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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Being Hard Up

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Being Hard Up

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


It is a most remarkable thing. I sat down with the full intention of
writing something clever and original; but for the life of me I can't
think of anything clever and original--at least, not at this moment.
The only thing I can think about now is being hard up. I suppose
having my hands in my pockets has made me think about this. I always
do sit with my hands in my pockets except when I am in the company of
my sisters, my cousins, or my aunts; and they kick up such a shindy--I
should say expostulate so eloquently upon the subject--that I have to
give in and take them out--my hands I mean. The chorus to their
objections is that it is not gentlemanly. I am hanged if I can see
why. I could understand its not being considered gentlemanly to put
your hands in other people's pockets (especially by the other people),
but how, O ye sticklers for what looks this and what looks that, can
putting his hands in his own pockets make a man less gentle? Perhaps
you are right, though. Now I come to think of it, I have heard some
people grumble most savagely when doing it. But they were mostly old
gentlemen. We young fellows, as a rule, are never quite at ease
unless we have our hands in our pockets. We are awkward and shifty.
We are like what a music-hall Lion Comique would be without his
opera-hat, if such a thing can be imagined. But let us put our hands
in our trousers pockets, and let there be some small change in the
right-hand one and a bunch of keys in the left, and we will face a
female post-office clerk.

It is a little difficult to know what to do with your bands, even in
your pockets, when there is nothing else there. Years ago, when my
whole capital would occasionally come down to "what in town the people
call a bob," I would recklessly spend a penny of it, merely for the
sake of having the change, all in coppers, to jingle. You don't feel
nearly so hard up with eleven pence in your pocket as you do with a
shilling. Had I been "La-di-da," that impecunious youth about whom we
superior folk are so sarcastic, I would have changed my penny for two

I can speak with authority on the subject of being hard up. I have
been a provincial actor. If further evidence be required, which I do
not think likely, I can add that I have been a "gentleman connected
with the press." I have lived on 15 shilling a week. I have lived a
week on 10, owing the other 5; and I have lived for a fortnight on a

It is wonderful what an insight into domestic economy being really
hard up gives one. If you want to find out the value of money, live
on 15 shillings a week and see how much you can put by for clothes and
recreation. You will find out that it is worth while to wait for the
farthing change, that it is worth while to walk a mile to save a
penny, that a glass of beer is a luxury to be indulged in only at rare
intervals, and that a collar can be worn for four days.

Try it just before you get married. It will be excellent practice.
Let your son and heir try it before sending him to college. He won't
grumble at a hundred a year pocket-money then. There are some people
to whom it would do a world of good. There is that delicate blossom
who can't drink any claret under ninety-four, and who would as soon
think of dining off cat's meat as off plain roast mutton. You do come
across these poor wretches now and then, though, to the credit of
humanity, they are principally confined to that fearful and wonderful
society known only to lady novelists. I never hear of one of these
creatures discussing a _menu_ card but I feel a mad desire to drag him
off to the bar of some common east-end public-house and cram a
sixpenny dinner down his throat--beefsteak pudding, fourpence;
potatoes, a penny; half a pint of porter, a penny. The recollection
of it (and the mingled fragrance of beer, tobacco, and roast pork
generally leaves a vivid impression) might induce him to turn up his
nose a little less frequently in the future at everything that is put
before him. Then there is that generous party, the cadger's delight,
who is so free with his small change, but who never thinks of paying
his debts. It might teach even him a little common sense. "I always
give the waiter a shilling. One can't give the fellow less, you
know," explained a young government clerk with whom I was lunching the
other day in Regent Street. I agreed with him as to the utter
impossibility of making it elevenpence ha'penny; but at the same time
I resolved to one day decoy him to an eating-house I remembered near
Covent Garden, where the waiter, for the better discharge of his
duties, goes about in his shirt-sleeves--and very dirty sleeves they
are, too, when it gets near the end of the month. I know that waiter.
If my friend gives him anything beyond a penny, the man will insist on
shaking hands with him then and there as a mark of his esteem; of that
I feel sure.

There have been a good many funny things said and written about
hardupishness, but the reality is not funny, for all that. It is not
funny to have to haggle over pennies. It isn't funny to be thought
mean and stingy. It isn't funny to be shabby and to be ashamed of
your address. No, there is nothing at all funny in poverty--to the
poor. It is hell upon earth to a sensitive man; and many a brave
gentleman who would have faced the labors of Hercules has had his
heart broken by its petty miseries.

It is not the actual discomforts themselves that are hard to bear.
Who would mind roughing it a bit if that were all it meant? What
cared Robinson Crusoe for a patch on his trousers? Did he wear
trousers? I forget; or did he go about as he does in the pantomimes?
What did it matter to him if his toes did stick out of his boots? and
what if his umbrella was a cotton one, so long as it kept the rain
off? His shabbiness did not trouble him; there was none of his
friends round about to sneer him.

