Hugo Rifkind

Twentysomethings: you won’t miss being poor. But you will miss not knowing what you’re doing

Graduate poverty, at least at first, carries a weightlessness – a sense of being able to observe society from the outside

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

What I miss most about being very young is the cluelessness. It’s enormously liberating, cluelessness. The boundaries of life are simply not comprehended. The boxes into which others will put you are not apparent. Thus, you float out with life, and you see all.

I moved to London at 22, with a vague plan to sleep on my dad’s living-room floor until something better happened. He was very good about it, although I’m not sure he’d been consulted. Before long, I moved to Camberwell with an old schoolfriend. Lord knows why we chose Camberwell; very possibly because it’s mentioned in Withnail & I. And anyway, this was more like Elephant & Castle, whatever the advert in Loot had said. Our back window looked out over Burgess Park, which was terraformed and Blade Runner-esque, and about which I still have strange and listless zombie nightmares.

I was an agency temp, and would be for the next few years. On good weeks, this meant proofreading; on bad ones something far more mundane, such as the month I spent in an engineering firm comparing printed lists of inconsequential bolts on the roof of the Northern Line with handwritten notebooks of the same. Altogether, this was a process I’d describe as ‘writing a novel’. At the weekends, friends in big, crumbly shared houses would throw parties, where we would all behave like the students we’d recently stopped being. After a year I moved to Brixton, into a mouldy flat with fleas. The previous inhabitants had all been Etonians and had left a syringe under the sofa. I liked it there enormously.

All of my strongest memories of this time are of stepping out onto frosty 3 a.m. streets, wobbly, and wondering how to get home. One night the Lambeth police were out in force, perhaps after some sort of riot. Few things make you crave sudden sobriety quite so strongly as the sight of two giant police horses clopping towards you down a deserted, glittery terraced street, steam whooshing from flaring nostrils. Have you ever seen The Fisher King? It was like that.

There was a precariousness to life that I remember very well: a sense that things were on the very edge of perhaps not quite working out after all. For every graduate generation there’s that period of sudden disunity, where the lifestyles and identities of the newly salaried accelerate away from everybody else, and there begin bitter, lasting disputes over bills in pizzerias. It’s about more than money, all this. There’s an arrogance to graduate poverty, at least at first. It carries a weightlessness — a sense of being able to observe society as a collection of boxes, none of which you are in. Which is a delusion, probably, but a strong one. Remember, I was ‘writing a novel’.

Obviously, you’ll end up in a box, like everybody else. That’s what it means to be middle-class: comfort is your destiny. Like a Terminator that never stops, stability will hunt you down. In the years to come I’d swap the urbs for the suburbs, night buses for taxis, and Saturday night parties for Sunday brunch. I’d even write the novel, and have it published, too, before the journalism caught. Today, strangers often remind me of the privileges I have enjoyed, as though this was how my life would always have been. By osmosis, I suppose I’ve come to believe them. Yet there’s a sense of loss that comes with it, in the distance I now feel from the person I once was. Who would have been surprised indeed, and delighted too.

Or partly. Today, I like my little corner of London a lot, even for its absurdities. I like its cosiness and safety and savagely overpriced artisan cafés. I like the way that so many of the kids in my daughter’s school have a second language, as do my own, even if they’re usually safe, smug second languages such as Finnish and Swiss German, and not the ones parents are supposed to worry about, such as Kurdish and Somali. I like the benign hypocrisy a place like this indulges, whereby you can feel that the life you have built is at once fascinatingly unique, and exactly like everybody else’s.

I don’t miss the aimlessness of my early twenties, nor the cashlessness, but I do miss that weightlessness. That cluelessness. That sense that the whole world is yours, with all its edges and dangers and spikes. And not just this little bit of it I have found, into which I have poured myself like jelly into a mould.

What the fake?

Anyway, it being Christmas, I decided to sort out our fireplace. There was a gas fire in there, forgotten and trussed up with chicken wire, so the builders came, charged me what I earn in about two days, and took it away. Then the chimney sweep came, and charged me about what I earn in a week, and cleared it out. Then I went out to buy some coal, and thought better of it, because actually, with the heating on, our house is already hot as hell.

