You begin reading a book from the library. It’s actually four books: Modern Chinese History. Four volumes of tiny print and blurry black and white photographs. The days are short and grey when you start and by the time you’ve finished the evenings are bright and hazy.
After a while, having no money becomes liberating. You see all these things being pounded into people through the television and internet – things they have to buy – and you just kind of shake your head. You wouldn’t buy them now even if you had the money to.
You don’t have the money to buy them. Shaking your head like a wise old man.
You shake your head the same way Chiang Kai-shek must have shaken his head when he arrived in Taiwan after fleeing China. “You just came from the mainland?” people would have said to him. “What’s going on over there?”
This was in 1948.
He would have just shaken his head.
Someone you know actually spends money on a car or a phone or clothes. They have a car. Something which costs thousands of pounds and will continue to cost them thousands of pounds, forever. Just to move their body from one place to another. You walk or cycle everywhere. They get a new phone with all kinds of crazy features which you don’t give a shit about. They buy clothes and base their purchases on things like colour, style, cut, brand name and quality. You buy your clothes based on what part of the body they cover. I need trousers because my trousers have huge holes in them which I can no longer sew up, you think. So you buy a pair of trousers; or you buy some cloth shaped so as to cover the bottom half of your body.
Henry Pu Yi was the last emperor of Manchuria. Aged eight he was whisked away from his mother and old men began bowing their foreheads to the ground every time he walked past them. He had no friends; he lived in a palace with only old men, eunuchs, for company.
You feel a secret kind of pride in the way you’ve opted out of buying the same useless shit as everyone else. Your lack of money becomes not a failure but an incredibly canny lifestyle choice: a pure protest against the grinding scrabble of modern life. You walk through your days (literally, you walk) with the serene glow of a holy man or a penitent nun. Then your heating breaks down. Then someone steals your bike. Then you get a gas bill. The gas bill contains figures so outlandish, so beyond the very furthest reaches of possibility, it becomes a little story you can tell your friends. My gas bill was xxx, you tell people. You don’t get the chance to tell the story that often; people, friends, only seem to gather together to spend money on drink or food, neither of which you can afford.
You have literally no money.
You eat your lunch from plastic containers and feel a pious resentment for the idiots who buy stuff from the places near your work. Idiots who earn a lot more than you and eat zesty, mouthwatering portions of carefully-prepared gourmet food for their lunch each day. There are idiots who earn about the same as you who spend money on food too; they sink grey, flaky pies into their gullets. These people suck tins of luminous acidic drink into their craw. They eat potato and corn fried into uniform orange shapes which are covered in edible dust. There are people who earn less than you – somewhere, there must be. Perhaps a housebound paraplegic who stuffs envelopes for a few hours a day, someone unaware of the statutory benefits their situation would make them eligible for. Perhaps such a person exists in the farthest-flung rural reaches of the UK; somewhere in Kincardine or Herefordshire, someone who lives a long, long way away from the closest outpost of state control. You wonder what such a person could possibly eat for lunch.
Sun Yat Sen was one of the few figures revered by Nationalists and Communists alike.
Often the times of day at which you eat your lunch are nowhere near any hour which could be called, lunch. Eleven o’clock at night; four in the morning. Hours no-one would ever eat a meal if they had the choice. You are so keen for hours at work that any ideas of your own free time, of normal human patterns of eating and sleeping, have disappeared. It’s a surprise to discover that you can start work at nine in the evening or three in the morning or three in the afternoon, and it’s still work, and your body still does it. You realise now that the routine drilled into you as a child of waking up in the morning and sleeping at nighttime wasn’t some immutable law of the universe. These chronological imperatives can, it turns out, be fairly safely ignored. As someone with very little earning power or economic clout you – well, there are two ways of looking at it. You could say that you have been liberated from the fairly unimaginative way most people work, eat and sleep. Or you could say that working, eating and sleeping like this is another alarming indicator of just how far you are falling out of normal society. You are given shifts starting at one o’clock in the morning on a Saturday and you are happy to have the work. You are assigned a shift beginning at seven in the evening on a Sunday and you are happy to have the work.
You are given a double shift over a bank holiday weekend and you are happy to have the work.
The amount you owe skirls away from you like an invisible string tied to the top of your head.
What if, in the future everyone has a robot to do their work for them. But if you’re poor, like you are, you’ll have a low-spec robot which is only capable of doing low-paid menial work. Rich people will have robots which are capable of being lawyers and doctors. There is a flaw – a deep flaw – somewhere in in the logic of this whimsical thinking, but you don’t want to spoil it by figuring it out. You imagine your robot coming back from his/your job, exhausted and cranky.
You are aware that such a state of affairs is some way off.
Yuan Shi-kai had designs on the Korean peninsula.
Without money you’re a ghost. You are nobody, for good or for bad. There are some perks of being broke, chiefly the glorious irrelevance of advertising. Seeing adverts you feel like a Catholic priest hearing about messy divorces. You feel like a vegetarian hearing about some stomach-churning bacteria which fester in bacon. The only companies who want to know you are the ones you owe money to. There’s a girl you talk to sometimes who comes into your work but without money, what can you do? Dinner plus drinks equals at least eighty pounds. That money will feed you for a month. Your friends move ever further away, separated from you by money: by your lack of money. They seem now to live uproarious lives of constant celebration. Wednesday evening trips to Nepalese marshmallow bars. Weekends away at Iberian yoga dojos. Friday night odysseys to heart-piercingly intimate or primally visceral performances put on by artists whose music touches the souls of all who are present. You experience none of these things because they cost too much money, ie any money at all. When you had money all your friends ever wanted to do was drink coffee and watch television boxsets. Now they live the lives of Saudi princes. They live like Russian oil heirs. They live like féted Swiss fashion designers.
When you had money all they ever wanted to do was go to the same joyless pub once a week.
Chiang Kai-shek woke up at 5 every morning to do exercises. He shot a man dead while the man was in a hospital bed because they had had an argument over politics. He never spoke to his first wife again after he met someone else he would rather have been married to.
Still, he was better than Mao.
You spend quite a lot of time reading in your bedroom.
After a while you begin to realise that this isn’t some temporary adjournment. You are not just waiting for your entrance to a shining new life of money and pleasure which will inevitably roll around. This is your life now: hour-long walks to work and holes in your shoes. Your mother gives you fifty pounds for your birthday. The money evaporates on some joyless administrative obligation, swallowed by overdraft charges or electricity bills or council taxes.
You’re not that bothered. Possibly you don’t want to think too much about how you should be more bothered than you are.
Zhang Zhongchang was known as the dogmeat general. He was named after a card game. He was famous for his three “don’t knows”: he didn’t know how much money he owed, how many wives he had or how many men he commanded.
The library remains your huge, Edwardian, red-brick secret. It astonishes you that the place exists. You never mention it to any of your friends on the infrequent occasions when you see them. It is incomprehensible that such a place exists. Sometimes you read local newspaper articles about proposed cuts to public services. You scan down the articles in a panic. Healthcare, fine. Education, who cares. Sports & leisure facilities – that one gives you a little cardiac flutter of worry. Then, Libraries. Seeing it in black & white sends a thick ferret of fear thumping through your chest and down into your stomach. You would probably, literally, kill yourself if all the libraries were closed down.
The libraries remain open. Logic tells you that encouraging friends and acquaintances to use them would help safeguard their future. You know, somehow, that that is not the case. The library must be guarded, it must be kept safe. It must hide in plain sight from those who go places and do things and consume.
You have literally no money.