It didn’t start with a Jan Moir article in the Daily Mail a couple of days ago, but it could have done. Ironically, my first forays into political protest started with a Jan Moir article in the Daily Mail in 2009, when she wrote some ghastly homophobic vitriol about Stephen Gately, and I joined a motley crew of like-minded individuals to go and picket their offices for a few hours. So it comes as no surprise that eventually the frothing cannons of barely-comprehensible bile and poorly-threaded attempts at argument would be turned on me in the end. After all, there are only a finite number of Public Gays To Disapprove Of for £1 a word, so it was going to be my turn in the end. And for someone whose paid-per-views are still entrenched somewhere between conservative Russia and the mid 1920s, I’m not surprised it’s taken Ms Moir 13 years to catch me up.
And where the lickspittle fury of the Heil leads, the usual suspects inevitably follow. Tom Harwood, formerly of Guido Fawkes and now disdainfully employed at GBeebies. Julia Hartley-Brewer, with whom I have always maintained a cordial professional relationship, but I suppose the masks always come off in the end. Richard Holden. Isabel Oakeshotte. The darlings of the white wing, falling over themselves in their haste to ask the burning question about food poverty. No, not ‘why on earth are seven and a half million people skipping meals in one of the richest economies in the world?’ But ‘how come when Jack Monroe writes about budget food ideas, everyones applauds her, but when a Conservative MP does it, they’re a villain?’
Quite why elected representatives and salaried journalists and presenters are choosing to spend their precious paid time trying to undermine the ten year career and credibility of a small food blogger is something from which I can suspect you could draw your own murky conclusions. Perhaps they’ve seen the sheer volume of people lately urging me to stand in an upcoming by-election (which, due to various nefarious activities amongst Conservative MPs, do seem to be cropping up with refreshing regularity these days.) Perhaps it’s just good old fashioned ‘give the public something to hate’ journalism, the premise that the Daily Mail was constructed upon in the first place. Perhaps it’s a genuine fear of confronting the issues at hand, namely malnutrition, starvation, the cost of living crisis, its roots, austerity ideology and the thousands of people who have died at the hands and mismanagement of the DWP. Or perhaps they really, really, don’t see the difference between the work that I do, and the high-handed statements about how easy budget cooking is, and how feckless and irresponsible those pesky poor are, from the likes of George Eustice, Lee Anderson, Andrea Jenkyn, and co.
So allow me to try to clarify, and forgive me but this is an incredibly awkward thing to try to write, because being terribly British and having crushingly low self-esteem means that writing something that aims to pin down some of my achievements and aims in a positive light is making my skin itch with fear and imposter syndrome just at the thought of it. But being autistic, if someone asks a direct question I’m inclined to try to answer it, even if thats a bit uncomfortable. It’s how I spend so much of my time with my head in the nations metaphorical kitchen cupboards, rustling up dinner ideas at all hours of the day and night. I can’t resist a challenge. And this particular cabal of catatonics really do seem to want to issue a challenge. So, as you wish. As my other half (a deliciously ordinary human being with no media presence, connections or even a Twitter account) is very fond of saying: ‘Don’t go wishing for an alligator unless you’ve got a bathtub to put it in.’ Snap.
Firstly, to point out the flaming obvious, I’m not actually a Member of Parliament. Although my workload may seem similar in places; answering letters from desperate members of the public, signposting people to appropriate local services, assisting with benefit claims and appeals, attending debates and committee meetings in the House of Commons, lending my name to causes and campaigns that chime with my beliefs, receiving a shit ton of abuse from anonymous oiks on the internet about my weight, appearance, and family, perpetually high blood pressure, being invited to be on I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother, occasional television presenting hustles on the side, and a memoir in the offing, the similarities end there. I don’t receive an £84,000 baseline salary from the public purse, I don’t have 30+ subsidised restaurants and bars in my workplace, and nobody answers my emails for me nor pays for my non-existent team of staff. Through my work over the last ten years I have become good friends with a number of MPs, and they are increasingly urging me to join their number – not least because, as one of them put it recently, ‘you’d probably work less hours, have more help, and actually get paid.’ But alas, I am just a humble food blogger, answerable only to my 12 year old son, my parents, and occasionally, my therapist. I haven’t ruled out the idea of stepping into the ring one day, but as I currently work 100+ hours a week as it is, now really isn’t the time. And besides, someone needs to be on the outside of the tent reminding those on the inside that it’s not just raining out here, we’re all being absolutely pissed on.
