We spent yesterday in Slimbridge – somewhere we lived for several years. Going back into that landscape brought a rush of all the emotions associated with living there – the fear and anxiety, the pressure we were under, the hideous uncertainties. Those were tough times. I was surprised by how bodily my response was and how it was a response simply to location. We aren’t there any more, in any sense, but the perspective that creates is decidedly interesting.
I can’t say this last year has been easy, either. There’s been much to do, some demanding challenges, steep learning curves, vast amounts of work. There have been scary bits, too, but that’s worked out for the greater part. Much of this stems from being more in demand, having more to do, and playing at a higher level than we were.
Success creates challenges and pressures, but they are nothing compared to the challenges of failure. Working hard to get a job done is a whole other game from working hard to try and stretch a small amount of money far enough. The anxieties around house buying are nothing compared to the anxieties caused by fearing homelessness. (The Canal and River Trust routinely threaten liveaboard boaters with homelessness. Apparently they can square this with being a charity.) The stresses of deadlines and a packed schedule are as nothing compared to the stresses of not being able to see how you’re going to make it all work. We fought our way out of the one and into the other.
One of the things the ‘hard working’ can easily be persuaded to feel about the ‘scroungers’ (to borrow the divisive language of politics) is that to be unemployed is an easy life, just dossing around with everything paid for. Much of the benefits money in the UK actually goes to working people who just aren’t earning enough to live on. The minimum wage is not a living wage, and part time jobs won’t reliably keep a roof over your head. When you don’t have much money, and have to think about every penny, thing are stressful.
If a sudden request for funding a school trip could compromise your food budget, or means you can’t replace worn out shoes yet… the jugging is intense and unending. What can we cut back on? What can we do without? And so you end up with one in five mothers skipping meals to feed their children. As the government sets up ever more bizarre and pointless hoops for the unemployed and ill to try and jump through, the pressures of poverty become dire.
We were in some ways, just plain lucky. We have privileges on our side – skills and education that enables us to get some brilliant opportunities. I had the time and space to get depression and anxiety under control so that I can work, rather than sinking entirely as so many other people do. We never stopped believing it was possible (sometimes by dint of taking it in turns), where many people are defeated. It is possible, but that’s a hard thing to hang onto. Once we no longer had to pay solicitors on a regular basis, things became a lot easier. Not everyone’s pressures and problems go away.
To be poor and dependent on the state to any degree, is to live with uncertainty and vulnerability, especially with this current, compassion-free political culture. The stresses of getting somewhere can be huge, but when you feel like you have some control over your life, some scope for hope, that’s really not as bad as the stresses that come from being slowly crushed by life. I have, to a degree, done both. Powerlessness and hopelessness are hellish things to face on a daily basis. We could be a lot kinder to people who are in that situation rather than demonising them.