You can steal and cheat, but don't admit you're poor

Decca Aitkenhead
Saturday 15 June 1996 23:02

There are, I suppose, any number of youthful disclosures that could quite rightly make me blush. A fairly nasty, if unoriginal, tendency to shoplift, say, or to browse my brother's diary. One detail I'd never dreamt could be a cause for compunction, though, emerged quite casually the other day. A friend had got hold of the idea that I came from a terribly well-heeled background.

"God, hardly," I laughed. "Not at all - no, we had free school meals." And to my amazement, I felt slightly ashamed.

I had not been embarrassed receiving free school meals. But the admission now had become embarrassing. This is odd. As a useful or even meaningful notion, shame is not something we come across much any more. In the main it has been replaced, for better or worse, by notoriety - something quite different, and, more often than not, something to be courted.

Poverty, however, is a heinous misdemeanour. Conspicuous consumption may be considered slightly crude - but to actually be poor is downright unacceptable. What was respectable just 10 years ago (even at the cruel height of tender adolescence, I waved my token at the dinner lady without a thought) is now not a matter for public concern but private culpability.

So, Peter Lilley, your efforts last week to tell us that the poor have not got poorer were amusing but quite misguided. The tragedy is not that you were lying - though you were - but that we no longer particularly care about the poor, let alone hold you responsible. Do not tie yourself in statistical knots, or bother your pretty head with the poor - Tony Blair certainly isn't bothering his. He was far too busy last week promising to create more millionaires.

And the children claiming their free school meals will have to learn to be properly grateful, and not to ask for more. And I, for that fleeting, unbidden moment of shame that I felt, am truly ashamed.

DINNER at Le Gavroche restaurant last Wednesday night was, we read, an important and exciting occasion. The Associates for Research into the Science of Enjoyment were having something to eat - a sumptuous, culinary manifesto, in fact, to promote their contention that chocolate, wine and the like are good for you. What radicals, a delighted media cooed. How thrilling!

"Few of the things I have done in a not uneventful life," Nigel Lawson lamented earlier in the week, "have generated as much media interest as this essentially private and, to be frank, rather banal personal achievement," of eating less.

And it is, I am afraid, as private and banal an achievement to eat chocolate truffles at Le Gavroche as it is to lose four stone. The notion that either is even slightly interesting, still less important, is inexplicable, and our tedious obsession with eating, which puts Bill Clinton's weakness for junk food on front pages and inspires magazines to publish detailed diaries of what women eat, is preposterous.

It is also offensive. My objection is not that millions are starving in Africa (though it's not a bad point) - merely that what people put in their mouths is thoroughly mundane, and to suggest otherwise is, frankly, bad taste.

WHEN your first political memory is election night 1979, the wait for an alternative ideology to enter office has a particular piquancy. Lately, it's begun to feel like waiting for a bus, then wondering whether it's coming at all, and starting to suspect, in the end, that the whole problem perhaps lies with your choice of destination. The relief, then, of personal proof that you were not mistaken about the need to embark on a different route is not to be overestimated.

Open prisons, we have learnt, are to be cut, from 22 in number to six. If "Prison Works", then some prisons, we must presume from this, work better than others.

When my friend Linda was sentenced to two years in prison, she was sent to a fairly enlightened, low-security prison. She enrolled in classes, joined a drug-free wing, saw her daughter every week. One morning, they put her on a bus to Holloway. The devastation which several weeks in a Holloway cell occasioned cannot easily be described. What is straightforward, however, is the irrefutable fact that, had she not been moved on to an open prison near home, she would not have been released, last month, a well-qualified, positive and, in the jargon, reformed, ex-convict.

Some prisons do indeed work better than others.

I USED to be a very good liar. I was also proud of this talent, considering it a sign of a superior and sophisticated mind. So it was rather disappointing to read last week of a study which found that we are all of us prolific and proficient liars.

This was particularly unwelcome information coming, as it did, just hours after I had bought a second-hand car.

My record in this field is not good. The last car, a sickly green Fiat, might have been a bargain - were it not for the total absence of reverse gear (a deficiency only discovered after the vendor had set sail for America). It required very careful parking, and, on occasion, the assistance of kindly passers-by in picking it up and pointing it in the desired direction. Duly chastened, I approached the matter with great respect this time - and bought the first car I saw.

Giddy with thrill, I called up my friend (whose own disastrous mosaic of two or three heaps, sewn together with a bit of old string, is an object lesson in what not to buy) to boast. "I think," I chortled, "I've done rather well. Couldn't have come from a better home. Nice suburban couple, home counties, marvellously dull. A solicitor, I think."

"Well done!" Her praise was pleasingly fulsome. Then, "And someone called round about buying my old car today, too. Poor thing, I felt quite sorry for him. Never mind - I put on my frumpiest frock, and let slip I'm a teacher."

"Oh," I said.

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