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Post-Script 2012: A Personal Statement on Precarity

When I finally board my flight from London to Los Angeles later this month, I’ll have completed a decade-long journey of sorts. I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years ensconced in Europe, after a 3-4-year long stint in New England, routine trips back to California and a brief sojourn in South America. University and employment structured the vast majority of my experiences in this time (with a difficult intermission 5 years ago) and they have shaped my world-view, personality and predilections accordingly.

This latest move, with its logistical nightmares, isn’t a new experience, then. It’s part and parcel of my story the last 10 years–the constant moving around; the transportation of my possessions and person, in boxes and bags and planes, across a few thousand miles. In some ways, it’ll be one more roll of an all-too familiar pair of dice. It’s been an admittedly charmed and privileged decade–not always easy (hardly so, in fact) but almost always exciting. But privilege, or at least a certain kind of privilege, comes with its own drawbacks. For a kid who’s not had everything in life, but one blessed by random chance and hard-working parents, I’ve not had so much to complain about. I’ve ‘lived’ more than most, and feel I’ve genuinely learned from these experiences. That progress of sorts creates in turn a series of expectations: that things, even if they don’t always get better, might at least turn that bit more interesting; perhaps new opportunities will present themselves, maybe even in a new language or environment.

Yet, where my past has good memories to commend it–the future, never realisable, I anticipate mostly with a mix of dread and indifference–my present is defined by a singular banality–a cæsura in the progress of my life. 2012 has been a torrid year. A few brutal personal snags dominated the first half of the year. The second half has seen the final, precipitous decline in my material conditions. I have been rendered unemployed. I am an immigrant whose presence in the United Kingdom is, in one swift stroke, no longer tenable. I am financially in as parlous a position as one could be–with eye-watering debts–and there’s little prospect of that changing any time soon. As a consequence, I’ve eaten less well than I should have, my health and mental well-being have been erratic, my sleep patterns are ungovernable, and my confidence (emotional, intellectual, social, sexual) has taken a monumental battering.

The latter half of this year has been one long and dreary attempt to keep ‘the basics’ trickling in–a roof over my head, food on the table, a mild set of amusements to sustain my moods. London is financially exacting, even for the most diligent saver. I was never much of the latter, and since 2011 have found it well-nigh impossible to save anyway: I’ve been paying off my (second) degree, among other things, since the spring of last year. I would have been sorted out on this front by this July had the news of my present unemployment (and the concomitant need to save for the transition between having and not-having a wage) not intervened.

Had I not lost my job, I would have (ironically) been in the position to change career paths, as I’d long planned, this autumn–and done so from a position of strength. The best laid plans have a funny way of becoming unstuck.

For a variety of reasons family have not been able to help me to anywhere near the degree of assistance I’ve required to keep the show on the road. I’m returning to Los Angeles precisely because I don’t have the resources, job or legal status to live the life I’ve lived here, in London, for the past 6 years. For an educated, not-so-dim, decently-travelled and sometimes optimistic man–one rather fond of this grimy, exhausting, exciting city I call home–this Present is neither edifying nor illuminating. It just is, grimly.

***

We’re usually only vaguely aware of the precariousness of our economic lives, given how far removed we are from the forces shaping them. In a few concrete ways, my present travails are very much tied to the global events of the last 4 years. I’m still paying for my degree here in the UK thanks in large part to a credit crunch in the US. I was unable to secure anything like the student loan money I needed to pay off both my living expenses and my degree during my third and final year at uni. I was initially rejected for funding even my second-year, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I was eventually able to secure most (if not all) of what I needed then, though in the follow-up crisis a year later I failed to get even half of that amount. The credit crunch wasn’t an abstract event for me.

I spent three rewarding years (2009 onward) working for a start-up company. Less rewarding was my (American) employer’s efforts to swim against the tide of recession, austerity and a tenuous economic recovery, as it attempted to expand its client base in Europe. I had my first scare employment-wise last year, when my company was bought out by a larger firm demanding swingeing cuts. My job and skills were spared then. I planned an exit strategy tied to paying off my degree and searching for a new career path. I accelerated the payment timetable to allow me to save-up cash. Time was of the essence.

In the end, there wasn’t enough.

