When I decided to become a performer in my mid-twenties I was under no illusion that I would be broke. At least for a bit. If anything, I considered it a rite of passage, something that would form the backbone of meaningful interviews and a juicy biopic later in life. Ten years on and nearly a decade of being a waiter/tour guide/receptionist/comedian, I look back on my romanticisation of financial insolvency with a mix of pity and admiration.
I blame the French. Growing up in France the word I most associated with artist was starving. We were spoonfed images of men tortured by their talent living in crumbling grandeur on a cobbled street in Montmartre. The path to achieving artistic genius was clear; move to Paris, get depressed, replace food with cigarettes and live in a rustic flat with exposed floorboards. Because who needs sustenance, housing security and an income when you can feed yourself on the love of your craft? Right? RIGHT?
Wrong. Or perhaps that would have worked perfectly if I had moved to 19th-century Paris, but trying to adopt that pathway in modern-day London hasn’t been so sexy.
Take Van Gogh, the godfather of the broke artist brigade. His “Bedroom in Arles” is revered as the perfect example of immaterialism and the simplicity of life led by a bohemian artist. If you’ve not seen it let me walk you though; it’s a cosy bedroom with pastel blue walls, tastefully decorated with the artist’s own work. There’s a large window on one side and a solid oak bed on the other. It’s spacious enough to accommodate not one but two chairs and a writing desk. It’s adorable. You wouldn’t find a gem like this in a London house share for under £1,000 a month. If Van Gogh were alive now, we’d be looking at a box room in zone three furnished with broken Ikea flatpack and a mould problem. “Basement in Tottenham” just doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi…
To be fair to the French, they may have created the myth of the starving artist but at least they’ve taken steps to ensure their artists are not actually starving. If I’d opted for Paris over London, I’d now be benefiting from the status of “Intermittent du spectacle”. This is a particular type of unemployment benefit awarded to freelance creatives which tops up their income and guarantees them a living wage every month. Meanwhile, in London, professional comedians (even the successful ones you’ve seen on TV) are working day jobs whilst gigging every night just to cover their rent.
I know the idea that creatives are poor isn’t news to anyone, but there are a couple of reasons why it is at the forefront of my mind at the moment. Firstly: Edinburgh Festival. Most people associate spring with blossom, sunshine and ducklings but for comedians spring is the apex of anxiety and spreadsheets. This year I’m taking up my debut hour which is considered a necessary step for career progression whilst simultaneously being a guaranteed ticket to financial ruin. Brilliant.
Secondly, I’m turning 34. People around me are nesting, buying flats, having families and leaving London in order to facilitate this. Given my flatmate’s reaction when I floated getting a kitten, I don’t think I’ll be bringing a newborn home any time soon. I’m beginning to think that childlessness is just another sacrifice we artists are expected to make to the altar of our art. Thirdly, there is something in the ether, we’ve all smelt it. It’s a whiff of socialism mixed with a cost of living crisis. It’s pungent and angry and it’s leading to waves of industrial action. As I watch people fighting for wage increases in line with inflation, I think about comedians who haven’t seen a pay rise in a decade.
Look, I’m not complaining (I am definitely complaining). Becoming a comedian is the financial equivalent of jumping out of a plane and praying you’ll land a Netflix special before you hit the ground. I jumped, I wasn’t pushed. But does that mean I need to accept a life of under-inflation wages and unpaid opportunities?
We need to stop thinking that money is incompatible with artistic credibility because there was a time when you could cobble together a decent life in London on a precarious income but that boomer express has sailed. I applaud the Van Gogh’s of the world for whom air and art is enough but frankly I’d prefer a flat, a family and an annual holiday and I don’t think that is too much for any working individual to ask for.
Tatty Macleod is a comedian. She will be taking her debut show to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer