Tonight, scrolling through Twitter, I came across a frankly audacious message sent from the ‘Bath Conservatives’ account, that had tagged me in. Unfortunately this is not an account dedicated to the frugal recycling of your dirty wash water, more’s the pity, but the haphazard and misfiring musings from the anonymous social media person for the Bath branch of the Conservative Party. You might have heard of them. They’re the ones in Government right now, and have been for around eight years now.
These Conservatives decided, in their wisdom, to uphold me as an example of someone who could cook well on a meagre budget. Put like that, you may wonder why I exploded in cold fury.
They said: “Indolent or disfunctional parents… simply don’t know how to feed their children well. If…Jack Monroe could feed herself and her child for £10 a week…most people can.”
I have lived, waiting in fear for this moment, for almost six years. Waiting, to be upheld as some kind of justification for the deepest incisions of Conservative cuts as they seek to justify their barbaric policies by attaching them to someone who can be used as an example of ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps’. (With absolutely no irony whatsoever, the brand ‘Cooking On A Bootstrap’ instead of, say, ‘shoestring’ comes from a Tory minister claiming that the poor need to do exactly that. I reclaimed the word from their mealy mouths and made it a middle-fingered trademark of my own.) The first time I was invited onto a breakfast television sofa, after being offered a book deal for my recipes in 2013, I was accused all over the internet of being ‘a Tory plant’. I would like to think that my continuously coruscating commentary since has alleviated anyone of that particular delusion, yet here we are.
The premise of the tweet from the Conservative Association was that parents who do not cook beautiful, bountiful meals from scratch are lazy, uneducated, unskilled and dysfunctional. Allow me to piss all over that particularly poisonous bonfire once and for all.
Many of the families I have worked with over the years are living in temporary accommodation, usually a bed and breakfast paid for by their local council due to a shortage of available social housing, or private landlords ‘willing’ to take on a tenant on benefits. These generally have no cooking facilities whatsoever, for insurance purposes and safety reasons, as cramming a hob next to a single bed that is usually pressed against the wall poses a risk to fire and health. After the Grenfell tower tragedy, dozens if not hundreds of residents were living in hotel rooms nearby, for weeks and months, with no cooking facilities available. They lived off ready meals, microwaved in their contraband microwaves, and takeaways. Ain’t nobody on earth, not even me, who can turn that into a cheap option. I dare you to tell someone who has been the victim of a house fire, is living with PTSD and anxiety, has lost their home and their job and doesn’t even have a saucepan, to pop along to the shop and pick up some spices because it’ll work out cheaper.
I understand the irony, it’s almost like I am turning on my own work here, parroting back some of the criticisms left below the line on my own recipes. I wrote a ‘make ready meals for less’ column in the Guardian once, after all. My work is very useful to a lot of people, but even a 9p burger and a 16p risotto is out of reach of someone who only has £1 scraped from behind the couch. My first book is full of well meaning and lived-experience advice about starting a storecupboard from scratch, cooking three different meals from the same six ingredients, but it operates on the premise that people have a frying pan, a masher, and a few quid to buy the basics in the first place.
I wrote this in 2013.. Very little changes, but I will repeat myself, because once again, it needs to be said.
“It isn’t just “cosy frugality”, as though we are all just living in a snapshot of a nostalgic poster of postwar Britain. I’m surprised the posters haven’t made a reappearance, unaltered, to back up the Conservatives claims.
Eat less bread. Food is a weapon. Your own vegetables all year round. Dig for victory. Home grown food. Make do and mend. Keep calm and carry on.
But there’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about missing days of meals, turning the heating off for two consecutive winters and every bloody day and night in between.
There’s nothing cosy and nostalgic about unscrewing the light bulbs so you can’t accidentally turn them on, or selling your son’s shoes, or drinking the formula milk that the food bank gave you because there’s nothing else. If that’s cosy frugality, the moralisers and apologisers ought to try it. For a month. Or six. Or 18.
Turn off the fridge, because it’s empty anyway. Sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than a quid for. Walk everywhere in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing toddler trailing behind you. Drag that toddler into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask them if they have any job vacancies. Try not to go red as the girl behind the counter appraises your tatty jumper and dirty jeans before telling you that they have no jobs available. “For you”, you add in your head, and you drag that toddler home, still soaking, still unemployed, to not-quite dry out in your freezing cold flat.
Put two jumpers on that you’ll wear all week, to keep washing to a minimum. You sit at home in your coat anyway, and nobody’s there to notice.
Drag yourself to the cooker to pour some tinned tomatoes over some cold pasta, and try not to hurl it across the room in frustration when your toddler tells you he doesn’t want it. I want something else, Mummy. But there isn’t anything else. But aren’t we supposed to just keep calm and carry on?”
Let me take tonights dinner for example. I am 200 miles from home, babysitting for a friend. There is nothing in the cupboard that even I could turn into a meal. As a thankyou for babysitting, he said he would buy me dinner. I asked for a ready meal, rather than the ingredients to make one measly portion for myself. The meal, a mushroom and onion pie with a mashed potato topping, cost £2.75. I flipped over the back and added up how much the component ingredients would cost were I to make it myself: £12.80. Indeed, if I had had the £12.80 spare I could have made six pies, but then I would have needed some kind of Tupperware to cook and store them in (another £1.50) and somewhere to keep them, and to travel home with them for three hours tomorrow in some kind of ice box (£25) in order to keep them safe for consumption in the future. Economies of scale are so very awkward in the poverty discussion, as is the misguided and utterly middle class assumption that everyone has a working cooker. My partner has not had a working cooker for two and a half years. There are many reasons why people do not cook.
