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No, not an attack of SAD, nor even that I really really could do with being able to turn the clock back to the 10th, which is the advent chocolate I’ve just opened, to buy me a few more hours in this week, but something more insidious.

I was pondering on the way into town today – via a particularly circuitous mental route – about work and why we work, and whether it’s an exponential hamsterball. Apparently jobless figures in the northeast have gone down slightly in the latest statistical release, though whether this has any damn lies and statistics about it, or whether it’s been a victim of changed definitions, or whether it matters at all bearing in mind half of ‘the poor’ and a large number of foodbank applicants are in work… I wondered why we needed jobs. To earn money, to buy things. Now, food and warmth and clothes (and books) I understand. And don’t get me wrong, I spend more money than I’d like on stuff (mostly coffee (or books), certainly not clothes or shoes or make up or gadgets or whatevers) too, but it worries me when I see mad shopping sprees in the stores for Christmas, and not just for Christmas.

Last week on the bus the girl behind me was trying to organise a payday loan on the phone. Everyone was pretending to/trying not to hear/listen, though I couldn’t help but lend her a pen the third time she got cut off trying to remember the reference number. And even only hearing half the conversation, the whole bus knew she was on credits and benefits but needed £300 for Christmas and that they would try and pay it back by Easter. Having successfully been granted the money, she got off the bus with the little girl she had taken out of school to take to see Santa.

But beyond Christmas, we still spend. And we need to spend. If we don’t get out there and buy things, the new shops in Trinity Square will never all be let, and if they’re not let, then local people won’t be able to work there to earn money to go into the shop next door and spend it. Because businesses need to make money or they can’t pay wages.

I confess I was thinking this passing some council workers today and remembering I never got round to responding to the budget consultation (despite having read all 48 pages plus appendices) which laid out what options the council could take to cut costs, and the FTE and real post numbers of staff who would be directly affected by each proposal. I found myself thinking of some of the things that would affect 174 posts, and what would happen to those 174 people if they lost their jobs – would they be needing to take advantage of one of the welfare services which had just been cut on a subsequent page of the document. And how one could ever win trying to balance that kind of maths.

So it brought me back to the stories I hear at funeral visits of all the allotments and half the food for the street being grown there and in gardens, and I wonder how the buy, buy, need to buy, need to spend culture we are now stuck in can ever slow down to a sustainable pace. It worries me, it really does.

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It’s 18.5° inside. I have no idea what it is outside, the 40° heat in the summer broke my thermometer. but with a vicious wind, which is what makes the difference round here. I cannot imagine just how bitter it is to be out in this cold without shelter. So this is not a complaint, just observations in gratitude that at least it is almost nineteen degrees. At least, that’s what the display says. I’m wearing not just my usual thermal vest but thick thermal socks too under my duvet slippers, along with the two sweaters, scarf and my arm warmers/fingerless gloves. I have a snuggly blanket round my legs. My nose is like ice. Now I’ve moved from my pc to sit by the fire, I can feel my fingers enough again to type.

An hour ago I relented and put the gas fire on. The curtains are closed (I pretty much never open any except for the living room if I feel the neighbours will wonder what on earth kind of sloven I am if I don’t) and all the doors are closed. There isn’t a shutter on the serving hatch, so I can’t actually totally close out the kitchen and its drafts. Last winter it is probably true to say that with conservative use of the central heating thermostat, I was almost never warm. And the heating bills frightened me. So this year, I’m trying the other option. I’ve already stuffed hundreds of cotton wool balls in the half inch gaps in the windows and taped over them with insulating tape. I’d like to open my home to nightstop teenagers, but my spare rooms take lots of heating. This winter (and I am horrified to even think that the ‘winter’ proper has barely got going) I have moved my study into half of my living room, so that I can try the gas fire over the heating, and just run to bed quickly which has thermal bed socks and blankets over the duck duvet.

When I lived in Sweden, it was regularly 22-23° inside, even when minus that outside. Putting on winter trousers etc to go out in it is easy, easier than keeping warm inside. I can’t type or write very well in my fingerless gloves, and when I put a coat on as well I do a good impression of the michelin man.

Why is this not a rant? Well, I still have a roof over my head, and after an hour, sitting right in front of the fire, I’m also now warm. I’m conscious too, though, that if I turn the fire off it will be back at mega-chilly in no time at all. This is the third time I’ve switched the fire on, when I’ve been in all day, confining myself to the 3 square metres. I’m really worried what impact it will have on the bills, which I struggled to manage last year. But I get regular money to pay those bills with, and if I lowered the money that I give, I’d not worry quite as much. But that doesn’t apply to many.

