“I’M A LEFTY LIBERAL LEZZER…”
When I arrive at her flat in Southend-on-Sea Jack Monroe is where fans of her compulsive blog A Girl Called Jack perhaps imagine her always to be, in front of her cooker, making an omelette. The flat, which she moved into three weeks ago, overlooks the wild grey Thames estuary, just up from the longest pleasure pier in the world. There is a biblical storm outside; her three-year-old son is playing in the living room. Jack is just back from a 10-day trip to Tanzania with Oxfam, her tattooed forearms are peeling from the sun. While she eats – “Sorry, sorry I was doing a couple of foreign radio interviews this morning and haven’t had breakfast” – she talks first about what she saw.
Having written for the past few years about the experience of coping on a £10 a week food budget in Southend, Monroe’s first trip to Africa, as she expected, was a humbling one. She wanted to close the circle if you like, to see where some of the food she cooks with comes from, to go right back along the production line. The focus of the trip was a series of projects involving women; she met a few Tanzanians in roughly her position, single mothers, young children, trying to survive as best they could on nothing much, but of course many of their lives were inconceivable. “I met a woman who had started working in a restaurant and was informed she had to sleep with the boss just to get her wages. And shocking poverty, of course, although everywhere we went we got wonderfully fed – there are some amazing cooks – so I came away with loads of recipe ideas …”
Monroe, now 25, has featured in an advert for Sainsbury’s value range, along with a couple of other noted make-do-and-mend food bloggers, and she has donated her fee to the Oxfam projects. Having lived for two years without work, which she described so affectingly in passing to the legions of followers of her recipes, she now gets by as a writer, for the Guardian and elsewhere. She has a cookbook coming out with Penguin, too, and so a bit of money for the first time, hence the new flat, a big improvement on the room in a shared house she had until Christmas, and hence her giving the ad money away. “I earn my living as a writer, not as the paid face of Sainsbury’s so it was a no-brainer really,” she says. “When I was at my lowest point I had a lot of help from charities, food banks, to see me through so it is nice to start to give something back.” She didn’t, she says, “just want to sod off into the sunset” – I’m all right, Jack.
It’s been an extraordinary 18 months or so for Monroe, in which she has gone from unscrewing the lightbulbs, turning off the heating and going without food herself in order to pay the rent and feed her son, to becoming a front-page story in the New York Times as “the face of British austerity”. Representatives of the writer of The Wolf of Wall Street recently contacted her to inquire about buying “life rights” to her story. She said no, “of course – that was too weird. I mean: unemployed girl writes food blog isn’t going to be a great movie is it?”
Not surprisingly she still doesn’t trust any of it. “I had such a run of bad luck,” she says, “that you lose faith that good things are going to happen any more. I still don’t answer the door because I went through so long expecting it to be a bailiff. I’m very careful with the money I have, I pay myself the living wage, and I try to save the rest, because if life has taught me one thing it’s that you never know what is around the corner.”
That run began when she lost her job on the switchboard with the fire service more than two years ago. She had worked since leaving grammar school at 16 in Southend, “which really means minimum wage jobs, shops and coffee shops and so on. I enjoyed it. I left home at 18, I thought I knew everything. It was fun for a while and then it wasn’t fun any more.”
After she had her son, she hoped the fire service would, as was its policy, give her more flexible hours. It insisted, however, on her doing two days and two nights. The nights were 15 hours long and the job was based in Brentwood, which is 30 miles away. She applied for a transfer to a job cooking in the canteen. Or installing smoke alarms in people’s houses. “It got to the point where they just thought I was being a pain,” she says. “I think at the time the top seven ranks in Essex fire service were exclusively men. My boss’s attitude was: when you chose to have a baby why didn’t you think this through?”
She had no choice but to leave, she says, and anyway everyone said she would be fine, other employers would jump at her with her experience. They didn’t. And when she eventually got desperate enough to apply for housing benefit she had no idea it would take three months to come through. “I was immediately running up debt and charges, and it quickly gets out of control. Nobody will give you credit or an overdraft until your benefit comes through. And that three-month delay is built into the system.”
She found herself in a situation that was becoming all too common. Too proud to ask her family for help, she turned off the heating, sold her furniture, television, her son’s toys, tried to avoid the landlord and queued up for the first time at a food bank. “The number one reason,” she says, “why people use food banks is because their benefits have been suspended or delayed or not paid. Eight times I got a letter saying ‘we have suspended your benefit while we recalculate it’. What are you supposed to do then?”
One thing Monroe did was to get angry. She read a headline on the front of the local Echo that was a quote from a councillor complaining that “Druggies, drunks and single mums are driving upmarket shops out of Southend”. “I was a single mum,” she says, “so I started going to council meetings to see who the people were who thought I was a scumbag.” It was just her and the local political reporter in the public gallery. Having never thought politics was for “people like me” she started writing a blog about what she saw “from a single mother’s point of view: this is why they are shutting libraries and children’s centres. This is the stuff they say about people claiming benefits – and you voted these guys in.”
The blog attracted local attention, and Monroe started adding other elements of her life, how she budgeted, what she cooked. She had always written as a teenager – “diaries, lovelorn poetry” – and this was a more public extension of that voice. “It was therapeutic. It was a kind of car crash I suppose for those reading it. And perhaps it shone a light on how hard things were for a lot of people.”
