I didn’t manage to say very much on Channel 5’s The Big Benefits Row, beyond an opening remark about people not being able to just rock up to a food bank with a carrier bag and help themselves. I started to talk about the Trussell Trust when Edwina Currie, also on my panel, cut over me to talk about my grandfather’s circumstances.
I wanted to say that poverty is almost indescribable to Edwina and co with their blinkered, self-righteous attitudes. That turning off the fridge because it’s empty anyway, that sitting across the table from your young son enviously staring down his breakfast, having freezing cold showers and putting your child to bed in god knows how many layers of clothes in the evening – it’s distressing. Depressing. Destabilising.
Imagine living for 11 weeks with no housing benefit, because of “delays”. Imagine those 77 days of being chased for rent that you can’t pay, ignoring the phone, ignoring the door, drawing the curtains so the bailiffs can’t see that you’re home, cradling your son to your chest and sobbing that this is where it’s all ended up. It feels endless. Hopeless. Cold. Wet. Day after day of “no”. No we aren’t looking for staff. No there isn’t anything else to eat. No I can’t put the heating on. No I haven’t got any money to pay my rent arrears. No, no, no.
I wasn’t, as Edwina hissed in an aside, “a rich girl pretending to be poor”. I was alone, with nobody to “pretend” to. You become adept at keeping up appearances, at smiling and saying you’re fine. It was almost a year before I was referred to a food bank for help, almost a year of searching for work, holding my home and my son together at the seams with an iron will.
I’ve never claimed anywhere that my family were “poor”. They weren’t “rich” either. As a child, I had dinner on the table and always had clean clothes. We had a holiday once a year in a caravan in Devon or Yorkshire, and the occasional foray to Ireland. I went to a grammar school, not with any coaching or private tuition, I just sat the entrance exam aged 10 and was offered a place. I struggled at that school, grades gradually getting worse each year, until I dropped out with not enough GCSEs to take A-levels. I went to work in a shop at the age of 16.
My grandfather, who died in late 2012, ran some guest houses in Southend-on-Sea. I’ve no idea what his fortunes were or weren’t – he was just my grandad. A man dressed permanently in a blue boiler suit covered in paint and plaster, and the same battered walking boots similarly accessorised. A man who peered over the top of his glasses to read the Mirror at the Formica dining table with plastic-covered chairs. He drove an old D reg Ford pickup truck, and smoked stingy roll-ups one after the other, swigging Aldi lemonade.
As a teenager, I spent weekends at the guest houses, frying eggs and making tea and pulling countless bedsheets through an old creaking laundry press. Guests drifted in, but not many. It didn’t occur to me when I was unemployed and sitting at that Formica table tucking into beans on toast and hot, sugary tea, to ask my grandad if he might be worth a bob or two and if he could bung me some. I was ashamed, so ashamed, of my situation, that I bottled it up inside and tried to keep up appearances as best I could.
Poverty can happen to anyone. That’s why I unsettle some of the stalwarts of the Tory party. Because their rhetoric of “work hard and get on” can fall apart in the blink of an eye. I worked hard. I got on. And I still spent a year and a half scrabbling around in a festering pit of depression, joblessness, benefit delays and suspensions, hunger, and the entrenched, gut-wrenching fear that I was failing as a parent.
I have no idea how much Edwina Currie thinks my grandad was worth. To me, he was the man who taught me to swear, to fry an egg, and to argue my case.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe