On little acts of kindness and generosity

dehmel

I am often asked how we can live on what is nowadays considered a pretty low income and still have a good quality of life. I can wax lyrical about wearing several layers of clothes rather than turn the heating up, bath-sharing, menu-planning, savvy food shopping and taking on the might of the power companies. I can crow about walking and cycling, growing your own food, being content with a week in a soggy tent in Ayrshire rather than a fortnight on a Costa and why a picnic in a carpark is far better than a take-away from a fast-food outlet.

One thing I don’t really talk about so much is the importance of friendship, kindness and generosity. This is a serious oversight on my part, and something that ought to be addressed.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” – CS Lewis

I have wonderful friends. Really, really wonderful friends.

They know how we live. I’m very open about the fact we don’t have much money. I try not to moan too vocally when yet another begging letter from PTA or sponsored form turns up in a school-bag; and I confess to having performed the incredible disappearing party invitation trick a couple of times when it looks like the boys have better social lives than the Kardashians.

One thing, however, we rarely – if ever – have to worry about is clothes for the boys. As well as receiving regular shipments of stuff from my fabulous sister in Wales, and my sister-in-law in Airdrie; I have some fantastic friends – Kirsty, Nav and Gillian (wave, ladies!) who donate the most beautiful, pristine outgrown boys’ clothes. Please don’t ever ask me if I am embarrassed by your charity – I appreciate these fabulous bags more than you’ll ever know. I was trying to remember the last time I had to buy an item of clothing (excluding shoes) for the boys and, in all honesty, I couldn’t remember. Every time I see my boys bundled up in a warm winter coat, wearing jeans that don’t flash their ankles and t-shirts remarkably unstained by ketchup, I give quiet thanks to my band of fabulous friends who put their outgrown outfits to one side for us.

We now come to the two Ls – Linda and Lou. (I know Lou is very shy, so I won’t out her real identity any further!) Linda and Lou are famous in our house for sending their ‘magical boxes of stuff’ which always generate much excitement. Linda recently sent a huge packet of fantastic National Geographic children’s magazines which both the boys adore – they have been read, cut out, collaged, turned into models, and the wildlife posters cover up a multitude of grotty, dirty marks on their bedroom wall.

Last week, on the way to nursery to get Fin, the postman stopped me on the way with a huge parcel and asked if I could take it there and then rather than him having to take it back to the depot. One look at the writing on the box – including the directions ‘Non devant les enfants’ and I squeeeeee’d. Loudly. It was one of Lou’s Magical Boxes of Stuff.

I was desperate to get home and reveal the joys within, yet – predictably – I got dragged into conversation with the nursery teacher, had to calm three tantrums from Fin, stopped three times to empty stones from shoes and twice to pick children up from the icy pavement. Once home, I plonked the children down in front of mindless TV with a couple of Tesco Everyday Value custard creams and disappeared upstairs with the parcel, a sharp knife, and a a fleeting sense of feeling like a teenage boy sneaking a friend’s copy of Razzle past his parents. ‘Stay downstairsI bellowed to the children, who were already doing their best impressions of ninja ducklings and attempting to follow me stealthily up the stairs.

Once in the safety of the bedroom, when I could hear the boys yelling at each other over what channel to watch (we are at the cBeebies/cBBC crosscroads at the moment); my hand trembled as I opened the parcel with my sharpest knife (not a great idea when you’re on 9mg of warfarin a day, readers). Lou has shares in ScotchTape, I think, and let’s just say that this parcel was pretty damn secure.

It was worth the wait. A veritable treasure trove revealed itself to me – amongst which were several gorgeous and pristine books on pirates, knights, trains and farmyard machinery, a set of readers suitable for Ellis, polystyrene spitfires, an adventure whistle complete with compass and magnifying glass, some stickers, a wind-up UFO and – because Lou never underestimates the power of a mother’s relative sanity – a wonderful book of letters by the Mitford sisters, presumably to keep me entertained in an altogether more seemly fashion than just drowning in a skip full of Asda Smartprice gin.

Most of these treasures have been put aside as Christmas presents for the boys. I am very fortunate that I have two boys who accept and understand the reasons why some of their gifts, like their clothes, are second-hand. They appreciate these gifts no less than the ones that come in their shiny plastic wrappers and, thanks to the example of people like Linda and Lou, have taken it upon themselves to offer up their own outgrown toys and books to friends of mine, the local Facebook ‘mums group’ and the local toddler group, who are always really grateful for them.

