What's the worst place you've ever stayed in?
What's the worst job you ever had? How poor have you been? We could have a competition. Me, I've had an irregular life, and when you don't plan ahead you have to learn to live with doss-houses, flop-houses, fleapits, kennels, caravans and caves. I say caves – there was a cave once. In Sussex, near Littlehampton. It sounded then – and sounds now – more interesting than it was. A hole in a small cliff, with no room to stand up, and when you lit a fire in the back, the place filled with smoke so you couldn't breathe – or even see – in the space. That didn't last long because living in a cave is actually very boring. Once you've cleaned it there's nothing to do except look out and eat the strawberry yoghurt bought from M&S.
There was once a bedroom in a house at the top of an inner-city gulley, cantilevered out over the motorway. The bed consisted of a frame and springs sitting in the corner where the floorboards had rotted away. I lifted the carpet and used it as mattress and blanket, lying on it and folding it over me for comfort and warmth. You could look down through the bedsprings into the morning traffic 100ft below. Rent: £6 a week. Not a lot of money even then.
Five years later, I'd got to London where I slept on a camp bed in the office, faute de mieux. The attic office, looking out across the rooftops behind Bond Street, had a sink and tea-making facilities but nothing for bathing – this was before offices had showers. But there were public baths in Soho still.
So, up early to disassemble the camp bed and conceal it in a filing cabinet. March across Regent Street around the level of Carnaby Street to a reminder of what life had been like – a hot bath in a cubicle you could rent for 50p. That was for people who did not have bathrooms. Then a multi-fat fried breakfast in one of those little Italian places with the steamed-up windows.
Such was low life, as life went, in the 1980s. I suppose I was homeless by definition. I can't say I particularly disliked it; but then we'd often been camping in my childhood years, it was an urban jungle adventure.
It was watching the tuition fees debate that sparked off this line of reminiscence. The worst job I ever had, the worst place I ever lived. David Blunkett had accused the Tories of being unable to understand what it is to be poor. That caused a number of sharp protests from the other side. There are some new Tories who've been brought up in overcrowded houses, who'd left lousy schools at the age of 15 – you don't have to be Labour to know what early starts and crummy lodgings are.
In fact, those crushing factory jobs in my manual past – plastic injection, vegetable canning – made the holidays they paid for the more vivid. And yes, the holidays that have a halo round them turn out to have been the poorest. Travelling not in the library silence of business class but by bus with the live chickens and the buskers.
Truth to tell, the worst job I ever had was the best: shovelling the rubbish pile at Covent Garden back in the days when the market was there. The pleasure of clearing a 9ft-high pile of vegetables in four or five hours, the orderly effect of it, I can still feel that and sometimes still smell it. I say it was the best job – I was a kid, the money was welcome, the hours were short but the satisfaction was very real. In parentheses, the worst job I ever had was starting an advertising agency – but that doesn't tick any boxes in the indices of deprivation.
A decade later, in the summer of '79, I can't have made more than £200. It was on the other side of the world and I rented a room in a house backing into a vast, under-visited hilltop park that went in an arc round the top of the city. Much of that hot, sunny summer we spent naked, playing chess, exercising, writing and very occasionally working (we were actors). Two of us had girlfriends and they had jobs. They'd come home after work, take off their clothes and cook dinner over a gas ring. They put on aprons to cook, and that also created a particular effect. That's something you remember as the years go by, not the 30p worth of mince you'd managed to buy for dinner but the cries of semi-naked girls as hot fat spattered in the pan ...
Student squalor, boarding school squalor, young migrant squalor. But was it poverty? Not really because we were passing through. It's unlikely I'd still be feeling the halo effect of my Covent Garden job were I still doing it.
And the companions from those dumps and slums – what happened to them? Did this one end up crouching over his one throbbing vein? That one in jail? The other slumped in an underpass with copper coins in his cap? As it turns out, one is the chef de cabinet of a supra-national institution regulating world trade; another ... this will turn into boasting. We all made our way in the bourgeois world.
By every civic measure we were living in poverty but it was never lived like that, such is the subjective experience of having very little money. And my mother, born and brought up in a flat in Southwark – she would have given you the sharp end of her tongue if you'd accused her of living in poverty.
She had left school when she was 15. Her mother took her out as soon as her father died and sent her to work, charged her rent (as mothers did in those days). She never missed a day's work all through the Depression and while she got by on amazingly little – she always saved. Determined as she was not to end up like her parents, in a flat in Southwark, she put money into her bond, week by week. And for all her short schooling she knew more Shakespeare than I did, had more music, realised more what education could do than I ... I who earned more, spent more, wasted more than she.