By then she had already become Jack. She was Melissa before. The name change is “one of those things that newspapers are quite gleeful about,” she says, “but I was bullied about my name a lot at school, which is one reason I wanted to change it. I get loads of smart arses on Twitter saying ‘hey Melissa’ still, of course.”
Did she immediately feel at home as Jack?
“For the first week I was thinking what have I done? It is such a headache: you have to tell all your utility companies and you’ve got to change your passport, but after people started to use it, it felt right.”
Her friends and family were, she says, concerned that it might be the start of a “process”. She laughs. “I was like, no, I’m a little bit tomboyish, a bit butch. But I have no immediate plans to transition …”
She had come out to people she was close to, but not to her newfound followers and readers. “I started to write a blogpost about gay pride one day,” she says, “and as I was writing it I felt myself coming out, and it came to the point to press send. And I thought ‘oh, just do it’. The followers on my blog knew everything else about me. I thought people might be hostile, but mostly the outpouring of support I got was phenomenal. There was some nasty abuse too, though, rape threats and all the rest but I discovered my block button and have used it liberally against all those people who threatened to ‘f– me straight’ or those saying I was sick and shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a child.”
One of the likable things about A Girl Called Jack is that Monroe does not hesitate to get involved in responding to the less violent criticism she gets, the people who complain about her portion sizes, or her politics. She adopted that policy too when shouted down recently by Edwina Currie, on Channel 5’s The Big Benefits Row after the former Tory minister bizarrely referred to an obituary of Monroe’s grandfather, which suggested he wasn’t badly off. She chooses her enemies carefully. Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail wrote a column about her perceived lifestyle, her tattoos and her curly kale and her lack of a wedding ring and the national scandal of people like her scrounging off Stakhanovite workers like himself.
She responded coolly point by point in print, and sent him a note thanking him for the 9,000 extra Twitter followers she had won as a result. “I am everything the Daily Mail loathes,” she says, with some joy. “I write for the Guardian. I did a Labour campaign video. I’m a lefty, liberal, lezzer cook and I talk about it all. Still, part of the reason I responded to Littlejohn was that I had spent a lot of time at school taking crap from people about the way I looked, or my sexuality, or my parents not being as rich as other people’s, or my name or whatever. When I read that piece I just thought: ‘You know what? This is the last time I lie down and take this bullying crap. I am going to stand up to you.’ I wish now I had done it more at school, but it’s hard when you are a bit different and on your own at that age. I am not going to let that stuff go any more, though, it’s just way too hurtful and horrible.”
Monroe in person is a mix of forced confidence and blushing shyness. The week after we meet I watch her at the Fabian Society new year conference in London where she sits alongside the Labour MP Kate Green and Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust, to lead a discussion on poverty. While Mould provides the alarming statistics on food banks –more than 350,000 people received food three times a week in 2013, three times the previous year – Monroe holds the audience with an emotive account of her own life. She has given similar speeches to parliament and many other gatherings in the past year. She finds it hard – “I often just feel like a single mother from Southend” – but is determined to tell her story and has the authentic gift of raw experience. “On TV I have to sit on my hands to stop them from shaking,” she says. “I freeze when I get a camera into my face.” She does it anyway.
Monroe clearly applied the same kind of stubbornness to her cooking. She started off by getting ingredients lists from the back of Loyd Grossman sauce jars. She has ended up creating a pared-down £10 a week cuisine of her own. She could not afford a computer until recently. She wrote her book on the keypad of her phone.
Given that pride and determination I wonder how she felt when she first had to queue at a food bank?
“I was ashamed,” she says. “One of the volunteers was a friend of my mum’s. We both pretended we hadn’t seen each other, because I hadn’t told my parents. You just shrink down into the ground …”
Did that shame go?
“It does but it remains very odd. You can take five items plus formula milk, so you stand there and decide what you need most, things you can’t quite afford.”
“Like a box of cereal,” she says.
Her knowledge of how that feels and her articulacy in describing it has put her in a strangely responsible position. It is as if she has quickly filled a space that was waiting to be filled in the country’s political life. She doesn’t rule out greater political engagement, though her outsider status remains important to her now. She has no truck with Russell Brand’s advocacy of not voting. “What you need is many more ordinary young people engaged in politics and standing for parliament. Not just all these people from Eton.”
She turns down offers and opportunities daily. Big Brother: an easy no. The company that made Benefits Street, Love Productions, wanted to involve her in a programme teaching people on benefits how to cook with what they had in their cupboard. “I thought: ‘this sounds OK’. And then they sent me the script. It wasn’t me going into people’s houses, but celebrities, and before they went into people’s houses the celebrities had to hand in all their designer gear and would be given a bin bag of old clothes and asked to dress like the people they would be visiting. It was more poverty porn. Who wants to watch that?”
She has told a different story of poverty, through food, and she has, you imagine, only just begun. “When I started recipes on my blog one of my friends said ‘You should leave that to Jamie Oliver: who is going to listen to you?’ She was trying to put me back in my box. I was like, ‘I can try, can’t I?’ When I got the book deal, it was about the time Save with Jamie was coming out. Life is a bit surreal sometimes. But I just thought of what that friend had said. And I thought ‘Well, now we’ll see …'”
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe