It’s Robin Hood not Santa we need this Christmas
Sarah Morgan Jones
On a rare foray into one of the ‘big four’ supermarkets this week, I happened upon a large and well organised campaign by members of the Trussell Trust to stock up their supplies.
Under the shelter of the entrance foyer, tables were laid out from door to door with green crates, each holding one type of the unglamorous staples deemed suitable for the foodbank – tinned or dried food, jars of sauces, mostly the budget brands, frill-free necessities.
Nothing fresh or frivolous, just the makings of a beige-based meal, topped with a limited spectrum of tomato related activity and perhaps a tin of turbo-charged protein. Repeat as required. And hold on to those cheese rations to offset late night rumblings with a cracker.
On the volunteer side of the display, a well-choreographed flurry of down jackets and scarves, bubbling past each other in a limited space.
On the customer side, trolleys akimbo, cherry-cheeked shoppers, fear of what’s about to come, as they enter the fray of the seasonal build-up, caricatured across their faces.
Some pause and scan the crates clearly trying to work out what they will have room for amid their hunted-gatherings, and some wondering if they should say they could do with being on the receiving end.
Normally a shopper at Aldi and Lidl, my visit here was to get just one item – 15 of them – chocolate selection packs for a Christmas party for Ukrainian women and children.
I had room on my broom for a few more items, so I stopped to ask what they were lacking.
Sizing me up accurately, at a glance, the volunteer said ‘We could do with more coffee. Doesn’t have to be an expensive brand.’
I am an instant coffee mainliner, first drink of the day (not to be confused with ‘proper’ coffee, an entirely different proposition), and throughout the day. Without it I become grumpy quite quickly, and the few remaining endearing charms I may have clung onto into my 50s disappear entirely.
The thought of someone facing the day ahead unable to have a coffee, even a crap one, was a tiny situation that today I could change.
Hold my feet, I’m going in.
Inside, the towers of Christmas spending loomed skyward, a blur of red and sparkle, all the fancy palavers filling the eyeline, a dangerous neighbourhood past which your budget shopper must walk before getting anywhere near the essentials. It was giddying, overwhelming.
After some scanning to locate the selection packs (actually a terrible idea for all the plastic crap and waste they involve for so little chocolate reward), my son and I set off across the plains in search of the coffee aisle.
To an early adopter of the Aldi/Lidl model, these big supermarkets are the stuff of nightmares, row upon row of stacked up bits and pieces that must be bypassed to get to the goal.
The intended effect of the endless labels is to stun you and to numb you so that by the time you get to the sensible stuff, half a mile away, your trolley is already bulging with BOGOFs and balderdash, with the fun aisle (booze) right at the end, when you are guaranteed to feel like drowning your sorrows, if only there was some money left.
Making our way across the store, my son is diverted to the shaving aisle, where he pauses to ogle the dizzying selection of razors, locked up with security tags, and unfathomably expensive – the longer lasting the item, the more it will cost.
A ‘colleague’ is busy restocking, and cheerily greets us, while patting her cheeks with her working-gloved hands: ‘Oof, I am hot! Because we are not putting the heating on at home, when I come into work, where the heating is chugging away, I get boiling!’
‘That’s hard,’ I say, ‘to come from this and go home to a cold house.’
‘We are making a game of it. My son has autism, and I say to him that we’ll keep putting on clothes and blankets, and then if we really are still cold, we can treat ourselves.’
I imagine a row of Michelin men figures lined up on the sofa watching Gogglebox on a Friday night, with frosty breath, nodding reassuringly to each other ‘We got this, guys! Who needs heating anyway?’
She continues: ‘With him having autism, we have to make something of it, to prepare him, get him used to things. We’ve been having blackout practice – you know, I’ve heard there may be blackouts this winter, and if that happens without warning he just won’t cope. So, we practice by turning everything off so he can see what it will be like.’
She goes on to tell me, with unstinted jollity that she has what sounds like a war chest at home, full of candles and torches and packet food which can be cooked on a camping stove if needed, and plenty of little gas cannisters (I think of the explosion in a Bedford block of flats caused by a camping stove and of the house on Anglesey which suffered the same fate and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in a tent, let alone a house).
I wanted to enfold her in a hug and not let go.
‘This is not right, is it?’ I say, feeling sad and helpless and furious.
‘Well, no,’ she smiles.
‘And of course, the flip side of not using our heating is that our houses will get damp and mouldy and our boilers could end up conking out.’ (I think of Awaab Ishak whose two short years were ended by exposure to mould).
For the first time her positivity glitches as if this had not occurred to her. We hold each other’s gaze for a moment, before I wish her luck and head off for the coffee, muttering rage at the injustice while my son strides along behind me.
12 years on from the onset of the austerity project, it’s clear to see this country is on its knees.
When the multi-millionaires sat back on their piles of offshore money and decided that the country needed to submit to a period of belt tightening, it wasn’t their own belts they had in mind.