Instead, I ended up with fire gel. Do you know the stuff? It comes in a pot and you set fire to it, and it crackles away with a merry orange flame, giving off almost no heat at all. So I sat there, gazing happily at my fake fire, meditatively sucking away on the fake plastic cigarette I’ve lately adopted. Wondering at what point to get the fake plastic Christmas tree we bought last year down from the attic. And glancing occasionally at the fake plastic lawn in our garden. Hmmm.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • vanLomborg

    Not knowing what you are doing is replaced by telling an entire population of 63 million plebeians four years ago that they were about to enter a phase of Keynesian Restraint, and more than four fifths of that population actually believing it.

  • Suzy61

    You cannot ever pretend that you were, are now or ever will be ‘on the edge’. If you lost your job tomorrow would you find yourself on benefits? Worst still, would you find yourself homeless? On the streets and begging a living? The privilege of your upbringing would never allow that so please don’t pretend that you are just another penniless student who scraped a living through the ‘bad times’. Are you still paying back your student loan, by the way?

    • Hugo Rifkind

      Why, if only I’d remembered to make that exact point in the column you finished reading a few seconds ago.

      • Suzy61

        Just pointing out that the romanticism of flea-ridden bedsits doesn’t quite have the same ring when the precariousness of student life extends well beyond graduation, as it does for so many……. and yet you seem almost sad to have ended up in your comfortable ‘box’.

        • Hugo Rifkind

          Yes Suzy. Again, this is what you have just read a column about.

          • Suzy61

            Hugo, I’m sure you get fed up with having your privilege shoved down your throat but there is no joy in student poverty, unless you are middle-class and comfort is your destiny, as you say. Again, are you still paying back your student loan?

          • Hugo Rifkind

            Yes Suzy. Again, that is what I wrote this column about. I appreciate you’d rather it was about something else, so that you could be angry about something, but I’m afraid it isn’t. All you are doing is irritably stating the things I’ve already stated.

            And no, I graduated in 1998 and there were no tuition fees. So I had the maximum loans you could, but I think it was a grand total of about £2k a year.

          • gerontius

            Yeah, but you’re managing to irritate the hell out of Suzy and i rather sympathise with her.

          • ItwasBlairwotdunnit

            If I can offer some words of support Hugo, I was from a working class background, grant assisted as many were in those days, lived off chips (and the odd beer), lived in a cold hovel, and enjoyed the whole experience immensely. It’s about the learning, and that learning was the spring-board to better things. And all the cluelessness of which you speak was just a (fairly exciting) part of the tapestry. Have a great Christmas.

            PS: I watched your father at a debating society event at Glasgow University – excellent mind, even if the socialists in the audience, like myself at the time, gave him a hot reception.

        • Jim

          “watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all.”

    • justejudexultionis

      I agree. The article is of the Guy Ritchie faux-working class variety. It positively drips inauthenticity.

  • Christian

    I’ve a feeling you’ll never have to worry about Somali,or Kurdish accents at your daughters school. Leave those worries for the rest of us, the racist reactionary plebs, the ones for whom immigration isn’t an abstract.

    • Samson

      We all remember Christ’s words about hating the Somalis and Kurds, with their accents and all that. If only they’d been born in one of the Lord’s countries.

      • davidofkent

        We don’t actually. Do enlighten us.

        • Jankers

          something to do with the Samaritan helping a man beaten half to death? Seems the Somalis, kurds and every other battered foreign national just cant get enough of the Samaritans kindness and free health care.

      • mickus

        Don’t you worry yourself, plenty will be, plenty.

      • Christian

        Keep taking the pills dear

    • Jankers

      “I like the way that so many of the kids in my daughter’s school have a second language, as do my own, even if they’re usually safe, smug second languages such as Finnish and Swiss German, and not the ones parents are supposed to worry about, such as Kurdish and Somali”

      Smug beyond belief, what a twat.

  • justejudexultionis

    Hugo’s father is Malcolm Rifkind FFS. He went to prestigious Edinburgh private schools and Cambridge. He lives in an affluent part of London. We can therefore discount 99 per cent of what he says as bearing any relevance to the ordinary, unprivileged majority of the human race.

    • Fraser Bailey

      Exactly. The son of one of the most powerful people in the land. One of the political class that has spend the last 50 years spitting on the British people.

      • nancledra

        Hugo’s father is the son of a Jewish immigrant family, I believe, who by talent and application became a QC and cabinet minister, so fair play to him. And despite being a Tory, he’s well thought of as a highly capable, fair-minded and decent guy, even by weapons-grade Scottish lefties like myself. IF he’s one of the most powerful people in the land, I think that’s more or less OK – better him than pond-life such as Grant Shapps or IDS. Hugo, too, has done alright for himself and has never sought power so, again, fair play. Objectively, the UK is in many, many respects a much better country to live in than it was 50 years ago – unless you’re obsessed with immigration, of course. So it’s rather sad to observe Spectator readers casting themselves as the down-trodden and indulging in ‘I too am a victim’ identity politics – best leave that to those lacking in talent, spirit and imagination. The vast majority of us reading this blat are winners in life’s great lottery, remember?

  • hdb

    Stabilty will hunt you down? Maybe if you went to the right school and university. Many of the people I knew at university are appraoching middle age and still haven’t started a family because that was something they would do when they could afford a mortgage and that would happen when they progressed sufficiently in their careers. And somehow it all just hasn’t happened for a lot of people now about forty.

  • beenzrgud

    Maybe if you had obtained a more practical degree then your poverty need never have occurred. My time at university was anything but easy, but once I had my degree my situation improved enormously. At university I got a grant but it regularly had to stretch beyond breaking point. I lived in a draughty hovel and there was no time for a job either since my course usually required between 80 and 100 hours work per week. Most of the time I lived on a diet of chips since there was a potato merchant just down the road flogging huge bags of potatoes for a few quid each. I can still vividly remember refusing to move from an office in my bank until they extended my overdraft. A few years ago, about 2000, I returned to find that students now live in very nice halls of residence complete with wifi, gym, secure parking (apparently they have cars too!), all mod cons ! Of course, had I come from a wealthy background I wouldn’t have had this experience and I would also have had the reassurance that my future career was secure. Being the first in my family to go through higher education I was simply playing it by ear and hoping for the best.
    I certainly don’t think everybody should have to have a similar experience to me, but when I hear cretins like yourself complaining at their lot it really pisses me off, so if you wouldn’t mind please keep it to yourself in future.

  • goggyturk

    Sorry about this, but if you haven’t slept on bare floorboards with a jacket for a blanket then you’ve never lived on the edge.

    This article describes pseudosuffering, not real suffering.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Why are these unexeptional and tedious memories of being young in London given space in a supposedly serious magazine? (Although it was always more like cava for the brain than champagne the brain, if we are honest). Many of us moved to London when we were young (18 in my case) and saw and did a variety of interesting, boring and stupid things while learning to look after ourselves.

  • Vinnie

    What is this article actually about if not just smugly gloating about another non-Londoner migrating to my city and turning it into hipster sh*thole? Anyone?

    • paulvew

      I loved it and I had not previously enjoyed his pieces – it moved me very much.

  • whs1954

    ” I like the way that so many of the kids in my daughter’s school have a second language, as do my own, even if they’re usually safe, smug second languages such as Finnish and Swiss German, and not the ones parents are supposed to worry about, such as Kurdish and Somali.”

    If you are living in inner London, most of the kids at the schools will have a second language, it’s just that that second language is English, which they will speak poorly and for which they will need remedial action, to the expense of your child’s education. The language spoken at home, the first language, will be Kurdish or Somali.

  • Samson

    Toffs pretending they were/are poor. Must be Christmas.

  • Gareth Mailer

    What have I just read?

    As a graduate I can say with a great deal of conviction University, for 99% of the population who don’t hope to specialise in a specific profession, is an exercise is pointlessness.

    It’s not their fault, they’ve been indoctrinated to believe a degree in gender studies, or history, is the only way forward. Our major national corporations have decided it’s better hiring graduates for the role of Asda store manager, or Enterprise area manager, than suitably and equally skilled school leavers.

    It doesn’t matter that these graduates waste four years in an economic black hole where they are afforded the distinctly middle-class privilege of ‘finding themselves’, Dawson’s Creek style, only to come out the other end more indoctrinated, and confused, than when they went in.

    It’s OK though, they’ve got their new found Orwellian ‘shout everyone down’ and ‘ban free speech which impedes delicate sensibilities’ transferable skillsets to survive by.