Secondly, this really isn’t what I expected nor wanted to be doing with my life. In fact about six months ago I applied to be a trainee train driver at my local station. The shifts were half the hours I currently work, I could leave my job at the doors at the end of the day, I’d have actual days off, and double my current salary. I do this every now and again; usually in a fit of depression and despair, and start planning my escape from the hostile shark tank that comes with being in the public eye. I have no colleagues, no team, no downtime, no financial security, no assets, no savings, no property, no pension, no regular income, and receive such vile abuse and harassment, death and rape threats, lies and gaslighting and outright slander on a daily basis that I frequently wonder what on earth I’m doing trying to sustain any kind of career at this. I don’t fit in amongst my foodie peers, am too coarse and unusual for television, undervalued financially because of my gender and background, and sometimes that all crushes me into the classified ads, circling teacher training posts, my old job at the Fire Service, jobs at charities, closing down my twitter account and just jacking it all in. Those who think that my career trajectory was all a grand plan both grossly overestimate my organisational capacity and self-belief; I can tell you now that having a mental breakdown, leaving a job I loved, having a baby as a single mother at 22, being rejected for over 300 jobs, selling everything I owned, becoming an accidental local politics nerd and writing some soup recipes isn’t quite the formula for success that it might appear. Nobody is more surprised than me that this is where I’ve ended up – except perhaps my Home Economics teacher, who grudgingly awarded me a low D grade at GCSE and has been watching with interest ever since.
I write budget recipes. I have done for about 10 years now, publishing them for free on my online blog, and in books, several thousand of which have been given away free of charge to food banks. I do this because I was a food bank user, living in poverty, under the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne era of austerity Government. I found a way to cope with the mundanity and penury of my dismal day to day life, and I shared it, in case it could be helpful to anyone finding themselves in similar circumstances. I could have just done that, and probably been fairly wealthy by now, but unfortunately for me I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut and keep my personal brand palatable to the comfortable masses. But I find it unthinkable to simply offer up the canny ways to make a 45p bag of rice a bit less bland and shitty, without also examining the reasons why people need them in the first place.
Early on in my career, I was advised to step away from political and social commentary, because I would ‘sell more books, be more palatable to the Waitrose set.’ I parted ways with that person pretty swiftly, because while I don’t doubt that my outspoken brand of visceral campaigning absolutely harms my book sales, I was a political writer, sitting in the public gallery of my local council meetings, blogging about the people who were making the decisions that disproportionately impacted me and my peers, like the closure of Sure Start centres, libraries, the demonisation of single mothers, the cuts to local funding, long before I ever wrote a list of basic ingredients down and scrawled together a recipe.
My food writing was an accident, dredged from desperation, paucity and despair. Tapped out on a Nokia E72 mobile phone, to the background harmonies of debt collectors banging on the door for the energy bill, and the mounting bank charges that rocketed into quadruple figures for a £6 missed bill. Sitting in a cold, uncarpeted flat, moving tin cans from the food bank around on the floor, chopping and changing a soup recipe.
I didn’t have a plan. Poverty is lonely, and isolating, monotonous and hopeless and grim, so I wrote about it because I’ve always written about things. Its how I process them, and anyway, nobody read my silly little blog so it didn’t matter. I documented the drudgery, the fear, the immobilising helplessness and depression, and I did it because I was planning to kill myself, and as niche and secret as it was, I wanted there to be some kind of record left of this excuse for a life when I was gone.
