Whenever food poverty, obesity, or food in general comes into the media spotlight, I adopt a mental brace position, awaiting the onslaught of tweets that come, a plague of clockwork cockroaches, wound up and scurrying every which way into the light. Some are clumsily well-intentioned, most are not, yet here they come with their hastily-Googled prices of spring greens and potatoes, crowing about how! cheap! vegetables! are! The latest was Annunziata Rees-Mogg, MEP and sister of that sentient haunted Victorian coat rack, Jacob Rees-Mogg, pointing out that raw potatoes were cheaper to buy than oven chips. A 21st Century Marie Antoinette moment, ‘Let Them Eat Spuds!’ but sputtered into the vacuous echo chamber of Twitter, rather than a foundling moment of a revolution.
I know the price of a bag of potatoes, Annunziata. Having lived in grinding poverty and with its aching and unshiftable groggy hangover ever since, I know the price of potatoes at three different supermarkets through eight consecutive years. I know the price of potatoes that are fresh, frozen, loose, baking, bulk, tinned, chipped, powdered into instant mash, from the greengrocer, growing my own, and hauled back from the corner shop in five kilogram bags. I know that in 2012 a can of tinned potatoes from Sainsburys was 19 pence for 540g, and now it’s almost doubled to 35p and the Basics range has been renamed Hubbards to give it an aura of respectability in the Brexit-stockpile era. I know that if you really knew your spuds, you’d know that tinned potatoes are the cheapest way to buy them, because they don’t need to be stored in a fridge or freezer, and they make a cracking potato salad, saag aloo, dhansak, casserole and more. I know this, because I’ve been Properly Fucking Poor, and I can tell you the most economical way of buying literally anything. I had an Excel spreadsheet for that sh*t. I still do. But regardless, most people know that potatoes are cheap to buy in an unprocessed state. The difference between you and me isn’t the fifty three pence you claim to save by buying them raw and grubby instead of cuboid and lightly tossed in a smattering of oil. (Make sure you add in the cost of sending Nanny or the Butler to buy them though, for full disclosure.)
The real difference between you and me isn’t as simplistic as you being the daughter of a Baron and me being the daughter of a fireman. You had a private school education and a brother worth an estimated £150million. I was evicted from my flat with a toddler when my Housing Benefit was suspended because I was deemed to have made myself deliberately unemployed by having a baby within the confines of a job whose flexible working patterns were a paper policy rather than a reality. (My brother was in the RAF last time we spoke, a couple of Christmases ago, when he described Iain Duncan Smith as the best thing to happen to this country and told me I had chosen to have a baby outside of marriage so deserved everything I got. It’s fair to describe us as ‘estranged’ these days, I don’t know how it works in the aristocracy but where I’m from being decked by your little sister is seen as a bit embarrassing.)
I have spent the last seven years working with families who are still in situations similar to the one I found myself in, living in poverty in the sixth richest country in the world. I do almost all of this work for free, not because I can afford to (I can’t), but because that’s just the way it is at the sharp end. We proffer our Widows Mites in the shadows of the noisy Pharisees, and quietly hope it makes a small difference where it’s needed. And day to day, I hear and understand that there are many, many myriad reasons why people choose convenience foods over preparing their own from scratch. I cover a few of them here, in an essay I wrote called My Ready Meal Is None Of Your Business. Sometimes it’s a lack of time. Or a lack of equipment. Living in a bedsit, a B&B, a hostel, a refuge. Poor mental health. Working two or three low paid jobs to make ends meet in a society that is designed around a two median income family. Not believing in a future. Why would you batch cook when you’re suicidal? I know I certainly didn’t. F*cking waste of money cooking enough meals for three days when you’re hoping the fistful of sleeping pills and more that you managed to wheedle from your friendly local GP with your haunted eyes and mad demeanour will help you quietly, gently die in your sleep.
I am a bestselling author working on my seventh and eighth books now, and I rent my home because I cannot buy one. I’ve tried. It was humiliating. My credit rating is shot to pieces; CCJs that still haven’t expired block me from getting even a £50 overdraft on my basic bank account. I need a guarantor for my internet contract. I’ll have my forever home one day, for me and my boy. At last count I had moved house over twenty times in my lifetime. The bungalow I rent would cost 37x my annual living wage income to buy, so it probably won’t be this one, but one day, I keep telling us both, as though saying it aloud will manifest it into reality. One day we can paint the walls whatever colour we like. One day we will have a home that will really truly properly be ours. One day the pencil lines in the doorway that I measured your growing on won’t have to be painted over as we throw our things into boxes again. One day we can plant a hydrangea and still be here in the spring to see it grow.
I have the date of the last CCJ expiry burned into my conscious brain. I’m counting down to it, and saving up for it, because I’m so very tired of living my life on the run from the noisy wraiths of my past. An unexpected knock on my front door sends me running into a back room, pulling the curtains, making myself small in the corner, holding my breath. It’s a scene my son has witnessed for most of his life. I told him Mummy doesn’t like surprises. I try to laugh at myself afterwards so as not to alarm him. Paint a jolly face on your dolly face, atop your painfully thin ragdolly limbs as you try not to show where the trauma touched you, bending over double in a physical agony because the everyday vulgarities of destitution wrapped your guts in its cold and forceful hands and still won’t let them go. Tugging on them every now and then, just as a reminder. The bile in my throat when I put my PIN in in the supermarket, making a joke to the cashier just like I always did. Getting ready to cheerily promise to come back with another card in a bit, knowing you can’t and never will. The pile of post sitting in the hallway, unopened for months on end, because letters always meant bad things. Brown envelopes especially; I found some from 2013 last week that are still sealed. Sometimes I sit down and go through a pile in a moment of boldness, but there are too many now. And that brings its own headaches, penalties, mental clutter, paranoia, and acute feelings of failure as a parent, as an adult, as the head of a household, as a human being. Sometimes I just want to run back home and live with my parents, at the age of 32, and beg them to take care of me. I’ll be very quiet. I can cook, and I promise not to say f*ck in front of the children, Mum. I won’t fold the corners down on your books, Dad.
I move house so often because I never feel secure. I shuffle the furniture around every few weeks, restless, trying to make it feel right. It never does. It never will. As a grimly amusing aside, this led to one of the tabloids recently pooling a pile of my social media photos together to imply that I had a massively grand house because of all of the different rooms. I acidly pointed out that they were the same rooms several times over because I shift everything around all the time. They didn’t amend the article, but I suppose it’s a compliment to my interior decoration in a roundabout way. For the record, it’s a modest sized three bed dormer bungalow, and two of the bedrooms are very small because they’re in the eaves of the roof. Cracking great garden though, and enough room to do my job and have a nice family life with the lad, and it’s the nicest home I’ve ever rented on a very long list of addresses. I’m mostly happy here, but every now and again a white van will park outside and I’ll start searching my emails for the TV license number, or there’ll be an unexpected knock on the door and I’ll run away. Someone will pull into my drive in a three point turn and I’ll be flat to the wall, peering out of a crack in the many layers of voiles, trying to see who they are. A payday loan email pings into my inbox, and I’m momentarily tempted. I keep a literal stock check sheet of how many portions of every single cooking ingredient I have in the house at any given time, and am constantly mentally re-evaluating it to work out how many days meals I could survive on in a crisis.
I am an absolute Scrooge about the heating. The boiler and hot water are off for 23 hours of the day for most of the year. I have an electric fire in the lounge and an electric blanket on both of our beds, and we use those most of the time rather than heat the entire house. I can be frivolous in some areas – I have slowly finally bought some decent furniture for my rented home for the first time in my life, having spent a decade fishing it out of skips and carrying it home from thrift stores, and I own a few pieces of designer clothing that I bought with my first couple of book deal advances, but I don’t run a car (never finished driving lessons), still don’t have contents insurance (a hangover from poverty, I just wasn’t in the habit of insuring things and now keep putting it off, because paperwork terrifies me), and am not so much financially illiterate as simply chaotic. Partly severe adult ADHD, partly avoidance, partly monsters in my head. Give me a tenner for groceries and I can make it last a week. Give me a bank card and I’m a wreck. So I have a GoHenry account (hashtag-not-an-advert), designed for children’s pocket money, that is the only one I leave the house with. I set myself a small weekly spending limit for fripperies and groceries and my other bank cards are in a locked box in a locked cupboard. Because I’m never going back to the bad place again, and I will put whatever ridiculous measures in place I have to, to safeguard against that.
My route out of poverty was a fluke; a series of linked events and timely accidents and to be honest, a bit of a blurry timeline, but I’ll try to simplify it as best as possible for those that don’t know, with the caveat that it is a period of my life that I have buried deep inside a locked and cavernous part of myself, that a year in therapy has only really started to rattle the padlock of with a hairpin.
I had started to attend local council meetings and wrote about them on my online blog, called Our Southend at the time. A local councillor, Anna Waite, had grumbled on the front page of the local newspaper that ‘druggies drunks and single mums were ruining our town’. I wrote a letter to the paper that was so long they had to serialise it across three days, and one of my friends suggested I start a blog. So I did. And I wanted to know who these people were who were making the everyday decisions that impacted me, my child, my friends and my community. Who was threatening to shut the library that we wandered around in to keep warm? Who was closing the children’s centre that I would rely on for childcare if I found a job? Did any of these people look like me?
The blog had a handful of readers, mostly fellow local politics buffs, and it was crude and tribal and mostly furious. I had always enjoyed writing at school, but left at 16 with four and a half GCSEs. The half was Short Course Religious Education, and an A*, to boot. I had no idea half a GCSE was even a thing before I was exactly that amount short of taking my A Levels and thrust into the cold world of minimum wage employment. My Wikipedia page incorrectly says that I have seven – I’ll clear this up once and for all. I sat seven GCSEs at school, having been pulled out of the others after being predicted ‘failure’ grades, which at the all-girls-grammar was classed as anything below a B so as not to upset their precious league table results. The Times did an expose on this practise last year and my Facebook was alight with women who had been in my year at school all saying the same thing – this has been happening for decades, why is it only being talked about now? Anyway, I sat seven GCSEs, and I passed four and a half of them. So there you go.
My Careers Advisor had boredly steered me towards the British Army recruiting office, suggesting entry level jobs in cooking, or the engineers. I went for an interview, at 16, cannon fodder with a skinhead, but for several reasons, didn’t sign up. I never considered pursuing writing as a career, and even now it astounds me that not only do I do it for a living with literally no qualifications for it, but my work is on the National Curriculum. Not bad, for a working class girl whose first job was cleaning tables at the local Wimpy on a Saturday and working weekdays in a chip shop.
Back – or forward – to 2012, and as my world shrank into a tiny flat, as friends fell away and I started to isolate myself from my family in shame and self-loathing and depression, the blog expanded to fill the space that human contact had left behind. I started to write about my day to day life, the mundane dreariness of living in a world of ‘no’. No you can’t have a comic. No there isn’t any afters. No you can’t have seconds. No we can’t go to the funfair on the seafront. No you’ll just have to wear those shoes for a bit longer and I’m sorry, I’ll stuff one of the free newspapers inside them to try to stretch them a little bit. No the heaters ‘don’t work’. No I don’t have any money to give you today, Mr Aggressive Bailiff Man. No I don’t have anything for you to take away, either. No I can’t come out for a pint. No, I don’t have the internet at home. No I can’t clear my rent arrears. No, please don’t make us leave, this is our home.
Then, in late 2012, Lisa Markwell was writing an article for the Independent about hospital food, back when it was a printed newspaper. I don’t remember exactly what was said but it was something about the cost of it, and maybe something about how for the money spent it could be better? Anyway, I tweeted her from my small, local politics and single mum fury twitter account and said that I had £7 for the weeks food for me and my son. She messaged me and asked if she could include it in the article. I said yes. It appeared as a gratifyingly brief single line in a short entry about the state of hospital meals, and Lisa stayed in touch with me to check how I was doing every now and then.
A couple of months later, a friend of mine sent me a press enquiry. ‘They’re looking for a Mum who’s going to have a really sh*t Christmas and I thought of you’ was the general gist of it. I bolted. Absolutely not; I’d managed to hide my situation from almost everyone I knew, there was no way I was talking to the national press about it. ‘They’ll pay you £250’, he added. It was a few days before Christmas. I had no presents for my son, no decorations, no tree, no cards, no heating, nothing. It was for the Sunday People. Nobody reads that anyway, I thought to myself, and reluctantly agreed to talk to them. As part of the interview, they asked me for a receipt from my weekly shop. I still have it in a box somewhere. The journalist sat in silence as she looked at the extremely short list of very basic groceries for a long and uncomfortable time. ‘What….do you make….with this?’ she asked. ‘Carrot and kidney bean burgers with that and that, then the same ingredients can be used to make a soup, and then…’ you get the idea. They included it in a sidebar on the double page spread, and I used the money from the interview to pay some bills and buy some £5 Mickey Mouse roller-skates for my son and a few festive bits and pieces. The world span madly on.
Then the Telegraph got in touch, asking if they could profile me for the paper. The writer seemed kind, and friendly, and so I said yes. Xanthe Clay came round for lunch, and we are still friends seven years later. She wrote a generous full page about my cooking, austerity cuts, and allowed me the space that the Sunday People had not to get a bit political and feisty. It was called My 49p Lunch With A Girl Called Jack and shortly afterwards, Penguin contacted me to offer me a recipe book deal.
I had applied for over 300 jobs since leaving the Fire Service. I had no confidence whatsoever in my ability to write a book – I didn’t even have a computer by now, having pawned it to pay some rent arrears – but what they were offering me was akin to a job. So I said yes. I didn’t expect anything from it, but it would give me a cushion to sink into while I found regular work. I took the phonecall while standing in the queue for the food bank, and literally collapsed with shock. Sitting in a back room with a volunteer and hot sweet tea and my bewildered looking child, I just cried and cried and cried. It was over, for a while. The cold and the fear and the hunger and the frightens and the door knocks, would be over for a while.
I wrote the majority of A Girl Called Jack by email on a Nokia E72. I still have it in my desk drawer, and every now and then I just stare at it, and its tiny awful buttons, and wonder how the f*ck I did it. Because I had no other choice but to. It was my one chance at escape, my yellow brick road, my shiny red slippers, and I took it. I remember, weeks after signing the contract, sleeping on the floor of a single bedroom in a house share I shared with five people and a bedroom I shared with my son, writing an email to Penguin begging them to release the initial signature payment because the local council had read about my book deal in the paper and withdrawn all of my benefits and I couldn’t pay my rent. To this day we (the council and I) remain in dispute about that period of my life. When one of my editors, a sweet Irish woman called Tamsin, discovered I was writing the book on my phone, she cleared a desk for me at their enormous great big office on the Strand with the big gold doors and insisted I come and work there to finish the manuscript. I had to wait for my signature payment to come through before I could afford the train fare, and some clothes that would be suitable to wear in an office environment, but she and everyone at Penguin were extraordinarily kind to me. Even when I produced a handwritten notebook of recipes and tried to hand it in as a completed manuscript, thinking that that was how real authors did things. (It is not, and do not ever do this to your editors, because it frightens the life out of them.)
A Girl Called Jack was a surprising success. And so – in the way that my calamitous life seems to work – my then-agency didn’t pay me my royalties for it. And they stonewalled every enquiry I made for months on end, claming amongst other things that I’d never been on their books. I was still a highlight on their website at the time. I have a new agent now, who fought a lengthy and frustrating battle to get some of them back to me. I think I had to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t mention it publicly. Oh well. We also had a contract saying that they would pay me what I earned, so we both know the value of a sodding signature, don’t we? It took almost three years to get back part of what I was owed, what I had worked for, what I had tapped out in the dark on my mobile phone night after night after night. I’m still angry. Recipes written from food bank parcels, by a single mother, in the cold wasteland of suicidal ideation and only-just-surviving. You would be angry too.
Anyway. The point of this was to point out that I am not a success story. I’m not an inspiration, and I’m not an example. I am a broken, f*cked up, messy rotten husk of a human being who almost died – several times – under Conservative led austerity measures. I still live in fear, haunted by hunger and cold and failure and self-neglect. My mental health is an absolute shitshow. I have arthritis, diagnosed in my mid twenties, likely exacerbated by living in bitter cold and damp and mould for two whole winters and every day and night in between. I am cold, closed, and still angry. Post traumatic stress has cost me every single long term relationship ever since. I retreat into the basest of animal instincts when I am frightened, curling into a ball, howling, roaring, sobbing, clawing at the floor. That switch can flick from anything from a noise in the garden at night, to a missed bill payment starting a spiral of avoidance into red-topped letters, again. The fear never goes away. I understand now that it probably never will. Poverty has been proven to change the very makeup of a persons brain. I am damaged beyond reasonable repair. I know, because I have tried everything, from NHS therapists to a crisis care team to a stint at The Priory. Hypnotherapy, herbal tea, yoga, big walks, religion, vodka, talking, cardio, volunteer work, wounded healer nonsense, you name it, I’ve probably given it a go. So all I think I can do, and what I try to do, is use my experiences to make things better for other people in similar situations. I don’t always get it right, but I try my best with what I have and who I have become in this emotional wasteland. And then, I reason with myself, it was for something. Like kintsugi for the fibre of my being, crawling around picking up the broken pieces and trying to patch them back together with slivers of gold. Making something useful, and not altogether hideous, from the wreckage.
This is longer than I intended but I guess I had things to say. And my main point is that poverty and privilege are largely accidental. You don’t choose to be born into an income bracket, a country pile, a housing estate, a double barrelled name or a damp tenement bedsit. But ignorance is a choice. And choosing to use your privileges to patronise people whose lives are entirely beyond your experience and comprehension, is a choice. Choosing to use the powers vested in you by the constituencies you serve, to deprive those same constituents of light, heating, food and home security is a wilful and deliberate act. And it has to stop. Because I am one of millions of people who has lived in bitter, life-changing, cruel poverty in this country, and I will continue to tell my story with all of the uncomfortable details and horror and fury until that changes for the better.
And if your response to people in crisis is to simply lecture paternalistically about how you would be better at being poor than they would, I suggest you put your money where your flapping great mouth is, and give it all away. To women refuges, child support services, food banks, and every other organisation trying to patch up the screaming great holes in the social security safety nets that millions of children are falling through. You may well know the price of potatoes, but in order to tackle food poverty on a real level, not just a pontification for a jolly brouhaha on the internet, you need to understand the value of compassion as well.