Childhood Memories, Food Poverty and Political Responsibilities | Personal Reflections and Experienc


I am, I accept, very privileged. I live in a well furnished and accessorised home that I can afford to keep warm in winter. I earn more than enough money to feed and clothe myself. I have spare cash for treats for myself and I am able to regularly contribute to the local foodbank and other causes. Supported by an occupational pension (which I sacrificed a percentage of to take several years early) I work part-time and spend some of the rest of my week on voluntary work and activism. I remember though, what is was like, as a child, to experience poverty.

Before they married my mother was repeatedly told that my father was ‘a catch’. Having left school at 14 he worked in a factory but owned his own house bequeathed to him by his father. The first nine years of their marriage (two before I was born and the remainder as a small family of three) were ‘comfortable’.

My dad though, following some time abroad at the end of World War II, and in possession of a somewhat wandering spirit, was not satisfied with living and dying in Liverpool, the place of all our births. He persuaded my mum that an experience was in order and after selling the house and most of our belongings we left the area with all we owned in a couple of large suitcases.

There followed four years of travelling – North and South Wales, Blackburn, London, Sheffield, Edinburgh and The Bahamas – before we settled in Falmouth, Cornwall. It was in The Bahamas where things started to go off plan. We travelled there with a friend of my dad’s who was sharing the cost of this part of the adventure with my parents. For reasons I won’t go into here he cut short his trip with us and took his share of the money with him leaving my parents, who had already spent most of theirs, rather short.

Although I didn’t know it at the time we left earlier than planned but not before we had got into arrears with the rent. I do remember though that our diet became less varied in the last weeks abroad with the oranges and coconuts from the garden making up a significant part of each meal.

Arriving back in London we had enough money for a few nights' accommodation but then things got difficult again. We only had one night on the streets (or rather in a railway carriage opened for us by a kind railway guard) during which my parents decided to ask some old friends on the outskirts of London to take me in whilst they attempted to ‘get themselves sorted’. The friends insisted that we all stay and after a few weeks some relatives of theirs, who we knew a little, helped us out and so we moved to Blackburn for a while until some other friends of friends in South Wales also took us in.

I don’t recall now for how long we were dependent on the goodwill of others; certainly a good few months. My dad was ‘handy’ and did odd DIY jobs wherever we stayed – long enough in Blackburn and Cardiff for me to go to school – and I remember my mum cooking and cleaning alongside the woman of the house in each location.

Although most of his occupations were blue-collar my dad was a writer too and at this time he earned a little bit of money writing stories and articles. Following the offer to rent a small cottage – two up, two down with a loo at the bottom of the garden – and the possibility of a job for my dad we moved to Sheffield. We lived there, I think, for about nine months but as autumn became winter and my mum was recovering from her second bout of pleurisy since moving into the damp accommodation we packed our cases once more and boarded the train to Cornwall.

We ‘settled’ in Falmouth for the next seven years, largely, I know now, so that I could have an uninterrupted secondary education. We lived in various flats in the town and my parents both worked; dad as a hotel night porter and mum as a shop assistant and two years working together managing a restaurant. It was in Sheffield, once a regular wage started to come in, that my parents began to pay back the, not insubstantial amount of, money they owed to the extremely patient owner of the house in Nassau.

Times were lean, especially during one short period when neither of my parents had a job. My mum was a good cook and did inventive things with beans before it was fashionable and the mackerel gifted to her by local fishermen, on average twice weekly when she was working in a newsagents (see below), was always a highlight.

We left Falmouth when I was 19 to move to Coverack, somewhere my parents had always loved, and mum and dad worked for the summer season in the restaurant of the village’s largest hotel whilst I attended the county’s further education college. Sadly, my father died, unexpectedly nine months later, and my mum continued, for several years, to do two jobs in the summer and rely on benefits during the winter.

I appreciate that some might think that my father’s, my parents’, choices were foolhardy and I know that they experienced much anxiety during much of my childhood. Yet, my memories are bright and full of colour. Mum and dad often went short themselves so that I could do many of the things my friends did, we did free and inexpensive things together and we talked and laughed and loved each other. It was indeed an adventure for me. I was never frightened and always trusted them completely.

But, I do remember, as I say, what it was like to experience poverty (although at the time I never thought of us as poor); through homelessness, lack of food (not constantly but sometimes), little money at Christmas or for other high-days and holidays. This year, this summer in particular, I have thought more and more about these aspects of my childhood (usually I reflect more on the places we saw, the fun we had) and I share these memories as a possible insight into my personal feelings of distress with respect to food (and other) poverty in our society today.

