text by Lizzie Clough
For some, mathematics provides a deeply creative search for answers to the biggest questions; a chance to play god in a strictly human sphere - attaining liberation through the imposition of rules. Robin Farquharson strikes me as one of these people. A political game theorist, academic, self diagnosed manic depressive and author of Drop Out: an account of the three weeks that Farquharson chose to spend sleeping rough on the streets of London.
What struck me initially about Drop Out was its inability to be a real social experiment - though I don't think he really intended it to be. From a privileged background, and not quite able to rid himself of his savings before he hit the road, Farquharson knew he had a get out of jail free card. This must have significantly affected his decision making and would have given him greater freedom from the constraints of money than someone who really is without it.
“How else could I have achieved this opportunity to feel in reality, the full force of prejudice, Born a member of a master race in South Africa, by accent and Oxbridge education a member of the British ruling class, my sympathies for the victims of both systems had been abstract, from the outside. No longer. Now I was a Negro. Now I was a Jew,” he proclaims, after taking a beating from a bunch of kids.
Though I'm sure this was a memorable and profound moment for him, this is a statement without thought or respect. A comparison cannot be drawn between one experience and the experiences felt with generations of racial abuse. Though this is probably his most outrageous notion, his tone throughout Drop Out is fairly frivolous, and characteristic of the high that consumes him.
However, it seems his manic episodes lost him many a job, whilst his sexuality constrained him further, he was truly unable to conform. It is a sentiment that I connect with deeply. Often, the less money I have, the better I feel. Many times, I have reached the bottom of my bank account and find myself surprised at the pleasure I feel in spending my last tenner as extravagantly as possible, whilst not knowing what will happen next. There is something wonderful and liberating about feeling the most alive when you know, that conventionally, you are a loser.
I feel this way without having ever had any financial support or wealth in my family.
I remember as a child, there was a tramp in our town. He was known as The Sparrow. He was very old and appeared to be a great survivor. He represented, to me, a dying breed of old fashioned tramp. I hope that for The Sparrow that this lifestyle was a conscious choice, and though very tough that it wasn't impossible for him to live in that way. This, sadly I feel, is no longer really the case for many people. Despite increasing poverty and economic downturn, tolerance of this kind of existence is very low indeed.
It is frustratingly obvious in 2016 how much easier it would have been to 'drop out' of London in the late 1960s. Back then there was a greater number of people seeking this kind of freedom and much more access to casual work and cheap rent. To confirm this, I spoke to my old man.
David Clough was living and working in London at exactly the time Drop Out was written, and perhaps had something in common with Farquharson; after all, my father didn’t have a bank account until he was 35.
At this time he was doing casual building work and earning between £12 and £20 a week (sometimes more), whilst his rental of a room in a house with a shared bathroom cost him £2 a week. If you do the maths, this made it possible for his weekly wage to be 10 times his rent. The equivalent of which today would be paying a piffling £30 a week whilst on a wage of £300 per week. Living in a similar shared accommodation to my pa, rent now accounts for significantly more than half of a normal wage. We are strangled by this continual rise in rent, and coupled with job insecurity, makes for a lower quality of life; leaving many playing catch up and silenced by the pressure of survival.
For me, Drop Out raises questions about personal integrity and how much of our existence must be defined by our achievements in a commercial and mostly corporate world. Although our lives are somewhat defined by the high cost of living and the increasingly corporate work available, I believe we must still be able to make some choices in this regard. Especially amongst those who consider themselves thinkers or creatives.
So many of us chase an ideal, and in doing so, grow tired and indebted. Creativity is compromised by impatience and our need for self-gratification, monetary or otherwise. We conform, and so, force others to also. Farquharson's refusal to respect money is echoed in my own life choices, and I can’t help feel he would be deeply disappointed in London today, with all its capitalist glory.
Recently, I was touched by the sentiment of an aristocratic member of the family that founded Barclays. Whilst speaking in an interview, he suggested with slight annoyance that if L.S Lowry was painting today, it would not be Industrious Manchester but the factory of finance, of bankers in their suited swarms buzzing up and down the escalators at Canary Wharf.
He is right.
Since Farquharson's dropping-out, this new working class has swallowed the old, and the margins between the rich and everyone else grows ever greater. What happens to those who don't, or can't subscribe to this class? Money is a metaphor for living, a god presiding over all other gods, that we are enslaved to physically.
I try my best to remain free. I don't worry about being without, and this gives me the chance to take unconventional choices as they arise. Game theorists usually assume players act rationally. Thankfully, in practice, human behaviour often deviates from this model. So despite the mirror mathematics presents to explain the symmetries and truths of our existence, it has its flaws. Perhaps our potential, irrationally, is our greatest freedom and one that Farquharson most definitely embraced.