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Society

What It's Like Being Working Class and Northern In London

One woman's experience of pursuing a career in the Arts in the Capital

By The Stack World

23 June 2023
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ne of the first conversations I had, when I moved into halls in London, was during a freshers mixer: "How much did you pay for school?" one person asked the room. At that moment, I met more people that had attended private school than I had in my entire 18 years of life previous to that.

Simply put, I was underprepared for the wealth I was about to encounter at Central Saint Martins, my chosen and dream university, and its adjacent circles I would move in afterwards. Not for how much it would cost to keep up socially or for the class currency of understanding certain behaviours.

My parents have good jobs; my dad is a train driver; my mum, after dealing with life-changing epilepsy, became and still is a GP receptionist. Yet, I was astounded by how much money some people seemed to possess in my new world.

I was bitterly lonely that first month before my course started. I couldn't find people that were anything like me. So, during that time, I sought my first internship with a fashion platform designed to showcase burgeoning talent. I vividly remember, after my first fashion week cycle, those who went above and beyond were invited to dinner with the Founder — nothing too fancy, just Italian food, somewhere in Soho.

Yet, I felt like a fish out of water. Everyone seemed to have a strong grasp on the "right" wine orders, and I felt myself turn scarlet when I realised a beer or a vodka cranberry was not the go-to. Then came the fact I had used my knife and fork in the wrong hand for my entire life, and I felt the embarrassment of not using my spoon to properly twirl my pasta up into delicate bite sizes. I went home that evening, and Youtube'd table etiquette and spent hours figuring out how to do it all "right".

"So many of my peers could wait for the right roles for them; I had felt no such luxury, and in many ways, I still don't. My position is precarious and dependent on income."

In retrospect, and in my day-to-day now, I would order what I want, but in certain crowds and at certain moments, I still catch myself checking myself. Am I holding my white and red wines correctly? Am I observing the right amount of kisses to greet a new acquaintance? What I was doing then was learning to walk and talk a certain way that was not who I was, and though today, I make less effort to do so, it still bubbles up.

In my practice, of the two sistering courses of Fashion Journalism (my chosen path) and Fashion Communication at Saint Martins, just two of us had weekend jobs. I held that job down for almost three of the four years I was at university, having barely made ends meet in my first from savings I had pooled from working in a supermarket during sixth form.

I worked (often hungover) in a vintage shop just off of Brick Lane on Saturdays and Sundays and constantly felt resentment towards the fact I either had to be the first person to leave a party or suffer the consequences of a nine-hour shift the next day.

In my placement year, an opt-in additional 12 months of "gaining industry experience" via internships, I continued in my weekend work. During this time, the student loan is sliced by over half, as well as the maintenance loan.

I worked seven days a week for six months, five of which were unpaid full-time hours. Acutely aware that our course director had told us networking was vital to success, and he wasn't wrong. I never once turned down a party or a chance to meet those in my field— I was completely and utterly exhausted.

The only extra income I earned in those six months was during three seasons of fashion week, for which I was paid, but that often meant leaving the office as late as 2 am and getting back at 6 am the next day.

"What I was doing then was learning to walk and talk a certain way that was not who I was, and though today, I make less effort to do so, it still bubbles up."

I grew, in honesty, quite angry in a lot of ways. I am not afraid of hard work. I believe hard work reaps the rewards, except it didn't really feel that way. It felt like I was in a system that did not work for me or anyone like me.

I simply could not afford to "focus on my degree" or "building my network" solely, nor could I realistically stare doe-eyed and thankful to my employers for "giving me an opportunity" when that opportunity came at the total of zero.

Though, I am, to this day, very thankful and consider myself lucky to have worked with some of the incredible people I have — I look back at that period of my life now and recognise I was extremely burnt out before I had even reached my 20s—something in many ways I am still paying the price for at 25.

I grew even more resentful towards the system in my final year, where my degree requirements meant I was constantly missing work to the point where I lost my job to get my dissertation over the line.

My overdue sacking timed with Covid, so the final half of my degree was spent in lockdown, where I spent considerably less. Then came the end of the comfort blanket of student loans used to "at least pay the rent" and enter the real work world.

There were, at the time, no jobs at all. I applied for countless roles, from "emergency store workers" in supermarkets to remote writing jobs for which I was more than qualified. I had done very well in my degree; I had a first, a national newspaper title under my belt, was published, and had "paid my dues" as an intern. Still, I got nothing. Then, after a brief stint on Universal Credit, something eventually came along.

I was on less than £20k a year — in London, of all places. At the time, I was in a relationship and had managed to get cheap rent (something I have been unable to replicate since). So, I made ends meet.

But therein lies the crux "I made ends meet." I recognise this in many peers, and it has been how I have lived in London since I arrived. Make no mistake, I love it here, and I have no intentions of leaving, but the world of a career in the arts is not designed to work for people like me.

That particular post-grad job was all wrong. I was a poor fit for the role, and it utilised none of my skills, something the Founder recognised when she hired me. I was both hugely overqualified and simultaneously clueless about managing in-house logistics and stock distribution — something I never saw for myself, nor would I ever do again. I was making choices based on what would "validate" all of the hard work and soul I had poured into my chosen field, and it hurt badly when it didn't pay off.

"I went home that evening, and Youtube'd table etiquette and spent hours figuring out how to do it all 'right'."

I had taken those internships because I wanted to "prove myself" that "I could do it". I took that job to prove "I could keep living in London standing on my own two feet". Whilst so many of my peers could wait for the right roles for them, I had felt no such luxury, and in many ways, I still don't. My position is precarious and dependent on income.

I was resentful, but not of individuals. It has never been about a "person", but I still hold anger for a system ill-equipped and exclusionary in who it allows to thrive truly. How many people have not been as fortunate as I have been to have a network to pull from? Or have an ear to the ground, allowing them to hear about jobs that were never, and never are, placed on job boards?

There are whispers of change, and I see that change in action in my most recent role, but this is a cross-industry problem. A system of gratitude for unpaid work and a series of long games for well-paid jobs is rife, stifling creative output in every sector. The system requires change.

The Short Stack

One woman's experience of pursuing a career in the Arts in the Capital.

By The Stack World

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