The first thing you need to know about me is that I’m not one of them. I’m not rich. I’ve never panned the planet for gold, made myself giddy gambling millions on how high the cost of sugar can go, or inherited a 5000-acre estate because of an ancestry that could be traced back to William the Conqueror.
I grew up in a two up, two down house as part of a post war estate in a small town city. I was raised by a single parent and went to the local comprehensive school down the road. In my child’s eye view, rich people lived in a different part of town, in houses that weren’t attached to their neighbours. Such people went abroad for holidays and had two cars. They had curtains that rose in a ruche at the touch of a button.
Going to state school never felt like being a second best option. It certainly didn’t preclude us benefiting from inspiring and talented teachers, or from applying to the best universities. But it was only on reaching Oxford that I saw how near universal a fee-paying education had been. I also realised not everyone had been selected because of intelligence or ability. There was always a place to be had for the child of a particularly generous benefactor, moved by inexplicable generosity to buy the college in question a new library.
But this was back in the early 1990s, an era almost Soviet in comparison to the contemporary climate. Back then, poorer students were given grants to study, not intimidated from applying by loans that rivaled a mortgage in size and longevity of debt.
Since leaving university and knowing I needed to make things, I put out for a job that paid well without swallowing all my time. At the start of the new millennium I discovered tutoring. I found it was something I could do and it paid well enough to give me the bulk of my week free to dream, wander and write.
For most of the Noughties I never experienced much sense of compromise about what I was doing. Many of the young people I worked closely with had special needs, had been excluded from conventional education or were being home educated. I worked with families across the social spectrum, often reducing or removing my fee to work with those most in need.
Every so often I would take on a client whose child was none of the above; someone who was rich, not terribly bright and whose parents were gimlet eyed in their focus on advancement. The experiences with such families could be amusing, in that their way of life was so absurdly other, so preposterously excessive, that they made for great anecdotes. Sometimes such amusement palled into horror, as it became all too clear exactly what it cost to be that rich, and how regularly and painfully the price of such wealth was paid for by the children.
But with the crash of 2008 and the ensuing years of austerity, I noticed changes. The number of clients whose children were sincerely in need of extra help evaporated. It wasn’t that the need had gone, more that they could no longer afford even reduced rates and I felt I couldn’t afford to do as much work for free. In their place arrived a mass of clients who had far more money to pay, from all over the world; arriving in London because there was a culture that embraced the rich without worrying about that pesky issue of taxation. Such families didn’t blink as the tutoring rates rose, piling the advantage of one to one tuition onto the already fat slab of advantage that came with a private school education, multiple homes and a personal driver.
Following the bursting of the property bubble, I found myself living in a flat in West London; no more than a fifteen-minute stroll from the very houses in which I was tutoring. I spent my working hours passing the spreading frontages of pawn shops and pay day loan stores, before crossing the road to the leafy, confetti-coloured stucco of houses full of children for whom the word ‘recession’ never seemed to feature on their spelling lists.
It was on one particular occasion that I realised the time had come to stop this work. I had just been asked to work for a child whose father had been implicated in the sale of arms to a country whose leader had made killers out of 7 year olds. I might be heading for economic oblivion but I could no longer in any way justify feathering the already over stuffed seats of such grotesque privilege.
And deciding to stop, I decided to talk. As the gap between rich and poor grows oceanic it feels more necessary than ever to open the shutters on such a world. It is because this world of the insanely wealthy has struck me on close inspection as such a soul-destroying, fear-laced, poisonous and piteous cage in which the rich themselves are most trapped, and into which so many of us, perversely, aspire to fling ourselves, that describing how it looks from within seems more pressing than prurient.
So this is what it looks like, behind the palace gates and guards, past the entry codes and ornamental fountains, via helicopter and private jet. This is what it looks like when you pimp your brain out to the 0.1% of the human population, which controls almost 80% of the world’s wealth.
Like I said, I’m not rich, but I’ve met a few people who are.