And so I sat down and I wrote, in the cold and the dark, sipping a cup of hot water with some skanky yellow-sticker shrivelled ginger grated into it to try to ease the hunger pains for long enough that I could trick my exhausted bones into some sleep. Huddling on a mattress on the floor with a toddler, both of us wrapped up in our dressing gowns. My son was going to his fathers house the next day, and I was going to transition gently into whatever awaited me on the other side of a cold bath and dozens of pills. Hunger Hurts was the pre-emptive obituary of a skin-and-bones hollow-eyed wraith who frequently went a week without seeing nor speaking to another human being out loud. Just typed and tapped and tried and cursed and cried, night after night after night.
It didn’t happen that way. I tried. SB went to his Dads, and I ran my bath. I don’t remember much about it – trauma will do that to a person – but I do remember waking up, stark bollock naked, freezing cold, alone, feeling extremely sick, and absolutely disgusted to still be alive. I didn’t have the money for any more packets of 16p paracetamol, nor any booze to wash them down with to finish the job. I just had my wretchedness, my feral existence, and my words.
But something had happened, in the 24 hours between pouring my aching guts out into a rambling blog post, and waking up in that ice-cold bath. Messages from strangers, who reached out and told me their own stories. Some from the distant past. Some very much current. Some people told me it got better. Some people just made me feel less alone. So I wrote back to them. And I carried on writing.
That was on the 31st of July 2012, and there were 100,000 food bank users in the UK at that time. Ten years on, there are two and a half million being fed by one charity group alone. Low-ball estimates that include independent food aid networks and community groups would easily triple that number. Those figures are borne out by the latest research from the Food Foundation, who state that seven and a half million people missed a meal in the last month alone.
And so I keep writing, and keep listening to strangers, and keep sharing my experiences, both from ten years ago and the lasting reverberations of poverty and trauma and their impact on my day to day life a decade on. And with permission, I share other peoples stories too, when invited to give evidence to Parliamentary inquiries, APPGs, consultations, reports, investigations, select committees and debates. Because I somehow have this cursed and godforsaken platform, and I believe its my duty to use that, not to ‘be palatable to the Waitrose set’ and make the mythical millions that the trolls think I roll around on like Scrooge McDuck, but to try to raise unheard voices, and make a change.
Every one of the millions of hungry people in Britain today has a different story of how they got there. Benefit sanctions. Illness. redundancy. cancer. Military veterans. Survivors of domestic abuse. Generational trauma. Unpaid carers. The gig economy. Poverty wages. Zero hour contracts. Underemployment. Cleaners. Nurses. Teachers. Neighbours.
But every single one of us, who has been desperately hungry, intolerably cold, suicidal, clutching at the periphery of survival by our bitten-down fingernails, have a single rotten thread that runs through us all. Binding us together, in our common unspoken grief for the ordinary lives that we didn’t get to have. That thread is austerity. A needless, useless ideology dreamed up by spin doctors and Old Etonians who have never missed a single one of their taxpayer-subsidised meals, let alone ten in a row. Its the idealistic abject cruelty of deliberately inflicting human suffering to bolster profit margins for the Treasury, by the rich, at the expense of the most vulnerable. Many of whom end up paying with their lives; snuffed-out mothers and disabled people, balancing the books of the economy, fertilising those much-lauded ‘green shoots of recovery’ with their decaying bones and subsequent ‘efficiency savings’.
