigation yielded that there was a cost for this internship. The program offered a life-changing eight week placement at a company in a city of your choice, all for the bargain price of circa £3000 (with an accommodation package of £5k). It seems the only way millennials are ever going to find experience is by (literally) haggling their way into it and paying their employer.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labour released an internship law: 6 standards for the internship to adhere to. Whilst the intern is not entitled to a salary, it’s understood that the internship, at its core, is for the benefit of the intern. It’s an idea which seems glaringly obvious but sadly goes astray when unpaid placements start being used merely as a fee-free way for companies to fill their admin labour gap. The UK government service site offers no such kind of value promise, merely reinstating the fact that internships don’t need to be paid. The one crystal-clear message: that the time of graduate hopefuls is worthless.
Please note this internship is unpaid. One thing seemed clear, and please correct me: that it was near-to-impossible to bag yourself a level-entry job in the creative industry without either a relevant degree or minimum of one relevant internships under your belt. Whilst job seeking, I have typed in the word ‘internship’ into many search engines on many different job sites. Or, if you’re lucky, This placement shall be 45 hour work weeks at the minimum wage. Countless design, journalism, editorial, curatorial and copy-writing internships, all alienating a portion of the non-London graduate population whose parents wouldn’t be able to fund central city bed-and-board as well as a daily commute to Shoreditch.
And most of these internships seemed peachy. As I read the descriptions, I snatched keyhole glimpses of inventive, soul-callusing, 9 to 9 work…ok, my slightly soft grunge version, of newspaper women with sharp eyeliner and sharper wit, shyness overridden by shared bone-tiredness in waterfront rooms, wrapped mints with the company logo on them.
It wasn’t the death of my romantic delusions that gave me that sharp tear-gland ouch! of injustice as I pressed the determining x on each tab. It was that in admitting defeat by the most un-creative excuse of Not Having Enough Money, I was somehow complicit in the system of unfairness, choosing x for can’t and letting the opportunities float back up into the mesosphere of the people it was meant for.
People who had the privilege of optimism, who saw the world of arts not as a series of forbidding locked doors but hanging rice curtains to be breezed through, anxiety-free. Yes, I became a young talent in self-pitying, sofa-bound defeatism over the ensuing months of post-graduation summer. My personal brand, as you might call it, was depression. Which the landscape of industry prospects did little to unsettle.
Of course, the underlying culprit here isn’t the individual organisation, but the woeful lack of government funding for arts. As a thirteen year old too young to have started giving the idea of a career any serious thought, but already secure in the knowledge that art would be involved, I came across IdeasTap. It was in its first year, a charity founded and funded by Peter de Haan, spending on young creatives to give them the financial trampoline and social confidence they needed to carve out a space for themselves in the arts sector. When I found out that it closed last June, due to lack of funding, I wept. I wept for a bleak vision for future creatives, for the loss of a website which symbolised a very practical breed of hope – in the form of action, workshops, community.
Growing up poor, the world tends to ticket your dreams like a traffic warden, leaving you an endless warning to just slow down. And this is why we must sing, from rooftops and tower blocks, the importance of being creative especially as a kid living in a financially unstable home.
Because making art is, in so many ways, about the realisation of daydreams. About feeling powerful enough to make all your crazy lavish wish-thoughts real to an accepting audience. About the idea of possibility, rather than impossibility. How much of my confidence comes from writing stories as a kid? How much of myself would still be there if I hadn’t made it up? How many RSVPs with future selves am I turning down if I stop trying, right now?