We’ve been food and drink shopping as if the festive season would never end. Cupboards, larder and freezers are groaning under the impact. I am really quite ashamed of myself. There are still subliminal remnants of the bad old days buried in both of us, the days when food was rationed and coupons were carefully saved for weeks before the great event. Rationing in Germany ended several years before the end of shortages in Britain, which means that Beloved’s childhood in a grocers’ shop in London was deeply influenced by people coming in to buy tiny amounts of foodstuffs like fat, cheese, sugar, bacon.
But today's poverty is worse, to my mind. At a time of plenty, wth shops filled with foods from around the globe, fruit and vegetables available all year round, when many are suffering the modern scourge of obesity, there are people for whom gifts of real food, fresh food, to be prepared and eaten at home, are quite useless. I had absolutely no idea that such abject poverty exists in one of the largest economies in the world.
During one of our shopping trips to a supermarket last week we spent enough to receive the offer of a free turkey. At first I wanted to turn it down. We had just ordered our Christmas meat at the butchers' and had no need of a whole, frozen, turkey. Then a vision of 'A Christmas Carol' came into my head and I thought that there must be many people who, like Bob Cratchit and his tribe, would be only too glad of it. I took the turkey home and rang the person in Valley’s End who organises the Food Bank. Joan said immediately :”No, I don’t want your turkey. Can’t use it.”
I was amazed. Food Banks who don’t want food? “No,” Joan said, “ our clients wouldn’t know what to do with it. On top of that, they have no means of cooking it. You can’t do much cooking on one (gas or electric) ring.” Joan’s and the Food Bank’s clients have either only recently come off living rough, are too poor to pay rent, have had their benefits stopped, have been put into one room, often barely furnished, in some council administered hovel. Joan continued :”Even those who have an oven probably don’t know how to defrost a bird, or how to cook it. They’ve been brought up in equally deprived households themselves, have been neglected, abused, lived in care homes, and never learned basic housekeeping skills. Tinned food is what they know and want and even the tinned soup or baked beans or mince has to have a name they recognise. And don’t come with lentils or anything else nourishing. ‘What’s lentils' they ask". Joan told me of a client who has nothing but a kettle. So the only hot food he eats is the one you pour hot water on.
She painted a horrifying picture of the deprivation and destitution that exists among the poorest in urban and rural areas, who are heartlessly termed the underbelly of society. None of that cosy, candle lit, jolly face we see in depictions of Victorian England, the Dickensian cheerfulness that warms the hearth of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, in spite of the hardship they endure. Bob Cratchit’s wife has an oven and she knows how to cook the turkey Scrooge gives her, once his cold, hard heart has been dragged away from his moneybags and the ghosts have put the fear of eternal damnation into him. I know that this cheerful picture was a myth as much as the idea that there are no truly poor in our own affluent society.
My turkey has found a temporary home in the freezer of friends; Joan has promised to think up a way in which it can be made into a fundraiser for good causes.