It was almost completely dark and the air was cold enough to chop your nose off. Spirals of cotton wool seeped out of my mouth, immediately regretting their escape. A thin wedge of light tip toed out of the kitchen window.
My family were sat eating one of Dad’s classic “heart-clogger” Saturday fry ups: meat, chips and a healthy slap of Sports Report. I used to love that stuff, but that night, even the warm smell of guilty pleasure wasn’t enough to bring me in.
I was out in the back garden, a sponge football at my feet — the kind my dad wrongly predicted wouldn’t be able to smash up his greenhouse. I looked down at the round thing and visualised exactly what I needed to do, dragging the ball back and chipping the ball up into the air.
I curled my toes, held my breath and thought of dinner. The ball span off my foot and rolled away to the bottom of the garden. I trudged after it and tried again. I just had to keep going.
Somewhere, bubbling away, was the belief that if I just stuck at it and worked hard enough, eventually I’d nail it; if I just kept kicking the ball, eventually it would do what I wanted. Everything and everyone wanted me to give up, but I just had to keep going. I had to keep believing. I had to keep working.
That’s something that’s bred into us I think: Hollywood, religion, history and society implore us to believe that if we just keep working hard, eventually all will come good. And we find comfort in that, I think. We find meaning. We love to hear the success stories. As a wannabe writer, I delight in the story of JK Rowling, who spent years slaving away on manuscripts, even when few others believed she would see reward. She just refused to give up:
I never did get any good at kick ups — in truth, I never wanted it badly enough. But I’ve always tried to keep that fire burning and not quit when things don’t go my way.
Earlier this year I applied for a Master’s at King’s College London and University College London. I was surprised to be accepted on both programmes (I eventually plumped for King’s), but was immediately faced with the reality that I couldn’t afford it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, why apply for a Master’s that you’re not able to pay for? But it wasn’t the £10,000 fees that I was worried about — I was certain that I could somehow scrape the money together. Debt is a twenty-something’s best friend, after all. No, what I was unable to surmount was the £19,000 a year I needed to earn for the privilege of having a girlfriend from another country. In order for my five-year relationship to continue, I needed to prove future earnings above that amount. I needed to find a full-time job that was happy for me to study a Master’s at the same time. I didn’t and so the Master’s went out the window.
And this is where I reckon the hard-work mantra falls to its knees. The Master’s I could save for; I could pick up a second job and shelve my social life and I could feel the satisfaction of having really worked for it. It might take me a couple of years, but I could really earn it if I wanted. But relationships, according to the government, cannot be saved through hard work. People can work as hard as they want, but if their earnings fall short of 19 grand, they’re cooked. They would need to change jobs and potentially career paths to be able to be with the person they love. No matter how hard someone earning £18,500 works, it won’t be enough to keep their relationship going.
This is why I was so frustrated this week to receive an email from the Home Office in response to a petition I had signed, telling me:
“We welcome those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, work hard and make a contribution. But family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense and family migrants must be able to integrate if they are to play a full part in British life.”
I understand this refers to the person coming to the country, but if them, then why not those already here? For those of us trying to bring our loved ones to the UK, our hard work only counts if we’re in a well paid job — not if we’re on the minimum wage (or even the living wage). I’m fortunate enough that I work in a job the market deems worthy of more than £19,000 a year, but there are plenty of hospital workers, teaching assistants and charity workers who don’t even get close. Try as they might, as hard as they’re willing to work — as hard as their partners are willing to work — it won’t be enough. Their relationship will have to be lived at a distance, or else terminated.
Hard work has been and is the backbone of a democratic, socially mobile world. Nothing should be denied to us because of the amount we earn or hope to earn. We should be free to love and work as we please, whether that be teaching, banking, cleaning, or chasing a ball around a park.