***

I first moved to London (not my first time living in the UK, having previously lived in Edinburgh) at the height of the economic boom. Immigration of ‘economically-desirous’ migrants was still encouraged officially, though the issue was slowly worming its way into the public consciousness, thanks to the tireless efforts of the tabloid press. As the Great Recession got underway, the mood quickly changed. I’ve had my share of anti-immigrant experience over the last year, though–as an American–with its one peculiar twist. As an example, my sister (also studying at the time) and I endured the spectacle of an English plumber working on our boiler complaining about foreigners stealing British jobs. (Thanks, Gordon Brown.) When I noted that he was speaking to two immigrants, he responded that we were ‘different.’ Presumably, he meant because we were Americans. He probably assumed, correctly, that we were students. He probably didn’t assume that I was employed.

Since the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010 the hardened public atmosphere has found expression in government policy. Despite living here for more than five years, I’m not eligible for indefinite leave to remain. I’ve had a slew of job offers in the last few months, two of which fell by the wayside under frustrating circumstances, the rest quickly being withdrawn when they realised I needed a new visa. I never applied for a post-study work visa (I wasn’t eligible initially, thanks to that degree fiasco mentioned earlier) and as of last year I couldn’t apply for one anyway–it was abolished by the present government. Short of me finding a job offering sponsorship, in the context of government efforts to reduce net migration, switching into a new visa category was never going to be easy.

In a very real sense, my options have been steadily closed-off by the sort-of policies or events routinely reported in the news, but which many of us often (understandably) consider exogenous to our day-to-day life. Sometimes, however, one’s life instantiates the bulletins on the 10 o’clock news, or the special panels on Newsnight, or the heated topic of debate on Question Time. Suddenly, your life finds resonance in those stories usually experienced only at arms-length: both participant in and disinterested spectator to the reality under-girding the printed or televised word. The awareness that you are not alone in your travails is rarely reassuring.

I’ve always been somewhat moody, swinging between stormy emotions, but I’ve usually been redeemed by an odd sort-of optimism–or perhaps, a positive fatalism. As bad as things are, they can always get worse; just get over it and move on. But depression–the remorseless consequence of a chemical imbalance in the brain–has a way of overturning our positive, motivating instincts. Whatever its proximate biological causes, its depredations parallel and complement my social degradation. The outside world, it seems, has intervened all too brutally in my life.

***
Depression manifests itself with its own peculiar, sequential flare.

During the day, the banal demands of daily life drag me out of bed (late), to scrounge around half-heartedly for food, unmotivated to shower and get dressed and get out the door. I eventually recall things are shit and embark on an increasingly cack-handed search for new employment (…and, thanks to the determinative power of the wage-labour relationship in a modern capitalist society, a new sense of purpose in life.) Even if I could fall back on state benefits of any sort, here or in the United States, I don’t know how I or anyone could ever consider and/or portray such a state of affairs as anything but grim and thwarting. You continue through the motions, hands tied behind your back, because you must–proceed to Go, forget the £200–but there’s nothing but an inexorable sense of disappointment by day’s end.

By night, the subdued, tightly-compressed despair unwinds. Insomnia–that most faithful if least forgiving of mistresses–keeps me glued to the web, to the television; anything other than my bed and pillow. The mind takes flight, nervously, trying–failing–desperately to think of anything other than my present. This rambling blog post is a consequence of such sleep delayed.

I don’t need to drink to wallow or try to forget, though I’ve found myself doing a lot of both. I have other playthings to push me along–not exactly backward, unquestionably not decisively forward. To borrow liberally from Cyril Connolly’s description of postwar British austerity, ‘Here the ego is at half-pressure…’ Nothing happens for hours. That is until, by chance at the weekend, I find myself inebriated; the floodgates finally give way. Only then do I experience some release, in all its spluttering, pathetic lack of glory. Behind the four walls of my room, dignity becomes indignity; joy, sadness; and perhaps for the first time in my adult life, pride dissolves into shame.

Life goes on. I’m fortunate enough to have a place to turn to, a family to have me back. I have this lingering (though hardly irrepressible) conviction that things should get better. I also know that I am luckier than many in the West, far more so than most in the developing world. This is barely comforting–how can I be comforted by the greater indignities, to any degree, suffered by others?

This evening–now, at the cusp of a move I’m shattered to have to undertake, in circumstances now entirely out of my control–that comfort is less impressive still. It’s as though I’ve been spat back out by Life, shot back to where I started as a teenager.

Tonight, this morning, I feel I’ve wasted the last 10 years of my life.