Entry #7: Chelsea
Chelsea is part of the smallest borough in London. Its most notable event is an extravagant five-day flower garden show displayed on the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital. Along with 157,000 visitors, the annual event is often attended by members of the British Royal Family.
A borough with royal status and a love for horticulture? Très posh.
Next door in Kensington Gardens is the royal residence, Kensington Palace, where Empress of India, Queen Victoria, was born and Prince Harry and Megan Markle currently reside. The streets connecting Kensington and Chelsea are filled with school children and daycare centers.
There are toddlers in white and blue plaid outfits quietly playing on one field. A group of older girls in red and brown uniforms learning cricket on another field. And in front of bus stops teenage boys who have yet to hit their growth spurt huddle and shout nonsensically over one another.
The high streets are equally as noisy. Here, chicken shops are replaced by Five Guys and artisan cafes, the corner shops are high street or designer stores, and the nail salons just look much nicer. I sit in the square outside of South Kensington station and watch the women that walk by. They are older, their bodies thin and long, their grey hair sparse and soft. They are drenched in perfume and wear floral cotton blouses and linen pants, a light touch of accessories - an antique hairpin, emerald earrings, a tiny diamond on their pinkie.
I think about a shirt I recently bought and destroyed at work. I was cleaning when I accidentally sprayed bleach and stained the entire right side of my upper torso. I tell my friend how annoyed I am and she laughs, “First world problems, go buy a new one.” She’s right, I think, it’s just a plain grey tee, hardly 10 quid from Zara.
But five coffees make up for the purchase of that one shirt and five of those shirts are worth one month’s electricity bill. A single hour at work will pay off for that one shirt and in that hour, I will have used over forty liters of milk to make god knows how many coffees. Not to mention, the shirt purchased will have probably made under some questionable labor conditions too so it’s quintessentially a system of who gets to screw who over first.
As I continue walking, I notice that one thing all rich areas in London seem to have in common: house renovation. For some reason, every second house in Kensington, Belgravia, or Chelsea, is being decorated and redecorated. If you step into the smaller lanes and walk through Whitehead’s Grove or St. Loo’s Avenue, you will discover beautiful traditional mews houses and iconic Tudor homes. You can hear the low hum of a car running. The only people in sight are construction workers, gardeners, and cleaners, but they move quietly. Not a single bird sings. It’s Edward Scissorhands’ perfect pastel suburban neighborhood.
And I suppose it makes sense. If you can build your dream house, why wouldn’t you? If you can become your dream self, why wouldn’t you? I snap a few shots of these picturesque homes, but I am too caffeinated to be here and my thoughts are racing, scatty at first then all at once, deep-diving into a vortex of self-pity.
I am tired of my hands smelling like cleaning product after work. I am sick of scrubbing coffee stains from my shoes. I never want to see a mop again.
There are three types of wages in the UK - minimum, living, and the undiscussed. Albeit, paychecks are rarely a point of discussion amongst colleagues or friends, but there is something to be said about the people living in London who work low paying jobs and the ones who hit the five-figure mark and never look back again. The minimum wage for people under the age of 24 is £7.70 per hour; that increases to a whopping £8.21 once you hit your quarter-life crisis. The London Living Wage is £10.55 per hour, but in 2018, findings showed that 1 in 5 employees were being paid below living wage. But London also offers an important cultural scene and therefore, perhaps the hustle is worth it.
During the 19th Century, many artists lived in Chelsea, including writer Oscar Wilde. As author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s reputation was held in high esteem and his network large. The writer was at his literary peak when charged with gross indecency with men (i.e. Lord Alfred Douglas) and sent to two years imprisonment. His accomplishments no longer received praise, nor was there any hope for future work to materialize. He died in poverty three years after his release.
It’s worth mentioning that Wilde strongly believed that one must create art for the sake of art. By the age of 23, Wilde was in debt several times and his spending on clothes, music, and china finally led him into bankruptcy at 40. Creative people get a terrible rep for being bad with the money aspect of things. But Wilde also knew, as most artists discover, that social currency is part of the business. He may have died without a penny to his name, but the favors he called upon in his final years provided him with lodging, food, and petty cash for booze.
Today, that prevailing assumption continues. Artists presumptuously create for the sake of art. It may be a difficult financial strain, but if you love your craft enough you’ll make it. It’s always exciting to have the next project lined up, but a lot easier to maintain the illusion of being productive than it is to actually do meaningful work and on top of it, get paid. Particularly, when social currency remains a big player in the luck to success game.
The reality is that our creative sector’s current workforce is predominately made up freelancers, with the ridiculous proliferation of unpaid work becoming the norm. People working in creative industries are portrayed as resilient, resourceful, and sometimes, power-hungry. Perhaps this is why people are expected to do entry-level work over and over again with no foreseen payment or progress. At a job interview, you might mention the projects you were part of, maybe flash some names of the people you worked with, but no one asks: did you do it as a favor? How many favors have you been doing this month? And you are left wondering whether this next gig will be a favor too.
But I am less concerned about how I make my means to an end, and more about what I am teaching my sisters. We are ten years apart which means they are at the critical age of learning how to deal with money. Both my sisters are creative, but when asked what professions they would like to have in the future, they answer with what they think is the correct answer and not what they want. The approach I take towards building my career is under their scrutiny, and unlike most adults, they’ll fire the uncomfortable questions: what do you actually do? Is that a real job? But why aren’t you working in an office? How much money do you make? Oh, so when are you going to get married? Are you going to work when you have babies? How are you going to do that?
I wonder what the perception of money is to the kids at elementary schools in Chelsea. What are they being taught and who is teaching them? It’s ironic being in a city where you are able to walk up the royal family's home and still fish your pockets for change in order to get to your own home. There are these strange contrasts in London, stark inequalities that lie side by side and we all sort of just get by with it.
There is no denying it, no matter where you live, our world is a material one. Money affects our time, energy and relationships with people. Despite its overwhelming control over our lives, no one likes to talk about it. Why?