I used to be an Asshole – Lessons in Genteel Poverty (with apologies to my mother for the headline)

Genteel Poverty

I met a new friend last year. He once had a good job in the private sector but fell into trouble, lost his job and put his home in jeopardy. His new found interest in debt propelled him into a filmic project to talk about the impact of financial ruin on individuals. He asked me, as the then poster girl for debt, to talk about my experiences. And he said something that had a huge impact on me. His words went as follows – I used to be an asshole but I’m okay now. I didn’t have to ask him to explain. As someone who had crossed over to the other side of the debt fence, I knew exactly what he meant. Applying the pejorative noun to myself, it wasn’t that I had literally been such an insensitive person, but I little knew the privations of everyday poverty while still gainfully employed. And that is the kind of privation that wears you down. It’s not the big things, although God knows that can be tough too, but the financial destitution that leaves you with no money in your wallet at the end of the week, or even worse, nearer the start, is the kind of soul destroying existence that breaks you down. And it is not until you cross that line that you can even begin to comprehend the fragility of your soul. An extra egg for your tea may not have added a gloss to your soul, but staring at the empty cup can pare it away, sliver by tiny sliver.

To be honest, I am good without possessions. I have to be since I have either lost them, was dispossessed of them or in happier moments, managed to flog them. I am, however, in possession of a very fine collection of shoes, all costing in the range of €10, in the size of 8 and with tottering high heels. I may never wear the half of them as they gather dust on my book shelves (where else would rogue shoes retire to) but they served a purpose over the recent years as my buying powers diminished to the point of necessity. Shoes are never a necessity, not matter what the infamous Mrs Marcos may have argued. My dust laden bargains sing to me still. It was my own swan song of commercialism.

So having established my impecunious state, let me try and tell you what it feels like to be the part of the new class, the genteel poor. This is where the coping classes meet the severely downtrodden and out-of-all-luck classes.  It is akin to ironing the front of your shirt, but leaving the remaining, and unseen cloth, creased. I thought it was only a passing phase, one to be shaken off with a new job offer and reinstatement of financial comfort. They say it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all, but I might argue it is easier never to have to have loved. It’s the losing that is the trouble, the chink too wide that fosters the loss of self.

The first I knew of my new genteel state was the change in grocery shopping. Not only was the weekly filled-to-the-brim basket a distant memory, my choice of shops and what I bought altered fundamentally. Once, at the start of my slide into genteel poverty, I arrived at a till with insufficient cash to pay for my food. I had to leave the trolley, grunting ‘I’d be back’ in a poor Arnie imitation. I was, once I recovered my rainy-day notes hidden down the back of the sofa, but not without embarrassing my teenage daughter to the point of mortification. I didn’t like to tell her, but it was to get worse. I began shopping in the different discount stores to create a full shop. I stopped buying anything in bulk, including obvious items such as toilet rolls. I literally didn’t have the money to purchase more than a week’s supply. So any possible bargains that I might have availed of, as a broke person, were beyond my means. The irony was not lost on me. They say that people waste as much as a quarter of the food they buy, having to dump it uneaten. I would argue that mostly happens in households where food is bought in bulk. When you buy vegetables for the week, they are unlikely to be chucked out. Our portion size goes down too. When I purchase those popular ‘three for a tenner’ deals in one of our homegrown multiples and where the fish portions are calculated on the basis of leprechaun appetites, we manage to divide the two tiny fillets between three. It can be very tasty but I did not expect nouveau cuisine to be so popular in Ireland in 2014.

Then there is the discount shelf in the more expensive multiples.  There is a technique to purchasing off the discount shelf as the actual shelf is tiny – a bare two feet wide and two unrelated shoppers would find it difficult to stand shoulder to shoulder and view the items. A gradual crawl around the aisle is first needed to make sure no one else is looking at the food on offer. If someone is already there, then a detour to another aisle is necessary until you can get in line. Once there, you can view the very mixed range of food stuffs – from meat to fish to funny cast-offs – which are labelled with their mark down.

On one occasion, my daughters and I saw steak on the shelf but it was not marked down. We hesitated. Then I decided to be a grownup about the situation. I grabbed the package and marched over to the butcher’s counter. A sign said that Mike was on duty, but he wasn’t. It was Tony or something similar. He looked at me and then at the steak before informing me that particular steak didn’t get marked down until 4pm – which was about forty minutes from that time. I wanted to remonstrate with him about responsible and accurate price marking and what would have happened had I tried to pay for it before 4pm. Even as I felt the familiar indignation wind up in my brain about such poor labelling, I deflated it immediately. It would have been hard to take the high moral ground when looking for discounted foods. I thanked him, returned the meat to the shelf and left without buying it. Outside in the car, I started to cry but my girls just laughed, not unkindly, at me. They loved getting a bargain, they said. I loved getting a bargain, they reminded me. But all I could think was while I loved getting a bargain, I hated being reliant on one.

The necessity continues with that other staple of country life, the car. I am now the proud possessor of a thirteen year old Opel Corsa which is very cheap to run. And the annual car tax is only €180 – so how come I could only afford to tax it for six months? It is the same with my petrol consumption. Do you realise that the optimum speed to run a car of that age and make is at 40 mph? Well, if you are ever stuck behind me on a country road or overtake me on the motorway, you’ll know the reason why.

Welcome to the brave new world!

Jillian Godsil

This article first ran in the Sunday Independent on Sunday 30 November, 2014