I wrote recently about some of the reactions of the Left and the Right to recent reports about the scale of summer hunger amongst school aged (and other) children.

Like many others I was incensed by the twitter remarks of Conservative MP Simon Hoare. Just a brief reminder here of his response to a tweet by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn:

@jeremycorbyn: This is a national disgrace. We can't have millions of children going hungry over the school holidays.

@Simon4NDorset: Go on Jezza: do your thing with the loaves and the fishes! Best to stop walking on the water before you do though.

I had already written, and had published (online and in print), a letter to The Guardian agreeing with Mr Corbyn’s (and Angela Rayner MPs’) feelings of disgrace at the near Dickensian levels of food poverty under ‘Tory austerity’. Once I became aware of Mr Hoare’s attitude and, seemingly, unashamed activity online, I wrote three more letters. The first; (written and emailed on the 1st August) was to Mr Hoare himself and other than an automatic note of receipt I have received no reply. The second; also sent the same day, also online, went as follows:

Dear Mrs May

I have just written to Simon Hoare MP following his response to a tweet by Jeremy Corbyn last week. Thus:

Dear Mr Hoare

I am writing to express my shock and distress at your response to Jeremy Corbyn MP's tweet (28th July) concerning child food poverty in the summer holidays. I am amazed that you think it acceptable to publicly attack a parliamentary colleague in such a way at a time when online abuse is such a concern. Furthermore, to make a 'joke' about child hunger which is, as Mr Corbyn and others have noted, a 'national disgrace' is unbelievably crass and callous.

Do you not think that an apology to Mr Corbyn, and to all those calling out the issue of food poverty and working (often voluntarily) to alleviate it, is in order?

I look forward to your response.

I hope that you consider Mr Hoare's behaviour to be as distasteful and offensive as I do and would be interested to know what YOUR response might be.

Yours sincerely

Gayle Letherby

I did receive a reply from the Office of No 10 to this. Thus: ‘Your message has been passed to the appropriate body for their attention.’

Increasingly as the days go on I cannot help agree with a friend who when I told them about this said: ‘That will be the don’t give a sh*t department then.’ I’ll write again if I do not hear soon. . . .

The third letter, with a bit of a local twist, was published in the West Britonyesterday (10th August). (Coincidently, the same day I attended a Labour Party rally (with speakers including Jon Ashworth MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP) here in Cornwall, but more of that another day.) I bought my copy of the local newspaper this morning from the newsagents were my mum worked and above which I lived with my mum and dad (for about five and a half years; I can’t remember exactly) until May 1978. The shop is less than five minutes walk away from where I live now.

'On the 28th July following a report by the Trussell Trust suggesting that millions of children could go hungry during the summer school holidays the Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner, and the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, both, quite rightly, called this out as a ‘national disgrace’. One response to this was a tweet to Mr Corbyn from the Conservative MP Simon Hoare (North Dorset) thus: Go on Jezza: do your thing with the loaves and the fishes! Best to stop walking on the water before you do though.

With current concerns around online abuse in mind such a response is, at least, in very poor taste. Thinking locally, given that Cornwall is the second poorest region in the UK (with all of the top eight poorest regions in the UK being poorer than anywhere else in Europe) and child poverty in parts of Cornwall, including Penzance and Redruth and Camborne, are deeply engrained we can only hope that our local MPs, and the Prime Minister, do more than distance themselves from such offensive and callous attitudes and behaviour.'

I also bought a Falmouth Packet today. On my Facebook page I’ve previously noted that it wasn’t until several weeks after starting work in the newsagents that my mum stopped asking ‘a packet of what?’ when anyone said ‘Can I have a Packet please?’ On the letters page there is a letter from the local foodbank which includes the following ‘We would like to thank everyone for their continued support for Penryn and Falmouth Foodbank which is still constantly needed by our community.’ This, plus the almost daily reports, shared via twitter, that foodbanks across the UK are urgently in need of supplies reminds me, not that I need it, of the enormity of the issue.

I was lucky. Despite their financial problems my parents had the support of each other and of friends and friends of friends. In comparison to the problems that many individuals and families have today ours where much less significant. As a family our life together was rich and I credit my opportunities and achievements and my values and appreciations to their influence and sacrifices. Some families and some children are not so lucky. There is more and more evidence that, if things stay the same, not only will child poverty continue (it is currently at its highest since records began), it will increase.

A couple of nights ago I watched the documentary Professor Green: Living in Poverty (see the link below) which focuses on the experience of two families, and on the impact of living in poverty on one child within each family in particular. At the end of the programme Professor Green says ‘It makes me ashamed…’ Me too.

For more by this author visit Gayle Letherby's blog

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