London is turning into an oversized private members’ club

For the millenial with no money, no umbrella and no hope of ever owning a house, it's time to look elsewhere.

“Boop.”

I’m on a bus. I’ve just scanned my Oyster Card and I’m getting the “insufficient funds” Red Dot Of Doom. Outside, great watery clumps are falling out of the sky.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I say to both the driver and myself.

I don’t have any cash. I try giving the driver big, wounded puppy eyes. Nothing. He shrugs, I slump off the bus. I could’ve sworn I topped up my Oyster with a tenner about an hour ago. But London is like a sweaty magician in a snazzy waistcoat, who makes money disappear.

This isn’t fun anymore. With no money, no umbrella and no hope of ever owning a house, I wrestle my way through the rush hour on foot, back to my parents’. Maybe I’ll move out again one day, or maybe rent prices will continue to soar Shard-high.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve realised that, for so many millennials, living in London is a form of masochism. Last week, I saw a friend from Brighton wince as she paid four quid for a pint. Jaded by London prices, I looked on, dead-eyed and handed over an even heftier purse of monies for a G&T.

As the city I love turns into an oversized private members’ club, not a day goes by now where I don’t ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

The other day, I was paying some of the highest prices in Europe to be unceremoniously jammed into an armpit, on the tube, when it hit me: let’s all move to Londonderry.

According to a piece in the Telegraph, earlier this year, Londonderry is the most affordable city to live in, in the UK. Please note, I’m not referring to the Northern Irish city by its unionist name for any political reasons. I just like that I could live there and still claim that I live in London. Ish.

Within a couple of minutes of researching rental prices in Londonderry, I find a six bedroom mansion, with land (actual land), that’s on the market for £525 PCM. House-sharers, that’s £20 per person, per week. Even when I lived in Brighton, I was (at one point) paying £90 per week to live in a slightly upmarket squat.

In Londonderry, the budget mansion is only a very slight anomaly. I soon find non-methy, spacious terraced houses in central locations for around £30 PPPW. The average rental price in London is over £1,200 per month. To contextualise this even further, a grave plot and burial in the capital can now reach around £5,000. So, in the short term, it’s cheaper to be alive in Londonderry than dead in London.

Millennials, hear me out – in Londonderry, we would live like a slightly plumper Henry VIII. Gout-ridden and fat on roast swan, we’d slap our thighs and guffaw heartily over the years we spent paying hundreds of pounds a month for the pleasure of living in ungodly dirt shacks. And in Londonderry, there are cool things like this and this. And I’m pretty certain that this is in Bavaria, but it still came up when I Google-imaged “Londonderry”.

So, what’s shackling me to London? One of the obvious fetters is the gay scene – one of the most vibrant in the world. But, according to my research, it’s not as if Londonderry is completely devoid of rainbows and Lady Gaga. In 2010, the city had its first ever Gay Pride and I bet you pints don’t cost £4 in this gay bar. Plus, my fellow London-weary homos, if we all emigrated there at the same time, we could make Londonderry, like, really fucking gay. There’s always room in a socially conservative Catholic stronghold for a Jewish lesbian on a mission.

Living in London is a form of masochism. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.