Invisible poor in England's playground

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The Independent Online
ROBERT AND Jill Stripley are to be found every other Tuesday winding their way to the supermarket on the hill in Newquay, north Cornwall.

A handsome couple in their early fifties, they walk slowly, for he has emphysema and loses his breath quickly. Robert has his white hair swept back, his white beard neatly trimmed, his blue eyes shining, looking still like the cowboy theme-park outlaw he once played; Jill is tough- looking and striking.

They could be any couple out on a shopping trip, and, in a sense, they are. For Robert and Jill are pitifully poor, surviving on just over pounds 5,000 a year between them. Almost 10 per cent of the British population live, as they do, under the poverty line.

In her pocket she has a shopping list, and in his the sickness and income support payment he has just picked up from the Post Office. They may not live in an urban "food desert"- as highlighted last week by Sir Donald Acheson, the former government chief medical officer - but their poverty makes it just as difficult for them to gain adequate nutrition.

Earlier that morning, when they left their house, they faced a difficult 25-minute walk for Mr Stripley over a ridge. They left behind an uncharacteristic tower of dirty washing-up, festering next to the sink. The rest of the small house, dishevelled on the outside, is scrupulously tidy, if damp and worn.

"We haven't had any money since last week," Mr Stripley explained apologetically, closing the kitchen door so the washing-up was out of sight. "We couldn't afford to buy any washing-up liquid. That's the number-one purchase at Somer- field's today."

Mrs Stripley, equally apologetic, added: "And we're not the sort of people to go round and borrow things from the neighbours. That's begging. I feel bad enough with the stigma of living on benefits. I don't like the idea that somebody else is working to pay for me."

Cornwall for many of us is a beautiful, sunny summertime playground, but in reality it is England's poorest county, blighted by its isolation and the slow death of its prime industries (fishing and tin mining), and the seasonal nature of the sole remaining source of income, tourism.

The Stripleys are typical victims of Cornwall's decline, the "invisible poor" as one local called them. They live in a county whose poverty is barely recognised by the central government and national media.

According to local psychologists and social workers, severe depression and the feeling of isolation are becoming more pervasive among impoverished Cornish residents.

Robert Stripley worked in a hotel and on an oil rig when he was younger, but was unemployed for years after that. "Once you're over 30 around here, you're on the scrapheap," he says. "If you're lucky you'll get offered jobs washing up in a hotel kitchen during the summer for pounds 2 an hour."

In the supermarket, vast and bright, shelves burst with new offerings from around the world, but the Stripleys launch straight into their familiar round. "The offers we look for are two-for-ones," he says. "We live off them."

In the meat sections, joints of pork are sized up by the two, examined closely for whether they will last six meals.

They whisk past all the things most of us take for granted - cakes, crisps, biscuits, wines, cheeses, desserts and the delicatessen counter - as if they didn't exist.

"Oh, those are luxuries," says Mr Stripley, when the biscuit aisle is pointed out. "We look at the luxuries and then we turn away. Of course I'd love to be able to afford cakes or biscuits.

"I remember when Jill's son came round once, he brought some fruit shortbread and he left them for us afterwards." His face lights up with a wistful smile.

The food, with a one-off purchase of a flea collar (pounds 3.95) for Carrie, their dog, comes to pounds 28.55 and will last the two of them for two weeks, providing every meal during that period. "We haven't eaten out since we got married in July last year," says Mrs Stripley as we begin the journey home.

Would they like to? Mr Stripley says he would: "We'd go down for a good pub dinner, or maybe somewhere romantic for two," he says, smiling at his wife. "But we don't even go out for coffee," he adds. "It costs pounds 1 each - that'll buy you a jar of coffee!"

The Stripleys are destined to survive off benefits for the rest of their lives. They live in an area of high unemployment, and they also suffer from psychological problems which, in Robert's case at least, were almost certainly catalysed by periods of long-term unemployment, loneliness and isolation.

The last job he held was playing a cowboy in 1995 in "Spirit of the West", a theme park a few miles inland. On the wall of their little living room is a framed picture of him as an outlaw in front of a saloon in the theme park, looking strikingly like a still from a 1950s Western.

He became so involved in the job that, after the season ended, he still found himself believing he was living in Texas in 1895. He had a complete breakdown and spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital near Bodmin.

"The isolation of Cornwall, the constant feeling that there's nothing for you here, and the depression of all the time I spent unemployed before then definitely helped spark it," he says.

Now prone to severe anxiety attacks, he hasn't had a job since. "Employers don't want to know when they hear you have a history of mental illness."

Mr Stripley now works as a volunteer for three days a week at the Newquay office of Mind, the mental health charity. For two days a week he takes a computer training course.

It was in the Mind offices where Robert met Jill, whocame from Lancashire two years ago. She also has a background of severe depression, with several failed, sometimes violent marriages in her past. She, too, works at Mind part-time and has given up on the idea of ever finding a paying job.

"There is no `up' for us now," says Mrs Stripley.

They live a few minutes' walk from one of Britain's most beautiful beaches, in a tranquil little town where crime is minimal, the air is always fresh and the climate among the sunniest in the country.

Yet the Stripleys - unemployed, prone to depression and living in the little cocoon of a house where they spend every evening watching television or reading - never socialise, save at Christmas. They are desperately, ineffably poor.

"We're happy with each other, that's the main thing," says Mrs Stripley. Theirs seems a fragile existence; they say they would rather have each other than any sort of wealth, but without each other they would have nothing at all.