The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent their money on more wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread, or even like the writer of the letter to New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes,it would, but the point is that nobody is going to such a thing . . . The peculiar evil is this: the less money you have the less inclined to feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not. . . When you are unemployed, which is to say that you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy me a tuppenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the PAC level. White bread and marge and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread and dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.
George Orwell 1937
Jamie Oliver is getting some unwelcome attention this morning, which won’t do his new series any harm.
There’s a script around people who are on benefits. They all have 52 inch flat screen tv’s. They all have satellite tv. They all buy designer clothes. They all go on holiday all the time.
Apart from many of Them being Us (child benefit and tax credits are State Benefits and by far the largest proportion of benefit spending goes on pensions.) this constant grind of how devious and well-off people on benefits are has become ludicrous. The Politics of Envy always refers to poor people wanting what rich people have but as ever reality is infinitely more complex: a great many poor people support the arguments for people who are well off to have tax cuts, and it is poor working people who tend to be envious of people who are unemployed.
So what does TV, flatscreen or otherwise, bring to a family who can barely afford food?
Distraction – there’s a limit to how often you can take the kids to the park after school or read improving literature to them before bed. There’s a limit to how much Radio 4 a person can listen to. When working people come home their TV habits aren’t scrutinised, and unemployed people are allowed to enjoy sport, soap operas, documentaries, films, children’s TV, holiday programmes or the news.
Involvement – If you don’t know what’s happening in the world you are excluded from it, whether that’s your kids not knowing what’s happened in the latest soap that all the other children in the playground are talking about, or having no idea what your choices are during a general election. TV is an opportunity like no other to be part of a zeitgeist.
Inclusion – when a TV is a normal part of everyone’s life not having one makes you different. If that’s your choice then that’s fine, but it’s another matter altogether if it’s because you’ve been told you shouldn’t have one. I’m not aware of any data on what kinds of TV people on benefits possess or how that TV finds its way into their home. I haven’t bought a single TV in my life, being given other peoples when they buy a new one or getting one from Freecycle.
Light and warmth – TV fills the same niche as an open fire used to, bringing movement and light into the home. It’s a cold, dark winter. The kids have had dinner. Your heating may be off. Which would you rather do: watch TV together under a duvet or go to bed at 7pm?
Company – when you have no money socialising is severely compromised. Yes, you can go round to friend’s homes but that’s about it. Bus fares, bringing a token gift, not being able to join your friends when they decide to spontaneously go out for dinner or the pub (don’t you dare go the pub!) makes life depressingly small. TV brings company to you, free.
When Jamie Oliver says he “cannot understand modern day poverty in Britain” he’s not joking. He grew up in an affluent family who ran a successful, up-market business in a beautiful, very prosperous village. Despite having ADHD and dyslexia he left school at 16 with 2 GCSE’s after 7 years at a prestigious Grammar School: his life would have been very different if he’d been brought up in less favourable circumstances.
I like Jamie Oliver, he cares about and, more importantly, is practically involved in helping disadvantaged young people and he’s genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of poor families and children. He has many excellent points about the way in which we all eat and how we may choose to spend our money. But in reiterating one of the most pernicious myths about disadvantaged families he demonstrates the blindness that comes with privilege.
PS If I gave you mussels, tomatoes and spaghetti, what would you make with them and would your children eat it?