Yesterday, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report entitled, “Destitution in the UK 2023”. I, on the other hand, spent most of the afternoon trying to find a parcel return centre. Dodgy QR codes and broken scanners meant walking six miles through York’s streets before my parcel could begin its journey to whence it came.
I was returning some cotton sheets which my mother-in-law had ordered. They’d cost £28.99. Later I took my son and his mate to see Manchester United play in the Champions League. The tickets were £127. Before I left, I booked two indoor tennis courts for £42.40, and a day’s fishing which was a further £60. On the way to Old Trafford, I spent £70 on petrol and bought my son a £4.50 meal deal. At the ground I secured three copies of the special Bobby Charlton memorial match programme, at £4 each.
The spare programmes are for two of my mates. We are blessed to have a wonderful set of friends and we love them dearly. They are solicitors, CEOs, professors, teachers, artists, senior managers, shop owners, business leaders…and one or two of them support Man U! We see a lot of each other. Earlier in the week, a number of us went to the IMAX to watch “The Killing of the Flower Moon”, which cost £13.50 a ticket. A pre-film bottle of cinema lager was £5.70.
Whilst Scorsese’s latest epic is a truly great film, I am concerned with a more prosaic matter – my quest to find a parcel return centre that did what it says on the tin! After some false starts, I eventually found a shop on the east side of the city which had a QR code scanner that worked.
I went to the till to print the returns label for my parcel. In front of me was a customer in her late thirties, I guess. She wore a stylish, colourful jumper and a beret. She was in conversation with the woman serving her. She suddenly turned back into the shop holding the packet of chicken breasts she had attempted to buy.
I sensed what had happened. I learned from the woman behind the till that the customer was short of money. The chicken had been more expensive than she had anticipated. I went over to the chiller cabinets, behind the stacked shelves, where the customer was prevaricating over what to buy instead of the chicken. I told her I would pay. She looked initially confused, but once I made my offer clear, she smiled. She had very few teeth. She began to walk back to the till.
My largesse reminded me of John Steinbeck’s essay on giving and receiving: “Giving builds up the ego of the giver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure… It is easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships.” As she followed me through the shop, Steinbeck’s reflections gnawed away in my gut.
A new customer was at the counter. As we waited, at the woman’s instigation, we exchanged names. She wore make up. With the beret and the snazzy pullover, she could have been at the IMAX the night before to see some art house film. She thanked me with grace, softly, but assuredly. There was no gush, just gentle dignity. She understood how to receive the kindness of strangers, according to Steinbeck. She made me feel better.
When we were finally served, it turned out that she needed to pay £6 credit on her electricity card and the chicken she had chosen for tea was £4.79. She only had a tenner. She was 79p short. The woman behind the till said something about how you need to both heat and eat. I passed her a fiver and suggested she gave the change to the customer. A quick goodbye and I left the shop.
Lots of things collided yesterday afternoon, not least the memory of being with my mother more than once in Fine Fare in the 1970s, when she had to make the walk of shame from the till back to the shelves. And, of course, yesterday’s events happened in York, the home of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
But what hit me most was the way we have come to accept the unacceptable in this beloved country of ours. How, in the sixth biggest economy in the world, do we have citizens unable to afford to feed themselves and heat their homes? It is surely a national embarrassment to have people in our towns and cities for whom a check-up at the dentist is an unaffordable luxury.
And the numbers are staggering. According to the JRF report, “There has been a shameful increase in the level of destitution in the UK, with a growing number of people struggling to afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed…3.8 million people experienced destitution in 2022, including around one million children.” The findings are truly shocking.
So, what to do? Well, I feel compelled to do something. I spoke to Rachel Maskell, York’s indefatigable MP, a fortnight ago, about coordinating York’s support services for the destitute and the homeless. We have a few ideas. Nothing will be easy…
Doing nothing would be easy. After yesterday, however, that’s no longer an option.