you'll be doing alright with your christmas of white, but i'll have a blue, blue christmas
The more eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed a certain lack of activity on these pages of late. I’m afraid that, as last November bled into December, I went into one, big time. I resurfaced only a couple of weeks ago. Cooking, at least cooking anything that might merit a mention here, has been beyond me these last few months. I’ve been eating shite.
If you don’t know, writing this blog and volunteering (at The Maudsley and The Dragon Café) have been the two major pillars of my recovery. So when, in October, the blog won an award and the volunteering led to me being offered a job at the Maudsley’s new Recovery College, you might reasonably have expected a festive season of unrestrained jubilation, fireworks and marching bands.
But that would be to ignore the fact that you can’t chart the recovery journey in a straight ascending line. Not only does it rise and fall, it also spirals backwards before continuing along. Even when your demons are at bay it’s never safe to assume that it’s more than a fragile peace.
You know how you can work your bollocks off all year and then, when you take a holiday, you come down with awful aches and pains? Well, it’s the same with we frazzled of mind, except the aches and pains are psychological – in my case self-loathing, self-doubt, anxiety and alienation. With Princes Corned Beef and Findus Frozen Macaroni Cheese for Christmas lunch – culinary, maudlin self-harm.
But fear not, because The Skintster abides, and is currently bobbing along on an ocean of wellbeing. And it’s all because I started the job three weeks ago. The first paid employment I’ve had in eight years. And what a joy it is. I hadn’t quite realised what a vast difference being a wage earner once again would mean – I’m even walking differently, the service-user shuffle replaced with a spring in the step. I should have known because, before my crisis, I’d had a long and rewarding career; had, in fact, never been out of work since I gave up studying for a law degree to run off and join the theatre. But you don’t, I guess, realise the weight you bear on your shoulders until it’s lifted from you.
The corrosive effects of unemployment aren’t limited simply to the obvious financial hardships or to the stress imposed by the current system of demonization; a big part of it is the loss of identity, of status, of a sense of self-worth, of a valued place in the community. If you find yourself without a job, without a home, and mentally ill then you find yourself in a world devoid of hope, control and opportunity. And without those three elements in place, nobody can have a satisfying and meaningful life. I’ve now got them back.
The story of my life for the past decade could, I suppose, be told in mainly tragic terms and I have, of course, told it that way on occasion, both to myself and to others. But now I’d like to tell it a different way. I’d like to tell the story of my great good fortune .
there is (or was) a safety net
In 2006 I was in free-fall, crazed with self-hatred, at the mercy of rank depression and drinking myself into oblivion. But somehow, at some point (I think it was late autumn), I must have gone to a doctor, because I found myself referred to SLaM’s Lordship Lane Community Mental Health Team and found myself under the tender care of the sainted Rachel Sheppard. She remained my care coordinator for the next seven years. It is no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here today without Rachel and the others in the team.
I’m going back very soon, not as a service user this time but as a colleague, to talk about the Recovery College. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable back then. They couldn’t do much with me at first, though they tried their best. I’d not hit bottom yet.
Thankfully they didn't give up.
rachel sorts out my benefits
By the end of 2006 I had absolutely no money – in fact I was in debt to the tune of about £250,000. But I did have two previously unused chequebooks and a guarantee card, so I started living (fraudulently) off those. When I ran out of cheques in February 2007 I signed on, and spent the rest of the year on the basic Job Seeker’s Allowance. It was an awful time. I was drinking whenever I could, and going through withdrawal – the shakes and vomiting blood – when I couldn’t. The bailiffs were becoming increasingly resolute and I’d hide behind closed curtains and a locked door.
I hadn’t a clue about the benefits system and even if I had I was in no fit state to do anything about it. But Rachel took matters in hand and, by the end of the year, I was getting Income Support and Disability Living Allowance. You may be of the opinion that such largesse shouldn’t be wasted on a miserable sinner such as myself and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I am ineffably grateful. It allowed me to live with a degree of dignity these last few years, while I tried, falteringly, to get back on track.
saved from the streets
Eventually, the bank decided that, all things considered, they'd quite like their money back, thank you very much, and that the best thing all round would be to repossess my flat, which they finally did in early 2008.
But beforehand, Rachel had arranged with the Homeless Unit on Bournemouth that a colleague of hers would take me there straight from handing the flat keys over to the bailiff and that I would have a place in a homeless hostel that very night. Otherwise…well, otherwise I don’t know. I’d have been on the streets obviously, but I’m not sure how long I would have lasted.
with all my worldly goods
A couple of weeks before I went into the hostel I was whining to a chap at the Homeless Unit about how I was going to lose all my stuff – furniture, clothes and, most importantly, my kitchen equipment and my books. ‘We’ll store all that for you’ he said. And they did. For a one-off payment of £20 they put everything into storage. How fortunate was that?
a brand new home
After a few months, I was moved out of the hostel into temporary accommodation in a flat in a large block of flats in the Oval. I spent about nine months there waiting for a place of my own. The council publish a weekly magazine listing all the available council and housing association properties and one day I saw a flat that was more than I could have ever dreamed about. Built by Habitat For Humanity, eco-friendlied up the wazoo, it was in exactly the spot I would have chosen if I’d been given the chance, in my adopted homeland of the Republic of Peckham.