Mental health issues are also a factor. I, a bestselling cookbook author, have days where I live on six bags of crisps, one after the other, because the demons descend and the thought of creating anything, of liking myself enough to boil pasta, crushes me from the inside out. I have been very open about mental illness, specifically anxiety and depression. My current surge of recipes is an indication that I am in a sunny place, the weeks of silence can be safely read as a pit of depression, or an arthritis flare-up, or the black dog howling in my face. Sometimes people do not have the ability for self-care, and I hear from people with autism, anorexia, depression, anxiety, and a range of other complicated situations, who need to know what to have to hand when their head is in a pickle, to nourish themselves. (FWIW, I rely on Pot Noodles with a lot of tinned and frozen veg stirred in, and tinned soups heated in the microwave, and easy fruit like oranges, bananas and tinned pears to get me through. And crisps.)
Some people are working two or three zero hour contracts and barely have time to change from their supermarket checkout uniform to their cleaning tabard , let alone knock up a vegetable gratin from scratch and make their own granola. If these lives are unimaginable to you, I suggest you read Ros Wynne Jones ‘Real Britain’ column in the Daily Mirror, and try to understand them. After all, those of you trawling my tweets to argue with me every time I so much as fart clearly have time on your hands, so put it to use.
And finally – I took exception to the Conservatives holding me up as some kind of role model because, it was their policies that left me hungry, cold, almost homeless, moving house seventeen times with a child under my arm. I ended up severely mentally ill, referred to psychiatrists, and still recovering several years later. I tried to kill myself four times that I remember under austerity policies, being continuously maliciously investigated for my benefits (curiously always coinciding with me writing something negative about the local Council on my well-read political blog I wrote from the gallery of the local public meetings), having housing benefit withdrawn over a dozen times, leading to my eviction from my home, and in such horrific debt it took two books to finally emerge from the other side of it. Not credit cards or frivolity; but water bills, bounced gas and electric, rent arrears, and bank charges. I still can’t even open my own front door, scarred as I am by penny pinching pissy policies devised over £39 breakfasts by those who think nothing of spending £6,000 of taxpayers money on a dining table for their second home while loftily declaring that the poor can live on 1% of that figure for an entire week. To be used as their ‘poster girl’ for frugality by such obscene hypocrites offends me to my burned and shattered core.
The fact that my archive of 600 ultra-cheap, simple recipes gets millions of views a month is no testament to my skills as a cook nor as a writer. I make Pop Tarts and Bolognese, for crying out loud. Rinse baked beans and cover them in ketchup and spices and call it a chilli. Mash a cake together from cornflakes. Roast tinned potatoes. It is an absolute and damning indictment of the fact that so many people continue to need them. That the queues at the food banks are getting longer. That austerity has casualties, and one in three of them are children.
The architects of that austerity have so much faith in their grand ideas to starve the poor into submission and quietly allow the disabled to die behind the scenes, that they have slunk away into the shadows with their gold plated pensions and £25,000 sheds for company. David Cameron, merrily fisted his Big Society up the arsehole of community and did a bunk in the morning without so much as a polite cup of tea. George Osborne, who declared a ‘war on welfare’ on Five Live in 2013,now editing a national newspaper, criticising an administration he was very much a part of, as though it were all a jolly jape. Iain Duncan Smith, a man who sniggered in a meeting in Parliament as a poverty-stricken single mum spoke about being famished with hunger, while I sat behind him shaking with rage at his insolence. Austerity is more than a war; it is an assault against the unarmed, against the most vulnerable children in our nation, a massacre of basic rights and dignity. And this war, live every other, is orchestrated by rich old men in suits, pushing their little pieces around the map, toying with lives and discarding them at will, puffing their chests out over their subsidised champagne. It’s been a while since I’ve been quite this angry, but my god, I’m livid.
I sat next to a Comservative from Cambridgeshire on a food bank panel debate in 2013 who tried to say that there’s ‘only’ a million food bank users in the UK. Less than one per cent. But what use are numbers, when you are one of the 565 in his constituency, not the other 81,000 or so? What use is a one per cent chance, when that one per cent is you? What sort of a society do we live in where people who go out to work every day to provide for themselves and their families cannot afford to do so, but their situation is justified in a statistic?
Because the secret nobody lets you in on, is that poverty can happen to anyone. I was a well brought up, if working class, girl who went to my local Grammar school. I didn’t get my GCSEs, went straight into work, but ended up in a decent job with two parents who were still together and adored each other. Dad was a fireman, Mum was a foster carer and former nurse, with some debilitating disabilities that affected her limbs and muscles but not her enormous heart and work ethic. We all had it drummed into us that we have to work hard to make something of ourselves. I went in the fire service, after a period of working in coffee shops and nightclubs, and my brother joined the Army. And yet I still found myself, through a series of unpredictable but all-too-ordinary events, living in absolute poverty.
So yes, I managed to just about not die, living on £10 a week in 2011, when stock cubes were 10p for 10 (35p now), cooking bacon was 67p (£1.50 now), kidney beans were 17p (now 35p) etc. Bath Conservatives claim that anyone can do it, now, 7 years later, when most basics food products from ‘the good old days’ have sharply risen in price or all but vanished.
I am offering the social media person from Bath Conservatives an opportunity to quite literally put their money where their mouth is. Identify yourself, and live on just £10 a week for 3 weeks running. I’ll help you write recipes. You’ll eat a lot of beans and rice. You shouldn’t have to cheat, as you believe it is ‘adequate’. Do it, with no money for drinks, nights out, socialising, no friends to cook you meals, nothing but the £10 you think is so easy to live on. After all, in your own words, ‘anyone can do it.’
But you won’t even start to experience the daily grind of living in poverty. Poverty isn’t just having no heating, or not quite enough food, or unplugging your fridge and turning your hot water off.
Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread and jam.
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