If the ‘let them eat 30p meals’ brigade were really concerned for the welfare of people suffering, and I mean suffering, under the worst cost of living crisis this country has known for decades, they would take heed from the thousands of stories of people who have died at the hands of the callous DWP machine, and the people who enthusiastically grease its sharp and unforgiving cogs. Stephanie Bottrill, a mother of three who was so concerned about the impact that the bedroom tax would have on her family, that she walked out in front of an articulated lorry. Phillipa Day, whose overdose resulted in a coroners report stating that the flaws in her PIP assessment led to her death. A nine day inquest uncovered multiple failings by both the DWP and the private sector contractor Capita in the handling of her case. The coroner issued the DWP a PFD report – Prevention Of Future Deaths – which was supposed to force them to make significant changes to the system in order to prevent this entirely needless tragedy from ever happening again. Did they implement the recommended changes? Of course not. Not then, and not after multiple more coroners reports and PFDs from multiple subsequent deaths in similar circumstances. Jodey Whiting took her own life after her benefits were stopped. Her family received a letter endorsing the DWPs actions, incorrectly stating that Jodey was fit to work, and mailed it to them as their daughter lay in a mortuary, awaiting her untimely and again, utterly preventable, burial. Following her death, and with his life thrown into utter turmoil at the loss of his mother, her 19 year old son Cory also killed himself. I have thousands of these stories, each and every one a heartbreakingly familiar narrative: a vulnerable person denied absolutely vital assistance, unable to bear the pain of a day to day life scrabbling at the periphery of insecurity and just-about-survival, choosing a devastatingly permanent ending to a story that they didn’t get the luxury of choosing their own adventure in. God, they didn’t even get the luxury of choosing their own living accommodation, the colour of their front doors, or the meagre combination of basic store cupboard staples that made up their dinners. What kind of world do we live in, where these horrific and very real examples of destitution and desperation are not a clarion call for an immediate overhaul of a barbaric and repeatedly proven fatal ideology?
Oh, to have the option – as MPs do – of people at your beck and call to keep your life in order. An office AND several homes, that you don’t have to put your hand in your pocket to keep warm and flick the lights on for. Someone else to physically put the petrol into the car that someone else pays for, and yet someone else to tap the receipts into the spreadsheet to ensure you can get every grasping, garrulous penny back for yourself. It all adds up to the same fault line, and the more money that’s stuffed in the crack of it, the wider it becomes, until its an unbreachable earthquake that stands between them and the people who pay their salaries. Money is both isolating and insulating, and the more of it that a person has ready access to, the less they need to think about it. I have said time and again that it takes ten minutes to drop fifty quid on a mindless basket of goods in the supermarket; it takes two hours to walk around it with a calculator, a notebook, a pen, and a handful of change.
And it begs the point, that with several hundred thousand pounds of full time staff at their disposal to do the everyday grunt work, you’d think that MPs would use a fraction of that generous budget to actually do some research in their chosen field. Say, for example, the cost of a can of cheap tomatoes, and their availability nationwide, including in rural areas ill served by unreliable and infrequent public transport. Or investigate the limited grocery options in the immediate vicinity of the most deprived areas in their constituencies, before evangelically espousing how ‘the poor’ should spend their sorely limited income.
The difference between me, and what I do, and the right wingers desperate to prove that budget cooking is ‘so easy’, is that I offer band-aid temporary solutions to help people claw through a week here and there, with no strings or conditions attached. I don’t tell people ‘this is what you should be doing’, but I merely say ‘here’s what helps me and I hope some part of it is a bit useful to you in circumstances that you really shouldn’t be suffering in the first place’. I openly admit that it’s difficult, requires a military amount of planning, good enough mental and physical health to execute, point out the additional challenges of having household members with allergies, intolerances, disabilities and dietary needs. I work with food banks to create meal ideas based on the needs of their users, such as cold boxes and kettle recipes, rather than wield a ‘one size fits all’ solution with disdain and patronising sneers. I accept my limitations, and they keep me up at night, constantly adapting and evolving what I do to try to meet ever more stringent budgets and straitened circumstances, but without ever, ever, suggesting that I have any of the answers. It pains me to have to point out that a Government so hellbent on pushing personal fiscal responsibility back onto the individuals suffering under their tenure, are so adamantly reluctant to bear any responsibility themselves for the swingeing cuts to support services and financial assistance that they have placed upon the most vulnerable shoulders with twelve years of austerity ideology and the damning, damaging decimation of any dregs of public service or duty of care.
Because the painful reality is that when most basic of human needs costs more than the meagre payments that the recipients are forced to subsist on, cheap pasta and canned beans aren’t going to make a jot of difference unless you’re willing to stuff them up your jumper and make a run for it. Those that claim to be the party of clever economics and fiscal responsibility would do well to remember this simple truth: the square root of fuck all is always going to be absolutely fuck all, no matter how creatively you’re told to to dice it.
All text copyright Jack Monroe, not to be reproduced without the explicit written permission of the author.
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