Tomorrow is the 2015 General Election in the United Kingdom, of which I am resident and citizen, so I get to vote. This will be the third General I have been able to vote in* and the first one I am not entirely sure who to vote for. Today (6 May 2015) I was in Bath for an interview to work at the University. I am still unemployed, still travelling on the dwindling reserves left over from my job and deposit on my old house, still supported by my parents otherwise. I’ve come to think of my situation, as the title suggests, as revolving around, or rather continuing to devolve to, the Sandwich Question.
The Sandwich Question is the system by which I measure the minimum standard I can relate to others to describe my poverty as reflected by my access to things. When I was in employment, I still lived to a very strict budget; I had no choice, as mine was sole income and provider for two people. I was one of the ‘good’ poor people, a ‘striver’ who worked a full-time job, supporting his partner, a nice white boy in a shirt. This fictive impression of a person obscures the hardship of people struggling and failing to cope. One thing that I did to help maintain my sanity was keep enough disposable income available on a week to week basis that, all other considerations dealt with, I could still manage , on a whim, no more than once a week,to buy a sandwich from Gregg’s The Bakers.**
For those who are not familiar with it, Greggs is a national (predominantly Midlands and Northern, though not absent in the South of England) chain of bakers. They do a variety of cakes, bakes, and sandwiches which for a while included a ‘value’ menu of sandwiches that came in at £1. I was particularly fond of the Chicken Mayo and Tandoori Chicken Sandwiches, again, both at £1. Eventually, and understandably, the prices went up to around about £2. They consisted of a white bread baton filled with a bit of iceberg lettuce and bits of chicken in a lot of mayoinaisse. There were no frills, nothing so much as a tomato or a bit of cucumber. The Sandwich Question is, then, “Do I have enough money that I can buy a Gregg’s value Sandwich and not worry about it?” That is how I got by, week by week. To me, they were a luxury for when I just wanted to have lunch without using left overs or what have you. I know for many, many people this is an unaffordable luxury even at £1, but it helped keep me sane. Obviously, the answer to that question now is: No, emphatically not.
As I was walking around outside Bath train station, I looked for a Gregg’s (no joy!) to secure a sandwich. Not because I had the spare money but because I have rigorously calculated what I can and can’t afford. It’s not an especially grim calculus, but it is something that I have to consider at all times. Bath is a beautiful city, and when I am in a beautiful place I have two (well more but let us settle on two) running thought processes. The first is one of admiring all this loveliness and thinking that I too could be a part of it, have a place in these places. I think to myself, as I look at the historical stonework and the bright flowers “ooh, this is nice. I could sit here.” But then, under that is the sort of screaming feeling, the same place that despairs that the answer to the sandwich question is so often no, that just wants to set fire to the lot because I do not get to have nice things so why should anyone.
Of course, no sane or decent member of society would actually just douse an opera house in petrol and fling in a match. Yet this feeling, and the sandwich question, are very much on my mind as I consider my vote. None of the major parties*** really care for people like me: over-qualified, past the ‘young adult’ bracket, not in work and not in receipt of benefits. I am cut away from any and all benefits of society, a liminal beast who sees few faces and attends to no functions. At best, I am a member of the model poor, not burdening the productive state; at worst I’m the lurching lump that bubbles under the uneven economic recovery. I have a great deal of natural and social advantages, but they avail me nothing. I will vote, because I believe in democracy, I believe in the importance of voting, if nothing else I believe that so many fought and bled and cried and died for my right to scratch on a piece of paper; yet as I consider the ballot tomorrow, the bigger issues are stifled by the singular, depressing, repeated “No, no, no” in answer to the Sandwich Question.
* I was only just too young to vote in the 2001 election. I remember this because one of my co-students was a keen campaigner for the Liberal Democrats & wanted to campaign at me.
** I want to be clear that I did do other things to: movies, meet up with my brother, buy a computer game. The difference here is freedom: those other things I scrupulously budgeted for. The Sandwich Question is the freedom to do something different.
*** Except, maybe, the Greens, but I’ve let go my idealism.