Instead of embarking on a mass council house building program which could have opened the door to thousands of apprenticeships and secured the future workforce, generated income opportunities for councils and of course provided much needed homes, they cut public sector spending, punished the poor and the disabled and circled their financial wagons to protect the rich.
As we head into this winter, everyone from rail workers to nurses, from barristers to Shelter staff are either already striking or planning to, acts of essential but apparent self-harm which strip their own pockets further, and cause hardship to those they look after.
While the government tries hard to turn us against those going out on strike, just as it did in the days of Heath and Thatcher, most of us understand, I hope, that these seemingly high pay rise demands are long overdue.
The act of striking is such a desperate measure, a bid to get a real term increase which doesn’t leave them poorer than at the advent of the austerity circus and recognises the breath taking increases in the cost of living.
The political path between then and now is littered with Eton-schooled dilettantes who have had a jolly ‘playing shop’ in government, taken their turn at flushing the public head down the toilet while simultaneously giving us a wedgie, before stepping out of the game, entirely unscathed, to deliver after dinner speeches, take non exec roles in big corporations, hide their wealth in the Cayman Islands and taken a revisionist approach to their memoirs until they bear no resemblance to reality.
Meanwhile, we are subjected to more and more existential stress, as the resources designed to support us such as the NHS and housing and welfare and education get cut marrow deep.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that if we haven’t got the basics of food, heat and shelter, we cannot flourish, cannot develop and grow, but remain in a state of perpetual anxiety about what tomorrow brings.
Back in 2010 there was a considerable campaign in favour of what was called the Robin Hood Tax also known as the Tobin Tax. The concept was pretty simple: every financial transaction undertaken by business would be subject to a teeny tiny tariff of 0.005%.
This would raise, according to calculations, over £100bn per year, enough, at the time, to sort out all our public spending issues, ruling out the need for cuts, ensuring overseas aid without the perceived harm to the public purse, and shoring up the NHS for generations to come.
Now I am no economist, but for the life of me I cannot see why this campaign went nowhere, why it was not engaged as a no-brainer.
I cannot see why, once again, we are expected to tighten our belts even further, as the cost-of-living strikes at every ordinary door, and why keeping our heating off is being spun to us as something we should be feeling good about, by means of doing our bit to save the planet.
Deep in this state we are encouraged to blame someone. The scapegoat the government holds up before us is not the money men who gambled our savings on non-existent entities, it is not the tax avoiding businesses who can foxtrot their way around the system, hoovering up the resources of cities which build roads for them to reach their fulfilment centres and employing their citizens on the most fragile of contracts.
Nor is it the landed and the lorded who rope off their estates for the pleasure outings of the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.
No, the ones we are supposed to blame, are those who flee our bombs in distant lands, the ones who arrive with nothing after death defying journeys, the tiny number, compared to most of Europe, who in this day and age are still living in such poverty and terror that the poor souls think this ugly country might hold some hope for the future.
That when they arrive, they are herded into holding camps, or shipped off to Rwanda, or treated like criminals and ‘vermin’ is and will remain a shameful stain on the UK.
The hostile environment created by Theresa May, maliciously moulded by Priti Patel and given a cherry garnish by Suella Braverman, along with the squid-game of Brexit, means that those in direst need in this country are being brainwashed into believing that all that is wrong in their lives is the fault of the people who have had the drawbridge of legal sanctuary raised even while they grasp hold with the tips of their fingers.
As I sit in my chilly room working away at three part time jobs, I know I’m more fortunate than some. I have lost the on-costs of caring for my parents and the two decades of childcare, and while I am not a blustering picture of health, I am ok in the scheme of things.
But while I sit here decked out in blankets, tapping away on the laptop, I wonder how we are all going to cope.
I think about the shame of the foodbank, that it is even necessary at all, and I shudder at the thought of the high-fiving marketing intern who came up with the term ‘Warm Bank’ knowing full well we would understand the term instantly, and we actually might think it is a good idea.
I think about the old and the cold, the long wait on the floor for an ambulance, the double income families made homeless by landlords who want to up the rent, with absolutely no chance of social housing.
I think about the women who are being told that sex work is a way out of poverty by Labour MPs, and wonder how many more will actually believe it and have no alternative this year.
I think about the shivering men who sit outside Aldi being asked what they need from inside, and I think about the man who was at the next checkout last time I was there spending 70p on a single bread roll and a yoghurt and then seeing him dip one into the other as he walked away.
I think about the woman stacking shelves in the supermarket, running blackout drills with her autistic son and I think to myself, when will Robin Hood arrive?
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An English lord is not going to save us. Twm Sion Cati maybe?
Oof! That was a difficult read! I’m in bits, and the supermarket lady and her son just broke my heart. I’m sharing this far and wide – and keeping my frozen fingers crossed for Robin Hood. Brilliant piece.