    It’s not their fault they’ve been lied to, it’s not their fault they’ve been victims of an agenda to destroy and erode the nobility in working class labour. There’s no problem, we can just import it.

    That’s why we rely on subsidies from poorer foreign countries, countries which spend hard earned cash training their citizens only to seem them attracted to The UK under the banner of ‘aren’t we so nice and progressive, we pay well too.’

    It’s OK for those undergraduates who actually want a career, too. I mean, it costs £70k to train a nurse, why would we do that when we can let someone else pay for their training then import them 3 at a time on £23k per year?

    What’s great is we can call it ‘progressive.’ It will shore up votes for the left-wing too, in fact Mr Neather has already covered it – what did he say again? Oh yeah, it will help “rub the right’s nose in diversity.” We can also excuse it by just saying there’s a shortfall in staffing or a major NHS screw-up, I mean it won’t be obvious to anyone what actually caused the shortfall in the first place.

    Shhhhh. 😉

    • beenzrgud

      Interesting points and much that I agree with. I’ve long thought that there should be other routes open to provide career pathways into well defined professions. For many a degree is a very blunt tool when trying to get on in life.

      • MichtyMe

        Within living memory that was the way, the law, accountancy, engineering, after school an apprenticeship and the exams studied for in the evening.

    • justejudexultionis

      I agree fully. No more than 30 per cent of the population should go to university. The rest should be in apprenticeships or in full-time employment.

      • mixodorians


        I think perfect world conservatives who want to legislate for a perfect world and want to imagine that everywhere is like London, do so to destroy the welfare state. They are going to start removing all benefits from people who are under 25 because of the word “Should” (because they should be in work, they should be education or they should be doing apprenticeships) then they are going to remove benefits from everyone else, because of the word “Should”.

        That’s the thing with perfect world conservatives, they are extremely cruel to everyone who doesn’t live in a perfect world.

        • Gareth Mailer

          It’s a fine hypocrisy to read people on the left criticise the right-wing for idealism.

          I mean, I could bore myself out of existence in the amount of time it would take me to write about the innate hypocrisy in your comment.

          Immigration is an issue which is cloaked in idealism. The idea that human beings aren’t tribal, the idea that all cultures can live side-by-side and that there’s infinite space on an island which contains vast amounts of uninhabitable terrain and is already one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, is all hopelessly idealistic. I mean, hopelessly.

          Even modern science confirms human beings are group based primates who extend trust to outsiders with great caution. Immigration, from beginning to end, has been nothing more than a social experiment designed to shore up left-wing support, and reverse age old prejudices to be used against the majority.

          Don’t even get me started on the idealism of our morally superior supranational organisations, one of which won 1st prize at the recent democratic deficit awards.

          You can add foreign aid (apparently all of the world’s problems are economical, not political – apparently a nuclear power, Pakistan, can’t afford to foster social mobility and needs help in the form of £400m per year from The UK), the erosion of national identity and the very subjective term ‘equality’ to the list, too.

  • Mc

    “What I miss most about being very young is the cluelessness.”

    Going by the articles Rifkind writes, I’m not sure the cluelessness has disappeared.

  • Jim

    “There was a precariousness to life that I remember very well”
    I call BS.

  • Jeeti Johal-Bhuller

    These wonderful rags to riches stories, of immigrants arriving as carpet daggers and working from menial labour to grand chief executives of multi nationals, of young bright eyed students with a heart full of dreams and minds unencumbered with the fatuous, a favoured word oft used by spectator, mood swings of modern day media opinion. feel good stories of beset tormented minds emerging from the taverns of Plato’s much alleged minds in caves. Of tribulent lives where hard work and industriousness won the day for our unsung heroes. These lands of plenty where the milk runneth fast and free for those who know the cash cow fulwell. Life should be so beautiful, where each is equally opportune according to charm charisma, attractiveness and ability and aptitude in any specified field or task. Viewing society whether from within or laterally, the view should aways be one of beauty than an inglorious melange of many things of as varied as extreme polarities, always sentient, always harmonious. Wonderful stuff. Seasons greetings.

  • Richard

    ‘Benign hypocrisy’..well, that is one way of putting it.