Next year, I plan to start repaying these little acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, however I can. Words can’t really express how much gratitude I have for those friends of mine (not all of whom are mentioned here, though my gratitude extends to each and every one of you – including my wonderful bunch of crafty mates who will be getting their own post dedicated to them!) who do not judge us or or lifestyle, who go to the trouble of putting things aside with us in mind, and making our lives that much more comfortable.

Thank you. xx

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Eating For Victory

Sunday was shopping day. Ellis was very excited about buying in the rations and helping me weigh them all out. He was considerably less excited about not being allowed tinned fruit or spaghetti hoops.

Takeaway plastic tubs not exactly vintage 1940s….

Rationing, based on two adults and two children (each child receiving a half ration, and no tea ration)

Bacon – 300g

Cheese – 225g

Margarine (substituted for Vitalite as ‘proper’ margarine is no longer sold in the UK) – 300g

Lard – 300g

Sugar – 675g (more may have been available during preserving time)

Tea – 100g (children did not receive a tea ration)

Eggs – 3

Milk – 6 pints

Meat – calculated by price. 1 shilling and 2p per person (equates to roughly £2.50) – £7.50 (did not include offal or sausages. Chicken and fish were not rationed, but extremely hard to obtain. Rabbit was not rationed)

Other things such as sweets, jam, powdered eggs and powdered milks were rationed on a monthly basis; other goods such as dried fruit, canned meat and fish, breakfast cereals could be bought with coupons, of which adults received 16 per week. It is really hard to find a definitive list of ‘coupon values’, presumably because the values fluctuated so much, so we included one box of cereal, one tin of corned beef and a bag of oatmeal in the shopping; hoping that would be equivalent to our combined weekly coupons.

Now, I am a creature of habit. I like to be organised. I like to make detailed menu plans each week before heading out shopping to avoid any waste. Cooking on rations almost turns that whole idea on its head, as you would be expected to make the most of your leftovers, although of course you wouldn’t be sure exactly what you might have left. I wrote a menu, as normal, but fought my inner control-freak and made allowances that things may well change as the week progressed. They did.

Potato Pete

 

 

 

Yes, we have no bananas….(or sweets, crisps, frozen pizza or sanity)

 

When I was young, back in the Dark Ages, I used to spend weekends with my grandparents. Saturday afternoon was spent with my maternal grandparents, Nanny and Grampa. Sundays were spent with Nanna and Grandad, my paternal grandparents.

It was a time of playing in Nanny and Grampa’s garden or helping to harvest the vegetables or soft fruits; or walks on the beach with Nanna if the weather was fine. This, however, was Wales. The weather was frequently shocking, and we would need to stay indoors.

Weekend afternoon TV in the 70s and 80s seemed to be wall-to-wall black and white films. Thanks to West Wales’ unfortunate climate, I am pretty sure I have watched just about every Cary Grant, Fred and Ginger, and Second World War film ever made.

Terrible weather and film matinees also made for some rather marvellous stories of my grandparents’ past. How Grampa met Nanny when he lent her money for some Corn Silk Powder when they worked at the same factory. How Nanna was stuck, unceremoniously, into a rubbish bin by Len Bateman on a double-date (the other couple being her best friend and Grandad). And, of course, the war stories. Grampa was in the Navy, and saved the whole ship from sinking by plugging a torpedo hole with his bare hands. Grandad was in the Army, and taught Field Marshall Montgomery everything he knew, whilst seeing off the enemy single-handedly, armed with nothing but a tooth-pick and a tin of sardines.

As much as I loved my grandfathers’ hugely embroidered tales of bravery and derring-do (I swear they used to try and out-do each other with the most elaborate embellishments just to see our eyes widen in astonishment); I loved the stories from the Home Front just as much. So many stories of real life, of how my grandmothers managed with their young husbands fighting overseas. Stories of rationing, of air-raids, of streets being bombed, of friends being killed.

 

Fast forward seventy years and here we are, sitting in a warm house. The boys are playing Playstation, I am about to pop the dinner in the electric oven. Tonight we shall all have bath using the seemingly endless supply of hot water we have at the touch of a button. We have a choice about what to have for dinner tonight, and a cupboard full of food. We can pop to the shop later for chocolate, and wine; and if the boys dirty their uniforms, I can simply pop them in the washing machine, no bother at all. If clothes get damaged, no problem – we’ll just drive off to one of the multitude of well-appointed shops and buy new.

Our society, even in a time of ‘double-dip recession’ take so much for granted. Every time we throw away that bag of salad that is two days out of date (the one we didn’t use because we popped by the chippy instead), every time we jump in the shower ‘to pick ourselves up’, every time we pop a load of washing in the tumble-drier, or buy a new outfit to cheer ourselves up.

