I’d like to apologise to anyone I seem to have mortally offended with my apparent ‘conventional attractiveness’ and taste for middle eastern food.
In an article published today on ‘Left Futures’, I am apparently ‘middle class’ for ‘not spending the afternoon drinking White Ace and copulating.’ I am often advised not to respond to criticism – and I rarely do, people are entitled to their opinion. But I do respond to outright lies and misrepresentation, because I’ll be damned if people can rewrite my life and I’ll just let it lie.
In a potted bastardisation of my history, I have apparently ‘been judged lightly’ as a benefit claimant because, basically, i’m pretty and cook with chickpeas. (I’ll ignore the overlooked fact that I only claim child benefit these days, and crack on…) Really? Did you read the Sun comments section, the Guardian comments, the Daily Mail comments, the comments under the Hunger Hurts post on my blog? The tweets that flooded the Sky News feed telling me to ‘stop having children’ when I’ve got just one and probably won’t have any more? The death threats when I came out as gay? Judged lightly?!
So, I’m sorry I went to a grammar school when I was eleven. I failed most of my GCSEs though, if that’s any consolation.
I’m sorry I chose to spend my money on chickpeas and lentils instead of…what? What else was I supposed to eat? Why do some people think chickpeas are ‘middle class’ and ‘aspirational’? It’s not a lobster, it’s a cheap dried pulse!
The thing that really outraged me, though, and what led me to write this article, was the ‘Beatrix Potter cosy frugality’ comment. I didn’t realise that poverty was a competition. I didn’t realise there were boxes to tick to validate or invalidate my experiences.
But let’s make no mistake – there’s NOTHING ‘Beatrix Potter cosy’ about missing days of meals, with the heating off all winter, the lightbulbs unscrewed, selling your sons shoes and drinking his formula milk that the food bank gave you. If that’s ‘cosy frugality’, you’re frankly off the wall.
Try it. For a month. Two. Five. Unscrew your lightbulbs, turn off your fridge, sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than two quid for.
Stop going out. Walk everywhere, in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing three year old trailing behind you. Drag that three year old into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies. Get home, soaking, still unemployed, to ‘dry out’ in a freezing cold flat.
Put two jumpers on and worry about how you’ll wash them, take them off, and put a tshirt underneath. You can wear the jumpers all week, and change the tshirt twice.
Drag yourself to the cooker to pour some pasta into a pan, pour some chopped tomatoes on top, and try not to hurl it across the room when your son tells you he doesn’t like it – because theres nothing else.
You’re cold, exhausted, only forcing yourself out of the depths of choking depression to smile at the children’s centre workers because you’re scared they can see how numb and dead you feel, how you go to bed at night tormented by thoughts of suicide. Your son would have a better life without you. You’re a drain on society, the state, your family and friends. You slit your wrists in the bath with a prised apart disposable razor and horrified, you come to, wailing and sobbing on the floor because you know you’ve hit the fucking bottom.
You wake up the next morning, jump in a cold shower, stuff the new bailiff letters in a drawer and put long sleeves on to hide the wounds, and you go to queue at the food bank with your son in tow. You can’t cope any longer. Tenuous. Tense. A mind raging with doubt and fear and self hatred and uselessness. You fall apart in a room full of people, you hear your voice, disembodied, shouting at your son to just be quiet as his joins the chorus of noise buzzing around you.
Someone takes you into another room and gives you sugary tea.
You’re trying desperately to compose yourself because you’re terrified that ‘intervention’ means someone might take your child away.
You know they know you aren’t coping.
You hold the bottom of your jumper sleeve like your life depends on it, terrified of giving away your red raw secret, terrified you might see someone you recognise. You’re grateful for the tea and sympathy but you just want everyone to leave you alone and to stop asking if you’re okay. Because you’re not. You’re full of rain and heartache and anger and despair and it’s starting to seep through the cracks in the kept up appearances, seeping through the tshirt sleeve and you need to get out of there.
That was February, just gone, before the job and the book deal. But maybe I didn’t quite make it clear enough – poverty isn’t a discerning foe. The rain isn’t miraculously any less wet when you don’t have a coat with a hood, or an umbrella, or three quid for the bus, just because Mummy and Daddy are still married, or you went to a grammar school. That rain still soaks you to the skin, and your three year old, too.
I still have the scars on my wrists. And a book deal, yes, but publishers sought me out, not the other way round. Sorry for being ‘conventially attractive’. I’m sure it doesn’t matter a bit in my line of work, writing and cooking, what I look like. But for some reason, it matters to some online commenters; it matters because it made me ‘less poor’, apparently. Silly me. Silly, conventionally attractive me, starving when I could have been selling kisses for a dollar at the church fete.
No, not everyone gets to roll onto the Sky News sofa to talk about their miserable experiences. But that’s my point. I talk about it. And I will not stop talking about it until people stop dividing poverty into ‘the deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor based on what they look like. Astonishing.
(To read the original article, click here: http://www.leftfutures.org/2013/08/lentils-and-lager-why-we-forgive-tax-evaders-but-not-benefit-claimants/#more-16865)
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe