Thursday, 7 May 2015

From a 1979 scene in Kramer vs. Kramer to Election 2015

You won't get me campaigning for a party here - my political beliefs have been a rollercoaster since my primary school teacher asked us to write letters to the prime minister to defend nurses' pay - but with an election on people's minds in the UK (and Alberta!), I thought I'd share something unusual that happened when I was young.

My parents had paid their way through university or college with housekeeping jobs in hotels, sorting post and delivering for the Royal Mail, working in shops, washing up in restaurants. Anything that would pay their lodgings. And unlike my student life in Swansea, these lodgings weren't relatively new single rooms in student accommodation, but the box room in a family's house, sharing the toilet in the back garden (I can't even imagine!) and staying in the library until closing time because it was heated, unlike their room in the freezing North East. Once they moved to London to start their careers, they still lived separately with other families, as they had before. At one point my dad was doing a three-hour commute each way, every day. One bus, one tube, one train, and another bus.

My point is, they've always had a strong work ethic.

My mum gave up her paid job once my sister was diagnosed with "brain injury" (the autism diagnosis didn't emerge for another fifteen years). She officially became a carer - although technically we all were and have remained carers to my sister - which meant she got a pittance of an "allowance" from the government. She spent six to eight hours a day carrying out a complex physical and mental therapy programme, with the help of kind, local strangers who had responded to our handwritten leaflets asking for voluntary helpers. I remember posting those door-by-door in our town.

I carried on going to school as normal, and adjusting to the change in circumstances at home. My dad had started working more weekends, which meant that on some weekends he would take me to his place of work (probably to give my mum a break from looking after two hyperactive kids) and I would have a fantastic time. Have you seen Kramer vs. Kramer? That scene where Dustin Hoffman takes Justin Henry to his new office, and his little son runs around, spinning around on the chair, looking out of the window and going "Wow!" That was me. I would make hot chocolate using the drinks machine, which was the most luxurious thing in my small world. And I would draw huge pictures using the draftsman's drawing board.

But I had no idea that the reason my dad was working so much was because we were struggling financially. That his friends at work who didn't need the extra money and would rather spend weekends with their families would give him their weekend shifts because they knew he needed them more. That the quarterly trips to the institute that organised the therapy for my sister cost a lot of money, and one national-average salary plus a tiny carer's allowance couldn't cover everything. Oh, and our local authority said that if we refused their "help" (which was to put my sister in a school for severely disabled children, a school that had a terrible reputation for its lack of care and education) then we would never get funding for any sort of treatment we wanted to try ourselves.

So I got a shock one day when the doorbell rang and our local Salvation Army officer was at the door, with boxes and bags full of groceries for us. There were huge packets of cereal, washing powder, toilet paper, and I can't remember what else. I couldn't understand it.

Years later, I asked my dad about it, expecting him to be embarrassed by the charity. He said we could never have survived that period if it wasn't for that extra support, and he's incredibly grateful.

So in all of the news, commentary and statistics that have been thrown about leading up to this election, the thing that has stood out for me is the number of people using food banks. The Trussell Trust says more than one million people in the UK were given three days' emergency food and support in the last financial year. Of that million, almost 400 000 were children.

I'm fortunate enough not to need a food bank now, but knowing that my family, who were hard-working and certainly not "poor", could find themselves in a situation where they needed donated food and washing powder to survive...well, I wouldn't want anyone to be in that situation.

And that's all I wanted to say about that.

So happy voting, whether you're voting for a particular party, a particular person, or making your frustration with the system known by spoiling your ballot paper! Here's hoping for an intelligent and compassionate government.

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