I was engaged to be married once, and then I wasn’t. An ordinary calamity, but pretty personally memorable. I’d expected to feel bereft, and I did, but the grubby embarrassment was a surprise. It wasn’t so much the sense of failure that nagged, as the memory of presumed entitlement. I’d always been an authentic person, and now a nice man had come along, as the general script foretold, to make permanent sense of me. And yes, he was financially comfortable. We bought wine by the case; I wore linen and leather. At first, the unearned deference with which we were habitually treated made me itch, but I wore it in until I stopped noticing it.
I slipped back into spinsterhood with barely a splash. I was invisible, mostly, and there was a terror in that; but there was a lightness, too, of which I’ve become protective. At first, it was just a relief from unwelcome scrutiny. I ate little and eccentrically, I flew to New York on a whim, read Cixous furiously on the subway, missing my stops, asking myself what I’d given up in exchange for a particularly seductive form of security. And what I could do – if anything – to avoid making that mistake again.
Now I’m partnered with a man once more, and I’d like to think it’s different this time. At least he and I agree that an actually functional heterosexual partnership is a hard-fought exception, and we stay vigilant. Still, we walk down the street looking exactly like a happy couple, securely housed and fed, replete with purchasing power and the privilege of normalcy. So if I know we’re different, and he knows we’re different, and yet that difference is utterly illegible to the broader culture, does that difference mean a damn? This question bothers me a lot. But it pressed particularly acutely when my boyfriend and I went looking for a flat. There’s nothing like tangling with a few letting agents to remind you that performing respectability isn’t optional. Securing a rental contract requires not only that you distance yourself from degenerate states of being (like single womanhood, or financial instability), but also, paradoxically, that you pretend these degenerate states don’t exist.
In short, we found that middle-class heterosexual coupledom is a kind of compulsory drag. You can’t unchoose it – at least, not without making yourself obnoxious – because your attempts to resist it are not intelligible. Why would anyone voluntarily give up a subject position that confers so many advantages? Only, I can’t help recalling that my position in this relation is parasitic on his (‘Would suit professional couple’, say the adverts), and that whatever is given can be taken away. And then, I liked the indeterminacy of spinsterhood. I miss it. You can be saggy and unmade when no one’s looking, which is most of the time. Waiting to become what any given situation requires, and in between, provisional. As a woman alone, I am slower to be served in shops and bars, but people’s gazes, when they look at me, are open. I prefer it to the smug, foreclosing certainty that greets me when I am out with a man.
I think it’s the imperative behind the approval that’s so unsettling. When I’m re-confirmed in my legitimacy, it reminds me how many people it excludes, and how fragile it is. But if you decline to use that leverage, you can’t be interpreted at all, and tenancy agreements don’t go to unknown quantities. ‘You want to tell a story with your application letter,’ one letting agent told us. ‘Personalise it: what you do for fun, how long you’ve been together.’ We came to loathe the brokers rather than the landlords, whom, after all, we never saw. Their legitimacy does not have to be performed; it inheres in title deeds.
Rank-and-file letting agents are not wealthy. They rarely live in their own beats, unless with aging parents in paid-off homes. ‘I grew up here,’ several of them told us, ‘but who can afford it anymore?’ They seem willing to go to quite extreme lengths to avoid being tenants themselves, which should tell us something. They don’t, as a group, abound in cultural capital, but their job is to demand the performance of it from others. Surely it isn’t them we are supposed to be fooling – they must know most Londoners are stressed about making rent. It’s as if we’re all part of the same elaborate ritual to reinforce the myth that everyone is rich. And of course it helps grease the wheels of one of the most unregulated economies in Britain. We paid £600 in admin fees to secure the one-bed flat we finally moved into. We didn’t argue; we learned early that showing any flicker of alarm marks you out as the wrong sort of person. We also waited an agonising month for the landlord to co-sign the contract. In that interval, if anyone who looked like a better bet came along, we’d be out. The agent wouldn’t explain the hold-up, he just kept telling us it was perfectly normal, and nothing to worry about. Why wouldn’t the landlord choose us, after all? There was nothing wrong with us – was there?
In dealings with letting agents one must project perfect affluence and ease, however bitterly one might be feeling, just then, the limits of one’s power. The strain of the performance feels cruel; deliberate. The image of its opposite is the poster campaign for primelocation.com, a chi-chi property website, exhorting commuters to ‘find the home you deserve’. The photographs are all interiors, mostly in close-up, a calculated blend of the intimate and the ostentatious. Crackling fires, glossy dogs, kids’ lunchboxes ranged on a granite countertop. It has to be interiors – the little luxuries known only to those inside. It doesn’t matter that they are obviously artificial. They are stage sets denoting, rather than recording, the home life of those who have made it. They are wealth as the total absence of humiliation.
The emotional labour of letting and buying is in pretending you deserve something until you believe it. Striding toward the next open-house, shoulders back and low, with a man on one arm and a Barbour slung over the other. Projecting wealth as convincingly as you can is just part of the deal in London now – in housing yourself and in life more generally. Developers fit their residential blocks with separate back alley entrances for their quota of ‘affordable’ flats. Westminster police are reviving the 1824 Vagrancy Act to forcibly move homeless people along, while in Hackney they are issuing £100 on-the-spot fines to those found sleeping rough. In this city, it is now officially antisocial behaviour to be visible while poor.
