Blog, Essays, Uncategorized

Poverty lingers a septic wound, choleric, stenching, bursting rancid all over your Sunday best.

You jest at scars, that never felt a wound, I muttered to my phone screen as an avatar of a sneering man stared back, his grainy face positioned just to the left of his barbed jab about why a ‘bestselling author needs to be begging for tips on Twitter’. I bit my lip, shaking with suppressed anger. If he was surprised and outraged by it, it was nothing compared to how I was feeling. ‘Didn’t you get a hundred grand from Katie Hopkins?’ he continued below my tweet gently reminding my readers that I run a 500 recipe, ad-free, subscription-free website on an entirely voluntary basis and pointing them to my tip jar. Well, no I didn’t. I won a libel judgement that paid out a sum that didn’t cover the lost earnings for the 20 months the case had all-consumed me and most of my mental health and energy. I repaid the friends who had bailed out my rent in the periods I was unfit to work, bought a sofa in the sale, carpeted my bedroom with a half price carpet (did the underlay and edging myself, mind) and took a cheap weekend break in Paris with my new girlfriend, where our apartment was so small that the toilet was 80cm from my side of the bed. A fine romance, and all that, but he did ask, and so I answered.
As I write this, for cathartic reasons, I suppose, as my childcare bailed today and I had to rearrange my therapy appointment, I am sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by black bags and charity shop bags and stockpiling the boxes that my cookbooks came in, relieved that I flatpacked some of them under that half-price sofa instead of throwing them all away. For the 18th time in my short life, I am moving house. Yes, away from this beautiful sea view. Away from the kitchen that I have just so recently, so lovingly made my own. Away from the magnolia tree that I have just planted in the garden, the chard I sing to, the tomatoes I am growing for my lover, the strawberries I count with childlike excitement every day, the ‘hyacinth buckets’ and the winding solar-powered fairy lights wrapped through with clematis and honeysuckle and jasmine waiting to bloom. I have been here for almost two years now; a peaceful retreat from my previous crammed and freezing flat, and I told myself – and probably all of you, too – that this would be my forever home.
Well, mea culpa, and all that shit. I’m starting to wonder if there is any such thing as a ‘forever home’, for me. My Dad once joked that he was going to get a blue plaque made for everywhere I had lived, but when I provided a list of over a dozen postcodes he visibly balked at the expense and admin it would require, not to mention the sheer gall of banging a memoriam into the outer wall of every ex-girlfriends house I had ever chaotically-but-charmingly segued into. I spent a good few years on the run, from predators to mould and damp to collapsed floors to Section 21s to clumsily ‘walking into doors’ again and again. I lasted longer here than in any of the others; almost a full two years before the demons came knocking. I made excuses to myself and my closest friends and family about it being too big to maintain, too enticing for my hoarding tendencies borne of years of panicking about having absolutely nothing, too draughty in the winter as the sea wind batters my cracked front door, too difficult to maintain the garden with my creaky knees and haphazard work schedule. While all of these are true, none of them are really the reason why I am once again packing all of my belongings into corrugated cardboard and preparing to start again. The truth is much simpler, and yet much more complicated. The truth is that this has been a long time coming. Ever since I came home one morning to find three men had picked the locks of my beautiful stained glass front door to rip out my gas meter and install it with a prepaid one, I have been mentally preparing to leave this house. The home that was my retreat, my sanctuary, my peaceful place, in that instant became a living hell. I stopped answering the door. Stopped sleeping at night. Started letting the post stockpile on the doormat again. Started to live in fear of unknown callers on my mobile. Started checking my banking app ten, twenty times a day. Started crossing my fingers out of habit every time I put my debit card into a chip and pin machine to pay for groceries, despite checking my bank balance in the queue thirty seconds before. I started cowering behind the front room door every time the postman came. Parcels were sent back. Letters unsigned for. I lay awake at night, every creak in the central heating an imaginary boot waiting to kick in my front door, every slowing car on my busy seafront road a group of henchmen, every flashing light an imaginary Police car for imaginary crimes. I have woken screaming, shuddering, sobbing, flailing, inexplicably distraught, thrashing, terrified, inconsolable. I have barely slept properly, alone, in over six months, and it is, as the song goes, time to say goodbye.
‘But you’re a bestselling author’, the replies are depressingly predictable. Unless you have subscribed to my tweets (and honestly, why would you?) or have by chance seen the very few allusions tossed up in fury and swiftly deleted minutes later, you may well be confused as to how a bestselling author who has just signed her fifth book deal could possibly be, well, here.
Well, dear reader, allow me to enlighten you a little about the publishing industry. Book royalties tend to come in at approximately 10% of book sale price. Sometimes 7.5%, sometimes 15%, depending on how hard a bargain your agent strikes. That’s ‘sale price’, not the RRP printed on the back of the book. Large retailers buy bulk stocks at ‘high discount’, up to 70% off the cover price. They argue that they shift ‘the bulk’ of book sales, and authors put up or shut up. If you’re following, that means that for books sold in high discount supermarkets, certain chain bookstores, or certain enormous bookselling websites, the author may get only 3% of the price printed on the back cover. Three percent. Or 39p for every £12.99 book sold, with £12.60 of that going elsewhere. And as an author who has painfully and laboriously self-published a book, I actually have no problem with that. Yes, I devised, created, tested and wrote the recipes. Yes, I typed every single word and a third more that got knocked out in the editing process. Yes, I posed awkwardly in someone elses apron outside someone elses front door holding a ludicrously heavy basket of fruit for an hour for the money shot, but I am gosh darn happy with my three percent. Because what most people don’t see is the entire behemoth of a team of people who bring those books to fruition, who give them life and colour and fonts and layouts and double page spreads in glossy magazines. The people who haul my unwilling arse to literary festivals and chat shows and radio interviews and hold their breath through half-drunk interviews, repairing the damage at the end. Nobody gives shiny gongs to the art director whose head I threw a book at, nor the patient editor who cleared half her desk for me to work at so I was less overwhelmed and less alone. Nobody sees these silent heroes of the publishing world, who pop the caps off endless Sharpies and do Pret runs on photoshoots and call me in between breastfeeding their newborns to tell me I’m gonna be okay.
The stick in the craw comes when the 3%, 10%, whatever-percent, doesn’t materialise at all. And here, dear reader, comes the bit you might not know about. Every copy of A Girl Called Jack and A Year In 120 Recipes that has been purchased since 2015 has earned me absolutely fuck all. Nothing. Not a penny. Not a sausage. For a long time, and because my self esteem is so shot to pieces, I believed that perhaps I just hadn’t sold any copies. Perhaps my star had faded. Perhaps that was it, a one and a half hit wonder, and I would have to get a ‘proper job’. But it didn’t add up. New Amazon reviews were coming in on a regular basis. People tagged me in Instagram posts with photos of my books. And so, eventually, tentatively, I started to investigate.
Bear in mind that when you have lived in absolute poverty, it affects you in bizarre ways. Ways that seem unfathomable to people who have not lived in fear of the clatter of the letterbox, or a brown envelope on the doormat, or a simple household bill. Whenever i have talked about this before, readers have got in touch to say that twenty years on from their own experiences, they still do not open post or their own front doors. The level of trauma inflicted cannot be underestimated. The threat of brutal home invasion lingers like a septic wound, covered with the thinnest of skins that threatens to burst open, choleric and stenching and staining your Sunday best white shirts at any moment. It never leaves you, crawling through the hairs on your arms as you sit at home alone, rattling your weary bones with every tap-tap-tap at the door.
As it stands, and at my last calculation, there is no record of my former agent forwarding my earned royalties to me for around three years. According to the statements I have obtained from my publisher – who have done everything by the book and are absolutely not to blame for this series of events – I am owed between thirty to fifty thousand pounds in ‘mislaid’ royalties.
Let that sink in.
Last year I had my house broken into by bailiffs for a gas bill I was unable to pay as a freelance writer with no secure income, while up to fifty thousand pounds of my money – up to 130,000 books sold – waft around in limbo, unaccounted for. Years of hustling up to festivals, addressing auditoriums and playhouses, scrawling my name in inside jackets, hauling myself from pillar to post literally amounting to nothing but debt and heartbreak. I am now moving house – partly as a result of the mental trauma that this has caused, and partly to limit my financial liabilities while I embark on a battle to reclaim what is rightfully mine.
And so, while half the worlds press fete me as an inspirational businesswoman, the other half deride me as a feckless chaos. While simultaneously maintaining an air of ‘you can do it’ positivity, I hide in my duvet from a mountain of letters and all that they contain. While my book sales imply that I can live the life of riley, my credit rating only allows me a basic cash account that freezes my bank card if I try to purchase a £2 pair of jeans from an eBay seller in certain parts of Wales. So I find myself downsizing my (admittedly mostly charity shop) possessions by two thirds to move into a shoebox flat, while hoping that it will finally be the answer to the restless aggravation, the skin-prickling, the wound that splays open, volcanic, unexpected, disgusting, disarming, destructive, reductive, at just a simple, unexpected knock at the door.
The fight for my royalties is going to be pretty hideous. I have deliberately not named the culprit on the advice of a friend who is a lawyer and would appreciate if you followed suit. In the meantime I need to rustle up the funds to move house and lay down 10 weeks rent (yes I know) plus administration fees. I have not written for weeks because I am gripped by fear and strangling depression. I may not write for weeks because of the same. In the meantime I am preparing an eBay sale of all of my best and most favourite clothes, books and crockery, and beg you to keep a lookout for it. If you have used my free website at all in the last six years and can contribute, you can do so at paypal.me/jackmonroe or subscribe at patreon.com/onabootstrap – if you can’t but have something nice or encouraging to say, I read all of my emails, you can ping me a line on cookingonabootstrap@gmail.com.
And finally, all I really want to say is this. Never make assumptions about what is going on behind the scenes. Never imagine for one moment that you know what is under a barely-scratched surface. Be kind to everyone you interact with because you never know how close to the edge of the abyss anybody truly is. Take care of yourselves and also of everyone you come in contact with. It’s easier, and more rewarding, to be kind and concerned and gentle and generous. And it makes a difference. Have a good day, and thankyou for reading.
Jack.

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Filed under: Blog, Essays, Uncategorized

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Jack Monroe is an award winning food writer and bestselling author. Books include A Girl Called Jack, A Year In 120 Recipes and Cooking On A Bootstrap. She has won the Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink award (ironically), the Observer Food Monthly Best Food Blog, Marie Claire 'Woman At The Top', Red Magazine's 'Red Hot Women', the YMCA Courage & Inspiration Award, the Woman Of The Year Entrepreneur award, the Women Of The Future media award and many more. She works with Oxfam, the Trussell Trust, Child Poverty Action Group, Plan Zheroes, the Food Chain and many food banks, schools and childrens centres to teach people to cook and eat well on a low income, and campaigns against the causes of poverty and austerity in Britain and abroad.