Being poor is a mere trifle. It is being known to be poor that is the
sting. It is not cold that makes a man without a great-coat hurry
along so quickly. It is not all shame at telling lies--which he knows
will not be believed--that makes him turn so red when he informs you
that he considers great-coats unhealthy and never carries an umbrella
on principle. It is easy enough to say that poverty is no crime. No;
if it were men wouldn't be ashamed of it. It's a blunder, though, and
is punished as such. A poor man is despised the whole world over;
despised as much by a Christian as by a lord, as much by a demagogue
as by a footman, and not all the copy-book maxims ever set for ink
stained youth will make him respected. Appearances are everything, so
far as human opinion goes, and the man who will walk down Piccadilly
arm in arm with the most notorious scamp in London, provided he is a
well-dressed one, will slink up a back street to say a couple of words
to a seedy-looking gentleman. And the seedy-looking gentleman knows
this--no one better--and will go a mile round to avoid meeting an
acquaintance. Those that knew him in his prosperity need never
trouble themselves to look the other way. He is a thousand times more
anxious that they should not see him than they can be; and as to their
assistance, there is nothing he dreads more than the offer of it. All
he wants is to be forgotten; and in this respect he is generally
fortunate enough to get what he wants.

One becomes used to being hard up, as one becomes used to everything
else, by the help of that wonderful old homeopathic doctor, Time. You
can tell at a glance the difference between the old hand and the
novice; between the case-hardened man who has been used to shift and
struggle for years and the poor devil of a beginner striving to hide
his misery, and in a constant agony of fear lest he should be found
out. Nothing shows this difference more clearly than the way in which
each will pawn his watch. As the poet says somewhere: "True ease in
pawning comes from art, not chance." The one goes into his "uncle's"
with as much composure as he would into his tailor's--very likely with
more. The assistant is even civil and attends to him at once, to the
great indignation of the lady in the next box, who, however,
sarcastically observes that she don't mind being kept waiting "if it
is a regular customer." Why, from the pleasant and businesslike
manner in which the transaction is carried out, it might be a large
purchase in the three per cents. Yet what a piece of work a man makes
of his first "pop." A boy popping his first question is confidence
itself compared with him. He hangs about outside the shop until he
has succeeded in attracting the attention of all the loafers in the
neighborhood and has aroused strong suspicions in the mind of the
policeman on the beat. At last, after a careful examination of the
contents of the windows, made for the purpose of impressing the
bystanders with the notion that he is going in to purchase a diamond
bracelet or some such trifle, he enters, trying to do so with a
careless swagger, and giving himself really the air of a member of the
swell mob. When inside he speaks in so low a voice as to be perfectly
inaudible, and has to say it all over again. When, in the course of
his rambling conversation about a "friend" of his, the word "lend" is
reached, he is promptly told to go up the court on the right and take
the first door round the corner. He comes out of the shop with a face
that you could easily light a cigarette at, and firmly under the
impression that the whole population of the district is watching him.
When he does get to the right place he has forgotten his name and
address and is in a general condition of hopeless imbecility. Asked
in a severe tone how he came by "this," he stammers and contradicts
himself, and it is only a miracle if he does not confess to having
stolen it that very day. He is thereupon informed that they don't
want anything to do with his sort, and that he had better get out of
this as quickly as possible, which he does, recollecting nothing more
until he finds himself three miles off, without the slightest
knowledge how he got there.

By the way, how awkward it is, though, having to depend on
public-houses and churches for the time. The former are generally too
fast and the latter too slow. Besides which, your efforts to get a
glimpse of the public house clock from the outside are attended with
great difficulties. If you gently push the swing-door ajar and peer
in you draw upon yourself the contemptuous looks of the barmaid, who
at once puts you down in the same category with area sneaks and
cadgers. You also create a certain amount of agitation among the
married portion of the customers. You don't see the clock because it
is behind the door; and in trying to withdraw quietly you jam your
head. The only other method is to jump up and down outside the
window. After this latter proceeding, however, if you do not bring
out a banjo and commence to sing, the youthful inhabitants of the
neighborhood, who have gathered round in expectation, become

I should like to know, too, by what mysterious law of nature it is
that before you have left your watch "to be repaired" half an hour,
some one is sure to stop you in the street and conspicuously ask you
the time. Nobody even feels the slightest curiosity on the subject
when you've got it on.

Dear old ladies and gentlemen who know nothing about being hard
up--and may they never, bless their gray old heads--look upon the
pawn-shop as the last stage of degradation; but those who know it
better (and my readers have no doubt, noticed this themselves) are
often surprised, like the little boy who dreamed he went to heaven, at
meeting so many people there that they never expected to see. For my
part, I think it a much more independent course than borrowing from
friends, and I always try to impress this upon those of my
acquaintance who incline toward "wanting a couple of pounds till the
day after to-morrow." But they won't all see it. One of them once
remarked that he objected to the principle of the thing. I fancy if
he had said it was the interest that he objected to he would have been
nearer the truth: twenty-five per cent. certainly does come heavy.

There are degrees in being hard up. We are all hard up, more or
less--most of us more. Some are hard up for a thousand pounds; some
for a shilling. Just at this moment I am hard up myself for a fiver.
I only want it for a day or two. I should be certain of paying it
back within a week at the outside, and if any lady or gentleman among
my readers would kindly lend it me, I should be very much obliged
indeed. They could send it to me under cover to Messrs. Field & Tuer,
only, in such case, please let the envelope be carefully sealed. I
would give you my I.O.U. as security.

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