The millenials in the middle are trying to rebrand precarity as resourcefulness. Live on a canal boat. Commute from a charming cottage in Essex or Buckinghamshire. Squat legally in an empty house, wallpaper drooling from the walls while you repel vandals and scoop up junk mail and cling on in a postcode you couldn’t otherwise afford. Bars and food vans sprout from the husks of long-closed post offices and fire stations. How are the workers at these pop-ups paid? Where do they go when the fling is over? We tack fast, like shoals of fish, toward nourishment, away from danger. Glittering and winking, like it’s a game, until we run up against the lumbering certainties of those with the real money: it’s mighty hard for a zero-hour-contract waitress to pass an income check. This magical picture-book London, these jack-in-the-box temporary amusements. The youthful rich build junkyard forts in the rubble of once-functional cities while the poor get pushed out to where there’s nothing – no facilities, no family, no friends. I would rather be unintelligible to a system like this than be approved by it. Until my tenancy agreement runs out, when I will be scrambling once more to persuade whomever needs persuading that I am respectable.
Ideology comes into view the moment you feel misaddressed. It’s invisible as long as you’re treated as you expect to be treated because, at those times, it fits you like a second skin. I often felt misaddressed when I was engaged. I capered and mugged beside this older, respected man – me, the eternal-student noodle-eater – who could buy all the books in the shop he wanted, or both colours of a designer shirt he liked. I enjoyed the carnivalesque silliness of being taken for that kind of person, until one day it just became normal. I forgot that carnival is only the dominant order in temporary reverse. That you are implicated in any system you reap the advantages of, even intermittently, even if you take it as a joke.
The hypnotic appeal of the hetero-bliss myth is evident in the myriad abuses committed in its name. I’ve had friends and their cats on my floor for weeks at a time, escaping abusive husbands. Others who texted from roachy guesthouses or bare-bulb flats, saying they’d left, and they hoped they’d survive this, and their family might one day start being supportive instead of telling them to ‘give him another chance’. I had a boyfriend who hocked my stuff for weed while threatening to kill himself if I ‘abandoned’ him; another who needed to keep three or four other women on the hook because ‘no one woman can be everything’ (we’re defective like that); one who snapped suddenly, three years in, and started whispering in my ear that I was broken, evil, mad, who kept me home from work and away from my friends so he could enumerate my sins over and over. So if the fiction of hetero-partnered bliss is more sinister to me personally than other oppressive fictions, it is because I’ve seen its hypocrisy at close range. But respectability politics of any stripe gives me the cold shivers these days – especially when I’m its beneficiary. It only reminds me of the times I was outside the magic circle of protection, and how many people are outside it right now.
I’m back on the affluent familist pedestal again now, at least when I’m out with my new man. I no longer find the misaddressing funny. And yet would we have the courage – it would need my boyfriend’s collaboration – to reject that deference every time it came along? We’re talking full-on relationship situationism, anticipating and ducking every approving stereotype before it can be bolted onto us. Only to piss off and confuse a functionary class who have enough to put up with, god knows, aside from us. Knowing we’d never dare try it in any transaction that really mattered. Knowing, too, that it could legitimately be construed as an insult to those who are not given such an easy pass.
And after all, we are not iron-clad. Our cultural capital is most of the capital we’ve got. We trowelled it on in our application letters – fake expensive sporting hobbies, international vacay meet-cute, the whole kale smoothie. The lettings agents responded well, even as we felt the only-just-adequacy of our income checks as a constant Damocles sword. We felt oily and creepy and weird about the whole thing. But it worked out. For us? This time? It worked out.
The only clear picture you can get of all this is a kind of double exposure. You have to hold in your mind the simultaneous awareness that you are outrageously lucky and insulated compared to some; and that you are being squeezed, that things are shit, that you are genuinely scared. I’m a casual-job(s)-having middle-class woman. I’m doing fine right now, but if my stably employed boyfriend tires of me before I find a permanent job, I’m back on the ropes. No one will wish me ill if that happens, but they won’t be able to do much to help me, either. And the strain of performing respectability then will be very, very much sharper. All this is simply true, so why not say so? Only by keeping those two pictures superimposed – the one in which you’re lucky, and the one in which you’re vulnerable – does a ghost image appear of the third and usually absent term: the super rich who benefit from everyone else’s differing degrees of precarity. Who can press on every structural inequality, fan every little trash fire of bigotry, to shore up their own advantage all the more.
So what do I do? I can, at least, own up to my hypocrisy – my willingness to cling hard to whatever unfair advantage I’ve got – in preference to buying into the myth that everyone in Britain could be ‘comfortable’ if they weren’t self-defeating lumpen fuckups. I’d rather admit that I’m lucky, and that my good luck is very, very fragile. The only way to try and even the score is to proceed from that truth, even if it leads to outrageous, dismaying conclusions. I’ll take the headaches and the wooziness, the stomach-dropping flashes of fear; I never want to stop seeing double.