I applied for it and I got it. Yet another stroke of good luck. I moved in during the spring of 2009.
an opportunity to volunteer
I date the (very tentative) start of my recovery from then, when I had a place to call my own again. I was more receptive to attempts from Rachel and the CMHT to engage me, although I was still pretty fucked up. I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but it wasn’t what I needed, some occupational therapy activities and some vocational workshops at Southwark Works. In 2010, one of the advisors there, Chris Finch, despite me being a pretty useless and unresponsive client, let me know about a volunteering opportunity at the Maudsley. He got in touch at just the right moment, just when I was ready to attempt to re-engage with the world in some way after far too long as a recluse.
So in October 2010 I started working for Gabrielle Richards and her team. Gabrielle is SLaM’s Professional Head of Occupational Therapy & Trust Social Inclusion Lead. The latter bit of that title means she is in charge of implementing the trust’s Recovery Strategy.
I was doubly fortunate here. Firstly, I’d got a chance to be working on a variety of recovery-related projects as part of my own recovery. And, secondly, I got the chance to work in an office with such wonderful people as Gabrielle, Sarah, Alexis, Isabel and David. I love ‘em all.
All was fine and dandy for a few months but then I became unwell again and had to leave in early 2011. Most of the rest of that year was spent in a dank and dismal limbo.
But I came out of it and started putting together this website. I was bowled over by the response I got when it went live in the first week of January of 2012. A week later, and only because of the boost I’d got from that response, I got back in touch with Gabrielle and asked if I might have another chance. Wonderfully, I was taken back into the fold. And in the winter of 2012 we began working on a new project for the Maudsley – a Recovery College.
Where I now work.
i used to think i was french but i'm alright maintenant
At the beginning of 2013 I finally got access to what I think I needed all along – full-on psychodynamic psychotherapy. This is a precious resource within the NHS and I am so blessed to have been considered a suitable case for treatment. It’s done wonders.
But 2013 was about to bring even more good fortune.
my (flat white) cup runneth over
October 2013. What a ‘what the fuck’ of a month that was. The Observer Food Blog of The Year Award and an interview for, and then an offer of, the job of Operations Manager of the SLaM Recovery College. If just one of these had occurred I would have been overjoyed. For the two to happen a mere couple of weeks apart was scarcely to be believed.
The film-maker Mark Green made videos of the winners of the OFM awards and here’s the one he did of me. It is, in part, a kind of a love letter to the food culture of Peckham.
We don't have a video of our college (yet), but here's one from our good friends over at the Central and North West London Trust's Recovery College.
what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?
But here's the thing: probably my greatest piece of good fortune was that what happened to me happened when it did and not now, a few years later. Because I seriously doubt that that all important safety net would still be strong enough now to catch me. Not with social care battered by budget cuts, reduced staffing levels and out-sourced services, as the noble endeavour that was the NHS is sacrificed on the altar of free-market ideology; not when many people seem to have accepted as fact the despicable propaganda war against the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. Not when peoples' lives are being devastated by the current benefits policies every single day.
It's hard to remember, in the current political climate of malevolence, divisiveness, rancour and fear, that it wasn't always like this. In 1945, after the fall of Germany, the people of this country, it's returning soldiers, rejected, to the world's astonishment, Churchill and his party - the Tories. They voted for a better, fairer Britain. They 'had known the 'thirties, and they didn't want it again: the dole queue, the street corner, the true poverty of that time. They wanted jobs, and security, and a better future for their children than they had had.'*
They voted for this:
The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that - it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable...homes ...It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them...The nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation and re-equipment of its homes, its factories and machinery, its schools, its social services...proper social security for all - social provision against rainy days, coupled with economic policies calculated to reduce rainy days to a minimum...In the new National Health Service there should be health centres where the people may get the best that modern science can offer, more and better hospitals, and proper conditions for our doctors and nurses.
And they got '...one of the great governments of British history - those five, six years of creating what is now being so brutally and wantonly and callously dismantled...'**.
I am very, very far from being a political animal, so I'd just ask this: surely we can do better than this, can't we?
Surely we are better than this?
a final word on brand awareness
So, there you go. I've been lucky in so many ways. And I have a chance, just a chance, of having some kind of a future after all. There are some past misdeeds that I think I might be able to make amends for and there are others that I know I cannot make right. I'll have to live with that. But I feel like I've served my sentence.
So I’m going to carry on with the blog, and carry on as the Skint Foodie, if that's alright with you lot. You don’t fuck with your brand after all.
I do have a job now, it’s true. But luckily, in this regard at least, it pays jackshit. And anyway, as I hope I've made clear, it was never about eating as cheaply as you can. It was, and is, about eating as well as you can for a modest budget. I’ll be able to afford more fresh fish and fruit now it's true, but, other than that, the way I eat won’t change at all. What will change is that, instead of only being able to spend money on food, I’ll now be able to spend a bit on other things as well – books, cinema, a few clothes etc.
This weekend, I celebrated getting my first pay check by going on a trip to the wonderful Brockley Market. Treats included a lovely piece of Dexter shin of beef from Nathan Mills of The Butchery Ltd, chorizo and cheese from Flavours of Spain, raw butter from Hook & Son, ham from Moons Green and, to eat there, a buttermilk fried chicken bap with coleslaw and Korean hot sauce from Spit & Roast. Lawd have mercy!
I am now so close to getting my cooking mojo back and I’ve quite a few ideas for the blog in the back of my mind (I’m close to perfecting an almond thins recipe for example). Normal service will be resumed here very, very soon.
Unless things go tits up of course.
* From 'Quartered Safe Out Here' by George MacDonald Fraser (a great memoir, by the way)
** From Denis Potter's final interview in 1994. God knows what he would have thought of the utter shower currently in government.
SHORTLISTED FOR FOOD BLOG OF THE YEAR 2014