Imagine what it would be like to have very little choice in what you could eat. Shops with bare shelves; coupons for new clothes; strict rationing on household fuel to heat the home, cook food and heat water. How would your child react to only being able to have 12oz of sweets a month, not a day?

How would we manage on war rationing?

That’s what we intend to find out……..my children are going to love me, aren’t they?

 

 

 

 

Thank you, Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and Mr Osborne (and your chums) – Now with added edit. Because I can.

Or just break out the cooking sherry in sheer desperation.

So, as expected, and like the majority of not-quite-starving families, we have lost some of our Child Tax Credit. £70.00 a month, to be precise, plus our Working Tax Credits have disappeared completely.

£70.00 a month could be worse, I know that. I will still receive £350.00 per month plus the Child Benefit which will keep the wolf from the door; and staying at home to care for the children is still financially more viable than having to find childcare between 7.30am and 7.00pm and having to cover the school holidays (childcare costs would be in part funded by tax credits anyway).

£70.00, however, is roughly equivalent to my share of the monthly shop (excluding milk, as we have a milkman. We’re so retro). It is equivalent to two decent warm coats for the boys come the Winter. It is the monthly electric bill (we have no gas in this house, so what little heating we use is from the electric as well). It’s a few days’ camping with the children.

I’m not going to whinge about it. We do OK. We are really very lucky to have friends who give us some gorgeous, beautifully kept second-hand clothes for the boys, we are happy to live without the luxuries so many other people seem to consider essentials (just don’t take my phone, damn you! You will have to prise that phone from my cold, dead hands). There are people in far worse situations than we are.

It is getting harder, though. Food prices are expected to rise over the coming months due to the disasterous effect that the ‘summer’ has had on many areas of British farming. British produced fruit, vegetables and cereals are likely to see marked increases, and that of course will lead to a knock on to the meat and poultry markets (including egg production) as animal feed increases in cost. Like a chain of dominos, this will be replicated across the board as greedy manufacturers and retailers realise that they’ll have a perfect excuse to shove up the prices of everything. Tesco, bless them, are already getting us used to these price hikes by introducing them already. Ever the philanthropists, it is gracious of them to break us in gently rather than horrifying us into a stunned silence in the aisles.

It’s time to get creative. Plan A (where the ‘A’ stands for Austerity) is now go. Watch out, kids. Chocolate and shop bought jam will soon be rationed, and you’re going to forget what oranges and bananas look like .

If you think that’s bad, just wait until you’re going to school in your wellies, and wearing pants made from old sheets.

That should cut down on the party invitations quite nicely, I reckon.

(cue evil, cackling laughter)

Edited to add:

This is just for clarification, really. I lay in bed last night and I mulled this post over, thinking that I came across as ungrateful and nit-picking and that, in short, I must appear to be really useless with money.

I’m sure there are quite a few people who consider £350.00 a month from the government a lot of money. It IS a lot of money, yes, and I am extremely grateful that I live in a country where I do get help to enable me to stay at home and bring up our children. There are families out there who are in a far worse position than we are. I honestly do not know how they manage.

Yes, Richard got a payrise. A small payrise, and nowhere near the rate of inflation – a story mirrored by many families across the UK. The payrise has been negated by the overall increase in the cost of living – our monthly electric bill, for example, has obliterated the extra in his monthly pay (though we are expecting a rebate, eventually), and the increased cost of everything else means that we were considerably worse off than we were last year even before our tax credits were slashed. Again, we are far from alone in this.

By the time Richard pays the bills, he is left with a tiny amount to ‘play’ with. The CTC and the CB payments I receive pay for two weeks’ worth of shopping, essentials for the children (and I mean essentials), school shoes, school uniform, school dinner money, nursery subs, school and nursery trips, birthday presents for family and friends, occassional days out, bus journeys to and from various hospital and clinic appointments, and putting money aside each month towards the Christmas fund. Occassionally, I too need new shoes, or a new coat. There are some months where I do have to put money aside for a couple of months to be able to afford them comfortably without robbing Peter to pay Paul. It leaves no extra money free for savings, or a pension.

I don’t want to use Plan A as a soapbox for my leftie leanings. I want to use this as a challenge, a way to see where we might be inadvertently wasting money, an experiment in seeing how long we can make our money last and whether we can change the way we live for the better.

We are, indeed, living in an ‘Age of Austerity’. I could shout my mouth off about why we, the everyday family, should not  be punished for the wrongdoings of the banks and the other establishments that got us into this almighty mess; but that will not clothe my children or put food on the table.

It is, essentially, about trying to be positive.