I thought I’d finally lost my basic cognitive functioning in the Maryhill Road Big Tesco, trying to match up the light bulb specs of my two new Made.com light fittings (hall and kitchen) with Tesco’s own classification. According to Tesco, E14 is SES (small Edison screw) and E27 is ES (Edison screw). And then there’s the trick of translating LED wattage. It took me about ten minutes, after having to ask directions to even find the display, because Big Tesco has moved things about since my last visit. I won’t be completely sure I’ve got the right bulbs until they’re fitted by an electrician.
My flat will never be a candidate for the Guardian lifestyle supplement, but I feel pleased with what I’ve achieved. On the walk home along grimly unscenic Maryhill Rd, I reflected on my personal 1/1/1 concept of interior decorating. One-third cheap basic furniture and fittings, the kind that don’t look cheap and basic when mixed up with non-cheap; one-third faux vintage and retro, quirky charity shop or auction-house finds; and one-third ‘premium’: a few items of genuine quality and expense. Over Christmas, I bought myself a genuine Afghan rug which, I hope, was not made by genuine Afghan children.
Considering my surroundings and circumstances, I recalibrated the balance as 2/5, 2/5, 1/5. It’s actually even smaller, but it’s been a long time since I did fractions at school. Apart from my rug, everything I have is cheap.
I live in an area of Glasgow that still raises eyebrows, although its Shuggie Bain era has long passed. As an over-educated middle-class person, I often feel like a failure to have reached middle age and not done ‘better’. What do I mean by ‘better’? A career job that provides a middle-class lifestyle: a spacious house in a salubrious part of a desirable city. In 1980s Australia, this was still a reasonable aspiration for a clever kid without family money and connections—unless you wanted to be a writer.
I’ve always harrumphed at the Guardian writer interviews that show the writer resplendent in a booklined room somewhere in North London, often with a window overlooking an actual private garden. What writer makes enough for that kind of mortgage? The property ownership of older writers is almost plausible—wasn’t Islington practically a slum in the 1970s?—but for anyone under 50, I assume they married or inherited money.
But I made my own choices. I left a sensible career job 20 years ago, unable to endure the 9–5 treadmill, with the idealistic notion that I would live creatively and pursue my interests. Such expectations were alien to my background. For my working-class father and lower-middle-class mother, work was work and you didn’t expect to enjoy it. If you were lucky enough to go to university, you went on to get proper job; you didn’t take off to travel or write books. After all, what would you live on? The world doesn’t owe you a thing.
Living the creative life is hard. As I discovered in my 40s, being an academic isn’t much easier either. But I’ve been able to support myself, often precariously, and when the pandemic hit, I was ensconced in a regular job that has proved COVID-proof. I’ve bought myself a little flat, after a life of renting. I can even afford to buy new (cheapish) light fittings and contemplate switching out my dribble electric-box shower to a mains version.
A friend of Bear’s who, pre-COVID, used to make a reasonable living as an illustrator of children’s books, saw her income plummet when school visits were cancelled last year. She signed on for self-employed furlough payments, which got her through, but it turns out that she was overpaid and now the government wants the money back. Where does the government think she’ll find it?
To be honest, I don’t know anyone who lives as a writer in London, emerging from a book-lined study to do the rounds of prestigious literary festivals as a headline guest. This vision of success is as specious as that presented on Instagram by a fake-tanned Dubai-based ‘influencer’ posing by a helicopter. From where do I get the pernicious notion that any other outcome of the creative life is failure? From the Guardian living supplement and those ‘successful writer’ interviews?
That’s the easy answer, and I’d like to think I’m not that gullible.