Lots of our parishioners don’t have central heating anyway, so they live all the time like I am doing now. For our older friends, it really does mean they sit in their chair all day in front of the fire, or in many of the clothes they own if they worry about putting the fire on.
But some of them, and others, lots of the families who pre-pay their energy on keys or who are reduced to attending the food bank (creeping up to 100 clients at each opening – feel free to spend some time thinking about the abject wrong in that), there is no option, no choice to make about if it can be afforded, it simply can’t.

The rules on fuel poverty have just been changed/massaged so that less people fit into the criteria. It’s sadly ironic that the re-definition picks out that some of the most affected people live in the least efficient housing (with the possible exceptions of drafty vicarages) and have least opportunity to have that inefficiency fixed. So I think this is a feeble attempt at greater accuracy, in favour of establishing a priority for people needing help. I do not qualify as living in fuel poverty, and I’d worry if people worried about me over those who need it.

However, I realised, as I think about the rising levels of poverty and what we can and must do in the face of it, that under the old definition of fuel poverty, it did affect me. Fuel poverty under its old structure applied to anyone who had to spend more than 10% of their income on maintaining livable levels of 21° in living areas and 18° elsewhere. Like I said, I really struggled to get those temperatures in my house, and I spend more than 12% – and that’s before I have put the gas fire on 3 times already….

When I’m at home with a rare afternoon in to work, or a rare afternoon off, I’m very conscious of how long I can cope being in. I don’t have a good mental list of places to go and work that are warm and free, rather than loiter in a coffee shop over a coffee I stretch out. I have an IKEA family card, so the cafe there is warm if I drive out there (an option for me, but clearly not for all). And if I, despite having a regular income, actively – pretty much daily – worry about the cost of being warm, then I can only begin to imagine the misery of those who really are in energy poverty, even if they have homes and jobs. Our church day centre is limited in attendance by how many people the minibus can collect, but I wish we were open and warm every day and could teleport people in to not have to huddle by their unaffordable fires, or simply huddle in misery.

If this is what we call living for many, it stinks, frankly. How can we call ourselves a developed nation when so many struggle with basic issues of food and warmth? The visible and painful needs of the rest of the world are often highlighted to us in adverts at Christmas, but really, we surely cannot sleep easy in our own beds while local rates of hypothermia and depression rise within our own neighbourhoods. I used to live in a little mid-terrace solid house in which, conversely, I was almost never cold. Until you go there, you have NO idea just how all-encompassing the how-can-I-afford-it can be.

I listen to the wind rattling round the chimney behind the gas fire. The side of me near the fire is warm. I can feel the other side of my face is still chilly. But I’m lucky. Others aren’t. The hidden damage of poverty spreads insidiously around us. Scraping and worrying, going cold and hungry is a long way from life in abundance.

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I’m just back from holiday. First proper holiday in quite a long while. As usual, I read. That’s what I do on holiday – read (and sleep, and visit churches, and eat). This week I *almost* ran out of books. Serves me right, because after raised eyebrows from Rachel as to whether I needed *all* the ones I had laid out by my suitcase, I let her reject one, and I ended up going to the church shop on holiday to acquire more…

From very different ends of the spectrum, two of the books I chose to take were more…

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I’m imagining a pretty good slap up meal in the Sims-Williams house tomorrow, as Robin finishes his #livebelowtheline challenge. Because he can. Little to say other than how sharply he has illustrated the reality for us. His reflection on day three reminds us yet again that thankfully for him this is a time-bound exercise and the dreary monotony will soon end, putting him out of his now not insignificant misery. As his creative more…

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So it’s day 2 for Robin and other intrepid livebelowtheliners, and – coincidentally, or not – I saw a fascinating tumblr post today. Whilst Robin and others like him share what their £1 buys them, here’s what others have in a week. Having lived in a few different countries, the anthropologist in me was interested in the variation in people’s kitchens/living rooms and cultures, and in the difference of content (lots of meat versus lots of vegetables versus how many bottles versus how many ready meals), not so much the amount. Until, of course, you reach toward the end of the post, when either half the amount stretches round more than twice as many people, or, as in the case of Mali or Chad, where it doesn’t even come close to half the amount…

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Robin begins “living below the line” tomorrow. He has posted on his shopping trip to Asda. I’ve been struck as he prepares for this week by how carefully one must think these things out – I wonder whether people used to doing this kind of budgetting ever manage to sell themselves as skilled at it on job applications – or how much better a state the economy would be in if it were they running it for a while rather than people who stop off for a drink after work and buy £50 bottles of champagne just because they can….

But please note Robin’s opening comments before he even starts, more…

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The latest welfare reform cuts are rightly prompting righteous outrage and comment and analysis from all quarters. It was noticeable that government ministers implementing changes refused an invitation to see themselves how it is to live on £53 a week. It is possible. Well, yes, it’s possible to survive, perhaps even to live, after a fashion, but hardly into the abundant fullness of life in which people flourish as human beings. And yes, it’s possible, because to do it for a week means you are full of decent food to start with and you return to your situation afterwards. But what if more…

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